Clear Fork illustration

EDITOR'S NOTE: This week's Student Spotlight comes from Claire Stewart, a freshman at Clear Fork. To participate, Richland County students are encouraged to offer a family-friendly essay of 500 to 1,000 words, include your name, photo, your grade and school. Send it to News@RichlandSource.com, with Student Spotlight in the slug lineA photo on the subject would be helpful as well.

In a small clearing surrounded by dense foliage of a labyrinth-like forest, moonlight shines down through the cracks of the thick canopy of leaves and onto the wine-red stained steel of a normally clean rapier, causing what is left of the silvery metal to glimmer and gleam in the dark forest.

Its owner’s hand trembles with the weapon in her grasp, her boots firmly planted in the soft soil and her breath coming in hitches, wearing down from the battle she’s endured but still not ready to give up yet. She won’t, she can’t. Not while her friends still need her.

Claire Stewart

Claire Stewart is a freshman at Clear Fork

Her green cloak lays to the side, torn and stained with red, several bite marks in it. She’s quite a strange sight, a cat the size of a human walking on two legs with a sword in her hand, and a mandolin strapped to her back, even though her kind, the Tabaxi, are rather common in these lands. The dagger that normally adorns her belt is now shattered into pieces on the ground several meters from her feet.

She’s always been cocky, but right now, she needs her arrogance to stay confident. She motions to her foe, a large, monstrous beast called a manticore with the head of a human, mane and body of a lion, and wings of a dragon. An enraged roar tears from its lungs, its fur stained with the same crimson as its attacker’s sword, and it charges the warrior, opening its mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.

She grins, her own fangs glinting in the moonlight. No Zasha, no Sergei, and no Vivian. Just her and a monster, wounded, at that.

She could do this.

She charges forward herself.

Her first precise stab with the thin sword makes its mark on one of his front legs, eliciting an angry shriek, and it swipes at her with that same paw, nearly catching her in the stomach, but she’s seen this attack before, and is ready for it. She parries its claws with her blade and thrusts forward, sending it off balance just in time for her to slice at it again, earning another furious roar.

The manticore charges forward in an attempt to mow her down. With reflexes that could have dodged lightning, she dives and rolls to the side. Unable to stop itself going at such a terrifying speed, it barrels straight into a nearby tree, cracking the trunk from the force.

She chuckles, thinking the fight is over, and spins her sword in her hand. Her voice, melodic, high-pitched, and heavy with a cockney accent, rings through the woods.

“Oi, you aren’t a very bright one, are ya?”

She regrets that statement as it whips around and swipes at her hand, claws digging into her fur and causing her to yell in pain. She drops her sword and has no time to pick it up as the monster swings at her with its spiked tail, forcing her to sprint around the edge of the clearing as spiked barbs pierce the air, the manticore firing the projectiles at her from its tail.

Her ears twitch and her tail swings back and forth angrily as she extends her own claws, baring her teeth.

“Fine. You wanna fight like animals? Then so be it!”

It bellows again and tries to charge her once more, but she stands her ground this time, down on all fours, acting like she’s about to do the same. Her eyes lock onto the beast’s as it opens its jaws as it runs, ready to take a bite out of her.

At the very last second, she bolts to the side again.

Her claws scrape the hilt of the sword as she snatches it up with lightning speed, then veers and charges for the manticore herself, sinking her claws into its side and quickly climbing onto its back, knowing that her chance is now or never. A war cry rips from her throat as she plunges the rapier into the monster’s neck, tearing a final cry from its mouth and then silencing it for good.

It sinks to the ground quiet, unmoving, nothing but a corpse. Finally able to breathe, she sucks in gasps of the freezing night air, relishing how it stings in her chest and chills her lungs. She pulls the sword from out of the beast’s neck and stumbles over to her blood-stained cloak, wiping the blade off before she sheaths it in the cover on her belt. It’s over. She’s won.

A voice like the low rumble of thunder cuts through the forest, tinged with their world’s equivalent of an Australian accent.

“Gale! Gale, are you in there?”

She grins. It’s Zasha.

“Yeah, I’m here! I’m alright! Don’t worry about me!”

He calls out for her again.

“What happened to you? Vivian, Sergei, and I got split up and we couldn’t find you.”

Gale opens her mouth to reply, but sinks to the ground instead, clutching her wounded arm. Fiery pain sears through her muscles as she grinds her teeth together, trying not to scream.

Zasha, Tabaxi like herself but with the coat pattern of a lynx, emerges from the underbrush and bolts across the clearing to her, getting down on his knees.

“Gale! Are you o…”

His voice trails off upon seeing the dead manticore behind her, absolute shock freezing him in place.

“Did you...Gale, did you kill that thing?”

She grins back at him, as cocky as ever.

“You bet your tail I did.”

Zasha’s eyes widen, and he lets out a low whistle.

“Well, if that doesn’t deserve a few drinks on me, I’m not sure what does.”

He carefully pulls her off the ground and slings her arm around his shoulder.

“Come on, let’s get you back to the inn. Vivian, Sergei, and I are going to want all the details.”

Gale smiles back at him, and laughs.

“Sure, but you three won’t believe it!”

Claire Stewart is a freshman at Clear Fork High School.

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