Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language, violence, and mature content.
"Rite of Passage" is the first piece of Tales of the Conclave, a book of short stories that take place within the YWU. It is a stand-alone piece and can be read on its own or with the other stories within the series, but it is recommended that the stories are read in the order of publishing, so concepts previously covered make sense to readers. "Rite of Passage" is rated 18+ for language, violence, and mature themes, and Tales of the Conclave is rated 16+ overall. For the table of contents, lore, or more information, click the link below:
The sun shining through the window woke Juventas up, casting a bright glow across his face as he blinked awake. His room was eerily quiet as he got out of bed and slid on clothes, colorful patterns his mother had made to be eye-catching and brilliant. He smiled as he ran his fingers over the silky, soft fabric, the tips of his long, free hair grazing his back as he buttoned the shirt. When he finished, he pulled it free, feeling it fall behind him in fair locks. He grabbed his wooden bead necklace, setting it around his neck and fingering the beads in an absent gesture. Something felt wrong...
"Juve!" His mother's voice called from the other room. The thought vanished. He smiled and opened the door to go to the living room, his eyes flitting over his older sister Jovana's lightly painted door across from his in the hallway. Her steady painting hand was clear in the artful forest scenery, and Juventas' fingers reached out to brush against the wood. Juventas smiled softly— and froze as the image seemed to flicker. Weapons, the cold of the mountain tips, screams and blood-soaked snow trails, entrances rising from the white crimson and dark, muscled figures with glares of glass, depicted in masterful brush strokes. The designs sparked something in his memory, something tugging to come loose, but his mother called again and the thoughts were forgotten. "Juve, come sit for breakfast!"
He walked to the kitchen, bare feet on tile. The sensation felt unfamiliar, like a memory from a long time ago as he pulled his chair back and sat down at the table next to Jovana. His mother sat across from him, his father to the left of him at the end of the table. The smell of home cooking filled the air, and he pushed his hair back behind his shoulders as his mouth began to water.
"Juventas," his father said in his soft tone. Juventas looked at him, the blond wisps of hair turning to gray, his piercing blue eyes watching him. "Now that you are seven, your mother and I have decided that you can start your studies. After your school days, you'll come to my workplace and I will show you what I do. You can begin to learn the art of wine." Juventas' breath caught. The family secrets had been passed from generation to generation, father to son. There were no written records of anything: everything was in his father's head. And he was finally old enough to learn?
"Just like you've always wanted," his mother said. Her short brown hair hung in curtains around her face, framing it as she watched him with a hopeful smile. "Happy seventh birthday!"
Juventas began to smile too, but it flickered and he couldn't make himself smile fully. "Seven," he repeated, his eyes passing over everyone at the table — his mother, studying him happily, his father's watchful gaze, Jovana's bright blue eyes. "Father, I'm—" he paused. "I'm not seven."
"Of course you are," Jovana said, voice bubbly and bright and... young. She sounded so young. For some reason, that set Juventas' nerves on edge. "You're seven, and I'm ten."
"I'm not..." he stopped uncertainly. "I'm not seven anymore." He suddenly became aware of how tight and restricting his clothes felt, like they were several sizes too small for him. He tugged at them subconsciously, feeling like they were beginning to choke him.
Jovana tilted her head, and for a moment she changed, shimmering into a fourteen-year-old, dead-eyed girl in a white wedding dress, bruises covering her arms. Juventas didn't understand how such blue eyes could look so... vacant. She faded back quickly to the ten-year-old in front of him, and Juventas wondered if he'd imagined it. He blinked, uncertain, and when he opened his eyes, he screamed. His mother's face remained calm and pleasant, clear despite the blood flowing from the cut of a knife across her neck.
"It's what you've always wanted, Juventas," she whispered, reaching a hand out towards him, and he shrank back, falling out of his chair. "You've always wanted to learn the secrets of our family, to know the tradition."
"The secrets died with me," his father croaked, and Juventas recoiled when he looked over to see the bruised and bloody face, blood dripping from his left ear which was partially cut, a gaping hole in his chest. The fabric around the sword end sticking from him shone with fresh red, and Juventas scrambled backwards as his father stood, his hands skeletal and empty. Jovana watched sadly.
"There is no art anymore where we have gone, little brother," she murmured. "No brushes and rainbows and colorful forests. Now—" her gaze turned to land on him, and she changed back to the dull, sorrowful eyes, the older face and features— "our fingers are our only brushes, and if I want to paint, I must do so in blood." She studied him, laying on the floor as he pushed himself away from the table. "Dried blood is useless. But yours is still fresh." She reached for him.
Juventas woke with a gasp, bolting up on his hay mattress, panting to catch his breath. He clenched his hands tightly into fists on his blanket, silently praying he hadn't woken anyone else with the noise. There were a few rustles as people turned in their sleep, but after several seconds, he slowly relaxed his grip. No one had heard. His eyes scanned the room, but unlike in his dream, no sunlight could reach him here — and even if it could, it wouldn't be up yet. He closed his eyes briefly and kept his thoughts on his breaths, trying to slow them down. No weakness. No pain. Showing them would only bring down more on him.
With his left hand, he pushed his hair, stuck to his forehead with sweat, up and away. Even though it had been four years since he and his sister had been taken, he still wasn't used to the short haircut. It was standard for the Wintercloud faction, and Elder Wintercloud would've scoffed at anything deemed even remotely feminine, but he couldn't help but miss his long locks. He pushed the thought away. He couldn't afford to think of anything like that. His life no longer revolved around what made him happy, but what kept him alive — which meant proving his worth to his master, his Elder, and his faction.
At the thought of his master, Juventas sat up fully. Maybe if he was already dressed and ready by the time Dyten showed up, he'd be more pleased with him. Juventas got the feeling he'd been disappointing Dyten more and more lately, which wasn't surprising, but it was terrifying. Juventas had been one of the worst in training up until the age of ten, and he'd been one of the worst picks of the entrance trials; there had been several times he'd been sure they were going to toss him in the snow to freeze to death with anyone else they didn't deem worthy. But for some reason, he'd caught the attention of Dyten, a Wintercloud rider in his late twenties. Dyten wasn't one of the best riders, and he wasn't one of Elder Wintercloud's favorites either, but he was skilled enough to train someone. Maybe that was why Juventas had been chosen to train with him — he was that too. He could learn, but he wasn't the best, and Elder Wintercloud certainly hadn't taken a shining with him.
Juventas had a vaguely sick feeling that the more accurate reason Dyten had asked to train him was because of Jovana, thirteen by the time Juventas had completed the trials. He'd never approached the subject though — he wouldn't dare— and Dyten had never brought it up either. Elder Wintercloud had married Jovana at the age of fourteen a few months ago to another older rider, Kalief, and Dyten hadn't spoken of her since, though he'd certainly seemed to act angrier around Juventas. And now, if he was disappointing him... Juventas pushed the thought away. He'd do what he needed to, whatever was needed to impress and please him. Anything to avoid a whipping, to avoid being abandoned in the mountains and left to the frostbite: because that was how you survived here. Juventas had learned quickly that whatever moral boundaries you set for yourself could be broken if only you wanted to live enough; it was a lesson he'd learned when he knew that beating another boy out in the trials meant he would die instead of him — and it was a lesson he'd learned when he realized that he would do anything he could to stay alive, even though it meant another boy froze to death on the mountains.
Juventas carefully turned on his bed and slid to the ground in a silent motion that had clearly been practiced. He was on a top bunk and careful not to wake the boy below him, Daukantas, who was known to rough up the younger boys for show. Juventas had had several black eyes from him, and he wasn't anxious to repeat the experience. The long room was filled with the noises of twenty sleeping boys as Juventas opened a drawer and pulled out a white shirt and flexible pants for training clothes. He hadn't been used to getting dressed in the dark before coming to the Conclave, but now, he could do it in his sleep. He also hadn't been used to training to a bloody pulp, but it seemed you got used to anything if you did it long enough. At eleven, he had clearly defined muscles from the nonstop work, and scars lined his arms and legs.
