The Prince and The Ryder

By Mardrena

Yulie sat bolt upright in bed when he heard the scream. He wondered for a second if it'd come from a nightmare, but then he heard it again, and he sensed terror and desperation. He threw off the covers and scrambled out his room and towards the garage. "What the hell's going on? What is that horse going on about?" Mr. Yamano grumbled irritably as he and Mrs. Yamano exited their rooms. Yulie didn't reply and threw open the door to the garage.

Much to his horror, he found the garage door open and White Wind nowhere to be immediately found. He ran past the family car and saw White Wind on the sidewalk. The Pegasi colt dug his hooves in fiercely against something trying to pull him out into the street. Someone had fastened a halter around his head made of a substance too strong for him to break. White Wind squealed furiously and tossed his head, trying to pull back. He even dug his hoof spurs into the pavement, but whoever pulled dragged him with enough force that the spurs carved grooves into the ground. White Wind beat his wings, but did not use his eye beams.

Yulie's gaze followed the cord to the hands of someone hidden by the shadows of buildings on the opposite side of the street. "LET HIM GO!" Yulie screamed and lunged, trying to tackle the theif. The person-about his height-reached out with one hand and shoved him back roughly. Yulie pushed himself onto his elbow and reached into his pocket, pulling out the dragon pearl. He summoned his leather and chain armor and drew his sword.

"I SAID LET HIM GO!" Yulie swung down with the sword and cut the cord with ease. The thief staggered back from the sudden slack and caught himself. Yulie could make out angry light-brown eyes in the light of a nearby porch lamp. He heard the rasp of a sword being drawn from its scabbard but the attacker paused when Yulie's parents rushed outside. The person glared at Yulie again before dashing off into the darkened street.

"White Wind? You okay?" Yulie turned his attention to his friend and tried to reach his head to pull off the halter. White Wind reared up and beat his wings, lashing out with his fore hooves and striking Yulie in the shoulder. The armor absorbed much of the force, but the blow sent Yulie falling onto the pavement. "Easy! Take it easy! He's gone! You're okay!" Yulie cried and stood back up, trying to calm the Pegasi.

"Yulie, get him back inside before people see him," Mr. Yamano ordered and glanced nervously at other houses on the street. Some of the windows lit up from inside. No doubt the residents wanted to investigate the source of the commotion. It took some coaxing to get White Wind to release his rein cord to let Yulie guide him back inside the garage, and once inside, Mrs. Yamano shut the door. Mr. Yamano grimaced when White Wind kept brushing his wings sideways and knocking into the walls and scraping the car.

"Wind, come on, tell me; what happened?" Yulie asked and peeled the halter off and threw it to the floor. White Wind didn't reply in anything but metallic chirping and squealing.

"Son…he hurt you…" Mr. Yamano commented. White Wind had grown much from the skinny, frisky colt Yulie had attempted to keep secret at first, and with that grew Mr. Yamano's own concerns about the animal's behavior and strength.

"It doesn't hurt that much. He's just upset…wow…wow, he's really upset!" Yulie remarked as he stroked White Wind's neck plates. He felt distress like the waves of a tsunami.

"I know! I can feel it!" Mrs. Yamano exclaimed, drawing an odd glance from her husband.

"Someone tried to take you…why would someone try to take you?!" Yulie exclaimed and frowned, anger and confusion whirling through his mind.

"You suppose it was someone from next door? Oh, I knew I shouldn't have been using him to grocery shop so much, but I thought I was being careful enough that no one saw him."

"No…he says…he says…it's someone…someone he knows!"

"Thanks for coming with me, Ryo. I know King Torke's a busy guy and all, but at least with you he'll be able to make time," Yulie said as they entered the Rider's Citadel. Ryo wore his Wildfire armor and Yulie wore his own leather and chain armor.

"No problem. Hey, where's White Wind?"

"I sent him off to Mazzan to rest up and calm down. Norin said he'd look after him. I just can't believe someone would come all the way to Earth just to try and steal him…if I find out who it was, I'll-" Yulie clenched his teeth and shook his fist.

"Hey, you leave that part to the authorities. Thangiens don't take too kindly to anyone who commits a crime. Whoever this guy was, he won't get off with a slap on the wrist."

"Yeah…you're right…Tanya says they castra-"

"Oh look! King Torke!" Ryo interrupted suddenly and straightened himself. Yulie likewise stood at attention as Thanged's Watch Rider approached.

"RyoTakin, YuliTakin! I received your message, and I must say I am greatly troubled that someone from Bainshaebo would dare attempt such a thing!" King Torke narrowed his eyes.

"The guy tried using this," Yulie held up the damaged halter. King Torke took it carefully and thumbed the braided cord, studying it a few moments.

"This is of Thangien craft. Were you able to identify the attacker?"

"It was too dark for me to see. White Wind says he recognized him, but he refuses to tell me. I dunno if he's still scared or just too proud to admit someone got the jump on him."

"Pegasi have their own secret language they use to communicate with one another, and no one understands better than Norin. He will be able to coax the truth out of White Wind."

"Great, so just put him through a lineup and catch the guy. See, Yulie? I told you they'd take care of things here," Ryo assured. Just then someone came downstairs.

"Tiante, I am going out with my friends. I will be-," the tall boy with dark brown hair and light brown eyes halted at the bottom step when he saw Ryo and Yulie. His eyes widened briefly before narrowing in a scowl, a very recognizable scowl.

Yulie couldn't remember drawing his sword. It seemed to have jumped into his hand, and he raised it as he lunged and slashed. The blade buried itself into one of the marble pillars of the staircase as the tall boy sprang to the side. Yulie wrenched the blade free and lunged again. "YOU TRIED TO TAKE HIM FROM ME! YOU BASTARD! YOU TRIED TO TAKE HIM! YOU TRIED TO TAKE HIM!" Yulie screamed and pressed the attack. Shockingly enough, the boy drew a sword of his own and parried his strikes with equal skill.

