The Ritual by Benjamin Agar
Year: 2503 AHV (After Holy Victory)
Age: Late Industra era
Country: The Kingdom of Amartis
'What name do you think you wanna take?' said Karetil, grinning up at Alathis. Alathis couldn't return the dwarf's enthusiasm, he just pursed his lips and shrugged.
'I've been looking into the history books,' Karetil said, either failing at noticing or ignoring Alathis' trepidation. 'There are so many awesome Hunter-dwarves that I can't choose.'
Alathis nodded. They were in their large dormitory, the bright white walls and ceiling surrounded Alathis' small dorm, which was enclosed from the fifteen others around by 1.8 metre tall blue walls.
Karetil sat on Alathis' single, unmade bed, his short legs kicking in the air. It was childish, foolish.
Alathis fought to hide his disdain. After all they'd been through Karetil should've grown up by now.
'There was one I saw, though,' said Karetil. 'A powerful dwarf mage that all by himself took down a whole Isstarssian kidnapping convoy eighty years ago.'
'How'd he die?' Alathis,' chest was tight. He wanted Karetil gone, but couldn't find the heart to tell him too.
'He died, when he and a bunch of other Hunters fought off a troll alliance in north Camaria,' said Karetil. 'Was overwhelmed by a horde of goblins, but killed heaps before he went down.'
Unlike many Hunter neophytes, Alathis included, Karetil had chosen to specialise as a mage and he was one of the best in the coven.
'You alright?' said Karetil.
Alathis turned and approached his locker. With quick hands, he punched the code into the padlock with 'clack clacks' and swung the metal door open with more strength than intended.
He caught his reflection in the mirror on the back of the door. A few people, many girls, had described him as being 'cute' or 'handsome.' His jawline was so sharp, he suspected he could use his chin as a weapon. His thin nose was long and like many a Hunter-neophyte, Alathis skin was pale, almost as the white as the walls, from having lived most his life underground. His shoulder length, brown hair jutted out in every imaginable direction. The right side of his face hidden beneath his fringe. He wore the loose, black tunic all last year neophytes wore. Alathis had never even begun to think of himself being better or worse looking than anyone else, despite the mounting evidence. Alathis was determined to never let it go to his head. Looks weren't worth much. Well, except when they were, for potential assignments or whatever.
Alathis never understood why the Hunters gave them lockers. Let alone locks for them. They didn't have much to store since after being taken by the church. Five years ago, Alathis, Karetil and eight others, had stumbled in here with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Everything they owned was now 'standard issue,' standard issue sleep wear, standard issue exercise books, standard issue toiletries, standard issue wrist time pieces, standard issue shoes. All of it produced in Valandri, the vampire nation. No one had anything worth stealing, nothing personal to protect. To Alathis a locker was a pointless gesture, one not worth the time and resources.
Alathis reached in and took out his wooden practice sword.
'You going to the training room?' said Karetil.
Alathis stayed silent, knowing Karetil already knew the answer.
'I'll come. You might use a sparring partner.'
The human neophyte snorted and shook his head. 'You know you won't last long enough to provide me much practise.'
Karetil shrugged. 'True. You're one of the best. You could just go easy on me, just this once.'
'The best,' Alathis couldn't help correct. 'And remember what happened the last time I bet you?'
Karetil sighed. Karetil had lost his shit and thrown about fireballs, destroying much of the training equipment. They'd then been forced to spend months cleaning the Coven floors with toothbrushes. Alathis was still a bit bitter about it.
'No,' said Karetil. "But we might not have to. Tomorrow we finally go through the Ritual. We'll finally be apprentices. Walking the continent, killing vampires.'
The dwarf's words sent pain shivering through Alathis' heart. He slipped out of his dorm.
'Wait,' said Karetil, who started after him but Alathis stopped and pointed at the dwarf.
'I'm sorry, but I just want to be alone,' he said. 'I'll be back later.'
Without waiting for a response, Alathis turned and stormed out the entrance way.
Much to Alathis' relief he found the training room empty. He'd thought so, it was six in the evening so most neophytes were busy with study.