His mind drifted to his father, the generations of the wine business secrets that had died with him. He thought of his mother, her throat slit in the middle of the night. He swallowed and pushed the memories away. That night was awful, but it had to happen. Or he wouldn't be here. And no matter what he could remember from before he was taken at age seven, no matter what lessons of peace and kindness his parents had taught him, he didn't know who he would be if he weren't here. He felt like he'd been changed from the inside out, broken and reconstructed over and over again. And they told him it was to make him stronger, and it had happened so many times now that he was starting to believe it. Peace and kindness were nice fantasies, but did they really have a place in a world of pain and blood?
His head jerked up as the door to the hall opened, and he pressed himself against the metal bars of the bed to hide more. "Everyone up!" A voice shouted harshly, and a rider already in gear stepped into the room with a torch. He started walking along the bunk beds, banging each one jarringly as he did, but it was pointless. Within five seconds after him yelling, everyone was out of bed and on the ground, standing up straight. Juventas straightened reflexively as the rider's gaze swept over and past him, then came back. The man's eyes narrowed, and he sneered, "Cute little boy. Sleep in your clothes?"
A few of the older boys in the room, ones as old as seventeen who weren't favorites of Wintercloud or hadn't been married off yet, snickered. A few of the younger boys chuckled nervously. The youngest ones, Juventas' age, stayed silent, watching the rider. Some watched with hesitation and fear, but Juventas saw one or two who were watching with anticipation and awe. You could tell immediately that they were the boys who had grown up here, had never known anything else. They were either taken when they were too young to remember, or born to another rider. All the older riders were their role models, the people they'd been told to look up to since they were little. Maybe that was why so many of them were such big assholes.
"Come on little boy, I'm just messing with you," the rider said with a wicked grin. He didn't look like he was messing with him. It was a jab about most boys sleeping in their boxers; for whatever reason, it was viewed as girly to sleep with your clothes on. Juventas was no exception and hadn't slept in clothes since before he was taken, but he knew better than to argue with an older rider — he wasn't in the mood to get beat up— so he stayed silent through the criticism. Finally, the rider seemed to get bored with his lack of reaction and turned around. "Alright boys, get ready. You have five minutes, then everyone should be in the food hall. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and if you arrive late, nobody's going to help clean up your vomit when you throw up at training, so move it." He grinned, lighting the two torches in their room before leaving with his. He was likely off to wake up the two other rooms of boys their age in the Wintercloud faction.
Juventas frowned slightly. Did that mean Dyten wasn't picking him up? He did that sometimes, just to get in some training before breakfast. But clearly, Juventas' nightmare had carried him in sleep later than he'd thought. He was up just in time to eat. Already dressed, he didn't move as the boys around him started pulling on their clothes, all looking practically identical to him. There was no originality in the Conclave, but when Juventas had asked about it, Dyten had said it was to keep order, which Juventas supposed made sense. He'd also gotten a few lashes for the comment, so he definitely wasn't going to question it anymore.
He considered leaving the room before the group of boys and going to the food hall on his own, but he decided quickly against it. The only way he wouldn't get picked on mercilessly by the adult riders was if he stayed with the other teens and kids, who still picked on each other, but at least it was more playful.
"Hey, Juvie!" Daukantas smirked as he walked to him, dressed and ready. He stood at least a foot over Juventas since he was seventeen. He was practically an adult. "You heard anything about that sister of yours lately? Kalief told me she's finally started obeying him. It's too bad you don't have two sisters, my brother and I could've gotten a matching set." He grinned, but it looked like a predatory smile. Juventas tried not to show how sick the words made him feel because he couldn't do anything about it. Girls were treated differently here, and Jovana was no exception.
"Finally learned how to watch her tongue?" Another boy, Pierce, interjected, then laughed. "Kalief seemed close to cutting it off the last time I heard from him about her."
Daukantas shrugged. "He left her in the dungeons for a few days without any food or water. The rats seemed to shut her up." He was still smiling, like the information didn't bother him. "Don't know why the new ones always insist on making a big deal about things like that. Just don't know their place, I guess." He turned back to Juventas. "Come on, little boy, time to go eat." He wrapped an arm around Juventas' neck in a playful choke-hold but didn't squeeze too tightly, just enough for Juventas to have trouble getting breaths in. He ruffled his short hair lightly before shoving him out of his grasp and laughing as he stumbled. "Let's go," he said, raising his voice to the rest of the room. Any younger boys still getting dressed quickly finished and followed Daukantas as he led the group out of the room. He was the biggest and oldest of the group, and even though there were other seventeen-year-olds, he'd beat his way to the top pretty quickly. They all followed his lead.
They traveled through the halls as a group, Daukantas and the older boys at the front, while the younger ones trailed in the back. The only younger boys that even dared to get close to the front were the ones who had been born here. There were groups of older riders in the halls, some moving towards the food hall, some just talking. A group of tiefling riders from the Tobar faction watched their group moving with amusement. One of them, a blue-skinned man with a scar stretching across one of his eyes, smirked as he caught Juventas' gaze. "See something you like, little Winterling?"
Another of the riders snorted and said, "Shut up, Daxus. You're about as attractive as a Winterling." This seemed to crack up the rest of the group even more.
"I don't know. They've got a few guys I'd bang if I got the chance," he said nonchalantly, then grinned. "If Edric hasn't gotten there first, that is. How's Malik doing, Edric? Talked to him lately?"
The boy he was talking to, Edric, rolled his eyes, a vaguely annoyed expression showing on his orange face. "Talk is a loose term. You could have better conversations with a rock." A faint shout of "hey!" came from a way down the hallway from who Juventas could only assume was Malik, and he saw Edric smile faintly. His eyes trailed over to the group of kids and his smile dropped. Juventas looked away, not wanting to hear anything more. He didn't need pity from a Tobar rider, not when they were enemies of the Wintercloud faction. They may all be a part of the Conclave, but Juventas knew if a Tobar rider had the chance, he'd kill any Wintercloud rider without hesitation if he could frame it as an accident. Any Wintercloud rider would probably do the same. Soon, the group of boys turned a corner and Juventas could no longer hear their conversation. He let out a small sigh.
"Juventas," a voice called, and he turned to see Dyten walking towards him purposely, already in training gear.
"Yes, master?" Juventas said, trying not to show the surprise on his face. If they didn't train before breakfast, he usually didn't bother with him until after.
Dyten set a heavy hand on Juventas' shoulder and pulled him out of the group of boys. A few looked at them, but most didn't seem to care and kept walking. They had reached the food hall, and Juventas watched as the other boys filed through the doors. "You're eating with me today," he said. It wasn't a question — nothing from Dyten ever was— but he still responded.
"Yes, sir. May I ask — why?" He said it hesitantly, and Dyten cuffed him behind his head.
"No, you may not," he said in a way that was definitely making fun of the way Juventas had asked. He said nothing in response to that because there was nothing to say.
"Come on, get your food tray and come to where I'm sitting." He walked through the door and Juventas trailed after him. The food hall was huge, with at least a dozen long tables stretching from one end to the other. It had to be huge to house everyone who lived in the Conclave, the recruits and riders and retired riders and families and wives and women. The only people who didn't eat in the food hall were the people on guard duty, people being punished, and the Elders. The Elders rarely made appearances for any of the meals.
He walked down the aisle between two of the long tables, making sure to keep his hands to himself and not brush against anybody. Everyone was always aggressive about physical space and touch at the Conclave, and he'd seen enough fights during meals to know it was better to just be careful. He finally reached the end of the food line and grabbed a tray, waiting for around ten minutes before getting any food. Once he'd gotten all he wanted, he left the line early and looked around for several seconds before spotting Dyten with a group of older riders. He didn't recognize most of them, but Dyten had told him to go to him, and he definitely wasn't going to ignore an order like that.
"What took you so long? You were gone for a good twenty minutes," Dyten snapped as Juventas made his way over to him, and he barely stopped himself from physically recoiling.
"The line was long, sir," he said with a steady voice, choosing not to correct him on the amount of time.
