Nobody said anything as the group traveled quickly through the forest. At first, the silence made Midnight uncomfortable, but nobody else seemed to mind so she decided to focus on the unstable ground. Even with Cynon holding her arm, she still managed to trip and fall on her hands, while the Mermaid's Keeper tried not to laugh.
Finally, after tumbling halfway down a slope, the Centaur decided to hoist her onto his back.
"Thank you," Midnight whispered as they started to walk.
"If you get hurt before you get to practice, Valrya might become a little..." he paused, searching for a delicate way to describe the Patron Faerie's reactions.
Midnight repressed a chuckle. "Got it." she replied. "So what are we practicing?"
"We are practicing. You still have a skill to find."
"Your skill. You know, the special gift that you were born with. Your talent." another voice replied.
Midnight turned around to see Arragus walking right next to her. The others had slowed down, too. Valrya snickered, like the fact that Midnight could posses any valuable skill was entirely unbelievable to her. Everyone else ignored her, although some of the Patrons cast Midnight doubtful looks. She tried to ignore it and turned to Arragus.
"But how will I know?"
"I don't know that yet. Most of the time, our given gifts are related to the Clan we belong to. Centaurs are good archers," he said, although he looked like he thought they were more than just 'good'. "Dragon children are good with all blades. Daggers, swords, knives, you name it. Goblins are crafty. They can make anything out of anything, given the proper environment. It may seem unhelpful in battle but they can get very creative."
Midnight cast a nervous look over her shoulder. Aidan was using his sword to help himself up the slippery slope. Xyleena, on the other hand, didn't seem to have any problems with the rough ground. She hung from branches and leaped from rocks so easily it looked like she had done it all her life. Arragus went on:
"Elves have a gift for speed. They can move quickly around obstacles and their agility is quite the advantage."
Midnight noticed the Centaur Patron had refrained from speaking of either Merfolk or Faeries. She was just about to ask when Brohand grumbled:
The rest of the Keepers started running up the hill. Midnight got off of Cynon, landing more off her feet than on them. They were standing on the very top of the hill, a slope leading to the castle on one side and a large oval field, like a clearing, on the other. The Keepers cheered and ran down the hill and into the clearing, slipping, tumbling and sliding across the ground, but a cold firm arm grabbed Midnight before she could go with them. She turned to look into Valrya's icy eyes.
"Come." she said. Her voice sent shivers down Midnight's back. She started walking toward the other Keepers but the Faerie steered her to the left, where the Council stood waiting.
"Suit up." Valrya said, pointing at a pile of metal resting against a boulder nearby. One by one, Midnight picked them up and studied them: a short dagger with a black leather hilt, a wide metal bracelet with various inscriptions on it and something else that seemed to fascinate the girl: a long, thin sword, with a short black hilt. As she picked it up, it seemed to vibrate in her hands. Suddenly, the whole forest shifted around and Midnight felt the same ghostly sensation she had felt in the long corridors. There was a sound like metal against metal as two people fought behind her. She turned slowly, taking in as much as she could. The trees looked the same and she was still in the clearing, but everything else was different. The four Keepers had vanished. Instead, seven other Creatures stood before her. The first one she recognized was Brohand, the Goblin. His skin seemed less wrinkled and a more vivid color of green, but he still looked very old. He stood against a large rock, his hands clasped together in front of him, looking at two girls fighting in the middle of the clearing. One of them had short, spiky crimson hair. Her face was very white and pale but her lips were as red as her hair. She parried a strike from her opponent with such ease that, if it weren't for the loud CLANG!, Midnight would have thought they were just pretending to fight. The opponent, a shorter girl with the same pale face, seemed very determined. Her hair was long and straight and quite strange, like it was made of millions of thin silver strings. They even seemed to make a faint noise as the girl moved around.
The read-headed girl charged fiercely and every time her sword hit the other blade sparks flew everywhere. Then, suddenly, with one move, she disarmed her opponent and threw her onto the ground, putting the blade close to her throat.
"Yield!" she said. It might have been the wind or just Midnight's head playing tricks on her, but her voice seemed very out of place, like something was terribly wrong with it. It sounded like a million whips hitting the air.
