Judgement has been brought down upon Alexei. But what does he do now?
What is the purpose of being judged?
And what exactly was that sword he summoned?
I swam in fathomless darkness. There was no sound, no warmth – I was just… there. I kept swimming, for what reason, I wasn’t able to recall. Something just told me to keep swimming. There was something waiting for me, and I had to get there.
Then, slowly, two golden lights appeared in the distance. My heart leapt. So that’s what I was looking for. My pace quickened as I swam towards them, my arms growing heavy from the effort. As it came into view, I could see these two lights spiraling into the darkness, soft glowing essence floating around it. Finally, I reached the spiral of golden lights. They were warm, and comforting. Two beautiful voices began to radiate from the lights, intertwined in a song they seemed to pour their entire beings into. My body felt light, and all pain disappeared.
It was then I started to open my eyes. Everything was blurred for a few moments, figures moved around above me. I felt covers pulled up to my chest – I must be lying in a bed. Then it started to get clearer and I noticed the beautiful duet of tones had vanished. It left a lingering feeling in my body – warm and fuzzy. I turned my head to see two girls – one with forest green eyes and strawberry blonde short hair, with two longer streams coming down either side of her head, and the other had crystal blue eyes and long blonde hair with a fringe. They had just risen out of two chairs at the side of the bed, hand in hand, and left through an open door. My gaze followed them out, only to watch Kyra walk in. She sat down softly on one of the chairs and looked down at me.
” I’m glad you’re safe, Alexei.”
There was a great sense of relief that Kyra expressed in those words. I willed my body to sit up. It did so begrudgingly but there was no pain, no sudden pangs of fire that streaked through my body. I moved my arm, the one that had been shattered. No pain and full movement. My fingers brushed against my collarbone where Jace had sliced it. It had completely healed. My mind whirled, unable to comprehend my miraculous recovery when I remembered the warm, embracing light.
” What happened?”
Kyra sighed, lowering her gaze to her knees. ” Jace became a little… overzealous. If I hadn’t stopped her, she would have killed you. Those two girls healed your wounds while you slept.” She turned to look at me. I could see in those emerald eyes that she was searching me for something. ” Do you remember anything before passing out?”
I forced my numb brain into working. Pain had obscured most of the details of the moments before I passed out, but I remembered something, something that had ingrained itself into my memories.
” I remember her saying ‘from now on, you will be known as Kusanagi’. What does that mean? I already have a name.”
The dark-haired angel nodded. ” The purpose of judging is to determine, one, if you are worthy to live amongst your peers; two, what powers you possess; and three, what position you shall hold among your brethren.”
Powers? My memory went into rewind and paused on the moment I thought I was going to die, and then that dark-steeled blade appeared in my hand. Not only was I not human, I also had powers?
” By powers… do you mean that blade that suddenly appeared out of nowhere?”
” Yes. That blade – it is the physical manifestation of your powers. I was so relieved when you brought it forth. For a moment, I thought that Jace would have to perform my duty upon you.”
That’s right… Jace had burst in moments after Kyra had just told me about the judging. That must mean…
” Your duty is to perform the judging on those who come to this house?”
At that question, Kyra’s hands clenched in her lap, looking away from me. Alarm rose in my chest.
” I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend, Kyra.”
The beauty shook her head, her dark hair swishing around elegantly.
” No, no… do not apologise. It is my duty amongst my brethren.” She rose her head to stare at me with an unfamiliar glint in her eyes. It was a mixture of pride and guilt – an unbelievable combination. Her hand moved to her heart.
” I am Kyra Anubis, judge of those who wish to be accepted into this house. Proven worthy, they receive a name akin to their powers and are accepted into the service of the Hunters. Proven unworthy, they perish by my hand.”
Wait… what… I stared at her, unable to believe the words that had just tumbled from her lips. It made sense – the pride and the guilt. Pride for those who had passed the test, and guilt for those she had to terminate. But there was one burning question behind all this ‘judging’ – why exactly did they do it? Surely it wasn’t just for seeing which of our kind could summon their abilities in times of need. Why do we have powers in the first place?
Then I recalled the details about the Hunters duty – to protect this city from those that dwelled on the surface. Ah, I understand now. Those who could not summon their powers in time of need would not be able to do so willingly, would not be able to control them, should they need to protect themselves and their brethren.
My head started to ache, and I clasped it lightly with my hand. Kyra’s concerned eyes followed my movement.
” You still are not well, even though Jace held back so much.”
My gaze suddenly snapped to Kyra. ” She was… holding back?”
” Calm, Alexei, calm,” the girl cooed to me even though I could tell she was berating herself for that slip of the tongue.
