Several agonizingly long minutes passed as Zeke sat in shock from Narroth’s appearance, as well as his words about needing to ‘ripen’ more. There was no doubt in Zeke’s mind that Narroth wants him to get stronger, though he couldn’t wrap his head around why Narroth would wait to ‘harvest’ him. Bewildered, Zeke stared at Yazmak’s lifeless body sprawled out before him as he thought about the image of Yazmak’s soul being shattered before his very eyes, “There were so many things I wanted to know. In just moments everything has been turned upside down. What can I possibly do now?”
Gritting his teeth, Zeke slammed on the brakes in his swirling thoughts and brought everything to a complete stop. Though physically he was out of breath, Zeke could feel his very spirit was at its brink, ready to follow suit with Yazmak. Resolutely he set his jaw and forced himself over to Barkstripe first. Upon kneeling down he could immediately see that his friend was definitely alive as he tucked his hands underneath Barkstripe’s torso and lifted with his legs to roll Barkstripe over onto his back.
Face wrenched from the pain, Barkstripe opened one eye to just a sliver as he looked up at Zeke and rasped, “Thanks for the assist, it was getting a little stuffy. I think I’m just going to lie here for awhile.”
Zeke waited several moments to see that Barkstripe only closed his eyes and took long, slow breaths but otherwise remained motionless. Then he hurried over to Delairyus, who was now sprawled on the ground on her back, and found that she was still breathing, though unconscious. Getting on all fours, Zeke called out to her, “Delairyus! Wake up, please!”
There was no response, and Zeke reached out with his right hand, placing it on her shoulder to shake her as he was uncertain of what else to do. As soon as his hand made contact with Delairyus, her right hand darted out and clenched Zeke’s wrist with claws digging into his flesh. Her eyes opened with a flash and locked with Zeke’s, rage danced in her gaze before fizzling out as she realized who it was before her. An apologetic look washed over Delairyus’ face as she let go of Zeke’s wrist, “Sorry about that Zeke. I can heal that up right away if you want.”
Though Delairyus’ reflexes shook Zeke, he waved away her offer as he held his lightly bleeding wrist and cracked a weak, reassuring smile, “I’m glad you’re alright Delairyus. You were unconscious so I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
Instead of smiling back, Delairyus cocked her head to the side, her pupils dialated somewhat from seeing Zeke’s prismatic spirit outlining his body with a slow pulse, “Nevermind that Zeke, you’re at your Soul Shatter point. You need to rest immediately and-”
Holding up an index finger with his free hand, Zeke interrupted Delairyus, “That means little to me right this second. I’m going to find Salien and check on her,” Zeke took a moment to look back at Barkstripe, who was still taking deep breaths but otherwise remained motionless, then looked back into Delairyus’ eyes, “Barkstripe is taking time to recover, and you seem to be doing alright. I’ll bring Salien back after making sure she’s alright.”
Shooting to her feet, Delairyus gave Zeke a blank stare, her tone was more icy than her stare, “If you insist on being reckless, then I won’t stop you, instead I’ll go with you.” Without looking at Barkstripe, she pointed a thumb at him, “Blockhead over there will be fine on his own, he’s much more durable than he looks at least.”
A twinge of guilt hit Zeke from the tone Delairyus gave him, but he swallowed it back as he went to walk past Delairyus, who stopped him by grabbing his injured wrist. A momentary lavender glow covered Zeke’s wrist before Delairyus let go and walked ahead of him without another word. Looking at his newly healed wrist, Zeke sighed to himself in resignation before following after Delairyus.
The grim pair hurried through the forest, searching every bush and tree along the way. It was shortly after they commenced their search that Delairyus halted Zeke behind her as she peered around the tree in front of them. Before Zeke could question her, Delairyus mumbled, “I should have guessed they’d show up eventually.” Turning her attention to Zeke she motioned for him to follow her as she stepped out from behind the tree. Following behind, they stepped into a small clearing where nine bunny Anthros were huddled together in front of a particularly large tree with their backs to Delairyus and Zeke.
Upon approaching the group, one of the bunny Anthros heard their approach with a twitch of an ear and whirled around to face them with a halberd at the ready. “Who goes th-, Oh! Delairyus! I-I didn’t realize that was you. Are you here to investigate the light that was in the sky as well?”
