"Again!" Cried an old man, raspy voice echoing through the woods. He raised his wooden sword and pointed towards a young man kneeling on the ground. "We're not done yet! Stand!"
Ned, exhausted and freezing, used his wooden sword to support his body to stand. He held the stick with two and breathed calmly. When ready, he dashed towards the old man.
"Good. Not bad for a Hollow," stroking his beard, the old man easily evaded the attacks. "Proper form and breathing, for a thirteen-year-old you learn quite fast, kid."
"Even without Magic, I will not disappoint you, Master." Ned momentarily stopped to catch his breath. Using his weight, he plunged forward. "Six years of training, and I'm still unable to hit you, Master."
The hum of the sword cutting through the air broke the silence in the woods. But no matter how hard Ned tried, his master easily evaded the attacks. Thrusts from his right, slash from his left, stab from the middle. All of Ned's effort gone to waste.
"Fast as always, Master Will."
"How knights should be," Master Will grunted. Evading to his left, back to the right, and leaped backward. "And being a knight is all about balance, not just speed."
Ned then used his remaining strength to attack with one swift move. He thrust his sword, all strength in one attack: swift, precise, and heavy.
Woods clanged midair. The sound echoed through the woods, but only one remained steady. Ned's sword twisted off his grip and landed on the ground.
"Okay kid, that's enough for today," Master Will said, collecting Ned's sword. "Get ready and grab your coat. It's freezing in the woods."
Breaking the dawn, a rising light shone on Ned's figure. Silver hair gleamed, some strand covered his dusty blue eyes. Ned's skinny figure cast a shadow on the ground. Feeling the prickling warmth of the sun touching his back, Ned slowly stood.
What happened next startled him. His thoughts were filled with obscured memories. Memories of some mysterious man.
In this memory, he was sitting in an odd-shaped room with an unknown variety of plants hanging on the wall. Books of different sizes stacked on wooden shelves. A lady sat in front of him. Dividing them was a table engraved with intricate circular designs. Her face was clouded in a dark mist. Rather than shocked or afraid, he felt comfortable staring at her. Her long, obsidian hair waved like a pendulum across her shoulder. Ned tilted his head, examining his surrounding. "So, you're 179." The lady spoke.
"Ned! Hey kid! Kid! Wake up!" Master Will spanking Ned's face.
"Master?" Ned said in a daze. Eyes sweeping a room made of woods. "What happened, Master?"
"You collapsed, kid. I thought it was exhaustion," Master Will said, eyes show worry under the wrinkles. "But it was the Middle Frost Month. A month of your nightmares—again."
"And it will last a day or two."
"Yes, so it's fine if you couldn't hunt for today. We still have some jerky left," Master Will said, rubbing his chin with brown facial hair. "You rest here. I have cooked soup, it will help you warm up."
"No, Master. I'm fine now," Ned said, trying to get up. "I'll just eat and regain my strength, no need to rest Master. Rabbi's won't wait for me."
"Are you sure, kid?"
"Yes, Master. No need to worry."
"I'm sorry, kid," Master Will said, gripping his left arm—or what was left of it. "I'm half useless without my left arm."
"It's fine, Master. You've taught me a lot. It's my time to return the favor."
"You're thirteen but your wisdom equals half the people I've met."
"Well, I have a great Master."
They both snickered.
Ned's wild dream, or nightmares, started six years ago, in the Middle Frost Month of the same day each year for six years. At first, he thought it was normal. But it happened the second year, the third, and the fourth. Until he felt odd.
His dreams include a man confronting creatures of different species, talking, fighting, and suffering.
Like the stories, his Master spoke when he was young. Elves, dragons, and trolls peaked his dreams. Nature of different places, or maybe dimensions. Technology far more advanced than his current time.
The dreams were odd. Sometimes he thought the man was the real him. In his dreams, no castle stood built of bricks. But castles made of steel and technology brimming with light, with flying mounts hovering in the sky.
But the most notable part of his dream was the vague lady and the use of magic. Mysterious faced lady, always shrouded with black mist. Who calls him 179?
The end of his dream was always the same. The lady froze in the crystal. Yet, she seemed happy. Ned could feel that she wasn't afraid or sad even though she's dying.
Perhaps, because these dreams made Ned realized that he wasn't the kid who he was. He was something bigger, or none at all.
"Master, I'm leaving," Ned said, opening the splintered door.
It was the Middle Frost Month, winter is coming. Snow will soon fall. As always, Ned carried a rusty hunting knife. A bow. And a string to tie his game. Life inside the wilderness was hard without resources. So, Ned hunt to trade for money and necessary things for him and Master Will.
"Remember kid, Balance," Master Will said, raising a finger. "Be swift, precise, and—"
"Heavy," Ned cut short Master Will. He then put his right hand across his chest then leaned forward. He bowed and left.
As a Hollow, born without Magic. Ned must rely on weapons to hunt. His master taught him to use varieties of weapons. But he was more accustomed to using one-handed swords and bows.
For as long as Ned could remember, they were always on an island called O'rriadt. Situated farther South of the territory of the Cassan Continent and the Ekan Continent. But none owned O'rriadt Island, so they considered it being a neutral territory. Because of its remote location, the influences of kingdoms were not outstretched here.
On this island, different people from different places gathered. So if one wants to hide from the eyes of the law, O'rriadt Island is a good place to start. Security is not tight. Locals and foreigners have a silent rule within them. 'Stay silent, we all are criminals here, you mess; we all mess. If we all mess we all get caught, so shut up and enjoy the island'. Without these pirates, castaways, and criminals hiding from the law. O'rriadt Island would become a country of its own a long time ago.
Because of the island's unique structure, crescent or U shaped island, and overwhelming visitors from the outside. Two villages emerged. The first village was Moormont Village, at the left tip of the island. The second was Dragonshore, built at the right tip.
In the middle of the island was O'rriadt Town. Governed by a wise and scheming Town Lord, Lord Rastik McGreedy. Having the aid of his loyal guards, they made the tax flexible—by flexible means; the tax depends on the Lord's mood, or so Ned was told.
For years, Ned hunted the Grieving Woods, below Dragonshore Town. Every nook of the forests were engraved at the back of his head. He was the master of the woods.
Ned knew exactly what he was hunting. The Rabbi—swift and agile Magical beast that munched only weeds—and hunted mainly for their fur. Untrained people will have a hard time hunting them.
Occasionally, Rabbis would drop their Core, completely intact, or broken. Cores are the life of every monster. Depending on the pureness, mages can use Cores to absorb Magic like mana stones. Craft magical weapons or sold to the market. Ned's Rabbi Cores were always sold to the market since he was a Hollow.
After hunting several Rabbis, Ned prepared to leave for town. Depending on the weather, the travel would take one to two hours on foot. Ned could then sell seven to ten Rabbis for a handful of Pica—the town's unit of exchange. He would then buy resources that would last him and his Master a week, and the process repeats.
Ned went to the market only once a week. Since O'rriadt Island was one hub for travelers at the bottom of the Cassan Continent, they sold their products here. From plundering, stealing, and occasionally—just occasionally—slaves were sold. So O'rriadt was a place for almost all kinds of products.
Ned's visit to the market differed from his usual. The market was bustling, but none were buying. The crowd headed toward the town square. What he noticed in the crowd were upper-class people. He could tell by the garment they wore, unusual for an island thronged of fugitives.
Ned stopped at a butcher shop. He then sold the Rabbi's meat and fur for a reasonable amount. But Ned's dusky blue eyes kept on rolling towards the crowd going to the town square.
"Butcher sir." Steady and polite, he asked. "What's with the crowd?"
"Oh, that?" The butcher said, turning his head to the crowd. "I heard that a Royal Knight from the Griffith Kingdom arrived today." He continued. "And they announced, that because of the war against the Zolin Empire, they needed more recruit. You interested kiddo?"
It would be rare for an envoy of Kingdom to be sent here, and a Royal Knight to say. None would waste their time coming to this place's abnormal climate. Sunny at the top, and winter at the bottom.
"I'm just curious but not interested," Ned said. "I'd rather stay here, and I can't leave my Master."
"Well, it's up to you. Kids of your age are going to the square. But the selection will start two days from now. So if ever you changed your mind, the square will be there."
"Thank you, butcher sir."
After Ned sold the Rabbis. He then bought resources to prepare for winter.
It was already dusk when he left the market.
Halfway through the woods, he could hear footsteps following him. The sound they made was deliberate: to instill fear.
Ned stopped after two men declared themselves hiding in the trees. The one that follows grabbed Ned over his collar.
"Kid, your Picas. Now." He snarled, pointing a knife at Ned's throat. Too close, Ned could smell the stench of alcohol as the man breathes. "Easy... stop struggling... "
"B-but—" Ned did struggle.
"No more buts," the second man said.
Ned could not see their faces since they were wearing hoods. But their accent was foreign.
Ned had no other choice but to hand his hard-earned Picas.
"How much, how much?!" Cried the first man. "Tell me, is it enough for a booze?!"
"For a kid, you earned quite a lot." The man behind grabbed the pouch where Ned stored the Picas and felt that it was heavy. He then threw Ned on the side. "Picas, Picas... Picas for booze, let's see how many Picas you have, Pica two, three, four... hmm, hmm, 7, 8, nine Picas. Not bad, kid."
But the second man saw Ned was holding on to something. "Kid, what's that in your hand?" he said.
"I-It's nothing. Please take the Picas. But not this one. This one is for my Master."
"Master? Ooh, you must be a magic capable? Are you a mage? Warrior? Knight? No. You didn't use any magic till now. You're a Hollow! Nyaya!"
"How unlucky. Look at us," said the third man. "We're Hollows too. I suggest you'd hurry finding a fairy or worse, a devil to form a pact, maybe the lesser magical beast. If not, you'll remain useless for the rest of your life! Not that we care," and laughed hysterically.
"Now, hand us those!"
Ned, with only a rusty knife and a bow, had a choice to either fight or hand over the pouch. Inside were herbs his master uses to treat the pain on his left arm.
To fight means to struggle, even death. But he will keep his honor taught by his Master. To run means to live with the guilt. If Ned fought, this will be the first time to honor his Master. He'd rather not show his face to his Master if he runs. So Ned hoped to fight back. Trained to fight and hunt beasts, but not individuals willing to take lives.
Calm down, Calm down. It's dark. I could at least take down the one on my left. Then hide in the woods and wait for an ambush. And hope the other two will follow, Ned thought. Hands shaking.
Determined, ready, and scared. Ned acted on his plan. He swept his hand behind his waist, where the rusty knife was tucked.
Using the weight of his body. He lunged to his left, headed to the man who took his Picas. One swift, precise, and heavy move. Years of training burst in one attack.
Ned was fast, but the man was faster. Without magic to support his moves and experience in an actual fight, they caught Ned. One punch to his face, he fell, then rolled.
First, numbness, followed by a hot sensation. His face swollen.
"We have a fighter here!" The man who punched Ned cried. He walked towards Ned, then helped him stand by pulling under his arm. He then kicked Ned's gut. Ned fell again. This time, the man's left foot was resting on Ned's face.
The other two pulled their knives. Their eyes hinted nothing but an intent to kill. "Let's do this."
I'm stupid. I don't have experience in real. They're thieves, in and out of prison. Maybe robbed hundreds of people. Worst, killed. And here I am, acting a hero—no, a Hollow. From the beginning, I already lost. Dead and stupid. Master, I'm sorry. Your apprentice died a stupid death.
A ding followed by a chime echoed inside Ned's head, his eyes widened in surprise.
[System Reboot complete.]