Chosen - Chapter One

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Chosen: Chapter One: It Begins

 

 

        Charcoal colored smoke billowed toward the star-speckled, night sky, small fires burned throughout the battle-scarred terrain. Sweat dripped down the curve of her nose, heat so intense it threatened to sear to the bone. Her dark chocolate eyes watered over, not just from the flames, but also from the sight beholden to her. She stumbled back one, two steps, oversized cat-like ears perking up to listen for any hint of movement. The bodies scattered over the battlefield were burned beyond recognition, even if she tried to search for her family, she’d never be able to tell who was who. This monster didn’t care who it hurt – it burned ally and enemy alike. Even without her acute hearing, she could’ve heard the snarling of the beast in the distance.

        “Shaniko?” her voice was just above a whisper as she glanced about the carnage, searching for her brother. She stepped over bodies of the fallen and broken barricades, studying their faces, clothes, significant body markings for anything familiar to her. A knot lodged in her throat as she moved as quietly as possible; these were the people she grew up with, people she cared for – now lifelessly scattered to the underworld. Despite the severity of the burns, none could pass for her parents or brother, body shapes were off, clothing different. Perhaps they escaped to the forest just on the other side of the field. Immersed in her thoughts, she made the grave mistake of losing track of it.

        A gust of wind from behind her blew her hair past her face; no, not wind – it was much too hot. Every hair on her body stood on end and her stomach leapt into her chest. She breathed shallowly, and with a hard swallow, slowly turned around. The dark chocolate ears dropped to the sides of her head.

        It towered over her, obsidian scales shimmering with white from the two fully illuminated moons shining down from the night sky and orange from the fires burning on the ground. The giant claws crushed many of their small buildings with ease, outsizing them by more than half. Its head, larger still, could possibly swallow her or any other human whole. Malice filled emerald eyes peered at her, burning with the desire to destroy everything they saw. Enormous horns jutted out from either side of the massive jaw and from atop its skull.

        She stared, horror struck, as she soaked in the overpowering, terrifying appearance of this giant monster. She heard whispers of these creatures, but chucked it up to fairy tales long ago. The lips curled up, baring rows of razor sharp, yellowed teeth. A roar bellowed from the beast, so loud she thought her ear drums might burst. She clapped her hands over her ears, pressing down to drown out as much of the sound as she could, but to little avail. Wings stretched from its back, the wingspan twice the size of the monster’s body. An orange glow surrounded its mouth as the air distorted with heat radiating from it. Her face paled as she watched the flames licking out of the nostrils.

        Fingers dug into her forearm as someone yanked her from where she stood – and onto the back of a great white tiger. She settled into the lap of a young man gripping the animal’s loose skin and soft fur as it bounded over bodies and moved around the beast quickly.

        “Shaniko, you’re alive!” She stared up at her brother’s sullen face.

        “I was relieved to find you, Tora, I thought you were...” His voice wavered as she watched his courage melt away.

        Tora shifted herself behind him, positioning her legs on either side of the tiger. Her eyes fell on the back of his head as the wind blew through his raven hair while the animal raced across the open field. Her arms wrapped around to his broad chest, holding onto him for stability as the large cat moved. Even riding on the back of his tiger, her chin only reached the tops of his shoulders. The wind forced her hair to dance wildly around her face and she pushed strands of it from her eyes – strands the same color as her brother’s. She breathed easy momentarily, though searing flames baring down on them cut the relief short. The tiger jerked to the side as fire blazed by, Tora’s grip tightening around Shaniko, her slender fingers digging into his skin.

        “Where are mom and dad?” a sense of apprehension overtook her, muscles clenched, back ridged - she feared the answer. He pointed an index finger at two figures charging the monster, weapons drawn, ready for battle. The woman wielded a bow, shooting an arrow with hawk-like precision at the thing’s head, but unfortunately, it couldn’t pierce the scaly armor. The man spun a great battle axe over his head, a pack of wolves chasing at his heels. “What are they thinking? They’ll be killed! We need to go back and save them. That thing is a-”

        “-dragon. I know, Tora. They are buying us time to escape.” The forest edge ahead of them held his focus as they raced toward it.

