Ryan took in the scene. He pulled his dark cloak closer around him. It didn't hide him because of the daylight, but he couldn't help it. His blood was cold, in fact, his whole body was cold from the sight in front of him. He and one other soldier were all that was left. Splayed out in the tree surrounded hollow, lay all of his men, all of his friends. After what had happened, their clothing was more red than black. He didn't know how he could have lost forty men and women. The thought was a dark one and with no one to answer. Among his comrades lay other bodies, who could only have been the attackers. Most of them were human, but some had red skin and horns. Those creatures ranged from humanlike to beasts, with four legs and other animal parts. All the human attackers were dressed in blue and white. Those colors signified the neighboring country, Eetan, that made a show of being opposite the compound, in every way.
Ryan studied one of the more humanlike beasts. Eetan delved into serious dark arts to make this happen. The red skins could only be one thing… demons. They were using the darkest of magic to summon these fiends to fight by their side. If Eetan had sunk so far, it was bad news for his own country and everyone else for that matter.
He didn't know what had brought this on. This action was completely unprovoked. Ryan cursed and spat on one of the red skins. His gaze caught sight of one of his dearest friends in the world. Ryan's pale face shifted from anger to sorrow. He knelt next to the woman, her beauty hardly marred by the claws that must have torn into her. Her long black hair was messy, but still as beautiful as ever. Her face was virtually untouched, only a few specs of red dotted her fair features, but it must not have been her own blood. Her eyes weren't open and staring like most of the men around her. Her face was peaceful rather than frightened.
Two men and one of the demons, at least double her size, lay motionless around Jesy. She was a good fighter, one of the best he knew. She had made the enemy pay for choosing her as an opponent. A hot tear made a trail down Ryan's face, then something happened he didn't expect. Jesy's chest moved slightly. Hope sprang up in Ryan. He put two fingers to the woman's throat. There it was, very slight and almost nonexistent, but still there: a pulse. She was alive!
The man who had been standing beside Ryan screamed, falling into a crumpled heap. Ryan sprang to his feet, drawing two longswords from his back in the same movement. His soldier had been pierced through the back with a javelin. It only took a split second to see where the weapon had come from. Emerging from the trees, ten yards back, was a group of Eetans. There were four men accompanied by three demons that were very close to human, if you took away the curved horns and skin color that is. The fourth one was on all fours. The beast was similar to a large hunting cat, but bald with the same revolting red skin color as the others.
Ryan yelled a challenge at the group. They had no idea who they were dealing with.
Blood from Ryan's chin dripped onto Jesy as he carried her in his arms. One of the wounds he had sustained was on his cheek and was bleeding freely. Ryan's sides heaved with the effort of carrying his friend, even her light frame was heavy with the condition he was in now. The compound had to be warned about this. Doubt edged its way into his thoughts. He might not make it back to his home, but he was going to try regardless. Ryan limped away from the hollow, leaving behind his comrades and the enemies he had faced and bested.
Jean sat back against the tree with Sarah. The death of her friend's mother the day before had convinced Jean to stay. She had nowhere to go for one thing, but the main reason was because she wanted to protect others from this fate. If she stayed and learned how to fight, then she could stop such things from happening in the future. Sarah had agreed.
Glancing over at her friend, Jean adopted a sad smile, only for second. She turned back to watch what was taking place in front of her, so Sarah wouldn't see the pity in her eye. The two girls were watching all the new recruits being trained. Jean didn't think she could do what they were doing. It seemed like the most novice among them, could have easily bested her. Shen had explained that the only way they would be allowed to stay at the compound was to undergo training. "Nonmilitary personnel were not permitted to stay", as he put it and unfortunately that was the way the general saw it too. She thought it was a little unfair, but then there weren't any other civilians in the compound. On the bright side, she would be able to protect what she cared about with what she was taught.
Several of the students sparred in the dirt before them. Shen was watching from the sidelines, as was his brother Nesh. Shen for the most part just observed, while Nesh constantly shouted at the trainees for not doing exactly what he wanted.