” Then she could have… at any point in that fight.”
There was an awkward silence between us. It seemed Kyra was gathering the courage to answer, her hands curling into soft fists as she clutched her dress.
” Yes. She could have, but she chose not to! She chose to judge you in my place, but with a bit more force than I would have done. Please do not think ill of her – Jace is… a bit different to us, even as Hunters.”
” Because she is the first?”
Kyra didn’t answer. She chewed her lip for a moment. This person in front of me is very different to the one who had accepted me out on the gravel before the Manor. This dark-haired beauty that was so full of confidence, so luminous, was now so timid. Could it be that Jace was her weakness?
Finally, she spoke. ” Jace is different in many ways, like you are. Both of you have violet eyes. There has never been another Hunter with those coloured eyes between you both. And… then… there is your Hunter name.”
Confusion was tumbling around in my mind. I felt that I should be getting used to this feeling by now, despite it being such a short time from when I opened my eyes. It wasn’t nearly as complicated as this before that moment.
” My name?”
Kyra stood, brushing her white flowing dress free of dust and crumples. Her soft hand brushed my cheek, her subtle warmth comforting me. She walked over to the doorway and before she pulled it open, she paused. Turning around, she gave a short nod, her emerald eyes meeting mine.
” Jace gave you a name that has never been used before by one of our kind. By doing just that, she has made you special, like her.”
And with that, she left, shutting the door behind her, leaving me in semi-darkness.
My head was now pounding. I slid back down into the bed, bringing the covers up to my chin. There was a chill coming from somewhere, perhaps from the slightly ajar window that was above me. Gazing around the room, I noticed there was another bed opposite mine, with a bookshelf at its end, crammed full with books that looked as though they were about to fall apart from age. However, my thoughts wouldn’t let me investigate the room freely. Flashes of words and images crossed my mind’s eye.
Abandoned… accepted… Kyra’s warm embrace… Jace’s icy glare… emptiness… that impossible thought and that growing inferno… it had all happened in such a short span of time. No wonder I felt so exhausted. Sleep… yes… perhaps I should sleep some more. My eyelids grew heavy as I drifted back into the depths of slumber.
Flashes of terrified screams sliced through me, making my body shudder. Where was I? What was going on? Heat scorched my arms. I rubbed them, trying to smother the flames that licked my skin. Images of twisted metal, destroyed buildings, motionless broken bodies; all of them flitted before me, swarming in a mesmerising vortex. I knew this place. I knew these people who now lay dead. These scenes tore at my insides, ripping at my soul, breaking my mind. I felt something wet slide down my cheeks. I was crying. An overwhelming feeling of fear gripped my entire being as an icy darkness approached me, enveloping me. I could feel its crushing silence upon my chest, cold whispers of sweet nothings passing my ears. I wanted to cry out for help, but the fear kept my body’s reactions at bay.
Then I could feel something – something evil – slice into my flesh. Pain, inexplicable pain, flared through my body. The incision made by the evil thing burned so furiously I thought I would become insane from just that. But then another incision was made, another evil invasion on my body. The pain doubled. I cried out, but the silence drowned me. Slowly, the darkness started to infiltrate my being through these incisions, permeating my entire consciousness. I felt my heart slowly turn to stone. Was it because of this crushing despair that came with the darkness, or was this me protecting what remained of myself?
My eyes flew open and I sat up abruptly, the covers I was laying in falling to my lap, a cold sweat drenching my body. What was that… Inside my chest, my heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to break free from its ribbed cage. I rubbed my forehead with my spare hand, while the other supported my weight. It was a dream, but it felt as if everything was real. I remembered my paren – I mean, the ones who brought me into this world, saying that dreams were sometimes events that had happened, or were to happen. Whatever that was, I hoped that no one, past or future, would have to ever experience that crushing despair.
Moving to the side of the bed, my bare feet hit the cold wooden floor. The intense feelings that remained from the dream slowly ebbed away, along with the specific details. It wasn’t like I was trying to memorise what had happened in it. I looked up to inspect the room. The bed opposite the one I had been laying in had its sheets disturbed and they lay in a crumple at the end. My eyes wandered to the bookshelf. It looked like it hadn’t been touched. Someone must have slept in that bed while I was passed out. Shivering, I stood and made my way to the closed door. There were voices outside, most of them male. Then a sudden thought struck me. I had been accepted into this house of Hunters – but I only knew two – Kyra and the pale-haired princess, Jace. Out there were tens, possibly hundreds, of Hunters that I didn’t know. My hand shook as it nervously approached the door knob. I wonder what kind of impression I had made on them… Swallowing hard, I twisted the knob and opened the door.
