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The group continued to run a few miles in the dark, which was surprisingly terrifying with the numbers of potential pitfalls and rocks. Darian personally stubbed his toes three times in the relatively short trek. They eventually stopped and made camp, trying to recover what little sleep they would get before dawn.

Darian noticed that Marideen opted to sleep closer to the rest of them. She still kept herself apart, but she remained comfortably within the range of the heating unit, on the opposite side of where Darian placed his bedding.

She woke them up in the morning as usual, well before light broke. Darian groaned; it was not nearly as much sleep as he needed. The trek ahead of him would not be a good one. Still, he noticed that Marideen had seemed to let them sleep a little longer than usual. By the time the group had managed to pack their belongings, the sun was already starting to crest the horizon.

They continued on in the heat, remaining better hydrated than they had been since the plateau. When the sun finally reached overhead and Marideen called for a break, she helped them assemble the shade. She asked for Maximil’s help in combining two of the tent-like shades, creating one long one.

At first, Darian did not understand what Marideen was attempting to do. It took her pulling out the practice swords until he realized she was making a shaded arena from which they could practice. It certainly made a lot more sense than practicing under the scorching sun. At least, it made as much sense as working out to swordplay during an alleged break.

The truth was that Darian was not up for anything today. He had not had enough sleep the night before and would rather not practice in the heat today. He attempted to explain this to Marideen; who scolded him in reply.

“You must always practice, no matter how you feel. That one day you need to use the sword you might not be feeling up to it. This practice now can be the difference between life and death.”

 The intensity in Marideen’s eyes stifled any of Darian’s protests. Beiromon seemed to shrug it off as a matter of course, and Darian reluctantly picked up the sword. Before long, he was sweating profusely as Marideen lunged at him again and again. He found himself being struck considerably more often than he had in the past.

After the third time his body flew to the ground, another bruise most likely forming on his arm, he began to realize how much Marideen was always holding herself back during the practices. She fought him now like she had on the plateau, relentlessly trying to defeat him. It seemed now that she almost watched him with fervor, demanding more out of him than she ever had before.

Her movements were deliberate and brutal, always exposing any holes he made. His premonition failed him more now than ever before. Beiromon attempted to explain each of the mistakes he made, but more often than not, Marideen would angrily interrupt, condemning him for those same mistakes. Beiromon would raise his eyebrows at these rude interruptions, but would otherwise let her have her piece.

After the fifth lecture about how his failures would kill him in a real sword fight, Darian had had enough. He had thought that Marideen and he had shared a moment aboard the Wraith ship. He had thought she would go easier on him, listen to him more, and be more tolerant. He apparently had thought wrong.

Either way, this had to stop. He would be bruised over completely if he kept allowing her to strike him. The wooden swords were made out a softened wood that blunted the strikes quite substantially, but it seemed horribly insufficient when wielded by the likes of Marideen Cleefe.

As Darian saw it, he really only had one chance. He had to defeat her. Beiromon had mentioned that she had holes in her own defenses. If he could just exploit one of them, if he could just put her on the ground, then she would lie off of him and he could finally get some rest. 

Darian took the offensive. His sword swung again and again as she blocked. She began to back up several steps, and he took that as a sign that he was pressing her. He swiped down with the sword, missing where he had expected to hit her sword. His body stumbled forward as she spun to his side. His instincts kicked in and his sword went up, barely deflecting her blow.

He stumbled several steps forward, rounding before she could close the difference. He began again, pressing her hard. A small flicker of a smile peered on her face as he nearly landed a blow, which glided harmlessly to the side. He pushed again, and his eyes shut. He let his instincts take hold again, allowing his sword to go where his instincts called for him. He would bring her down now.

A rapid succession of three blows struck into him, one in the leg, one in the side, and a third are the arm. The final blow knocked his sword out of his hands and he stumbled down to one knee. He opened up his eyes again and saw her standing there with her sword at his neck. Well that didn’t work.

Marideen pulled the sword from his neck and frowned, “What was that?”

Darian grimaced; he didn’t really want to answer her. It felt like being caught cheating on a test. He rose from his knees and shrugged, hoping that she would let it pass.

“You can’t just depend on random guesses to win,” Marideen berated, “you have to know what you are doing. You have to be able to use all of your senses, your eyes included. You will never get the skill with the sword like this.”

“And why should I?” Darian snapped back, “What’s the point? Sure it’s fun learning to do something like this, especially when you’re in prison and you have nothing else worth doing, but in an age of guns, why bother?”

Marideen put on a look of indignation, but Darian continued before she could answer, “Swords are for nobles.”

After a moment, she recovered herself, “What do you mean by that? The use of the sword is an essential art. It’s important to know, you never know when close combat will need to be used. It is a vital skill-“

“For nobles,” Darian interrupted, “It’s a skill for your kind. I am not a noble, I’m not one of them.”

“Oh,” Marideen responded simply.

Her features changed and she nodded at him, turning around and dropping the sword to the ground. She looked like she had hurt in her eyes. Darian blinked; why would the great Marideen Cleefe be hurt by being called something that she clearly was?

“I’m going to do some scouting, hold our location,” Marideen muttered to Maximil as she walked out from under the shade.

She broke into a jog and Darian watched her leave with a perplexed look on his face.

“What is that about?” Darian asked once she was out of earshot.

Maximil’s eyebrow rose from where he sat, “You don’t know?”

Darian frowned, moving over and sitting down. His sore body protested as he stretched out on the hard rock outcropping they had chosen as their observation perch. He looked over at Maximil, shaking his head, before laying it back against the rock, which was remarkably cooler than the sand and air around them.

“Marideen… has had a great deal of difficulty coping after the losses she experienced years ago,” Berret responded cautiously, “Her sister was very important to her. Those two were practically inseparable.”

“She told me she didn’t blame me,” Darian responded, “For the longest time, I assumed she would.”

Maximil shook his head, “I think there was a time that she wanted to blame you, but it was ultimately Danelle’s choice to try to protect you. You were just a scared kid.”

“I could have stood up for her,” Darian chided himself, “Instead I just coward and watched her die.”

Maximil shrugged, putting a hand on Darian’s shoulder. They laid there for a bit in silence, basking in the occasional breezes that let just a little bit of relief from the ridiculous heat.

“For Marideen, I think her concerns are a bit different than yours,” Berret spoke up suddenly.  

“How so?” Darian asked, sitting up.

“Her sister died, but she died saving you,” Berret responded.

“What does that have to do with anything,” Darian inquired, a tad confused.

“How do I word this?” Berret put his head back, looking up at the tent covering, “Her sister died, but you lived. For the longest time, she had assumed you died too. Finding out that you were alive, it was like finding her sister again. It’s a lot for her to handle.”

“Are you telling me Marideen sees me as a little sister to her?” Darian frowned.

Maximil burst out laughing, slapping Darian on the slightly bruised shoulder. Darian grimaced a little bit but held himself for the most part. He was starting to get a feel for Maximil strange sense of humor.

“I guess I won’t have to kill you after all,” Maximil laughed, “But to be honest, I don’t think you’d look very good in a dress.”

“Really?” Beiromon piped in, walking up to them, “I think he could pull off a dress.”

“You really have been a prison a long time, haven’t you bear,” Maximil responded solemnly.

Maximil’s back straightened, the small grin on his face falling. Maximil burst out in riotous laughter, and both Berret and Darian had to join him. Maximil slapped his knees as he keeled over laughing.

Beiromon sniffed, looking down at Maximil, “I seem to remember a man who couldn’t tell the difference between a man and a woman once. I believe it was in a little bar on the planet Fairchin.”

Maximil choked his laughing turning into a cough, “Well that’s a whole different story.”

“I’m kind of interested in that now, I’m always one for stories,” Berret instigated.

Maximil waved his hands dismissive, “You can’t hold a man accountable when a certain quantity of alcohol is consumed. Besides, I thought we were talking about how Darian can help his big sister out.”

“It’s not exactly that, “Berret sighed, wiping a tear from his eye, “As long as Darian’s alive though, you’ve given her sister’s death meaning. In Marideen’s eyes, it was your life for her sisters, and your life can do something, anything, to give validation for her loss.”

Darian sighed as the bouts of laughter died, “She isn’t going to take it easier on me, is she?’’

Berret shook his head sorrowfully. The group descended into silence. Beiromon finally stood, moving over to where the pair had left the swords when Marideen left.

“Can I ask you for a favor?” Darian spoke out suddenly.

Beiromon looked up with one of the swords in his hands, “Yeah?”

“Can you show me Marideen’s weakness, and how to exploit them?”

Beiromon’s eyes narrowed, but after a moment he smiled, “Yeah.”

It was another hour before Marideen finally returned to the camp. She didn’t really say anything. She got a drink of water from the canteens, pouring some of it on a cloth which she then wrapped around her head. The group broke down the tents in silence, and not before too long they were moving off into the never-ending expanse of the desert.

Darian was not incorrect about the pains that Marideen had left her. He walked painfully as his clothing and backpack rubbed against the dozens of bruises and sores Marideen had given him.  Marideen didn’t say much of anything. She gave commands as she otherwise would have but otherwise remained silent and wooden. Darian thought about talking to her a dozen times, but whenever she looked at him his voice seized up and he dropped whatever he was going to say.  

When they finally retired for the night, he unpacked and laid down into his covers, sighing. Marideen did not press them to practice again, although she might have before the argument. He noticed she set her bedding much farther away from the heater than she had the night before. It was not as far as she had before the ship, but the difference from the previous night was still noticeable.

The darkness overtook the desert and Darian stared at the place where Marideen’s form lay. He had made a mistake. He knew he had made a mistake. He had to reconcile with her. He knew that too. However, what was he supposed to do? He wasn’t even really sure what he had said that pissed her off. He should have asked her lifetime friends that, rather than talking about how he could be her surrogate sister; Darian cringed.

After a few moments, he softly pulled out of his covers. It was cold, which was almost welcoming on the sore muscles, but he couldn’t think about that now. He went over to Beiromon’s pack, quietly recovering one of the wooden swords from his pack. Beiromon was already snoring softly, so he felt fairly safe in pulling them free. 

Once he had the sword firmly in hand, he glanced over at Marideen’s form. Steadily, he sneaked over to her. He kept his body low, taking short, soft steps, attempting to make as little noise as possible. His breathing was sharp and loud in his ears. This was really stupid. He knew he was being really stupid.

Before long, his body stood over hers. He watched her lightly breathing. She appeared to be sleeping, her breath steady and controlled. He would just hit her once on the arm. He’d get his strike on her for certain. Then she could feel what it’s like to get hit all the time. What could possibly go wrong?

Darian raised his sword, high overheard. Marideen’s eyes snapped open and Darian gave an involuntary yelp. Her legs whipped around, taking the blanket with them as they struck the side of his knees. Darian lost his balance the sword flaying to the side. He lunged forward, falling on top of Marideen.

Marideen growled, grabbing the back of Darian’s head as he tried to grab at her arms. She lunged her body forward, spiraling them into a side roll. Darian’s head slammed into the desert sand. He performed a similar movement to try to get himself back on top, but Marideen spun with it, putting him back under her. Darian heard the sound of a blade leaving its scabbard and Darian quickly held up his hands in surrounder.

“It’s me Marideen,” Darian quickly shouted out.

Marideen stopped the blade a few centimeters from Darian’s throat. She blinked a few times, looking down at Darian.

“Darian? Darian, what are you doing here?”