Nesh strode into the two sparring students and they stopped, not sure what he wanted. "Look, you're doing it wrong!" Nesh thundered. The two trainees lowered their heads in shame.
"They can't really do a sparring match wrong," Shen commented.
"What was that!?" Nesh shot back at his brother. "They definitely can!" Nesh then proceeded to tell the two everything they were doing and how sloppy their strikes were. Jean didn't think they were that bad, but she hadn't been around much sword play. She was just glad she wasn't the one out there being berated in front of the twenty or so people watching.
"You!" Nesh pointed his finger right at Jean. She checked over her head hoping someone was standing there, but no such luck. When she looked back he confirmed her guess with a nod. "Yeah you, the one sitting by the tree!"
Jean could almost feel that he was singling her out because of the other night. It wasn't like it was her decision to go into his room and pester the man. Sarah gave her a sympathetic look, but Jean knew her friend was probably just happy she hadn't been chosen.
"Well? Come on girl," Nesh ordered.
She glanced at Shen, hoping maybe he would object, but the silver-haired man was silent. Jean sighed and approached, heading to where Nesh stood with the other two trainees, and not patiently either.
"Alright child, you are going to fight this boy," he said pointing a thumb at one of the two who were sparring. "You can get out of here," he added, pointing the same thumb to the second boy. Most of the people here were younger people, around her own age.
"What?!" she protested. "I've never even held a weapon before!"
If it were Shen, he would probably have answered her what with: what does that have to do with this? But Nesh was a lot different from his brother. "Did I ask you for excuses?" Nesh turned to the boy she was to face. "Did I ask her for her input?"
The boy glanced at Jean, then back to the instructor. "No, you didn't…."
"Thank you! You could learn a thing or two from this boy."
"Aren't I supposed to get some kind of training first?" she tried.
Nesh stared heavenward and held up his arms in a pleading gesture. Once he finished his over exaggerated movement, the man focused on Jean again. "What do you think this is? This is training. What, did you think we were going to have you out hitting a dummy with a wooden sword or something? Maybe that would happen if we had years for your training, but we have much less. From the time you start, until you will be going on your first mission, supervised of course, will be roughly two months or possibly less."
Jean didn't know how to react to that. The possibility that she could be fighting other people in only two months, was not comforting. "But…."
Nesh didn't give her a chance to protest any further. "The best and fastest way to learn is on the job, or in this case against a real person, not some inanimate object. Catch!" Nesh tossed a blade her way. Jean caught the piece of metal instinctively. In the back of her head she knew it was a bad idea to catch it by the blade, but it was too late. To her surprise, there was no pain from the sword cutting into her hands. She glanced down at the blade and saw that this weapon had blunted edges. She sighed in relief and held it by the handle.
Nesh saw her reaction and commented, "We may go hard on you, but we aren't that stupid. The weapons won't cut, however, getting hit will still hurt. A club in the rights hands is still a deadly weapon. Alright you two, it's simple enough to do a sparring match."
Jean wasn't sure she believed him, not with the way he had been yelling at the other two.
"All you need to do is keep a firm grip on your weapon and follow through on your attacks. I don't want any halfhearted strikes. Not going all in is far worse and will get you killed." Nesh sauntered back to stand near his brother and gave them a meaningful look when they hadn't yet started. "Well? Get to it!"
Jean looked at the boy. He was a good six feet tall and looked like he was used to holding one of these blades. Even though he wasn't terribly muscular, he was still much bigger than she was.
A slight movement caught Jean's eye, near where their instructor and his brother stood. She saw a man that she knew from somewhere. His clothing didn't stick out, it was the same as everyone else's, save that he wore shorter sleeves. The only thing that really set him apart were the dark metal pieces on his arms. They started at his wrists and ended just before each elbow. She wondered what something like that could even be for. She just couldn't shake that there was something about him…. When he faced her directly, Jean realized that the newcomer was Rift. His face was as attractive as ever, even more so without the hood covering part of it up. His short hair she saw was definitely the same color as his dark brown eyes and was spiked at the moment. His clothes fit to him very well and showed her initial assumption, that he was thin, may not have been exactly right. He wasn't huge like some of the brutes around, but muscles showed through his shirt.
