Legends tell of a game, played by the immortal gods themselves. Each of the gods choose humans out of the whole of the world, and they are given a task to complete. Whichever human completes this task first is the winner, and their god gets the greatest prize of all; bragging rights for the rest of eternity.
It was close to sunset. The young soldiers stood in four straight lines, some on horseback. Split into factions, they all held rubber weapons designed for practice. On the General’s command, the exercise would begin.
The whistle sounded, and the lines charged towards one another. Two boys from the southernmost line, however, ran the other direction.
“Come on Wes, hurry up!” said Randy, trying desperately to be heard over the commotion. Wes couldn’t keep his eyes off the battle they were running from. He desperately wanted in, but he and Randy had been given the shaft yet again; they had defense duty.
Wes was shorter than most other boys his age, with a mess of long, unkempt blonde hair, relaxed blue eyes, and a slim build. Randy was almost the complete opposite, with neatly cropped copper-colored locks and a massive figure. His lumbering gait was less than elegant, though he moved with unexpected speed. The pair both wore the neat beige tunics and pants every trainee on the field was wearing.
“I’m trying!” Wes shouted back, his long hair streaking behind him. He managed to wrench away his gaze from the fight and focused on running, almost matching the longer strides of his partner.
Continuing at a quick pace, the duo stopped once they had reached their team’s base. The leaders had scouted out a quiet hilly area near a creek and a large expanse of trees. Set up was a simple straw training dummy, which Wes and Randy had set up earlier. On it’s head was an ill fitting helmet, with an “S” scratched into the forehead.
The exercise was sort of like Capture the Flag, in a sense. Trainees were split into teams, given a straw dummy called “The King,” and released into the woods to set up and defend their king from being hacked to pieces by the other teams. As one of the weaker members of South Team, Wes always got stuck on defense, and Randy usually joined him as well.
Randy and Wes got set up quickly. They loaded their quivers with arrows and set their bows to their sides for easy access. Then, they crouched down in a small trench they had dug around their King earlier. It hid them from view, though Randy’s large frame didn’t lend them any favors.
Now began the waiting game.
Half an hour crept by lazily. Randy and Wes made idle chat, but remained silent for long periods of time. Wes relaxed himself, leaning back and watching the sunset.
“Hey Randy,” said Wes. “what do you think you’re gonna do when summer comes?”
“I dunno. That’s like, a whole two months from now.” said Randy, who was using an arrow to scrape pictures in the dirt. He yawned. “I’ll probably just go back to working at the blacksmith’s.”
Wes nodded. “I might see if I can stay here for the summer.”
“Why?” asked Randy, looking up from the dirt. “Don’t like it back home?”
“Nah, I just… I guess I have nothing better to do.”
Suddenly, the two heard a sound. It was the heavy galloping of horses, at least two of them. And they were all coming their way.
“Aww, crap!” whispered Randy, fumbling around for his bow. Wes snatched up his own, quickly nocked an arrow, and shot to his feet. He let the arrow fly, an instant before a realization crashed into him. The horseback riders were South Team. He lowered his bow sheepily as his arrow completely missed them both, bouncing off a tree and into a creek.
“Randy, they’re with us.” he said, climbing out of the trench. The two horses stopped. Wes backed up as the lead rider hopped off their horse and approached him slowly. In one hand they had a spear, and in the other, a burlap sack.
“Nice shot, Whateley.” called out a familiar voice, muffled by their helmet. The rider pulled it off to reveal a grinning face.
“Aw thanks, Pat.” said Wes, taking a breath. Pat Valcanti was his best friend for as long as he could remember. They had even joined the academy together. The girl was tall and athletic, about a half a year older than Wes. Pat’s skin was a sandy brown and pocked with freckles, and her dark frizzy hair splayed out in all directions. Wes didn’t know exactly where her wealthy family was from, but wherever it was, it wasn’t the mainland.
She reached into the sack she had and pulled out a canteen, tossing it at Wes. “Here, I thought you’d be thirsty.”
A sharp groan came from the other rider. “This is seriously why we came out to base? So you could give your boyfriend a drink?”
Pat rolled her eyes before pulling something else out of the sack. It was the severed head of a dummy, whose helmet was marked with an “E.” “Here, check this out.”
“East Team’s down?” asked Wes, taking a sip from the canteen.
“West Team too.” explained Pat. “It’s just us and North Team now. We’re moving forces to defense.”
“These two have got it covered, don’t they?” said the other rider, anxious to get back to fighting. Suddenly, the group became aware of a loud snoring. Wes ran over to check on Randy. He was out like a candle in a snowstorm.
“Great, Randy’s… Randy’s asleep, that’s great.” he muttered to himself, walking back towards Pat. At least with them both on defense he could spend some time with his friend. He took another drink from the canteen, before passing it back to Pat, who put it back in the burlap sack and casually tossed it into the trench.
Wes scratched the back of his head. “Yeah, I should probably get back to defending now.”
“Nah, I want you to come with me, Wes.” she said, smiling. Wes’s ears pricked up in surprise. Hold up, was he being called in for combat?
“Noah, mind taking his place in the trench?” asked Pat. By the gods, he was!
“Yeah I do, actually.” shot back the other rider.
“That’s great, but I'm team leader.” Pat hopped back on her horse as Noah groaned and climbed off of his.