Zeke gazed upon the person before them, standing at what he figured to be 6′ 3″ with short, grey fur colored this bunny’s entire average-sized body. Stern, magenta eyes locked with Delairyus’ eyes, eagerly awaiting a response. Slowly looking down, Zeke noticed that the bunny in front of them as well as the whole group of bunny Anthros wore the same forest green armor as the guards in Castel City. It was then that he also took note of the white lightening bolt on the breastplate, as well as one on the right leg of every member of the group.
It was at this time that Delairyus plainly responded, “I saw what happened with the light in the sky.” Casually he pointed a thumb at Zeke, “He was the one who made it.” Then folding her arms over her chest, Delairyus shifted her weight to one side, “I thought that the Thunderfoot squad would have made it out here sooner. What took you so long Sharla?”
Though Sharla stiffened upon looking at Zeke for the first time, she didn’t miss a beat as she answered, “We were making our way to the source of that light when we came across her.” Turning to one side, Sharla pointed at what her squad was surrounding, revealing that it was Salien slumped over at the base of the tree.
In a single gasp Zeke’s eyes widened with panic as he went to rush over to Salien as he cried her name, only to be blocked by Sharla’s halberd, “You will go no further. By order of King Dekarius, the Thunderfoot Squad is taking this ‘Salien’ back for medical treatment as well as questioning.”
There was a twitch of Salien’s ear as she heard her name being called out as she slowly opened her eyes, mumbling, “Zeke, are there?”
Seeing Salien come to made Zeke push past Sharla as he rushed over to Salien. He immediately got to his knees and embraced her, sobbing, “I’m so glad you’re okay! I-I-” Zeke’s words became incomprehensible as he cried and buried his face in her snowy white fur.
A weak smile spread on Salien’s face as she mumbled, “There there Zeke, everything will be alright.” She gargled a moment from Zeke squeezing just a little too hard, which made her urge Zeke to let go of her as she caught her breath.
Delairyus looked to Sharla, “I can take you to where the fight happened and update you on what’s going on.” Her gaze shifted to Salien and Zeke, “This way everyone can get the rest they need.”
Nodding in understanding, Sharla stomped the ground with her right foot several times in succession, causing the other eight in her squad to stand at attention as she said, “We’re going to follow Delairyus to where the light came from, let’s move!”
The group surrounding Salien and Zeke followed after Delairyus and Sharla while Zeke kept fussing over Salien as she reassured him that she could move just fine, that she only needed to catch her breath. When the group reached the area where they were attacked by Narroth, Barkstripe slowly sat up to see his companions had brought more than they bargained for back with them. A sly smile cracked on his face, “Seems you guys found more friends while you were away.”
He slowly scanned the group and tsked, “If it isn’t the Thunderfoot Squad, Dekarius’ most bragged about group of scouts, what hole are you guys digging for the King this time?”
Salien and Zeke sat down near Barkstripe while Delairyus gestured for Sharla and her squad to join them as Sharla’s questioning gaze went from Yazmak’s lifeless body to the torn up ground from Zeke’s blast, “It’s going to get dark soon, and we may as well camp here for the night while we tell you about what has happened.”
Despairing at being ignored, Barkstripe mock wailed, “Oh sure, just ignore the fox! I see how it is!”
Salien and Zeke smiled to themselves upon hearing Barkstripe’s words while Delairyus and the rest made a fire and sat in a circle around it while the details of the past few nights were discussed.
Night turned to day and everyone was up and about as though nothing has happened, except for Zeke. When he awakened, one of the first things he laid eyes on was Yazmak’s corpse, which served as a stark reminder of recent events. This made his heart sink to stomach as he rolled over to look away, only to see everyone else already moving around while he continued to lay there. He jumped when there was a sudden voice of protest from Salien, “So you’re just going to run off with him to who knows where? Do you really think you can protect him on your own?”
Salien was speaking to Delairyus, whom calmly stood before Salien, seemingly unphased by her words, except for the flicking of her tail as Zeke noticed, “Zeke needs to be trained, and properly I might add. He clearly has a lot to learn, which he will not as long as you and Barkstripe are around to coddle him at every turn. Narroth isn’t the only danger on Stormhaven as a whole and if Zeke is to stop him, then he has to grow up in time.”
Before a punch could be thrown, Barkstripe was there to stop Salien as he gave her a reassuring smile, “You’ve seen it yourself Salien, Delairyus here can do far more than even I can, though I LOATHE to admit it, and if we’re only going to be in the way, then we’ll have to take her word for it.”
Growling in frustration Salien turned away from Delairyus, “Fine, then I’d better say something to Zeke before we go.”
Seeing Salien’s approach, Zeke slowly sat up as he stretched with a yawn, “What’s going on Salien? Is everything okay?”
