Among The Rookies, Bargaining is Common

Literature


This piece is published as the winner of the First Chapters Contest, hosted by Girls Write Now and Penguin Random House, for teen writers. The Penguin Random House editors said of this piece, “We enjoyed the energy of the voice, the thrill of the action, and the strong character work on the page. We’re very intrigued to find out where this story and character are going next!” You can read the honorable mentions and learn more about the contest here.

—Vahni Kurra, Girls Write Now


Among The Rookies, Bargaining is Common

Remnants by Rhea Dhar

When I wake up, there’s a fuzzy little monster clinging to my ceiling, its stubby fangs dripping bloody saliva onto my pillow. A fat warm drop smacks my cheek, trickles down, and plunges off my chin. First thought: if I ignore it, surely it will go away eventually. But then, that would be a very pathetic and ironic last thought. 

I sigh, roll over and grope around on the floor, shoving aside yesterday’s crumpled tunic and the overgrown vespermite carcass from the night’s hunt. My fingers loosely close around a cold metal hilt and I thrust the rapier upwards, vaguely in the monster’s direction. Through bleary eyes, I watch it squeal and scuttle. Its greasy tawny fur puffs out in tufty spikes. Great. Solismus counter attacks have historically been unsuccessful—their mouths are too small for most human limbs and their pupils are fixed on one spot their entire lives, confining their vision to a limited and useless field. But I also am operating on under four hours of sleep and wielding my worst weapon, so it’s completely possible I’ll be the first Remnant ever devoured by a household pest. 

That’s actually an incredibly humiliating thought, so I jolt upright and rapidly jab the rapier at the solismus before it can launch itself off my ceiling. It takes a few tries, but I eventually skewer it straight through. Bits of blobby entrails and  viscous black blood dribble down my blade, smattering my duvet. Guess today’s laundry day. I yank the sword out, leaving yet another splintery scar in the battered wood. I catch the solismus corpse. Breakfast. 

I’m still in my hunting clothes from last night; leather tunic and pants, belt of daggers digging into my sore ribs.

I’m still in my hunting clothes from last night; leather tunic and pants, belt of daggers digging into my sore ribs. I drag a hand through my hair and lumber on out of my cabin. Don’t really have much time to get ready this morning. Perlan felt vengeful and scheduled my combat assessment despicably early. I probably should have taken the vespermite carcass and brought it to the trash heap, since my cabin is already painfully packed and I don’t need another trophy. Whatever. 

It takes me two tries to get a fire started in the pit outside. Morning mountain air is dense and foggy, harshly cool as I breathe slowly and let my eyes adjust. I still can’t see more than twenty feet ahead of me, so, rest in peace me if any ranged monsters feel hungry. It’s unlikely that there are any here, though. Grim Gully is a funneled pass between two steep mountain faces, once a roaring river that ran dry. Six by six foot cabins for us rookies were built along the centerline. To get out, we have to clamber up the gnarled tree roots twisting down the sides, picking off the occasional solismus in the process. It’s a relatively safe place, well-lit and well-populated, which is enough to deter most monsters. 

I’ll have to visit the armory before the assessment. Rapiers require more finesse and strategy than I’m cool with, given that my weapon of choice is a broadsword or mace. Really, I like anything heavy, anything that I can swing with all my weight and let the momentum take over. Also, a rapier is certainly not the ideal tool for cleaning carcasses. So hard to peel off the coat and scoop out the goopy insides. Within the baggy stomach, I find soggy green quills. Not entirely sure what the solismus’s last meal was, but it smells sharply acidic, and I question if it’s safe to eat. 

But by the time I finish, I have a decently sized juicy hunk, tender to the touch. Good meat is hard to come by; I’d be hard pressed to give this up, even if it means risking potential poisoning. Grim Gully’s peppered with bright purple flowers that make fair emetics, anyway. 

As the meat roasts, thick, tangy smoke wafting from the pit, I meet my first fellow early-riser. Azi’s a surprise, honestly. It usually takes a team of at least four Remnants to drag her from bed before eight. Yet here she is, shoving her feathery white hair out of her eyes and tugging on the gray tips. It’s all freshly dyed to commemorate her victories against two august beasts, abnormally large and vicious monsters with an especially strong taste for human blood. Most Remnants have only killed one of those, and I wouldn’t last a minute against one, so, yeah, even if she’s technically younger than me, she has my respect. She’s the youngest Remnant, actually, though I can’t stop thinking of her as a rookie. 

