THE CONQUEST

Part Three: Reconnaissance


"Calm Before the Storm."

It was difficult to learn in an environment where you're being watched, especially when you know you're being watched. Far worse than the paranoid feeling one gets when you think you're under scrutiny, Ellie was subjected to the knowledge that every move she made was observed and, in all likelihoods, recorded on some guard's log. With this knowing, it was hard for her to make friends or truly relax while on campus, constantly feeling eyes on her back and a certain level of distrust of anyone who tried to get close to her. Even then, when she did make a friend, they either proved just be interested with her connection with the sixth sector and randomly disappeared.

With that in mind, Ellie breathed a heavy sigh of relief when she finished her secondary schooling. Now she had bills to pay, of course, but for now she could relax. Or so she thought she could. Ellie still felt the eyes on her back, more frightening now because of how high strung she was and how utterly alone she stood in the middle of the cobblestone pathways, long abandoned by other students for their summer break. She was done with her education, at least for now and never again would she come here of all places, but if there had been a few thousand others milling around her in a crowd she would have felt far safer than she did alone.

Someone was approaching her, footsteps slow and long, obviously not in a rush. It was a male, or an exceptionally strong female, even bigger than Sam, and therefore out of her weight class. Ellie stood, frozen, her common sense telling her to turn or run and her instincts telling her to fight. Cats fought, did they not? Naturally, they knew when the flee and when something was worth fighting over, but she was standing out in the open and there was only one. She could do it, if she fought hard enough, if she fought dirty.

Ellie inhaled, and against her better judgment, let her legs bend slightly at the knee, pretending to place a hand on her hip to disguise the fact her feet spread to shoulder width and the rest of her stance had changed to follow that.

There had been that one male she beat when he tried to kiss her, ending with her knee pressing against the small of his back and her fingers squeezing like a vice into the small rift between his windpipe and the tendons on either side of her neck. She had hoped the display would make it clear she did not want to be touched by any one, but instead all she heard were whispers of "he should have known better, her male probably taught her that" and "wait until the Prince finds out" and other such nonsense. The fact that Nathan had taught her how to throw others around wasn't what made her so angry, but the fact people assumed she was still- still even thinking about the male who had marked her and then ran.

She had run in the opposite direction, sure, but that only meant she never wanted to hear of him ever again, especially from strangers who didn't even know her. It had made her angry and scared how swiftly she had reacted to any kind of close contact with anyone just a tiny bit appealing to her, male or female. Her thoughts weren't her own whenever someone touched her arm, or stood too close to her, and Mother forbid the day someone touched that aching scar on her-

A hand laid down on her shoulder, the pressure light but insistent, and Ellie saw red. No one was allowed to touch the left side of her neck. Her skin flared at the contact, the pain and near panic spreading from her shoulder up behind her ears, down the side of her arm and then to her collarbone. It was only following the deeply etched lines she knew were there but refused to acknowledge. But it was hard to ignore when someone was touching her and the touch was all wrong, the hand too cold, the fingers too long and slender, the weight too little, the smell too… mild.

A snarl escaped her and Ellie swung before the man could react. He was alone and while she didn't see his face while she was moving, she saw his pale skin and his blue clothing. Was it that stupid male back to bother her again? Ellie found she didn't care, only as soon as she shoved the man back, the touch gone from her shoulder, she could breathe again.

"I suppose that was my fault," the man huffed, now sitting on the ground after losing his balance. In his defense, he hadn't been expecting her to shove him, nor for her foot to somehow catch his ankle and make him topple onto his backside. Ellie stared down at him, noting his exasperated expression. "I don't suppose you know who I am, do you?"

Ellie shook her head, feeling much safer now that she was a few steps away and had him in sight. She glanced up and saw two guards watching her intently, obviously alert and highly aware of the fact she had pushed him ―whoever this guy was― to the ground. "But I know you're important enough, or rich enough, to need a guard. Or just paranoid enough to think you need one."

The man huffed then crossed his legs casually, sitting on the ground with much more dignity than Ellie thought him entitled to in such a position. But he seemed kind, and to be fair, his touch hadn't warranted such a strong reaction, but she was afraid of the feelings it brought with it and couldn't control the urge to reassert her personal space. "Care to join me?" He gestured to the ground as if it wasn't just simple stone.

Ellie didn't move, for as calming as she found his presence, she was still wary. He sighed a bit, another huff of breath between thin lips that wasn't grumpy, just resigned. "Will you at least find it in yourself to help an Old Blood to his feet?"

"You're-"

"Don't start hyperventilating; I'm not going to have you executed."