The silver-haired girl breathed heavily. She seemed to be in pain, although she wasn't physically hurt. She tried to make a sound but it was as if she were paralyzed. Then, finally, her breathing became even and she said:
The red-haired girl stood up, victorious. There was a loud clap as Brohand approached. The man next to him seemed familiar to Midnight. He was much younger than the Goblin and he had a bluish beard. His eyes were pitch black and he had his gaze fixed on the defeated girl. He seemed concerned, even though he was smiling.
Brohand shook the winner's hand and said:
"A good fight, Zarina. A good fight. Worthy of your Clan indeed! Am I not right, Marcus?"
There was a gleam of pride in the red-haired girl's eyes and...something else...a spark?
Marcus nodded absently and pushed past the two, toward the pale girl who was now stumbling away.
Midnight felt her heart jump in panic. She had already recognized her Patron, but seeing her defeated was not something she ever would have imagined.
Valrya turned slowly. She wasn't sad. She wasn't even embarrassed. Instead, her creamy light blue eyes seemed to shoot lightning bolts. She was so angry her features were distorted to such an extent it caused the man to stop in his tracks. But then she recomposed herself. She started to say something but the image shimmered and the trees started spinning again. Midnight found herself on the ground, like someone had knocked her over. Valrya was holding the sword. She looked just as angry as she had been in the vision. Her nostrils flared like she was going to blow fire. The other Patrons whispered. A green hand grabbed Midnight's shoulders and pulled her up with surprising force. A pair of black eyes met hers and the she thought she could see sadness behind them. It made her uncomfortable, like she was prying, so she looked away.
"I-I'm sorry. I don't know how..."
But Valrya cut her short.
"Just suit up."
She helped Midnight with her weapons and then they all headed for the center of the clearing. Everyone else had already gotten ready. Cynon had picked up a sword which he carefully sheathed. He started piling up his arrows, studying them one by one as he put them in the quiver. Across the clearing from him, Xyleena was jumping and running and ducking branches, coming in and out of the forest, tumbling and getting back on her feet again. Aimess had her hair pulled up in a bun on top of her head. There were two pins going through it in an X, each one with a pearl at one end. Farther away, Aidan rested against the hilt of his sword. He simply stood and looked around indifferently.
The Council drew near and everyone stopped what they were doing and gathered in the center. Arragus stepped forward and raised his hand. The Keepers broke into teams of two - Cynon and Aimess and Aidan and Xyleena. When the Centaur let his hand fell, the fights began.
They were quick - so quick that Midnight had trouble keeping up with them. Cynon drew his sword. It was short and sharp. He thrust it at Aimess but she slid past it easily. She grabbed the Centaur's arm and pulled, causing him to loose balance. He staggered but turned and swung his sword again, splitting one of the Mermaid's sleeves in half. The girl sneered and pulled the two pins out of her hair. Midnight noticed that they were, in fact, more like two thin knives that Mermaid Keeper maneuvered with incredible skill. Oddly enough, she also noticed Cynon was trying to avoid Aimess's gaze as he swung his blade at her again. He missed only by an inch, but the Mermaid was fast. Quickly, she took a tiny bottle tied around her waist and spilled the content on the floor. It was just water. At first, nothing happened. It just seemed like a puddle of water, but then it began to extend, until it was large enough for the girl to plunge into it, right at the Centaur's feet. He looked dazed and began to back up, but suddenly two hands sprung out of the water and pulled him by the hooves. Cynon slipped and fell in face-first with a giant splash that doused everything around.
Midnight's heart sank and she yelped in surprise but after a moment two heads emerged from the puddle. Cynon was choking and spitting water, but was otherwise in no danger. Aimess, however, looked entirely different. Her hair was an intense shade of yellow, looking like it was made entirely out of gold. Even her face had changed color, because it shone brighter than before. She wasn't wearing her simple dress anymore, but instead her skin had become covered in blue scales and her feet had turned into a large tail.