Jean, paying more attention to the new watcher than her opponent, almost got a wallop to the head. She jumped back just in time to avoid his attack and lashed out with her own weapon. Surprisingly, her weapon met his and vibrations shot through her arms. She backed away and he tried to close the distance between them. Jean kept backing away, keeping enough space that their weapons would hardly touch. Nesh was shouting at them and telling her to face her foe, not dance away, but Jean was so focused on the boy that she barely heard Nesh's criticism.
It took several attempts before the boy was finally able to get close enough to send an overhead blow her way. Jean brought up her weapon to stop the sword from cracking her skull. She caught the blade on her own, this time her arms almost buckled from the force of his attack, but she kept from getting struck.
Jean had to smile at her opponent, pleased that she had lasted so long.
The boy smiled back, but his wasn't a pleasant one as was hers. His smile was more like the one that was given by someone who knew something that you didn't.
Suddenly Jean was lying flat on her back, the boy standing over her. He had knocked her legs right out from under her with one of his own. The sword was raised above his head as he got ready to end the match. Jean hoped Nesh would end it, clearly the boy was better, but she wasn't counting on the instructor. Jean was able to roll out of the way as her opponent's weapon came down, but only just. She found her feet again and went back to her earlier tactic, keeping space between her and him.
After another moment of her dancing back, Nesh finally intervened. "Stop, stop!" The boy instantly halted at the order, while Jean took a few more steps back, putting her close to Rift and Shen, before seeing the fight was over.
She puffed with the exertion it had taken to keep herself from taking a beating. It felt like her heart was about to burst right out of her chest. Sweat was rolling down her face, stinging her eyes. The boy was hardly winded and only had a bit of sweat on his forehead. She felt slightly self-conscious of how she looked at the moment and wondered if it was because of who was watching. It had never seemed like fighting would take so much out of someone, but then she only had the play fighting the boys back home did to judge from.
Nesh came between them, fixing his gaze on Jean. "What exactly was that?" His tone wasn't curious, so she didn't bother to answer. "I must have missed when I said this was a game of tag. You can't just run away from your opponent, if you don't face them head on, you are bound to lose. All running away will do is prolong the inevitable."
Jean didn't say anything, even though she wanted to. She had enough dragging her down right now without Nesh tearing her down too. She thought she was doing pretty well. After all, the boy hadn't even hit her.
"You have to admit she has very good reflexes," a voice commented.
Glancing up, Jean saw that Rift was the one who had spoken. The compliment made her burn with pride. She had seen him fight and if someone as good as him was complimenting her, it had to be worth something.
"Did I miss something else?" Nesh said looking at the speaker. "I'm the one instructing, not you. They picked me to do this because I can whip the new recruits into shape quick. The harder the training, the faster they will be ready. I look at what they need to better and change it."
Rift gave him an impassive look while Nesh ranted. He must have found Shen's brother less than impressive. "Being able to see flaws is good and even necessary, but people need positive as well. A kind word here and there, what they did well for example, goes a long way."
"I don't really care what you think. If there needs to be a change in the way I train, then the general will inform me of it. So, unless that happens, keep your opinions to yourself," Nesh spat.
Rift gave the man a wry smile and shook his head.
Jean couldn't help thinking of how rude Nesh was. She had thought maybe the other night was just because Shen had surprised him, but it would appear that Nesh was ill-tempered all of the time.
"Nesh," Shen said, using his usual tone. "There is no need to be so unpleasant. He was simply offering suggestions on improvement as you are doing for the trainees."
Even if the man didn't like what Shen had said, he only grumbled. Nesh must have found it just as hard to argue with Shen's logic as Jean did. She had to admit that it felt good for someone to knock the ill-tempered instructor down a peg.
