Dawn (10,399 words) plus Commentary
Before you can be good at writing, you have to be bad at writing. This story is an excellent example of me being bad at writing, and having a great time while doing it. Below the story are the comments I received from the judge of the contest I submitted this story to. Practice, criticism and editing are how you grow, and they help turn what you love into something others will love too.
The sharp clang of metal rang in Reene’s ear. The rebel soldier stumbled backwards, surprised by the young woman’s strength. Running forward, she jumped into the air, screaming as she plunged her sword through his breast plate. The rebel hadn’t hit the ground before Reene struck again, severing the arm of an archer. Her heart pounded as she searched the plains for another target. To the right, she watched as Anari landed the final blow on the enemy commander. The remaining rebels surrendered, and Reene relaxed. The rebels had proven to be tougher foes than she anticipated. Wiping the blood from her sword, Reene looked forward to the next battle.
“Are you all right?” said a voice from behind her.
“Yeah, I’m fine Dan,” she said, turning to greet him. He sat atop his well-groomed horse, his royal blue armor shining in the afternoon sun. Reene was amazed to see that his face was without dirt or sweat. She wondered how he kept his immaculate appearance after such a fierce battle. “How are you?”
Dan smiled. “I’m still alive.”
Reene took a moment to survey the area. The plains stretched endlessly in all directions, meeting the horizon in the distance. Immediately before her were dozens of dead and wounded rebels, trying their best to maintain some level of composure after their defeat. Although she was glad the battle was over, a part of her wished that one of them would make a move.
“I hate Kareece,” Dan started, interrupting her thoughts. “Ilna was bad enough, but at least they had trees. This whole country is nothing but dry, cracked earth as far as the eye can see.”
“Remember who you’re talking to! I was born here,” she reminded him.
“Oh right. So when do I get to meet Mom and Dad?” Dan joked. Reene suddenly became somber. It had been over a year since she left home. Coming back to Kareece stirred too many emotions that she struggled to keep under control.
“Well Dan, there’s-”
“Gather up your gear! We’re moving out!” Anari yelled.
“What about the remaining rebels?” Dan asked.
“Leave them. They are not our concern.”
“Is it just me, or has General Anari been acting strangely ever since we left Ilna?” Dan said to Reene.
“The king asked us to defeat the rebels, not drag them around with us as prisoners. Let him handle that.”
Walking with the rest of the army, Reene thought about the incredible situation she found herself in. Less than a month ago, she faced execution on the frozen tundra of Ilna. Anari and his army saved her, and now she was traveling with them through her homeland, fighting rebels for a king that seemed to have neither the resources nor interest to deal with them himself. She found the whole exercise pointless. How would this help General Anari and his goal of invading Arstatia? It certainly wasn’t helping to achieve her goal.
After hours of silent marching, Reene could see the outline of buildings in the low light of dusk. It had been weeks since they left the capital city, and the prospect of sleeping in a bed was genuinely exciting to her. As they entered the town, her senses were bombarded with familiar sights and sounds. The dusty yellow buildings and the sweet smells of Kareece’s famed soups welcomed her back to the places of her childhood. The roads were full with royal soldiers, traveling merchants and the regular townspeople. But her eyes were drawn to the nomads that called the open plains home. Their tanned skin and flowing tunics marked them out among the regular people. They nodded politely at Reene, who found something exotic yet familiar in their presence.
“Listen!” Anari barked, snapping Reene back from her dream world. “Rest, eat, and do as you wish this evening. We march again at daybreak.” The others quickly scattered, leaving Reene and Dan alone.
“I need to find a stable to keep my horse,” Dan said. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to eat. I haven’t had a good bowl of soup in months. I’ll meet up with you later.”
“Okay, see you then,” Dan said, leading his horse down the crowded road. Reene turned, following the smell of seasoned meat to a small tent. A short, balding man stood there, stirring one of several large pots besides the tent. Her stomach growled in anticipation.
“Do you have sour onion soup?” she asked.
“Yes, of course. That is today’s special soup,” the man replied.
“A serving will cost you five pieces of gold. Would you like some miss? Miss?”
Reene’s attention had become focused on a man walking across the road. He wore a rich purple tunic with a red sash tied around his waist. He was taller and thinner than most nomads, but the strong facial features were unmistakable. Reene’s heart beat faster when she caught a glimpse of his sword bobbing from beneath the sash. She stared openly, following the man’s movements until he entered an inn near the tent.
“Miss!” the balding man yelled. “If you’re not going to buy anything than move along!
Customers are waiting!”
“I’m sorry,” she said, coming out of her trance. She ate her soup slowly, studying the crowds that moved by her. Eventually, her eyes wandered back to the inn
* * *
Bright orange light splashed in through the window. Reene paced back and forth, looking out to watch a torch flicker in the night. She’d reserved a room at the inn near the soup tent, but she hadn’t seen that man again. The innkeeper had refused to tell her his room number. She’d considered threatening him, but didn’t want to do anything to embarrass General Anari.
Reene sighed to herself. What had she gotten herself into? If she’d known that his goal was to invade Arstatia, she never would have joined Anari’s makeshift army. Reene had no desire to die, and attacking the strongest nation on the continent seemed like the easiest way to do so. It was none of her concern, though. She trusted Anari, and would fight wherever he told her to. Until she found what she was looking for, anyway.
Reene’s eyelids began to droop. The long day finally caught up to her. She fell into bed without bothering to remove her clothes. Sleep came quickly, but it was a restless night. Images from the earlier battle replayed, with the handless archer standing out most clearly. She’d taken his life without killing him, and found a strange satisfaction in turning him into one of the walking dead.
Muffled sounds from downstairs dragged Reene back into the conscious world. She thought she was dreaming, but the din she heard from the bar area of the inn was very real. She sat straight up, searching for a candle to light. The sounds of struggle faded, replaced with footsteps moving quickly up the winding staircase. In the dark room, she was disoriented and confused. She forced herself not to panic when the heavy sound of boots reached her door.
Reene rolled off her bed just as the door was kicked off the hinges. A large man walked in, carrying an axe almost the size of Reene herself. She watched him move about the room, cursing silently when he spotted her sword and picked it up.
“Someone’s been here,” he said to himself, stopping in the middle of the room. “Let’s see if they’re hiding here!” He brought the axe around, crashing it through the bed. Reene jumped up, striking the man across the face with her pack. He stumbled backwards, dropping his axe and her sword. “You little wench!” he said, grabbing his jaw.