Upon kneeling down, Salien embraced Zeke and began to stroke his hair, “Everything is alright Zeke. Barkstripe and I are going back with the Thunderfoot Squad to report to the King about what has happened here. Delairyus is going to look after you in the meantime, so be strong for me okay?”
Though he was puzzled by her words, Zeke squeezed in response, “Okay Salien, hurry back as soon as you can.”
Salien gave a hearty squeeze of her own before letting Zeke go and getting to her feet. Upon following suit, Zeke watched her approach the awaiting Squad with Barkstripe giving a strangely nervous smile of his own as he weakly waved goodbye before turning around to leave. Delairyus caught Zeke’s attention as she sauntered up to him, with what felt to Zeke like a predatory gaze, “So, we have a mission of our own that requires our immediate attention.”
Swallowing back the building anxiety that now shrieked in his mind, Zeke asked his question slowly to keep his voice from breaking, “What exactly do you mean?”
Recognizing the building tension that Zeke was hiding, Delairyus gave him a warm smile, “Why, to train you of course!” She stood at arms length from him, still smiling, “So we’re starting now, attack me.”
Taken aback by her command, Zeke stared her with eyes ready to pop out of his head, “Y-you mean n-n-now?! I-I don’t want to hurt you though!”
Delairyus chuckled, which only served to make Zeke shiver in fear, as she urged once more, “I’ll block your attacks, trust me. I want to see for myself what you can do, so please, take a swing.”
Gritting his teeth, Zeke turned all of his anxiety to anger as he took a boxing stance, “Alright then, you asked for this.”
Starting with his left, Zeke jabbed at Delairyus as she blocked with ease while making a point to lock eyes with him. Grunting with effort, Zeke jabbed with his right hand this time, only to be blocked in the same manner as before. Re-assuming his stance, Zeke took a moment to think about his next move with a short “Hmm.” It was then that Zeke took a step forward as he did a steady one-two-three jabbing combo, which was effortlessly blocked by his opponent.
Getting back into stance, Zeke once again took a moment to consider his next move as Delairyus chimed, “Give me all you’ve got Zeke! You can throw in some kicks too!”
A quick nod was all the response Zeke gave before punching with all he had in a four punch combo and a follow-up roundhouse kick. Un-phased, Delairyus blocked every strike without retaliating in any way. This was something that Zeke grew increasingly irritated with as he focused more on punching and kicking than putting together a plan. In seconds, Zeke was feeling winded, forcing him to stop his would-be assault. There was no hint in Delariyus’ eyes or her stoic expression that hinted at any bit of fatigue.
There was a twitch of Delariyus’ left ear only a moment before her left fist shot out and connected with Zeke’s jaw. The force of the blow harmlessly staggered him, much to Zeke’s surprise, and he turned his head just in time to see a twitch of her right ear this time before her right fist knocked him in the jaw. Focusing on keeping his breathing in a steady rhythm, Zeke got himself back into his boxing stance as he readied himself for Delairyus’ next attack.
Once again there was a twitch of Delairyus’ ear that corresponded with the punch she was going to throw, which Zeke felt prepared for but still felt the blow connect with his jaw. This time the shock of being struck was far less for him as he blocked the next blow just in time. Gaining some confidence, Zeke managed to block several more strikes consecutively. As if she could sense the hope building inside of him, Delairyus shifted tactics, now twitching the opposite ear of the side she would strike with. It was enough to throw Zeke off for several strikes before he caught on to the change and blocked her oncoming punches.
Now Delairyus had a glint in her eye the made Zeke’s widen in anticipation as she began to throw feints in with her punches, as well as aiming for his stomach. Though Zeke was fully on the defensive, he couldn’t read Delairyus’ movements as she continued to knock him around. Though it felt like an eternity, mere seconds passed when Delairyus punched Zeke with enough force to make him double over, following up with a sweeping kick to knock him flying off of his feet, then swinging herself in a full circle to kick Zeke and send him careening through the air for several feet before sliding to a stop on the ground.
Patiently she stood with arms folded as she watched Zeke get up on one knee and take several deep breaths before glaring at Delairyus. The intent in his eyes was clear as he slowly aimed his charging Buster at her. Their gazes locked with each other for a moment, allowing Zeke to see the curious joy now in Delairyus’ eyes before he let loose his charged blast. To his chagrin however, the blast was easily side-stepped. Instead of coming up with a plan, Zeke tried again and he belted out a cry of frustration as his blast from his Ion Buster was once again side-stepped by Delairyus. Her stocky feline body was only a cover for how agile she is, which aggravated Zeke more. All that showed in Deliaryus’ lavender eyes was an expectation for more.