"Yeah, whatever. Sit down," he said, moving slightly to show a narrow spot on the bench that was still free. Juventas worked his way into it and set his tray down in front of him, not sure if he should say anything. Was there a reason Dyten had asked him to sit here? The other riders already seemed to be deep in a conversation talking to one another, and it was clear they were in the middle of something.
" —The nest," one was saying, an older rider who looked to be in his late thirties. "And as the mother dragon was lowering down, those goats kept their weapons pointed at me. It was clear they were trying to trap me in the nest, kill me off like they probably did with anyone else who tried to steal those dragon eggs. I wanted to rip off their tails, see how smug they looked when I wore them as a winter coat." Juventas, feeling slightly green, picked up a roll and bit into it, the word 'goat' lingering in his mind. The slur was used exclusively for tieflings because of their legs, horns, and tails, and it was one of the cruder descriptions that Wintercloud riders threw around to describe the Tobar faction. Rumors had it that Elder Wintercloud used the word nonstop, and that the riders closest to him had also picked up his blatant racism, but Juventas had never been close enough to his Elder to know for certain.
"Gods, Ty, keep your voice down, you idiot," the guy next to the older rider muttered. At the table behind them sat a group of tieflings, all looking slightly stiff, Juventas noticed. One of the tieflings had purple hands that were gripping the edge of the table harshly, and it looked like his claws were starting to slide into place.
"Shut it, Maddon," Ty said. "So this mother dragon is circling downwards, and her claws raked all over my body, but that wasn't what won me my rite of passage." Juventas perked up, suddenly paying more attention. Rite of passage? He'd never heard that term before. Ty rolled up his right sleeve to show a section of skin that was uneven and pink. "Bit through my chain-mail. She definitely got a taste of me before I could ward her off. The goats got too scared and ran off, so I managed to grab her two eggs and ran like there was no tomorrow. Nearly passed out from the blood loss, but —" he grinned— "it was worth it. The looks on those goats' faces when they realized I was not only alive, but had come to their little town to kill them? Priceless."
"Rite of passage?" Juventas asked softly, and Dyten sneered at him.
"Nothing you need to concern yourself with. You'll likely never get it anyway. Stay a man-child forever." Across the table, Maddon laughed, and Ty glanced over at Juventas.
"Never heard the stories, boy?" He asked. "You've been here, what? Three years?"
"Four," Dyten corrected. "And he's never heard them because he has no need. He'll never do it."
Ty ignored him, rolling down his sleeve. "Here, you don't become a man with age. You become a man with blood and sweat and glory. It's one of the few things all the factions can actually agree on — you're not a man until you've tasted death on your tongue and bared your teeth at him. The only way to become a man is to get an injury so big that only the worthy can walk away from it. Get hurt so much that only a rider with a god's blessing on his back could survive the night. And when you get your rite of passage, once you survive the unsurvivable, you're a man. People'll have to respect you then — doesn't matter if they hate you. They'll respect you."
"It'll never happen," Dyten interjected. "He's weak and inexperienced." The anger and disappointment in Dyten's voice made Juventas' heart skip a beat, and he ate another bite of his food to calm himself down. He was running out of time. The minute your master got tired of you was the minute no one was defending for you to stay. And when that happened, he'd be thrown out as easily as the trash.
"Makes sense why he got assigned to you then," Maddon put in, and Ty laughed.
"You gonna let your master think of you like that?" He asked Juventas, who stayed silent. He certainly couldn't talk back to Dyten, but he didn't think that was what Ty was suggesting. His words echoed in his mind: When you get your rite of passage, once you survive the unsurvivable, you're a man. People'll have to respect you then— doesn't matter if they hate you. They'll respect you.
"Leave the kid alone, Ty," Maddon said, elbowing him. "He knows how to save his own skin."
"And why do you say that?" Dyten said.
"Because he knows when to shut up — like the opposite of Malik. I bet half his punishments wouldn't happen if he'd learn to shut his mouth. Fourteen, and he acts like he owns the damn place." All three riders looked annoyed. He'd vaguely heard of Malik — the chosen one of their generation, the kid Elder Wintercloud was taking on personally— but he didn't have an opinion on him. As long as the anger was towards someone else, he could be happy.
"Malik's a grade-A asshole," Ty put in. "I'd like to hold the whip myself for his next punishment."
"Don't be ridiculous," Dyten said. "Elder Wintercloud would never let anyone punish his prized pupil but him. As strong-headed and dumb as the rest of them."
"He does seem to have a type, doesn't he?" Maddon said thoughtfully. "He really does choose the bully out of every recruitment group, and without fail, they're all the most idiotic and reckless riders to ever walk the Conclave."
Ty snorted and said something in agreement, and Dyten said, "Yeah, I've been watching the new recruits, and I can already tell that one of them is about to get a very good position. Even if he's not trained by Elder Wintercloud, he'll be assigned to someone high up— maybe Vince and the twins' dad, or a former pupil Elder Wintercloud trained."
"Isn't Vince and the twins' dad already a former pupil?" Maddon asked.
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean he might not assign the kid to someone else."
"Now what I want to know is why you've been watching the recruits," Ty said with a glint in his eye. "You're not talented enough to be assigned to help train them, so that's out of the question, and it isn't trials season, so they aren't battling to the death yet, just training. Where's the fun in spending your free time there? You can't even snatch one of them up since you already have a pupil."
Dyten watched him with cold eyes. "I'm just watching," he said shortly. Juventas felt his whole body tense. He'd thought maybe he was reading too much into Dyten's moods, but that clearly wasn't true. Dyten was so angry and disappointed in him that he was actually considering dumping him and getting another pupil. There was no other reason for him to be watching the recruits this time of year. Every year, the ones who turned ten would perform different events to test their skills in different areas, try to beat each other out for a position. It was one of the few big events at the Conclave; everyone went, people brought their families, they placed bets on which ones would make it and which ones would be thrown out. It was a fun event to attend, but a terrifying one to take place in, and he felt his insides twist and turn at the memories. He'd fought as hard as he could, and he was still doing that now. He'd been doing everything he could during practice and training, he'd been putting his best effort into everything. What was he doing wrong?
"Hey, did you see the new piece Elder Wintercloud brought in?" Ty asked. "She's hot. She also looks younger than me."
"Wonder how long that'll last," Maddon mused. "They don't usually stick around too long. He seems to get tired of them so quickly."
"I'm ready for him to finally assign someone to marry me," Dyten said, annoyed. "Gods know nothing's happened naturally yet. I'm twenty-eight— he usually starts assigning at sixteen."
"So the question here is what did you do to piss him off," Maddon said teasingly. "You had your eyes on that Jovana girl for a while, didn't you? Too bad Kalief snatched her up pretty quickly."
"You wouldn't want her," Ty interjected. "I heard from Kalief she's been a handful to train. Now she's someone who needs to learn to shut her mouth."
"Like Lavinia. Only she can get away with it because she's married to one of Elder Wintercloud's favorites and she has three brothers who'll beat the shit out of anyone who says anything about her," Maddon said.
"Since when do you talk to your sons?" Dyten asked Ty, and Ty shrugged.
"I only talk to Kalief and Daukantas when one of them does something wrong. I'm their father, not their master," Ty said. "The only reason I ended up hearing about it was because Kalief was in one of the training rooms at the same time as me. Said Jovana's been giving him endless trouble, never stops crying. Like she never grew out of the toddler phase, still having nightmares about her parents. What kind of parent cripples their kid like that, to make them that dependent on them?"
"It's weird how civilians do things," Maddon said casually. "They give birth to the kids and then instead of sending them away to a nursery or training, they just... keep them."
Ty remarked with disgust, "Maybe that's why Jovana is a little brat."