The corridor was full of people going past. My eyes adjusted to the light that now spilled into the doorway. I watched as many passed by me without much thought, most of them males of varying ages of late teens and early adulthood. There was a lot of commotion, shouts echoing loudly down the corridor. Did something happen? It took a few moments but I managed to screw up the courage to ask one of the passersby. I reached out and tapped a short girl with just longer than shoulder-length dark brown hair on the shoulder. She turned to look at who had just touched her, and before I knew it, large golden yellow eyes were laid on me. I gulped and resolved myself.
” Um… excuse me – “
But before I could finish my sentence, she let out a terrified scream. Everyone in the corridor swivelled around towards us. I jumped in surprise, my head hitting the top of the door frame, dazing me. Staggering forward, I saw the girl whom I had tapped backed up against the wall, looking at me with what I could only assume as fear in her golden yellow eyes, before I heard a deep booming voice over the loud murmurs of the crowd.
” Laylah, what’s wrong? Why did you scream?”
I turned to the source of this voice and found a wall of man filling the corridor, making it seem too small. Broad-chested with long, copper brown hair tied back in a pony-tail, square shoulders and a chiselled face – it was hard to believe he was even remotely around my age. His teal green eyes scanned the situation in front of him, going from the scared girl against the wall to me. They lingered on me for longer than I would have liked. Then, clearing his throat, he announced something to the rest of the crowd.
” Nothing to see here! Move on all of you – you all have chores to do!”
The crowd that had circled us dispersed at his command, much to my surprise, though, I wouldn’t want to argue with him either. He was now walking towards me with that giant frame of his.
” Are you trying to scare everyone or something? Get dressed properly before you come out into public!”
” What – ” Then I looked down at myself. I was wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts. Sensing my astonishment at my own predicament, the giant shuffled me into my room and brought the door almost to a close so a slither of light still came in from the corridor. I could hear his deep tones rumbling.
” No need to be petrified Laylah – he’s the new Hunter remember. He’s probably a bit lost and confused.”
That’s an understatement, I thought as I fumbled around in a nearby closet for something, anything, to cover myself with. As I clumsily buttoned up a white collared shirt, I heard a timid reply.
” H-h-he scared me. I d-d-didn’t mean to scream. I thought… I thought he was Jace, you know… with his eyes. I panicked… I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to cause you trouble Artek…”
I heard the giant, Artek, chuckle softly. ” I don’t blame you Laylah. You’re not in trouble. You can go.”
Shuffling feet alerted me to her exit from this situation and the door opened so that the giant could walk in. He crossed his formidable muscular arms in front of his chest. It was hard to not feel intimidated by him, though, compared to Jace’s aura, he was nothing.
” So….” he said expectantly.
” S-s-so?” I replied as I hopped on the spot while pulling a pair of long cargo pants on. I didn’t know what he was going to say next. My mind was rather preoccupied with concentrating on not falling over.
” So… you are the new Hunter…” When I turned, I saw a giant paw-like hand opened towards me in what must be a friendly gesture. ” I’m Artek Iovantucarus, or Ivan for short. You can call me by either name.”
Ah… that long name must be his Hunter name. A fleeting pondering about his powers raced through my mind, but it was quickly dashed as I looked up at him in confusion. I didn’t know what to do with his open hand, so I imitated him, holding mine out in a similar fashion.
” I am Alexei Kusanagi.”
Artek chuckled heartily and clasped my hand in his and shook it. ” This is the way men greet each other. I thought I would explain since you looked at me with such a puzzled look I felt like laughing. I guess those who brought you into this world didn’t teach you that. I also guess that they didn’t teach you to walk around with more clothes on other than your underwear.”
This person… he wasn’t exactly what I expected.
” I didn’t know I was almost naked, okay?” I replied a little hotly, withdrawing my hand from his grasp. It was rather strong.
” I gathered as much,” Artek replied, still with that good humoured grin on his face. I watched as his teal eyes study my face for a moment. ” You really do have the same eyes as the pale-haired princess. No wonder Laylah panicked.”
So having the same eyes as Jace made me like her? Was that how all the Hunters were going to see me? As a copy of the one they feared and respected? A sigh escaped my lips.
” Is everyone going to react that way when they see me?” I asked, unintentionally voicing one of my biggest doubts.
Artek’s expression changed into one of concern, but it wasn’t the warm, comforting kind. ” I’ve heard that you are the only Hunter to have violet eyes after Jace. Even though you survived her judgement, are you strong enough to carry that association?”
I stood there, stunned, unable to think, let alone say anything in reply. Artek must’ve noticed because it was then he ran his bear-like hand over his copper hair, his face slightly downcast.
