My shoes dragged along the jagged stone. I watched with detached fascination at the way my legs weren’t responding to my demands. If it weren’t for what I thought was a minor concussion, I might have been terrified that I’d never use them again.
“I thought you were tougher than that, Troy!” Seizen said as he hauled me back to the bridge. He was tugging at my arm to stop it from slipping from around his shoulders. If he pulled any harder, my head wasn’t the only thing that was going to need medical attention. “Seriously, how was I supposed to know you weren’t going to be able to dodge that one? You’re out here every day swinging that blade around.”
Of course, he didn’t bring up that he blasted me with a cloud of shattered stone before nearly splitting my head open with his battle-axe. I wondered if he even remembered our agreement not to use Impacts before the fight. Safe to say that he wouldn’t when he told his cronies after he had dropped me off at the infirmary.
“I didn’t even hit you that hard! It’s just a scratch between the eyes for god’s…”
Even Seizen couldn’t ignore the broken stream of blood that had built up in the hollow between my swelling nose and cheekbone when it spilled onto his patched trouser leg. This was accompanied by a euphoric swimming feeling. The blood seemed to get my message across more than my silence for Seizen shut up until we arrived at the front gate leading to the bridge. At least I thought he did.
I must have blacked out because the next thing I heard were the pounding boots of the gate guards as they rushed over to us.
“What the hell happened to him?” Soon after I heard, “Get a stretcher!”
“A monster in the training reserve,” Seizen lied. “He bit off more than he could chew.”
“Looks like it! Good thing you were around to carry him.”
A vague curiosity of how long Seizen’s story would remain consistent was soon replaced with the same swimming sensation I’d had while he carried me. I was lowered onto the stretcher but my descent didn’t stop there. I seemed to keep descending, lower and lower, down into darkness.
The next thing I was looking up at a familiar ceiling, white and red gauze filling the top of my vision.
The arrangement of fluorescents, wall panels and sunlight passing through the swaying curtains reminded me of past bloody noses and black eyes I’d come to the infirmary for. My vision was partially blocked by gauze but not enough that I couldn’t see the tall, curly-haired man standing over me. It was Dr. Kodar.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
I tried to sit up, but my spinning head convinced me to lie back down again. “I feel dizzy.”
“Well, I’m not surprised. It took several stitches to make sure your brains didn’t fall out.” His eyes narrowed. “You should take it easy next time.”
“Tell that to Seizen.”
Dr. Kodar rolled his eyes. “I thought there was more to this than what he told the guards. Oh well, accidents happen during training. Better get used to it.”
Accident doesn’t seem like the right word to me.
“I’ll ring your tutor. What’s her extension number?”
I rolled over grudgingly. “Tessa. One Eighteen.”
“Ah, Tessandre.” He turned and walked off.
The next thing I heard was the beeping of his unit before Kodar said, “Tessa, I’ve got one of your pupils down here. Yeah… during training. See you soon. Okay, Troy, she’ll be here shortly. I’d suggest you just lay there until she arrives. ”
Although I had been trying to sit up when he said this, the dizziness encouraged me to do what he recommended. It felt like the entire front of my face was just one massive bruise. I raised my arm to block the sunlight that glowed through my closed eyelids.
Footsteps came back into the room. Dr. Kodar? No, the footsteps were too light and there was no heavy breathing. Kodar was a heavy-set man.
“Troy, do you remember me?” asked a familiar female voice.
I put my arm down. “Who…?”
My blurry vision could barely make out the slim, skirted figure with dark hair walking from the room. I must have phased in and out again for the next thing I knew the automatic doors were sliding open again and the young woman I had seen was replaced with another. Auburn hair instead of black.
Like a raven’s feathers…
Tessandre was too young to be a tutor, barely a year older than me but craving the responsibility. Even the way she dressed expressed a desire to be seen as an adult. Tight clothing, dark with stripes of faded color, skirt with leggings. She wore a carry bag slung over her back, an extra loop on it for her Impact weapon: a bladed ripcord inside a foot long cylinder that those in her home class called the wand.
She walked over to my bedside, rested her hands on her hips and leaned over me. “Did you have something to prove to Seizen? You must have, not to refuse his challenge.”
“It was a monster,” I lied.
She jabbed a finger at my forehead. “The blood stain on your bandages is too straight! You think I don’t know the difference between a blade wound and a claw wound, Troy?” My gaze met hers, her warm brown eyes seeming to contradict her icy expression. She sighed and turned, looking at me over her shoulder. “Come on. You’re going to make me late for my own home class if we don’t hurry.”