Reene said nothing, making a mad scramble for her weapon. The man was big, but he was fast. She didn’t see his foot as it slammed into her ribs. Reene collapsed to the floor, gasping desperately for breath. Her head was spinning from the pain, and the man took his time to grab his axe.
“I heard about you from the survivors of the earlier battle,” he said approaching her. “They described you like a demon, cutting through everything in your path. I’m a little disappointed that it’s this easy to kill you!” With a grunt, he lifted the huge axe above his head again. Reene dodged at the last moment, and the man’s axe slammed through the floor. As he struggled to dislodge it, she moved quickly, kicking out her attackers’ knee and grabbing her sword. There was a silver flash, and the man’s headless body crumpled to the floor.
“Easy to kill me,” Reene sneered. She clutched at her throbbing ribs. All of the movement made them hurt even more. Stepping out into the hallway, she could hear shouting and running throughout the inn. Pain shot through her body with every step, slowing her greatly. She could see that the men attacking them were rebels. Some of them were the same men they’d allowed to surrender earlier. I’ll finish the job this time, she thought. She approached on of the rebels from behind, hoping to slit his throat. But he turned to face her, and both stared in surprise at each other. Reene tried to strike, but the pain was too much. The rebel easily disarmed her.
“You’ve got to do better than that little girl!” he said, seizing her arm. Reene struggled, and the man threw her to the ground. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a surprised gasp escaped his lips before he fell lifelessly. Reene looked up to see the man in the purple tunic. There was a reassuring calm in his eyes that helped her relax, even as the rebels rushed up the stairs.
“Are you friend or foe?” he asked.
“Then stay close. We must escape,” he said, helping her to her feet. Reene had a hard time keeping up with him. In the low light she could barely see him tear through two rebels that tried to stop him. She followed as nest she could, sure that he was the only way she would survive the night.
The two managed to make it down the stairs, taking turns against the advancing rebels. At the bottom, they were met by a man of monstrous size. On his shoulder rested a huge broadsword, already covered in blood.
“My brother! Where is he?” he demanded in a booming voice.
“The one with the axe? I left him upstairs, but I didn’t see where his head rolled off to!” Reene said.
The rebel sized Reene up, laughing loudly. “You’re a cute one. After I kill your friend, maybe you and I can have some fun.”
“I’ll do to you what I did to your brother!” she started, but her companion stepped in front of her.
“Stand back. I will handle this.”
“I can take care of myself!” Reene snapped.
“You are injured. If you fight, you will endanger both of us. Now stand back,” he said sternly. Reene grudgingly stepped aside. He was right; she was hurting too much to be useful. This will be a good chance to study him, she thought.
“Leave here or die,” he said to the rebel.
“How about I just kill you!” the rebel growled, lunging forward. He stared the rebel down, side-stepping his massive blade. He extended his leg, tripping up the large man. Reene looked on, stunned. He’d made a fool of the rebel with little effort.
The rebel looked up, his face red with embarrassment. “You’ll pay for that!” he yelled.
“That was your only warning. Leave this place,” the man repeated. The rebel hopped up quickly, charging again. This time, he charged back. The rebel stopped suddenly, looking down with surprise at the gaping wound across his chest. Reene rubbed her eyes. He can’t be that fast, she thought. He’d landed his attack before her or the rebel knew what had happened.
The man turned back to Reene as the rebel fell behind him. “We must go,” he said.
Reene was still too shocked to speak. “I…I have allies in this area,” she said after a long pause.
“Take me to them.”
The two burst out of the inn onto the road, swords at the ready. Crowds of people rushed by them, trying to escape the battles that had erupted across the city. Reene scanned the crowds, finally spotting a familiar face on horseback.
“Dan, what’s going on?” she yelled.
“The rebels launched a sneak attack! General has ordered us to gather in the center of town. Who is that?” Dan asked, pointing at Reene’s companion.
“A friend. Come on, let’s go!” The three took off towards the rendezvous point, fighting against the waves of fleeing townspeople as well as the rebels. They managed to battler their way to the town center. They found the rest of their army surrounded by the rebels. Behind them another group of rebels appeared, completing the entrapment.
Anari gave Reene’s companion a quick look-over. “Who are you?”
“My name is Jin. If I may, I’d like to join your army,” he said.
“Good. You, Reene and Dan will protect our left flank,” Anari ordered. Reene sighed in relief. They would need all the help they could get to survive the night.
“Why have you joined us?” she asked as they took their positions.
“There will be time to talk later,” Jin replied. “Now, we fight!”
* * *
The cold, hard ground gave Reene little rest. After battling the rebels throughout the night, they’d been forced out of the town by angry citizens. She couldn’t blame them, but neither the fighting or the sleeping arrangements did much to help her ribs. They ached dully, meaning they were bruised and not broken. She was thankful for that.
“Rise and shine!” Dan called from a distance. She looked up to see him carrying a plate covered with meat, cheese and bread. “I thought you might be hungry.”
“Where did you get all this?” Reene asked, her eyes sparkling at the sight of the breakfast feast.
“Let’s just say I was able to secure some things during all the commotion last night,” he replied coyly.
“You stole this?”
“Sh! Knights don’t steal! And I don’t want anyone else begging me for my food.” The two ate quickly. Between bites, Reene could see Dan looking over in her direction. When their eyes met, he averted his. She smiled to herself, feeling a flutter in her chest.
“How much longer are we going to be fighting these rebels?” she asked.
“Well, the deal is that the King will only help us invade Arstatia if we completely eliminate the rebels. That might get much easier now that Jin is in our army. He barely broke a sweat last night. That guy is incredible.” Reene nodded in agreement. His presence had tipped the battle in their favor.
“Where is he?”
“I saw him talking to General Anari earlier,” Dan said. When he looked up from his plate, she was already gone. “Your welcome,” he muttered to himself.
Reene quickly spotted Anari’s tent, but Jin was nowhere to be seen. She scanned the area, looking for his tall frame. She spotted him alone on the edge of the camp, looking out over the plains.
“Oh, it’s you,” he started when he saw her approaching, “I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself. My name is Jin.”
“My name is Reene,” she said, taking his extended hand.