"HE DOESN'T BELONG TO YOU! HE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE MINE!" the boy roared and slashed. Members of the household staff came to watch appalled as the fight spilled across the floor. Rails and pillars splintered, vases and statues shattered. Not even intricate tapestries and paintings went unscathed. The two teens charged at each other, swords raised.

King Torke drew out his own sword-the one Australa had given to him-and buried the blade into the floor. The impact sent out an invisible shockwave that sent both boys tumbling to the side. Yulie tried to scramble to his feet, but an armored hand seized him by the arm and jerked him up roughly. "Yulie! What in the hell were you thinking!?" Ryo shouted.

"I-I wasn't thinking! I just-I just got so mad!" Yulie glanced from him to the boy.

"I don't care! You don't do that! You do not do that! Even I wouldn't go off like that! You looked like you actually wanted to kill that kid!" Ryo scolded; part angry, part horrified. King Torke pried his blade from the floor and sheathed it.

"The both of you will explain yourselves, NOW! I will not suffer such an outburst in my halls without good reason! Torehj, if there is truth to YuliTakin's words, you-"

"I challenge you! I challenge you, to a Trael de Vaor!" Torehj snarled and stabbed a finger in Yulie's direction. King Torke's eyes widened and his face blanched.

"…You… know not what you say…" he whispered.

"I know exactly what I say! This nichratho stole something from me!" Yulie flinched slightly. He knew enough of Thangien curse words to know a bad one when he heard it. "I will have it back, or I will have his blood!" Torehj spat and sheathed his sword and stormed off. King Torke stood there staring after his son, looking very pale and shaken.

"I don't get it…what's a 'Trael de Vaor'? King Torke?" Ryo asked when the Watch Rider did not reply. "I know Traels are duels, so what's a Trael de Vaor? King Torke?"

"I am sorry, RyoTakin! My hands are tied in this!" King Torke shouted at him before letting his breath out in a ragged sigh and walking down the hall after Torehj.

"Ryo…" Ryo looked over his shoulder when he heard Yulie stammer. "…What have I done?" Yulie glanced at him with a terrified, uncertain expression.

"You said you wanted to see me?" Ryo asked quietly and walked over to where King Torke stood by the railing overlooking the city. The Watch Rider had his hands clasped at his waist.

"My eldest son has grievance with YuliTakin…and it can only be settled in combat. Such are our laws, and his complaint is a legitimate one. Sunset is Witheren's Hour, and that is when-."

"Whoa, you can't do this! You can't expect Yulie to fight your own son! There has to be another way! Maybe Torehj made a mistake, or-" Ryo sputtered in protest.

"Only Everlasting Mothers and children under the age of five are prohibited from participating in Traels. A Thangien cycle is equivalent to two Oldworld years. How many cycles does YuliTakin number?" King Torke said stiffly and glanced at Ryo. Ryo set his jaw and scowled. "It is either this, or YuliTakin surrenders custody of White Wind, and I already know he will not do that," King Torke turned to leave. "He has a few hours time to prepare."

"Then do you have a crystal beacon I can use to send a message to Earth?"

"Yes. I…I am sorry," King Torke sighed and left, his voice wavering. Ryo watched him leave, still scowling. Part of him understood too keenly that King Torke had been unable to dissuade his son from seeking a Trael, and for all his status, could not protect even him...

"YuliTakin?" Yulie looked up when he saw Dar Dar Vanes, Norin approach. "I heard what happened. I know this must be upsetting for the both of you, but our laws are strict in such matters. White Wind must stay here for the time being, but I have made sure to provide extra care for him. He is much more relaxed than he was when he arrived."

"Yeah. I noticed," Yulie said and watched as his friend walked over to his sire, the mighty Skybolt Sunhammer. White Wind apparently wanted to measure himself up to his dad and crossed horns with him. Skybolt playfully butt his head against his son's. Only a few hands length separated the two in stature. "Norin…Torehj said…that White Wind was supposed to be his…is that true?" Norin leaned against the rail and frowned. "It is, isn't it?"

"White Wind was…originally bred as a present for Torehj…he had just returned from freelanding; not many do so at such a young age. Torkenantakin wanted a worthy steed for his son, and so White Wind was sired from Skybolt. But he rejected Torehj!" Norin turned to the side to look at Yulie. "Do you remember, the day you and TanyTakin came to Mazzan? The boys that tried to corral White Wind?" Yulie remembered when White Wind-unruly and indignant at the time-smacked a teen with his wing. "That was Torehj. He assumed White Wind was his to bend to his will, but Pegasi are not to be tamed. Even Ander learned that the hard way…

"…Would you like me to tell you the story of Ander and Skybolt?" Yulie nodded eagerly. "As you might know, Ander flew aircraft in the Oldworld, but the one he used when arriving on Thanged had become damaged beyond all hope of repair. He longed to return to the skies, but such technology is not used here. One day he went to the Pavilion to clear his mind, and that is when he saw them; the brothers Skybolt and Sunbolt. They were mighty creatures back then, and he had never seen a Pegacorn before. Each week, the brothers would invade the Pavilion, pilfering any food they could find, and no one could stop them. No one dared…

"Ander saw those majestic creatures and vowed that he would have one of them as his own. He laid a trap the following week, and lay in wait for them during their next rampage. He snared Skybolt, but Skybolt refused to be broken and took off into the air, dragging Ander with him. Their duel took them all over the city with each of them refusing to yield to the other. At some point, Skybolt injured his leg and had to land. Ander felt overcome with guilt and tended the wound, promising afterward to leave the brothers in peace.

"Skybolt would not leave him! During their flight, he had seen Ander's spirit and saw worthiness in him. They were not opponents, or rivals, but equals. So it was that a simple act of kindness forged the greatest friendship ever known. Skybolt would carry Ander into battle many times, even unto death. And all that time not once did Ander treat him as merely a steed, a method of transportation or his way back into the sky. He was his friend and equal.

