~ ~ # Chapter 1 # ~ ~

I took a deep breath and tumbled out of my bunk bed, swiftly turning in the air to land below, next to my sister.

I yelled in my sister’s ear, “Avalan! Wake up!”

My twin jolted awake and covered her ears on impulse, simultaneously knocking me onto the stone floor with the motion of her arms.

“Ow.”

Avalan shook out her orange-red hair and stared down at me. “You alright?”

I answered by pulling myself up and poking Avalan in the nose.

“Of course I’m alright! It’s our eighteenth birthday!”

I stared into a glass. My hair was sticking out in all directions, a result of dropping down from two bunk beds, and from sleep.

Avalan snickered. “Well. Look at your hair! If that’s alright…” I ran my hand through my flame-like hair and laughed.

“Very funny. Now get ready. We’re being summoned in five minutes.”

The joyful energy drained out of the room and we both set to getting ready. We pulled on waterproof black jackets with a pastel-colored flame emblazoned on the back, as well as waterproof boots. I flicked Avalan’s hood so that it covered her eyes. Avalan pushed it back and did the same for me.

I left it there, but adjusted it so I could see. I opened my mouth to speak, but the door flew open and our mother stomped in.

“Girls. This is dangerous business, and you can’t wear your normal clothes.”

She dumped a pile of armor on the lower bed. Carefully, she placed two shields beside it, both of which beared the emblem that was on the back of the our jackets.

#-#-#-#

“Listen, I’m sorry, Crylo! I know, I know, it’s my last day of training, and I need to do my best. I will do my best! But you should have seen me coming, seriously.”

Green eyes stared accusingly at me, and mine – brown – stared back. I sighed as I shouldered past the Ice Elemental. It was good that he wasn’t a Water Elemental – Both of us would have went up in steam the second I bumped distractedly into Crylo. I was deeply uncomfortable from even touching a water-related Elemental. It itched.

Avalan elbowed me and motioned to the door, where Lutuma, the eldest Fire Elemental, was waiting for us.

“Girls. Come on, it’s time for your blades.” Avalan and I both started towards the Fire Elemental.

Avalan squealed with excitement to me, “What’ll our names be?”

Lutuma barely glanced back. “The General will tell you.”

My sister pressed, “But do you know? Surely you can tell us?” I shrunk back, expectant of Lutuma’s words.

The heavily armored woman spun around, and in a threatening tone of voice, “Do you want to delay your naming?”

Avalan squeaked, “Er… no…”

“Good. At least you have some sense.” Lutuma turned back and marched down the heavily adorned hallway, leaving us jogging to catch up.

#-#-#-#

I accepted the glimmering blade. The blade had a narrow, slightly curved cross-guard, adding weight to the blade for a better balance, as well as offering hand protection during battle. The cross-guard had an elegant fiery gem on each side. A thick pommel was decorated with gilded linings, with fine details carved, revealing gold beneath. Fire seemed to burst from the tip of the star-metal, and red-orange light glanced off the blade. Avalan’s blade was much the same, except that the metal was more curved and smooth. The hilt of her curved blade was wrapped in a red silky fabric.

The General, a man in pure star-metal armor and with a blade that shimmered with a rainbow sheen, and a heavily decorated pommel. “Avalan Balaka. Your new name shall be Rabana, The Fire that Casts the Shadows on the Enemy.”

My sister’s eyes lit up, and she bowed her head. “Thank you.”

The General turned to me, his eyes inspecting me carefully. “And you… Arryn Balaka, your name shall stay the same, for it fits you. The Spark that Lights the Fire.” I bowed my head as well, as joy burst in my heart.

“Now, time for your first practice.” The General stepped down from his dais, and Rabana and I both pulled out our new swords.

I whispered to my sister, “Rabana, go for the left.” She nodded, a hint of a smile on her lips from her new name.

“Go. Remember, powers are perfectly acceptable.”

I struggled to keep my breath and heartbeat steady as we circled the Cosmos Elemental. The General didn’t even attempt to draw his sword, still sheathed at his hip. His eyes simply followed us, darting from one side of the room to the other. His eyes turned to me, and my sister nodded. I lunged forward, as did Rabana. Our blades clashed against star-metal armguards, from the arms that he just put out on both sides. I slid my sword-blade down the metal, ignoring the screech that filled the room.