Taking a deep breath, Zeke took a moment to focus on his self-imposed task of not only hitting Delairyus with, but to also make sure it hurt, a lot. Having been attempting this for what felt like an hour, Zeke’s patience was at an all time limit. Having been jerked around, figuratively and literally, in his last few encounters as well as learning about his importance in what felt like life itself, he desperately wanted to feel that he was still in control of his own life.
As he slowly let out his held breath, Zeke began to rapid fire at Delairyus, shooting everywhere he felt that Delairyus would be. In the blink of an eye, Delairyus became nothing but a blur as she danced around each shot fired at her. In what felt like a gesture to add insult to injury, Delairyus would pose just long enough for Zeke to observe as she continued to avoid each shot.
Reaching his limit, Zeke screamed, “That’s it!”
In a flash, Zeke summoned his Prismatic blade to his free hand before rushing headlong at Delairyus, leading the way with his Buster that was still firing. His vision focused solely on his target, who was still evading with ease, and nothing else mattered in his mind. When he closed the distance between them, Zeke thrust his sword at Delairyus, aiming to impale her through the abdomen.
Suddenly there was a clawed hand gripping his wrist, which ripped Zeke out of this tunnel vision to see that Delairyus was standing to the side of Zeke, her outstretched arm grasped Zeke’s wrist. There was a fury in her eyes that made Zeke’s widen with fear and realization at what had transpired. In what felt like a bucket of ice water, guilt and sorrow washed over Zeke when it occurred to him what he tried to do.
Zeke let go of his sword, causing it to fade away as Delairyus continued to hold his arm at the wrist. Her gaze didn’t move from Zeke as she slowly approached, “This is what I want to work on with you. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are at anything if you let such rampant emotions drive your actions.”
The seriousness in Delairyus’ voice reminded Zeke of someone who is teaching a child, which deepened Zeke’s guilt. Unable to meet her eyes, Zeke lowered his gaze to the ground. With her free hand, Delairyus held up Zeke’s head to meet his eyes, the fury in her eyes was replaced with deep concern, “During the real thing, you have to remain focused, the moment you lose control of your emotions is when the enemy has already won. There are times when those feelings can help drive you forward, however, they can’t be the very fuel behind your actions.”
Blinking away the tears welling up in his eyes, Zeke weakly asked, “Then what am I supposed to do? How can I defend myself if every living thing here can so easily overpower me?”
A playful smirk found its way on Delairyus’ lips, “The answer to that is a process, and it’s going to start with you learning to have better control of your emotions. It’s one thing to simply feel determined to accomplish a goal, then to hone that feeling into something deadly takes practice. In my previous battles I’ve learned how to do that for myself, and I’m going to teach you what I know and find what works for you. You’ll have plenty of times where you feel like you do now, there’s no avoiding that, and it will all lead to the point where you can do the same things I can.”
Excitement glittered in Zeke’s eyes, “You mean, I’ll be able to turn into a blur like you and Barkstripe?”
Delairyus giggled, “The way that jock-strap moves is far different from how I do it, and it’s that very reason that he can’t beat me.”
In that moment Delairyus embraced Zeke, imparting a genuine feeling of comfort over him, even though the tips of her ears poked his chin. Hugging her back, Zeke took it all in, feeling like everything was right in the world for that moment. As soon as the feeling came, it was gone as Delairyus stepped away, a look of grim determination painted her face as their eyes locked onto each other.
Zeke didn’t like the idea of what was to come next but he knew he had to hear Delairyus’ words as he swallowed back the building fear. “From now on while I’m training you Zeke, things are going to get very difficult. I don’t want to have to put you through so much, except there isn’t much choice. If you really want to learn from me, you need to be ready to go through hell. Do you think you’re prepared?”
Though he wanted to spout out the word ‘Yes!’, the word caught in his throat as his instincts soaked in every implication behind Delairyus’ words. Visions of anger, pain, and suffering flashed through Zeke’s mind, and the fear of it all happening clawed at him. Inside all of the negative feelings that stormed through him, at the epicenter was a feeling of hope. It was enough to shine through and allow Zeke to have the courage to nod with a grim look of his own as he heavily responded, “I’m as ready as I will ever be.”
A warm smile crept over Deliaryus’ face momentarily before disappearing as she said, “Then let’s not waste any time.”