Juventas felt uncomfortable hearing them talk about his sister like that, but since he'd hardly gotten to see her over the past four years, it was more of a distant pain. Memories from before the age of seven began to blur by the time you reached age eleven, and his certainly had. As their conversation continued however and they changed topics, Juventas zoned out, circling back to the one thing that had stood out to him. The rite of passage... they'd talked about it like it was a sacred ritual, something that every rider had to go through. And once you did, people were impressed with you. He felt the panic rise in him every time he was with Dyten because it seemed like he could number the days he had left, and now that he knew Dyten was watching the new recruits, he knew for certain he was on borrowed time. Dyten was getting angrier and angrier at Juventas' lack of progress, and with how behind he already was with training since he started so late, one misstep could easily lead to his death. With him watching new recruits, he might even be able to lay claim to a new pupil within a matter of days after having Juventas abandoned in the mountains. All he'd have to do was ask Elder Wintercloud for permission, and then as soon as they passed the trials, assuming Elder Wintercloud had agreed, they'd be his.
But if he got hurt... his mind began to whiz as his thoughts came to him faster. If he got injured enough to toe the edge of death, then maybe he could impress Dyten. Maybe he could show his master he was worth keeping around, that he was a man now, that he was worthy. He wasn't the scared seven-year-old who had screamed when the riders had killed his family, he wasn't the little kid they had to lock in the back of the wagon to drag him back to the Conclave with everyone else they'd kidnapped, he wasn't the boy who cried himself to sleep at night for the first solid week after he'd gotten here. He was an eleven-year-old, someone who had been here for four years, who understood how it worked now. He had learned how he needed to survive, everything in his life was mapped around continuing it, and now, he had finally discovered the next step. The only way to recapture Dyten's attention, to stay here and stay alive, was to do something so drastic, it would capture everyone's attention. He'd need to get himself hurt on purpose, get so close to death he could taste him— and bare his teeth at him. Juventas needed to earn his rite of passage.
A week later, Juventas still hadn't figured out how he would do it. He knew he'd need it to be something big, and somehow he'd have to get hurt badly — but how did he turn it from being seen as a reckless mistake to a heroic sacrifice? The question haunted him as he slept less and less, the knowledge of his own time running out always on his mind and keeping him awake. He found his reflexes becoming less sharp as the lack of sleep began to affect his body, and at one point, Dyten stormed out of his training session in anger after Juventas hadn't been able to block a simple strike with his sword. Dyten had yelled that he'd better "get your shit together" under the threat of a public whipping as punishment, and Juventas had known then that he needed to find the answer to his question — or he'd be gone before he could.
Three days after the sword incident, and Juventas finally got what he'd been searching for: an opportunity. It was after dinner one night, in one of the common lounges. Juventas was sitting on the floor in a group of boys, several from his room including Pierce and Daukantas, and a few that he didn't recognize — presumably from other rooms or with higher-ranked masters. The chairs and couches were always reserved for the adult riders, but one boy was sitting on the couch next to the conversation like he owned the place, chiming in occasionally in an "I-know-all" type of voice.
"You're all idiots," the boy was saying. "You think a regular woodland creature could be killing that many guards? You think they're getting taken out by a pack of wolves, or a tiger?"
"Know something you're not saying, Malik?" Pierce asked in a slightly annoyed tone. "If you do, just spit it out."
The boy, Malik, grinned. "But what fun would that be, Pierce?" He waited for a few seconds, then said casually, "I've only heard rumors. Cadoc and Vince have been speculating about it a lot lately."
"What did they say?" Daukantas asked, watching the fourteen-year-old with the same expression of annoyance that Pierce wore. Juventas realized why — Malik was several years younger than them, but he was clearly higher ranked, and he knew it. Pierce and Daukantas were jealous of this boy. His mind flashed back to the brief conversation at breakfast around a week ago, when he'd sat with Dyten. Hadn't they been talking about a Malik? It clicked in his mind. Malik — he was the boy being trained by Elder Wintercloud! Juventas studied him with a slight frown. He didn't look like much: short, muscular, an infuriatingly smug look on his face. But if he was being trained by Elder Wintercloud himself, then he must've done something to catch his attention.
"Cadoc said his wife Lavinia was talking with some of the other women, that one of their husbands just died on guard duty. The woman said that his body was covered in huge claw marks, and that there was barely anything left to bury," Malik said in a surprisingly nonchalant voice for how gruesome the thing he was describing was. It made Juventas uncomfortably aware of his background because only a person raised here could speak about death that easily.
"Lavinia's a bitch who doesn't know when to keep her mouth closed. She gossips so much I'm surprised she has a voice left," muttered a boy that Juventas didn't recognize, looking to be a few years older than Malik, which meant he was several years older than Juventas.
Malik looked at him, the same smile on his face, but Juventas could see the glint behind his eye. "Might want to be careful what you say, Whistler. I'd hate for your pretty little face to get bruised from a pair of brass knuckles." Juventas stiffened, and he could feel the atmosphere get serious around him as the other boys stiffened too. Everyone could feel the tension in the air.
"You threatening me?" Whistler said, standing in a challenge. Malik's lip turned upward but he didn't move from his spot on the couch, which felt more like defiance than anything else he'd done.
"Don't be ridiculous," he said. "I don't need a pair of brass knuckles to beat you. I don't even own one. But all her brothers do, and I'm not known for keeping my mouth shut, especially when my brother is married to the girl you're calling a bitch."
Whistler moved towards Malik, and Juventas saw Malik's eyes narrow just a fraction before he was on his feet and they were fighting. Even amidst the chaos, it was clear Malik was winning. By the time any of the adults in the room noticed and moved towards them, Malik had the other boy pinned to the ground and his fist raised above his face.
"Come on Malik, walk it off you drama queen," a man muttered as he grabbed Malik by the top of his arm and yanked him off the other boy.
"He called Lavinia a bitch," Malik said coldly, and the man stiffened. He glanced back at the boy.
"That so?" he said, looking up and down the boy with new anger.
"Let go, Gyles. You trying to make my arm fall off?" Malik scowled, and the man, Gyles, let go.
"What's your name?" He said, walking towards Whistler and hauling him to his feet. Whistler watched him with anger, but the fear seeping into him was clear to anyone watching.
"Whistler," he said.
"Well, Whistler," Gyles said, holding him in a grip that was far too tight, "let's have a little chat." He practically dragged him from the room, and Malik seemed to watch with mild interest before sitting down on the couch again, undisturbed. Malik didn't even look like he'd just been in a fight, and there were no obvious wounds that suggested it.
"So Vince's guess is that it's a rogue dragon," Malik continued as if the entire event hadn't just happened. "One of those ones who's gone mad after her eggs were stolen or something, and now she's killing any person she sees as revenge."
Juventas finally found the courage to speak up. "Who was that?" he interrupted. "The man who broke up your fight?"
Malik didn't bother to glance at him. "Gyles. He's one of Lavinia's older brothers."
"So you think it's a dragon?" Daukantas put in, steering the conversation back to the attacks on the guards that had only started within the past few weeks.
"What else could it be?" Pierce said. "Stupid little thing thinks she can kill us with no consequences." Juventas didn't voice his thought that maybe it was the other way around. Maybe it was the riders stealing the dragon's eggs who thought they could do it with no consequences, and now she was proving them wrong.
"It doesn't matter what the dragon thinks," Daukantas said. "If she's rogue, she can hardly think at all. Dragons who aren't bonded to riders don't think the same way — they don't think in people terms at all because they don't have any connection to a person's brain and experiences. We're just another item on the menu to her."
"It," Malik corrected. "If the dragon is rogue and just an animal, then it needs to be killed before it kills more of us."
"Why don't you do it then?" Daukantas said with a half-sneer.
Malik gave him a smirk that showed he wasn't phased by the taunt. "Why don't you, Daukantas? You always were wishing you could prove your worth. Think of all the glory that would come from slaying a dragon! You'd die before you could of course, but think of what could happen if you were half as good as you claim to be."
Another man, slightly younger than Gyles, walked over, one with dark hair the same shade as Malik's and pale skin the same tone. He pulled Malik to his feet and put him in a loose headlock. Malik wrapped his arms around the buff arm and did a maneuver that Juventas could hardly follow, but somehow, Malik had used his momentum to flip himself up and over the man. It all happened in a split second, so fast Juventas could barely comprehend, but it seemed the man could, because as soon as Malik began the rise into the air to flip over him and out of his grasp, the man changed his grip and yanked Malik tight against his chest. "Don't try your stupid acrobatics on me, you idiot," the man said, and Malik grinned even though he looked like he'd had the wind knocked out of him.