I moved and there was suddenly no dizziness. Whatever drug they had slipped into my veins while I was out must have finally kicked in. Turning around, I rose from the bed and followed her from the room and down a corridor to a set of swinging doors.
The cool wind that had been around since that morning countered the heat of the sun. The roofed pathways outside sprouted out from the Hex at each corner like a spider’s web with a courtyard between them where students ate lunch and threw Frisbees.
“Stop dragging your feet, Troy. You’re going to home class, not a chopping block. But I guess it makes sense that you must be embarrassed to be seen with me.”
I picked up my pace to keep up with Tessa. “I’m not.”
“Oh, so you’re concerned about what your classmates will think of your wound. You should really stop worrying so much about others think of you.”
“Maybe you’ll brighten up after the drugs wear off.”
A muscle in my jaw tightened. “And maybe you’d get better answers from your students if you framed your questions as questions rather than assumptions.”
I didn’t yell this, but you might have thought so from the look she gave me. However, as quick as her wrath came, it faded into a smile as she raised her hand to hide it and she tittered. It reminded me how young she really was.
I held the door for her as she entered the Hex. “Did that amuse you?”
She nodded. “It did. You’re a lot easier to read when you’re angry. It’s like wiping the condensation from a foggy mirror.”
“And what did you read?” I followed her through into the massive, high ceiling lobby floor, a fountain following its hexagonal pathway.
“That the one you’re most concerned about seeing you like this is Seizen.”
I guess you have me there.
When the lift stopped at the fifth floor, Tessa led me down a long corridor to her home room: Room 0515. The door slid open and I entered five steps behind her. I wasn’t surprised everyone was staring at me, the bandages were an obvious sign of what had happened. The fact that I had to walk right to the back of the class near the back wall window allowed me to see every stare and hear every whisper. Only Seizen was looking away from me.
Is that guilt in his expression? No, he just knows I hate pity as much as he does.
I sat down in my assigned seat, thankful that only a few of my classmates looked over their shoulders at me. Tessa stopped this as she started the lecture.
“Good morning everyone. I hope you’re all ready for the examination mission at sixteen hundred today. At the end of home class I’m going to have you all sign the admission form. If you see anyone who missed the class outside, tell them to come and sign it. I’ll leave the door unlocked, they won’t want to miss out on this one. Remember, only those with their names on this piece of paper will be allowed on the boat.”
I couldn’t focus on her words. Maybe it was the injury, maybe it was the drugs, maybe I just didn’t care.
“And Seizen,” she started and the long-coated blonde next to me looked up. “Next time you practice with Troy, make sure it’s not on the morning of a field exam.”
He shot me a glare, his piecing gaze accusing me of ratting him out. His forced smile was the only thing Tessa got in reply.
If he wasn’t let down by me before…
“That’s all. Sign the form and then you can leave.” Students rose from their seats, Seizen giving me a final glare before following the last of them. Tessa then called, “Oh and Troy, come and talk to me after you’ve signed the form.”
Home class usually only went for half an hour but somehow it seemed shorter. I still felt light-headed. Maybe the drugs were making me dozy.
Grudgingly, I rose and moved to the front of class. Tessa didn’t oversee those who signed the form, showing her words cared more than she did.
“Have you captured a Djinni yet?” She asked me as I came before her. “It’s a prerequisite for this exam. You might not survive it without one.”
I crossed my arms. “I was going to do it this morning.”
Tessa nodded. “And then Seizen showed up… I see. Well, it’ll be quicker if I come with you. I know of a source vent nearby where we can lure one.”
That would save me some time looking for one, but still… with her?
I nodded anyway and she smirked.
“Alright, meet me at the front gate in half an hour. I have to get a new copy of the admission form printed out for any late comers after I hand this one in to the administrators.”
“This exam must be important for you.” I saw as her eyes darted to the form being signed on her desk. And she thought I was an easy read. “The administrators must be calling in their quotas for this one.”
She turned away from me. “Just meet me at the gate.”
I decided not to push the question and headed for the door. Most of the students had already left, the crowd of them moving around the corner. When I rounded the corner to the elevator, a female student pushed her way through them and ran straight into me. She was only a little thing, but she made me stagger as my vision flipped and I nearly fell. She did fall. If it weren’t for the state I was in I might have been able to catch her, but the drugs had numbed my reflexes.