Ellie moved at once, grasping his hands and pulling him with as much strength as she possessed. He was heavy, despite his slender appearance, but at least the contact between their hands didn't reduce her to a frenzied animal with space issues. "I'm so-"

"Hush, you couldn't have known. If anything, I'm proud of you, the protectiveness you have over your Mark is important."

"How-"

"Of course I know, it's my business; everything is my business... Oh, call me Aldric."

"But-"

He interrupted her again, which seemed to be a habit of his. It wasn't that he talked fast, nor did he seem jittery with energy either. "My dear, if you keep asking all these painfully predictable questions I'm going to have to keep interrupting you. Come," he offered his arm and she had the decency to take it, not wanting to disrespect him even further after tripping him to the ground.

"How are my questions predictable?" She asked, and for once he let her finish, even though she could see he knew what she was going to say. She frowned when he didn't answer immediately, as she expected of him.

"You see, my dear… Our element is predictable. We follow the tides, worship the moon and do her bidding... We like treading in places well-travelled, where the going is easiest... Downhill is the easiest; running away is easiest."

Ellie stared at him as he led her past the place where the guards had once been standing. They were gone now, disappeared as if into thin air. Ellie swallowed, thinking it over. "Why are you telling me all this?"

"Because as predictable as our people are, we hold power. One may find cover from the storm, but they cannot escape the puddles from forming on the road, the mud from sticking to their shoes, nor the humidity in the air."

"We influence in small, subtle ways…"

"Precisely, and people forget our power over time… during the times of sprinkling rain and dew on the green grass, the others will forget what it feels like to ache for the thunder and what the world smells like when the rivers run dry and the animals die one by one."

Ellie almost drew back, aghast. "Surely you cannot mean to throw the world into a dry season."

"Of course not, that has not happened in a few millennia…Not since before my father's father was born."

"Then what are you…" the look he gave her made her trail off and search his eyes for the answer instead. "We influence in larger ways than people think," she declared, and the King bowed his head in response, obviously proud of her answer.

"Yes, my dear… People will always forget the importance of our kind, of our element, until they need our help… Then they will come crawling to our feet, begging for rain to fill their rivers and lakes to be filled, for the green of their meadows and the animals that come seeking such green, for the salt water to wash their clothes and their babes."

"I do not understand, at least, I do not understand why this is significant to me…"

"It is significant to all of us, but you are right… Allow me to explain."

Then he paused, still leading her away from the academy and to the shore. She could smell the salt on the breeze now, stronger than it was inland where her school sat high on the cliff-side. They stood precariously close to the edge where the stone dropped away and beyond it rolled the expanse of ocean, the body of water that pulled at every water demon that breathed. Ellie could feel it rolling against the cliff face a few hundred meters down, a drop that would surely kill anyone who dropped down without the water to reach up and cushion them, and only the most gifted could control the waves in such a way.

"Now… is not the time for subtle movements. There is no gentle rain to sodden the ground beneath their feet, no puddles to gather on the stone and splash with every footstep. Sometimes… we must move quickly, powerfully, like a storm." And in front of her, the clouds grew dark, thunder echoing down as if to knock her over with its sound, but the King seemed unaffected, merely staring as if in thought. "And this is the only advice I can give you for the tests you face. Those who wait for the rain will only be left wanting, and those who ride the waves will revel in the power of the storm."

Her King ―Aldric― seemed to like speaking in proverbs. It made her head hurt, having to constantly decipher his meanings and then struggling to form a proper answer. Not like he expected them from her, giving how much he had given her to soak in. Ellie frowned again, brow furrowing as she tried to understand. She felt a bit stupid, a bit out class, but Aldric had yet to taunt her and she was willing to listen to him so long as he was nice about it. He was certainly wise, if their conversation was any proof.

"Wait, what tests?"

"Your standard education is over. I have kept you safe for you're the past three years, but I can no longer beat back the flames. You have unfinished business with the Father's children, a realm I have no blatant power in. You will be alone."

"Even in the rain?"

Aldric outright smiled down at her, and surprised her by giving her hand a gentle squeeze. "The storm will always protect you, if you learn to use it to your advantage."

"I must prove myself a force to be reckoned with."

"They will underestimate you, and your power, thinking only of the mud beneath their feet. You must remind them of the tempest that lies, waiting for the right wind before she strikes, toppling even the tallest trees…"

"And cooling the hottest stone," she amended, thinking only of the heat that once surrounded her every day, now a memory in the back of her head, and the hot-blooded people that lived there.

Aldric gave her a wink and they stared out toward the storm together, silent and pensive.