The Duel of Hyoraj’s Shrine (a short story)

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(A quick note: This story is a bit darker, but it’s supposed to have a deeper message, too. Thanks again for reading it and hope you enjoy!)

 

Scritsh-scritsh-scritsh-scritsh-scritsh-scritsh…

A faint stream of moonlight, as though a specter, coasted through the balcony window and illuminated the royal bedroom in a ghastly grey palette. It contorted over the boy sitting upright in the bed and slithered across the room to a chair in the corner where a hard-faced man had fallen asleep. He muttered, and the boy froze, his knife midair. A moment passed before the boy pressed the blade against his own bonds again and continued sawing.

Scritsh-scritsh-scritsh-scritsh…

The prince of Argunic would not be a fugitive in his own castle.

Soon, the long rope shackling him to the bodyguard was cut, and Prince Daovu wrapped the steak knife in an extra undershirt before sheathing it in his boot. He carefully confirmed the guard was still asleep and then crept to the balcony window. Cracking it open just enough, he pushed himself through and slipped outside into the chilly temperatures of the witching hour.

Daovu nervously gripped the hand of a bas-relief sculpture behind him. Heart thudding, the sight of the palace made him realize why people claimed Argunic had “a castle with two faces.” The gallantly gleaming stained glass citadels of the day had in the night horribly distorted into ragged spires goring into the disk of the moon like splintered bones.

Edging flush against the side of the railing, Prince Daovu peered down into the courtyard at the forest shrine dedicated to the god Hyoraj. This place, too, had diminished in amiability under the sovereignty of night; however, Daovu could still sense the tenderness and lush beauty of nature familiar to him ever since two boys had first met that fateful day.

* * *

“You…you look just like me!”

It was true. He very well could have been staring into a mirror. Both boys were twelve-year-old blonds approximately the same height and build. The only differences were found in their hair and clothes, as the one with short hair was dressed in a luxurious, cherry-red suit, while the other, who wore a mauve tunic, had hair long enough to be swept up into a small ponytail.

Prince Daovu, the one to proclaim the discovery, cautiously sauntered around his living refelction, his nose upturned. “Who are you? And how’d you get into the forest past all the priests?”

The boy with the ponytail stared back with wide, unnatural eyes. “I’ve always been here.”

“Oh, really?” Daovu crossed his arms and dramatically leaned toward the other boy. “Then where do you eat?”

“I don’t eat anywhere. I’m a spirit.”

Daovu narrowed his eyes and took a tentative step backward. “Mother warned me of the forest spirits at the shrine. You’re…you’re not a bad spirit, are you?”

The boy with the ponytail gingerly moseyed to a nearby tree and lifted up a medium-sized stick from the forest floor. With a mischievous smirk, he whipped the stick like a riding crop on his opposite palm, making Daovu flinch. “Why don’t you find out?” the ponytailed boy asked, playfully pointing the stick at his opponent like a sword. “I challenge you to a duel.”

The prince tilted his head and bit his lip. His eyes shone not with the terror of a spirit’s cryptic scheme but with desire for a pleasure he was not to indulge. Finally, he relented to himself and reached for a nearby stick. “What do I get if I win?”

The boy with the ponytail was dancing his “sword” in the air like an orchestral conductor. “Isn’t it obvious?” he answered absently. “You get to know my name and who I am.”

Daovu scratched some bark off the stick he found and stammered, “And…if I lose?”

The boy with the ponytail lowered his “sword” and tapped his chin. With a cheeky wink, he said, “I want your jacket.”

The prince instinctively glanced down at what he was wearing. A corner of his mouth pulled up in delight, and he puffed his chest with a new degree of confidence.

“I accept your challenge, but on the rule that you don’t use any magic or tricks.”

“Agreed.”

After an epic countdown, they made a mad dash and slashed at each other with all their might. The ponytailed boy made the first jab, but his better-dressed counterpart quickly deflected him, returning with a drive to the belly. This too was blocked and repaid. For about twenty minutes they went at it, giggling not as a spirit and a human contending for high stakes, but as two boys simply playing knights in the forest.

Eventually, the prince struck this enemy’s stick so hard it broke in half and both swordsmen were sent into rolling fits of laughter.

“Fine! You win,” huffed the ponytailed boy as he lay on his back.

“Of course I won,” the prince said wheezing, “I am the Prince Daovu, after all.”

The ponytailed boy crowed with glee. “I thought our deal was that the loser would tell the winner his name, not the other way around!”

Daovu paused at the realization before the two boys simultaneously erupted into giggles again.

When the ponytailed boy at last collected enough breath to speak, he held out his hand and said, “Well, my name is Zewel. I am a spirit guardian of Hyoraj’s Shrine.”