        The beast’s ferocious roar echoed the valley where their village once stood. The fires took everything, their homes and friends and family – it all burned. The tiger dashed through the tree line as Tora glanced back one last time, watching her parents bravely face down a foe they could never defeat. Her eyes strained to see around the tears filling them, sliding over her eyelashes and down the contour of her cheeks. She squeezed her eyes shut, burying her face in her brother’s back to stifle the sobs rising up her throat.

 

***

 

        A girl jolted up from her bed, sweat beading on her forehead before it rolled down her cheek. Her shirt clung to her body from the moisture, even the sheets were drenched.

“What’s wrong, Hotaru?” her sister asked from the bed next to hers, only slightly lifting her head from the pillow.

        A loose tendril of plum hair hung over her eye and Hotaru brushed it from her face, forcing herself to appear calm. “It’s nothing, just a bad dream. Go back to sleep, Tanika.” She gave the other girl a half-crooked smile. Tanika fell silent and turned her back to Hotaru to sleep again. Thank the gods she didn’t have to explain any more than that.

        Hotaru swung both legs out of bed, easing herself up quietly to avoid disturbing her sister. She stepped lightly, striding across the old wooden floor into the washroom. She struck a spark onto the tinder and used it to light the lantern hanging on a rusted hook on the wall; it didn’t offer much light, but enough for her needs. She leaned on the stool against the wall and ran a hand through her waist-length hair, catching a tangle or two.

The vividness of the dream left an anxious feeling in her gut; she put a hand to her face, the heat from the flames licked her skin as if she’d been there. Her heart throbbed so frantically she thought it might burst from her ribcage at any moment. Her lids fluttered shut and she breathed deeply – inhale… exhale… “It was just a dream. Dragons don’t exist,” she repeated to herself until her heart calmed. A hefty sigh escaped her and she splashed cold, stale water on her face from the pail next to the door.

        Sweltering days marked the dawn of mid-summer, the heat creeping into the nights as they only cooled ten degrees at most. Hotaru shuffled back into her room and stared at her bed, eyebrows furrowing before she sighed in defeat, I’ll never get back to sleep. She grabbed the edge of the blanket and tugged it over the mattress, straightening out the covers.

        In her wardrobe, her practice sword waited for her, edges dulled for training uses instead of fighting. Her mother fervently objected to her love of swordsmanship and refused to let her keep a real sword. When her father gifted her with the practice sword, three years ago, her parents argued furiously whether or not it was appropriate for her to learn the ways of the sword, completely ignoring the fact that she wanted to.

        Hotaru slipped out of the room and crept down the hall to the back door; she slipped on her shoes and creaked the sliding rice paper door open and eased out before shutting it again. Their small house might not be the fanciest, but it provided them shelter and all the comfort they needed.

        Though the sun wouldn’t rise for hours still, the light provided by the moons, at their peak fullness, allowed Hotaru to see easily. She brought the sword up in front of her, both hands gripping the hilt firm enough to keep the blade in her hands, yet gently so it moved as an extension of her arm. With a deep breath, she thrust the sword out in a stabbing motion. She couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that seeped down into her bones – a downward chop – it ate at her from the pit of her stomach – a horizontal slice. The movement of her body and sword swayed sinuously, a dance she learned, and through the dance she tried to cut through the feeling as if it were a tangible opponent.

 

***

 

        Tora crouched over a tiny, trickling stream raining down from a rock formation overhead. She splashed the cold water on her face to wash away the sweat streaked soot that blackened her skin. The water pooled in a crevice at her feet and her reflection stared up at her with cold, angry eyes. Her ears flattened; aside from their mother’s purple hair, Tora closely resembled her. A glance back at Shaniko filled her with the memory of their father, a dead ringer for him. Tears filled her eyes once again and her jaw clenched. She had to stop crying, it wouldn’t solve anything now, and it made her feel weak. Weakness was something she couldn’t allow, especially not now. The rock cracked under the pressure of her fist, blood splattering across the mossy stone.

        The trees surrounding the two provided ample cover in which to escape the monster that ravaged their home. Even the army wasn’t able to pick up their tracks right away, giving them the desperately needed time to escape. Dead leaves and twigs littered the forest floor from the thicket above and no path cut through this particular part of the forest. Tora hastily tried to cover their footprints as they moved, but it was sloppy work and wouldn’t fool expert trackers.