Nesh turned away from the two and back to Jean. She could see the annoyance all but pouring out of his eyes, then suddenly they changed, as if a thought had just occurred to him. "Alright, I admit you are good at running away, but like I said before, if you don't face your enemies head on, something will go wrong." Nesh turned to eye Rift. "Seeing as you are so confident in your abilities, would you be willing to aid me in an example?"
Jean didn't know what he was planning, but for some reason Nesh's voice was calm now. It was an odd change, seeing as it hadn't sounded that way once since they had met the day before.
"And what exactly would that be?" Rift asked.
"A match." He then turned to the circle of trainees. "I'll show you how a fight should go. I'll show you that defeating an opponent can only be done, by taking them head on, just as I will do to him," Nesh finished, pointing at Rift.
Rift spoke, so that his voice didn't carry on much further than where Jean and Nesh stood. Some of the circle of people looked like they wanted to edge closer to hear what his response was, but didn't, probably afraid of getting the instructor's attention. "Despite what you may think," Rift said in a serious tone, not a rude one just an honest one. "I want your students to think the best of you and when you don't do what you say, that lowers their respect for you."
Nesh looked slightly confused at the statement. "What are you talking about?"
Rift sighed, then folded his arms, the metal sleeves making a soft scraping sound. "You told them you would beat me, but I don't let people best me just to boost their ego."
"What did you say!?" Nesh's sudden outburst made the closer trainees who had been straining to hear, start in alarm. "Just because you are chosen so often to be out on missions, doesn't mean you are better than the rest of us!"
"I must have missed when I said that," Rift said in a wry tone.
Having his words used against him left Nesh spluttering, trying to find something to say.
Rift smiled. "Sorry, couldn't resist."
Nesh took hold of the sword hilt at his side. His eyes would have burned Rift to ash if that were possible. Rift unfolded his arms and put one hand on the weapon hanging at his hip.
"Alright, if you really want a fight, I'll give you one."
Nesh didn't speak, just waved his arm for Jean and the boy to get out of the way. Jean rushed back to where Sarah now stood rather than sitting against the tree. It looked like they wouldn't be using training blades. That seemed like a really bad idea. She wondered if Nesh intended to injure Rift.
"You did really good," Sarah congratulated.
"I didn't hear what David said, but I'm guessing he accepted the instructor's challenge?"
"Do you think it's a good idea? Nesh seems even more angry than usual and it doesn't look like they are using training weapons."
She shrugged. "I don't know if it is either, but Rift didn't seem at all worried. It wasn't like he was cocky or anything, he just acted like he knew he could win."
Sarah adopted a thoughtful expression as they both sat back down. "Well, he did beat that monster before." She then looked at Jean. "Why do you keep calling him by Rift?"
Jean wasn't exactly sure why, so she just turned to watch the fight.
Nesh backed up a dozen paces or so, putting some distance between him and the ring of people. Rift approached, stopping three paces away. Jean couldn't hear, but saw him say something. Rather than responding, Nesh drew his weapon, and she got a bad feeling in her gut. He might be angry enough to hurt Rift.
"Watch closely!" Nesh bellowed. "I'm about to show you how a real fight looks!"
Rift drew nearer to his opponent so that they wouldn't involve any of the trainees. Nesh started to circle, looking for an opening. The silver-haired man already had his weapon drawn, but despite the fact, Rift merely had one hand on his sword hilt. He may have been good, but Jean didn't think anyone could draw a sword fast enough to defend themselves when the attack was already coming. She leaned forward and Sarah took note.
"You worried? Don't you remember what happened when he fought that big thing back at the bonfire?" Sarah was trying to ease her friend's nerves.
"Yeah, but he doesn't have his sword out…."
With a roar, Nesh launched himself at the seemingly defenseless man. Rift still didn't draw his blade. Jean almost looked away, not wanting to see him get hurt, but something kept her eyes on the match. She wondered if this is what it was like when other people were watching her fight, because she definitely looked helpless and more or less was.