“Reene,” he repeated, staring into her eyes. She looked back for a moment, then turned away uncomfortably. “ You are an impressive swordsman. I am honored to have the opportunity to fight alongside you.”
“You…you’re honored by me? You did things last night that I’ve never seen before. The honor is mine.”
Jin smiled. “ I am not a young man anymore. You and your friends are the ones who must guard the peace that you are fighting for.” Reene couldn’t explain it, but there was something familiar and comforting about him.
“Will you teach me how to fight like you?” she blurted out. Jin looked her over, surprised by her request.
“You want me to train you? For what reason?” he asked.
“So that I can become stronger. Please, I’ve learned so much since I left home, but watching you fight showed me that there’s still much more for me to learn. You are the best swordsman I’ve ever seen. I need your help,” she said.
“Before I can teach you anything, you must first answer a question for me. For whom do you fight?”
Reene looked up at him, confusion furrowing her brow. “I don’t understand.”
“If you cannot answer that question, I have nothing to teach you,” he said, turning away from her.
“Wait! I want to be a better swordsman! Isn’t that enough?”
“But to what end? What will strength do for you without purpose? What is skill without focus?” Reene looked down, unable to answer his questions. “You know why you are here. Find me here at sunset and tell me. If your answer is satisfactory, we will begin right away.” He left Reene to sort out the mess in her mind.
She walked back to her campsite, finding the plate that Dan had brought her earlier with a note draped over it. “I saved you some, since I’m such a nice guy,” she read aloud. Reene chuckled, nibbling on a piece of bread. Her head swam with images of the dozens of battles she’d been in over the last year. She’d fought in the verdant forests of Vern, on the frozen steppes of Ilna and the dry plains of Kareece, her homeland. More war lay ahead, through the mountains of Arstatia and to its capital, where a madman awaited them. Yet it wouldn’t end there, for winning the war was meaningless to Reene if she didn’t accomplish her true goal. Despite all of the hardships she’d faced, she enjoyed every moment of it, and she looked forward to more. Each battle made her stronger, faster, and deadlier. As she stood there, she realized that war made her glad.
At the same time, another image floated to the top of her mind. In it, her mother was standing behind her, smiling compassionately. She’d been playing with her mother’s sword against her wishes, and her reward was a gash across her hand. In that moment, nothing had ever hurt so much. Her mother cleaned and dressed the wound with care, and before long Reene was smiling widely, wiping away the tears as her mother peppered her with kisses.
The days she’s spent with her mother and father had been the happiest of her life. When her mother left and never came back, Reene experienced a pain far greater than any sword could inflict. She recalled her mother’s broad, slightly goofy smile. Her perfectly white teeth contrasted against her long dark hair. Her eyes smiled too, a strange blue-purple hue that Reene had inherited. Reene had lied to Dan the day before. Her father still waited for her to return home. But she couldn’t go back, not with the memories of her mother haunting her.
Reene tried her best to pass the hours until sunset. She made idle chitchat with her comrades, found Dan and thanked him for the food, and asked Anari about his plans to defeat the Emperor of Arstatia. Soon, she noticed that the sun was waning over the horizon. She rushed to the spot where Jin had left her earlier and found him waiting, just as he’d said. His face was stern, his arms crossed across his chest. She walked up to him, returning his gaze with confidence and determination.
“For whom do you fight?” he asked.
“I fight to improve. I want to be better tomorrow than I was yesterday. I do this for my mother. She was taken from me when I was very young. I don’t know by who, and I don’t know where he is. But I will find him, and I will avenge her death. That is why I fight,” she declared.
Jin’s expression fell into a deep frown. “The path of revenge is one that leads to hate and death. Are you prepared for that?”
“Yes,” Reene answered.
“Very well. Let’s begin.”
* * *
“Dan, if you’re really my friend, you’ll get off that horse and let me ride it,” Reene said, dragging alongside him.
“Sorry, a knight must never trust his stead to another,” Dan laughed.
“You also said knights don’t steal, but you’ve been breaking that code more and more often lately.”
“I can’t uphold the codes of Lonen’s knights if I starve to death, can I?”
Reene’s ribs had healed in the past week, but it was everything else that was aching. Constant battles with Kareece’s rebels, coupled with Jin’s sadistically intense training had pushed her body beyond the limit. She was beginning to prefer battle to Jin’s training. All her enemies wanted to do was kill her, while Jin’s goal seemed to be to make her wish she was dead. To make matters worse, General Anari had made peace with the rebels, and decided to head back to the capital to speak to the king on their behalf. They’d already been marching for a whole day. Reene wobbled on her feet slightly, feeling as if she might faint.
“Okay, if you’re not feeling well, get on,” Dan said, seeing her sway. Reene smiled weakly, waiting for him to stop.
“Reene!” Jin called from behind her. She looked back, sighing heavily.
He caught up to the two of them quickly. “You must keep walking. This is part of your stamina conditioning.”
“But I’m tired!” she whined.
“If you need to rest, that’s fine. But you must walk the entire distance under your own power. Anari has made peace with the rebels, so they won’t be attacking us anymore. That should give you plenty of rest.”
“Are we still training tonight?”
“Yes. I have something special planned,” he said.
Reene sighed again, but relented. “All right,” she said, trudging forward.
“Jin, may I talk to you for a moment?” Dan asked after Reene was out of earshot.
“Of course. What is it?”
“ We’re all glad that you joined us, and I thank you for saving my life on more than one occasion. I know that Reene asked you to train her, but don’t you think you’re being a little hard on her?”
“You are a good friend to her Dan. I can see that you care deeply for her,” Jin said.
“Uh…yeah…” Dan smiled sheepishly.
“She needs people like you to make her smile. But I cannot go easy on her, because hers is not an easy road,” he explained.
“How do you know that?” Dan asked.
“I have already been down it.”
Up ahead, Reene staggered on, desperate for Anari to order them to setup camp. Instead they marched on for hours, the sun blasting them overhead. The day eventually transitioned over to night, and the army had finally stopped for the evening. Reene knew that there was no rest for her though. She dragged herself across the campsite, looking for Jin. He was sitting alone, illuminated by the orange glow of a small fire. The smoke from the fire had a strange, spicy smell to it.
“What’s with the fire? It’s still light enough for us to train without it,” Reene said.
“Sit down, Reene. You have worked hard over this last week, and fought well in battle. You have earned a night of rest.”