        “Before the fighting started, Dad told me something…” her brother paused as if carefully considering his next words. “We have another sister,” Shaniko continued, using a small knife to carefully remove the skin from a dead rabbit he caught.

        “What?” Her head snapped to him, eyebrows drawn together before she asked, “what happened to her?”

        “You two are twins, apparently. One night, when the two of you were just a few days old, someone broke into our house and tried to take you both. But, Mom and Dad were only able to save you.”

        “What’s your point?” What was the point in telling her something like that? What good would it do? And why now of all times?

        “Because, until recently, they believed her to be dead.”

        “What changed?”

        “One of their friends came back from a trip and told them he saw a girl that looked like Mom. The only difference, the girl didn’t have ears like you and Mom. Dad told me that your twin had mom’s hair and eyes, but not the ears,” Shaniko explained as he impaled the rabbit on a spit and set it over the fire.

        “Why didn’t they try to find her?” Tora asked, fingers of indignation working their way up her spine.

        “We’d already learned about the Alexandrean Army’s plan to attack our village. He didn’t think it right to abandon the village.”

        Tora glanced down and said, “if they had, they’d still be alive.” Her anger was palpable.

        “They were loyal to the village, the best warriors. They planned to go after the attack. On the off chance they didn’t make it, Dad told me where to go.”

        “And that’s where we’re going?”

        Shaniko nodded.

 

 

        The shadows grew longer as the sun sank towards the horizon, the sky lighting up the color of blood. Tora and Shaniko trudged alongside the tiger; his fur appeared dense, yet soft, Tora longed to reach out and run her fingers through it. The alabaster color made the jet-black stripes, running across his body, stand out. Tora’s eyes caught the hilt of a sword jutting out of a bag strapped to the side of the animal. “Since when do you carry a sword?”

        Shaniko glanced at the bag, “it’s a family heirloom. Mom gave it to me before the fight.” Tora’s ear twitched and she halted in her tracks, listening carefully to twigs snapping. “We’re not alone.” Her eyes darted from side to side. Light footsteps moved all around them, definitely human, and at least half a dozen of them.

 

***

Sweat dripped down Hotaru’s face, sunlight beating down on her and setting her skin on fire with its heat. Droplets of her sweat soared through the air with every movement, speckling the ground with tiny spots of wetness.

        “Hotaru, are you okay?” Her sister leaned against the rough wooden railing of their porch. Hotaru paused, lowering the sword to her side, “I really don’t know, Tanika.” She couldn’t make eye contact, stones weighed her stomach down. “I have a feeling something bad is about to happen.”

 

        Lost in her thoughts, Hotaru silently practiced until the sun sat on the horizon, trying desperately to cleave the dreadful feeling in two. Sweat soaked her clothes, hair, and body, it made gripping the chocolate, leather hilt a difficult task. However, it didn’t deter her from swinging the sword with all her might.

        Tanika watched her sister between chores, bringing her water and food, this much activity drained a person. Unlike Hotaru, Tanika bore the gift of magic; some were lucky enough to be born with it – others spent years studying to use it. She harnessed the energy from herself and everything surrounding her to use as weapons, shields, or simply as a force to knock someone back.

        Tanika bolted upright from the porch steps when an idea struck her and as she bounded toward her sister, she pulled her chestnut hair into a high ponytail, “fight me.”

        Hotaru immediately stopped and stared at Tanika, mouth agape. “You want to fight me?” she couldn’t count how many times she challenged Tanika to a match.

        “Yes.”

        Hotaru smirked, a shiver of excitement running through her bones. “Alright, I hope you’re ready to eat dirt,” she pointed her sword at the girl.

        “I think you are mistaken, little sister, I intend to win.” Tanika raised her hands, fingers and muscles relaxed.

        Even though it appeared she held nothing, Hotaru could see the almost invisible distortion surrounding Tanika’s hands, she already fashioned herself blades of energy. “We’ll see about that!” With those words, Hotaru charged at Tanika, swinging her sword at her sister’s slender body.