“Ow,” she groaned but then pushed her legs under her and rocked onto her feet. “I’m sorry, I’m new here and I got lost, but…” She looked around at the students coming from the room. “Oh no, please tell me I’m not too late for the home class!”
I smirked. “You are.”
“Son of a… How could I have missed the admission class?” She slapped her cheeks, but then her eyes widened. “I’m not going to be able to take the exam!”
“How can I settle down? I moved to this Hex just so I could do this exam! I’m totally screwed!”
“You’re not,” I said and she looked up at me, desperation in her expression. “The doors are unlocked and the tutor’s going to leave another admission form on the desk for late comers. You can still sign on.”
Her mouth dropped and then became a wide smile. “Oh… yes! Yes, yes, yes!” She grabbed my shirt and pulled up and down as she jumped. “Just in there?”
“Thank you! Oh, thank you! I could kiss you!”
“Don’t. Just go sign the form.”
She calmed and nodded. “Right!”
She jumped around me and skipped off to room 0515. It seemed I had made her day, but I didn’t have time to dwell on it. I had to go grab my Impact blade from the dormitory before meeting with Tessa, if that’s where the gate guards had left it.
I entered the second lift by myself when seeing that the first one was full, and checked my watch as it made its way down to the first floor. I had forty minutes to find my weapon.
The fountain that went around the Hex also accompanied the pathway leading out to the bridge and front gate. Its flowing made the constant murmuring of the students more bearable. The bridge started with the equipment warehouses, where I finally found my Impact blade in its bag, and ended at the gargoyle archway leading to the gate where Tessa was waiting for me.
How she got there so quickly was a mystery to me, but there wasn’t a student in the Hex without a suspicion of the secret basement levels beneath the domes. Even the tutor’s access to it was limited.
“You’re early,” Tessa said.
“You too, so where is this vent?”
“Forest, nearby. Do you remember the tutorial I gave on capturing Djinni?” She rolled her eyes before I could reply. “Of course you don’t, you never listen to my tutorials.”
“Stand over the vent, let one possess you for a time, gain mental control over it and make it submit.” I couldn’t help but be amused by her begrudging nod. “It’s kid’s stuff, Tessa, I didn’t pay attention to you because I didn’t need to.” I gestured a hand out. “Lead the way.”
She sighed and I followed her as she waved down the uniformed gate guards with her administration card and we made our way out onto the road. I was always surprised by how fit the guards managed to stay by remaining in one place, but they were disciplined, they were Graduates.
“Don’t come back half dead next time, you hear!” one of them called. I think his name was Jackson, or Jason, I could never remember.
“I’ll make sure of that,” Tessa replied.
The forest surrounded the Hex for several miles on the Cobalt Isle, named after the metal that used to be mined under where the Hex’s six domes rested. We came under the shade of the trees, the natural canopy blocking the wind and sunlight. Birds passed overhead. We walked for an hour, cutting a class or two I’m sure, and made our way over dirt tracks to the roots that stuck up from the earth.
The land gradually sloped upwards, which was strange. The rock covered moss and branches layered in mats of leaves and high grass, as though attacked by a recent rainfall. I had been here before and the land had never gone up like this before. This was a new development to the land.
Was this created by the vent?
“You look nervous.” Tessa gave me a smile. “You don’t have to try to impress me by acting brave, Troy.”
“Are you kidding? I don’t…” I realized she was playing with me before I finished justifying myself and sighed. “It’s the land. Do the source vents usually make the land rise up like this?”
Tessa’s eyes narrowed. “I highly doubt this was caused by a vent, it would have to be abnormally strong Djinni if that were the case.”
I gave her a look and she raised her hands.
“It’s highly unlikely. A Graduate would have sucked it out already if that was the case. Either way, if it gets too bad I can just use Little Boy to intimidate him into submitting for you.” It seemed she could tell this didn’t convince me because she continued, “It’ll be fine! Besides, you need this if you want to do the exam later today. This is your only chance to get one.”
We kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing, the tall trees swaying and stirring the shadows at our feet. The gentle slope finally peaked at what looked like a natural fountain made from wood and moss with glowing mists pouring out of it.
“The vent,” Tessa announced.
“I’ve never seen an external opening before. They’re usually underground, aren’t they? This one looks like a popped pimple.”
“Are you scared?”
Her question made me realize how strange this was. As abnormal as the sight was, I wasn’t afraid. Was it the drugs or the fact that I had nearly died already this morning? Whatever the case, I felt drawn to the vent’s opening. I moved closer, seeing that it rose out of the trunk of a tree that had been blown apart by the force.