Alathis ignored the training dummies lining the left wall and the wooden weapons on the right, while attempting to avert his attention from the large mirror in the north. Weapons of every type hung there, from daggers to double headed two handed axes. In the first few years, every neophyte was encouraged to practise with all weapons. First to learn how each was wielded so if they fought an enemy who used one they knew how to fight it. Second to choose which one to specialise in. Alathis had fallen in love with the long sword almost straight away. It wasn't too heavy, or too short. It could be used to both stab and slice. Its hilt and cross-guard could be used as weapons, if needs must, and it could be wielded with one or two hands. In short, it was adaptable, practical. But above all else, there was a certain artistry, a freedom to the long sword. It could be wielded like a curved cutting blade, or even a specialist stabbing blade such as a rapier.
Faster than even his eye could follow, Alathis drew his sword and was in a ready stance. Then he launched into it. His every technique, his every step, every cut, stab and parry were perfect. He'd perform a technique, a downward vertical strike or any other, then the appropriate dodge, block or dart. Then counter. It was called shadow swordplay. He did it by instinct, with no rhyme or reason. It emptied his mind, forced away the fear. The anxiety.
They'd been taught meditation from a young age. It'd never worked for Alathis. Sitting and humming couldn't calm his forever busy mind. But swinging a sword or punching and kicking the air, did. Alathis wasn't as naive as most of the other acolytes, he knew Hunters were, for all intents and purposes, assassins. And he knew he had to be a damn good one to live even a year of his apprenticeship. That's if he managed to somehow survive the Ritual.
He was so lost in his training he failed to notice the vampire enter the room.
Alathis leaped so high he almost hit the ceiling and turned to find Kolmath approaching. The once-elf vampire's face was unreadable, her hands behind her back. She was tall for an elf: around 1.77 metres. Like all her kin, she was long limbed, graceful. She wore plain white robes like all other teachers. Her skin just as inhumanly stark as her robes. She stared at him with large, dark green eyes and her long grey hair pulled back into a bun. She was beautiful, even for an elf she. It almost made him forget his ingrained instinct at recognising the wrongness vampires exuded.
'Teacher,' said Alathis.
Kolmath waved dismissal at Alathis' formality and approached the wall of weapons.
'Karetil came to me,' she said. 'He's concerned about you.'
'Indeed,' she said and reached to touch a broad sword. 'You underestimate him, I think. He may act childish but he has every bit the same training at reading people as you.'
Alathis didn't reply, he just cut the air, first horizontally, then upward diagonally.
'You know, when you first came to the coven, I was not sure what to make of you,' said Kolmath, while running her long, slender fingers along the haft of a great axe. 'You were so sullen, sulky. You more so than the other survivors of the attack. I understood why after talking with Telric.'
Alathis treated her with his most murderous glare. 'I don't want to talk about that, teacher.'
Kolmath turned to him. 'You will have to, Alathis. One day. What you went through, what you had to do, that is something even the hardiest of us would find hard to cope with. It might be a good idea to speak of it before going through the Ritual.'
Alathis couldn't help flinch at her mention of The Ritual.
'Ah. So you are afraid,' said Kolmath as she took a small axe and tested its weight. 'Do not be ashamed, it is only natural.'
She swung it a few times, but the swings were so fast Alathis couldn't count them.
'Every neophyte in your position is afraid before the Ritual.'
'Well, except Karetil,' said Alathis.
'He too, is afraid, young Alathis,' said Kolmath. 'Again, you underestimate your friend, he is just far better at hiding it. Or you might be overestimating him, from a certain point of view.'
Alathis swallowed. 'I don't want to die.'
'Everything dies,' said Kolmath. 'Even Hunters, even vampires, even the Jaroai. It is nothing to fear. It is just nothingness.'
'You can back out,' Kolmath interrupted, but without anger or condescension. 'Stay here as a mortal or I could sire you, right here, right now. There is nothing wrong with that, many have chosen that path over the centuries.'
Alathis swallowed, despite how much it'd hurt, he forced himself to remember, of the promise he'd made five years ago. He hoped it'd steel him, chase away the fear, it didn't. But it caused him stop considering Kolmath's offers.