"You only think they're stupid because you can't do them," he countered. "Now let go."
"Heard you were causing some trouble," the man said, letting go of Malik and shoving him back onto the couch. "You know Elder Wintercloud said the next time you pick a fight, if you don't win, you're getting a huge whipping."
"What can I say?" Malik grinned. "I'm confident."
"You're arrogant," the man countered. "Come on, we're going to get a drink."
"Who's we?" Malik asked, standing. He suddenly seemed to have forgotten the entire group of boys, and Juventas realized with a start that this was the only time Malik hadn't been smirking or sarcastic. This man must've been one of the few people Malik actually seemed to care about. Juventas wondered if there were things like this that he only did with his sister. Were there any signs that he was never truly happy or comfortable around anyone else?
"The brothers, me, you," the man said. "Now hurry up, stupid." He began walking towards the exit of the room, then glanced backward at Malik.
Malik grinned at the group. "Gotta go, the beer's calling!" He walked to the door and Juventas watched as both figures left. That was one of the other things that didn't settle right with him. He wasn't sure if it was because of some lesson he'd had as a child that he'd since forgotten or just the idea of being helpless that he didn't like, but drinking was a big activity for everybody at the Conclave. If you were fifteen or older, you could get as many as you wanted at the bar and no one would stop you unless you started picking fights with other riders or were flat-out drunk all the time. The age rule wasn't heavily enforced though, and it wasn't unheard of for older riders to take younger ones for drinks and give them theirs after they ordered. Watching Malik, a fourteen-year-old, talk about going to drink with a group of grown-ups, was just... unsettling to Juventas. He knew they were likely Malik's family of sorts — the man who had come in here was probably Cadoc, now that he thought about it, and the brothers were probably Lavinia's brothers that he'd heard of, but still... some part of him was repeating that Malik shouldn't be drinking at all because Malik was still a kid — but was he really? He'd been raised as an adult his entire life. Maybe he was more of an adult than a kid at this point.
Pierce snorted in disgust as soon as Malik was out of the room. "What a pretentious asshole," he grumbled. "Acts like he's better than everyone."
"Isn't he though?" Juventas said without thinking, and he nearly flinched at the angry glare Pierce shot him. "I mean, he's being trained by our Elder. There had to be something that caught his eye when choosing him, right?"
"You mean how thick-headed and stubborn he is?" Daukantas sneered. "Or how he's from a long lineage? Malik has nothing going for him but arrogance that he masks as bravery. It leads to all sorts of stupid mistakes that never should've happened, but because he keeps somehow miraculously surviving all of them, he gets worshiped as a saint. Then, his ego gets a boost, and he pulls all sorts of dangerous stunts knowing nobody would dare lay a hand on the Elder's precious pupil." Daukantas said it with such disgust that for a moment, Juventas started to hate Malik, even if he barely knew him. "It's a cycle. His ego gets a boost, he does something stupid, he lives, his ego gets a boost."
"Never-ending," Pierce agreed with annoyance. "Honestly, I hope he gets knocked down a peg somehow. That kid needs to lose something for once in his life."
"Maybe he could lose against the dragon," Daukantas smirked. "Get himself killed, see how proud he is of himself then."
"You really think it's a dragon?" A red-headed boy who hadn't spoken pondered. "Even with big claw marks, there are tons of other things it could've been. And there's no evidence about the attacks being planned or coordinated. They could really just be random animal attacks, some predator who's realized there's always a warm, tasty meal at the western gates guard post."
Juventas thought about this. It made the most sense for it to be some kind of other animal, something random and uncoordinated. And yet he couldn't help but let his mind wander... You always were wishing you could prove your worth. And this was the perfect way, wasn't it? Close enough to the Conclave headquarters to get to the infirmary if needed, far enough away for it not to be deemed a stupid mistake. Dyten wouldn't dare throw out a pupil who had slain a dragon, not when it would bring him glory too. He'd be the rider who taught the dragon-slayer. But the dragon-slayer... that would be Juventas. He could move up the ranks quickly, he could be deemed a man. He'd get moved to another room for sure, start rooming with a single person like the adult riders instead of being stuck in a room with twenty other boys. His spot at the Conclave would be reserved for years to come. He wouldn't ever have to worry about being thrown out again. And even if it wasn't a dragon, if he still managed to kill it, he'd be stopping the attacks. He might not be praised as much as he would if it were a dragon, but still... Surely killing a tiger was enough to qualify as a rite of passage. As long as he let himself get hurt in the fight... Juventas began to smile to himself. This could actually work.
Juventas snapped into the moment as Pierce punched him lightly on the shoulder. "You look like an idiot smiling like that," he snapped. He was clearly still pissed about Malik, but Juventas held his smile off.
"Sorry," he muttered.
"Weakling," the red-headed boy snorted, and Juventas shifted as he realized why. Apologies weren't supposed to happen because it was considered a sign that you had done something wrong, and yet he nearly apologized for his apology before he blinked and stopped himself.
"Whatever," he said back. "I may look like an idiot, but at least I don't look like you."
Pierce grinned at the red-headed boy. "Got anything to say to that?"
"I'll kick your ass any day," the red-head said to Juventas coolly.
"You'll have to find me first," Juventas replied, standing and walking to the door.
"Coward!" He heard one of the boys call from behind him, but they were laughing as he exited the room. Once he was out, he sighed a little and leaned his head against the wall. He needed to make a plan — but first, he needed to find Jovana and talk to her. He hardly got to see her anymore, not with Kalief keeping her practically chained up in their room, but he'd have to find a way. They certainly weren't as close as they used to be, and every time he visited her, she seemed more and more distant, less and less in her own head, but he still had to try. He wasn't going to do something as gutsy as go after a rogue dragon without at least telling her where he was going first. Out of anyone, she would be the one who cared the most if something happened to him, and she deserved to know.
He let his feet lead him, walking towards the area of the building with the Wintercloud faction quarters and past the group rooms, towards the married couples and pairs of roommates. He wasn't sure how he knew which room was Kalief's, but he stopped in front of one with a certainty anyway. He must've taken note of it at some point, though he couldn't remember when. He raised his hand and knocked.
Kalief opened the door, taking in Juventas with a certain annoyance. He leaned against his door-frame, pants and no shirt. "What do you want?" He said shortly.
"Could I speak to Jovana? Just for a minute."
Kalief watched him with an intensity, and Juventas realized with a sick feeling that his hair was ruffled, and his pants were pulled on backward. Kalief smirked as he said, "Come back later. She's busy right now."
Juventas tried to swallow back the disgust he felt rising in his throat — Jovana was fourteen, and this man, Kalief, was... well, a man. Juventas didn't know his age for certain, but he was older than his younger brother Daukantas, so he had to be at least eighteen. From the look of him, he was leaning towards twenty, with the same fair hair and tanned skin as his brother. Jovana hadn't even wanted to get married, but she hadn't had a choice. And now, if what Juventas had heard was right, she'd been broken. They'd both been broken. The only difference was once Juventas was broken, they built him back up again — they were letting Jovana stay shattered. He pushed the thought out of his head because of how unnerving it was.
"Wait —" he said, and he put out a hand to stop Kalief as he started to shut the door. "It'll only take a minute, really. She's my sister."
Kalief narrowed his eyes, then said, "You better hurry." Juventas nodded quickly, and Kalief scowled, turning around to the room behind him. "Jovana, come here." There were some noises of scuffling, and a whispered voice Juventas couldn't make out. Kalief's facial expression darkened. "I don't care how the hell you look, come here." There were a few more seconds, and Kalief muttered something unintelligible under his breath that sounded like some sort of curse to Juventas. "I swear to the gods if I have to drag you over here, you're going right back into the cells," he snarled, and Juventas heard the patter of bare feet against wood as Jovana came into view.
She was holding a blanket wrapped tightly like a towel around her chest and body, her eyes trained on the floor. Juventas noticed blue-black bruises marking her arms and nearly flinched. Dark circles filled the space beneath her eyes, and when she finally glanced up at him, they were sunken and vacant.
