Chapter 18 – The Challenge
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“...Dad? What are you…” Alvin gasped, still breathing heavily from his previous fight.

“Alvin…” our father began, his voice a low rumble, his footsteps a threatening stomp. “You need to face reality. You’re not ready for the outside world.”

What was he going to do? I watched with bated breath as he approached my brother, gripping one of the practice wooden greatswords with both hands. Alvin quickly drew his own sword as Karla and the older mercenary backed away, giving the two of them some space.

They were going to… They were going to fight!

“It’s a dangerous place out there, y’know?” Our father’s pace sped up, each step louder and harder than the last, and he raised his practice sword, winding back for a strike. “You never know when someone — or something — might jump out at you!”

And then he brought his sword down. 

Alvin hastily raised his own wooden sword, bracing it with his other hand to block the swing. Gritting his teeth, he pushed back against our father’s weapon, barely protecting his head from the bigger man’s attack.

He’d really attacked Alvin... unprompted, just because... because Alvin wanted to leave?

A creaking sound echoed around the clearing, the sound of wood as it began to give, the sound of wood as it began to break. And it was coming from Alvin’s sword. Those swords weren’t meant to take that kind of force, and... it was bending under the strain of our father’s strength, warping further and further, until… 

It snapped with a loud crack, and the massive wooden greatsword that our father held crashed down onto Alvin’s shoulder, hard.

Alvin staggered back, nearly falling backwards on the ground but catching himself just in time. He was breathing heavily, and he groaned in pain as his hand clutched the point where the sword had hit. It was just wood, but... it had torn his shirt... and his hand was red. 

“You know, I’ve taken bigger hits than that, out in the real world,” our father taunted. “Monsters hit hard.”

He was pacing, now, walking back and forth through the clearing, getting closer to Alvin all the while and waving his greatsword around threateningly. Was he still planning to keep attacking? Alvin didn’t have anything to defend himself with. His sword was completely ruined... half of it was lying in the dirt, along with splinters, and wood dust. Besides that, there was only the short, jagged remnant attached to the handle that Alvin still stubbornly held. And… what could he even do with that

A light suddenly attracted my attention, a light at Alvin’s shoulder. As he clutched it, a soft white glow had begun to trickle down and around his hand. 

His healing ability… I’d forgotten about that. That same glow was what I’d seen when I’d accidentally swiped at his stomach with my… claws. As I watched my brother and father with rapt attention, my fingers idly traced the tips of my nails, but... the claws I’d once had were completely absent.

Our father sighed. “And you wanna know somethin’ else about monsters?” He took a menacing step towards my brother. “They’re not honourable like this. They’re not gonna wait for you to recover if they hit you, son.”

He raised his sword above his head once more, the expression on his face dark, his brows furrowed and his mouth a grimace.

“They’re just gonna keep on comin’.”

And then, with an expression of anger and despairing eyes, our father swung his sword down. I gasped, and I wasn’t the only one.

But Alvin had let go of his shoulder, and against everyone’s expectations, he was ready. He held up his hands, hands rough and leathery and calloused from his hours upon hours and days upon days of nearly non-stop practicing.

And then he caught the blade in his hands with a loud smack.

That wooden greatsword was completely stopped. It was frozen in the air above Alvin’s head... frozen as if time itself had stopped moving. But it hadn’t, and Alvin grunted in pain.

Our father’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned further forward. Alvin’s arms shook under the pressure.

“Are you really ready for this?” he shouted down at Alvin. “Are you really ready for the outside world? Are you really ready to leave this family?

Was he going to give? Was he going to move? Or were they just going to stay like this, locked in this duel of strength? Alvin couldn’t stand up to our father... he’d never had the strength that our father had. Our old man had always had the reputation of being the biggest. The strongest. How could Alvin ever stand up to that?

But he was. He was standing up to that. How? How could Alvin face things head-on like that, and with so much strength?

Why did it work?

Then I noticed the same soft, white glow of his healing ability suffusing across his arms and legs. He was healing himself? Or... what was he doing?

At that point, my brother was hunched down, having been pushed down into the position by the overwhelming strength of our father. But the glow was getting brighter, and... his face was red, sweat dripped down his cheeks, a low growl rumbled from his chest... all as he began pushing back against the bigger man.

“I don’t want to stay in this village anymore,” Alvin grunted. “I want to live my life! Dad, I’m leavin’. I’m leavin’, and there’s nothin’ you can do about it. I’m strong enough! I’ve practiced enough!”

“Prove it!”

The two struggled for a few moments, gritting their teeth as they sought to overpower one another. Soon, with another gasp from the crowd, the tide began to turn. Alvin was starting to push our father back. 

His eyes went wide and he grunted in surprise.

With one big heave, Alvin shoved the sword back, sending the bigger man tumbling and tripping onto the ground, where the sword fell out of his hands and into the dirt. Our father reached for it, and grabbed it by the handle, but Alvin was already there, and he grabbed it by the blade again, ripping it from his would-be-attacker’s grasp. And in an instant, my brother had turned it around, pointing the end at our father’s neck.

“Give it up, old man,” he said, glaring down at him.

Our father lay there for a moment, staring up at his wayward son, the shock still written all over his face. And then his brows furrowed again, and his frown was deeper than ever. I shivered, the tension in the air sending chills up and down my spine. Was our father really going to keep trying to get Alvin to stay?