"White Wind is not your steed, or your property. He is your friend and equal. Torehj believes he owns White Wind by right of name, but White Wind refused Torehj's hand. He rejected him. He chose YOU. Choice is the greatest power we have over our own fates. Never forget that," Norin said firmly. Yulie nodded shakily and stared back at White Wind. He'd apparently given up on trying to match his sire's strength and went back to feasting on grain.

"Rowwr?" Yulie blinked and looked down.

"Whisker! Hey! How are you girl?" Yulie beamed and knelt down, reaching out with a hand cautiously. The young white tigress rubbed her head against his palm. While Magma had the green-gold eyes of a wild Bengal, and Snow had the brown eyes of her father, Whisker inherited her mother's icy blue eyes. From her father she inherited the abundance of fur on his head, except instead of being on her cheeks, spiky growths curled all over around her muzzle, giving her a mustached appearance. Her stripes looked thinner than those of her father, but just as bold.

"It has been many years since I have had the privilege of tending to creatures of flesh and blood. The children of Whiteblaze are very much like their father, and I have been able to let them roam freely throughout Mazzan. They provide good company for the Pegasi foals. The pale one sleeps more often than not…the fiery one thinks himself master of all he surveys…"

"Yup, that's Magma for ya…hee hee," Yulie giggled when Whisker began licking his palm with her rough tongue. Her shoulder stood well past his knee at her age. She turned away from Yulie and crawled under the bottommost rail and stepped into the pen.

"Rowrr?" White Wind glanced to the side and reared his head away from his grain trough. He remembered Whisker from when he and Yulie had retrieved the cubs from the zoo. Whisker had seemed very eager to go traveling. Sleepy Snow had barely noticed when Australa scooped her up and deposited her on Sandstorm's back. Magma, however, did not like it at all when Sage tried carrying him and smacked his face with his broad paws so much, Sage had to call down his face mask. Even then, the feisty Bengal tried gnawing at the eye and mouth holes.

White Wind's ears flicked from side to side, and Whisker swished her tail. Skybolt watched idly from his trough as the two stared at each other. White Wind took a few steps to the side, and Whisker followed then moved infront of him. White Wind flattened his ears and reached down with his nose, snorting a challenge. Whisker leaned forward and stared at her reflection in the shining dererium plates. She reached up and gently swatted at the nose.

"YuliTakin! YuliTakin!" Yulie and Norin looked away from watching the two playing and saw Ph'li and Koli run towards them. "Yulie! We heard what happened!" Ko'li panted.

"Is it true? Torehj challenged you to a Trael de Vaor!?" Ph'li exclaimed. Norin took his leave of them to tend to other matters, and Yulie turned his back to the rail and leaned against it.

"Yeah…he thinks I stole White Wind from him."

"Thabbo! You are far more deserving than he!" Ph'li insisted and clambered onto the topmost rail, balancing neatly on the edge with his golden hooves.

"Torehj thinks because he is from Grand House Taurit, he can have what he wishes."

"Do you two know Torehj?" Ko'li nodded in response while his brother pranced on the rail.

"He and his cronies expect everyone to bend knee to them. He insults us particularly since Father is a Native. He even tried to shave Ph'li's tail! But Mother told us to defend ourselves no matter what, just as Grandfather did in his life," Ko'li explained.

"I gave Torehj a kick he will not soon forget," Ph'li said proudly and went back to apparently playing what looked like air guitar with his stringy tail.

In the meantime, inside the main pen, White Wind apparently War Danced with Whisker, trying to strike her with his hooves. Each time Whisker sprang out of the way nimbly and swished her tail. White Wind struck with semi-Shock Hoofs and sent gravel bouncing in all directions. Eventually he grew so exhausted he sank to his knees and lay down, stretching his neck over the ground. Whisker padded over and pressed her paw against his face. White Wind let out a snort and swished his tail fibers feebly. Whisker clambered onto his back and draped her body between the wing shoulders before settling in for a nap.

"Torehj is a…a…thablisk, Mother says Grandfather had a word for it…" Ko'li muttered.

"You mean a bully?"

"Yes! That! Even his tutors cannot teach him better. He is unworthy to live, we all would be better off without him." Yulie flinched, taken aback by the cold tone.

"Why would you say something like that?"

"Because it is truth. He is miserable, so he tries to inflict misery on others." Ph'li and Ko'li continued describing various grievances they'd had with Torehj in the past. Yulie knew they were trying to make him feel better about having to fight, painting a very unsympathetic picture of King Torke's son, but he only felt a cold heavy sickness in his stomach.

"We will come to support you! Even the Morind de Witheren will support you! We saw some of them arrive before we came here," Ph'li said. Yulie glanced at him sharply.

"What? Who? When?"

"Not long after RyoTakin left the Rider's Citadel. Mother went to fetch them. I think I saw CyeTakin, TanyTakin, and DaiTakin…wait, where are you going?" Ko'li called after Yulie when he took off running. White Wind tilted his head up and watched him leave. He turned his ears forward and burbled worriedly. Whisker shifted about in place and yawned lazily.

"So lemme get this straight," Tanya shook her head as she paced about the garden. "This brat challenges Yulie to a duel because he thinks White Wind is a toy and that Yulie stole him?"

"He claims Yulie 'distorted' White Wind's perception of anyone else when he entered the pen and faced White Wind," Ryo sighed and rubbed his face.

"Shullbuckingfit he did! Uugh! This has me so mad, I can't even cuss straight! Can I testify? I was there when it happened. White Wind refused to let anyone near him, and those brats were too scared to face him honestly. Yulie was the only one not afraid of him at the time!"

"It's too late for that, ooh no," Cye began and sneered. "If Torehj'd been confronted with the evidence from the get go, none of this would be happening. The only reason he challenged Yulie was to save his sorry excuse of a hide."

"What are you talking about?" Ryo frowned.