“I’ll trade you half of that for a flashbang,” she says, staring blankly at my solimus meat. “A flashbang and a dagger. A flashbang and a poisoned dagger. A flashbang, a poisoned dagger, and trail mix.” She blinks. “A flashbang, a poisoned dagger, trail mix, and cozy socks.”

I dump a sand bucket on the pit, unsheathe a toothed knife of mine, and begin sawing through the meat. “I’m tempted to see how high you’ll go for it.” 

Among the rookies, bargaining is common.

Among the rookies, bargaining is common. More so in specific cliques and circles, yes, but I’m familiar enough with the practice to know this deal is wildly unbalanced in my favor. If you sit by the trees on Grim Gully’s edge for long enough, you’re bound to bait a solismus or two. And it’s not like they’re hard to kill. 

 Most Remnants have enough pity—or, perhaps, kindness—to freely offer supplies. They’re not actively competing with one another to snag kills and ace assessments. They’ve all already dipped their hair in felled august beast blood, proven themselves powerful enough to survive on their own. They’re less prideful, in a sense, since they’re walking proof of their achievements and don’t need to boast for clout. Azi is obviously still adjusting to that mindset. I wonder if she ever will. 

In any case, though I would have offered her some food without any exchanges involved, I’m not gonna give up this potential advantage.  I spear her half and point the knife at her. “Deal.” 

She slides off the cut and swings a burlap pouch to me. “Tell me there was more to last night’s haul than a solismus. Please, Kenna.” 

“Actually, I caught that this morning.” I refrain from telling her it literally crawled into my cabin. “I got a vespermite yesterday, and an assist on a fairy.” 

“Oh. Nice. Who led it?”

“Perlan. He’s also handling my assessment, so… any tips?” I doubt she knows anything more about the senior Remnants than I do. They practically raised the rookies themselves, and it’s definitely bizarre being evaluated by my longtime sibling figures. 

There’s only thirty or so of us on the mountain. A small enough number that we’re close and familial, for the most part, but large enough that coteries tend to form. I don’t belong to any particular group myself—haven’t for a while, at least—but I do consider Azi a friend. 

She shrugs. “He’s, um, unpredictable?” 

“Okay, thanks.” 

She squints at me. 

“For letting me know?” 

I never claimed she’s good at being a friend, but then, neither am I. 

Azi and I part ways once the meat’s finished and Perlan meets me as I scramble out of the gully. I blow dusty dirt from my hands and flex my fingers. He bounds over, signature tome fastened to his utility belt and a spiked mace in his hands. The white bristles in his hair glow rosy gold in the rising sun as the soft light sweeps over the mountains. 

“Ready?” he asks, offering up the mace. 

I trade him the rapier. “Not in the slightest, no.” 

“You’re not going to die.” 

I tilt my head at that, calculating yet feigning carelessness. “I know.” 

“Yeah, yeah, I know you know.” 

If you know that I know, then why are you even…? 

“Where are we going?” I ask instead of pressing the topic, which would predictably lead to more irritation than genuine answers. 

“Salt plains,” he says, grinning. He is, I am sure, the only person who could utter those words without grimacing. 

I’m familiar with Perlan. Accustomed to him, as he is, surely, to me. And that is why we barely speak to each other as we begin the short trek to the salt plains through the pine forest trail. Our interactions are brief and comfortable, mutually tolerable and never transactional. It’s not a relationship I put much thought into. For most rookies, the Remnant who initially chooses to mentor you sticks with you until you graduate into a Remnant yourself. In my unusual case, Valence got pretty far, but never finished training me. 

In my unusual case, Valence got pretty far, but never finished training me. 

So now I’m with Perlan, breaking into a brisk jog as we broach the tree line and reach a long stretch of cloudy pink sodium. It’s glossy and unblemished, an expansive mineral field, and its scientific existence is baffling. Rocky caverns glitter along the edges, and Perlan steers us in that direction. I’m glad—the salt plains unnerve me. They’re so exposed, and the harsh gusts make my eyes water. Each breath is stale and briny, leaves my lungs stinging and raw. The caverns, at least, are cooler, even if the salt stench persists. 

Perlan leans against the wall outside one and nods. “I scoped it out this morning. You can handle it. Just get a clean kill, don’t worry too much about creativity or anything. Stay safe.” 

And without any ceremony, I head in. 

Immediately, before I can scan the terrain, I’m confronted with my target. 

It’s a kerata. A hulking monster that stands on four legs, with shaggy, ashy brown fur and shiny antlers that extend from its head and twist all around its body, ending in deathly sharp points. Apparently, they like to stab people and suck up their blood with their steeply tapered proboscis. Thankfully, I’ve never witnessed that. I’ve fought them before with a group, and it’s usually gone smoothly. 