“Thank you!” Reene sprawled out in front of the fire. “What did you put in there? The smoke smells nice.”
“It is a combination of herbs and grasses. The scent is to help you relax,” he explained.
“It’s working…” Reene said, her eyes drooping lower.
“Don’t fall asleep. We have yet to complete today’s training. The life of a warrior is a difficult one. We must kill in order to survive. Those lives that we take pile onto us, and become a burden on our hearts.”
“Yeah…” she said, sitting up.
“It is necessary for a warrior to bare his heart to another. For understanding, for compassion, and to ease the pain we carry. This is a tradition that has been passed down by my tribe, the Saruto. Will you join me in it?”
Reene thought for a moment. She didn’t feel any weight on her shoulders. There was no guilt or remorse. She worked in a kill or be killed profession, and she played by those rules. Or was that the problem?
“Yes,” she agreed.
“The first thing you must do is remove your sword. For now, you are not a warrior. You are a child of the plains.” Reene placed her sword and sheath in front of her. Jin did the same, but he reached back again and brought forth a second weapon. Unlike his first utilitarian sword, the second one was richly detailed. The black sheath was covered in etchings that Reene couldn’t read. The handle was black as well, with a gold serpent wrapping around it, ending with its fangs exposed at the bottom. For a moment she was hypnotized by the sword as the flickering light bounced off its polished finish.
“Why do you carry two swords?” she asked.
“I will tell you soon. Tonight, it is your night. Tell me your story.”
Reene stared into the fire for a long while. “It’s been a year since I left home to find my mother’s killer. In that time, I’ve met terrible people who destroy simply because they can. I’ve also met wonderful people like Dan, Anari and the rest of this army. People who don’t like war, but when they are called to action they respond. I’ve traveled across this continent and been to places that I had only dreamed about. I remember the first time I saw snow in Ilna. It was stained with the blood of people who’d dared to resist the dictatorship there.”
“What else, Reene?”
“I felt nothing. No wonder at the sight of those magical flakes drifting from heaven. No sorrow for those who gave their lives for a cause they believed in. None of it told me who killed my mother, so none of it mattered. I don’t feel anything except for a cold lump in the pit of my stomach. It only warms in the heat of battle, and then I feel good. This war will end soon, and everyone will be happy. Everyone except for me.”
“What will make you happy?”
She looked straight at Jin, revealing a rage that she’d struggled to contain all her life. “I will be happy when I hold the head of the man who killed my mother in my hands. Until then, I will travel with Anari, because fighting is all that keeps me content.”
Jin sat forward, returning her gaze. “And what about the day after you find that man? What will you do then?” Reene looked away. She’d never thought about the day after. Her thoughts only went to the next battle. Jin relented, sitting back and looking towards the stars. “It’s amazing. When you have that determined look on your face, you look just like her.”
Reene’s anger subsided, replaced with confusion. “How do you know my mother’s name?” she asked. Looking at Jin, she could see that his eyes had grown distant, and he wore a sad smile. But she was shocked by the tear that fell when he met her eyes.
“Because Jade was my sister,” he said after a long pause. “When I saw you that day in town, you looked exactly like her when she was your age. I knew she had a child but…seeing you finally brought the whole thing to life for me.”
Reene stared uncomprehendingly at Jin. She matched up what she remembered of her mother against his face. The nose, the mouth, the ears, they all fell into place perfectly. And Reene gasped when she saw the same blue-purple eyes that she and her mother shared. “You…you’re my uncle?”
The shock and exhaustion the day was too much for Reene to bear. She fell over to the
side, landing in the dirt. Jin left her there to rest, looking silently into the fire that burned between them.
* * *
The capital city of Kareece was nothing like the small towns that dotted the country’s landscape. Massive sentry towers abounded, flying the king’s flag proudly above the bustling city. Kareece had been spared from Arstatia’s invasions across the continent, and the relative peace attracted traders and refugees from all over. Reene watched as they went about their business from a table in front of a restaurant.
“Where did he say you were from again?” Dan asked between bites of his food.
“The Saruto tribe. It’s located in the western part of this country,” Reene said while stirring her noodles. Dan was the only person she trusted enough to tell about the connection between herself and Jin.
“And you believe this man that you’ve known for less than three weeks?”
“I can’t explain it Dan, but I know he’s telling the truth. He knew my mother’s name, and he looks like her and me. And he’s the best swordsman I’ve ever seen. The connection there is pretty obvious, right?” Reene winked.
“Haha, okay. Where is he anyway?“
“He’s with General Anari addressing the king.”
Dan sighed. “Have you heard his new plan? He wants us to go to the island of Corset, then launch a sneak attack from there. If anyone besides General Anari suggested invading Arstatia with such a small force, I’d call them suicidal.”
“We haven’t lost a battle yet,” Reene pointed out. “He must know what he’s doing.”
“Wait, where’s my pouch?” Reene cut him off.
“My pouch! It contained my gold! I put it right here next to my noodles…” she scanned the area carefully, looking for anything out of the ordinary. A scruffy man in a green shirt made eye contact with her, then took off. Reene jumped out of her seat, shooting into the crowd after him.
“Reene? Reene, wait!” Dan called out in vain. She ducked and dodged through the people, keeping her eyes locked on the man. How dare he steal from me, she thought, her heart beating faster.
The man ducked into a narrow alley crowded with garbage. He stumbled over the trash, allowing Reene to gain on him. She reached out to grab him by his shirt.
“Hyaa!” a cry came from an adjacent alley. Reene stopped short as a heavy chain whistled past her face. The man she was chasing escaped into a rundown shack at the end of the alley. In his place stood a man criss-crossed with scars, including one that sealed his left eye. He swung the giant chain he held, wrapping it around his hands.
“Looks like you took a wrong turn, miss,” he said menacingly. Reene responded by drawing her sword. A few moments later, both of his eyes were closed permanently. Reene rushed on, kicking in the door to the shack. To her surprise, all she found on the inside was a dusty bench and a hole in the floor. This is what the chain-wielding goon was trying to protect, she thought. Peering into the hole, she saw a ladder that led to an expansive basement area. She could see a man at the foot of the ladder. He too wore a green shirt.
There could be a hundred people down there for all she knew. The idea of facing hordes of enemies by herself was exciting, and her hands began sweating in anticipation. Besides, the one that robbed her was down there too, and she intended to find him.