I aimed a jab at his stomach as my sister went for his helmet. My heart was pounding in my chest. A low growl rumbled in my throat as he finally drew his sword and blocked Rabana’s sword. Somehow, he kicked my blade out of the target area, and I twisted to get to the General’s back, using the force to thrust my sword closer.

Finally, I grew frustrated at the slow progress that my sister and I were making. I let my rage flow down my sword arm, causing the sword to blossom in warm, dancing flames. I clenched my jaw and darted under the General’s sword. As the fire moved in the air, I was dimly aware of my steady breathing, and my energy somehow being restored. With a shout, I spun my blade in an unnecessary flourish as my blade clanged against the helm of the General. I straightened from my crouch and sheathed my sword, and let the noise of my blood pounding slowly fade from my ears.

My sister did the same. Her stomach was heaving from breathlessness and her eyes were wild with excitement. The General seemed unfazed from the duel, but looked at us with a hint of approval.   

Suud. You did well, Rabana and Arryn Balaka. In five hours – enough time to get rest, I believe – you will practice with the senior fighters and they will teach you more.”

I nodded and smiled, taking my sister’s arm and heading off down the hallway. “Rabana… Do you like your name?”

“Of course!” She frowned at me, “You like keeping yours, right?”

“Yes. I just can’t wait… Until we get to go out there.” I waved at the reinforced window that we were passing by. Sparks of the different elements rose in the distance. “Fighting. In the war. Exhilaration and adrenaline of fighting for your life, family, and friends.”

She gulped and said quietly, “Even risking your life for the family and friends?”

I halted and turned to her, my eyes wide with shock and disbelief. My voice was sharp and accusing, and she flinched. “You mean you wouldn’t?”

“O-of course I would. I was just asking you.”

“Huh. Okay.” I accepted her words and kept plodding along, my footsteps causing echoes in the stone hallway. “I just want to go out there… you know?”

“Absolutely. But,” she frowned, “If you look out the windows…”

“Mmm… but looking out of glass isn’t the same. Being there could be different.”

She sighed. “Yes. Just to know what it’s like. But we only have to wait a few days now, instead of like a few years ago! I felt like this day would never come, let alone going outside!”

“I feel like we’re not going outside for some reason.”

“Yeah, right… Come on, let’s go get something to eat.”

#-#-#-#

I slipped the leaf into my mouth, wincing at the temporary tartness that flooded my mouth as I crunched down on the red stem of the plant.

My sister seemed to share my thoughts. She groaned, “Why can’t we have meat?” I shrugged.

“Only for those that’ve seen battle, I guess.” I motioned with my thumb towards the warriors that were eating various cooked steaks.

Rabana sighed. “Okay.” She picked at her food for a few minutes then rose, her plate absolutely spotless. She thrust her plate into a slot in the wall, where it disappeared. I did the same, after my plate was cleared.

She yawned.

I poked her, “Make sure you stay awake! I’d hate to practice and then realize I left you behind because you slept in!”

She poked back and sighed. “It wouldn’t hurt to stretch our legs, would it?” I could see another yawn forming, and I sighed as well.

“I guess not. Let’s go.” I pulled my sleepy sister out of the dining area, a large room with tables, ringed by benches large enough to sit fifty people per table.

As we passed a red-haired Storm Elemental, I nudged Rabana and pointed backwards. “Ahem. Did you not notice Sienna right there? We have to tell her the good news!”

My sister’s eyes brightened and she spun around, running towards the girl that we had passed. “Sienna!”

The tall girl turned, her brown eyes that were flecked with yellow taking me by surprise, as they always did. Her eyes widened. “Arryn, Avalan? I forgot! You’re eighteen!” She gasped. “Oh, I’m sorry. What’re your new names?”

My sister laughed. “I’m Rabana, but Arryn’s still Arryn. I didn’t remember either until someone shouted in my ear this morning.” She tilted her head towards me.

