Eighteen years old and I've never killed a person.
An outrage, many would call it. Others would argue and call it quite an accomplishment.
I call it life. You live with it, you deal with it, you're stuck with it, and you eventually die with it. Or, in other words, you're killed with it.
The only way anyone can survive a day in Vildran is if they don’t trust anyone and don’t give anyone a possibility to betray them. There are hardly any young people because parents don’t want another possible traitor. The few exceptions are abandoned when they are old enough to understand the way things work here but not old enough to remember their parents.
On Vildran, life is full of anger and war. Kids are raised only to know hatred and cold-heartedness. Bedtime stories end unhappily. If you show your feelings, you're good as dead. No one can rest soundly without a weapon under their pillow.
And then, there's the Trials.
Vildran is not a home to weak people, and the leaders ensure that—or, at least, the ones that are still alive do. Long ago, they set up the Trials; they’re a “right of passage” into adulthood, so to speak. By the time you’re a legal adult, you are forced into the Trial ring to fight for your life in the three impossible tasks the Leaders decide for you.
That's how I found myself running for all my life was worth.
“He went this way!” A deep voice yelled, followed by the clacking of hoof prints.
“You can’t hide from the Trials, boy!” A second voice called out to me, “We’ll find you, one way or another.”
The heat of my hiding place in a small, dark, cave-like hole under the road caused sweat to trickle down my forehead. My hand instinctively fell to my empty sword sheath, but then I remembered that they had already stolen that from me. Next, my hand went to my other side, where I usually kept my knife. It, too, was gone.
The sound of horses and men in armor got closer, but I forced myself to stay, sure my hiding spot would go unnoticed. I had found it three years ago, and it never failed me. Yet.
The sounds stopped, seemingly right above me, and I held my breath, not daring to make any sort of noise.
Then from the entrance of my hole, I heard… laughing? Before I could register what was going on, a strong man grabbed hold of my wrist and pulled me into the light. I have never considered myself very strong or big; in fact, I was pretty scrawny; but being lifted like I weighed nothing and was a little child made me offended, and more than a bit mortified.
The man lifted me a bit higher so he could look me in the eye. He laughed again, and I mentally gagged from his disgusting breath, but my face remained unreadable; I wasn’t about to let him know how terrified I was of him.
“Thought you could run from us, could you? Little boy, I dug that hole myself, and many more like it for this exact purpose: to capture little children who think they can run from our leaders’ soldiers.” The soldier said in his gruff voice.
I spat at him, “I’m no ‘little boy.’” I told him angrily.
The man frowned at me and threw me onto the ground, “You’d do yourself a favor to learn a bit of respect for those better than you.”
I scowled, brushing the dirt off my pants. I started to stand, but another man from behind me grabbed my arms and yanked me back down. He tied a thick, dirty rope tightly around my wrists and threw me over the back of his horse, leaving my head and feet dangling uncomfortably over the horse’s sides.
The rest of the soldiers mounted their rides, and we were off. My fate was already written in stone. As we traveled along the bumpy, uneven road, I thought of all the awful tales of the Trials. By the time my village was out of view, I was certain I wouldn’t live to see another morning.
At one point, the path must’ve smoothened out enough for me to fall asleep because I found myself tied to a chair in the middle of a large battle arena with a soldier in black armor slapping me awake with his underhand.
“Finally.” He mumbled, then walked towards a door on the far side of the arena. Once he had exited, I looked up; five seats were sitting above me in a semicircle, with a glass wall in between them and the ledge. Only three of the seats were occupied. The other two remained empty; the leaders who once sat in them were killed during a mutiny. The three leaders still living were dressed in flowy violet robes. A number was embroidered in gold on each robe, signifying how many generations they’ve been one of the irreplaceable immortal leaders.
One of them, a man with a long gray beard and a fancy number 7 on his robe, spoke first; “Hello, Wren Aldrin.”
I jerked my head upwards at my name.
“While you were dozing off, I decided your first task.” The first leader paused. “You will duel my daughter, Ayla, who is also eighteen and is participating in her first Trial.” The man smiled deviously, “Duel to the death. The winner gets to move on. The loser… Well, the loser will be dead.” The man laughed, and I wondered how he could be so unmerciful about sending his own daughter into a duel to the death. “Meldran!” The leader called.
The same black-armored knight that woke me walked back into the arena and untied me from the chair; he then handed me my sword and knife that was stolen from me not hours ago.
