Warren smirked at the orphanage’s masters from the rafters. He was nearly invisible perched in the shadows. The only way it could have gotten any better was if his skin was as black as his hair. Oh well. The two men sat enjoying their evening game of cards, thinking they had locked away all the children in their rooms. Warren’s grin deepened. Lifting a bucket of decaying fish, Warren showered the men in rot. Shouts filled the air, Warren giggled. Scrambling across the beams, he leapt to the rope he had secured and lowered several minutes ago. His eight-year-old hands slapped the rope, and he soared out of the open window, then rolled across dewy grass. Chilled air entered his lungs.
He stared beyond the stone wall surrounding the main training center he’d flown from. Star-speckled sky and waving fields of green extended as far as he could see. What’s out there, anyway?
The door behind him banged open. Masters Byrum and Klimik stomped out, both smelling like a bad trip to the ocean. Master Klimik started after Warren, who dashed for the training center. To his left, a rope had been lowered for his escape. Leaping, he caught hold of the cable which zipped him up into the air and through the window where his cheering rebel cohorts pulled him in. Warren grinned as he turned back to the window. Master Byrum and Klimik pounded on the door that Vallerie had already locked behind them.
Rejoining his friends, Warren celebrated. Cassidy and Samuel howled congratulations. Even Emron seemed pleased with the results of their latest attack.
“Come on, the pantry is unguarded,” Warren said.
Thrilled hollars followed him down the hall and into the stone and tile kitchen. Warren inhaled deeply. Food! Their last venture failed, resulting in the loss of eating privileges for four days. That was two days ago. Vallerie rejoined the band, and they began dividing the spoils. Warren stuffed a roll in his mouth, sweetness bathing his tongue. He deserved this. As he began loading his arms, a door burst open. “Scatter!” Warren shouted.
Children scrambled, but this time Warren couldn’t escape. Master Byrum caught him. He tried to wiggle free, but only managed to drop his reward. The burly instructor hauled Warren to a small brick hut. Master Byrum tossed Warren inside and slammed the door, leaving Warren alone.
Warren sat up in the darkness. The longest they had left him was a few hours. They’d be back.
Warren woke up unsure of how much time had passed. His stomach growled. Groping around in the darkness for the door, he found the handle and tugged at it.
Nothing. Sitting in the dirt, he waited. Someone would be back soon.
Hours passed, and Warren started to worry. What if they’d forgotten him? They wouldn’t have, right? The air warmed, telling Warren it was day. Someone will be back soon. Warren closed his eyes and fell back to sleep. A stabbing pain woke him, and he flailed in the darkness, fearing attack. After he regained his breath, he realized the pain was just hunger. Warren cleared his dry throat. He tried the door again. Still nothing.
When no one answered, he cried out a little louder. Silence. Had they abandoned him? He screamed and cried, but no one ever came. As the air cooled, he realized he’d been in the cell all day with nothing to eat or drink. He had to relieve himself earlier and couldn’t escape the smell. No one was coming. Warren cried against the door and begged for mercy. He pleaded for hours, screaming until his throat went raw.
“I’m sorry…” Warren whimpered, leaning his head against the door.
The door whipped open, and Warren collapsed to the ground, gulping fresh air. The starlit night burned his eyes. Standing above him was Master Byrum.
Warren pushed himself up on shaky legs and followed Master Byrum back to the training center where he was ordered to bathe and then sent to bed. The mattress under him was hardly softer than the ground he’d slept on the night before, but he had a warm blanket and a lumpy pillow he could shape to his head.
Someone shook him. Warren clenched his eyes tighter.
“Warren,” Cassidy whispered.
Warren growled at his friend.
Cassidy slapped him.
“Hey!” He sat up, ready to tackle Cassidy to the ground and give him a beating.
“Hey yourself.” Cassidy held up scrawny hands. “Before you kill me you need to know something.”
Warren scowled. “What?”