“Rabana. Arryn. Well, congratulations!” She eyed our armor wistfully and added, “Well, it’s only a matter of days until I reach your level.” She lifted a hand to flick some of her red hair from her eyes as she smiled. Thunder shook our portion of the building, and Sienna’s smile turned into a stormy scowl.

Ugh! I have to go. Good luck!” She turned and bolted down the hall, her red hair flying and her feet pattering like raindrops.

I exhaled. “Honestly, knowing her, I didn’t think we’d ever escape from her praise. I just couldn’t pass up telling her though… she’d be put out that we didn’t tell her the moment we woke up today.”

My sister laughed then glanced through a window. “Um. It’s almost time to practice!” I blinked then followed her gaze. The sun was arcing downwards.

“Then hurry! I pulled her along down the beautiful halls and skidded to a halt when we reached the training room.

Lutuma’s voice drifted over from a pillar. “Not a second early, not a second late,” she remarked as she stood, no longer supported by leaning against the stone. “Girls, follow me.”

She tapped her fingers impatiently against her scabbard as she swept her gaze over us. We were attempting the defensive stance that was best against an opposite element. Not succeeding.

I held a flickering and warm ball of fire in one hand and my sword in the other. One leg was positioned behind the other, and slightly bent out to the side. My other leg was bent, and I was putting all my weight on it as I leaned forwards. My sword blocked much of my vision, but next to my head I tried to keep the fire hand barely in sight. Somehow, my back leg was always wrong, and my sword was tilted at the wrong angle. Lutuma had remarked, “Well, if you want a faceful of water from above or below your sword, that technique will be great,” or, “Sure, a rock that lifts up your back leg will make you topple off balance and you can attack from under the enemy!”

I bit my lip as I blocked out her sarcasm and focused on getting the stance right, which somehow made it worse. My back foot slipped and I ended up sitting on the cold, hard stone in less than a second. I yelped as pain shot up my spine, and I accidentally flung the fire into my sister.

She blinked in shock but her body stopped the fire as it hit her. She wasn’t burnt. I thankfully still held my sword – I didn’t want my sister’s body to stop that.

I forced myself to breathe steadily as I rose and tried the pose again. It was better, but not by much. According to Lutuma, my foot was twisted so that if my leg was moved in any unnatural way, I would have a twisted ankle. I slowly rotated it forward, but I was immediately reprimanded of moving it too far forward.  I growled as I summoned another fireball, and I let my shoulders tense and my spine twist into the crouch. I finally got the first sound of approval from Lutuma – a grunt of – hopefully – disbelief, although it sounded more like a ‘Hmm.’ The sort of sound that would mean, ‘I never thought someone could do it so wrong.’

My fingers twitched from stillness as Lutuma circled my sister and I. Rabana was doing the stance correctly, and was getting praised. I was copying her exactly, and I was somehow doing something wrong. Lutuma grabbed my sword hand and tilted it half of the smallest fraction of an inch. My muscles strained from staying in the same spot, tensed, for what seemed to be an hour.

Finally, Lutuma nodded in approval and sighed. “I guess that will have to do. You did well enough, I suppose.” I groaned and stalked over to a bench, my arms and legs aching and my stomach growling in protest. My sister wasn’t in much better condition, and she soon joined me at the bench.

Finally, I spoke. “What next? Or do we have a break?”

Lutuma laughed and shook her head disbelievingly. “A break? Arryn, out in the battle, you have to put at least this much effort into fighting for five minutes. In the battle, you don’t get a break.

I nodded sullenly and rose again, scuffling my feet on the floor. “Fine then.” I drew my sword when she drew hers. I was about to light my blade on fire until someone interrupted.

“Lutuma, you’ve been in here with them for a total of three hours. I think they should get some rest, because, in case you’ve forgotten, it is their first day.” I spun around gratefully to greet my savior.

Valanch stared impassively at me. The Earth Elemental then sighed and went on. “Well, some people also want to get some practice in, so you might as well wrap it up.” He edged his hefty two-handed sword out of the scabbard and shifted his eyes towards a training dummy.

Lutuma opened her mouth as if to protest, but sighed and grunted, waving us out of the room, and following us soon.