Kolmath studied him in silence, her slender features still unreadable. 'You are a strange one, Alathis,' she said and it caught him off guard.
'You heard me. You can be so confident, almost arrogant in one thing but lack confidence in another,' she said. 'You remind me of someone.'
'Who? May I ask?'
She laughed. Alathis liked her laugh.
'I do not think he would appreciate that.'
'I've had a hard life, teacher,' he said. 'Even before I was taken by the church. Even before the...incident.'
'I can see that, Alathis. You are wise beyond your years, but you are still young and have much to learn. Jaroai! I am two hundred and fifty years old and I still have much to learn. But you must remember...'
'That whatever you have been through, young Alathis, there is always someone, somewhere who's been through worse. The elves and dwarves that were enslaved for so long and those who are still enslaved by the church. The starving, poverty stricken children in Iritain. You have received the best education on the continent. You know the truths of this world.'
Alathis grinned. 'I could've been a priest of Jaroai, they are far more privileged and are higher in this society than Hunters or vampires.'
Kolmath laughed. 'I doubt you would have made it through their trials, were you ever a true believer, Alathis?'
'No, not really' said Alathis, shuffling his foot.
'I could tell that from the start. If I could tell it from a glance the church would see it too.'
He frowned. 'I could pretend-'
'The church of Jaroai might be driven by blind illogical faith, but they are not stupid. Maybe you could pretend it now, after years of training, but as the child you were. No, just no.'
She slashed her axe again. 'Do you know the longest a neophyte has lasted against me in a sparring match?'
'No,' said Alathis, not liking where this was going.
'Twenty seconds, do you think you can last any longer?'
'I...I don't know.'
Kolmath fell into a ready stance. 'Let us find out.'
She lunged at him.
Her sweeping axe forced Alathis to back-step. Then he side stepped her downward vertical blow. He stumbled to keep his balance and lashed back with a wild upward diagonal slash. With ease, the vampire wheeled away then darted into horizontal cut at Alathis' skull. Alathis leaned back from it. Kolmath was holding back, moving at a pace his human eye could follow.
His riposte was a diagonal cut headed for her left hip. Kolmath parried it almost contemptuously and sent out a front kick which forced Alathis into scrambling away.
Kolmath slipped at him, her axe swinging for his chest.
Alathis had no choice but to parry. Her strength far exceeded his, thus the odds of being disarmed were huge. But he'd practised for countless hours, for countless days, more so than any other neophyte in the coven and thus his parry was executed with perfection. Knocking her axe aside at the exact right time.
'Nicely done,' she said.
Alathis' footwork was seamless as he slipped onto her flank and simultaneously sliced crossward for her throat. Kolmath leaned back, beneath it then swung diagonally up at Alathis' exposed flank.
In desperation, Alathis blocked, placing his left hand on the blade to reinforce it. It didn't stop the chop but slowed it, allowing him to slide out the way.
'Very, very good,' she remarked.
'Yeah, it's only because you're going easy.'
Kolmath shrugged. 'I am going as hard and as easy as against any senior neophyte before or after you. This is just a sparring match and the thing is, I want you to last. There would be little for you to learn this if I went all out. You are still only human, Alathis. Once you have been through the Ritual, your reflexes will be on par with mine, perhaps beyond.'
'Who knows,' she said, sending Alathis dashing back from another arc of her axe. 'You may receive that mutation, the one that increases a Hunter's strength to that of a vampire's. The odds are against it, but you never know. The only Hunter that has it today is a human named Jelcine.'
Alathis nodded as he tried for a stab which caused Kolmath to raise the haft of her axe to block. It was a feint, Alathis reversed it into a vertical downward slash at her skull. But Kolmath seemed bored as she tapped it aside.
The sword was almost flung from Alathis' grasp and he was sent stumbling sideways in his trouble to keep hold of it.
Kolmath pushed her offence, slipping at him into an upward cross cut.
Alathis back-stepped it and moved more to gain some ground, any ground. In the pause he realised how short of breath he was.
'This...sucks,' he managed through his gasps. 'I hate this...shit.'
'You are aware that I am not counting the seconds we talk,' said Kolmath. 'Well, to be more precise, when we are not fighting.'
He sighed. 'Man!'