“Alright, now lure out the Djinni inside.”
I closed my eyes and put my hand out over the hollow. It felt warm, as though I was feeling the heat from the very core of the planet.
“I feel it.” My hand seemed to be pulled down into the vent. “It’s coming!”
The feeling was strong, like a burning wind.
It can’t be…. isn’t this an Ifrit?
I had been told of the outer body experience you felt when calling forth a Djinni, but I had no idea how similar it had felt to being knocked unconscious. You couldn’t breathe to get strength, it was all in the mind. In the darkness that now surrounded me, I opened my third eye, letting my inner light shine from it like a flashlight.
There it was, the Djinni. My suspicions had been correct, it was of the strongest order: an Ifrit. Like the darkness around it, the Ifrit was black and bald, humanoid but with long blazing eyebrows of fire that streaked across its scalp. They flowed down over its back, the tips floating in burning radiance that surrounded it’s entire body, almost every joint covered with a golden bracelets or bangles.
“What is your name?” It asked, voice booming.
“Isn’t it the rules of courtesy that you tell me your name first?”
It grinned. Its teeth as bright as stars. “But that would make it too easy, wouldn’t it?”
“Would it, though? For someone with a will as strong as yours, would that really make a difference?”
First rule of fighting Djinni: appeal to its ego.
A blazing eyebrow rose. “Are you asking for a handicap?”
“Against someone so great, it would only be fair.”
“Hah!” Its laughter rolled out, echoing in the dark world. “Hahahaha!”
I remained silent, waiting for its reply.
“You amuse me human, you actually think me giving you my name first will matter in the long run?” It asked, but then closed its eyes. “Very well, my name is Casharac.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Tessa, use Little Boy now!”
Tessa appeared behind me, her Ghul, Little Boy shining like a glowing Buddha. The bright light surrounded the flame of the Casharac. However, as Djinni’s went, Ghul’s were much weaker than Ifrits and the imprisonment was weak. Casharac could have easily broken free… if he hadn’t just given me his name.
“Little Boy?” he spun to the Ghul.
“Casharac!” I called, knowing he had to keep his attention on me in this battle. “Your powers have been cut in half twice already, once through giving your name and once through being bound by another Djinni. All I need to do is touch you and I have you. Do you yield?”
“Yield?” he laughed again and suddenly bright flames filled the darkness of my mind, burning bright and stinging everything. “You touch me and you’ll experience the worst pain known to man.”
“The pain isn’t real.” I stepped forward and couldn’t help but wince as I felt the agony spread over my entire body. “It’s only… in my mind.”
“All pain is in the mind, there’s no difference. You experience too much of it and you’ll be out from shock alone.” He seethed and I felt the pain increase. “With each step, the more you lose consciousness and the stronger I’ll become.”
I grinned. “Tough choice… Tessa, push him into me!”
The Djinni’s eyes widened. “What?”
Little Boy’s glowing form flung itself at Casharac’s back and I leaped forward as incomparable agony wracked my entire body. I felt small to such pain as the fire burned inside my mind. White light flooded my body, the sensation lost all context by the time I finally touched the Djinni’s black chest. A sudden coolness washing over me was the last thing I felt, and then nothing.
My eyes twitched in the darkness under the trees, and then opened to see what I could smell and feel around me.
“Was that an Ifrit?” Tessa’s warm eyes were the first thing that caught mine as soon as they opened. We were still on the rise of the vent, although the slope seemed less steep now, as though the power beneath had been blown out.
Did defeating the Ifrit burst the pimple? Wait… what did she just say?
“I’m not a Graduate, do you really think someone like me could capture an Ifrit?” Saying it myself seemed unreal. “Even if it was, I doubt one would yield to me before I passed out. It was probably just a Ghul.”
“Let’s side on that. Ifrits are not to be trifled with, even when pacified. And it’s not like I could convince the administrators to let you do the exam otherwise.” Tessa sighed and looked around. “Either way, you were out for a while so let’s get going before we’re late for the exam.”
After experiencing so much agony before blacking out, I felt light, like I was floating in the lack of pain. It made getting up a lot easier. Nevertheless Tessa grabbed my arm to help me up and then let go as we began to make our way back through the forest to the bridge. Coming back from somewhere always seems to take less time than going there. Maybe it was because of this that when we saw the gate guards, I was surprised that they had been replaced during our time away.
“Troy! No, fierce monsters this time?” called David, or Daniel, I could never remember their names. Obviously what had happened to me while training had spread in the gossip mill among them.