Daovu sat up and shot forward his own hand but hastily withdrew it.

“This is not a trick, right?” He was smiling gently despite glaring hard at Zewel. “You’re not a bad spirit, right?”

A hush passed between them so harsh even the birds forgot to sing.

Suddenly, Zewel’s stolid face sputtered alive with joyous bursts of snorts. Daovu jumped back, his body trembling.

“What are you laughing at?”

Zewel was pointing at him and panting hysterically. “Your face!”

Daovu scowled. “What’s wrong with my face?”

“You’re-you’re so afraid of me!”

“Am not!” Daovu flushed crimson. “I’m a prince. I’m not afraid of anything!”

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no! Your face is too easy to read!” Zewel was on the brink of tears now.

Indignant, Daovu threw his arms in the air. “In my defense, you never answered my question!”

Zewel flicked a tear from his eye with his thumb. “Honestly, Prince, what have I done to make you think me bad? I’m obviously a good spirit.” He chuckled lightly and scratched the back of his neck. “I say! Humans are something else!”

Daovu grunted and cautiously plopped down next to Zewel again. “You still haven’t answered my other question. Why do you look like me?”

“Oh, that?” Zewel shrugged. “Because I can.”

“What do you mean?”

Zewel took a cursory scan of the surroundings before whispering, “You wouldn’t believe how boring it is guarding the Shrine of Hyoraj. The other spirits don’t like moving around as much as I do. They’d prefer to stay in the statues of the shrine itself instead of doing anything fun.”

“Well, if you’re so bored, then why don’t you just leave The Sacred Forest?” Daovu asked, busily plucking the grass instead of making eye contact. “I mean, just for a little bit?”

The warmth in Zewel’s expression was dispelled in a single, drawn-out sigh. “I can’t leave The Sacred Forest. Hyoraj already got really mad at me once when I strayed too far, and let me tell you, justice gods are terrifying when they’re mad.”

Daovu’s curiosity immediately overwhelmed his shame. He scooted closer to Zewel. “What’d he do?”

“As all gods do,” Zewel said, grumbling bitterly. “He put a curse on me. He said I’d stop existing if I ever left The Sacred Forest again.”

Daovu scrunched his face. “It’s like being in a prison.” He paused. “No, a palace.”

Now it was Zewel who showed the interest. “A palace?”

“Yeah. All the guards are basically statues. No one will play with me or do anything fun. All they say is ‘why don’t you spend your time learning this or that?’”

“That sounds familiar, only for me it’s learning the latest mantra.”

Daovu gestured to Zewel. “Yeah, so you know. And it’s the same with me. They never let me go outside the castle walls to see the actual city.”

“That’s terrible.”

“I’m not even done telling you. The worst of it is that at my age, Father was going out into the city sometimes, so I would have been allowed if not for my stupid aunt.”

“What happened?”

“Didn’t Hyoraj tell you? I guess they didn’t pray right. Anyways, Father says his sister takes after my grandmother, the previous queen.” His eyes flashed with vigor, and he raked his fingers in the air like claws. “She was so powerful and evil that no one could remove her. The irony is that despite killing off all the warriors and liberators, in the end it was her young taster that bested her by faking poisoned food was safe!”

Zewel whistled with awe.

“I know! So now everyone thinks my aunt is like my grandmother and is going to try to kill me for the throne because Father is already sick.” He groaned and pulled at his hair. “But it’s been years, and they never let me do anything! I’ve never even seen my aunt.”

“That’s not fair.”

Daovu shook his head. “Truly, it’s not. And neither is being stuck in Hyoraj’s Sacred Forest forever and ever.”

A chorus of trumpets blared in the distance.

Daovu sprang to his feet. “Priests.” He quickly turned to Zewel. “I’ve got to show you to them.”

Zewel fell to his knees and folded his hands. “No! Please don’t! I’d get in huge trouble. Only Hyoraj is allowed to speak to the priests directly. Just pretend like you’re praying by one of the tombs.”

The prince nodded anxiously and hurried away. Soon after, the priests found him mouthing words and kneeling at an ancestral stone. Daovu made the excuse that he couldn’t sleep from a nightmare about his evil aunt and had since been desperate for Hyoraj’s help. Luckily, the archpriest was away on business at the time, and the minor priests merely performed a cleansing ritual before wordlessly dismissing the affair.

The next day Daovu was back playing with Zewel in The Sacred Forest, but this time he knew when the priests would pass by and was able to sneak off before they noticed him. For two weeks both the priests and bodyguards were skillfully evaded to the point that it appeared as though they’d simply lose the prince in another one of the many palace rooms.