Then he was on his arse, pain coursing through his side.
'You should know by now, not to allow for distraction,' said Kolmath while watching Alathis climb to his feet. 'If you are to survive the Ritual you mustn't avert yourself.'
'What exactly happens in the Ritual?' gasped Alathis.
She shrugged and twirled her axe. 'I am a sired vampire so you know I have not been through it, but have witnessed it many times since I became a teacher. All that I can say, is, it seems different for everyone. No Hunter that has lived, I have asked about it, have gone into detail. You, I suspect, will not be any different.'
Alathis nodded, fighting the disappointment welling within his guts. 'How long did I last?'
'Twelve seconds. Not bad, young Alathis.'
Alathis sighed. 'Who was it that lasted twenty?'
Kolmath smiled, a rare expression for her. 'Her name was Calian, after she took her new name.'
Alathis' jaw dropped. 'The Calian? Calian who's one of the greatest sword masters of the Hunters today?'
'The very one,' said Kolmath. 'She is up there with Arken and Anargrin in the top three, despite being only a century old. Do not beat yourself up too much for lasting only twelve seconds. When I sparred her, she was not a day from going through the Ritual. She did not have such a distraction, such a fear looming over her. To last twelve seconds despite this is impressive. Take pride, Alathis, in this achievement. But also take it as a lesson.'
'I understand,' he said, it wasn't a lie.
'You have potential, Alathis,' said Kolmath. 'I saw that the first time we met, but if you are to live up to that potential, you must be aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Yours is fear, anxiety. You feel it stronger than Karetil, than most people in fact, so it is harder for you to hide.'
Alathis frowned, his gaze fell to the floor then it hit him. 'Is it a strength or weakness, ma'am?'
Kolmath smiled again. 'That is the question I hoped you would ask. That is a skill many do not possess, being able to ask the right question at the right time. In truth, it is both a strength and weakness.'
He furrowed his brow. 'I don't understand.'
'Do you know the true definition of courage, Alathis? It is not the absence of fear, but being able to face it, conquer it. You declined my offers for the easy way out, you still stood against me despite knowing how much I outclassed you, you still managed to aid her despite-'
Kolmath shook her head. 'And there it is, that is one thing you will not face, that you allow the fear to rule you on. You are willing to face death itself, or now, at least, but not that. What I am saying is be proud, have faith in yourself and your courage and I know you will live through the Ritual. And you might one day be able to face what happened five years ago.'
She turned, returned her axe to the wall, then began for the door.
'It is not faith, actually,' she said. 'I have given you enough evidence to make it logic, real. I will leave you to think upon this.'
'Teacher,' said Alathis as it hit him, causing her to pause at the threshold. 'You took the easy way out, didn't you?'
Kolmath didn't turn. 'Maybe I should re-consider my compliment. Maybe you do not ask the right questions, at the right time.'
A sudden pain exploded in his chest, like a jagged piece of ice being thrust through him, but he held his ground. 'I will take that as a "yes", then.'
'So now you know that I speak from the most utmost of experience on fear, Alathis. I wish you luck.'
Without further word, she left.
He didn't have the heart for more training, so headed back to the dormitory. The whole way, Alathis kept glancing at the sheathed wooden sword he carried. Five years ago he was able to wield a real one, it was even sharpened. In this coven, neophytes weren't allowed to wield real weapons. But they had another reason to take it from him. He wasn't exactly in a sane state of mind and he might've used it on himself, when they took it from him he hadn't thought so, but now with hind sight: he knew they were right.
He stopped near the dormitory's entrance way.
Alathis gripped the sheathed sword harder, his knuckles whitened and bulged and pain crept up his arm. He clenched his teeth then started on again.
He pinned his attention to the bubbling, blue carpet, and shuffled into his room. Hoping beyond hope that Karetil wouldn't see him or wasn't there.
Alathis leaped onto his bed, spinning in mid air so he landed on his back. He hid shielded his eyes from the bright light hanging from the ceiling, accidentally brushing his scar on the way.
His hand travelled to his cheek. It pushed the thick, unruly fringe from his face and brushed the ragged, ugly scar. With a sharp inhale he snatched away his hand.