        Tanika ducked from the attack and slammed her hand into Hotaru’s torso, propelling her backwards, skidding across the dirt. She regained her footing and quickly dashed at Tanika again. She slid down on one knee and jammed the sword into the ground behind her sister’s foot, shoving off the ground and head-butting her sister. The sword caught Tanika’s foot and she tumbled back. Hotaru latched onto Tanika’s ankle, and spun her around with inhuman strength, releasing her with a throw that sent her gliding over the field that was their yard.

        While in the air, Tanika stretched her arm to the ground, centering energy into her hand to allow her to slow and spin.

        Hotaru hastened toward Tanika, not giving her the chance to attack; she readied a powerful downward chop, sword raised above her head. She slammed it down, hoping the other girl could dodge her in time. Tanika sprung up, flipping backward to miss the assault, the sword smashing into ground as cracks in the crust spread from under it.

        “Since when did you develop such strength?” Tanika never witnessed Hotaru display such physical strength, she was always sure to hide it from her. Hotaru stood out enough from her family, adding freak strength into the mix was just one more thing to make her different.

        “Who knows, maybe I’ve always had it.” Hotaru lifted the sword from the impact site, staring at the fractured earth.

        With an opportunity for victory, Tanika barreled at Hotaru, focusing energy into her palm. She formed it into a sword and brought it up to strike Hotaru. The energy sword met with metal as Hotaru blocked the attack with her practice sword; Tanika’s technique was an advantageous one, nearly impossible to detect if her opponent didn’t know what to they were up against.

        A crack echoed the quiet pasture as the metal of Hotaru’s blade gave way to the kinetic energy of Tanika’s. “Looks like that sword can’t take much more, I suggest you yield.” Tanika grinned, eyeing the fissure working its way up the glimmering steel. She pushed harder, putting pressure on the gap until the sword shattered, shards glittering in the waning sunlight as they plunged to the dirt.

        A startled gasp escaped Hotaru when the sword broke and she quickly leapt back, taking no chance at allowing an opening. Tanika rushed Hotaru again, a smug expression written across her features as she swung the energy sword again. Hotaru caught it with the hilt of the practice sword, fending off the blow with six inches of fractured Aellian Steel – a type only forged in their home continent of Alexandrea. “How can you still fight with a broken sword?” Tanika grumbled.

        “You shouldn’t underestimate my capabilities, big sister.” Hotaru kneed Tanika in the gut, pushing her back near a foot. She slashed the broken blade at Tanika, slicing through pieces of her clothing and hair as she dodged side to side. Tanika couldn’t possibly match Hotaru’s speed – not even close, the only reason she managed to move out of Hotaru’s reach was because Hotaru allowed it. Energy swirled into Tanika’s hands and she used one to knock Hotaru’s sword away, and drove the other into her abdomen, forcing the girl back. As soon as her fist connected, Tanika raced in Hotaru’s direction, using the energy in her forearms and fists to slam them into Hotaru’s side and she hit the ground hard. The impact created a crater and filled the area with particles of broken up earth, the cloud stirring in the hot summer breeze.

        At the dust cleared, light reflected off the metal of the dagger Hotaru held to Tanika’s neck. “Not bad.” Tanika gripped Hotaru’s wrist that held the dagger; the fingertips of her other hand at Hotaru’s throat, energy shaped to a fine point.

        “Not bad yourself.” Hotaru grasped Tanika’s hand, “truce?”

        Tanika nodded, “truce.”

 

        They released each other simultaneously, and Tanika offered Hotaru a hand. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?” a tilted smile spread across her lips as she looked on with concern.

        “No, I’m fine. Probably going to be a little sore tomorrow though,” Hotaru said with a laugh.

        As the two sisters turned, they came face to face with a giant tiger, golden eyes staring intensely at them. Hotaru quickly pointed the dagger at the oversized cat, as if the dinky, little piece of metal might help.

        “Please… help us…” a male voice spoke from behind the tiger’s head.

        “A talking tiger…?” Hotaru arched a brow at the big animal.

        “No…back here.”

        Hotaru leaned to the side to search for the origin of the voice; a young man braced himself against the animal, covered in crimson stains – blood, she realized. His hand clutched his side, his life-force oozing from under his fingers. She glanced at Tanika and pocketed the blade, “we can’t leave him like that.”

        Tanika acknowledged with a bow of her head.

       

        “My sister is much worse… please… help her fir-” his eyes went blank as he collapsed to the ground.