“I listened in on Master Byrum and Master Rennalls. It was Master Byrum’s idea to leave you in there so long. And that’s not all. He and the other masters dragged everyone out there to listen to you.”
Fire crackled inside Warren.
“Follow me. I’ll need your help,” He kicked off his covers.
Together they began setting the groundwork for his revenge. He would not be made a fool.
The next morning, Master Byrum entered the room, barking out the morning orders.
“You know, you don’t have to yell. Some of us’ll go deaf,” Cassidy said.
“Quiet!” Master Byrum shouted.
“Make me.” Cassidy jumped onto his bed and began singing.
Warren cringed at the off-tune wailing. The other boys in the room laughed at Cassidy’s ridiculous display.
Master Byrum stomped toward Cassidy. Warren slashed through his belt with a knife he and Cassidy had stolen from the weapons vault the night before. The boys laughed harder as their flabbergasted master grappled for his pants. Spinning toward Warren, Master Byrum reached for his neck. Warren scampered through the door. Hopping onto the stair railing, he slid to the ground level and stuck his tongue out at Master Byrum.
Master Byrum chased after Warren, infuriated, and tumbled down the steps, landing at Warren’s feet. Oil streaked the master’s worn clothing. Warren whooped as the other children peered from their rooms to see what had happened. The other masters surrounded him, but he didn’t care—he’d won!
Turning to Master Byrum, Warren froze. What’s he waiting for? Warren nudged him with his foot. His smile faded. Master Byrum’s head was turned pretty far.
“Hey,” Warren tried to laugh.
One of the other masters pushed past Warren and knelt by Master Byrum. “... he’s dead.”
Warren’s limbs trembled. What had he done?
Master Klimik yanked Warren across the compound to the Headmaster’s quarters. He pushed Warren into a chair in the large office then left. Warren didn’t get up, he didn’t look for an escape route, and he didn’t try to make any traps. He just stared through his lap at the image he couldn’t stop seeing—Master Byrum lying on the floor, neck askew.
Headmaster Ruben entered and towered behind the desk. Warren tried to lift his head, but his muscles refused to move. How could he ever look at anyone ever again? He could feel the eyes on him, filled with disgust. The two sat for what felt like three whole seasons until Warren finally couldn’t handle wondering what the Headmaster was thinking any longer. Forcing his head up, a blank expression met him. Warren searched them for anger, sadness, repulse, anything, but only saw two brown spheres waiting for him to speak.
“I…” Warren started, then the weight hit him.
He’d killed Master Byrum. He could starve the rest of his life and it wouldn’t be enough. Warren bowed his head and sobbed. What kind of monster am I? He wished he hadn’t been born. These masters raised him, and he d killed one.
A hand touched his shoulder.
The Headmaster stood before him with eyes that beckoned him to speak.
“It was an accident, Headmaster. I didn’t mean it,” Warren croaked.
The Headmaster continued to stare at him, waiting for the whole story. Warren gave it, sparing none of his faults. When he finished, the Headmaster returned to his seat, blue and gold mage robes flowing with his movements.
“Are you going to kick me out?”
The Headmaster dipped his quill in some ink and began writing. What was he doing? Was he writing some sort of letter of sale? Maybe it wasn’t even related to
Warren, maybe he was waiting for the other masters to take Warren away. Both fear and curiosity bound Warren to his chair. Nearly half an hour later, the Headmaster rotated the page and slid to Warren. Reaching up to the desk, Warren pulled the parchment to his lap. It was titled: A Soldier’s Oath.
“I don’t understand.”
“Eventually,” the Headmaster said.
“Eventually, you may not stay here.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“You will sign that document. It is a contract to serve the people. You will continue your training here and eventually enter the world to save it. You won’t return after that. You will either succeed, atoning for your sin, or you will die and be pardoned thenceforth.” The Headmaster handed Warren the quill.
Warren stared at the page. Why give him a second chance?
“You only get one chance to change, if you fail, even once, you’ll be tried for murder.”