I grabbed them hurriedly, comforted to have a weapon in my hand again. The moment the knight turned around, I threw the knife towards his head, my aim true.
Before I could register the quiet laughing from the leaders above me, the soldier’s hand flew backward and caught the knife mid-air, the blade only inches from puncturing his skull. The soldier simply turned back around silently and handed my knife back to me, this time leaving me speechless.
I looked up to the first leader, who was shaking his head, “Now boy,” he started. “No need for rash violence. You can save that for the duel.”
Without another word, he pulled down a lever, and a folding garage-like door opened, revealing a girl my age with a double-bladed sword in hand.
She approached without hesitation, swinging her weapon threateningly.
“Double blades?” I mumbled, tucking my knife away. “Isn’t that a tad bit overkill?” I got into a fighting position and held my sword at the ready.
Ayla attempted to swing her sword at my ankles, but I jumped to the side and met her blade with my own. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I mumbled under my breath so the leaders wouldn’t hear.
Ayla smiled slightly, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that.” She swung her sword at me again, catching me off guard, and I was barely able to deflect the attack. This went on for a bit longer, and after a while, I had a feel for her strategy: attacking quickly before the opponent had a chance to. I could handle that.
I kept deflecting her attacks, never turning my back to her. I backed up slightly with each swing she took to force her to come closer. The defender holds control of where the attacker walks. Before long, I had myself backed against a wall, and Ayla smiled, thinking she had cornered me. She swung her blades at me hard and without hesitation, but I ducked.
Her sword became lodged into the wall, causing her to fall back from the impact. I pointed my sword at her neck, victorious. I looked up at the leaders, waiting for them to announce the winner, but they just waited. Then I remembered: Duel to the death. I hesitated, and Ayla used that time to kick my sword out of my hands, sending it sliding down the wood floor. She held me in a chokehold. “Why didn’t you just kill me while you had the chance?” She whispered in my ear, tightening her grip on my throat.
“I couldn’t.” I choked out, barely breathing.
Her grip loosened, “Move out of my hold and aim your knife at me.”
I shook her off without further hesitation, pulled my knife out of its sheath, and pointed it straight at her face.
Ayla fell back in fake shock and then yelled to the leaders, “I surrender! I give up! Dad, don’t let him kill me!”
“What are you doing!? I whispered through my teeth.
Ayla said nothing.
The leader who assigned me this Trial yelled, “I call it off! You won, boy! Don’t touch her, hands off!”
I backed off, hands in the air, and the black knight came back. He grabbed Ayla by her arm and dragged her out of the room. I opened my mouth to tell the knight to wait, but Ayla looked back at me and shook her head. The knight shut the door behind them with a bang.
I turned to the leaders, “What will happen to her?” I asked, seeing the first leader’s face out of the corner of my eye. It was as white as new-fallen snow.
A second leader spoke up. This one was bald and very… plump, with a bold number 9 on his robes. “She failed to complete her Trial. She will be hanged.” Despite his kind, grandpa-like appearance, his voice held no sign of mercy.
“What!? No!” I cried, but it was no use. The leader was not going to budge.
“For your next Trial,” The bald leader started, changing the subject. “You must grab this flag.” He pressed a button, and a red flag rose from a hole in the ground.
I raised an eyebrow, only that? This Trial will be easy! I took a step towards the flag, but the leader in charge of this Trial raised a hand, motioning me to stop. He pressed a second button, and suddenly the path to the flag started to move up and down in random patterns. The leader pulled a lever, and dozens of holes appeared in the walls—each shot out mini knives, boulders that rolled back and forth, swinging logs, and tripwires. Once everything had come into view, I saw that now it was physically impossible to reach the flag without being crushed, cut, smashed, beheaded, or killed. Taking even one step more towards the flag would be fatal. While a weapon wasn’t shooting out of one side, something swung out of the other side.
But then I realized something that would be key to my survival: almost every weapon and deadly trap were aimed to hit my head, so most of the time, a wide space was left on the bottom and top. It wasn’t a very good chance, but it was a chance nonetheless. I counted seconds in my head and realized that knives went across the bottom on the fifth second; I would have to roll out of the way quickly when those shot out.
I counted again in my head to make sure that my hunch was correct, and this time, on the fifth second, I ducked my head and ran at full speed, counting in my head.
A log swung over me, grazing my hair, and I ducked lower, practically crawling.
3, 4, 5.