Mage-Hunter Vortrik had offered to heal it when he'd first came to the coven, but reason unknown even to Alathis, he refused. Instead he hid it beneath his hair.
It reminded him of her, she'd given it to him, when she...when she.
Alathis forced the memory from his thoughts and wished it'd never come back.
But still he kept the scar. Why?
He lay there, fighting the sickness wallowing in his guts, trying not to think.
He laid there until lights out. He laid there until he finally fell asleep.
'One in five.'
The familiar soft, lilting, voice caused Alathis' eyes to snap open and the ceiling to wind from a blurred haze into clarity. He gasped and sat, he was soaked in sweat, his heart thundering.
Alathis knew he wouldn't sleep, so grabbed his standard issue electric flash light on his side desk. Slipped out of bed and snatched up his sword.
Alathis switched on the lights and they flickered into life, revealing the training room in blasts of white before becoming constant.
Since he became a neophyte Alathis had learned how far ahead Valandri and the Hunters were in terms of technology, having running water and electricity decades before the rest of the continent of Angara.
Alathis went to draw his sword, but his hand halted. He couldn't sleep but couldn't train either.
He could only remember and he gazed down at his palms.
Alathis' hands were the hands of a four year old as he drove his toy motor-truck across the cream carpet. It was his room, where he and his mother lived together so long ago.
Then screams started, shrill, psychotic. His mother's screams.
'Begone. Begone, devil. I will not have your likes here.'
Alathis flinched, shivers sprouted throughout his skin and he looked out his open door, into the kitchen and living room. There his mother, wild eyed and manic struggled, with a taller man who Alathis couldn't quite see.
'Please,' said a voice resonating with confidence and patience. 'Please, let me in, Dalti. I need to see Alathis.'
'Begone,' she screamed.
Alathis' eyes welled and blurred with tears. He picked up his truck near his knees and clutched it to his bony chest. He wanted his mum to stop screaming, he wanted the man to go away.
The man managed to push past his mother to see Alathis, his eyes widened, then he turned and stormed out.
Alathis couldn't hold back the tears and his mother came to him and embraced him.
'It's okay,' she said. 'The devil, he's gone now, everything's okay. Everything's okay.'
A few hours later Alathis was still in his room, playing with his Fun Blocks when he heard the kitchen door explode open and shouts blast through the house. He looked to see a man in a Rule Enforcer uniform storm into the kitchen, his face contorting, crinkling. He was followed by another, a dwarf.
The human Enforcer was gigantic as he stormed into his room and Alathis screamed as the Rule Enforcer grabbed him. Alathis was so skinny that only one of the Rule Enforcer's hands would've encased Alathis' torso. For a few seconds the room was whirled as the Rule Enforcer lifted him and slung him over his shoulder. Alathis' screamed again but his were eclipsed by his mother's psychotic shrieks as she was taken down the stairs by the dwarf and another human.
She hissed curse after curse, her dressing gown crunched and wavered frantically as she fought, but they were too strong.
Alathis bet his fists against the back of the Rule Enforcer but it only took two blows before it hurt his hands.
Him and his mother were taken outside. The sun blared into his eyes but he still saw his mum being carried out after him.
'Son,' she screamed, reaching for him.
'Mummy!' Alathis cried and thrust his hand for hers, then again the world spun so fast it took Alathis a few seconds to realise he'd placed been onto his bare feet.
There he saw the skinny man with long white hair which seemed to reflect the sun like a mirror. He wore an old, furry brown suit with yellow and blue stripes. He leaned against a black auto-mobile, a Celentara XI. His arms folded over his chest.
Alathis recognised him then and had no idea how he hadn't earlier.
'Dad,' he yelled, ran up to his father and wrapped his arms around him.
'Everything will be alright, Alathis,' dad said. 'Everything will be alright.'
His dad, Nana and Granda looked down at him, concern plain on their faces.
Alathis smiled up at them, as he played with the petrol station Fun Blocks toy they'd just given him.
'Alathis,' said his Nana as she knelt to his height. She was a plump lady with a round, face as friendly as her. Her white hair was cut short. 'What did your mummy feed you?'