"What? You don't know what a Trael de Vaor is? Why don't you tell him, Dais, you're the one with firsthand experience in these sordid affairs!" Dais scowled at the remark but remained silent as Cye continued. "Oh I forget, yours was a different one. Yours was a 'Trial of Love'. Don't you know what 'Trael de Vaor' means? It means 'Trial of Worth'. That's right. Turns out if someone doesn't like you, and that the mere act of your breathing 'offends' them, they can challenge you. Yet another aspect of 'colorful Thangien culture' you didn't know about."

"Then why did you come along if you're just going to gripe about it?" Ryo commented.

"Because stupid me, I thought we could find a diplomatic solution to all this, and stupid me, I forgot what kind of people we're dealing with! Backwards, barbaric traditions, such utter-"

"It's not barbaric, it's a form of population control," Dais spoke up suddenly. Cye fixed him with an icy glare. "Look, I'm not saying I condone it. I just see it for what it is."

"Then how do you propose we resolve this? They've already said it's either fight, or give up White Wind, and we couldn't ask Yulie to do that anymore than Ryo could give up Whiteblaze!"

"As shocking as it might sound, I have to take Cye's side on this," Tanya spoke up and waved her hands. "I say we grab White Wind and Yulie and jet on out of here." Dais opened his mouth and shook his head. "I mean it! I respect the Thangiens as much as anyone, they've helped us out of tight spots, sure, but we can't let them do this to Yulie!"

"I'm with you on that. If any of them object, they'll have us to deal with," Cye walked over to stand beside Tanya. Dais sighed and shook his head, and Ryo looked torn on the issue.

"Why are you talking about taking me away from here?" The four of them looked to the porch and saw Yulie walk out into the courtyard garden. "I want to fight!"

"Yulie…you can't mean that," Ryo shook his head and walked over to Yulie and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I don't think you understand what's at stake here. A Trael de Vaor is a fight to the death! You could get yourself killed over nothing!"

Yulie glared at him and remained silent a few moments. "You want to know how I got this?" he pointed at the embossed leather chest plate. Ryo had never before seen fit to pry, but kept quiet and let Yulie continue. "The night I ran away from home, I met a girl from another dimension. She wanted me to come with her to fulfill some prophecy about an ancient hero. I met a Chinese dragon and he gave me his dragon pearl. That's how I'm able to summon this armor. White Wind and I went with him to help save a village from an ogre warlord.

"You say I could die over nothing? So you're basically telling me our friendship means nothing?! Isn't that what all of you go on about? How important friendship is? How it's worth dying for someone close to you? I almost died facing Furugoror! I almost died, and White Wind risked his own life to save me! I couldn't call myself his friend if I wasn't willing to do the same!" Yulie shouted, tears welling up in the corners of his eyes. Ryo withdrew his hand and took a step back, surprised by the boy's conviction. His eyes widened in dawning realization.

He's…he's not much younger than I was when I first started fighting… At some point, without Ryo fully realizing it, Yulie had grown from the stringy mop-haired kid who adored Whiteblaze and cheered for them on the battlefield into a young man with such a fervent spirit. While the Ronin had been caught up in their battles, Yulie had fought battles of his own, and triumphed. Experience had hardened him, however, as it did any warrior. No one said anything for awhile. Cye let out a growling snort and turned around, and Tanya averted her gaze.

"It's his choice," Dais said softly. Ryo glanced at him and nodded reluctantly.

"But…" Yulie spoke up and glanced at the floor. "Well…I didn't have any problems killing Furugoror…cuz he was an evil ogre warlord and all…I…I-I don't want to have to do the same to a person," he stammered, his voice cracking slightly. "And I don't think White Wind would like me if I did." He hung his shoulders guiltily. Cye and Tanya exchanged glances.

"You might not have to," Dais spoke up and walked over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder, leaning down slightly. "If you can beat Torehj soundly enough to where he couldn't continue on his own, you might be able to force him to concede the match. He would still lose, but no blood would have to be shed on either side." Yulie looked him in the eye and nodded shakily. Memories came to mind of him facing Dais as the Dark Warlord of Illusion. He thought it strange that he would be accepting advice from someone who had threatened and attacked him a number of times in the past. Dais gave him a reassuring pat and smiled warmly.

"YuliTakin…" The five of them looked towards the rail and saw Ru Ru Tiki, Aurora standing by the door. "It is time…" she said grimly. They glanced towards the sky, and sure enough, the setting of the first sun painted the sky a reddish-orange. Witheren's Hour…the name given to the time of day before the last sun set…when opponents in battle saw either victory…or defeat.

Yulie felt sick. He didn't feel anticipation or pride, he felt sick. Not that many people crowded the stands of the small arena, and even though he wouldn't be expected to fight over the Pit of Spikes, he still felt sick. He glanced to the side when he heard raucous jeers and assumed the oafish boys to be Torehj's 'friends'. He glanced over his shoulder when he heard encouraging shouts and saw Ph'li and Ko'li waving at him.

They cheered for him, but Aurora promptly cuffed both her sons. She knew firsthand no glory could be found in Traels. Her pairmate, T'plaureth, hadn't earned his title Weapons Master for nothing. Her father, Ander, had given him his blessing to Pair with his daughter, but many males in Bainshaebo conveniently forgot after his passing. Many a vainglorious suitor had challenged T'plaureth, and T'plaureth had ended every one until further objections ceased.

Ryo, Tanya, Cye, and Dais sat in the tier opposite of King Torke's booth. The Watch Rider looked very apprehensive, and looked not at all supportive of his son's ambition.

Torehj himself paced alongside the banner of the House of Taurit, his face wrinkled in a sneer. Yulie glanced at him and felt himself become angry. The rage passed just as quickly and the sickness in his stomach returned. He took deep breaths to compose himself. He couldn't go into this with bloodshed on his mind. He had to keep the cooler head. He tried to remember his lessons and the advice given to him by his friends.