She jumped down the ladder, landing on the guard and driving her sword through his neck to silence him. As she looked around the dark she was disappointed to see only a few other people. She dove behind a crate near the wall, counting the others in the room. Nine, plus a couple of doors that led deeper into the underground room. There were crates upon crates and piles of goods stacked everywhere. Everyone wore the same lime green short-sleeved shirt. That hadn’t been a random thug who’d robbed her, but a member of a well-organized operation. She smiled to herself. Maybe she would get her hordes of enemies just beyond those doors.
She ran up behind another bandit, slitting his throat. The others still had no clue she was there. Reene decided to see how many of them she could kill before she was discovered. The third bandit saw her coming, but not soon enough to save his head. It made a loud thud when it hit the ground. The others looked up to see the intruder.
“Oh well, three’s not bad,” she shrugged. The others stared in disbelief at the corpses on the ground. They were still unsure of what to do when she charged them, swinging her blade with deadly precision. Everything seemed to move in slow motion to Reene. The bandits were too sloppy to come near touching her. Their cries bounced off her hardened heart as she waded through them with furious zeal. The two doors flew open, and more bandits poured into the main room, including the one who robbed her. They stared in horror as the pools of blood collected in the floors basins. Reene stopped for a moment, turning to face them. A drop of blood rolled down her cheek, complimenting the crazed expression she wore.
“Here! Take it, take it!” the man said, tossing her pouch to her. “Take whatever you want, just let me live!”
Reene let the pouch land at her feet. “No survivors,” she said lowly. “I’ve learned that lesson already.”
Outside, Dan stumbled through the same alley that Reene had passed through. He came to the scarred man, finding him with a large slash across his stomach. “She’s been here,” he said to himself.
He climbed down the ladder slowly, not sure of what to expect. He found more bodies, all seeming to point him forward. Dan hesitated for a moment. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to see the rest of Reene’s handiwork.
“No, please!” a voice came from one of the back rooms. Dan hurried to the door, finding it jammed. He pushed as hard as he could, rolling the body on the other side slowly. He could still hear the frightened voice begging for mercy.
Dan squeezed through the doors’ small opening. Inside the claustrophobic room he saw Reene standing over the man who had robbed her. He was on his knees, his hands clasped and pleading. Dan had to look again, not recognizing the demonic woman that stood before him.
“Reene, no!” he screamed, watching as she drove her sword into the man’s heart. Blood sprayed as he fell to the ground. Reene stared down at him for a moment, then turned towards Dan. Her savage glare eased slightly when she saw her friend. No words came to his mouth when he tried to speak.
The satisfaction she felt evaporated, leaving behind shame as she stared at Dan. His expression was a mix of hurt and confusion, and she it became painful for her to look at him.
“Leave me,” she said.
Dan nodded quietly, backing away. He picked up the pouch of gold she’d left on the floor.
* * *
The word spread quickly throughout Anari’s army: they were heading to the island nation of Corset. Almost none of the troops had ever left the continent, and there was a subdued excitement running through the camp. The mood was noticeably more sober at a shallow river near by.
Reene splashed around in the cool waters, scrubbing vigorously to remove all the blood from her body. It had dried on her legs, beneath her fingernails, even behind her ears. She dove beneath the surface, hoping the river would wash away the evidence and the memories. She resurfaced to find Jin crouching near her blood-soaked clothes, his back turned to her.
“Can I have some privacy?” she said, covering herself.
Jin stood, his back still facing her. “This was a beautiful tunic,” he said, turning it over in his hands. “Did you make it yourself?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Your mother was skilled at many things, including sewing and embroidery. I see that she passed that knowledge onto you.”
“Making clothing is one of the few things I enjoy besides fighting,” she said.
“I see. I shall leave you to finish here. We’ll talk later.”
“No, wait!” she said, giving her hair one last rinse. “I’m done now, just keep your back turned.” After a few minutes he felt a tap on his back. “I made this one too, what do you think?”
Jin turned to see Reene wearing an all-black tunic and pants combination. Gold embroidery twisted around the cuffs, meeting in twin snake heads on the back. A gold sash across her waist completed the ensemble.
“When did you make this?” he asked, frowning.
“I’ve been working on it for a week. After I saw that sword you carry, I was inspired. I can tell there’s something special about it.”
Jin sighed. He’d hoped to wait until after the war to bring certain things up, but he decided that she needed to hear them now. “Reene, how much do you know about the Saruto?”
“Nothing. I didn’t even know they existed until you told me,” she admitted.
“We should walk then, and I will tell you about our tribe.”
“But I wanted to ask you about my mother.”
“We will talk about our family, I promise. But before you can understand Jade, me or even yourself, you must understand our tribe.”
“Okay,” she agreed.
“Our tribe has existed since the time of the dragons. After we were driven out of the great dragon city Elda, we migrated to the warm plains that the nomads still call home. We were a peaceful tribe that was well known for our hunting abilities. However, even the wide open spaces of Kareece weren’t big enough. Fighting between the various clans and tribes became common, and our skilled hunters became skilled warriors. We defeated our enemies swiftly and brutally, and our reputation began to change. By the time the Holy War began, we were known as the best warriors on the continent.”
“The Holy War? My father used to tell me stories about it, but I thought it was only a myth,” Reene asked.
“The Holy War was very real, and our tribe had a large part in it. The Great King hired our tribe to fight for him, and we agreed.”
“But wasn’t the Great King the bad guy? He was trying to conquer the continent.”
Jin nodded. “The years of fighting other tribes had taken a heavy toll on the Saruto. The Great King promised to help us destroy our enemies if we helped him destroy his. The deal we made with that evil man was the beginning of our tribe’s descent into darkness.”
Reene thought for a moment. The stories that her father had told her bore a strong similarity to the war she was involved in now. Was history repeating itself?
“As you know, the Great King was defeated by the Hero, and the war ended. Our people had fought bravely, but there are no spoils to be had in defeat. Instead they returned home to find that everything had been destroyed by years of war. With no other prospects, our tribe became nothing more than sell swords in the years of political upheaval that followed the war. This was the time that the four major nations, Kareece, Arstatia, Lonen and Ilna were formed, so there was much killing to be done. Our once proud tribe had been reduced to a bloodthirsty band of mercenaries,” he explained.