“Just an Ifrit,” Tessa replied with a smile.
“Psh, yeah right.”
We passed between them and followed the fountain toward the base of the Hex lobby.
“You know you should really talk to those gate guards now and then, you never know when they may save your life,” Tessa said.
“Like this morning.” I cocked a frustrated eyebrow and she covered her mouth, laughing like a teenage girl again. “There’s only twenty minutes before we’re all to meet up in the quad so you better get changed into your mission gear.”
“Who’s in my team? Do you know?”
“It’s ordered by skill levels and past exam scores.”
“So you don’t know?” I asked.
“I didn’t say that.” She smiled and pointed to my dormitory. “Go get changed.”
Orders instead of answers. Not the best trait of a tutor.
“Fine. I’ll see you.”
I made my way to the dormitory and into my small room. All trainees got shoe boxes until they graduated, but I didn’t mind. Hanging above my hard bed was my mission uniform, a special navy blue jacket to show those in the fields that we were in training. The fact that we were wearing it on this mission showed how important it was. I got changed and headed to the quad.
The quad was a large, dark assembly hall across the pathway in the top right corner of the Hex surrounded by stages and an open sound shell. Down the rows of seats, I noticed Seizen leaning back in his chair, feet up against the back of the seat in front of him, the person sitting in it trying to ignore him. On his left was Donnis, the left hand of his cronies, fifty percent less skill and a hundred percent less hair. On his right was Suane, a gothic looking girl with more brains but fewer words than any of them. Her test scores attributed to that.
On the stage, administrator Thawn was giving a speech about the importance of the mission to the reputation of the Hex. His curly blonde hair was covered by a cuboid dome, veiling down and connecting with the long dark coat of their station. Talking to the crowd, the man was very charismatic, but one on one, Thawn was a real thorn in the students’ ass.
“Remember, your team is your greatest asset out there in the field…”
Wow, this exam really does seem serious.
“…And when you know what your goal is and work as one, that’s when…”
What is he even talking about?
Administrator Lewyn finished for him. “Now head administrator Pawl is going to read out the team numbers and where they’ll meet. Your tutor should have given you a number of the team you are in. Please retrieve your equipment and go to your allotted meeting point.”
Old, gray-haired Aministator Pawl stood up and began to read. “Team one is to meet outside the entrance. Team two is to meet outside the library. Team three is to meet outside the gym. Team four is to meet outside the parking lot…”
“Go team four!” I heard someone whisper in my ear behind me.
I looked back to see Guy, a loud mouth from room 0622, beaming down at me. His hair was shaven at the sides and back to look like a cross between a crew-cut and Thawn’s skull cap.
How does he know what team I’m in?
“…And team seven will meet outside the quad. So, hah, it’ll be right over there. Any questions…? No? Alright, dismissed.”
Everyone rose from their seats and filed out to head to where their team was supposed to meet. I didn’t want to be late either, but I had the feeling Guy was on my team and I wanted to go to the parking lot entrance with him. Maybe he could fill me in what exactly this field exam entailed.
“Hey Troy!” Guy called. “Do you know who else is in our team?”
“I didn’t know you were on my team.” I wasn’t happy about it. If Guy was on our team, whose Impact weapon was the equivalent of pulse-shooting gauntlets, then the other person in our team, our squad captain, must be good enough to balance out his weakness. “I guess we’ll find out soon enough anyway.”
Together we made our way to the underground parking lot. The giant garage was next to the equipment warehouse, dark and thick with the smell of lingering car fumes. I managed to shoot over and collect my Impact blade before returning to where the other two in our group waited. When we saw who was waiting for us there with administer Thawn, the man who had made our life a living hell for the last three years, we realized he was the least of our worries.
“Well, well, Troy and Guy,” called Seizen. “Considering how these teams are formed, I can’t tell you whether I’m ecstatic or disappointed to be in this group.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Guy yelled, raising a gauntleted fist.
Even I’m unsure if that was an insult.
“Enough with your egos!” Thawn cut off the argument before it could begin. “The boats are leaving from Gorgus harbor in an hour, which means we have less than that to get there. Squad leader?”
Both Guy and I looked confused until Seizen spoke up.
“Yes?” He seemed about as happy with our administrator as we were with our squad captain.
“Leave your banter until you’re in the van, if you would. I hope your driver can put their foot down.”
“I’m already in the van, admin, waiting on you. Everybody, asses inside!”
