Chapter 5: Chapter 5 - Not a Man

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy Realm

Reads: 217

Several hours later. In the wake of the retreating sun, darkness crawled over the valley of Cambreford.

Ninety miles southeast of the city, within a dense forest reserve untouched by loggers for the last fifty years. Save for thin slivers of deep blue piercing through the intertwining branches, most areas remained deeply shrouded in shadows.

Within the near-darkness, a handful of rangers-in-training trudged through the underwood.

“Hector… how much further…?”

One trainee groaned, wary of blinking less his heavy eyelids close and refuse to open again.

“Another fifteen miles.”

Replied the squad leader.


The trainee stifled a groan, and ended up yawning instead.

“Hei, don’t yawn! Or I, I’ll-”

Another trainee several paces behind protested halfway before giving into a yawn. As if it were a contagious disease, someone else yawned further back.

“Pull yourselves together. This isn’t a game.”

Hector rebuked with a no-nonsense tone.

“I know, I know, but we’ve been marching for more than fourteen hours!”

The first trainee complained, and got slapped on the back.

“Save your breath, man. If Hector says we’ve got fifteen miles to march, then we march fifteen miles.”

“Urgh, fine…”

The trainee yawned again, louder this time. Hector whipped about and hissed.


“Aw come on, it’s just an exercise anyway! We’re not in any real danger.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Remember the Gray Forests last year?”

Another trainee remarked, dampening everyone’s mood in a blink.

Last year, a cohort of candidates hoping to join the Guardians fought an unexpected skirmish during their final try-outs. Their opposition: scores of Beasts who somehow navigated through the impassable mountains surrounding Cambreford. Over two dozen lives were lost that day, at once tripling the total number of candidate fatalities since the organization’s founding.

And Hector was part of that cohort.

“Yeah, well… but that’s over now, so there’s- yeouch!”

Hector stopped and turned to frown at his hunched subordinate.

“What happened?”

“Something hit me!”

Hector’s gaze rose to the dark canopy high above them.

“An acorn?”

“No, it felt like a pebble, from that direction…”

The trainee pointed in the general direction the projectile came from, and froze upon realizing its implication.


An hour’s march behind Hector’s squad.

Dezmond turned and raised a hand, straightened fingers pointing upwards. Despite the dim illumination, his four-person squad recognized the ‘halt’ sign and stopped to wait for his next orders.

Rest here. You and you, sentry-duty.

The three men and one woman complied by dropping their heavy rucksacks. The duo on sentry-duty went out in opposite directions and began pacing in a circle. The remaining two sat propped against their rucksacks, facing each other and keeping a sentry in sight.

In the meantime, Dezmond retrieved a small wooden box which fitted in his palm and opened it. Inside, a circular chronometer marked the minute and hour with its two arms. After confirming the time, he kept it and joined his seated squad-mates.

“How long are we resting here?”

Elfred asked, his deep voice just above a whisper.

“An hour-and-half, maybe two.”

The Aragonian veteran frowned.

“Too long. We might fall behind schedule.”

“I know, but we have no map or compass to navigate with. Better to continue once the stars are out.”

Dezmond reasoned, pointing upwards. Small openings within the dense canopy revealed a monotonous dark-blue sky. Elfred conceded with a grunt.


Dezmond continued in a quieter tone. Elfred followed his glance towards the other person sitting with them.

As for the person in question, Aria missed the exchange and the attention directed her way.

The moment Aria’s aching rump landed on the soft grass and she leaned against her bumpy rucksack, her consciousness dissolved into a half-awake and half asleep limbo. She had never felt more tired in her entire life. Even her adventures in Aszyria seemed paltry.

Fourteen hours ago, the forty-five remaining rangers-in-training were divided into squads and instructed to fully kit-up. Body armour, personal weapons, spare clothes, extra rations; they were to carry everything. Once ready, every squad was brought out of the city via separate vehicles and abandoned in various locations. Their goal: complete a forty-mile marching exercise across rugged terrain within twenty-four hours.

As it was purely a fitness exercise, there won’t be any combat simulation. However since dawn, Dezmond and his group had crossed a river, navigated a lake-sized bog, and crossed several hills before reaching the forest. Despite the chill temperature, every person dripped with perspiration and their lower bodies were caked in mud and peat.

So when Dezmond gently shook Aria’s arm, the woman startled back to attention and struggled to focus on a canteen being offered to her.

“Here, drink.”