"YuliTakin," Yulie jumped when he heard the voice and looked to the side when he saw the elderly minister approach. "I must ask that you remove your armor…" Yulie's eyes widened in horror and his friends in the stands shouted in protest. Tanya slammed her fist into the rail.

"KING TORKE! I RESPECTFULLY CALL BULLSHIT!" she shrieked and rose to her feet, stabbing a finger in the Watch Rider's direction. King Torke raised a hand to silence her.

"Let the boy be permitted to use what strength is given him," King Torke said firmly. The minister nodded and backed away, and Yulie let out a shuddering sigh of relief.

"Can't believe they would've expected him to fight a Thangien kid un-armored…" Tanya seethed and returned to her seat. King Torke rose and waved to the two combatants to approach. Torehj and Yulie walked forward until they faced the booth.

"Grievance has been levied against Yulie Yamano by Ram Ram Tairu, Torehj. Whether the claim is true is not for any other to judge, but for the outcome of this battle to determine who is just. If either of you wishes to concede your claim, do so now. If not, then only by blade will this be settled. YuliTakin, will you fight?" Yulie nodded firmly. "Torehjashn, will you fight?"

"I will put you in your place, Oldworlder," Torehj sneered at Yulie instead of answering his father. King Torke sighed in exasperation and frowned in disappointment.

"Why do you keep trash-talking people from Earth? Ander was from Earth, and he's supposed to be one of your 'great heroes' isn't he?" Yulie argued. Torehj sniffed and scowled.

"Draw arms," King Torke said simply. The two boys walked out into the arena and took positions by the far walls opposite of each other. Yulie drew the sword that went with his pearl armor, and Torehj drew his own blade. Yulie wondered if anything the prince had encountered while freelanding could possibly compare to facing a ten-foot tall ogre cheiftain…

Dar Dar Vanes, Norin strode up the ramp that led to the bottom level of the arena. Instead of taking a seat with the other prominent guests and supporters, he leaned against the wall and watched, waiting for the fight to begin. Yulie tried to keep his breathing measured, while Torehj shuddered, seething with anger. The minister raised his hand then swept it down, shouting.

The last syllable of the word had barely left the minister's mouth before Torehj charged across the arena floor, screaming bloody vengeance against Yulie. The act almost caught him off guard, but Yulie gathered his wits and prepared to deflect the strike. He estimated Torehj to be at least Impacting Asteroid rank and prepared accordingly.

"Focus is the key to the outcome of a battle. Lose it and you risk losing more…"

Drega had once said that she'd seen Yulie fighting in school, and that it was 'ceremonial', but his tournament matches had their roots in real combat; Ancient arts remembered by few and practiced by fewer. He adapted those techniques for his own fight, perplexing and angering his opponent as Torehj threw his energy into the same few maneuvers over and over.

"Man…Sage is a good teacher…" Ryo muttered, impressed by Yulie's skill.

"Yulie's an even better student," Dais commented.

"I can't sit here and watch this," Cye grumbled abruptly and rose from his seat. Dais reached to the side and grabbed his arm, pulling him back down quickly. The two glared at each other, but Dais held more anger in his one eye than Cye with his two.

"I had my doubts at first, but the kid's actually holding his own…" Tanya whispered.

The pearl armor allowed Yulie to match Torehj's ferocity and strength. Each strike he parried or dodged, hoping he could win by default by forcing the prince to exhaust himself. Torehj, however, caught on to this. He drew his sword back and began turning it about in his hand. A gasp went up from the supporters in the stands, and Yulie's eyes widened when he saw Torehj charging his blade. It was either his arm or his sword, and Yulie chose his arm.

He brought the blade up to intercept the strike while he shifted his body to the side out of the way of the downward stroke. He felt his arm shudder and the blade of his sword shivered into pieces, spraying onto his chest armor and against his legs. He staggered back to recover and looked down to see no more than an inch remained of his sword.

"Oh my God!" Tanya exclaimed and clamped both hands over her mouth. Ryo sucked air in through his teeth and Cye grimaced and shook his head. Dais clasped his hands together and rest his chin on the knuckles, watching patiently for what would happen next.

"Do you yield?" Torehj asked. Yulie raised an eyebrow, somewhat surprised that Torehj was trying to sound civil. Was he just as reluctant as he to shed blood? Or was he trying to make himself look like the better person? He thought he saw a flicker of hesitation in the prince's eyes.

Yulie glanced at the broken hilt. He could try to use it as a shank…but that would be dishonorable. He tightened his grip then flung the hilt behind himself with enough force it skidded along the ground until it bumped against the arena wall. Yulie clenched his fists and brought his arms up, readying for a fight. Torehj's eyes widened then narrowed.

"Thablisk…" he sneered and tensed to strike. In the stands, Torehj's cohorts shouted taunts and insults directed at Yulie. Ko'li scrunched up in his seat and Ph'li wrung his stringy tail. Aurora folded her arms over her chest and pursed her lips. Norin watched calmly from the shadows. King Torke looked fraught with dread. The four Ronin prayed fervently.

Torehj charged and slashed, but yelped in surprise when he kept running as Yulie had sidestepped out of the way and spun about on his heel, bashing Torehj in the back with his elbow. Torehj caught his balance and whirled around, snarling in frustration. He lunged again, but Yulie ducked and buried his knuckles into Torehj's ribcage just under the left shoulder.

"Did I just see that happen!?" Tanya exclaimed, eyes wide.

"I don't believe it…I know he'd always watched us train before, but I never thought he'd actually picked up on any of it!" Ryo whispered in awe.

"Ignorance is assuming the only weapon at your disposal is whatever you wield in your hands." Yulie kept his breathing steady and low while he kept his body in motion, like a current. "Anything can serve as a weapon: Your fists, your spirit, even your enemy." Torehj's head knocked back painfully when Yulie landed a devastating palm against his chin. "Those who abuse strength often forget the core of what it is to fight with focus; with conviction."