Wes stared at her blankly. “Well, what are you waiting for?” asked Noah as he passed by, tossing him his spear and helmet. He caught them clumsily, nearly dropping the spear, and passed Noah his sword.
“You sure this is a good idea?” he asked as he mounted Noah’s horse. He was shaking. “I’m fine with being on defense.”
He wasn’t fine with that.
“Totally sure.” said Pat confidently, putting her helmet back on. “Why should everyone else get all the fun?”
“Well, if you’re sure about this…” he said, putting on his helmet. He pulled on the reins, which made the horse spin around, and he saw Pat do the same. With that, the two sped off at a fast-paced gallop.
Wes loved the feeling of the cool air running past him, and through the slit in his helmet he saw other South Team trainees rushing back to base, presumably to take up defense. North Team soldiers ran or rode after the trainees in pursuit.
“They’re gonna be wide open, Wes!” shouted Pat. She whooped loudly and nudged her horse in the side, which made it go even faster. “I’ll be the diversion; you go in and trash their King!”
Though no one could see it, Wes was grinning like he had gone mad. He slowed his horse down and watched as Pat rushed the North Team’s base, spinning around at the last moment and drawing the guard’s attention. They ran off after her. Like Pat had said, they were wide open.
Wes laughed as he raced towards the King. It was getting closer by the second. However, he had a bad feeling something was about to go horribly wrong.
“Oh no you don’t!”
Before he could react, he saw someone flying towards him from almost out of nowhere. They leapt onto him, nearly knocking him off his horse, but he managed to cling on tightly. His horse, understandably spooked, whinnied and began to run off course.
“Shit!” he shouted, as he felt a fist connect with him. His head banged around inside his helmet, which rang like it was a bell.
Someone else was on his horse with him, facing towards him and tightly grabbing onto the horse with their legs. He felt two hands grab his helmet and throw it off, the horse nearly spinning out of control. He got a good look at his attacker’s face.
“The hell do you think you’re doing?” Wes cried. It was Dee Buckley, a pint-sized North Team soldier known for being… well, completely unhinged.
“Get away from the King, Southern scum!”
Wes threw every curse word in the book at Dee while he grappled with her on the speeding horse, which had began to run a circles in the mud. “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?!” Buckley yelled, pulling a rubber training knife from inside her tunic.
If struck in a vital place by a bladed weapon, you had to stop fighting, that was one of the rules of the exercise. Wes’s eyes widened. He couldn’t let Pat down.
Impulsively, he reached for the horse's reins, avoiding a swipe from Dee. With all of his strength he pulled on the reins, causing the horse to abruptly stop. Dee and Wes were sent soaring into the air.
The last thing Wes felt before he blacked out was the side of a tree.
“So let me get this straight; all I gotta do is collect a bunch of swords, and then I get a wish? Like, anything I want?”
“That’s the idea, yes.” the man replied in a booming voice.
Wes rubbed his forehead, trying to remember how he had gotten into this situation. He had been fighting Buckley, then… black. He couldn’t remember anything except for waking up in a beautiful grove in his pajamas. Small birds twittered in the brightly lit trees, and the sky was a beautiful, faded teal blue, clouds almost nonexistent.
Standing across from him was a tall, wide man in a red robe. Wavy blonde hair reached his shoulders, and his bushy brows were prominent. Below his eyebrows were two sunken eyes, which seemed to glow with an ancient power. He radiated an aura of authority and strength.
“So… what’d you say your name was, again?”
“Your mortal tongue cannot pronounce it.” he said. “How many letters do you have in your language?”
“Twenty… six?” said Wes. he was unsure, but felt confident in his answer. Did capitals count?
“We have trillions.”
Wes hadn't heard that word before. “That’s a lot, right?”
“Either way, you can call me Ophiel.”
“That’s not that hard to pronounce.” said Wes. “So, where are these swords?”
“I cannot tell you their locations, but there are sixteen of them. You must find them all to triumph.” Ophiel reached into his robe and drew two objects, gesturing for the young man to come close. “Open your hands, and face them towards me.”
Wes obliged, stretching his arms out. The angel sighed. “Palms up, please.” Wes turned his hands around.
“This…” Ophiel laid a small white whistle, carved from some sort of bone and encrusted with a red gemstone, into Wes’s open palm. The angel wrapped the knight’s fingers around it tightly. “Is the Angel Whistle. If you have questions or need guidance, call me with this and I will give you my assistance.”
“And this…” The angel laid the other object, a small steel medallion that had a countless amount of perfectly round jewels embedded in it, in Wes’s hand. A large stone was the center, and a ring of smaller jewels surrounded that, which was circled by another row of even smaller gems. All of them were clear as the sky above, with no scratches or impurities within.
“This is your greatest tool, the Periapt. When one of the swords is nearby, this will point you towards it like a compass. When you or one of your competition finds one of the swords, this will catalog who found it and how many of them are in their possession.”
“Wow, that’s… cool.” Wes pocketed both of the items. “Wait, competition?”
“You’re not the only one searching for the swords.” said Ophiel, turning his back to Wes.
Suddenly, the beautiful grove began to fade. The trees withered to dust, the skies turned grey and then black, and the woodland critters fled. Wes looked around in horror and confusion.
“My work here is done.”
Ophiel snapped his fingers.