On the other side of the clearing the fight between Xyleena and Aidan was still going on. At first, they had circled each other for a while, trying to find weak spots in the other's defense. Xyleena had attacked first but Aidan had parried easily. He smirked, which seemed to make the Goblin-Elf Keeper angry. She cursed in a language that Midnight didn't understand and, with a few quick steps, ran behind the Dragon Keeper. He was surprised and before he could turn around, Xyleena kicked him and he fell in the dirt. Aidan sprung to his feet in no time, and swung his sword at the Elven girl. She ducked and pulled a white strip of silk that was wrapped around her leg, handling it like a whip. For a while, they went back to circling each other, until finally Arragus shouted:
The Keepers reacted at the same time. Xyleena jumped so high she went over Aidan's head. Her ribbon curled around the boy's weapon arm and turned him in place. He lost his balance for a moment but then pulled back his arm. Xyleena stumbled forward and Aidan put his sword to her throat. At the same time, the girl produced a dagger that she held to his neck in return. There was shock all over her opponent's face.
"You took my dagger?"
Xyleena smiled devilishly.
"You shouldn't carry so many knives unless you can keep track of them. Yield!"
At that moment, Arragus stepped forward.
"It would seem that you are tied."
The two held onto each other for a second but then let go at the same time and backed away quickly.
"That was amazing!" Xyleena beamed when Midnight was within earshot. She nodded. "Nobody ever beats Aidan. Especially elves. Dragons have a way with weapons..." the girl went on, but Midnight wasn't listening. Arragus was signaling for her. She pushed past the Council and the group of Keepers. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed someone else was being called as well.
Midnight drew her sword and almost tripped under its weight. It hadn't seemed as heavy when she'd first picked it up, she thought. It vibrated dully and flashes of different scenes passed before her eyes. A woman running. Swords clashing. Then she was back in the clearing. Arragus looked worried, but said nothing. Behind her, someone else drew a sword. Midnight turned to face the Dragon Keeper. Then, without any warning, he swung it forward, hitting her with the hilt.
She staggered and fell back. Aidan chuckled and she could hear him talking under his breath:
"This is too easy..."
Midnight struggled to get up. She grabbed her sword tightly, and just as Aidan was about to hit her again, it started to vibrate in her hand. Scenes shot through her mind at the speed of light again and suddenly, she rose her left arm. Aidan's sword hit her metal bracelet and ricocheted violently, flying out of his hands. He turned around and drew two daggers with black blades.
Midnight's sword still vibrated in her hands. As the Dragon Keeper thrust his hand forward, another image ran through her head. Instinctively, she swung around, parrying Aidan's attack, and throwing away his left dagger. With another swing of the sword, she blocked his second attack, disarming him completely. However, Aidan didn't seem too discouraged. He grabbed at the side of his belt, pulling out another blade and charged. Then, something happened. Midnight threw her sword at the boy, missing him only by an inch as it flew over his head. Almost as quickly, she turned on the spot and shot up in the air after it, grabbing the hilt before it could even hit the ground and, still in the air, she twirled to face the Keeper's back. She was fast. But Aidan had more experience. He ducked and turned and grabbed Midnight by her legs, pulling her to the ground. Before she could recover from her fall, Aidan had already put the sword to her chest.
"Yield," he said, his voice shaking from all of the effort. There was a low whistle as Arragus came forward. He raised his hand and his voice echoed, as he spoke.
"Very well, Aidan. Rest your weapons."
The boy sheathed the blade and pushed past the Centaur, walking to the edge of the clearing. Everyone turned to look at Midnight. Arragus put his hand on her shoulder, pulling her back to the Council. The Keepers drew nearer, but kept out of earshot as the Patrons formed a circle around her. They were whispering in a strange language, casting her concerned looks, and even though she tried to focus harder, hoping to hear something familiar, her head felt so heavy she could barely concentrate enough to walk.
Then, suddenly, the Patrons stopped arguing and Valrya gestured toward Lamilay, who was having a heated argument with Brohand.
"Take her inside, she doesn't look so well." the Faerie ordered him. The boy complied and took Midnight by the arm.
As they passed in front of the Keepers, she heard two of them arguing. Out of the corner of her eye, she recognized Xyleena and Aidan, but she couldn't make out much of what they were saying.
"You could have...weak...not yet ready!" Xyleena whispered in an angry voice. Aidan laughed and gestured in front of his face like he was chasing away some annoying insect:
"Weakness...no place in the battlefield...girl..."
Midnight turned away from them as her and Lamilay re-entered the castle.