"Oh my God! Look at him go! Look at him GO!" Tanya crowed.

"STOP DANCING AROUND!" Torehj roared and tried striking Yulie with a Meteor Scar. Yulie leaned back and let the sword pass within an inch of his face. He reached up and grabbed Torehj's wrist with one hand then struck his elbow with the other. Torehj yelped and his fingers released the hilt. Yulie caught it in his free hand before it hit the ground and swung it around while Torehj collapsed onto his side. The prince tried to sit up but paused and gasped.

Yulie held Torehj's sword pointed at the prince's throat. King Torke inhaled sharply, knowing full well Yulie had every right to kill his eldest son. Ko'li nibbled at his fingernails and Ph'li chewed on his hoof tips. Aurora clenched her hands over her knees. Torehj's 'friends' stared aghast at the sight of the prince at the Oldworlder's mercy. The four Ronin watched breathless.

Torehj stared into Yulie's eyes, and Yulie saw a mix of anger, bitterness, and fear. Yulie turned the sword about in his hand until the blade pointed downward. He raised it slightly as if to stab then took a sharp breath. Torehj closed his eyes and stiffened when Yulie brought his arm down in a powerful movement. He plunged the sword into the ground with such force, the tips of the winged hilt touched the surface. Torehj opened his eyes again and glared up at Yulie, seething. Yulie stepped back and stared back with a stony expression. He turned to leave.

In that one moment of hubris, in that one dramatic gesture, he forgot one of the most critical, crucial lessons: "Never turn your back on your opponent!" Yulie whirled around when he heard the scrape of dirt and Torehj's berserker yowl. The prince cocked his fist to punch Yulie.

He paused mid-strike and stepped back when he heard a piercing bubbly cry. All eyes went skyward when a winged shadow swept over the arena and a shining white form dove into the pit. Yulie staggered back when White Wind landed between him and Torehj. King Torke stood up sharply and gripped the rail. Norin raised both eyebrows and smirked.

"Let me guess…air shield 'malfunctioned' again?" Tanya whispered and chuckled.

"He has come for me! He knows I am his true master!" Torehj proclaimed suddenly. Yulie's eyes widened and he glanced from him to White Wind. Dread seized his heart. Did White Wind plan on giving himself up to stop the fighting? The colt's thoughts remained closed to him, and White Wind glanced at Yulie out the corner of his eye and brushed a wing at him dismissively. Yulie felt his heart become heavy and the sickness returned…

White Wind reared back onto his hind hooves and curled his forelegs. Yulie tensed, knowing what to expect and steadied himself. The ground rolled up from the force of the full-strength Shock Hoof, and Torehj fell onto his backside. White Wind reared up and struck again, and again and again until the ground cracked and the buried sword poked out at an odd angle. He extended his neck and wings full stretch and tossed his head from side to side, shrieking in fury and fanning his wings. He swept his tail and struck the ground with a fore hoof. Torehj remained on his butt and stared up at the son of Skybolt Sunhammer, eyes wide in shock.

"Few are those who understand the words of Pegasi," those in the stands looked to the arena wall when Norin strode out into the grounds. "Yet his words ring as true and clear as bells to me. White Wind left Mazzan of his own volition, by his own strength and will. He was not coerced, nor deceived. He does not regret, nor does he hesitate. Just as it has been for ages, just as it was with Ander Vai Stel Vethu and Skybolt Sunhammer, riders do not choose their Pegasi. Pegasi choose their riders, and White Wind chose Yulie Yamano.

"Such things always have and always should be the choice of the Pegasi. There was no theft committed, and as such, this duel has no merit. It is the vote of Mazzan that this Trael de Vaor be invalidated," Norin shouted aloud. King Torke smiled and tilted his chin up.

"The Rider's Citadel hears the voice of Mazzan, and will respect the judgment of the Master Breeder. By my right as Watch Rider, I declare this match over, and YuliTakin the victor!" he raised one arm and held his palm forward with fingers pointing upward. Aurora's sons squealed in delight and Aurora smiled happily. Torehj's cronies looked dumbfounded. Tanya expressed her joy with a stream of swears while Cye looked satisfied with the intervention. Ryo looked relieved and Dais had a hint of grudging admiration in his eye.

"What!? NO! You cannot!" Torehj shouted in protest and stared up at his father.

"My son: when the time comes that you take unto yourself the burden of leadership, you must learn that true respect comes from being responsible and earning the hearts of those under you command, not by bending their will through force or demand," King Torke said solemnly.

"NO! YOU WRETCHED OLDWORLDER!" Torehj howled and lunged at Yulie, fingers splayed to strangle him. Yulie stepped back, startled. His surprise increased when he saw his reflection in White Wind's wing blades as the colt swept his right wing between the two and swung forward, swatting Torehj with enough force to send him flying into the arena wall. Torehj's cheek struck the wall painfully and he sagged onto the ground, defeated and limp.

White Wind bared his teeth and a shuddering bellow echoed from his mouth. He tossed his head and shook his horn in Torehj's direction and smote the ground with his fore hooves again before snorting and turning to face Yulie. He brushed a wing in Torehj's direction dismissively.

"Get him out of here," King Torke hissed and pointed at Torehj then to the side. His female assistants rushed down through the stands and to the lower ramp.

"YuliTakin! Slian Yador! You beat him! Grandfather would be proud!" Ph'li and Ko'li bounded over to him and hugged him. White Wind reached over and pressed his nose into his shoulder. Yulie reached up shakily and stroked his cheek. White Wind teased him for doubting him, and Yulie laughed. He straightened himself when the four Ronin walked up to him.

"Yulie, I can't say enough how proud I am of you," Ryo whispered.

"You've got bigger ones on you at your age than any of these guys here, kid," Tanya jerked a thumb over her shoulder. Cye tried to sputter a protest but snorted and shook his head. Dais cackled richly and smacked a palm against his forehead.