Warren gulped and scribbled his name at the bottom of the page.
“Your full name.”
“I don’t have one.”
“Think, you know it. You’ve just forgotten.”
Warren thought hard, and a name came to mind.
“General Northwright, sir?” Commander Dowser said.
Warren blinked. He stood with his commanders in Fortitude’s war room. All eyes were on him. “We strike at dawn.”.
“Yes, General,” His officers agreed and departed.
Warren ran a hand through his hair; it had only taken a year for it to speckle with gray, and now fifteen years later, it was completely silver. Warren clenched his hands into fists. He would succeed for Master Byrum’s sake.
The Rouge Child
Enjoy a few short stories while you wait for Defenders of Radiance: The Ajoiner Realm to be released!
You Know You Love Me
“Your objective is to retrieve the artifact from the enemy without destroying it.” Master Klimik gave Cassidy a pointed look. Cassidy smiled and blinked sweetly as though he hadn’t the faintest idea what he meant. “You will also be guarding your own artifact. If it is stolen you will fail. You have twenty-four hours to retrieve the enemy’s relic and return to your camp with it starting—now.”
The class split into two teams of fifteen. Most everyone scurried about like they were preparing for war, but not Cassidy.
Cassidy stood and stretched. “You know they could at least not make these games sound so dreary.”
“They’re prepping us for the real world,” Brayon scoffed.
“We’re kids, we should be out having fun not wasting time with stupid drills,” Cassidy grumbled.
“Stupid, or not, let’s just get it done,” Warren said joining them.
Finally, Cassidy relented. And followed Warren to their mock war-room. Of the fourteen with him he really only expected Warren, Brayon, and Emron to be of much use. The others were fine, but boring. Those three though, they knew how to make things interesting.
“All right, their biggest strength is Vallerie, if you find her take her down,” Warren said, studying the map of the training grounds. What good is looking at the map gonna do? It’s not like we can see the other team’s base.
“Like she’ll let herself be seen,” Samuel muttered.
“Brayon, I want you to take Emron, Barclay, Allric, Terrwyn, Atarah and scout out this area here.” Warren continued without acknowledging Samuel’s comment. “If you find their base hold position gather some information on their defenses then send Terrwyn back with a report.”
“Sir,” Brayon nodded, taking his team into the forest.
“Zoella, Greyson, Nullan, Zander, Drace do the same over here.” The team nodded then left.
“Cassidy, Oswin, Thayer, we’re setting up a parameter around the artifact,” Warren said.
“Guard duty?” Cassidy groaned.
“I want you up high. I want you to watch for Vallerie,” Warren explained.
Cassidy swallowed, that was the one thing he’d hoped Warren would overlook.
“Are you sure? I could be useful on a search team.”
“They’ve already left, and you’ve got the best vision, hearing and archery skills of any of anyone here. If anyone is going to catch her it’ll be you.”
Cassidy opened his mouth then shut it. If he argued more he’d give himself away.
As Oswin and Thayer moved out to their positions Warren moved closer to Cassidy.
“Besides, it's not like you can keep your eyes off her anyway,” He smirked.
“You—but I—how did—no, no you’re wrong. I don’t like her. She’s just, um—”
Warren chuckled evilly as he strode away.
Cassidy reluctantly picked up his quiver and skulked to the tree where he built a perch a few weeks prior. If he’d known he’d be the one sitting up there he would have secured the boards a little better. One wobbled as he put weight on it. This is idiotic. Cassidy settled into the branches and waited. Warren selected this tree as an outpost because it provided the best line of sight through the forest and the best view of the most likely path intruders would take to try and breach their base. To Cassidy it didn’t really matter though, the whole exercise was ridiculous, they were supposed to be training to fight monsters, why bother with war games like this? The Darkness didn’t have bases with artifacts, prisoners, or valuables. It just materialized wherever it wanted.