Nodding once, Aria accepted and drank from it. The moment liquid sloshed into her mouth, she pulled away, sour faced, but forced herself to swallow.

“Yuck…! Hydration water…?”

Dezmond nodded, tucking several used hydration sachets into a pocket.

“Drink. It’ll help.”

Elfred advised. Aria grimaced before taking a sip, followed by another. The salty-sweet taste invigorated her taste buds and made her stomach churn. A few minutes of sipping later, and the cloudy buzz blurring her mind receded.

“If only it didn’t taste so bad. Also, I’ve never heard of this until coming here.”

“Neither have I. Was probably developed by the Guardians, I expect.”

Elfred suggested.

“My people had drunk stuff like this since a long time ago, to combat dehydration and heatstroke. Though ours taste quite different.”

Dezmond remarked.

“Why is that?”

“Well, there were various recipes for it. Some of them had stranger ingredients.”

“Hm, such as?”

Dezmond regarded Aria with an ‘I wish you hadn’t asked’ look.

“Such as camel blood and horse urine.”


A concrete wall ran to Roland’s left, its smooth surface interspersed with tall glass windows at every few feet. On his right, rows upon rows of tall bookshelves stretched across the Guardian Headquarters’ main library, altogether holding more knowledge than one could hope to learn in one lifetime. Before and behind him stood dozens of tables, all identical to the one he currently occupied.

Incapable of resisting the itchy tinge crawling up his throat, Roland’s jaw stretched and he yawned with a sharp exhale. His eyes watered, distorting his view of the page he had spent the last half-hour hunched over.

“Hei, am I that boring to be with?”

In a teasing tone, the person sitting beside him demanded. While massaging his furrowed brow, Roland turned to face his companion.

“Oh, no. I’m just tired, Victoria.”

“That’s not what you’re supposed to call me when we’re alone.”

Victoria reminded, her lips creased into a coy smile. Roland glanced about and sure enough, they were alone. If he had to guess, it was already past midnight, well past the library’s closing time.

“Ah, you’re right… sorry, Vicky.”

His girlfriend brightened.

“Let’s take a short break before leaving, okay?”

“Ah, sure.”

Roland barely agreed before Victoria leaned over and rested her cheek on his shoulder. Soft silver-blond hair caressed his cheeks, accompanied by a fragrant scent which permeated his senses. Feeling his face warm up, Roland stammered.


“Oh, don’t be stingy. Nobody is here.”

To emphasize her point, the woman nuzzled his shoulder like a feline would. If anyone familiar with Victoria were to witness this scene, their jaws would hang.

In addition to being peerless within her cohort, Victoria belonged to the prestigious Chaser family, a notable Avalonian clan whose members served as politicians, lawmakers, and judges. The woman constantly portrayed herself with dignity and elegance, and excelled in everything she did, so the sight of her frolicking with a man would definitely be shocking.

But underneath her perfection resides a girlish side only Roland knew.

“Mmm… Let’s stay like this for a bit…”

Having found a comfortable resting spot, Victoria relaxed with a contented sigh.

When she invited him for tea several months ago with her usual cool composure, Roland reasoned it being due to him being an Ironheart, another influential clan who for generations served in Avalonia’s military. His very own father held the rank of general, making the man among the top-ten most powerful individuals in the country. It wasn’t the first time a woman tried to worm their way into the Ironheart clan, but none bothered going through Roland.

Why? Because prior to joining the Guardians, Roland graduated military academy within the bottom-quarter of his cohort, and among the Guardian trainees he was average at best. It was no secret he was a black sheep within the Ironheart clan.

So when Victoria proposed becoming lovers at the end of the day, Roland reluctantly accepted. He figured she would leave him after learning the truth of his position, but that never came to be.

In took time, weeks in fact, for him to realize his mistake. It began with Victoria behaving more relaxed whenever they were alone, dropping her dignified manner of speech and gradually revealing this romantic nature she only showed him. She seemed to be genuinely infatuated with him, which troubled Roland as much as it made him happy.

Because while he enjoyed Victoria’s company and appreciated the attentions she lavished on him, Roland could not confess totally reciprocating her affections. Maybe he will in time, but for now, he did his best to indulge her desires. Even so, Roland couldn’t help but feel guilty, since he felt no different from a scoundrel who manipulates and exploits women before abandoning them.

So when footsteps approached and Victoria pulled away to resume her imperious persona, Roland felt ashamed for feeling relieved.