She looked down at the sword that swung off his waist. ”Jin, do you know…did our people enjoy killing?”
Jin stopped. “Are you referring to the group of thieves you slaughtered today?”
“H-how did you know that?” she stammered.
“Dan told me.”
Reene could feel the anger rising in her. “How could he tell you? He’s supposed to be my friend!”
“He is your friend! He’s worried about you, Reene. Today he caught a glimpse of the darkness within you, and it frightened him. I already knew it was there, because I carry it too. It is the burden of our people to carry this anger and hatred, and it has driven us to do terrible things. Today, it drove you to kill relentlessly.”
“They deserved what happened to them! They thought they could steal from me, and I showed them who they were dealing with!” she spat.
Jin placed his hands on her shoulders. “Reene, why do you embrace the darkness? Why do you find pleasure in it?”
“Because it’s all I have!” she yelled. “When I left home, I was alone. Vengeance kept me company. My anger kept me warm on those cold nights I slept beneath the moonless sky. The hatred I felt pushed me to survive this long. There was no one there, so I found my companions within!”
“What about Dan? What about me? Aren’t we here with you now?”
“And what will happen when the war is over? Dan will go back home, and so will you. I will continue on, alone, until I have done what I set out to do.”
“Then go home. Forget about the war, let Anari and the others handle it. Your father is still at home, waiting for you. You don’t have to be alone,” Jin said.
“No!” she yelled. “I can’t go home until I find my mother’s killer and make him beg before I kill him!”
Jin could see the rage in her eyes. They looked exactly like how his once had. “Very well, Reene. I see that you will not be swayed from your decision.” He reached towards his waist, removing the second sword from his sash. “You will need this.”
Reene lunged for the sword, snatching it greedily from his hands. Suddenly, she heard a scream. And another, and another. The sword began to shake violently in her hands, and Reene’s ears echoed with the anguished cries of thousands of people. Visions flashed by her eyes of burning villages, slaughtered livestock and the bodies of hundreds piled atop each other in mass graves. She closed her eyes, but that only made the visions more intense and the screams more piercing. She let go the sword, unable to withstand it any longer. The sights and sounds stopped, and Reene dropped to the ground with a loud sob.
Jin knelt beside her. “That is what awaits you at the end of your journey,” he whispered. He grabbed the sword and walked away, leaving Reene huddled near the riverbanks. Jin looked towards the army’s camp, then turned away, walking out onto the plains.
* * *
“Achoo!’ Reene sneezed loudly. She’d never been to the ocean before, and the salty air irritated her nose. Still, she stood barefoot in the surf, staring out over it. Even the plains were broken up by towns and grazing animals, but the ocean seemed to stretch endlessly.
“How do we get across this to Corset?” she asked.
“General Anari hired a boat and a crew for us,” Dan explained.
“But how are we going to find it?”
“That’s what they’re for,” Dan pointed to the group of pirates who owned the boat. They were busy loading supplies into the boat. Reene snorted in disgust. To her, pirates were just thieves who knew how to swim.
“Anari trusts this scraggly group?” she asked.
“They’ll take us to the underworld if we pay them enough,” he joked.
Is that what I saw when I touched Jin’s sword? The underworld? It had taken her almost a half hour to stop crying, and she’d had nightmares all night. When she woke up, Jin was gone as if he’d never existed. It was for the best, she’d told herself. He had become more of a distraction lately. Yet there was still so much about her tribe and her people that only he could tell her. And no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get his sword out of her mind. She longed to hold it again.
“Looks like this will be our last night in Kareece. Are you going to miss it?” Dan asked.
“Yeah, but I’ll return someday. After I’ve done what I need to, maybe I’ll go look for my tribe,” she said.
“They don’t sound like very nice people from what you told me.”
“They’re my people, Dan. I have to meet them and get to know them. Saruto’s history is my history too.”
“Saruto? Good luck finding them,” a man with hulking muscles and an eye patch snickered while walking by.
“What do you mean, pirate?” Reene asked.
The man stopped, placing the crate he carried in the sand. “That tribe is gone now. It was destroyed over twenty years ago, lass.”
Reene felt her heart drop into her shoes. “The whole tribe?”
“Aye. The worst of it is that they were done in by one of their own.”
“What do you mean?”
“The tale goes that the Saruto held an evil sword, and that one of the sons of the tribe stole it and killed everyone.”
“That…can’t be…” Reene said.
“It’s only a story, lass. There may be some truth to it, there may not. But the Saruto are gone, and that is a fact,” the man said. He walked off, leaving Reene stunned and Dan confused.
“What does that all mean?” Dan asked after a long pause.
Reene didn’t respond. She walked forward slowly, as if in a daze. So much had been revealed in that short exchange, and her mind was clouded with the implications. “Could he have done it?” she muttered to herself disbelievingly.
“Could who have done what? What are you talking about Reene?”
She turned back to him, wearing the same smile that Jin had perfected. “I have to go Dan.”
“Go? Go where? We’re leaving for Corset in the morning!”
She looked back towards the plains, her eyes growing distant. “He’s waiting for me.” Dan followed her eyes, understanding coming to him slowly. “I don’t know what will happen when I find him. I may not come back.”
“You will come back. But who will it be? The Reene I see right now, or the Reene I saw in that room?” She gave him a kiss on the cheek, then started walking the same way Jin had departed.
Reene knew exactly where he was. The sword at his side was calling her, leading her to him. She wanted it more than anything in her life. With that sword, no one will be able to defeat me, she thought. There were still many things that didn’t add up. Where did the sword come from? Why had her mother survived the destruction of the tribe? And what ultimately happened to her? Reene knew that her uncle had the answer to all those questions. As she walked, her desires for answers and the sword raced around her mind. He’d told her a great deal, but Jin had left before he could tell her everything. What a coward, she thought. He killed all of those people, and he didn’t even have the courage to admit it. She wondered if anyone else knew the truth.
There was one person who knew what he did, she realized. Her knees wobbled as she felt the wind rush out of her. The word was on her lips, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. “…Jade,” she forced it out. Jin had killed everyone in their tribe, but somehow she’d survived. Jade left her and her father to find him, and he killed her. Reene had nothing but the pirate’s story to go on, but she knew it was true. It was too horrible, but it made sense.
