By Candlelight

The fifty candles flickered throughout the darkened room, their individual flares the only sources of light in the room. Schrau stood in the middle of the room, amongst all the candles, in full uniform with his weapons strapped across his back. Two pairs of dwarven blades and a single kreen sword.
To the casual observer, the candles had been placed haphazardly around the room. The effect was heightened by the fact that no two candles were on a stand of similar height.
An exercise. Draw your blade, and strike the wick of a candle to snuff it. Then repeat forty-nine more times without pausing.
One of Aldar's favourites, since none of the vulpins could complete it better or faster than he and many would fail, giving the slaver opportunity to punish them for their failures. Fifty candles, and only Aldar had managed to hit all fifty. Nobody else had done better than thirty-two. The thirty-first candle was almost impossible for a vulpin to strike, only Layke had been able to nail it and that was because he was abnormally tall. The thirty-third was far too short for the lanky vulpin to manage. Aldar had designed the exercise around his own abilities and expected the rest to conform.
Schrau rolled his shoulders and grunted as his right complained. The wound Koras Kuroryu had inflicted on him had been serious, but Schrau thought he was well on the way to recovery before the relapse. He'd have to see Corliss about it. Today. Tomorrow. Next year.
Schrau was doing this for three reasons. The first was that his sword skills had started to fade, the scrap at Nimbus' sky port where one of his attackers had managed to escape without a scratch drove that home. The second was that Schrau was feeling a little down, and the exercise would be a painful reminder of when things were worse and he should be feeling damn lucky that he was free. The third was that he was thinking way too much lately, too much stress and too much to consider, and the exercise relied on skill and instinct and forced Schrau not to think too hard.
Schrau held both of his hands over the flames of the two starting candles. You could snuff either in any order, but then you would have to work through the rest in order. Aldar had insisted that the routine be started with pain. Schrau held the backs of his hands over the flames, since for a vulpin they were more sensitive than the palms. Schrau remembered holding them once over the flames for so long that the hair on his hands caught fire, but he still continued the exercise, racking up twenty-eight extinguishes. His personal best. When the scent of singed fur reached Schrau's nostrils, he drew his two cold blades and snapped at the first candle. Schrau preferred occupying both hands while fighting, either with paired weapons or a double-handed grip. Every time he had attempted the exercise using one hand he barely got past three, which was where Schrau stumbled this time.
You had to hit the wick. If wax coats your blade you've failed and then Aldar would club you with that damned wooden sword of his.
Schrau grunted and relit the extinguished candles. He held his arms out and then snapped into action. Past three, four, five...
It had been a while. The last time he had tried this his sister had been alive though he didn't know it. During that last year Aldar seemed to ignore the candle exercise and just resort to brutality. It was about the same time that Rory had left.
Twelve, thirteen.
Poor Rhiannon. Could have been one of the best pickpockets ever to grace the worlds. Her wide-eyed innocence had been a useful tool in her trade before Aldar came and then sold her into a trade where the suggestion of purity would be-
The sixteenth candle was hacked in half by Schrau's blade. The vulpin muttered and discarded the half-candle for a fresh one before resetting the equipment.
At the start, he decided the pain in his shoulder was a sufficient starter and just proceeded to whirl between the candlelight with his swords shining.
It had been quiet lately, Schrau couldn't deny that. His life had been filled with routine duty, of paperwork and of devising training strategies for the younger sentinels. Schrau had considered this exercise, but loathed to employ the teachings of a slaver.
The eleventh candle clattered onto the floor some distance behind, even though he had made it up to the twentieth. That happened sometimes, a breeze, the swish of your tail, pure bad luck. Not that it stopped Aldar from weaving between the still-standing candles and striking you with his blade.
How he hated Aldar.
Schrau considered taking a break, but instead relit the candles and started once again. He forced himself to keep his mind clear. Empty. Blank. Blank as black. Black likes scales. Kuroryu. Daste.
Schrau had heard nothing more of Daste since that night in Sosel. He'd heard nothing of Hadas either, and Schrau assumed that the one brother killed the other. The Kuroryu family was tearing itself apart by the accounts Schrau had heard, the brothers vying for leadership between them in a bloody war. Many of the staff left behind following the freeing of the slaves had left, the rest had been consumed in the infighting. So where was Daste?
Schrau hesitated as he asked himself that question. He stared at the high stand of the thirty-first candle. He knew he had to strike it, knew he had hesitated for far too long. He could feel the kiss of Aldar's blade at the base of his skull. He grunted and once again began relighting the candles, failing to notice that he had passed his previous personal best. Instead, he was thinking that with a pair of fire-enchanted blades he could make the objective of the exercise to light the wicks, rather than snuff them.
Schrau took a deep breath and stood, once again, at the two candles in the middle of the room. He took a deep breath, held his hands over the flames and closed his eyes. Concentrating on the pain. Concentrating on the ache of his throat. Concentrating on his shoulder. Concentrating on the scent of burnt fur and melting wax. Then he snapped into action, the blades sliding from their scabbards into position, extinguishing the flames of countless candles as the sentinel whirled around the room, a warm centre in the cold breeze of his blades.
At the thirteenth stroke, a fear consumed him. General fear. Fear of Daste, fear of those that would like to see him dead. By the twenty-fifth that fear had shifted towards death. Fear of dying, fear of dying without accomplishing anything further, fear of dying alone. Thirty candles. Fear of missing the next.
The swords returned to their sheathes in one smooth motion, an action shared by both of his paws gripping the hilt of the kreen blade and drawing that. Schrau leapt, the blade close to his body before lashing out. The thirty-first candle flared out.
Blue light briefly overpowered the orange glow as Schrau returned to his favourite weapons and continued on. Thirty-two, thirty-three. Another candle extinguished. Another obstacle to success gone.
And Layke would be forgotten in memory.
The fear was still there. Schrau was afraid that his whole life was a lie, that despite everything he hadn't accomplished anything. All he could do was do slightly better than every other vulpin in an exercise designed by a cruel slaver.
Hell, what did he have to show for it? A shiny badge and a few painful wounds. Why had he bothered to continue living?
Fear of death, that's why.
Why bother?
What else could he do?
And for one brief moment all that existed in the universe was a vulpin, two drawn blades, and eight lit candles.
Schrau bared his teeth, felt them crack. He had received word that Pandrada Whiplash had held up another three gold wagons in the last week. Other vulpins had taken her identity. He had created her, no thanks to a muridan's sense of humour, and she was doing more with her life than he had managed so far.
A village was sprouting in the Charthurian borders. That was something.
And it had been paid for with a single large diamond.
Annae Iaro had joined up with the bard guild. All her life, Annae's mother wanted that dream, wanted to sing her songs, and the little girl had decided to honour her mother's memory in that way.
Cannis Rande was doing well for himself too.
All results, but Schrau still felt that he lacked something.
And then his shoulder cracked painfully. Schrau dropped to his knees as the blade in his right hand fell from his unresisting fingers. Pain lanced through his shoulder, across the backs of his hands, and right across his windpipe.
Schrau stared at the one single light in the room, a candle untouched. Schrau knew he wouldn't have been able to hit it, knew that even before the pain in his shoulder interrupted his stroke that he was moving far too fast and far too high to clip it. The thought that he had managed forty-nine candles never entered his mind, occupied solely by the fact that he had missed one.
A failure.
Schrau grunted, retrieved his sword, stood up and sheathed his weapons. He glared at the candle as if it was the cause of everything wrong in his life, but knew well enough that responsibility lay on his own crippled shoulders. He blew out the candle and then flopped onto his bed, already dressed for the morning.