” I apologise. What I just said should have waited until later. You just woke from being judged, and having your injuries healed. It hasn’t even been that long since you were left here.” He looked up at me, his face again full with that good humour he held earlier. ” So… ” he seemed desperate to change the subject ” – I’m guessing you haven’t had an official tour of the Manor yet?”
I shook my head, my mind still unable to form words to respond. He had said the one thing that I had been thinking. Was I that weak that I was going to be swallowed up by my link to Jace? My hand twitched instinctively, reminding me of that familiar weight it held hours earlier. That sword I had summoned… the one, when I needed it the most it appeared, was not weak. It was the proof that I was strong enough to take on the leader of the Hunters. But, somehow, I felt empty and defenceless without its weight. My thoughts, however, were soon abruptly halted by Artek’s booming voice directed at me.
” All right then. I’ll show you around, then I’ll treat you to some good food as a way of apologising for before.”
He took a quick look around the room, before turning on his heel and striding out into the corridor. I followed quickly, shutting the door behind me as I left. The buzz I had heard before had returned. Young men passed us, as we stood near the wall, and on the odd occasion, a girl as well. What they were doing, I had no idea. Some carried bundles of clothing or bedsheets. Others were carrying around brooms and buckets, which were laden with a white bubbly foam.
Artek strode out into the flow of people, his massive frame carving a path for me to follow. As we walked, dodging a few of the people that were carrying large loads, Artek struck up a conversation.
” I’m surprised.”
” At what?” I replied.
I stayed silent, waiting for him to elaborate.
” You’re nowhere near as distraught as most I’ve seen pass through those doors. And on top of that, to be tested by Jace herself…”
I didn’t understand what he was surprised about. ” Might be strange to those who’ve watched what’s happened for a long time, but I don’t know any different, even though Kyra said that she was normally the one who judges newcomers. I think I’ve just accepted whatever has happened, has happened.”
” Heh. That’s a pretty calm and collected way to go about it.”
” Well… there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t have the ability to change time, as far as I know. I was accepted here, and to me, that’s what counts.”
” I wanted to choke those who had left me here to death, when they said they wanted to abandon me here. I was so angry I tried to attack Kyra.”
” I guess people deal with being abandoned differently,” I shrugged, trying to keep this cool, calm and collected facade going, although I was slightly alarmed at his confession.
There was a thoughtful silence between us after this comment. It seemed like Artek was taking in what I had said. There was a pensive look upon his face, his teal eyes still looking ahead. Uncertain whether I had said something that had brought back bad memories, I spoke up.
” So… uh.. the tour?”
Artek chuckled. ” What? Oh, the tour! That’s right. Sorry.” He motioned one of his large hands to indicate the corridor they were walking up. ” This corridor is mostly the boys’ dorm rooms, where you’ll sleep and sometimes spend your free time. You might have noticed there’s a lot of us, so you’ll be sharing a room with another guy.”
” One that likes books,” I said, recalling the bookshelves stuffed with aging collections of paper.
There was a small smile on Artek’s face. Something told me he knew who my roommate was, but didn’t care to share. We came to the end of the corridor, which I now realised as one wing of the Manor. A grand staircase spilled downstairs before us, as we were on the second floor, a large chandelier lighting the whole of the foyer. The magnificent but battered timber doors stood at the entrance of the room, shut tightly. Closing us off from the outside world, I thought to myself in a rather factual way.
” This is the foyer. It’s used as a gathering place on certain occasions. Other than that, it’s just a main thoroughfare for people going to different places in the Manor.”
Artek nodded towards the corridor that ran in the opposite direction to the boys’ wing. ” That’s the girls’ dorm wing. We’re kept separate, as per Kyra’s rules. She runs this place, so if there’s anything you need here, let her know.”
He headed down the staircase to the ground floor and away from the front doors, towards another set of large timber doors that were open, people flowing in and out of them. It seemed a very busy part of the Manor.
Artek jerked his thumb in the direction of the doors. ” This is the mess hall. It’s where you’ll come to eat. I suppose after all that sleeping you’d want some food.”
Immediately upon thinking about sustenance, my stomach growled. I clutched it, slightly surprised and embarrassed at the reaction. Artek just chuckled and walked inside. I followed.
The room was vast and bright, lit by many lamps. There were eight long, scrubbed wooden tables; four each side with a corridor down the centre to allow passage. Each table could have easily seated twenty each side. Artek strode down the middle, clearing a path.