The emotions swirled out of control in her: sadness, fear, despair and confusion. She took a few deep breaths, and finally settled on rage. She would find Jin and get the truth out of him. She would kill him, avenging her mother. And she would claim the black sword he carried as her own. As she walked, she repeated the plan to herself. All of the searching and battles had led her to this, and she wanted to be ready. Reene was whipping herself into a psychotic fervor, but discipline reasserted itself. Jin was still the best swordsman in Kareece. Her hatred for him wouldn’t be enough to beat him. She smiled cruelly at the irony of killing him with the techniques he’d taught her. She didn’t notice that the day had passed over to night long ago.
Jin stood with his arms folded across his chest, looking into the midnight sky. There was a popular saying that the stars shone brighter in Kareece. His years of travel had confirmed it. The stars twinkled more beautifully than he’d ever seen before, perhaps because he thought it could be the last time he saw them.
“Our people have a belief, that every day is a new life. Dawn brings a chance to start over from the beginning, and make the right choices,” Jin said, turning to face Reene. She’d just arrived, and her eyes glowed as brightly as the stars above. “Do you believe that?”
“You ran away from me. You didn’t want to tell me what happened,” she said.
“I knew you would come to me.”
“Finish the story.”
“After years of fighting and killing, the black mark of death stained our tribe’s soul. We could no longer bear the weight of the suffering we’d caused. A dark mage was commissioned to purify the tribe. She washed away the guilt, hate and darkness of our people, and channeled it into a specially made weapon.”
“The sword that you carry,” Reene said.
Jin nodded. “The process was repeated for many generations. The sword was only meant to be symbolic, but as the cleansings continued, the sword grew more powerful. Thieves and others who sought power were constantly trying to steal it, and eventually the tribe decided that the sword needed constant protection. It was a job that no one wanted, since it would be difficult to resist the temptation to use the sword. Finally, one of out ancestors volunteered, and it became our family’s duty to protect the sword. It was passed down from father to son.”
“Until it got to you,” she said.
“I never received the sword the proper way. My father noticed the way I would stare at it. He knew it dominated my thoughts and actions. But his fears weren’t confirmed until he found me holding it one night, cradling it as it was my child. The next day he announced that Jade would inherit the sword instead of me. I couldn’t believe that he would deny me that power. I became vengeful, much like you Reene. My desire for the sword was all consuming. When Jade left to visit a nearby tribe, I made my move. I stole the sword and killed anyone who I thought would try to take it from me. It was mine, and I wanted to make sure it stayed that way.”
“But if my mother was still alive, then she could challenge your ownership of the sword. Why did you wait for her to leave?”
Jin smiled sadly. “Jade was always a better swordsman than me. While I had to train and practice for hours, everything came naturally to her. I didn’t want to face her until after I had the sword. Then I would be invincible.”
“Then why did you wait so long to find her?” she asked.
“Jade came after me. She found me in the mountains between Arstatia and Kareece. But instead of having her sword drawn, she approached me with smiles and kisses. She told me that she still loved me, despite of what I’d done. She said it was the sword, not me. Deep down though, I knew it was me. I hated her. For being better than me, for father choosing her over me. Her words fell on a cold heart. The only language I understood was battle. We fought, with the prize being my soul.
“But even with this dark sword, your mother was too strong for me. Yet she held back while I tried my best to kill her. It pushed me beyond sanity to think that I’d always be second best. Finally, she offered me what I wanted. She dropped her guard and looked me straight in the eyes. And I…I…” Tears streamed down his face as he closed his eyes. Reene’s own heart softened for a moment.
“After I killed her, it was as if I’d awakened from a long nightmare. She gave her life to save me. Jade tried to end the dark and tragic saga of this sword and our tribe, but it lives on in me and you! I have not unsheathed this sword since I killed Jade, yet it continues to torment me. I can hear the cries of the men I’ve killed when I sleep. But I can also hear Jade’s melodic voice, telling me to let go of the guilt and sorrow. I can’t though, Reene, not until I return the favor that I eternally owe her. She saved me from myself, and now I’m going to do the same for you. The last thing she said before she died was your name, and I swore on her grave that I would stop you from traveling down the same path I did. Do you understand now?”
Reene closed her eyes. She knew that her mother would have done anything for her, which made it harder for Reene to imagine her lying on a cold cliff in the mountains, her life draining away into the crimson snow beneath her. And she imagined the sword, dripping with her blood. I’m the daughter of the heir to that sword, she thought. It’s mine now. Mine! She could barely contain the homicidal urges brewing within her.
“All I understand is that you stole my mother’s sword, and then her life!” she yelled, pointing her sword at Jin. “I will make you regret that!”
Jin looked at Reene, and his features hardened. “I should have known that words would be useless. Very well, let us settle this.” He reached towards the black sword. Reene crouched, ready to defend against his attack. But to her surprise, he unhooked it from his hip. “Here is what you desire!” he said, heaving it towards her.
She caught the sword, staring at it for a moment. She slowly pulled it out of its sheath, marveling as it glowed in the pale moonlight. The blade was perfect, curving slightly at the end. It had no dents or scratches, as if it had never been used. Reene knew better. She could hear the cry of the sword, and she rejoiced in it. She held it above her head, screaming triumphantly in unison with the thousands of voices. She looked back to Jin, locking on him with deadly eyes. “You will join this chorus of death,” she declared.
Jin frowned, drawing his other sword. “ I have given you the sword,” he said. “But you must earn my life.”
Reene grinned malevolently, rushing him at full speed. Their swords crashed together, sending sparks showering to the earth. Jin grimaced, surprised by her strength, He’d held back some during their training sessions in anticipation of this battle. Apparently, so had she.
He pushed her back, but Reene was instantly on the offensive again. They ducked, dodged and feinted, engaging only long enough to study the other’s moves. Jin found an opening, slashing Reene laterally. She jumped back, clutching at the rip that appeared across her ribs. It was deep enough to draw blood. She cursed loudly, glaring at Jin. “That was a cheap shot, uncle,” she mocked him.
“I am not one of the poorly trained soldiers or cowardly thugs you are used to facing. Only your best will be enough,” he warned her. Reene charged him again, launching herself into the air. She crashed into him with her full weight, staggering him. She swept him, ready to plunge her sword into his heart. But Jin was too quick. The blade struck the dirt instead. They jumped to their feet, thrusting and parrying across the plains. The clang of the swords grew louder in Jin’s ears as Reene’s attacks became more vicious. She was getting accustomed to the sword, and with each swing she became faster and stronger.