#-#-#-#

I stomped up to my father as he stepped inside the door. “Fermin, I’m coming with you very soon!” His brown eyes swept quickly over my armor.

“I’m impressed. Have you gotten your name yet?”

“Yes, father. Except not really. I’m still Arryn, but Avalan’s now Rabana.”

“Hmm. Good. Have you trained with Lutuma yet?”

I groaned in response, “Yes. I ache all over from just one stupid stance.”

His eyes glittered with amusement. “Well, it won’t seem so stupid when it saves your life. In fact,” His eyes darkened, “I was lucky that I even got back here today. Ambush. Five Waters and Four Earths. I got a pretty bad water burn. Valanch got pretty unsettled too.” He lifted his sword hand to show a tender red patch of skin.

“Ouch. Well, I’ll see you out there soon. Now go rest.”

“I’ll tell your mother about your new names. She’ll want to be one of the first to call you by them. ” He set off down some hall. I managed to sneak a peek outside before the door slammed closed.

The ground was burnt, and random outcrops of rocks scattered the earth. Smoke filled the air, and storm clouds thundered in the distance. Wind blew forcefully, scattering ashes.

The door closed. Wind brushed my back and a voice snapped.

“What are you doing?” I spun around.

“Oh! Er, just looking, Tagas.”

The Air Elemental stared accusingly at me. “Not coming in, not going out?”

“Of course not. I need to wait a while. I’m… I’m going to go practice. Bye.” I ran down a hallway that lead towards one of the training chambers. I wasn’t going to go out… I tried to convince myself that I in fact wasn’t thinking about going out. I failed. I knew I wanted to desperately.

I broke into the room and drew my sword, and started angrily bashing on a training dummy. Before I knew what happened, the stuffing flew out of a slice and started piling on the ground. The head was tilted to one side. A couple more slices. The head fell off. I stomped on it and turned to the next one, growling under my breath.

After a few angry cuts, the next one wasn’t in much better condition.  I just want to go outside! I took a deep breath and settled into the stance that I had spent hours practicing. My back leg flared up in pain, but I concentrated on balancing exactly and keeping my hands tilted. I swung forward with my sword-hand and threw my fireball at the target at exactly the same time. A scorched straw head toppled onto the ground as it sizzled.

A slow clapping came from right behind me. I jumped and turned.

Lutuma looked surprised. “Good job. That use of the stance would work very well on anyone.”

I took a few deep breaths to clear the rage that pounded in my ears. “Thank… you…”

She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes at me. “You fight better when you’re angry. Mind telling me what was wrong when you did that stance perfectly?”

My heart started beating faster. “Well…” I gulped and let it all out. “I want to go outside because it seems beautiful because I caught a bit of it outside and I really want to go.”

She tilted her head even more, but to the other side. “That’s interesting. If you practice like that,” she motioned to the wrecked practice dummies, “You can speed up your last few days of training and leave tomorrow.”

I blinked and rubbed my ears. “What? You meant like the day after the day after tomorrow, right? Right?”

She smirked. “If that’s what you want, but I said tomorrow.”

I opened my mouth, I closed it, like a dying animal gasping for air. “Er. Um. Sure! Of course! You mean… Like in thirty-five hours, right?”

“Yes. But you’ll have to do quite a bit of training with me right now if you want to even make it tomorrow.”

I sheathed my sword and extinguished the fire that was sparking to life on the straw head. “Then let’s do it!”

Lutuma rolled her eyes and settled into a pose. Her knees were bent and her legs were spaced apart, her feet pointing out. She was bent slightly, and her arms were  placed as if presenting herself to me, except her sword-arm was positioned slightly backwards. Her blade was tilted as if ready to bring down in a slicing motion, and a fire-ball was in her other arm, which was bent as if protecting herself.

I clumsily copied her. My arms were too low, and my legs too close. My sword drooped lower than it should’ve.

Lutuma groaned and straightened herself. “You want to fight outside? Then you have to put effort! Not just laze around and barely attempt to be right!” Her eyes blazed, and I flinched.

“I am trying!”