Cassidy twirled an arrow between his fingers. This sucks. At least on a patrol he’d be able to move, though he doubted he’d see any action. Their training ground was twenty miles of forest, running into anyone on the other team was unlikely. Which meant it would be several hours before he even had a possibility of seeing anyone. Cassidy exhaled a hot breath. This sucks.
Something disturbed the brush one hundred yards from him. Finally. Cassidy’s legs were numb and his back ached from sitting for six hours in the tree.
A hint of brown leather peaked from behind a tree. Gotcha, Cassidy drew his bow. The blunt tip wouldn’t pierce armor, but it’d leave a pretty bruise. Thwack! Cassidy loosed the arrow and it tagged his target in the shoulder. Two more figures appeared near the first one and scurried into the forest with their “wounded” companion.
Cassidy smirked as he let another two arrows fly and find their marks. The two scouts that had come to help their friend “died” instantly, one with an arrow to the heart, the other with an arrow to the back of the head, Cassidy was pretty sure that one was person1 and they’d bragged about winning this little game too loudly the other day.
Though the swift take down satisfied him he was disappointed it ended so quickly. Now he’d have to sit here for another fourteen hour, bored out of his brains. He yawned. It would be a while before anyone else showed up, a short nap wouldn’t hurt anything.
“Cassidy!” Warren shouted.
Cassidy flailed forgetting his unstable location. His heart leapt into his throat as he suddenly found himself falling through the air. Hard earth slapped his back as he hit the ground. Ow.
“After her Cassidy!” Warren barked.
Cassidy surveyed the now dark forest. To his right he glimpsed a dark figure dashing through the forest. He snatched his bow from the ground and stumbled to his feet.
The chase was on. Branches whizzed by and leaves slapped his cheeks. A grin plastered over his face, she’d made a mistake running this way. He’d catch her this time. Cassidy leapt on top of a fallen tree and drew his bow. Gotcha. He released. His arrow hit the artifact from Vallerie’s hand. She skidded to a stop at the edge of a cliff and spun around. She drew a pair of daggers and screamed as she sprinted back toward him and the artifact.
Not so fast, Cassidy shot a dagger from her hand and reached for another arrow. His fingers waved through empty air. NO. The rest of his arrows must have fallen out when he fell from the tree. Suddenly, she hurled her second dagger through the air at him. Cassidy yelped as the blade sliced his sleeve. For a moment he paused. A cornered beast is the most dangerous. She had nowhere to go, and that was her last weapon. Cassidy lunged forward and snatched the artifact from the ground. Vallerie halted and glared at him.
“Don’t be like that.” Cassidy said.
Fierce emerald green eyes glared at him. Wow. Every time she’d ever looked at him was always the same—every sane thought left his mind.
“What?” She asked hostility in her voice.
“I win,” Cassidy declared.
Vallerie’s lip twitched upward revealing devious dimples.
“You think so?” she said, raising her fists.
Cassidy exhaled a small laugh, then stepped in closer leaving barely an inch between them. Her breath on his lips sent static through his body.
“Admit it you love me,” Cassidy said.
Her mouth parted, but nothing came out. He knew it. He’d chased her for years, he showed off, he bragged, he’d done everything to get her attention, but nothing seemed to impress her. He’d caught her. She was faster and cleverer than anyone he’d ever met, but now he’d caught her.
“Cass, I…” She glanced to his lips.
Cassidy leaned forward and closed his eyes.
Something sharp poked his neck. Vallerie held a throwing knife at his throat. The dreamy expression on her face had vanished, now she seemed slightly apologetic, but mostly conniving.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She took the artifact him and backed towards the cliff.
“What are you doing?” Cassidy asked.
Vallerie flashed a dimpled grin his way then jumped off the cliff.
“Val!” Cassidy ran to the edge to see her making her way down a set of wooden stairs along the cliff face.
Halfway down she paused and looked back.
“Catch me again and I just might,” She called then continued her escape.
Cassidy grinned. He’d catch her again.