“Oh, it’s you two again. The library’s closed, so you’ll have to come back later.”

The nighttime librarian uttered in a neutral tone before continuing on his way, having grown so accustomed to asking these two to leave he didn’t bother to escort them out.

“Okay, we will.”

Victoria replied. After collecting their things, the Avalonian couple exited the library. Since it was a cloudy night, the dimly lit hallways were darker than usual. Their footsteps echoed louder than usual on the stone-tiled floor. They encountered no one else along the way.

During this brief moment of solitude before having to go their separate ways, Victoria walked close to Roland. Perhaps the darkness made her bolder than usual, for she linked her arm around his as they walked.

“Hei… someone might see us.”

Roland whispered, but she pretended not to hear. They continued like that all the way to the dormitory block, one of them flushed from guilt rather than embarrassment.


In the meantime…

Several miles south of the Guardian headquarters, within the city proper.

With it being peak business-hours, Sunset’s Sweet Delights teemed with activity. An onstage burlesque performance was busy entertaining a score of ogling men, and most tables were occupied with male customers accompanied by escorts.

“Here! Table eleven!”

George barked over the din of chatter and music, pushing a round aluminium tray holding three full glasses across the bar. Every glass sloshed, spilling beer. Wordlessly picking up the wet and sticky tray, Norah marched off to deliver it.

Even though the building was heated by boilers and bodies, her exposed skin felt chilled. And, a lot of her was exposed: thighs, shoulders, forearms, and back. Even so, her attire would definitely be considered conservative compared to the other girls, especially those onstage.

Adding to her discomfort were the thin heels of her glossy thigh-high boots. Tripping over them would risk more than spilled drinks; she could break an ankle.

“Nemo’s going to pay for this… what does he think I am, a stiletto assassin?”

Norah swore, masking her discomfort with cool indifference.

When she reached the table occupied by three men, a new obstacle presented itself to her. She couldn’t bend her knees in these heeled boots, and etiquette dictated she served each customer their drink instead of setting down the tray and let them collect it for themselves.

With no other choice, Norah pushed back her rear and leaned forward. Balancing the tray from underneath with one palm, she served the three men their drinks, who paused their conversations to eye her up like children spotting candy.

“A new face! You’re Aszyrian?”

One queried, straightening just so he could peek into her humble cleavage. Norah dully replied yes, at the same time fantasizing about plucking his eyes out with a pair of pliers.

“So young, too… I could be mistaken for your daddy!”

The oldest man at the table declared, prompting the others to hoot scandalously.

“Your wife’ll kill you if she finds out!”

“Oh she can’t hurt what she don’t know! How about it? I can pay-”

Having set down the last glass, Norah stiffly turned to walk away. More hoots occurred in her wake.

“Ooo! Playing hard to get!”

Before Norah could take a step, a meaty hand smacked across the rear with such force she almost toppled.

How dare they! White rage filled Norah’s mind, yet her cheeks burned with humiliation. Without thinking, she reacted.

Gripping the tray with both hands, Norah pivoted on both heels and – BWANG – smacked her offender across the face.

His two companions choked mid-guffaw, shocked at the sight of their compatriot being struck. Despite it being a light aluminium tray, the speed resulted in a jarring blow that threw the man’s head back. Even so, it wasn’t enough to daze him.


The man roared in pain and outrage, a steady red flow trickling from his nose.

While Norah’s strike caused nearby individuals to pause and turn, the man’s scream silenced the room. Pinching his nose to stem the flow of blood, the man shot up and pointed at her with his other hand.

“Bitch assaulted me! Broke my nose!”

Dozens of eyes scrutinized Norah, who held the tray in a ‘ready’ pose. Feverish warmth washed over her, and her instincts as a cold-blooded killer beckoned to her like sweet wine.

Kill the fools. Show them no mercy. Maim, disfigure them. Show them the monster you-

“He groped the new girl, I saw it!”

A patron seated at the adjacent table called, disrupting Norah’s murderous thoughts and reducing the tense atmosphere by half.

“That’s what you get, you lecherous fart!”

A second patron near the stage jeered, prompting several approving mutters.

“Take it like a man! Or is your manhood so tiny that a little smack’s enough to wound your pride!?”

Someone else sneered, eliciting mocking laughter from all over. The man Norah struck reddened. Then, like a rabbit, he bolted for the exit. His friends hurried after him, hackled by boos and jeers.