Stiffness came into my arms, and they locked into the right place, my hand tilting the sword. My legs inched away from each other and my feet turned out.

I growled and leapt at her, my sword ready to slice at her stomach. I focused my eyes so I could hurl a fireball between her eyes, and I leapt away, spinning. My arm jolted away as my blade hit armor, and I shook my head.

I gasped for breath. “How… was… that?”

“Great. You perform much better than usual when you’re angry.”

“I guess. When do I leave?”

She sighed. “Not so fast. There’s still a lot to learn.”

Lutuma shifted into another pose. One leg was in front of the other, and only the front one was bent. She was twisted so she was facing the way the back foot was pointing. Her front arm was held out, holding the fireball in front of her face. Her sword arm was lower and further back, holding the blade at an angle that could be changed at any moment.

I thought of her words that had stirred me before. I growled low in my throat as I focused on the stance, and I settled into it. I drew my sword in front of me from my side as she leapt forward to strike. The two blades clanged, and I used the time to fling the fire at her. I used the distraction to slice at her helmet. She sheathed her sword and straightened, blowing on a spark on her hair.

“Very good.”

I sighed and let the anger fade. My arms and legs suddenly started to ache. “Let’s keep going.”

“If you want. You look tired.”

“I do. Let’s go, then!”

She inspected me. “Some of our platforms allow us to jump down on the attackers. You need to learn how to land safely and ready to fight.”

“Teach me.”

She snapped, “I’m about to. Climb up there.” She pointed to a ladder that led to a small wooden platform that was about ten feet above the ground.

I pulled myself up and called down, “Now what?”

Her voice was slightly muffled from the distance. “Leap down with your weak leg forward. Keep your sword in your lower hand and fire in upper hand. Hurl the fire when you land, and slice the air with your blade. Keep your back arm bent.”

I looked down, and a shooting feeling of adrenaline rushed through me, and my heart started pounding. I took a deep breath and set my arms in the right position, and angled my blade correctly. I bent my knees. I jumped.

I stumbled slightly as shock ran up my weaker leg, but I swung my blade and hurled my fire through the pain, then allowed myself to double over and set fire to my leg. Relief.

Lutuma was watching. “Good. Slightly clumsy, but you got it well enough so that you can do it in battle.”

I gasped for breath, feeling winded. “Good… Let’s… Move on.” When will I even need these skills? I’m probably going to be fully on foot. I wasn’t brave enough to voice my thoughts aloud.

“If you feel well enough.”

I winced as another pain, lesser, this time, shot up my leg. “I’ll be fine. We all have to fight through pain in a battle.”

“Wise.” She settled into a crouch and edged towards me in a strange fashion. “This is how you advance in battle, unless you want more scars than needed.”

I copied her, straining to bend my back exactly like she was. My stomach clenched, and I growled as she approached. I swung myself into the first pose she had taught my sister and I and shifted into the next one. I bent down to sweep at her legs. I threw up a barrier of flames as she struck out at me. Twisting pillars of fire wove in front of me, slowing her sword so I could easily block it.

I stumbled and the shield broke, and there was a hard drumming on my shoulder as Lutuma tapped on my armor with the flat of her blade.

“You were injured, but your enemy would be too. You changed stances well, and you moved correctly. Ready to start on the last one?”

“Yu…Yup.” I winced halfway while talking as another pain shot up my leg. I started a fire in my hands and held it to my leg. “Ready.”

“What are you doing?” My sister’s voice came from the entrance. I jumped and turned.

“Oh! Oh, training.”

“Why wasn’t I called?” Rabana pulled out her sword.

“Erm, possibly because I came here and it sort of just turned into a training session?”

“Then let me join!”

Her eyes glinted as she struck out at me. I changed into the second pose, and her sword was forced backwards as I tossed the fire towards her legs and swung at her helmet. She blinked and stumbled back.

“Ouch.” She held her hand to a small dent in her armor. “Bruised.”

“Oh! Sorry. Are you alright?”

She grunted, “I’m fine.”

I sheathed my sword and held fire to her, an involuntary gesture. It was one of asking for forgivness. “I hope so!”

Neither of us noticed Lutuma leaving until the door closed.