Rift moved just enough that Nesh's blade passed by and the momentum of his assault carried him right on by. Nesh repeated his mad dash, to the same outcome. The silver-haired man must have seen it wasn't working, because the third time he came on, he did it a lot slower. Rift nodded and with the angle he was at, Jean could see a smile on his face. He seemed to be enjoying this, even if she wasn't sure how anyone could enjoy having a sword swung at them.
As soon as Nesh came into striking distance, Rift danced back. Nesh was outraged, but Jean was confused. She couldn't understand what he was doing. Nesh was far less threatening than that humanlike creature from before, but then she could easily be missing something.
"Stop running and face me!" Nesh bellowed.
Rift responded by jumping forward rather than backward. The instructor was caught off guard and Rift shoved him. Nesh lost his balance and fell on his backside. "You're not as good as you brother, that's a certainty," he told the fallen teacher.
"What!?" Nesh found his feet and started the assault anew.
Rift began dancing back again, avoiding the instructor's mad swings. "You're too emotional. I can do something you don't like and it makes you angry, which in turn causes you to make poor decisions."
"Shut up and fight me!"
Rift continued to dance out of reach, not allowing Nesh to use his sword. Rift passed pretty close to the two girls and threw a glance their way. Jean saw him smile and she felt like it was just for her, making her cheeks heat slightly. She wondered if he was doing this because when she had, Nesh had criticized her. Maybe he…. Jean closed her eyes for a moment and shook herself mentally. She didn't know why she kept thinking about him. Even if somehow she was finally falling for a man, he probably hardly noticed her.
"Are you alright?" Sarah asked.
Jean opened her eyes to see her friend with a look of concern on her face.
"Your cheeks look a little red… are you getting sick or something?" At the mention of color in Jean's cheeks, the color deepened, now mainly from embarrassment. Sarah narrowed her eyebrows and glanced at Rift, then back to Jean. "Are you…"
Jean didn't give Sarah a chance to finish. "It's not what you're thinking!"
"And just what am I thinking?" Sarah asked innocently.
"Well, that uh… never mind," Jean stammered. Her friend gave her a knowing smirk, then turned back to see the match. Jean didn't like that look at all, but at least it seemed like her friend was doing better today. Sarah had always been baffled that Jean had never liked any of the boys from home and it appeared that she was getting the wrong idea into her head.
Jean turned back to watch the fight, refusing to react when she felt her friend deliberately glance at her.
The combatants were closer to the other side of the ring of people now and Nesh was yelling louder than ever. Jean could see that Rift still hadn't drawn his weapon and still hadn't been touched either. Suddenly, he stopped and Nesh raised his sword overhead to try to cut his opponent in half. Rift swung an open hand upward as Nesh was beginning to swing down. His hand hit Nesh's where the hilt was sticking out. Rather than cutting him in two, the blade went up while the instructor's hands went down. Either Rift must have hit the hilt with a great deal of force or Nesh must have had a very poor grip on his weapon. With lightning speed Rift spun, landing a boot against the side of Nesh's head.
The instructor went down and hit the ground about the same time his sword plunged into the dirt several feet away. Nesh was stunned, not moving for a long minute, then went as if to retrieve his weapon. Before the silver-haired man could complete the action, Rift's sword was at his throat.
"We're done," he told the instructor. His voice had a great deal of authority in it, just as when he was fighting in Jean's home. The tone made it seem wrong to disobey. Nesh grumbled, but soon agreed. Rift sheathed his weapon, then turned to the watchers. Jean thought his eye lingered on her for a just a moment, but she couldn't be sure.
"Just because you have a different way of fighting, doesn't mean it's wrong, as you can see," Rift told the trainees.
"Why aren't you teaching us?" one of the trainees asked. Nesh growled at the question, but Rift just smiled.
"Just as your teacher informed, I am gone too much to be one of the instructors here." He proffered a hand to Nesh, but the silver-haired man didn't take it, getting up on his own. Rift shrugged, then went on. "You wouldn't like the way I teach anyways." Rift's voice had lost the command again, now just a friendly tone prevailed. "I don't mean to make you think less of your instructor. Nesh is a good teacher. He has his failing yes, but all of us do. He may not be always correct, but you still need to listen in training."