No. He let out an angry grunt, pushing aside the greatsword and standing upright. “Fine… do what you want.”

As he stalked away, it was silent. No one said a word, no one moved a muscle. And then Alvin breathed out and spun around, a massive smile on his face.

That moment. That one, singular moment. When I saw his smile, his excited grin more full of life than I’d ever seen it before... that was the moment it truly hit for me. 

It was over. 

Alvin was leaving. 

The rest of the mercenaries began to swarm around my brother, congratulating him and pulling him around as they bumped fists with him or knocked shoulders or patted his back... and one of the older ones ruffled his hair... They were migrating away, towards the mercenaries’ caravan, towards the wagons and horses that were all loaded up and ready to go. His friends from the village were following close behind as well, all cheering and yelling and shouting for my brother.

But I... I was silent, still in shock.

I looked away, back towards where our father had gone... He was still there, left behind by the crowd, looking out towards Alvin and the mercenaries like I’d been. Watching Alvin get further and further and further away.

Even though the fight had finished, something felt… wrong. So wrong. Maybe it was just that we were losing Alvin, but... I couldn’t shake the sense of tension that clung to me, making my shoulders feel heavy and legs feel like they had weights tied to them. Was it really just because of the fight, or… was it something else?

It even felt… harder to breathe, somehow. As if the air had become stale; empty. And yet, everyone else seemed to be completely fine, acting as if nothing was wrong at all.

It couldn’t be just because of the fight that I felt this way, could it? Well... the fight, and… the fact that Alvin was now leaving, and... my powerlessness. There really was nothing I could do.

He still hadn’t talked to me about his plans to leave the village. He hadn’t said a word! He’d gone to talk to our father about his plans, but never me. The last time I had even spoken to Alvin was two days ago, when we were relaxing in the forest. And it didn’t even seem like I could talk to him right now... He was completely surrounded by the mercenaries and all his friends, they were all swarming around him.

I couldn’t even see his face, let alone have a talk with him.

Would I even get the chance to? I would, right?

Or would it just be my father and I? Just us left of our family, my father and I watching as the group — as Alvin — walked further and further away. 

My father seemed listless, his sword arm hanging limply at his side. His pained expression was somehow sadder than I had ever seen before — he looked as if there was nothing that even mattered anymore. 

And I... understood him. 

Strangely, I actually understood my father. I knew exactly what it was like to have someone you care about... leave. Because that’s exactly what my brother was doing. He was leaving both of us. I couldn’t even properly explain the fundamental level that hurt me on. 

We were supposed to explore the world together... We were supposed to have each other’s backs... He was supposed to protect me...

Aside from Karla, who was always going to leave with the mercenaries, and Colette, who almost never left her home… Alvin had been my only ally. He was the only one who had seen me in my regular form… as a girl.

I had no idea how to handle any of that... I had no idea how to handle the fact that I was completely alone. 

He was leaving me to fend for myself.

The more the mercenaries laughed, the more that the villagers cheered… the more it felt like my time was running out.

At this point, was I going to have to tell my father about what happened to me? Would I have to tell him about the monster, and show him my transformation? Was that... safe?

I realised that I was moving further away, backing away from Alvin and the crowd and the noise that felt loud and oppressive even in this old form. I was out of time, and I was out of options, and I had no allies, and I didn’t know where to go and what to do...

I glanced at my father again, and this time his gaze met my own. His expression shifted, then, and it shifted from one of sadness to one of… anger. I froze, my hand on my shoulder, the same white-hot terror that I used to feel as a child welling up inside me, tears stinging my eyes.

“...What, are you going to leave too?” he spat.

I staggered back, feeling as though a sword had pierced my heart.

I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. This was all too much. It was too loud, it was too hard, and there was no one. No one. I was completely and utterly alone.

Choking on my tears as my father stomped off, I stumbled back, nearly tripping over the pieces of Alvin’s shattered sword.

Our father would never talk to Alvin again, that much was certain, but... I looked up one last time at the mercenaries, at the crowd obscuring my only ally, my best friend, my brother...

Neither would I.

Through misty eyes, I took that last look towards where Alvin would be. Towards the mercenaries that were all in a hurry, all rushing along and picking up their gear as quickly as they could, beginning to set their caravan in motion. Behind them, the fog rolled ever closer, pouring down the mountain like a cascade of water. The pink tendrils that were dotted throughout it seemed to shift and shimmer, almost in a way that seemed… alive.

I blinked a few times, trying to clear the tears that blurred my vision and streamed down my cheeks. Where was Alvin? Would I even get to see him one last time before he left?

And then I saw him, the crowd finally dispersed enough as the mercenaries boarded wagons and mounted horses and...

Karla stopped, grabbing Alvin’s hand and pulling his attention away, and… she pointed towards me. Alvin turned to follow her gaze, and his smile broke, his mouth hanging open.

Oh. He’d completely forgotten about me.

I really, truly was alone.

I… couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t.

I couldn’t face the two of them. He’d had his chance, and he’d chosen everything else. He’d chosen to ignore his sister in favour of his desire to leave. 

I couldn’t face him ever again. Tears turning into terrible sobs, I spun around and ran away.

My brother was gone.

 

Oof. This one's a rough one.

As always, if you want to support my writing, or if you just want to read ahead, chapters up to chapter 23 have been uploaded to my Patreon. Chapters 24 and 25 hopefully won't be too much longer, as well.

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