I am the youngest, which is usually a detail that warrants scrutiny from the others. I am as tough, as skilled and certainly as intelligent as the other three but a deficit in years deems me the undisputed runt. They criticise my posture, my jumping and even how I handle my blade. In my brothers’ minds I will never match their calibre. Today however, is different. Today my age is a point of reason to coddle, which frustrates me more than the teasing. I let them fuss, even humour them with questions to which I already know the answer. I know it helps them, for worrying about another’s mortality is the best way to forget your own.
Donned with our matching paints and tribal colours we look almost identical standing in formation, like mighty terracotta soldiers cast from the same mould. Our stony veneers are lacquered with years of physical pain and mental anguish, smothering the idiosyncratic flaws that wallow beneath our shells, now volatile under the heat of impending battle. Our abilities to overcome them will soon be tested.
A horn blows, breaking our staunch serenity. Crowds in the stands around us yelp in uncontrolled anticipation filling my ears with a static orchestra of bloodlust.
I am completely still. Bystanders would think I was truly made of stone if it wasn’t for the sweat deserting my skin like a sinking ship. My three brothers are behind me, their patient shadows etched onto the ground at my bare, callused feet. I focus my attention forward, eyes darting across the horizon like reading the prose of a prophetic obituary. This is a language I do not understand and a land whose inhabitants would relish the morsel of four audacious young men. We’ve battled them many times before and defeated enough to hold faith in our ambition, yet the physical scars we all carry reigns any arrogance, like poignant white badges branded by complacency.
The final gun erupts from above leaving my ears ringing, as if a tuning fork has struck the inside of my skull. My legs burst upwards, swinging in time to the metronome of my thumping pulse, the only sound audible over my momentary tinnitus. My hearing begins to return bringing with it the bare fisted punch of reality: the first monster is in our sights. I strike the creature to the ground in seconds, slicing its glistening face open with my blade and ignoring the cold mist of juices that sprays my own. It was only small, a marginal conquest, but a comfortable inauguration into the fight of our lives.
We trudge over it fast and unsympathetic, without as much as lowering our eyes. Another emerges ahead of us and I curse myself silently for not seeing it sooner, compromising surveillance for speed is a dangerous tactic. It opens its hollow mouth in attack, inhaling with a gut-wrenching slurp that could strip soul from body. I leap backwards over the beast, landing on its head with a brother beside me. The others have been swallowed. Panic sets in as the two of us begin to chop, hacking at the monster’s crown, not with the trained precision of warriors but with the erratic palpitations of terror-stricken boys.
“Together,” my surviving brother yelled, or it could have been me. We swung together in perfect unison digging in as deep as our shoulders would allow, both screaming aloud in a duet of desperation. They emerged, drenched, spluttering deep breaths through the monsters blood. If they could breathe, they could move. We rushed forwards, the finish line in our sights.
“Behind!” the eldest screamed, we were being followed.
Too weak to fight, our only option was to flee as our lone stalker swiftly chewed up the distance between us. It stood up fast, almost doubling in size and opened its hungry, watering mouth. It gnashed its hauntingly white teeth down, only managing to snag my brother’s blade while coating us with a film of salty water. The monster wave dissipated into the surrounding ocean. What had the potential to drown us seconds ago had now flattened into an innocuous layer of foam. Our boat crunched onto the beach, we had crossed the finish line first. We threw down our oars in celebration, our own cheers lost in the crowds’ that met us.