"I just —" Juventas stammered, trying to find his words. He realized how long it had been since he'd seen her, and though it hadn't felt like that long, he knew logically that her wedding had been several months ago, and after that, she'd been locked in her room almost constantly. "I wanted to talk with you," he said.
Kalief whispered something in Jovana's ear that she gave an empty nod to, almost as a reflex. He smirked and twirled a piece of her hair around his finger before giving her a light push out into the hallway. He closed the door, leaving the two of them alone.
Jovana watched him with an empty expression, like she was seeing him without really seeing him. "It's me," Juventas began, then added, "Juventas."
Jovana didn't respond for several seconds before she finally seemed to hear his words and nodded. "You look so old," she whispered, her hands gripping the blanket around her tightened into fists.
He nodded, swallowing hard. "I wanted to talk to you because I'm thinking of doing something impulsive and probably stupid. I just, I wanted you to know where I was going to be. I wanted you to know in case... in case something happened."
She watched him, and he wondered if she was waiting for him to continue, or if she was staring through him entirely. He cleared his throat. "There's talk about a dragon. And if I don't do something to recapture my master's attention —" he paused as she stiffened at the word master. It seemed to have brought her attention back to him, and her dead eyes slid to meet his once more.
"A dragon," she murmured. "I would've loved to paint a dragon." Juventas felt a part of his heart break.
"Maybe Kalief would get you painting supplies," he suggested weakly, though he knew it was a long shot.
"I would love to paint a dragon," she murmured again, and Juventas frowned slightly.
After a pause of hesitation, he said, "Okay. Well then I'll make sure to get you something to paint with." He didn't know why the idea hadn't occurred to him previously, but he realized with a wave of shame that it was because he hadn't thought of her in detail in so long. He'd gotten so used to thinking of her in relation to other people — his sister, Kalief's wife— that he'd forgotten there was a person underneath.
"I'll get you paint," he said quickly, cheeks hot from shame. "But first I have to tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to find the dragon. Jovana, do you understand? I'm going to find the dragon and kill it. And when I do, I'll be a man." He reached forward and touched her face lightly. She flinched under his touch, her eyes watery.
"You were just a boy," she whispered, one of her hands creeping up to lightly hold his hand against her face. "Where did you go?"
Juventas didn't know how to respond, and a few seconds of silence fell on them as they just studied each other, two siblings ripped from their world and placed in an alien one. One of them had been reborn, but the other had crumbled, and looking into each other's eyes, one on fire and the other dead ash, it became clear Juventas would never know his real sister again. This wasn't her — this was her corpse.
Jovana seemed to become more agitated at his silence, and she said again, "Where did you go?" Her hold on her blanket tightened even more, and a few tears fell from her lashes as she whispered, "What did they do to you?" Her voice raised and she said, "What did they do to us?"
Juventas backed away a few steps, startled by the sudden outburst, and Jovana started to cry fully. "They killed my brother," she sobbed loudly, and Juventas saw the door behind Jovana swing open as Kalief stepped outside.
"What's going on here?"
Jovana sobbed over his words. "Why would they kill you, you were so little, they —"
Kalief, with an annoyed expression on his face, barked at Jovana, "Your brother is right there. Come on, I think that's enough talking for today." He grabbed the upper part of her arm in a tight grip and Jovana cried harder, fighting back.
"They killed him, they killed my brother," she cried as Kalief began to tug her inside. "What did they do to you? What did they do to you?!" She screamed, and Kalief picked her up and pulled her back inside, slamming the door shut. The noise echoed through the hall, and the muffled sounds of screaming and sobbing seeped through the walls of their room. A few seconds later, yelling joined the other noises.
Juventas' heart fluttered in his chest, and he realized his breathing was heavy. He felt like he might cry. What had he just done? He hadn't thought Jovana could've gotten worse, but that... that was so much worse. What had he done?
He ran, turning corners and passing groups of riders. He didn't stop until he reached the armory. He fastened his armor on, a sword around his belt, a crossbow across his back. He had been so distracted with his own struggles that he'd never stopped to consider his sister, but now that he knew what state she was in, he knew it would take a lot of time and work for her to heal. He'd try to help her, talk to her more often, get her paint — but first, he had a job to do. He was going to find that dragon if it killed him, and when he got back, he'd describe her to Jovana to paint. And then he'd finally be a man. You were just a boy. Jovana's voice echoed in his head. Where did you go?
Juventas left to find the dragon.
Dyten scowled, glancing out the window as the sun continued its descent downward. Juventas had been lacking lately, not growing as he should be. It seemed like he wasn't trying, and no matter what Dyten did, he wasn't getting better. And now he was late to evening practice, which should've started twenty minutes ago. At first, Dyten thought Juventas was just late — and if he was, he was going to get the beating of a lifetime. But now, Dyten was starting to consider going out to look for the kid.
The entrance to the training room they were supposed to be in, 18b, swung open wide as Kalief walked in. Kalief's light hair caught in the light, and Dyten realized it was glistening with sweat. "Already worked out?" Dyten asked, and Kalief smirked.
"You could say that."
Dyten watched him for several seconds, then scowled and turned away, looking out the window again. Where was that boy?
"Hey, when your kid gets here, give him a few extra lashes for me. Took me ages to stop his sister from crying. Whatever he said set her off like a cornered animal." Kalief's voice dripped with disgust, and Dyten watched as he trailed across the room to a pair of weights, testing them before picking them up.
"He stopped by your room?" Dyten asked with a frown. Juventas hadn't mentioned anything about that to him. "When?"
"Thirty minutes ago, give or take." Kalief shrugged. "Why?"
"He's late," Dyten said shortly. "Very late." After a pause, he added, "Do you know what he talked to her about?" Maybe he'd told her where he was going.
Kalief shook his head. "Don't know, don't care. But now Jovana's started asking for paint when she isn't hysterical. Wants to paint a dragon or something."
Dyten studied him. "What'd you tell her?"
Kalief snorted. "After the outburst she just had? I said not a chance in hell am I getting her something."
Dyten glanced away from Kalief, considering the information. "She wants to paint a dragon?" He repeated, and Kalief nodded.
"Yeah. Keeps asking what happened to her brother too, annoying as hell. She was standing right in front of him and screaming about him being killed. She's locked in our room now, probably whispering about how he's just a boy, not a man yet."
For someone who had fought so hard to get his hands on Jovana, Kalief didn't sound like he liked her very much. Then again, that wasn't what matches were for; they were for beauty and silence and offspring. Dyten thought on it bitterly. At one point, he'd thought that it would only make sense for the girl to at least be kept a few years unmarried before pairing her off, but as soon as Kalief had seen her, he'd hounded everyone about wanting her. He'd actually gone to Elder Wintercloud in person about the matter, and he'd finally been rewarded with his boldness. Elder Wintercloud said when the girl started her cycle and was a woman, Kalief could have her, and she'd started a little after her fourteenth birthday. It also didn't hurt that Kalief was the son of Ty, one of Elder Wintercloud's more favored riders.
It left a sour taste in Dyten's mouth. He knew women had their place, but Kalief made no attempt to hide his abuse, which annoyed Dyten to no end. You had to teach your girl their place, but they were also fragile. You couldn't just push them around all the time like you could with recruits because if a girl broke, she wouldn't go back to who she used to be. Dyten had initially thought he might be paired with Jovana because he was Juventas' master and had grown to expect it, not with longing or wanting, but with simply expectation. You didn't argue back with who you were paired with, and at least if he got Jovana, she wouldn't be like she was now: shattered. Besides, he would've waited until she was older for an official marriage — he would've waited until she was ready, he thought.
Dyten's mind wandered back to thoughts of Jovana's brother, currently uncharacteristically late, and he started puzzling through Kalief's words. Jovana had been whispering of how Juventas was just a boy, not a man yet — screaming of him being killed, even though she'd been right in front of him. And dragons. She'd been thinking of dragons. A dim part of his brain lit up, and he froze as the muddy memory surfaced. The bar, overhearing Vince's rather loud conversation with Cadoc. His words had been slurred and practically unintelligible at that point, but what had he said? Something along the lines of a dragon? The guard shifts, people disappearing...