” Wait here,” he said as we passed the last table. Before me was a counter behind which stood five Hunters. I watched as he approached the counter and began conversing with one of the girls standing there. Avoiding the instant curious glance I received from the girl, I looked around. A spicy scent wafted from the room on the left as the sounds of metal clanging and loud sizzles almost drown out the buzz of talk coming from the people here. There were a lot of them – more than I thought – all eating or talking to each other. So they were going to be my family from now on, I thought as my chest ached slightly. At least they look happy. Not like my parents… I mean… the ones that left me here…
Trying to find something to distract me yet again, my eyes settled on two people standing at the back of the room. It was Jace and Kyra. They were watching the others eat and talk. Kyra’s expression looked peaceful, but I couldn’t make out what Jace’s was. It was impossible to tell what was going on behind those violet eyes. It was then I was forcefully reminded that I, too, possessed those violet eyes. A heavy hand came to my shoulder.
I looked up and saw Artek. He was now looking where I was a moment ago.
” Those two… They always seem so peaceful when they stand there like that, watching the rest of us.”
” Do they do it a lot?” I asked, slightly curious.
” Whenever they can.” He squeezed my shoulder and steered me around and towards a table where a lone girl sat. She looked about the same age as Artek – just younger than me. She had long, straight black hair that looked as though she’d just come from wrestling with someone. As I sat down opposite Artek, who sat beside the girl, she looked up and I watched deep earthy brown eyes survey us.
” Hey there, Artek,” she said. Her voice was, for some reason unbeknownst to me, very comforting and warm. Her brown eyes glanced my way when Artek pushed a tray of food over to me. Her chin sat on her hand as she leant on the table, curiosity now sparked in her face.
” Who’s this you’ve brought me?”
” You can’t tell? This is the new Hunter, Alexei Kusanagi,” Artek said as a forkful of mashed white substance was mid-way to his mouth.
” Ah, the one everyone’s been talking about,” the girl said, her eyes now wide with interest.
So everyone’s been talking about me? What was I expecting? Of course they were going to talk about me. I had those infamous violet eyes, and I was judged by Jace herself. Who was I kidding. Taking a deep breath, I looked up.
” You can call me Alexei,” I said, smiling and extending a hand, like Artek had taught me earlier. The girl looked at it with a surprised look, and then laughed. She took it with her own, her grip stronger than I expected. She was very warm, this happy thought pronounced itself in the back of my mind, as we shook and withdrew hands.
” I’m Asmita. Hunter name is Kishar. Everyone calls me Mita though.”
I saw her eyes flicker to Jace standing at the back then back at me. Here it comes.
” Being judged by Jace huh? That would have been rough. I suppose she gave you a beating.”
Relief spread through my body. It was tense until then, waiting for those inevitable questions about Jace I was dreading. What was it like to fight her? Were you scared? Did you think you were going to die? A soft laugh escaped me before I could suppress it.
” Yeah. She beat the hell out of me,” I said softly, my hand covering my face slightly as my fingers touched my brow.
” As to be expected,” Artek said wisely. ” I doubt anyone could ever beat her in a fight. Even if she was outnumbered.”
” I wouldn’t worry about it,” Mita said, directing that comment to me, leaning back slightly. ” Everyone here has survived the judgement. I don’t know why they dwell on it so much. People might think being judged by Jace is something special, but the aftermath is just the same as when Kyra does it.”
” You sound like you’ve been here a while,” I said to them both as I picked up a fork and prodded at whatever was on my plate, unsure of what it was. Hopefully I would learn more about this place before it sucked me in and spat me back out again.
Artek didn’t respond as his mouth was full of food. Mita, however, looked away slightly as if she was ashamed to admit or even think about how long she had been here.
” We’ve been here a long time – longer than most of the others you see around here. Not as long as Jace and Kyra though. Jace was the first, everyone know that. And Kyra joined soon after her.”
Her. A slight shudder ran down my spine. It felt strange calling Jace a ‘her’. For one, she didn’t look like a girl. I snuck another glance at the two Hunter leaders before going back to toying with my food. Another thought struck me. But before I had time to voice it, two more people had joined the table, sandwiching me between them.
To my left was a young man with pale yellow eyes, short, neat cream-coloured hair and an air of refinement about him. He had set his tray down gently, sat with poise and picked up his cutlery to begin eating with a sense of propriety.
To my right was a person who felt completely the opposite. Scruffy, dark umber hair that looked like a mangy mane, with bits poking out in all directions; burgundy eyes whose whole attention was given to the food on his tray as if he had fasted for a month, and an air of rawness that was accentuated by him completely ignoring his cutlery and picked up his food with his hands. This young man, who was the same height as the one on my left, glanced over at me for a second.
” Yo, newbie.”