I turned in surprise to see Tessa in the driver’s seat. Thawn gave her a scowl and opened the van’s back doors. “You heard the woman.”
I followed in after Guy and Seizen. The van took off before we had a chance to sit down on the wall seats.
“Easy!” Thawn yelled, steadying himself.
“You told me to put my foot down, admin. Buckle up. You said yourself, we only have an hour.”
I did what she said and so did Guy. Seizen on the other hand just sat back and put his feet up next to Thawn in a posture resembling how he had sat in the quad. A lack of respect for authority wasn’t going to help him pass this exam.
Calm down. None of us know what this exam is so we better be ready for anything.
All that could be heard was the sound of the engine purring as we exited the Hex complex between the two domes. Tessa drove us over the bridge to the dirt road. It was a bit shaky, but the van’s shocks made it barely noticeable.
“Troy, can I see your Impact Blade? I mean you’ve seen my gauntlets already.”
“No.” The jagged metal gauntlets were already on his hands. “I don’t think it’s a smart idea to unsheathe it inside a car.”
“Oh, come on!”
Seizen smirked. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. You’ll see what they can do soon enough, so why don’t you shut up, Guy. Stop trying to pretend weapons are for show.”
Guy ground his teeth. “Hey! Just because you’re our captain, doesn’t mean…”
I tried to drown their voices out, focusing on other sounds. It was all white noise to distract me. In my focus a memory rose to the surface.
“Troy, do you remember me?”
She looked up and they went silent. “Yes?”
“Did you see a girl with dark hair in the infirmary this morning?”
“Dark hair?” She shook her head. “I didn’t notice anyone.”
Seizen laughed. “How about that. I hit you so hard you’re seeing people now. Don’t go crazy on me now, Troy… the time for that is coming up.”
Thrawn smirked, his stubbled face filled with contempt. “If you fail, how many would it have been this time, Seizen?”
Seizen looked up at the van’s ceiling and said sarcastically, “I just love these exams.”
Gorgus was a small port town west of the Cobalt Forest down from the mountains that made up the backbone of the island. The majority of the buildings were two-storied, the first story generally on the lean of the hill leading down to the blue tiled port. As the van drew close, the cries of sea gulls and waves could be heard. When we came to a stop and all filed out the back, I could smell the scent of the sea and salt fish in the air.
The first thing I noticed in the fading light were the several vessels floating out in the water down the pier, looking like armored tubes with a dome at one end and connecting ramps at the other. I put my hand on the dock railing, watching as other vans of trainees began emptying out and entering the vessels in ordered forms. One of the forms was wearing the interconnected Impact armor only issued to elite Graduates. If things in the mission went wrong, it would be on their shoulders to do clean up.
“That’ll be us soon,” Seizen said as he came to the railing beside me. “I expect this will be a cake walk for you and I.” He turned and his eyes narrowed. “You should remove those bloody bandages before we arrive. You won’t want them impeding your vision while fighting.”
I had forgotten I’d still had them on. Removing them, I saw the brown stains on the gauze from the oxidized blood.
Seizen turned away and walked off. “As I thought, you were just overreacting. There’s not even a scar.”
My brow furrowed in confusion and I felt no pain doing it. I stared down over the railing to my reflection in the water and saw that he was right. It had been only this morning that I had been struck by Seizen and yet the skin on my brow was clean without a single cut on it.
“Troy!” Tessa called. “Come on!”
I looked up to see that Guy, Thawn and her were waiting for me at the ramp. I ran to catch up with them, where several Graduates were waiting to assist us in the launch. One of the female Graduates I saw had been on the stage with the administrators, and when I ducked into the vessel after Tessa, she followed in after me.
Inside there were seats on both sides with belts that no one was bothering to put on. I took my Impact blade, in it’s bagged sheath and leaned it against my leg as I sat down. The Graduate came through and shook Tessa’s hand.
“Tessandre, good to see you. I hope this team will deal with the mission better than the last one.”
What happened to the last one?
“I’m sure they will,” Tessa replied and gestured for us to sit down as the Graduate moved toward the bowel to stand before us.
The vessel jolted and we shifted as a humming sound surrounded us. I could feel the gentle rocking stop as we began to shoot across the water.
Waiting until we were comfortable again, the woman began to speak. “My name is Lieutenant Hera Hanes and I’m a Graduate representative that will be going through the mission details with you.”