Jin pushed her back again, using the brief respite to catch his breath. He was starting to think that her strategy was to simply wear him down. But he could see that she was doubled over, panting as hard as he was. Reene stood slowly, examining the sword.
“The blade tells me that it has not tasted blood in a long while,” she said, turning it over in her hands. “ It’s thirsty for its former master.”
“Who is in control then? The sword or you?” he asked.
“Let’s find out!” she said, running at him again. Her arms moved so fast they were blurs. Jin did his best to defend, guessing at where the silvery flash of the blade would head next. High, low, left, left, low, right, high, his sword met hers at every turn. His reaction time was slowing as he tired, and Reene’s eyes still glowed with the same hateful fury. High, high, right, high, left, low, high- no, low!
Reene heard a loud gasp, feeling the sword slide into Jin’s soft abdomen. They both looked down, watching as blood gushed out of the wound. She stepped away slowly, relishing the sight of him clutching his stomach as he dropped to his knees.
“Well done…Reene,” he murmured, grimacing painfully. “You are a better swordsman…than even your mother…” His breathing became shallow and labored as she stepped forward.
She raised the sword above her head, basking in its power. “I’ve waited for this,” she said, ready to slice straight through his neck. A voice stopped her. It was distant and faint, barely audible through the cacophony of wailing souls. It was a joyful voice that pulled Reene back from the brink of madness.
“M-mother?” she cried out. There was no mistaking the distinct sound of Jade singing one of her favorite lullabies. The anger vanished, replaced with memories of sleepless nights terrorized by imaginary monsters. Jade stood by her bed, singing to calm her fears.
“This was the lullaby that my mother sang to me and my brother,” she’d said all those years ago. “Someday, you’ll sing it to your children.” Back then, Reene was terrified of the darkness. Now, looking down at her dying uncle, she was ready to dive headlong into it.
“Mother Moon and Father Sun, watch over me ‘til the morning comes. Sister Sky and Brother Earth, bring me dawn, bring me rebirth,” Reene sang as the first light of day broke over the horizon. She dropped besides Jin, sobbing loudly.
“Oh mother, please forgive me,” she begged. “I thought I wanted revenge…but all I ever really wanted was for you to come home…”
Jin smiled weakly. “You did what I could not. You resisted the sword,” he started, but fell over onto his back. He fought to keep his eyelids from closing, but they were like lead weights. “Sister…I’ll see you on the other side.”
The sword began vibrating in Reene’s hand, growing painfully hot. A piercing light erupted from the blade. It wrapped around the sword, growing and expanding until it covered Reene as well. The light faded as quickly as it had appeared, leaving Reene and the sword transformed. She marveled at the majestic white blade she held in her hand. The serpent’s head was gone, a roaring lion’s head in its place at the bottom of the handle. Her clothes had changed too, matching the snow white handle of the sword. The serpent design had been changed too, into a golden tail, winding about her sleeves and leading to a lion on her back. Jin stared in mute awe at his niece. She looked like an angel.
“You purified the sword…finally, our people can rest, and so can I,” he said.
“It wasn’t me, uncle. My mother saved both of us, even in death.” The sword pulsed in her hand as she crawled towards him. “Now it’s my turn.” She waved the sword across Jin’s damaged body, and white light enveloped him. He let out a muffled cry, but when the light vanished, so had his wounds. He sat up quickly, touching his abdomen, expecting to find a bloody wound. The only hole he found was in his shirt.
Reene smiled brightly. “I asked her to help me save you again, and she did. This sword was made to take life, but Jade has made it able to give life instead. I never understood why she left me until now. She did it for all of our sakes.”
“You’ve found the man that killed your mother, and spared him. What will you do now?” Jin asked.
She climbed to her feet, helping Jin to his. “We’re going to Corset. There’s still a war to be won. With this sword, I will fight to save life, in honor of my mother.” She said.
“I am honored to join you in this. But we cannot make it back to the shore before General Anari sets sail. It’s already morning.”
“Don’t worry, Dan won’t let him leave without us,” she assured him.
“How do you know?”
Reene turned towards the sun, rising steadily in the sky. It pointed to the ocean, where Dan was waiting. She couldn’t wait to see him. “Believe me, I know.”
Comments from the Judge
This whole thing struck me as a pretty generic fantasy story. It certainly doesn’t read like a bad example of fantasy, and you constrain the stiltedness of the language and dialogue a bit, but it’s still there. Lines like “My pouch! It contained my gold!” are what I’m talking about. “Contained” is just the wrong word there, a person is more likely to say something like “it had all my gold in it!” Even though the first way is shorter which is usually better, it is worse because it is something that the character wouldn’t really say. Also, characters having weird-colored eyes is in almost every amateur fantasy story.
Also, not enough Adherence to Prompt. There is a lot of death, but death and the afterlife are different things. It comes in at the end in a few ways, but it’s not really a major element. The sword containing all the soulds it has killed was pretty interesting.
I was relieved not to find any “I’m a WUMMAN who can be as good as a MAUGHN” in this story.
Something about the suspense in this story is lacking. It’s decent but it could be better. I think part of it is that Reene seems invincible when she is fighting, and even though she gets injured she never really comes close to dying. Like in the fight against the guy in her room in the beginning, she is in a situation where she might die but then she just cuts the guy’s head off effortlessly. Part of it is also the lack of realism in some of the fight scenes—like the one I just talked about, heads almost never really come off, and a sword would be totally ruined if you jammed it into plate armour. Even though it’s a fantasy story, the fighting shouldn’t read like fantasy fighting, if you know what I mean. It gives off the sense that the main characters are in no danger except in ‘boss fight’ situations, and in stories like that the good guys always win.
Also, I think you only had one typo, but I forget what it was. You seem to have paid a lot of attention to the writing in this story since the whole thing reads clearly and all the scenes have something interesting. The pacing is good since you show all the important things and skim over boring things. My advice to you is, if you want to continue writing fantasy, you should work to differentiate yourself from most amateur fantasy writers, since the worst thing about fantasy is the lack of creativity even though fantasy should be all rights be the most creative genre. Try looking at Limyaael’s rants to get a good grasp of what most fantasy writers are doing wrong: