Bheith ar foluain go deo…
Death brought them together. Their society wants to tear them apart. To the Dragons of the Hall of Wingéd, Cassius is a prodigy and the most promising Demon slayer in the newest Candidate class, while Emmy is just a simple Moth, a collector of souls and unfit to handle the dangers of being a soldier. The deeper their bond grows, the more their fates intertwine, and it will transform their world for better or for worse. When a witch kills their Seraph, Cassius will have to decide where his loyalties lie and if he’s willing to sacrifice it all to protect the woman who would do anything to save him.
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At the dawn of human existence, a living being leapt from the ledge of a mountain and merged with a Moth Spirit, giving her wings. Since then, thousands of souls have taken the Leap in commemoration of the sacrifice Mien made. They are the Wingéd, spirits called to guide the living. However, born from the fires of hell came the Demon Wingéd. Tortured and twisted, their wrath and hunger for violence know no bounds, leading them to kill and spread torment wherever their feet touch. Chaos reigns where Demons dwell. Many have been called to fight them. This is a tale of a soldier, a Dragon Wingéd, who would eventually be called Cassius the Wingless.
As he stood on the ledge, looking over the abyss and ready to take the Leap, Cassius was surprised to find that there was very little about his life on his mind. He had rehearsed this very moment in for weeks beforehand, and this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. He would stand on the pedestal and reflect on his life before jumping off the side of this mountain. The Wingéd would call the spirits to save him, and he would merge with the spirit that chose him. That is how it was supposed to be. It wouldn’t be the last time that Cassius would deviate from the program. Instead of reflecting on his life, he reflected on circumstances of his death. It was far more significant to him than any moment he’d spent alive.
He wished he had died in a more dignified fashion. At the age of sixteen, he’d been a glorified hunter and had even been married to a lovely young woman with eyes bluer than the sea. He longed to die on the battlefield protecting his tribe from the wrath of the tribe on the other side of the river. That was the most honorable death he could envision for himself.
Instead, he died alone. In the forest. In the most lackluster fashion.
To prove his own strength, Cassius pulled back a thick, low-hanging branch from a tree as far as it would go, flinging a sharp, heavy stone upward through the boughs. Had he lived later in time, perhaps he might have dodged this fate. But there was no way he could have anticipated this simple principle which had yet to be discovered: what goes up must come down.
Cassius was struck in the head by his own rock.
And as he lay there with a cracked skull and bleeding profusely into his curly black hair, he thought of nothing, but his disgrace. What would he say to them? What was he going to tell his family? He would never live this down, but fortune smiled down on the poor boy.
“You getting up or are you just going to lie in there?” a voice asked him.
He looked up to see a woman standing over him. He clamped his eyes shut. “I am going to lie here until I can figure out what to tell my family when I return to the tribe.”
“Well, to be honest, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that anymore.” She crossed her arms and stood back from him.
“What are you talking about?”
“Come see for yourself.”
He didn’t appreciate this imposition, and as he sat up, he asked her with annoyance in his tone, “What’s a woman like you wandering around in the woods away from your tribe anyway?”
“My tribe left this area a long time ago.”
The more he looked at her the more he realized there was something terribly off about her. Everything about her was immaculate. She didn’t have a speck of dirt on her, and she wore a pure white tunic belted at the waist. He raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you afraid of me?”
She pressed her lips together. “Not especially.”
“It could be the cracked skull and all the blood, but you don’t appear to be very imposing to me.” She glanced down at his body and then back up at him. “But at least you decided to get up.”
“What do you mea—Ah!” he cried out, finally getting a glimpse of his corpse. “That’s me!” he yelled, grasping at himself while gaping at the body on the ground. “What’s going on?”
The woman put her hand up to her face pretending to be perplexed. “Well, I’m no judge, but you might be dead.”
“Dead?! But I can’t be dead! I have a wife to take care of! What about Lydia? What will the tribe do without me?” He looked up at her and jumped backward when he eventually saw the thin, beige, moth-like wings attached near her shoulder. “What are those?! What kind of creature are you?! Are you a god? A demon? You’re going to eat my soul, aren’t you?”
“‘A demon?’ Nobody’s ever called me that before. I’m a little insulted.” Her wings twitched in an agitated fashion on her back. “No, I’m not here to eat you, but I might just leave you out here for comments like that. Let real Demons have you. ‘A demon’ indeed.”
“No, no, no. Don’t do that. I’m sorry, I swear.”
She crossed her arms, momentarily glaring at him. “Then, let us start anew. What is your name?”
“I am Cassius,” he replied, thumping his chest with his fist.
“I am Maki, a Moth from the Hall of Wingéd. I am here to help you. Please, take my hand.”
She held out one of the cleanest and softest looking hands he had ever seen. There was no dirt, no scars, no calluses. It was almost as if she’d never done a day’s work in her life. He stared at her palm warily. Maybe he was better off not taking it. Maybe this was some sort of trick.
“Well? Are you going to take it or not?”
“I don’t know.”
“Cassius, you must trust me. Believe you me, you’re not going to want to stay out here. There are far worse things that could befall you than coming with me.”
He studied her again for a long hard second; then, he decided to place his hand in hers.
In the next instant, he was transported to another realm. The Hall was nestled in the highest mountains, the peaks bare, stark, and intimidating. His soul was so intensely affected that he fell to his knees once he could feel something solid beneath his feet. His fingers gripped onto the brown dirt as the world about him spun. Very near the side of a cliff, he peered over only to realize he couldn’t see the bottom of the ravine, just an abundance of mist and the sounds of flowing water. He cried out and recoiled backward away from it.
Maki crossed her arms again with a disapproving look. “What a weak soul you are,” she stated.
“We’re so high up!”
“Afraid of heights too? Well, this is very unusual. You’ll have to get over that if you’re going to take the Leap.”
“The what?!” Cassius didn’t so much ask, but the question squeaked out.
The Moth Wingéd glanced up at the position of the sun and frowned. “I think we might be late. No more time for acclimating, son. We must move forward.”
In the time that he could pry his eyes open from being clamped shut, he found his surroundings changed. There were more of them, but he seemed to be the only one traipsing around in the dirt. There was a Moth for every person, so their group made fourteen people altogether. In front of them, there stood an older looking gentleman with white feathered wings. A few of the Moths appeared to be confused. Maki leaned over to another and whispered, “What is going on? Where is Dahlia? Was she not supposed to become Seraph before we got back?”
“According to the Bat Wingéd, the elder Angels cited they’d seen just cause to delay the matter further. Upwards of five more years,” the other Moth said.
“So, we are still Seraph-less?”
Shrugging, the other Moth replied, “I would rather go without a Seraph than have her making important decisions when she is unprepared.”
Maki nodded then looked down at Cassius staring up at them with a quizzical look. “Cassius, get to your feet and listen.”
The Angel Wingéd spoke clearly and apologized. “I’m very sorry that our Seraph could not be here to greet you all. It is very important to us that you feel accepted into our fold. Thus, I humbly welcome you all to the Hall of Wingéd. As Candidate Wingéd, you will spend your time learning about what we do, studying our culture and customs, and most importantly, you will meet with our Angel Wingéd to prepare you to take the Leap to join us.”
While he was speaking, Cassius turned to Maki and asked her in barely audible tones, “What if I don’t want to be Wingéd?”
She paused with her eyes wide and pulled him away from the group. “What do you mean by that?”
“This isn’t what I was expecting. This isn’t the afterlife that I wanted. I want my warrior’s death.”
Swallowing hard, she shook her head hesitantly. “I’m sorry, Cassius. You don’t have a choice in this matter. Once I have taken your soul, you are under our protection. And souls under our protection become Wingéd. It is our law.”
“In centuries, not a single person has ever asked me that. Why would you ask such a thing?”
He shrugged as the group started to move forward through an enormous stone archway. Grabbing him by the hand, Maki explained to him, “Look, Cassius, you’ll see that everything will be alright, but don’t let anyone know what you’ve asked me, do you understand?” He nodded slowly, and she continued. “You’ll be assigned a room. Get to know your roommate. The more connections that you make, the better you’ll feel.”
He hadn’t thought his simple question out of curiosity was worth all of this extra explanation, but he nodded and followed the rest of the group like a good little soldier all while wondering what a roommate was. Or what a room was for that matter.
“Room six, room six…” he recited to himself once they reached the barracks. He spied the open door through the other Candidates both new and older. Rubbing his eyes, he steadied himself. This had been the longest day he’d ever experienced. Eventually, he found the courage to step into the room. He looked in to see two mats pushed against the opposing walls; a lost young woman sat on the mat on the far wall. She wasn’t even looking at him.
She was rather plain. Mousy brown hair tied back with string into a loose bun contrasted against her fair skin, the same color and smoothness of a perfect pearl. That was probably her best feature. Otherwise, she could melt away in the crowd without notice. But she was the only one in the room now, so she was the only one he saw. Cassius cleared his throat, and she looked up. “Room six?”
Her eyes were red and puffy from crying. “Forgive me. I didn’t hear you come in,” she said as she wiped the tears from her face. “Yes, this is room six, I think.”
“Are you okay?” He stepped further into the room, but once he did, she shot straight up.
“Oh, no, don’t worry yourself on my account.”
“No, go ahead.” He sat down on the mat opposite her.
She paused and slowly followed his lead back to the sitting position. “I’m just a little overwhelmed. I mean, today, I died. I thought I would see my family. I thought that I would… I suppose it’s not important what I thought because that didn’t happen. But I never thought that once I died that I would end up in the afterlife alone.”
“You aren’t alone.”
She smiled at him in a pathetic fashion. “You are very kind, but I don’t even know you.”
“I am Cassius.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Cassius. I’m Emmy.”
They grew quiet for a short, but he asked her, “How did you die?”
She shrugged. “I just remember being very ill. I fell asleep with my husband and son standing over me, and when I woke up, they were gone and there was this strange man there instead. He told me not to be afraid and that everything would be alright. He was very kind. What about you?”
“Uhm…” He couldn’t tell her that he’d accidentally killed himself with a rock. “I don’t remember a lot. I was awake then everything went dark. I think that someone must have hit me from behind.”
“He must have been very light of foot to get past you.”
Her dull green eyes started to tear up again, and Cassius put his hand over hers. “Don’t worry. I’ll be here for you. We’ll do it together.”
She placed her other hand over his, the brightness of hers contrasting against his dark olive skin. “Thank you, Cassius. I appreciate that.”
It felt like a lifetime ago. Cassius had grown in so many ways since then. He found himself unrecognizable from that boy throwing rocks in the forest and clinging to the ground. He was stronger, steadfast, and true. He knew exactly what he had to do now. His toes hugged the edge of the pedestal. He didn’t even care how high up they were now. The sound of the whispers drummed in his ears. “Bheith ar foluain go deo… Bheith ar foluain go deo…” This compensated for every mistake he’d ever made. He would fall into the abyss and rise up a Wingéd. He was made for this. “Bheith ar foluain go deo…”
He hesitated just one more moment and took the Leap.
Faster than he felt possible, Cassius plummeted through the air down toward the bottom of the canyon like a stone. Instead of fearful, he felt exhilarated almost as if he were alive again. The wind was his breath and the whispers his heartbeat. He didn’t even feel that he’d been falling very long when he felt the warmth of what could have been his own hands on his shoulders.
He looked back to see the Dragon Spirit. Its huge smoky wings flapped as hard as they could, but the two continued to fall. For an instant he was afraid, but Cassius had his epiphany; he would be saved. No matter what, he would be saved. He merged with Dragon Spirit and spread his wings covered in walnut brown scales.
He never saw the bottom of the ravine, but flew out of the abyss and into the waiting sun above the mist. Raising his fist into the sky, he shouted, “To Leap is our duty. We Leap for the love of the earth!” He let out the most triumphant call that echoed against the mountain faces, and the Dragons let out a mighty cheer. He was one of them. He’d be a warrior, and nothing could take that away.
It was Emmy’s turn after him. From the moment he met her, Cassius felt this overwhelming need to protect her. He’d seen her change from a quiet and frightened woman to a sophisticated, grounded lady. She stood on the pedestal with her arms spread. With his new eyes, he could detect the slightest quaver in the tips of her fingers, but he knew that she had this. There was no doubt in his mind that she’d make the best of them.
She whispered to herself for a moment before she dove gracefully from the pedestal.
Cassius could feel a tightening in his chest as his gaze went from her to the door to the Spirit Pass. The response was immediate. The delicate and fuzzy outline of a Moth spirit flew frantically from the door down into the canyon after Emmy, who had fallen out of sight.
Relief washed over him. Though, of course, he had no reason to be worried. Emmy lifted herself up with the same sage green wings as Mien in a fashion so reminiscent of her reserved personality. Her face held the brightest expression.
Cassius had never felt so alive. Being a Dragon Wingéd was more than he could ever hope for. Yes, it was suggested that he would make a good addition to the fighter class, but he hadn’t allowed himself to become attached to the idea in the event that he wasn’t chosen. He wouldn’t risk the intense disappointment. But now, he could celebrate as much as he wished. A Dragon Spirit saved him, and now, the rest of his existence could officially begin. There was no doubt any longer.
As his fellow Candidates took their turns at the pedestal, he caught the gaze of a Dragon in the line of squadron leaders, a tall man with long black hair pulled back away from his square jaw, staring at him. With a discerning eye and his powerful arms crossed, Cassius could see the controlled yet approving smirk play on his lips. This was Adrian, Squadron Leader of the Special Forces.
Cassius nodded his head in the man’s direction.
Squadron Leader Adrian quirked an eyebrow from across the ravine and gave a slow bob of his head.
With his improved sight, Cassius saw three others in the line turn their heads to see their interaction. He hoped that he made a good impression on the man without insulting the others. He reined himself in though, banishing such insecure thoughts. The squadron leaders might decide his fate, but he would be a star against a sea of black no matter where he was placed.
The crowd of Wingéd erupted into cheers. Both he and Adrian looked on in reserved inner celebration. But this reticence was short-lived, as immediately his entire Candidate class, who had crammed together jumping up and down, decided to pile on top of him. “Cassius, we’re all going to meet in the old classroom afterward. You’re coming, aren’t you?”
He gave everyone a gentle shove off and straightened himself up. “Yes, of course.”
His glance traveled back up to the squadron leaders. He winced and turned away. Yes, he was still looking. Perfect… just perfect.
“Welcome to your first day of training. I am Squadron Leader Pratt.” Upon entering the prestigious ranks of the Dragon Wingéd, Cassius found himself under a barrage of scrutiny. As a new recruit, he was to endure a rigorous test of his abilities. “We will push you to your limits, mentally, physically, and spiritually,” a rather ominous looking man barked as he paced in front of Cassius and Nicholas, who had been in his Candidate class, both kneeling on the floor. “You will be joining three others in the group.” He pointed to the two men and woman standing beside him. “These are Daisuke, Isis, and Gabriel. They are your superiors, and you will treat them and everyone else above you with respect.”
“We will have physical training in the mornings before the sun rises. Fighting skills will take place after that. You will have a brief rest period where you may be expected to study at the discretion of your teacher. You will be responsible for learning all background materials including history and war strategies, on which you will be tested on a daily basis. Then we will have physical training again after which you’ll be dismissed. After a certain amount of time has passed, we’ll introduce offensive magic basic techniques. You will follow this schedule until graduation. And most importantly, you will respond to commands with ‘yes, sir!’ Do I make myself clear?” He stopped and clicked his heels together.
Cassius and the other recruit glanced at one another then replied in unison, “Yes, sir!”
“Good men, good men,” he declared. “At the end of the training period, you will be assigned to a squadron based on your performance and at the request of the squadron leaders, so doing your best to impress is advisable.” He paused giving them a look over. “Now, introduce yourselves to your training group. You first.”
Nicholas appeared nervous. During Candidate class he’d been a quieter sort, much like Cassius himself, but he’d never guess that the scrawny man would make a Dragon Wingéd, and Nicholas’ uneasiness was written all over his baby-face. “Sir… Yes, sir. Uh, my name is—.”
“I don’t need an entire life history. Tell them your name, soldier!”
“Yes, sir!” he said, “Nicholas, sir!”
“Very good. And you?”
Squadron Leader Pratt gave a small affirmative grunt and then called out his first order. “Okay, we’re going for a run. Let’s move!”
“Yes, sir!” the line of trainee’s shouted and broke out in a brisk jog.
Cassius got up the nerve to ask, “How far will we be running today, sir?”
The squadron leader frowned and belted, “Until I say stop, recruit!”
They started with a few miles, but just as Cassius expected them to stop to rest, they kept going onward faster than before. Cassius was pretty fit while alive, but he was starting to tire quickly. He felt like there was a boulder on his chest. His discomfort was so great that he could no longer enjoy the scenery; he fell toward the back of their little pack and grew annoyed with himself with a hardy grunt.
“You will get used to it,” the trainee named Daisuke said to him. Compared to the rest of them, he was a rather short man with red-orange wings and the remnants of black hair before it was shaved away from his scalp. “This is to build up your endurance. It prepares us for combat training, and that’s far worse than this. Your soul must be able to take the beating.”
“How much farther must we go?”
“It’s different every day, but I think we’re going to Moth Falls, about fifteen miles. We’ll take a short break there. Before we go back.” He flashed a quick smile at Cassius’ look of disbelief. “It helps if you focus on your core. Most of strengthening your soul is focus to endure it. Fortify yourself.”
Cassius looked down at himself, but he didn’t feel any different and his face reflected his feelings in a strange twisted way.
“If you think this is bad, wait until combat training. We punch each other in the stomach over and over until it doesn’t hurt anymore. When you’re done with that, you begin to striking a tree. You’re not allowed to graduate unless you fell a tree. I’ve only just started mine.”
Cassius was in awe of him. “How–? How are you still standing right now?”
“I told you. Focus. It’s the only way.”
“Are you scaring the new recruits, Daisuke?” Isis, the towering female Dragon with lavender wings and long braided almost white hair, turned and threw a rock at him while jogging. “You be nice to him!”
Daisuke ducked and pointed at her with a laugh. “Careful. You could kill somebody throwing stones.”
Cassius rolled his eyes. “Oh, so you heard about that.”
“You have to admit that it’s funny.” Daisuke never seemed to stop smiling. Even in the perfect serious attention, he still seemed to have that mischievous grin. It was something in his black eyes, Cassius thought. Daisuke picked up a rock from the side of the trail without skipping a single strenuous beat and chucked it at the back of Isis’ head.
She moved out of the way before it reached her and repeated her quick turn to send it colliding with his forehead. “Hey!” he cried, “You said to be nice to him; you said nothing about having to be nice to you!”
Dragon Gabriel, who was even taller and more muscular than two of Isis, had bright green wings. He tilted his head back, groaning in a frightening low bass voice, “I’m surrounded by children.”
Nicholas was a man after Gabriel’s own heart, and he stayed in the very front next to the squadron leader the entire time. Cassius could see the obvious fatigue in Nicholas and worried that the man might fall over from the stress. However, they never did. The Dragons in training made it to Moth Falls in a fair amount of time.
“Alright, recruits, take a break!”
Cassius bent over a rock that came all the way up to his upper thigh. The tightness in his chest was nearly unbearable, and he could barely see due to dizziness. All he could think of was the combat phase when this grueling training would be joined by the supposed cruel and unusual punishment. Shutting his eyes to steady himself, he tried to will the world stationary. He was so intent on honing his skills, he almost missed them all sitting there as still as the rocks themselves.
His jaw dropped as he beheld the falls. The mountain range opened up to a small valley where water from the river created a wall of water that branched off into several smaller falls. The water splashed against crags sticking out of the rapids, dispersing it in every direction. At the bottom was a perfectly placid pool. Cassius blinked several times. It didn’t seem possible that the pool should be so quiet and undisturbed.
And sitting among the mist were the Moth Wingéd. The name Moth Falls suddenly made sense to him. He didn’t realize it, but they were all around him. Some sat on rocks, others under the falls, or in the dirt, a few even atop the water. All of them sat legs folded, with their eyes closed, motionless and silent. He had to admit, it was remarkable.
Cassius had to admire their concentration and, forthwith, wondered if Emmy was among them. He searched for her but soon realized that even if they were all around him, he couldn’t possibly spot every one and assess if it was Emmy or not.
He walked over to the other Dragons who congregated down river where he found even more Moths strewn about the place. Here, the water rushed back to its normal speed, and he didn’t feel bad about taking a drink and disturbing the surface.
“I wonder what they’re doing,” he heard Isis say. She was leaning up against an unoccupied rock, looking about her with a furrowed brow. “Are they sleeping?”
“I don’t think so,” Gabriel remarked with a tiny grumble at the very idea as he stood next to her against the same rock. “I think they’re listening for something.”
Daisuke was lying along a tree branch just above their heads chewing on a long blade of grass. “Wish I could be a Moth.” He crossed his arms and chuckled. “Then, all I’d have to do is sit around all day. And afterward, grab a new Wingéd and bring them back. Get a new Wingéd and bring them back. It’d be easy.”
The group laughed until Cassius spoke up in serious tones. “You shouldn’t wish for what you do not have. It’s unhealthy.”
“We don’t mean it. Just sometimes it’d be nice to have a break.” Daisuke pointed at Cassius with his thumb asking the group, “Can you believe this guy?”
Hanging his head, he replied, “Forgive me. I did not mean to imply…”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Of course.” He examined the Moth that seemed to have popped up in front of him as if by magic. “If we do not know what they are doing, how do we know that it isn’t strenuous?”
“Do they appear strained?” Daisuke framed the Moth sitting in front of them with his hands. “Have to say this for them, they have amazing concentration. If it were me, I would have already gone off the deep end at our banter and started beating us with a stick.”
“Perhaps that is why you aren’t a Moth.”
Daisuke shrugged. “Could be. Could be.” When Cassius kept looking around, his superior brother asked him, “What are you looking for?”
“One of my fellow Candidates is now a Moth. I didn’t expect to see her today, but I would like to given the opportunity.”
Isis snorted. “You know a Moth!”
“I do but only a little. I don’t know what we’d possibly talk about.”
Daisuke rubbed his chin. “Is she super calm like every infuriating Moth I’ve ever met?”
Cassius grumbled low in his throat. “Please, be respectful,” he warned, but that got the training group going.
“This work would be easy for her, eh?” Daisuke poked Cassius in the ribs from the tree with one of his wings, and even Gabriel chortled, shaking his head at the banter. “I’m betting she’s a lovely, meek, and fragile little thing.”
Cassius could stand it no longer and abruptly grabbed the bough Daisuke had made his bed and cracked it, sending him straight back down to the earth. He put his foot on top of the other Wingéd’s chest, all of his weight bearing down on it. “I asked you once to be respectful. If you do not hold your tongue, I will hold it for you, understand?”
Before he knew it, however, Isis and Gabriel pulled him off Daisuke and threw him to the ground. “This squadron has no room for hot heads!” Gabriel pointed a powerful finger in his direction after he was done rolling in the dirt. “Keep your cool, or we’ll have to report you.”
Cassius glowered up at them. “I gave fair warning.” He reached up to one of his shoulders feeling where their hard grip was already bruising it. He wasn’t even a match for one of them, let alone all three. Still, he swallowed and said plainly, “On behalf of every Moth here, and especially Emmy, I demand an apology.”
Gabriel’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline. “Are you serious?”
Cassius took his stance. “I am.”
“He has to be crazy.” Isis folded her arms and laid them atop her chest.
Then, he heard it. “What’s going on here?” the squadron leader bellowed from behind him, with Nicholas in tow.
No. He did not just get caught fighting on the first day. He slowly turned around, his lips nervously pursed together. He felt that the only way out of this was to be frank. “Sir… I received an insult and demanded an apology.”
“You are not fighting under my command, are you?”
“Aye, sir.” Cassius nodded. “I will if the situation warrants.”
The squadron leader crossed his arms. Cassius couldn’t tell if he was amused or if he was, on the off-chance, somehow impressed. “I guess then the best punishment would be to let you. Continue if you please.” Squadron Leader Pratt held his hand out toward his three pupils. “Show me what you’ve got.”
“Sir?” Was this some kind of test? Perhaps he wanted to see if Cassius had enough self-control to stop himself to submit to order, but before he had the chance to decide, the three were upon him. Now was not the time to weaken his resolve. Taking a strong stance, he waited.
Daisuke attempted to strike him first, but Cassius could easily see that he’d put too much weight into his lunge. He quickly sidestepped, grabbed Daisuke’s arm once it had passed him, and swung the man toward Isis coming up from behind. The momentum took them to the ground.
Isis shouted, “Idiot! Get off me!” She beat on Daisuke with her fist.
Cassius assessed Gabriel, who had stayed back, while keeping an eye on the other two fumbling around, trying to get untangled from one another. “I will not be so easy.”
In the blink of an eye, the man was down on the ground, and Cassius found his legs being swept out from under him. After the initial panic, he knew what he had to do. As Gabriel bent over him to punch him in the face, Cassius brought his legs, which were already flying upward, up to his own chest and thrust them into Gabriel’s stomach, sending him sailing overhead.
That’s when he saw the broken tree branch. He raced over and grunted as he picked it up despite it being bigger than he was. Even the squadron leader raised his eyebrows in a sort of approval. Of course, he could barely lift it, making swinging a dangerous undertaking. When the other two had figured out to whom all of their limbs belonged, Daisuke and Isis stood up. Isis pointed at him with this threat, “You are so–Aiee!”
Cassius couldn’t give her the opportunity to finish. He swung the branch so hard it looked like he disconnected her jaw, and unable to keep it up any longer, the heavy branch fell into the dirt. Daisuke saw his opening, but Cassius was able to lift one side with the other still in the ground blocking the strikes against him.
However, his triumph was short-lived. Gabriel and Isis grabbed him by the shoulders and flung him into the rock formation where all three proceeded to beat him. In his current state, he couldn’t escape them, and as well as he could block and counter, the math was simple: he had two arms, and they had six with over a year of previous combat training. Punching them was like punching the side of a mountain.
After a few minutes, Cassius was lying on the ground bloodied. Isis pulled back her leg, kicked him square in the jaw, and spit on him. “That’s for my face!”
“Alright, Isis,” the squadron leader held up his hand. “That is enough.” He walked over and looked down upon him. “Do you concede?”
Cassius could barely see him but choked out, “Aye, Squadron Leader.”
“Good man.” The squadron leader started to turn away.
“I’m not finished,” he growled, “I concede but only to fighting in the ranks. I still demand my apology.”
“Is that so?”
Cassius winced, praying that it would not result in another beating. “It is.”
The squadron leader gave his chin a short stroke. “Very well then. You three, give him his apology. Then, we start our run back.”
It was only the beginning of Cassius’ trials as a Dragon. As punishment for his impertinence, he was forced to scrub the floors of the Dragon apartments with a brush and pumice stone. Being from the warrior class, they were prone to tracking in blood, and Cassius had to make sure the floors were spotless by order of the squadron leader. He took his punishment in stride though as none of the other Dragons bothered him. To be truthful, the Hall was rather peaceful with the sun streaming down the corridor.
“It would appear that beating you wasn’t enough.”
He raised his head to see Emmy standing there smiling brightly and returned to scrubbing to prevent her from seeing the color rising in his cheeks. “You heard.”
“I suppose you could call me an auditory witness. Is there anything I can do?”
“No,” he replied peevishly. “If you help me, they’ll take away the soap.”
She nodded. “Alright. Then, I wanted to say ‘thank you’, that is the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me. I know that it wasn’t just for me, but I wanted to let you know how much that I appreciated the gesture.”
Cassius stopped scrubbing momentarily but still didn’t look up at her. “Their words were disrespectful and wrong beyond measure.”
“So, you don’t find me ‘a lovely, meek, and fragile little thing’?” she joked.
Unable to answer honestly, he kept saying, “It was only right that they apologize. We are all Wingéd and have parts to play. We might not understand it, but your job is as important as any, if not the single most important.” He sat up and gazed into her eyes in all seriousness. “You deserve our respect.”
“You are very kind.”
“Exciting. I’ve always wanted to be renowned for being kind.”
Emmy pursed her lips together. “I do not appreciate your sarcasm.”
He dropped his pumice stone onto the floor. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend, but I believe that I may have killed my career before it even started.”
“Is being a great fighter that important to you?”
Cassius snorted, partially giving up his work. “You’re beginning to sound like an Angel instead of a Moth. I don’t think that it’s the glory. I want to do well. I want to be the best Dragon that I can be.”
“Then, do your best and leave it at that,” she replied with a smile.
“Still sure that you’re a Moth and not an Angel?”
“I have believed the two designations to be somewhat intertwined.” She sat down next to him. “I might even compose something on it if I have the time. Do you think they would let me?”
He gave a slight chuckle. “If they don’t, they’re crazy.” There was a bit of a lull in the conversation, and they both studied the floor. Then, Cassius queried, “Emmy, just out of curiosity, what are the Moths doing at Moth Falls?”
“Well, it is a part of a long process of further stripping away the heaviness in our souls. We are light enough to take the Leap, but as we are, our souls continue to be agitated, like ripples on the surface of the lake, thus we strive to become as still and unmoved as possible. We meditate until we are still and try to maintain that.”
“That sounds… Is it difficult?”
Emmy dropped her gaze. “Extremely. I have found that my mind is not a quiet place. It takes a great deal of focus for me to be still for even a few moments.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
He wet his lips in thought. “Will you show me?”
“Admittedly, there isn’t much to demonstrate. I mean, there isn’t much to see. Why do you ask?”
Shaking his head, he said, “It’s just something that one of the other Dragons said. He told me that the key to not becoming tired was focus. Could you teach me?”
“Teach you? What could I possibly teach the Great Moth Defender?”
His face looked aghast. “You’re not serious.”
“Quite serious. That’s what they’ve begun calling you. You may have killed your career as a Dragon, but you’ve built quite a reputation amongst the Moths. If there is anything that flies faster than a Bat, it’s gossip.” He frowned, so the subject was changed back. “Very well, Cassius, if you so wish it, I will teach you what little I do know.”
“I will teach you something in return,” he insisted.
Emmy cocked her head to the side. “And what would you teach me?”
“I can teach you combat.”
“And what would I do with combat training?” she asked, a small smile playing at the side of her mouth.
“Many Moths have perished from attacks by Demons as Dragons have. I shall teach you whatever they teach me to defend yourself. Only without all the harsh beatings.”
“I should hope not. Fine, Cassius, you have a deal. I shall teach you meditation techniques, and you will teach me… fighting.”
Suddenly, a confident somewhat melodic voice rang out into the corridor. “A Moth learning how to fight? Now, I’ve heard everything.”
Acutely aware that they weren’t alone, Cassius picked the stone back up and started scrubbing the floor once again as if he’d never stopped at a grueling pace. Emmy got to her feet and faced the man with her head bowed without even seeing who it was. “I’m very sorry, sir,” she confessed, “I did not mean to distract Cassius from his duties. The fault is completely mine.”
Cassius peeked upward to see Squadron Leader Adrian and a small bit of panic stirred within his soul. He dropped the stone again and jumped up into attention with his wings folded neatly against his back and staring straight forward.
“No need to apologize.” Adrian put a hand on Emmy’s shoulder. “My business here is separate from his punishment. But if you’ll excuse us, please Miss Moth, I have a few things that I’d like to discuss with our Cassius.”
“Of course, sir.” She looked back only briefly as she left them, and Cassius’ panic grew just a little more.
“Well, Cassius, you seem to be enjoying your punishment.”
He straightened up. “Sir, I get no enjoyment out of having displeased my squadron leader. I will scrub floors for the rest of my days if it pleases him.”
“I assure you that isn’t necessary. I am here to give you a commission. I have already informed your training leader that I have a mind to appoint you to my team.”
Cassius forgot himself for a moment. “But I haven’t even been in training for a week. I haven’t done any of the trials or tests. Why would you want me? Uh… sir.”
“Usually, I get a swift ‘thank you, sir’, but if you must know, I bore witness to your scuffle with your teammates yesterday and saw that you’d make a good fit for us. I admired your boldness even when you had no hope of winning, and you managed to hold off three, far better trained Dragon Wingéd. You impressed me. When you finish your training, you will be on the Special Forces squadron. I’ve also decided to give you special training on the side so you are better prepared. Now, what do you say?”
Cassius cast his head down. “I do not deserve this, sir. Would you not wish to see my skill before making such a decision?”
“I am growing tired of this modesty, Cassius. You will join my team, and that is the final word on it.”
“Sir, yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Very good. You may continue your punishment… and don’t forget the stairs.” He walked away, leaving a trail of muddy footprints in his wake.