* * *

Daovu leapt to another roof and steadied himself in the darkness. If only things had stayed that simple. What they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.

But, somehow, it had all gotten far more complicated.

* * *

One ill-fated day the archpriest returned and caught Daovu frolicking around in The Sacred Forest. He took the prince straight to the king’s throne room where he complained vehemently about Daovu defiling the holy grounds of Hyoraj. The king, as ill as he was, yielded to the archpriest’s appeal, and Daovu was denied freedom to go anywhere without one of the bodyguards being tied to him by the wrist.

All this had been rationalized on the basis of the prince’s safety and as a favor to the gods, but how long would they keep him leashed like an animal? The first four days of the tether had been torture enough.

* * *

Two buildings later, Daovu finally came to a branch extending far enough over the roof for him feasibly to climb. He slid down the trunk, and his bare feet rustled the cushion of grass upon impact.

“Zewel?” he coarsely whispered. “Hey, I’m here now if you want to-”

Daovu instantly stiffened. The ponytailed boy was propped up against a grave with a murky gash slung across his collar.

“D-Daovu…” he murmured.

“Zewel!”

The prince raced toward his friend, but he sharply fell back. A breeze grazed his face.

He opened his eyes. Ten arrows inches, just from his head, were drilled into a tree.

“Ambush!” barked the bodyguard who had hauled him by the shirt collar. The second bodyguard on Daovu’s left motioned with his shield and numerous palace guards started gathering at their flanks

Even so, the huntress held her ground, keeping her loaded arrow steadily trained on Daovu as her own fellow ruffians emerged from the shadows of the forest.

Zewel grunted loudly as he fought to stand, blood spilling down his chest to his waist.

“Oh, don’t be such a coward! I couldn’t have you getting soft and double-crossing me,” snapped the huntress without taking her eyes off the prince.

“Who do you think I am, Mother,” Zewel said, snarling between clenched teeth, “to think I’ve come this far only to have the willpower of a child?”

“They’re after the throne!” The bodyguard brandished his sword in the air. “For Hyoraj and justice!”

At least thirty guards shot their crossbows in sync, felling a few ruffians under the swell of arrows. However, the enemies retaliated, raising their shields above their heads and blitzing with their torches beneath the barrage. The distance between the opponents rapidly closed, and the guards switched from bow to sword combat. The two forces rammed each other with anticipation pent up for years, slaughtering in a brutal battle so severe that Zewel eased away undetected in the night.

The guard carrying Daovu in his arms had been routed by ruffians but now was nearing the palace again. The moment his foot touched the rim of a huge, open shrine platform, Zewel hacked him from behind, and Daovu crashed into the stone floor in a violent tumble. He had just squinted up when he saw Zewel in the moonlight, blade glazed and chest heaving, about to bring his sword down on the boy’s head.

The weapon shrieked as it struck stone. Daovu, who had narrowly escaped by scrambling over the corpse, grasped the fallen guard’s sword. With it, he forcefully blocked the next blow and then flicked Zewel’s blade up, earning him a delay long enough to assume a better fighting stance.

The thrashing storm of questions and ache pumping through his mind rendered Daovu speechless, so he spoke with the voice of clanging metal. The churning in his stomach soured far more as he recognized Zewel applying the same techniques used in their stick duels. However, this duel would be their last, for there were no smiles or laughter or roleplaying as knights. Instead, they were themselves, slicing at one another with an unearthly familiarity until a cheap move by Zewel wrenched Daovu’s sword from his fingers and cast it spiraling into oblivion.

Zewel tackled Daovu, reared his sword for the terminal blow, and muscled it downward, but Daovu tore an hand free and thrust Zewel’s arm back so hard it slammed his nose. He scarcely had a heartbeat to yank the arms back down and inward, driving the blade into the belly. Zewel roared a hideous scream. He clutched the hilt and ripped his sword out with a spray of blood.

But it was over.

He lunged at Daovu with the gruesome blade, but the prince only had to step back and kick the sword away. Crawling on his stomach, Zewel snatched the prince’s pant cuff, bunching it in his fists and pulling it into his face.

The prince bent over, and the other looked up at him, the salty drops from above splattering his bloody face.

“W-why are you crying?” he croaked in a broken voice. “You win.”

The prince shook his head but couldn’t stop compulsively shuddering with gasping breaths. He just stood there, gazing deeply at his friend, while his own heart died in a loss beyond understanding.

“Daovu, your face is too easy to read,” the boy moaned in despair, his dying eyes shining with tears. “My name is Harnale. I am your cousin.”

 

(protected by copyright)

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