There are two methods. 

One: hit it deeply between the antlers in various places so that it bleeds out quickly. 

Two: break the antlers, which leads to its swift death.

Method two is trickier; kerata are incredibly protective of their antlers—simultaneously their greatest weapon and most crippling weakness. I’m not looking to show off, so I go with method one and start simple.

I rush forward for a first blow, holding my mace low and steady. The gaps between the antlers are narrow and slanted. I try, rotating around the kerata in a zigzagging circle, to angle the mace through and jab the spiked tip into the soft vulnerable flesh. The kerata digs its hooves into the ground, wearing powdery grooves in the salt plain, and swings its head to face me. The long, jagged front antlers catch my shoulder guard mid-dodge. 

I withdraw, yanking the mace back and shaking off a snagged tuft of fleecy fur. Shoulder guard’s got a lock tear, but it’ll hold. Yeah, I was that close, but I shove aside the disappointment immediately. Between the pronounced heft of the mace and my own lack of dexterity, method one is already looking less appealing. 

I don’t see an ideal alternative, right now, so I keep up my unpredictable pace around the kerata, poised to dart if it charges. Perlan might mark it as wasted energy, but I’ve got good stamina and, well, if I’m not actively attacking it, it’s increasingly likely to go on the offensive. And I’m not one to parry with the extra challenge of maintaining safe distance, so I’ll stick to dodging and avoidance. 

I detach the tome from my waist and jam the mace between my arm and body. My free hand dives into the pages, feels for the faint, whispery warmth, and tugs. I’m a weak caster, yeah, but I don’t need to mortally wound the kerata. 

If possible, I’d really just like to blind it.

Light explodes from my hand in sputtering bursts of fiery gold. Heat shoots through my fingers with bone-splintering speed and I slam the tome shut, refix it to my belt, and get a solid grip on my mace.

For once, I just hope the casting hits somewhere in the vicinity of its eyes. 

My aim is terrible, so, for once, I just hope the casting hits somewhere in the vicinity of its eyes. 

The kerata screeches, high and keening, and I see sparks catch in its fur, burning out in dark scorched patches. They’ve got low internal body temperatures. No clue if that is why a fire didn’t start or if it’s my clumsy casting skills striking again, but there’s no time to wonder. 

Its hooves grind the salt plain again, but this time, the front one is curled and raised. It stomps. The ground shudders under me, and I bolt leftwards, anticipating a charge. 

I don’t get one, which might mean that the kerata, unlike me, is actually reading the terrain and has realized any force to the sodium bounders is liable to trigger a miniature avalanche. In terms of the assessment, that’s a failure for me on utilizing my environment, but when it comes to surviving this encounter? Better late than never, maybe. 

Keratas aren’t fast—they won’t risk collisions that could break their antlers, after all—until you actually threaten their antlers. In which case, unless you have the speed to strike before they can retaliate, you’ve got to get creative. Method one was a failure, and I’m not well-suited for method two, but I can come up with a plan. 

It’s not a straight trajectory between cardinal Point A and Point B. Unfolding before me, I see a looping dotted line of a path that ties itself into knots and shies away from dead ends within seconds of catastrophe, some sort of strategic mess that ends with me cutting up a kerata corpse and carving out the meat-heavy ribs. 

There’s still a starting point, though, and from Point A, right and here now, edging dangerously close to a cluster of sharp-edged crystals, I ready my mace and pray all the following alphabetically-labeled steps play out smoothly. 

I charge forward, mace extended, and duck low enough to maintain my balance as I shove a foot out and slide toward the kerata’s underbelly. An antler barb punctures my waterskin and I feel the cool dribble of pine juice down my leg. I get two things out of that: one, that I misjudged the distance between my lunge course and the slender, crystalline antlers that encage the kerata’s torso—evidently, I can’t visualize measurements to save my life—and, two, welp, probably shouldn’t cast again. I’m sure I could drag some light out of the tome without completely exhausting myself, especially since I’ve always suspected that steeping pine needles in sun-charged water, while it does create a sweet, vaguely carbonated drink, doesn’t actually replenish casting energy, as the Remnants claim. 

It’s just another myth they swear by. Just another lie our parents told us. But there’s something comforting about those, I think, like, falsehoods that are meant to protect you. So we eat daisy cakes and chug pine juice, and, honestly, even if it’s all useless and rest and relaxation accomplishes the same goal, it’s a tradition at this point. 