While his close friends showered him with accolades, Yulie's gaze strayed to the stands. He frowned when he saw Torehj's 'friends' slink off down the aisles. He glanced at the fallen prince and saw him still sitting on the ground with his shoulder against the wall. The female caretakers tried to coax him to his feet, but he stared at the ground tears streaming from his eyes.

Yulie should've felt relief. He should've felt vindicated, or proud, but as he stared at the prince sitting there alone, he felt only pity. White Wind sensed his troubled thoughts and burbled softly, nosing him in the shoulder again. Dais noticed the teen's expression and frowned.

"Yulie…something wrong?"

"Yeah, what's up kid? You don't look too happy?" Tanya commented.

"Why should he be? After what he was almost forced to do?" Cye argued.

"Yulie? You okay?" Ryo asked softly. Yulie stared into the distance then glanced at him.

"Ryo…is Magma old enough to be partnered with someone?"

Magma let out an indignant growl and scratched at the door as it shut behind him. He didn't appreciate it at all when strong hands had grabbed him and covered him with a sack then carried him squirming some distance before tossing him into a room. He roared, expecting the door itself to step aside, but it remained unmoving. He lashed his tail and studied his surroundings, pacing about the carpeted floor. His ears went up when he saw someone sitting on a luxurious bed. A young human male with dark brown hair and light brown eyes slouched in his place and stared at the floor despondently. His hands hung limp in his lap.

Magma tensed and growled, demanding acknowledgement from this human. The teen did not respond. Magma reared his head up and began lashing his tail. He padded over to the teen and pounced, seizing his leg in his forepaws and tumbling onto his back, digging his claws through the thick fabric of the boy's combat uniform. Despite the blood staining the fabric, the boy remained unresponsive. Magma pulled away and bared his teeth. He lunged again and seized one of the leather boots in his claws and pulled it off the foot, shredding it viciously.

The boy's eyes looked glassy and distant. Magma released the ruined boot and crouched before springing up onto the bed. He reached up and pressed his paw against the boy's shoulder, trying to goad a reaction out of him. Nothing. He leaned close and bared his teeth close to the boy's ear. Still nothing. He seized the boy by the shoulders and tried to fling him onto his side. The boy budged only slightly, as if made of stone. Magma leaned back and narrowed his green-gold eyes, confused. He twitched his whiskers and flattened his ears, bewildered.

The two sat there for several moments with the teen failing to acknowledge the tiger's presence and the tiger very perplexed. Magma curled his tail up and down and nosed the boy in the shoulder. He sniffed him and nibbled at the collar of the combat uniform slightly. His lips slowly slid down over his teeth and his pupils dilated. He pressed his head against the boy's arm and pushed a few times until the arm moved up, then he moved his head under the limp hand.

Torehj gradually registered his arm moving and glanced to the side. He felt the mattress being depressed by a heavy weight and looked down to see a black-striped orange form moving at his side. It had four legs ending in wide paws and a broad head with black ears. It rolled onto its back and grasped Torehj's arm in its forepaws. He felt the prick of claws digging through his combat uniform and into his skin, and powerful jaws opened, revealing small, sharp teeth. The teeth pushed against his arm, but did not break the skin.

Torehj had been there in the rows with his father the day of the Pairing. That was when he found out that YuliTakin had in his possession the son of Skybolt Sunhammer. That was also when he saw the mighty Chiaje as he strode down the aisle carrying Chi Chi Lina, Yainae on his broad, powerful back. His father had leaned over and told him his name was Whiteblaze. He had never seen such a creature before, and not even the Fendahu looked so beautiful.

Magma saw the boy had stirred and reached up with a paw, batting him in the cheek. Torehj reached up with a hand and tried to block the paw. His fingers found their way between the thick pads, and the claws unsheathed briefly. His eyes met the tiger's, and Magma's face relaxed the same time Torehj's expression warmed. Wonder filled the void in his heart and his mouth curled in a faint smile for the first time in many days.

Ryo and Yulie observed at a distance from a neighboring room whose balcony offered view into Torehj's room. "I gotta be honest, Yulie. I'm not sure I'd have done the same thing in your position," Ryo admitted and shook his head. Yulie stood beside him and folded his arms.

"The only friends Torehj had were those afraid of his title…maybe…maybe if he has a friend who doesn't care about any of that…it can help him become a better person…" Yulie muttered.

"One can hope, right?" Ryo chuckled and glanced at him. He frowned when he thought he saw something glowing orange on Yulie's forehead. It vaguely resembled a recognizable mark, but by the time Ryo leaned forward enough to get a better angle to look, the mark had faded. Ryo glanced at the horizon and saw the last dwindling traces of the second sun's light. Probably just a reflection from somewhere… Ryo thought and glanced back at Yulie.

"Let's get on home. Mom and Pop are waiting," Yulie said abruptly.

"Huh? Oh, yeah. It's been a long day…"

Far away in Bainshaebo, atop the uttermost eave of Thananagreia, a tall figure stood with her back facing the setting sun and her arms folded over her chest. The fading light of the second sun gave her silver hair a curious range of hues. So…he is the first to IgniteIn…In…Interesting… Steel-gray eyes narrowed and lips spread in a pleased smile.

"You got enough furniture there, Dais?" Cye grimaced when he saw Dais carrying a tiered shelf under one arm and a cabinet strapped to his back.

"Just a few things the missus wanted me to pick up while I was here," Dais smirked.

"I don't have to tell my parents about the whole 'duel to the death', do I?" Yulie asked from where he sat in the saddle. The six of them stood near the main pen in Mazzan.

"It was all just a big misunderstanding in the end," Tanya said with a grin then made a face. "Damn, Yulie, how much bigger is White Wind supposed to get?"

"Norin says Pegasi reach full growth at about three years, so he's still got a ways to go."