She had dark skin, dark straight hair and slightly slanted eyes. He lips were thin and she dressed in the same tight, vested uniform as the elite Graduates. She stood aside as a holograph appeared from the top corner of the room, shining down onto the table between us a detailed map of the familiar geography of the city of Berkal, which rested on the secluded peninsula off the Esco coast.
“As of one hundred hours last night, the Borilian army has seized control of Berkal, putting it’s residence under house arrest and illegally patrolling the streets. We believe their goal is to reach the Light Tower on the city’s highrise.”
“What could they want with the Light Tower?” Guy asked. “It’s been out of power for years. Have they discovered a new way to recharge it?”
“We don’t know. All we know is that their actions go against the Esco state laws and we’ve been hired by the mayor of Berkal as a counter balance.”
Seizen made a, “Tsh” noise and said, “More like hired muscle to kick Borilia out of their city.”
“Enough interruptions!” Tessa snapped. “Please continue, Hera.”
“Thank you, Tess,” Hera said, although she didn’t seem as angry. “Your mission will be to enter the city and force the Borilian soldiers to retreat. If any of them refuse to leave, engage and wipe them out, understand?”
Well, Seizen wasn’t wrong.
“We should be arriving at Berkal at eighteen hundred hours. The elite Grads will be laying down a suppressing barrage before we arrive so we hopefully won’t be arriving under fire ourselves, but…” Hera’s gaze drifted to Seizen. “There might be some heavy hitters so if you see a ball of fire coming your way, your best bet will be to try to blast it with your Impact weapons. Don’t use your Djinni unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“I’ve heard rumors that some of the Borilian captains have Ifrits under their command. Is that true?” Guy asked.
“If that is the case, I highly doubt they would be bringing them to a small skirmish like this. They have just over two hundred men. Once they see us there’s no reason they won’t rush home to Doandre with their tail between their legs.”
“If you stick together and take the initiative in any altercations, a little blood is the only thing you’ll have worry about this evening.” Hera smiled at Seizen again. “You’ve done this enough times, Seiz, so you might be able to tell me, what takes priority during field exams?”
“Now what could it be?” he asked sarcastically. “It couldn’t be the order to retreat, could it?”
“Correct. Does anyone have any questions?”
Guy put his hand up and Seizen struck it down.
“It’s a training mission, Guy, you won’t be asked to do anything complicated.” Seizen sighed and looked up at the ceiling like he had in the van. “It’s not like they would let us have any fun.”
“That should be all then.” Hera filed out and sat down behind Tessa.
Seizen stretched out his legs and smiled as though anticipating the violence to come. “Troy, take a look through the goggles and tell me how far off we are from the coast.”
I got up without responding, knowing that if I replied verbally that I would get some remark from him about being some animal like a dog or sheep for following commands too quickly.
I wanted to have a look through the scope anyway. They were mounted at the top of a rotating stand that could open up like in a submarine. I climbed the steps and sat down. I then leaned into the goggles and stared in wonder at the approaching battle.
Outside the the sky was red from the setting sun. The first movement I noticed were lights flashing on the Esco shore. As details of the Berkal coast became clearer so did the running soldiers and fighting going on the beach. The spread of the battle and the suppressing barrage that triggered a retreat showed how the elite Graduates were clearing the path for us.
“Well, it’s definitely started.” I swiveled the station, seeing multiple other vessels around us in the white water. “It looks like we’ll be the third to arrive.”
I flicked a lens down over the scope, overlaying the view with an outlay of the mission details that I had to line up with the view of the bay. It didn’t quite line up but I could see the point. The Light Tower was on the hill, their objective and the base around that we were to clear of Borilian bay beneath it, our objective.
“How long?” Seizen asked.
The vessel suddenly tilted and I heard a “Woah!” from Guy as he fell forward. Thawn balanced himself and I held on. I turned to see only Tessa and Hera with their belts on. We suddenly rocked again as the boat must have passed over a buoy. The back opened up, the ramp lowering with a thump on the sand.
“Out! Go! Go! Go!” Thawn yelled.
I ran out after Seizen and Guy and as soon as our feet hit the sand. I could see that there had been very little death in the first skirmish from the lack of bodies. Then, there were red stains along the beach, so the bodies could have already been moved. Tessa came out on our heels, standing in the vessel’s opening.
“Take the west streets to the city center! Have your Impact weapons out at all times.”
I didn’t like to draw my Impact blade. I didn’t generally draw it unless bloodshed was necessary, and that seemed to be the case. I pulled the zip cord, slid it from the sheath and threw it to Tessa.