Regardless, I don’t think my faulty casting would help much right now. I spot an opening between the antlers and bash my mace, full force. There’s an initial squish as the spikes sink through the flesh and frothy blue blood bubbles out, and then more resistance as I dig into some muscle and meat. The mace hits something hard and impenetrable and I realize belatedly I’ve waited too long. 

I yank it back and recoil, dropping to a swift roll and springing to my feet. Near the sodium crystals again, which is not a good place to be cornered. The kerata might surrender now, and chasing it down across the scorching salt plains would be both humiliating and wearisome. 

It doesn’t thankfully, and it doesn’t attack either. Blood is gushing out now, creamy blue globs gliding all over the ground. It won’t die yet. I didn’t hit it in enough places. Just’ll pump out more and more foamy lifeblood with its seven hearts. It might stand here, wounded, unhealing, for weeks. That was a lucky blow, on my part. Deep enough to cause some real damage, but I got away in time to still be breathing. 

I’ve taken excruciatingly long to kill this thing, but there’s not a scratch on me.

I’ve taken excruciatingly long to kill this thing, but there’s not a scratch on me, and that, well, that merits celebration. Not yet, though, since I could still mess up. 

Valence taught me not to hope or fear, but to anticipate. Before she was even a Remnant, actually. I was ten. We’d gone to Briar Marsh because she wanted to test if the toxins from the roses also affected monsters—even before she formally abandoned combat for research, she was the most curious of any of us. I tagged along, wanting to assemble a multi-regional collection of pressed flowers. Those roses were disgusting, sickly pink and sallow yellow, dripping with sticky rash-inducing dew. They looked like they’d been dredged up from the depths of something’s internal organs. But I refused to make any exceptions, even for the ugliest of blooms. 

Someone else came with us, too. 

Valence scored a few kills that morning, mostly on fairies, which amazed me at the time. I fell right into the trap. They’re gold and shiny and vaguely humanoid, with lacy wings and high chittering voices that sound like they could speak our language. Somehow, it feels wrong to slaughter them, even when they blacken and their wings snarl with rot and they’re lobbing poison pellets at your face. So she taught me how to handle them properly, how to mentally classify them as the threats they were. 

We both thought we wouldn’t fight anything worse than those. Certainly didn’t imagine we’d end up stumbling over magnolia roots on a hazily sunlit clifftop, me kneeled over one body, pressing unseeing eyes closed with blood-smudged thumbs. Her kneeled over a second body, hand plunged deep into the warm insides of a beast she’d somehow slain. I had watched her pool violet blood in her palm and run her fingers through her hair until the color was fully saturated. 

Someday, I— 

An antler skims my neck, a cool flush against my drumming pulse. 

It was always going to miss. Or else Perlan would have intervened.

It was always going to miss. Or else Perlan would have intervened. He’s watching. He has to be.  I scramble back, muscles once taut with concentration now loose and shaky and unfocused. I’m acutely aware, suddenly, of my hot, gasping breaths, the sweat soaking my back, and the uncomfortable friction of my hand against the mace handle. Exhaustion. Its first symptom is a wandering mind, after all, followed by discomfort, weariness, and occasionally death.

It typically leads to failure, as well. 

On my feet again, I fling the mace at the kerata’s antlers. It reels back on its hindlegs, kicking wildly at air and breaching the relative silence with that awful mourning cry. After a heartbeat or two, fractures splinter through those steely gray antlers and the tips snap off. Glittering chunks crumble, hitting the ground in soft, shimmery explosions. There’s a cold, discordant chiming; somewhere between quiet clinking of broken icicles and the hollow whistling of a glass flute. 

The kerata’s body falls with a dull, heavy thud. 

Just like me, really, losing my mind just before the killing blow. I breathe first, in long, measured gulps of air, and then shake out my ruptured waterskin. It seems Azi truly did not know the details of the assessment. A flashbang and a poison dagger are both certifiably useless against a kerata and were, unfortunately, dead weight on my waist. I take out the pouch anyway and scoop a handful of nutty trail mix, slumping against a smooth sodium shard that protrudes maybe ten feet from the ground. I can see a flare of blazing blue sky from this position. The afternoon sun’s gotta be high and bright by now, so I suppose the walk home will be miserable. I passed the assessment, though, and nobody can deny that.

Darkness winnows the edges of my sight, a shadowy static settling in. Inhale. Hold. Exhale. Do not pass out

I close my eyes. Just for a second. And when I hear the clattering of footsteps, I presume, obviously, that Perlan has come to deliver his evaluation. 

A tired, crooked smile rests prepared on my lips. 

I open my eyes. 

My tunnel vision locks on a ghost’s face. 

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