"I think he grew a lot more after today…"

"Allright, everybody join hands. White Wind? Take us home, if you would?" Ryo nodded at the Pegasi colt. White Wind tossed his head and shifted his hooves. His wing blades parted.

"Rowrrr?" Yulie looked down and saw Whisker pad alongside White Wind.

"Heya Whisker. I'm glad I was able to see you. You're growing pretty fast, eh girl? I gotta be getting home now, but I'll come visit again sometime and we'll see how big you measure up to your dad then, okay? You look after your brother and sister, cuz you gotta be the responsible one. Make sure Magma behaves with Torehj, and keep an eye on Snow. She sleeps too much. Ready when you are, Wind," Yulie turned forward and grasped the rein cord.

White Wind flicked his ears back and Yulie blinked when he felt a vibration in the Pegasi's body. He looked over his shoulder and saw that Whisker had sprung up onto White Wind's rump. "Huh? No, Whisker, you have to stay here. You can't come with us," Yulie chided and shoved Whisker off. No sooner did her paws touch the ground than did she crouch and spring back up onto White Wind. "No, stay down," Yulie scolded and shoved her off again. Undeterred, Whisker pounced and tucked her paws close. "No…"

"I have her…" Norin walked over and slipped his arms under Whisker's stomach. He carried her away with her growling and hissing in protest. "YEEOWCH!" The four Ronin looked down towards the ground and listened to the pitter patter of paws as Whisker scampered back over and sprang up onto White Wind's rump. Yulie tried pushing her off again, but she hooked her claws under the edges of the wide dererium plate. Yulie pushed harder, but she refused to budge and began snarling irritably. Her ears flattened against her head.

"…Just take her with you, kid," Dais sighed and rolled his eyes.

"What?! No! No way! I can't bring a tiger home with me! My parents would freak!" Yulie argued and tried once more to push Whisker off of White Wind's rump. Whisker held fast.

"Yeah…a Pegasi is one thing, adopting a tiger's something else entirely…" Ryo muttered.

"I dunno…I'm thinking she adopted White Wind," Cye commented and grimaced. Whisker drew herself up and wrapped her tail around her paws neatly. She licked her lips and leaned to the side. White Wind craned his neck around and looked her way. His ears perked up and he made a pleased whistle. Ryo made a face and shrugged, and Yulie hung his shoulders.

"Great…how am I gonna explain this to Pop…"

"I can always knock some sense into him again…" Tanya said and narrowed her eyes.

"No! That'll be fine. I'm sure I can think of something," Yulie said hastily and waved his hand. He raked his fingers through his hair and slouched in the saddle. "Allright Whisker, hold on tight…" Whisker placed her forepaws on his shoulders. Yulie went rigid suddenly and bit his lip. "Not. That. Tight…" he croaked through his teeth.

"She used the claws, didn't she?" Tanya asked.


"Yeah, you're gonna have to trim those…" Ryo grimaced.

Mr. Yamano looked up from reading the newspaper in his recliner when he heard a creak and saw the door to the garage open. "Yulie! You're back! How'd things go with…whatever it was you went to take care of?" Yulie looked somewhat sheepish and pocketed his dragon pearl.

"Oh…uhh…it went okay…ended up just being a misunderstanding and all…um…Mom? You know how you've always said you'd like to have a cat?" Mrs. Yamano nodded slowly and blinked when she saw something out of the corner of her eye. She looked down and her eyes widened in surprise. Mr. Yamano leaned up but couldn't see what she saw, since the coffee table blocked his view. He caught sight of a long striped object waving through the air and a rolling striped surface bobbing alongside the coffee table. It rounded the corner and came towards him.

"NO! NO! NOOO! NONONONONO! NOO! NOOO NOO!" Mr. Yamano protested furiously when a white tiger cub sprang up into his lap and turned around a few times. "NOOO! NO! NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!" The cub draped herself across his thighs and rolled onto her back. "Ahhh…ahhh…ahhh…" She stared up at him with inquisitive blue eyes and drew her paws close to her chest. "…I…I can't feel my legs…"

Like it or not, Whisker was there to stay, and stay she did. Mrs. Yamano warmed up to her more quickly than her spouse, and pampered the tiger well. Mr. Yamano begrudgingly accepted her, but Whisker seemed to prefer him as a perch more than as company. At night she slept curled in a laundry basket filled with old clothes Mrs. Yamano had dredged up from storage.

Inside the Yamano household, things remained fairly peacefully for some time, despite some very disruptive goings on in the city, and one night Yulie slept peacefully as he always did, curled under the covers while Whisker sprawled over her stuffed basket. Her ears twitched occasionally and she splayed her claws in a stretch. Yulie stirred when he heard a faint tapping at the window from outside. He tossed about under the covers and groaned.

"Yulie, wake up! Yulie! We need you! It's urgent!" the voice of a young girl whispered.

"hnnnhhhghh…" Yulie grumbled and buried his cheek against the pillow.

"Yulie, wake up now," a deep musical voice rumbled sternly. Whisker roused from her basket and bared her teeth in warning, a low growl emitting from her throat. From outside, a deep rumbling growl caused small objects inside the room to rattle and skitter in place.

Whisker sat up in her basket and tucked her paws together. Her ears remained flattened, but she closed her mouth and licked her lips meekly. Yulie peeled himself up from the covers and glanced at the window. He pulled the curtain back but only saw accumulated frost from the cold outside. He blinked sleep from his eyes and squinted when he thought he saw movement.

A small narrow palm pressed against the window and wiped frost away. A girl with dark orange hair and blue eyes peered through the glass. She waved energetically and gestured for Yulie to come outside. A small green paw with three fingers rubbed another opening in the frost and bulbous red eyes peered out from behind a trumpet-shaped snout. Breath exited the nose and fogged the window up again briefly. Behind the two, Yulie caught a glimpse of an immense soft, wide nose and menacing-looking eyes. The huge head moved closer to the window and one of the eyes came within inches of the glass, peering into the room at the boy and the tiger.