Once the troublemakers were gone, business resumed. The dancers on stage resumed singing and dancing to re-enthral its audience, and rumbustious conversation erupted once more. In the meantime, one of Mama Alicia’s girls approached Norah.

“Are you alright, Shir-”

Norah flinched and hastily stepped back. It was a split second reaction due to the adrenaline coursing through her. The woman who approached her seemed to understand, for she smiled placatingly.

“Sorry if I surprised you. Are you hurt?”

Norah shook her head, not trusting her voice to project the calmness she was forcing herself to wear.

“Great. Mama Alicia called for you, she’s in her office.”


“I understand the situation, but don’t ever do that to a customer again.”

Mama Alicia warned Norah within the closed office space, from which loud music and rowdy voices could be heard from outside. Even if someone stuck their ear on the door’s other side, eavesdropping on their conversation would be impossible.

Since the girl more than half her age looked neither worried nor defiant by her warning, the business proprietor’s lips pursed.

“Look at me, Shireen.”

Norah complied. Two sets of unwavering gazes met. One held decades of experience in an industry rife with physical abuse and sexual assault, the other contained cold resolve born through living a harsh life where murder and deceit were commonplace.

Within the seconds spent glaring at each other, Mama Alicia understood more about the girl standing opposite her than during the hour-long conversation they had earlier in the day.

Because neither side showed any sign of giving in, Mama Alicia broke the stalemate by speaking.

“What if those men were the one’s you’re looking for?”

That statement caught Norah off guard. Before she could argue back, the older and more experienced woman continued.

“What if they weren’t, but were watching nearby?”

Acknowledging the possibility, Norah’s steadfast gaze faltered. Utilizing this opportunity to cement her point, Mama Alicia concluded.

“They will undoubtedly remember your face. It’ll then be impossible for you to get close to them. Everything that was done to get you here would have gone to waste.”

Uncertainty washed through Norah and at last she looked aside, thereby declaring defeat. Though she hated to admit it, the woman was right. How could she have been so dense? If it were her from last year-

Norah’s mind froze.

If it were her from last year, she would have killed the man on the spot by instinct. Why? Because she had been indoctrinated from childhood to become a heartless killer. And, having lived in a world where murder and deceit were commonplace throughout her life, she never questioned her destructive nature.

But everything changed when she joined the Guardians last year and concluded mere months ago, when she was freed from her former guild and its master – her own father.

Since then, with the help of several cherished individuals, Norah’s cold heart gradually warmed. One in particular being Dezmond, her countryman and lover.

However, the taste of freedom after eighteen years of servitude was bittersweet; even though it felt as if an oppressing weight had been lifted from her shoulders, countless splinters prickled underneath her skin. Rather than pain, they mocked her, demanding:

What are you – a despicable murderer – trying to become?

Norah no longer considered murder to be her purpose in life, yet her instincts said otherwise. She had come here to gather information in the name of the law, yet her attitude would sooner bring everything to ruin. Everything about her was in juxtaposition.

“Shireen. Look at me.”

Mama Alicia called, gently. Norah lifted her gaze. Despite the woman’s severe countenance, there was also sympathy. Raising an arm to sweep around the office, she stated.

“The world is far more complicated than you think, especially in this trade where men are expected to be strong, and women subservient. A weak man will always be treated as inferior, while a strong woman-”

The proprietor’s demeanour sharpened.

“- must learn when to sheathe her claws.”

Sunset’s Sweet Delights was an establishment which walked on thin ice between the law and morality. Furthermore, its proprietor was not a man.

“Because there are few things more dangerous than an arrogant man with wounded pride.”

Upon delivering that statement, Mama Alicia cleared her throat and returned to the problem at hand.

“As far as I am aware, the ones you are searching for haven’t arrived. Mind you, they might not even be coming tonight. And while it’s safe to assume they’ll learn what happened earlier, with luck they won’t care to remember it was you who committed it.”

A flicker of hope flared within Norah.

“However, the way they treat women would make the man who offended you blush like a virgin on her wedding night.”

Though unease gripped Norah, it had nothing to do with embarrassment.

Could she restrain herself when the time comes?

Mama Alicia’s unspoken question rang within her. The cabaret proprietor regarded her with sympathy, but the words she uttered next were plain and simple.

“So if you cannot get over your pride, you should consider getting someone else to take over.”

Submitted: July 11, 2018

© Copyright 2021 AJLKS. All rights reserved.


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