Dyten jolted upward from where he'd been leaning against the wall as it clicked. Jovana's mind may have been gone, but her thoughts were still coherent to a certain sense; she didn't usually mumble nonsense, at least not to her. It might sound random to others, but if she talked about something, it was for an important reason, that much Dyten had observed. And if Vince's theory of the guard shifts being a dragon was correct, it would explain Jovana having dragons on her mind. But how did that connect to Juventas?
"Heard you've been watching the recruits," Kalief said, pulling Dyten from his thoughts. Dyten glanced over at him.
"Don't see how it's any of your business."
Kalief grinned, and said, "I'd just like a heads-up if you're planning to abandon him on the mountains or the desert. Need time to think of a reasonable excuse for Jovana so she doesn't freak out. Maybe I'll say he's gone to live on a nice, quiet farm." He snorted.
"I'm not going to abandon him," Dyten said, his eyes narrowed slightly. Sure, Juventas had been doing awful lately, and it was grating on Dyten's nerves to no end, but Juventas was fourteen. He had the potential, he just wasn't living up to it, and he was far past the usual age for being abandoned. Dyten would be looked down on as a rider for abandoning someone so late, like it was his fault Juventas was doing that badly.
"You sure? People don't just watch the recruits this time of year if they aren't keeping an eye out."
"I'm sure," Dyten said firmly. "But when I find that kid, he's getting the daylights punished out of him."
"Yeah, well what can you do?" Kalief sighed. "Not your fault he hasn't done anything good yet. He barely scraped by as the underdog of the trials his year, and isn't much better now than he was then. He's nearing that age where pupils start to get their rites of passage on their first missions, but honestly, at his rate, I doubt he'll be getting a first mission for a while."
"What do you know about his —" Dyten trailed off mid-sentence. The rite of passage. The dragon. Shit.
Juventas walked through the forest with his senses on high alert, careful to watch his step so the snow beneath his feet didn't crunch. The forest that bordered the Conclave's western edge consisted of tall pine trees, needles fallen everywhere, and the occasional snow rabbit hopping past. Most of the bigger animals in the cold climate stayed asleep during the day and only awakened at night, and the forest was filled with an eerie silence. The light was fading quickly between the cracks in the canopy far above. It was getting harder to see where he was going. He knew the sunset was still at least an hour away, but the knowledge did nothing to settle the irrational fear that at any moment, he might be left in sudden darkness, completely at the mercy of the creatures.
He knew he shouldn't stray too far from the western border because if he got lost, he wasn't sure he could find his way back. It also seemed to make sense that if the dragon was picking off guards there, it couldn't be too far away. His thoughts wandered as he walked, his eyes always trained for signs of a large creature but his mind on Jovana and Dyten. Mainly, his thoughts circled the rite of passage. What would it be like, to finally be treated like a man? Would it feel as good as it sounded? None of the other boys would dare make fun of him after finishing off a dragon. Tease him, sure, but no one would make fun of him anymore, and in his mind, he knew there was a clear difference. As long as he got slightly hurt, just enough to prove his worth. Just enough to taste death on his tongue and bare his teeth at him. And then he'd finally be safe.
He stilled as the hairs on his neck rose. He wasn't sure what set it off, but something felt different. After a few seconds, he realized there was a warmness, a dryness in the air that he associated more with the desert to the south and east of the Conclave than the mountains to the north and west. He looked around him, knowing he must be close if the dragon was sending off heat into the air. He felt a shower of snow fall on his hair and shoulders suddenly, shockingly cold on his face. Some of the snow trickled through the armor on his shoulders between the crack at the neck base and seeped through his shirt and into his skin. He dove sideways as the trees above him shook and a furious roar filled the air. It was a deafening sound, and it instilled a strong fear in Juventas because now he knew for certain: it was definitely a dragon. And she was angry at him.
He drew his sword, his neck craned upwards in an attempt to see her above the canopy. She could clearly sense he was there, and a loud tearing noise filled the air as one of the tall pine trees was uprooted and fell sideways, crashing into the snow a few feet from Juventas. He jumped and backed farther into the forest, but knew it wouldn't matter. If she could knock down only another tree or two, she could get below the trees. And once she did that, nothing would stop her razor-sharp claws from tearing through his skin.
"I'm not afraid of you!" He said, but his voice trembled. He told himself it was from the cold. A loud growl echoed through the forest, and another deafening crack as two more trees fell. The sudden patch of sunlight made his eyes burn, but he didn't have to wait to get used to it because the light was quickly blocked by the bared teeth of one of the biggest dragons Juventas had ever seen. He imagined standing next to her and realized he'd hardly be as tall as her head. Her scales looked impenetrable save for her soft belly. Juventas heard a distinct clicking noise, like stone scraping stone, and leapt out of the way as a column of fire lit the ground where he had been standing.
He looked at the snow evaporating into steam, then back at the dragon. Her head was turned to look at him, a ferocious and wild look in her eyes that he'd never seen in even the cruelest of Conclave dragons. They'd all seemed at least a little human with their gazes, but this dragon — she was pure beast. He held his sword up in front of him, hands shaking. He watched her, made eye contact: and ran forward.
Dyten ran as he followed the set of footprints in the snow, tracking Juventas deeper and deeper into the forest. He heard the sounds of fighting from far away, the roars of the dragon and the sound of steel armor clanging against itself. He sped up. That meant Juventas was still alive. Dyten couldn't help but be angry at him, because what idiot went after a dragon on their own? His idiot, obviously. Because it was clearly the cruelest thing fate could think of — not only was his pupil the one who wasn't progressing, he was also the thick-headed one.
Dyten entered the clearing, trees fallen on their sides creating an obstacle course of hiding places and small shelters from the air. The dragon circled above, wings flapping slowly as she hovered just above the tips of the canopy, her neck stretching down towards the forest floor. She had clearly tried to land, but from the scratches on her stomach, Juventas must've actually gotten a few slashes in. Now though, Juventas was an open target, unable to reach her but her able to reach him.
Juventas raised his crossbow and fired, and Dyten watched with surprise as it actually sank into the dragon's underside. She howled and shot a path of flames that flickered out against the snow, scorching the tree Juventas had ducked behind. Dyten noticed that one of his legs was bleeding badly, leaving a blood-soaked snow trail in his wake every time he moved. Juventas glanced out from behind his tree, still not spotting Dyten on the other end of the clearing, and he looked down to reload his crossbow. He stepped out into the open again and shot once more, another shot hitting its mark. With a shriek, the dragon dove forward, claws extended, and in a terrible moment, Dyten knew what was going to happen. He ran forward, knowing he was acting too late, as a piercing scream filled the air. Juventas fell, blood streaming from his face where the dragon's claws had raked across the exposed skin. Dyten raised his crossbow and fired. The arrow sunk into the dragon's eye and with a howl that filled the forest, she seemed to tilt slightly in the air, before she came crashing downward. Dyten dove under a fallen tree, barely having time to yank Juventas' top half under before she made impact.
The snap of tree limbs and bones echoed as she crashed onto a group of trees — and Juventas' legs. His mouth opened in a silent yell, blood pooling into his mouth. Dyten watched with horror as he began to choke on it. Crimson white seeped in a circle around Juventas' head, his chest rising and falling with quick, unsteady breaths. Dyten could hardly think. On its own, his body crawled forward.
The world was a sea of blackness. The pain was unbearable, and somehow he knew he was going to die, but all Juventas could focus on was how dark it was. He was blind. He was blind. The scrape of the talons across his face, and then the world had gone dark, and he felt incredibly vulnerable... alone. His legs were pinned under something unbearably heavy and he couldn't move. He choked on his own blood, coughing it up into the coldness around him.
"Juventas!" A voice said, and Juventas struggled to focus. Had he imagined the voice? He couldn't tell.
"Da?" He whispered. Could you cry if your eyes had been torn out? He didn't know if the liquid flowing down his face was tears or blood.