“Well, you’re the one on top of me?” Darian noticed she didn’t move the knife either.

“Why were you standing over my bedroll?” Marideen demanded angrily.

“I just wanted to talk to you,” Darian responded defensively.

“You had one of the swords in your hand,” Marideen responded flatly.

“I figured you could afford a few bruises.”

“What is that suppose to mean?”

“Well, everyone could use someone to knock them down a peg or two.”

Marideen put on a strange look on her face. She pushed away from him, finally taking the blade away from his throat. He unconsciously felt his throat where the blade point had been before sighing slightly. Marideen remained on top of him though, preventing him from getting up.

“Why did you really come tonight?” Marideen asked, only slightly less harsh.

“I wanted to apologize to you,” Darian responded.

“Excuse me?”

“I know I did something that offended you, I’m sorry.”

Marideen rolled her eyes.

“I want to continue to learn the swords.” Darian quickly spoke up, “You’re amazing and I wish I could be half as good a swordsman as you.”

Marideen frowned, looking down at him.

“Do you need any help?” a third voice suddenly piped in a little distance away.

Maximil came out of the relative darkness. He glared down at the pair, and after a second his eyebrows rose in surprise. Darian turned to look at Marideen, and for the first time realized the situation they were in. Marideen’s hair was a mess, her clothing askew from the tumble. She was on top of Darian, her legs straddling his hips while her blanket was wrapped around the pair of them.

“I apologize for disturbing you,” Maximil responded, turning away.

Marideen’s face became beat red as she leaped off of Darian. Darian quickly moved to his feet, looking after Maximil’s quickly disappearing form.

“So much for little sister,” He heard the voice come distantly from the darkness.

At that point, Darian blushed too. He looked at Marideen, attempting to say something, but found he couldn’t. The pair broke eye contact, staring awkwardly at the sand for a second.

“I’m going to bed,” Darian spoke out loud to the sand, turning towards the camp.

“The same,” Marideen responded in a hushed voice, picking up her bedding and shaking it out.

Darian made his way to his bedroll, rubbing his back. That tumble did not do his bruises any favors. He wondered if he had accomplished anything with what he had just done. He supposed if making his trip significantly more difficult and uncomfortable was his goal, he might have succeeded in that.

As he neared his bedroll, he could see Maximil stirring in his spot.

“It’s not what it looked like,” Darian defended himself in a whisper.

“Of course not, “Maximil responded, turning over and looking up with him with a grin, “If I thought it was what it looked like…”

Maximil allowed the unspoken threat to hang in the air. Darian muttered to himself, shaking his head as he wrapped himself up in the relatively chilly blankets. Maximil let out a soft chuckle before turning away. Darian hoped he was joking.

In the morning, Marideen woke them as usual.  Before long, they were trudging through the desert, running from the ascending sun. At noon, they took their break. Marideen forced Darian to practice swords, and Darian complied with minimal complaint.

He attempted to use the advice Maximil had slipped him, exposing her holes in much the same way he did hers. To his surprise, he actually managed to land a strike. It lacked the vigor of her blows, but it was solid enough to count. Marideen did not act angry or indignant about his score. She acknowledged it and then began another round.

Darian felt he was beginning to understand Marideen. She cared about bettering herself. If that meant her weaknesses were exposed, she welcomed it. Still, as they fought Marideen scored 10 hits for every one Darian felt. However, realizing that Marideen was just like anyone else, that she made mistakes, helped Darian cope with his wounded pride if nothing else.

They finished up and continued onward. This pattern held for two more days. On that last day, Beiromon leaned over to Darian.

“We’re about half a mile from the city. Here is where things get interesting.”

Darian looked inward, feeling his intuition. It was a turmoil of feelings, emotions, and predictions. It seemed like his path into this city could lead to a hundred deaths and a hundred imprisonments if he stepped wrong. Beiromon was definitely right. This was about to get very interesting.

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