He pursed his lips, confused by the question. 'Biscuits, mostly,' he said. 'I like the ones with chocolate and wheat! Thank you for the Fun Blocks, Nana.'
'That's...that's all right,' said Nana, her eyes shone with tears.
'When will I see mummy again?' said Alathis.
His father, Nana and Granda exchanged looks.
'One day,' said Granda. 'One day.'
The next day, Alathis and dad travelled north, to Isstarrsia's largest city: Zalkaland. An eight hour drive.
There Alathis lived with his father in his large, fancy house. His dad once said, "it wasn't big enough to be a mansion, but not small enough to be just a house."
Months later, Alathis was drawing at the living room table when the rotary phone rang a belling, shrill chorus. His dad walked in and snatched up the receiver.
'Hello?...Jalkenson...It's about time you got back to me...What happened to the shipment?...What in Jaroai's name do you mean by, "seized?"...They're saying they are counterfeits?...No, they fucking aren't...No...No I'm not going to take this lying down. I'm fighting this...Yes...Yes, I know the Custom Enforcer act claims guilty before proven innocent. But by Jaroai I am innocent. We're going to court and that's final.'
Dad slammed the receiver down causing a loud 'ding!' to reverberate from the bells and turned on him. It caused shivering pain made of fear to well within Alathis.
'I'm sorry if I scared you, little buddy,' said dad. 'Don't worry, everything will be alright.'
Laughing, Alathis ran through the long, large main hallway of his dad's house, chasing his friend: Danult, who was the son of Alathis' dad's lawyer, Jalkenson. Danult laughed along with him. The carpet white carpet Alathis' feet, it felt like burning. When he'd first came Alathis couldn't walk very far without the pain overcoming him. He could get quite a bit further now. But couldn't begin to keep up with Danult though he was two years younger. Alathis' dad had said it was because his mum had locked him up and that'd weakened him.
He hoped it'd get better soon.
They'd packed everything and stuffed it into his father's truck. Then they drove and drove. Out of the city and far into the country.
'Why are we leaving Zalkaland, dad?' said Alathis, while watching the farm lands pass by. He kicked his heels, his feet too short to touch the truck's floor.
'I...we can't stay there any more, Alathis,' said dad.
'Aww. What? Why? What about my friends?'
'I'm sorry, Alathis. But...but dad has got into trouble and you will make new friends. I'm sure.'
'No buts, son. That is that, alright? Don't worry. Just, don't worry, okay?'
Alathis pursed his lips, but kept his mouth shut.
It was the morning of Alathis' sixth birthday and he sat on his bed opening his last present. He yelled in joy when he found it was a Fun Blocks castle.
'Look, dad. Look. Look what nana and granda gave me.'
'That's...really nice, Alathis,' said dad as he watched with a stern look on his face.
Alathis smiled and gazed out the window at the nice day and the lush bush outside. The bus they lived in wasn't as fancy as the house in Zalkaland. But Alathis didn't mind, it was really neato and really long. It didn't have power or running water or a toilet. The toilet was what his dad called a 'long drop' and it was a long walk down a path. At first Alathis was scared to go there, especially at night. But now he was brave enough to walk there alone.
But there wasn't a present from dad and last year, when they'd lived in Zalkaland, his dad had made him an awesome cake made in shape of an auto-mobile.
'Dad,' Alathis didn't mind, but he just had to ask. 'Where's...where's your present?'
Dad's face fell, like a collapsing Fun Blocks castle. 'I...I'm sorry, buddy. But...this year...I...We're going to have creamy ice with chocolate sauce tonight, instead. Alright?'
Despite his disappointment, Alathis nodded and smiled. 'Okay.'
A smile split dad's face, and he sighed. 'Good...That's good. Now hurry and get ready. You've still got to get to Scholarium.'
'Aww. But it's my birthday.'
Dad grinned. 'Too bad, buddy. Not even the Avatar or Jaroai himself could stop you from getting an education.'
Alathis frowned. 'Dad, why do we never go to church like everyone else?'
The grin fled dad's face. 'Because in a world like this...We'll talk on this later, bud. Just get ready, alright?'
'Alright, dad,' groaned Alathis.