I rolled forward just before the daggers exploded out at me and quickly started scurrying across the floor again.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
I rolled forward again, this time slightly too late. A knife grazed my shoulder, ripping off my sleeve and causing me to bleed.
1, 2, 3…
The floor moved up, and I felt my heart somersault as I realized that I was now level with all the other deadly weapons. I stood up, covered my head, and sprinted at the flag, boulders, and sharp objects flying all around me.
I was about to lunge forward and grab the flag when a large rock hit me square in the back, throwing me forward. I closed my eyes and threw my hands in front of me to protect myself, but then I hit the ground, nearly knocking myself out.
I kept my eyes closed, grabbing onto something in front of me for dear life. I’m going to die. Then I realized something: It was quiet. Too quiet. I opened my eyes, and the first thing I saw was what I had been gripping onto:
The obstacles had gone back into the wall. I had completed my second Trial. Blood was streaming down my right arm, but I was still alive.
And the leaders did not look happy.
“You skinny little twig!” The leader who had assigned me the obstacle yelled, “why won’t you just die already!”
“Gee, thanks. Glad to know you care.” I mumbled to myself as I stood up, legs shaking.
The last leader stared daggers at me. He had a flashy number 11 on his robes, the oldest and most powerful of the leaders. “You will not as easily escape my challenge.” He frowned down at me. “I have seen your strategy. The only thing that is keeping you alive out there is your brains. This last Trial will challenge purely your brawn… something you have very little of.” The garage-like door started unfolding again, and I saw a large figure behind the doors. “You will fight the manticore.”
I was so lost for words that I found myself saying the first thing that came to my mind, “He’s a myth.”
The leader smiled a bit, “then I guess you’ll have the pleasure of dying to a ‘myth.’”
The vast doors finished opening, and I had my first look at the beast.
It was a giant, lion-like creature. Every inch of the beast was packed with muscle and in place of his tail was a jumbo scorpion stinger.
From all the stories I’ve heard of them, the manticore was deadly and undefeatable. They would either stab you with their highly poisonous stinger or bite you. Both, though, ultimately result in you being paralyzed and eaten alive.
A floor-shaking roar filled the room, interrupting my thoughts. The enormous lion-scorpion launched himself at me, and I rolled out of the way just before his claws came crashing down. I reached a shaky hand towards my sword and held it directly in front of myself desperately.
The manticore threw his tail backward and then launched it at me. I closed my eyes, ready to die, holding my sword so tight my knuckles were numb. Then an ear-shattering sound echoed through the arena. I opened my eyes just in time to see my sword shattering, having protected me for the last time. A small chunk of the blade lodged itself in my already-injured shoulder, causing pain like no other to spread through my body and blood to run down my arm and drip off my fingertips.
I turned to glance at the leaders. They couldn't have looked happier.
I was weaponless.
I looked around me desperately for something, anything, that would help me fight the manticore. Finally, my eyes rested on Ayla’s double-bladed sword, still left on the ground from our duel. But there was one problem: the manticore was between me and the weapon.
Already in pain and having nothing to lose, I held my bleeding shoulder tight and slid under the manticores legs before he recovered from hitting my sword. Once I made it to the other side of him, I ran a full sprint towards Ayla’s sword and picked it up. The moment I picked up her sword, I had a sudden flashback to our duel and how I had cornered her. I had used her own attacks against her. I realized how the manticore’s attacking method was very similar to Ayla’s and thought I could use the same tactic I had used on Ayla to get rid of the manticore.
A new rage filled me. I was angry at how unfair it was that I had to risk my life three times while the leaders were simply watching. I was angry that I never knew my parents. But most of all, I was angry that Ayla was killed for sparing my life.
Blinded with this new anger, I ran straight up to the manticore, daring him to attack me. He swung his tail, and I jumped backward, making the beast come closer. I continued this until I backed myself against the wall. The leaders above me realized what I was doing and froze in suspense. The manticore lunged forward, and I lept out of the way for all my life, and Ayla’s was worth. The manticore slammed into the metal wall with a loud thud, causing a significant dent to form. With all my might, I swung Ayla’s sword down into the manticore’s side, and he fell limp at my feet.
I looked up at the leaders. They all looked unhappy except Ayla’s father; he was grinning with pride.
He had every reason to: his daughter had saved my life twice now, once in life and again in my memory; something that was extremely rare in the brutal, cold-hearted Vildran.