There was a long pause of hesitation, before the voice replied, "Yes. I'm your da."
Juventas choked and turned his face to the side, trying to stop the blood from flowing down his throat. Everything around him burned, even the snow sinking into his clothes and skin. "Da, I'm so sorry," he sobbed. "They killed you, you never taught me the secrets, they died with you, you —" Juventas coughed, feeling the freezing snow against his cheek. He tried to imagine the splatters of red, but all he could see was black.
There was a pause of silence, then his father said, "The secrets never mattered. If I had truly cared about them, I would've passed them on earlier instead of keeping them to myself." Juventas could hear the excuse in his words, like he was trying to reassure him that it was okay when it really wasn't, and he turned towards him. He reached out blindly, searching for a hand. He found a wrist instead, and held tightly.
"Did I kill it?" He asked in a quiet voice, a feverish need pulsing through him with the urge to know.
After another second's pause, his father said, "Yes. Yes, you did."
Juventas let out a soft sigh, and his grip loosened slightly. "Then I stopped the attacks." Did this mean he would die a man? What would Dyten think of him? He'd been the closest to a father figure Juventas had had in years. "Do you think Dyten will be proud? He'll realize I wasn't a mistake?"
His father said softly, a sharp edge to his tone, "It doesn't matter what he thinks. He's your master, not your family. It's not his job to care."
The blackness around Juventas grew heavier with that answer, the heavy realization that he was right: Dyten wasn't going to care. And maybe that was okay. Maybe Juventas shouldn't care whether or not Dyten cared. Dyten had been the most prominent authority figure in Juventas' life for the past four years, but that was not synonymous with love. His interest in Juventas, in his life, came from a place of duty, not emotion, and memories began to flicker across Juventas' mind: lessons of control, of emotions being weak. They were lessons Dyten had taught, ones he had clearly believed: so why would he indulge in something so weak when Juventas really could die so easily? There was more than no reason for him to care: there were reasons for him to not care. And there were reasons for Juventas not to care too. He wasn't going to make it, that much was clear. So why spend his last moments thinking on a man who didn't care, when he could spend it with the one man from his life who had cared?
He felt himself begin to drift slightly, like a breeze was carrying him inch by inch farther from his body, and knew he was dying. He'd always imagined it as a sudden blackness, something overwhelming and sharp, but this... this felt like the ebbing of water. Almost... peaceful. Maybe it was overwhelming for someone who could see. Maybe it was better this way, dark but... not alone.
"Does death hurt?" He asked quietly.
"It's different for everyone." His father replied after a second of hesitation. "And even if it does, you're strong enough to overcome it."
The reassurance calmed Juventas slightly. He'd been at the Conclave for so many years that he'd learned fear was weak, and giving in to pain was even more so — but if his father thought he was strong enough to overcome the pain, then he didn't need to be afraid.
"Da, were you ever buried?" Juventas whispered. "Or did they leave your bodies?"
After several moments of silence came the soft answer. "I was buried."
"What about Jovana?" Juventas asked suddenly. "I promised her paint. I need to help fix her, help her get better. What will happen to her when I die?"
There was a sharp intake of breath. "She will continue to live."
"But what about —"
"She will continue to live, Juventas. That is all anyone can do. Stop trying to distract yourself."
Despite himself, Juventas whispered, "I'm scared."
"I know," his father said gruffly, before his voice softened slightly. "But you're stronger than the fear." Juventas felt a hand hesitantly reach for his hair, smoothing it away from his face and wiping some of the blood from his forehead.
Juventas swallowed, tasting the tang of his blood as it slid down his throat. He tasted death on his tongue, but he decided he didn't want to bare his teeth anymore. He'd always pictured him as a terrifying face, a glare of glass that sliced through your soul when he looked your way, but actually, he looked like his ma. His ma and his da. Their image, after so many minutes in complete darkness, felt like a warm relief from the searing cold all around him. His mother extended her arms towards him, and he ran forward into her embrace, feeling his da gather both of them in his arms. And after so many years alone, of being constantly on guard and stranded in a sea of dark, muscled figures with glares of glass, all Juventas could think of was how nice it was to finally be hugged.
When Dyten knew he had died, he sat back on his heels, just staring at Juventas' face. His eyes had been gouged out, and everything was bloody, but with his heart stopped, they could at least clean him up for... for burial. Dyten's thoughts faltered. He didn't know why he'd said he was Juventas' father. He'd never thought about him like that, and Juventas had certainly never thought of him in that way. A master was meant to be obeyed and possibly adored, but not loved. And Juventas hadn't loved him; Dyten certainly hadn't loved Juventas. But he'd felt... responsible. He'd felt responsible for him. Because in a certain way, he was responsible for this. He'd watched the recruits even though he'd known he couldn't have one, been rough on Juventas in front of his own friends because he was angry, said he'd never be a man. And now... now he never would be.
Dyten considered what he'd said. He also wasn't sure why he'd said Juventas had killed the dragon. If Dyten hadn't shot her in the eye, she would still be circling above right now. It puzzled him because honesty was the top priority at the Conclave. You didn't lie to spare someone's feelings; you lied if you needed to keep secrets, or if you particularly hated someone. But he'd told Juventas he'd killed the dragon, even though he hadn't. Did that mean he did die a man? Or just a hopeful child?
None of the recruits were children, Dyten reminded himself sternly as he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. He stared at Juventas' mangled body, his bottom half crushed beneath the dragon, his face hardly recognizable. He couldn't move him on his own, but he didn't want the wolves to find their meal in him, so he gently piled snow atop Juventas' face, covering it until it was deep beneath the cold. He watched as it turned scarlet between his fingers. The rest of Juventas' body was covered in armor that would make it near impossible for some wild creature to eat. He'd be back with more people to retrieve the body, but he couldn't do anything more right now. He wiped his bloody hands off on the snow, watching the red imprints of his hands slick over the freezing ground before he stood.
He walked beside the path he'd taken only minutes before, the one that led towards the newly made clearing and the massacre that lay there. The path he walked beside held two sets of footprints, one large and one small. The trail homeward, a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, held one.
Dyten told everyone Juventas killed the dragon. He hadn't intended or planned to, but when riders started asking what had happened, he found himself telling the truth: the truth that Juventas had believed, at least. The funeral was quiet and passed in a blur, the only true mourner being Jovana. Kalief dragged her out halfway through when she started crying too loudly, and by the time he got her into the hall, she was screaming. None of the boys from Juventas' room had acted moved by his death — nobody had. The only words of consolation Dyten received were along the lines of "it sucks you put so much work into him for nothing." And Dyten was used to it. It's what he would've told another rider in his position. He guessed he hadn't ever really considered how empty the words sounded... vacant.
Within a month, Elder Wintercloud had assigned a new recruit to him, and when he passed the trials, Dyten had started the cycle over again because that was what had to happen. He'd lied to Juventas, but he hadn't lied about that: continuing to live was all anyone could do. It wasn't a choice or a decision, it just was. Juventas slaying the dragon would be a topic of conversation for months, maybe even years, because the most impactful action of all was death. At the Conclave, you were surrounded by it, drenched in it. Death was what defined your life, or lack thereof. If you died facing a dragon, you were the hero who died by the dragon's claws. If you lived through facing a dragon, you were the god who had killed it. Stories like that would be told over and over because they weren't just stories, they were lessons: lessons to younger riders, to the children who had yet to start training. To Dyten, who could never step foot in the clearing again, not even to help retrieve Juventas' body. Juventas may have been forgotten when years had passed and the blood-soaked snow trail had been covered, but right then, he was scarred into the memory of Dyten — of Jovana. He was the death of the weak to Daukantas— to Pierce. He was the newest gossip for Kalief— for Malik. And for a few months at least, he was not forgotten. For just a few months, his story was the tale of the Conclave.
Thank you for reading "Rite of Passage", written by winterwolf0100. If you'd like to leave a comment, question, or review, please do so on this page. For more information on "Rite of Passage", including word count, average reading length, and the lore behind it, click the link below: