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|Ok, seriously, this is the first story chronologically. Which is not to say nothing happens before this, just stuff better saved for flashbacks to heighten emotional moments in the future. |
Zeno (in all his pubescent glory) causes mischief and vexes his brother Xan to no end. Basically, that's the point of this story. The tale of how he became a Brave in the first place. Set years before the next story.
Zeno Brave: The Elemental Brave
“Wooden swords,” Xan scoffed, scratching his brown peach-fuzz goatee as he and his brother Zeno stride down the torch-lit hallway. They walk faster, hearing the fanfare that signaled the end of registration. The contest would soon begin. “What sort of warrior uses wooden swords, even in a test?”
“If you’re so bitter about it, brother,” Zeno answers with a grin, brushing his dirty-blond hair back out of his eyes, “why not just intentionally kill all your opponents to make a statement?”
“I wonder if that would make me less or more likely to get the job.”
“You worry too much. Just do what comes natural, and we can’t lose.”
“Like I’m about to take fighting advice from you.”
“I’ll take you down anytime, anywhere, bro.”
The pair step out into the courtyard of the Dark Lord’s palace, the location of this impromptu tournament. Word had spread like wildfire through town in the passed week since the announcement; Lord Mekhardrim was looking for new talent. Such an opportunity came once a generation; a chance to gain solid employment in a Dark Lord’s corps, regardless of class or heredity. The Dark Lord Mekhardrim was one of the few who ever granted such chances, and the peasants, bandits, and rogues never missed such a chance. Today is no exception; brutes of all ages and sizes have gathered here at the palace.
“They don’t look intimidated by us, Xan,” Zeno chuckles, looking at the way the ruffians snigger at them.
“That’s because you don’t have your game face on.”
“Hey, I’m just here to have some fun.”
“This is no place for kids,” a grizzled old farmer says. “I got this from a wooden sword,” he pointed at his crooked nose, “so don’t go thinking’ you’ll be goin’ home pretty as you are now if you compete. That goes double for you, little girl.”
“Girl!” Zeno snaps, his voice cracking. He grimaces and coughs, then adjusts the leather collar around his neck before continuing. “I’ll bend that nose of yours the other way, you clueless inbred hick! I’m a boy!”
“Hah! My daughter has more facial hair than you!”
“And a fine husband she’ll make for you after your wife-mother dies! And I bet you’ll look great in an apron, geezer!”
“Why you little--”
“Of course, that’s only after the family dog breaks up with her!”
“Boy, you’re about three words from the beating of a lifetime!”
“Would those words happen to be ‘perverted old kook’ by any chance? Because that’s what I was planning on saying.”
Zeno’s wooden katana slashes in, straight across the fuming farmer’s nose, and down the old man went. Some of his fellow farmers catch him on his way down, but the old man is unconscious long before he touches the ground.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Zeno says, one hand over his mouth. “I said the three words, I didn’t realize you were going to talk me to death. I’m such an awful person.”
“Zeno…” Xan admonishes.
“Does that nose look straight to you?”
“I thought you were going to bend it the other way.”
“Oh, right, my bad. Everybody stand back!”
That was all that the old man’s friends could take; they brandish their wooden swords as they swiftly encircle Xan and Zeno. Others join in, some just to limit the competition but the more experienced swordsman join due to the realization that Zeno is actually talented. He being the younger brother, obviously, makes them wonder just how good the older one might be. Eliminating them both seems like the most rational course of action, though somewhat underhanded.
“You know, Xan, I was thinking,” Zeno says, tying on his precious bandana to keep his hair out of his eyes.
“Let’s just forget the tournament, save some time.”
“Are you suggesting that we just beat all of them unconscious?”
“We? Oh, you’re going to fight, too? Then this will be easy! Thanks, Xan!”
“Hey, we’re brothers, right? Besides, I am getting awfully impatient…”
* * *
“Must we see this through?” The tall, lean, gray old man says to the shorter elf beside him. “I was out there not ten minutes ago, and I didn’t see a single warrior with promise.”
“Come now, Firio,” the elf answers, his dark hair waving back and forth as he walks. “Certainly there must be at least one decent warrior out there.”
“Nothing but boozehounds, bandits, and blackguards,” Firio sighs. “Decent won’t cut it, not nearly.”
“Why would you want an expert swordsman for an apprentice anyway?”
“Mekha, there’s something you just don’t understand about my fighting styles. Not just anyone can learn them, teaching a decent swordsman the basics of any one style would take…perhaps a decade. Just one style! I’d like to be alive to see him finish his training.”
“Perhaps you should have found an apprentice ten years ago, then. I’m not sure why you expected this tournament to be any better than the others in the past.”
“Well, I’ve certainly learned not to get my…hopes…up…” Mekha and Firio stop, staring out from the balcony over the ruination that had been afflicted upon the courtyard.
Men lay in heaps, some dangling from the ledges of sculptures and the fountain in the center. Carts that had held the wooden weaponry were overturned, their contents smashed and scattered. A flag pole topples over before their eyes. And amid all this wreckage and debris stand two men; the younger with his sword resting on his shoulder and a hayseed sticking out of his mouth as he swipes anything of value from the beaten men, the other holding a pair of wooden swords out in a combat stance as he looks around for anyone still able fight.
“Were they here earlier?” Mekha asks with a grin.
“Even if I’d seen them, I wouldn’t have thought…” Firio leaps down from the balcony. “Hey! You two! What are you doing?”
“Looting,” Zeno laughs. “You can help yourself to the leftovers, friend!”
“That’s not what I’m asking!”
“Saving time,” Xan answers, examining Firio’s dress and stride. “Hey brother, knock it off! Are you trying to make us look like beggars?”
“Don’t be so proud, Xan. Do starving orphans try not to look hungry?”
“Am I correct, sir,” Xan says, ignoring his brother, “in thinking that you are one of Mekhardrim’s Braves?”
“I am Firio Brave.”
“You’re a Brave? Well then.” Xan drops to a knee before him.
“Look at this swag, bro!” Zeno holds up a ring in Xan’s face, having already pocketed the rest of it. “We can eat till our stomachs burst for the rest of the month!”
“Show respect, Zeno,” Xan says, smacking Zeno in the back of the knee with one wooden sword. Zeno drops, unbalanced, to one knee, then punches Xan in the shoulder.
“You try that again!” Zeno snaps, his voice cracking again. “I dare you!”
“I am Xanatos Bravado, and this is my brother Zenithos.” Xan bows his head as he speaks, showing the appropriate humility before one of the Dark Lord’s Braves. “Forgive us for fighting before the tournament, but as you can see my brother and I are of a completely different mettle than this riffraff.”
“You beat all these men by yourselves?” Firio asks. “Just the two of you?”
“Yes, lord Firio.”
“I could’ve done it alone!” Zeno insists. “Xan just helped because he likes to fight, I’m the one they were being rude to!”
“You do look a little young to be here,” Firio says. “I’d imagine they would doubt you.”
“I’m just that good.”
“Well you’re confident, that counts for a lot. As long as you don’t let it become arrogance, leastways.”
“I’ll never lose!”
“Ok, its arrogance,” Firio chuckles.
“Do you think you can beat me, boy? Do you think you can beat a Brave?”
“I can beat anyone. I’ll find a way.”
“Spirited.” After sharing a grin with Mekha, Firio begins to sort through the wooden weaponry in search of a proper weapon. Having found one, he strides to the widest clear area of the courtyard. “Ok, kid, here’s your chance. Try and defeat me.”
“You just wait and see!”
Zeno rushes forward, not wasting a single second, and the initial tenacity, the lack of hesitation--against a Brave, no less--is enough to give him the edge at first. Firio, never expecting anyone to be so courageous or foolish as to rush a Brave headlong, is caught by surprise and pressed onto the defensive. But that doesn’t last long, some swift footwork and a graceful dodge is enough to get him out of Zeno’s way.
Firio grins, thinking that this boy is brave but stupid, and strikes at Zeno’s exposed back, straight for the kidneys. A suitable lesson for such a foolish boy. Firio’s jaw drops as Zeno stops dead and twists, curling up his trailing leg as he spins about and kicking Firio in the wrist. As Firio’s arm goes wide Zeno tucks in for a tight slash, straight for the old man’s stomach. Left with no other option Firio dives backwards, barely avoiding the cut.
“Fluid as the river, wild as the wind!” Firio gasps as Zeno charges forward. The old man affects a high-guard stance, sword held up over his head. With abandon Zeno charges in, confident he can avoid any attack, and strikes for Firio’s stomach again. The old man swiftly sidesteps as Zeno’s sword grazes the front of his tunic, and slashes down from the high-guard. Firio only manages a glancing blow on Zeno’s sword-arm in the pass, but affects a casual pose as Zeno turns.
“What, getting tired old man?”
“Nope, fight’s over.” Firio holds up his sword before his eyes. “Edge of the Water Style: the Draw of the Tide.”
“You’re getting senile, old--auuuugh!” The wooden sword slips from numb fingers as Zeno drops to his knees, clutching his sword-arm at exactly the spot where Firio had struck. “Cramp! Cramp! OWOWOWOWOW!” Rubbing his arm fiercely, Zeno tries to get feeling back in his hand.
“If this had been a real sword, boy,” Firio declares, “then I would have just ended your life as a swordsman. You’d never be able to hold a blade in that hand again.”
“Really?” Zeno asks. “That is so cool! You’ve got to teach it to me!” Shaking out his hand out, Zeno takes up the wooden sword again. “Alright, I’ll get you this time!”
“What? You scared?”
“No point, I see your weakness now.”
“So? I’ll still win!”
“I’d like to test your brother, next, if I might.”
“I consider this an honor,” Xan says, dropping his offhand sword in favor of a two-handed grip on the other. “You said ‘Edge of the Water Style,’ right? Then am I correct in assuming that you are the Elemental Brave?”
“Elemental Brave?” Zeno grins. “You mean I was beating the Elemental Brave?”
“Well, fighting, leastways,” Firio smirks. “You weren’t winning.”
“You stopped the fight. That’s a forfeit, that means I won.”
“I love this boy!” Firio laughs. “Stubborn as a mule, with twice the kick!”
“My brother is talented,” Xan explains, “but he doesn’t put nearly enough effort into training.” Falling into a basic stance, Xan approaches Firio cautiously. In answer, Firio assumes a high guard stance, but a different one from before, with the sword held up near shoulder level, pointing straight ahead. “Not going to use Edge of the Water Style against me?”
“You think I didn’t notice?” Firio answers, grinning. “When I switched stances, you were watching like a hawk. If I try the Draw of the Tide on you, you’ll dodge. Or worse, counter; I’m aware how wide open I am when using that style in general. Takes a young, flexible man to use it without taking grave wounds. I used it on your brother because I knew he wouldn’t pull up short, just run clean through like an idiot.”
“Hey!” Zeno snaps.
“But you…” Firio says, standing steady as Xan inches into range. “Well, those who spar together often have either the same tactics or polar opposites. You brother was all momentum, rambunctious and free like a wild horse. Meanwhile, you have the eyes of a cougar waiting to pounce.”
“You think to read me so easily?” Xan, now in range, takes a shuffle-step forward to entice Firio into making the first attack then springs back out of range. But Firio, not fooled by this deception, is able to catch Xan’s attack with a backhand. The dueling pair spins around each other time and again, more a dance than a duel, with wooden swords creaking and cracking with each cut. Both swing for the other’s neck, making this round a draw, so both step back courteously and resume their original stances. “Well? If you have read me, then why are we so evenly matched?”
“There’s a difference between knowing a weakness, and having the right moment to take advantage of it.” Firio runs one hand along the side of the wooden sword, then returns to the shoulder level high-guard stance. “If you don’t believe me, attack again.”
Not wasting a word, Xan did so, and the whirlwind battle began again. This time, though, Firio is clearly a step ahead of Xan, almost leading him through the routine. In answer to the final attack in the routine, Firio ducks under, cocking his sword back at shoulder level, then steps forward with a stab angled upward. Firio’s wooden sword shatters at the midpoint of the blade, and Xan is flung off his feet.
“You young people share one weakness,” Firio sighs. “Your impatience.”
“Hey, Xan! You still in there?” Zeno nudges his brother with his foot as Xan lays curled in a ball, hands gripping his chest. “Don’t you think you overdid it a little?”
“Stone of the Mountain Style: The Peak Pierces the Cloud. The two of you should be honored that I used these styles against you, it’s a compliment. ” Firio drops the hilt of the practice sword.
“A compliment that hurts more than an insult!” Zeno laughs. “Oh, what a funny old man you are!”
“He should be alright, once he catches his breath and all. That shouldn’t have broken anything. Unless he’s weaker than I gave him credit for, leastways.”
“That’s a funny word. ‘Leastways,’ I mean.”
“How is it funny?”
“Couldn’t say, just sounds funny to me.” Zeno reaches down and helps Xan stand up. “Well? You know our weaknesses. Are you going to tell us or do we have to guess?”
“Better question…” Xan wheezes. “Do we still get the job?”
“Weaknesses, that’s easy.” Firio folds his arms over his chest. “You, Zeno, wasn’t it? Your flaw is that you never plan, you just rush in blindly, confident that your agility will always be enough to win a fight. Though your ability to anticipate attacks is astonishing--hell, it’s borderline divination--but it won’t always be enough. Someday, you will have to out-think your opponent. And you, Xan, right? Your flaw is that you always plan; this makes you easy to read. I was able to anticipate your attacks; hell, I was able to choose your attacks for you by leaving fake holes in my guard. As for the job…no, you don’t.”
“But look at all the people we beat!” Xan exclaims.
“Relax, brother,” Zeno chuckles, “it isn’t as if he’ll be choosing one of them either. I’m thinking he wants us to do something about these weaknesses of ours before we get the job.”
“Always anticipation with you,” Firio marvels. “You’re correct. This isn’t a simple mercenary contract as you’ve been lead to believe, we’re talking about a chance for the two of you to become Braves.”
“Us?” Xan asks. “Braves?”
“Does it pay well?” Zeno inquires. “How about the benefits? You know what I mean? The ladies, you know?”
“You’re not old enough to handle a woman,” Firio laughs, waving over a pair of servant girls, each carrying a sizable katana. He takes them, handing the blade with a black and silver hilt and sheathe to Zeno, then the black and red one to Xan. “These will be your new weapons; once, long ago, they were mine. Each of the five Elemental Styles is best used with a slightly different type of blade, but these will do until you’ve chosen styles. Should you be able to fix your weaknesses, that is.”
“So you’ll teach us those styles?” Zeno asks excitedly. “Great!”
“Master, if I may address you as such,” Xan interjects, “how should we go about fixing these flaws? What do you recommend?”
“Simple.” Firio grins beamingly. “These traits extend into the ways you think, feel, and act. Seems natural to me that, if you both need to be more like each other, then you should both try acting like each other.”
“What?” Xan’s brow furrows in confusion. “How is that supposed to help?”
“Xan has to act like me? Great idea!” Zeno grabs his brother by the arm and starts tugging him toward the exit. “Come along, brother! We’re going to hit the taverns tonight, get you wasted, and find you a woman!”
“Well I…but you… we have to…” Xan sputters, glancing back at Firio for help but finding none. With a resigned sigh, Xan allows his brother to drag him off. “You realize that means you can’t drink, nor can you find a woman of your own. I wouldn’t do those things, and you have to act like me. You have to stay sober, sit at a table, and plan ahead.”
“…I have to do WHAT?!”
* * *
“This is so boring…” Zeno whimpers, face down on the table at the tavern. After longingly watching the surrounding drinkers get wasted for what felt like an eternity, he’d resorted to not looking and pretending he wasn’t a few coins away from sweet, blissful inebriation. Xan sits across the table, shaking and coughing as he struggles to keep down his last shot. “Tell me again, Xan. How is this supposed to make me a better swordsman?”
“You need to figure that out for yourself,” Xan groans, keeling over the table. “Gods, brother, what is this, lava? How can you drink this?”
“Easy; like this.” Zeno reaches out to snag the next shot but Xan slaps his hand away. “Come on! Just one? Please?”
“The most I’ve ever had is a single glass of wine. That is all you can have.”
“How am I supposed to get tanked off one glass of that horse pee you drink?”
“You’re not, that’s the point.”
“And you won’t get drunk on a shot an hour! To think I got excited about this!” Zeno slams his face back into his arms, hard enough to shake the lopsided table. “I’m going to die at this rate!”
“You don’t look so good, brother.”
“It’s called ‘withdrawal,’ dammit!” he howls, beginning to shake with sobs. “This is pointless! All I can think about is how badly I want a drink! Brother, why do you have to be such a prude?!”
“I’m not a prude…” Xan sighs indignantly. “Were I a prude, I wouldn’t be able to sit at the same table as you.”
“Speaking of which!” Zeno springs, rubbing the red spot on his forehead. “You got your eye on any of the ladies wandering around here?”
“Hah! You’re blushing! I have never seen that before!”
“I’m not doing it! No way!”
“If I have to not drink, then you have to get laid!”
“Hell, I don’t know! Pick someone!”
“That is a horrible attitude to have.” Zeno scoots around the table to get next to Xan, then surveys the room. “Well, what kind of girl do you like? Hair color, eye color, build…give me something to work with. Make a wish list, and let the master work his magic.”
“I really don’t care.”
“Psh…please…” He grins slightly. “Or maybe you’d be happier if I found you a guy. Have you been hiding something from me for all these years, brother?”
“Don’t start with that again, Zeno…”
“I’m just saying that if you can’t even pick a type of girl you like, then maybe you don’t like any girls. What am I supposed to think?”
“Fine. That one.”
“Her? Oh, that’d be awkward.”
“I’ve had a misadventure or two with what’s-her-name over there. Do you really want to go where your little brother has already been?”
“Ok, then that one.”
“She’s totally different from the first one! Plus, she’s too innocent. This is my best shot at getting you to see what you’ve been missing, and I want you in good hands. With your combined experience, the two of you probably couldn’t figure out what to put where.”
“What about her?”
“You’re picking at random, aren’t you!”
“Well, no matter, really. See that perpetual scowl, the frown lines, the look of disdain? She doesn’t look like the type that likes guys, that’s a raging man-hater if ever I’ve seen one.”
“I give up,” Xan sighs. “Just pick somebody for me.”
“Describe what you want!”
“Aw hell…ummm…dark hair, I guess. Any color eyes except green. Average height.”
“Freckles or no freckles?”
“Body type. You want adventuress, farm-girl, dancer, barmaid, what?”
“Adventuress, I suppose.”
“Oh, you want to take a little abuse, huh?” He elbows his brother a couple times. “Huh? My big brother’s looking to get man-handled by a woman? Huh? Huh? Huh?”
“Knock it off!” Xan snaps.
“Hahaha just you wait brother, we’ll bag you the best!”
“Well…wh-what should I say to her?”
“Hah!” Zeno spurts, then drops limply to the table, shaking with laughter. Freshly composed, he sits back up, face still bright red and still grinning from ear to ear. “Well, that depends on the girl. Think of it as a…as a duel, of sorts.”
“Well, picking up a woman is all about reaction. You can’t plan too far ahead because you don’t know what she’s interested in. If she wants to talk about something you don’t know about, usually you won’t care about it either. But you have to look like you care about it, that’s all. Smile, nod, ask questions. Always watch and wait for the opening, make just the right move, and you’ll win. And what a prize you’ll win.”
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Then drink a couple more shots and get your game face on. Only don’t forget to smile.” Zeno scans the room, every last shady corner and cluttered table. “There, corner by the fireplace. The mousy brunette, not the redhead. Definitely not the redhead, she’d do the village idiot and the donkey he rode in on.”
“She looks kind of like that one you said was too inexperienced…”
“Only to the untrained eye, brother. No, she might start out a little shy, but once she has a few drinks in her, and once she’s gotten comfortable around you, she’ll start getting all freaky in no time, mark my words.”
“And ‘freaky’ is a good thing?”
“Oh, she’ll give you the time of your life, just you wait.”
“But some guy is already there.”
“You leave him to me.” Zeno reaches up, turning and slanting his bandana, then pulling some stray hairs out from under it. Next he ruffles his tunic and pants, then slops some gravy on his sleeves and shirt. “And for the finale…”
“You’re not supposed to drink!”
“I’m not.” Zeno splashes the liquor on his neck and shirt like aftershave, then swishes some in his mouth and spits it back in the bottle. “Oh, sweet fire, the divine drink! I’m doing double-shots first thing in the morning! Ok, now Xan, act like you’re trying to hold me back, but do a bad job. Follow me and focus on holding me back once I get over there.”
“That isn’t much of a plan!” Xan hisses as Zeno starts acting sloppy drunk, walking with an exaggerated stagger, and swaying from side to side. “Zeno!”
“No!” Zeno snaps, shaking free of Xan’s grip. “I’ma go talk ta tha’ pervert!” He staggers over to the table with the two girls and the obstacle to the end of his brother’s virginity. “Hey! I’m talkin’ ta youse!”
“C-can I help you, sir?”
“Yeah, ya can!” Spittle flew from Zeno’s mouth into the man’s face. “Yer the one what made my sister sick! And now yer here ag’in, spreadin’ tha’ disease!”
“I oughta gut ya right here, boy!” Zeno goes for his katana, then plays out as if the sudden shift in weight was enough to topple him. Xan catches Zeno as he falls, and he winks at his big brother.
“Yeah…” Xan mutters, blushing. “Yeah, y-you’d best get yourself to the clerics and get that treated, before you give it to anyone else!”
“But I don’t--”
“None o’ yer lyin’!” Zeno roars, back on his feet in a teetering stance. “Get yerself gone! Now!”
“Best do as he says!” Xan urges. “When he gets full of his liquor like this, there’s no reasoning with him!”
“I’m trying to tell you that I don’t--”
“That’s it!” Zeno roars, starting to draw his katana.
“Run! Now, while you can!” Xan leaps onto his brother’s back, pinning his arms. Zeno starts spinning back and forth, with Xan kicking around and sliding about, as the man leaps up from the bench and runs for the door.
“Toman!” the redhead shouts, sliding out of the booth and running after him as Zeno and Xan wrestle about. The brunette starts to get up too, but Zeno notices in time, slips free of his brother, and topples onto her, knocking her back into her seat. Glancing back at his brother from the woman’s cleavage, Zeno winks again then feigns unconsciousness.
“I’m so sorry!” Xan says, hauling his brother off her. “He’s been a real pain lately, I’m sorry he chased your friends off.”
“Toman?” she asks. “Oh, he’s a jerk, that’s no problem at all. I’m just worried that Marsie might catch up to him.”
“Not likely,” Xan chuckles as he hangs Zeno over the side of the table, “he looked like a swift runner.”
“Lots of practice, I guess.”
“I really am sorry about him, too,” he nods at Zeno, “he’s been a wreck all week.”
“But he’s always like this, isn’t he? I’ve seen the two of you around before. I’m sorry, where are my manners? I’m Yulie.”
“Oh, right. I’m Xan and this is Zeno.”
“Are you brothers? I always see the two of you together.”
“Yeah. I’ve been looking out for the both of us pretty much our whole lives.”
“What about your parents?”
“Parents?” Xan’s face grows dark. “Um, dad died when we were young, and mom might as well have died, too. She was more of a hindrance than a help. Nope, just the two of us, alone on the streets.”
“That’s so sad,” Yulie says. “How old were you?”
“Me, I was about…seven or eight, I guess. Zeno couldn’t have been more than three.”
“It must have been hard. But that says a lot about you, taking care of him when it would have been easier to just leave him on his own.”
“I guess it does.”
“How did your brother take the loss?”
“For a while,” Xan sighs, “Zeno just kind of…shut down. Barely ate, barely spoke, just sat there and stared blankly, day in, day out. Exactly how long I don’t know; the days just all ran together back then. Then one day he just started grinning, laughing, talked incessantly about nothing important.” He looks at his brother, feigning drunken slumber, and smiles distantly. “I thought he’d gone insane, but then he said something to me. He always says something stupid, without ever thinking about it, and somehow its exactly what you need to hear at that moment. So he says to me, ‘Xanny…’ he used to call me that when we were kids, how I hated that nickname. Anyway, he said, ‘Xanny, we need to laugh now.’ And it was exactly what I needed to hear, so I laughed along with him. And since then, he hasn’t stopped laughing.”
“I’ve never seen him looking depressed.”
“Even when he should be feeling blue, he isn’t. It’s as if…”
“As if what?”
“As if he were too dumb to know how he should feel.” Xan smirks as Zeno flicks him off, hidden from Yulie’s sight by the table. “But I wouldn’t have him be any other way. Though sometimes I wish he was a little more capable of taking care of himself.”
“Are you going to sit down?” Yulie asks, smiling invitingly at him.
“Oh, right, sure,” Xan mutters, sitting on the bench beside Zeno. “Thanks.”
“So…that’s a pretty sword, isn’t it?”
“Oh, pretty isn’t the word!” Xan laughs excitedly. “The balance is phenomenal, the metal is unlike any I’ve ever seen before, and though the blade obviously has history there’s not one single blemish anywhere to be seen!”
“I’ve never even seen it’s equal, and Zeno is quite the collector. He’s brought in all sorts of weaponry, whenever he gets the chance. You see, these runes here on the sword, they mean--ow!” Xan pauses as Zeno kicks him in the shin. Moving only his hand, Zeno draws the word ‘NO’ with two fingers in his brother’s side. “But, um, never mind that. Well, clearly I’m something of a fan of swords.”
“Clearly,” Yulie answers with a smile. “My father is a blacksmith, actually.”
“Oh really? Which part of town?”
“East side, near the wall.”
“There’re some talented craftsmen over there.”
“Myself, I’ve never really been a fan of blacksmithing.”
“Well, what would you like to do?”
“Oh, no, it’s stupid.”
“Well ok…” A hard poke in the side from Zeno spurs Xan on. “Um…I’m sure it’s not stupid, really.”
“Promise not to laugh?”
“Well, I want to be a weaver. It probably seems boring to you, you seem like some sort of adventurer or something. The quiet life…doesn’t sound so bad to me. A home and a family of my own, someday.”
“The quiet life…some people are happiest that way, nothing wrong with that.”
“Hey! It’s them!” Xan turns over his shoulder to see a half a dozen unfamiliar, battered and bruised faces, and one disturbingly familiar face; one very irate farmer with a recently straightened nose. “The kids from this morning!”
“Huh?” Zeno sits up, still faking his drunken stupor. “Oh, hey guys! What’sh new? ”
“You’ve got a lot of nerve, boy!” the farmer snaps.
“Uhoh…think I’m gonna…hhhrrrppp!” He fakes a dry heave and rushes out the front door and into the night, with the posse of farmers in close pursuit.
“Shouldn’t you go after them?” Yulie gasps.
“Hehehe, no. Drunk or not, my little brother can handle a few farmers.”
“So, a seamstress?” Xan asks, grinning a little and leaning over the table. “Would mending be among your talents, then?”
“Why, do you have a hole in your clothes?”
“Often. Adventuring tends to put holes in your clothes. But no deeper, if you’re lucky.”
“You look like the lucky type.”
* * *
“HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO!” Zeno yells at the top of his lungs to the guards he and Xan pass on their way into the Dark Lord’s palace. “MY BROTHER XAN, THIS GUY RIGHT HERE NEXT TO ME, IS NO LONGER A VIRGIN!” Xan socks his brother in the shoulder for the tenth time that morning as the guards start to snigger, but Zeno just doubles over in laughter. “I’ll never get tired of this!”
“The next punch will be aimed at your face!” Xan growls.
“Good afternoon, ladies!” Zeno wheels about as the brothers pass a pair of servant girls, throwing one arm around the shoulders of each girl. “My name is Zeno, and I hope to be seeing a lot more of the two of you after I’ve officially become the newest Brave. It’s funny, really; my last name’s Bravado and I’m going to be a Brave. Must be destiny, right? But anyway, that’s not what I’ve waylaid you for. You see my brother over there? You’ll never guess what he did last--OW! HEY!”
“Stop wasting time, brother,” Xan chides, dragging Zeno backwards by the ponytail protruding from the back of his bandana. “And we’re not even Braves yet, so save your flirting until we’ve passed the test.”
“What do you expect?” Zeno laughs. “I’m three sheets to the wind, and loving life! I’ll catch up to you ladies later! Ask for Zeno, got it?!”
“Did you really have to drink so much so early?”
“You act like I’ve slept since we were here yesterday.”
“Hell no! I snuck out the back door of our little shanty and didn’t come back ‘till about five minutes before you burst into my room this morning!”
“I thought as much,” Xan sighs. “Really, brother, you couldn’t stand staying in for one night? One night before the test that will make or break us?”
“You realize that if we succeed, we’ll be set for life, don’t you? You can drink and carouse all you want if you can just succeed today.”
“And I’m going to.”
“But you didn’t think it was important enough to stay home and get a full night’s rest?”
“I had to go out to get all loosened up!” Having slipped free from the hair-hold, Zeno smacks his brother across the back of the head and takes off running, with Xan close behind. “HEY EVERYONE! MY BROTHER HERE GOT LAID LAST NIGHT! I REPEAT, MY BROTHER ACTUALLY DOES LIKE WOMEN!”
“I’m going to kill you, Zeno!”
“You have to catch me first!”
“You wish! WHOOOAAA!” Zeno collides with a raven-haired elf skulking about in the hallways, driving both of them tumbling to the ground in a tangle of limbs. “Whoops, sorry.”
“For--cough, hack!…given…” the elf wheezes, shaking his head dazedly.
“Terribly sorry about that!” Zeno chuckles, leaping up to his feet and helping the elf up. “My fault entirely.” A strong slap on the back does more harm than good as the elf leans heavily on Zeno’s arm. “Wow, you elves really are the fragile sort, aren’t you? Anything broken?”
“I’m not so frail as that. A bit bruised, bit winded, but nothing serious.”
“Oh, good! I’d feel awful if I killed someone on my first day as a Brave! Well, someone I wasn’t told to kill. Leastways.” He adds the final word as an afterthought, intentionally trying to mimic Firio’s tone.
“Wait, I know you. You’re one of them, aren’t you? The brothers Bravado, right?”
“Brothers Bravado?” Zeno glances over his shoulder as Xan approaches. “Brothers Bravado, that sounds pretty snazzy, doesn’t it?”
“I guess.” Xan punches Zeno in the shoulder. “Must you always act like such a child?”
“Well…yeah. Why not?”
“I’m terribly sorry, sir.”
“I don’t mind,” the elf says with a smile. “It has been a long time since Firio was as young as you boys, it’ll be nice to have someone so energetic around once again.”
“So you’ve been around here a long time, have you?” Zeno asks. “I don’t mean to pry, really, but…what do you think of the women around here? Are many of them available?”
“I believe that Firio is waiting for you two in the courtyard,” the elf chuckles.
“Oh, right!” Zeno starts off down the hall. “Best not keep him waiting!”
“The courtyard would be this way.”
“Is it?” Zeno spins around once. “All these hallways look alike.”
“Follow me then, brother.” As Xan walks away with the elf as company, Zeno jogs to catch up. “So how long have you been here in this castle anyway?”
“Since the beginning.”
“Were you in the legions of the Dark Lord, then?”
“My boy, I am the Dark Lord Mekhardrim.”
“Say what?” Xan stops and genuflects, rightfully allowing the elf to take the lead. “My apologies, lord, I had no idea.”
“I crashed into the Dark Lord?” Zeno grins. “I always thought he’d be taller. And spookier. And have some kind of wicked laugh, like ‘mwahahahaha’--ow! Xan! Stop elbowing me, dammit!”
“You’re hopeless, brother.”
“Hahahaha…” Mekhardrim laughs. “I hope the two of you pass Firio’s little test. You’ll shake us all out of this sleepy little rut we’ve fallen into of late.”
Firio stands in the middle of the courtyard, clad in a black breastplate over comfortable-fit cloth. Not wasting a word, he places one fist against the plate, and vine-like armor spreads across his body. From neck to toes and wrist to wrist, the magic armor spreads, until Firio stands before the brothers in the full black regalia worn by Mekhardrim’s Braves.
“Well, boys,” Firio says, taking up a pair of wooden swords from the bench next to him, “did you find what you were looking for, walking in each other’s shoes?”
“I didn’t learn a damn thing,” Zeno sighs, “except how miserable life without alcohol would be. What about you, Xan, you learn anything good?”
“I learned that women can be horribly difficult to please,” Xan mumbles. “Otherwise, nope, nothing much.”
“Well, Xan you’re on your own there. I’m not one for putting on a show for anybody, let alone my bimbo big brother. But if you’re asking for some pointers--”
“I had hoped that at least you, Xan, would take this a little more seriously,” Firio laments, “but so be it. One beating wasn’t enough, then.” He swings the two wooden swords around, stretching. “Hopefully some fresh bruises and another day to ponder will be all you need. I’m not getting any younger here.”
“I do so hate to disappoint,” Zeno grins. “Well, brother, would you like to go first?”
“Oh, no, after you. I insist.”
“No, I insist. More than you.”
“Alright, if you insist.”
“C’mon, kids,” Firio chuckles, “order doesn’t matter. You’ll both lose.”
“However, there is one thing that occurred to us,” Xan says.
“And that is?”
Xan rushes forward, snatching up his wooden without missing a step and blitzing straight at Firio. Not surprised by this tactic, even from Xan rather than Zeno, Firio manages to divert the original attack with ease. With a disgusted sigh, Firio easily takes advantage of the opening left in the passing and strikes for Xan’s leg. Much to his surprise, the attack is deflected.
“What we learned,” Zeno laughs, following up the parry with a powerful strike for Firio’s chest as Xan cuts around to intercept the backpedaling Brave, “is that we’re at our best when we’re working together!”
Though both their attacks fail, the brothers press forward ferociously as Firio fights as hard as he can to merely maintain his defense. Xan is steady, matching Firio step for step, while Zeno spins and strides around his brother, the pair moving as if they had choreographed the entire fight. In unison they fight, fueled by their years of experience fighting against each other. Truly, Zeno can anticipate Xan’s next move with ease, and Xan can read Zeno’s next attack with a mere glance at his brother, and this perfect tandem is enough to keep even the Elemental Brave on the defensive.
Firio does a back flip to gain some space and takes on the Stone of the Mountain’s high guard stance. Xan rushes forward, adopting the same stance, as Firio thrusts out straight ahead, confident in the knowledge that this style can’t be used properly without planting both feet.
As the wooden sword lashes out Zeno flashes in front of Xan, catching Firio by the arm and pulling it out wide. Xan strikes, mimicking the ‘Peak Pierces the Cloud’ technique to the best of his ability, missing Zeno by merely a hand-span. The wooden sword connects with a loud crack and blasts Firio off his feet.
Dazedly, Firio starts to rise, but Zeno’s wooden sword comes to rest on his neck. Beaming, Zeno sticks out his tongue at the old Brave. Xan draws the Elemental Brave’s attention by flicking his wooden blade at the spot where the wood would have cracked had Xan done the move with the proper force and technique, and that small impact brought forth shards and splinters of wood.
“Not a proper execution, I’ll admit,” Xan sighs, “but I tried. Seems to have been quite close, wouldn’t you say?”
“Double-teaming an old man…” Firio wheezes. “Not the answer I was looking for from the two of you…but an answer that shows some promise. There’s hope for you yet.”
“Yet?!” Zeno whines. “If I have to act like Xan for one more day, I’ll go crazy! Don’t you dare tell me to do that again, or I’ll crack your skull open!”
“Yes,” Mekhardrim says, stepping out into the courtyard. “I’m rather impressed with this showing, if only the tenacity they displayed. Absolutely fearless.”
“Though this one,” Firio says, nodding at Zeno, “is fearless out of idiocy rather than bravery.”
“True.” The Dark Lord grins slightly, an intimidating smile. “Much like someone else I used to know, before he grew old and wise.”
“Alright already.” Firio reaches up and slides Zeno’s wooden weapon away. “At least I can train him well enough that he won’t die until he’s old and wise.”
“Success!” Zeno yells. “See? I told you so, brother! I made the proper preparations!”
“Now you’ve done it,” Xan sighs. “He’ll be impossible to live with.”
“You be quiet!” With that Zeno turns away, looking up toward sky. “Listen up, world! From this moment on, I am the newest, most powerful, most dangerous--”
“Do you see what I mean?” Xan laments.
“--and by far the best looking of all Mekhardrim’s Braves! I am the invincible, unstoppable, immortal and unbeatable Zeno Brave! Bow down and worship me!”
“So arrogant,” Firio groans.
“But more important than all of that, MY BROTHER GOT LAID LAST NIGHT!!!”
|Zeno Brave: Brothers Bravado||The Prices Paid|
|The Outcasts||Green Cloak Brigade: Of Bini|
|Ring of the Gorgon|