“Take care of this for me, would you?”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “I’ll take it this time, but I don’t do that.”
The blade of Seizen’s battle axe flicked down and he grinned. “Alright, time to move out.”
Guy struck the air with his Impact gauntlets. “Oh yeah!”
Seizen ignored him and ran across the sand to the low-tide staircase leading up to the armored balustrade. The thick steel chains had been broken and the concrete had holes blown into it from the heavy hitters.
“Troy, heads up!”
I turned at Guy’s voice as a window to one of the nearby buildings was lifted and a Impact staff pointed down at us. Seizen smirked and spun his axe, the fireball being sucked into the vortex and exploding.
“That’s the last time I save your ass, boy—!”
Before he could finish his sentence, Guy was jumping at a soldier who was running at Seizen’s back. Screaming some of kind of war cry, he threw two punches, blasting the soldiers back before I could swing a reverberating slash at the oncoming fighters. A light wave from my impact threw them from their feet into the water.
Seizen waved on up the street. “Come on, the town center’s up ahead!”
I breathed out the rush of using my Impact weapon in battle as the blast could be heard through all of the bay and inside the town. Following in behind Seizen, Guy took out a few more men behind us before coming up the rear. Ahead, graduates were standing guard at the doorways so no one could come through from other streets.
We saw one standing in a doorway being kicked out onto the street. Seizen shoved the graduate against a wall and spun, striking his axe into the back of the soldier. Despite the blood rushing down the man’s armored back from the Impact power of his blade, Seizen was laughing.
I got that he loved combat, but is he insane?
Guy ran up to my side as three more graduates ran passed us and spread out the branching crossroads leading to the town square. We followed them, breathing heavily to catch up with Seizen’s charge. The dawn sun shining at our backs gave us the advantage as it would shine in the soldiers’ eyes and they squinted, Guy and I rushed and blew them against walls and the brick road with our impacts. The blue light that rushed from the edges of my weapons seemed stronger to me than it had the last time I used them.
Is it the Djinni giving me power? Is that why my wound healed so quickly?
Finally we came to the fountain that sat in the center of the massive crossroad, the whole area relatively empty. Cars and enemy tanks had been used as barricades to block off the roads. Seizen stopped and spun, slashing his Impact axe at the surrounding area.
“Scout the place! Make sure everything is clear.”
Guy nodded and ran around the square. At first I thought that any soldier would have already been cleared away by the graduate that went ahead, but then he screamed. I ran over and gagged when seeing an armored Borilian soldier sliding a bloody blade out of the body of a Graduate.
Guy’s scream caught the guard’s attention and he drew his Impact sword. I rushed in and engaged him, my Impact blade slashing again his, the hilt rattling within my clenched fingers. I could hear the soldier breathing under his visor. He was obviously out of breath from wrestling with his last victim. I pushed him back and swung an impact at him and a line of blue light shot toward his legs, launching him spinning into the air.
He crashed onto a tanks bonnet, and I slashed another blow his way. He flung from it, crashing into a window of nearby store window. I spun to see Guy kneeling over and vomiting into the gutter.
“That…” He covered his mouth. “That was Kelly’s little brother!”
“Too grizzly for you, wuss?” Seizen walked over, a smirk plastered on his face. “A soldier can’t afford to have a weak stomach.”
Guy clenched his fist and turned away as Seizen came to my side. “See? Good fun, hah?”
I nodded, not saying a thing and walked over to sit by the fountain. I sank my fingers into the water to relieve some of tension in them. We hadn’t been here for twenty minutes and I had already seen a comrade get killed.
Hell, I might have just killed that guy with the amount of power behind that Impact.
“I don’t think there are any more soldiers lurking around. Hell, even if they are, if they saw that I don’t think they’re going to challenge us any time soon.” Seizen pointed to the brick road. “We make our stand here. Guard the perimeter as ordered.” He rested his axe on his shoulders. “Now comes the most boring part of this field exam… we wait.”
I breathed out, letting my shoulders slump. I looked around at the tall building around us, having the feeling that eyes through Impact scopes were eyeing us up from windows even now.
Guy walked over to me and gave me a smile that was obviously forced. “Some exam, huh?”
I nodded and looked around the bodies and blood running between the bricks on the road.
Yeah… some exam.
It was nearly midnight. We had seen several Borilian soldiers creeping to the Light Tower, but that was about it. They didn’t engage us so we let them go.
“God I hate this!” Seizen mumbled. “We should be killing those bastards, but we just sit here like guard dogs.”