Nesh was standing with an angry scowl on his face where his sword had fallen. Rift strode out of the circle of people and every eye watched him go. Some of the trainees were whispering to each other, some of the closer ones talking about how good Rift was. Jean had to agree and a big grin formed on her face. She was almost certain now that he had fought Nesh that way because of what had happened in her match. Rift could have finished the instructor much sooner, but decided to prolong it and show that there were more ways than one to fight.
"What's that smile for?" Sarah said with a mischievous tone.
Luckily Jean was saved from answering, at least for the moment. "Listen up!" Nesh proclaimed. "We are done for now. Go get something to eat."
Jean jumped up, running to meet Shen, who appeared to be going for the white building. She did so, hoping to avoid Sarah's inquisitive question, but knowing her friend, she was going to make a big deal out of what she thought she knew. Sarah was her best friend, but when the girl found something interesting, she went after it. Jean didn't think Sarah would be able to think about anything else until she got to the bottom of this. For now, avoiding her friend was probably the best thing to do. The topic of what she thought about Rift would undoubtedly come up soon, but at least Jean could buy some time to think of what to say. Simply telling Sarah she didn't care a wit about the man wasn't going to cut it.
Jean sat in the mess hall. Deliberately avoiding her friend's gaze. She knew she would have to answer sooner or later, but wasn't ready just yet. Shen raised an eyebrow at them, seeing something was amiss.
"Is there something bothering the two of you?" he questioned. Sarah grinned and Jean quickly shook her head. "I'm getting a different feeling from each of you."
"Well, I have my suspicions. You want to hear?" Sarah piped up.
Jean gave her friend a death stare.
"I think she has –"
Sarah didn't get a chance to finish her proclamation. "I don't have feelings for Rift!" The statement came out a little louder than she had intended and a few people at the other end of the table glanced their way. Jean put her head down on the table and covered it with her hands, embarrassed at her outburst.
"You sound rather vehement about it," Shen commented.
"I don't know about that," Sarah told the silver-haired man.
"Oh, hello sir."
"We aren't even on duty Shen," a familiar voice complained.
Jean's blood froze. Rift was standing right next to Shen or that's what it sounded like. She raised her head slightly to see if she was correct and saw him staring right at her. Jean quickly put her head back down.
"You don't have to be so formal with me Shen, we are friends after all."
"Yes, but you outrank me, so I need to show proper respect."
Rift chuckled mirthlessly. "I would gladly trade places with you my friend."
"What? Don't even suggest such a thing. You are clearly far more suited for your position than I would be. That's why you got it after all."
Rift didn't answer for a long moment, probably annoyed or something. Suddenly something came down close to Jean's head making her bolt upright. He had sat down next to Shen, across from her and laid his food down, a plate of… something.
"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you," he apologized.
Jean shook her head slightly.
"Something wrong with you? You seem tired or down," Rift stated.
Before she could come up with an answer, Sarah started to talk. "Well, it's just that, ouch!" Sarah turned to glare at Jean. She had given her friend a kick to stop her from blabbing out something Jean didn't want Rift to hear. "What was that for?!" Sarah hissed.
Jean shrugged and put on an innocent expression. Rift glanced from one to the other, then raised an eyebrow exactly like Shen had done. It must have been an indication of puzzlement. Instead of pressing the matter, he started to eat. The plate was covered in numerous colors. It looked like it had vegetables, some kind of chips, as well as beans and corn. It looked like the cook just threw a bunch of odds and ends onto the plate and called it lunch.
"Come on, let's go get something to eat," Jean told the others. They had been waiting for the line to die down and, to her good fortune, now was just such a time. Sarah got up, while Shen stayed seated by Rift.
"What was that for?" Sarah asked, still sounding annoyed.
Jean glanced back to make sure they were far enough from the table before answering. "I don't like him." Jean tried to make her voice as flat as possible, as she had done with other times Sarah had come to this same conclusion. "That being the case, I don't want him thinking that I do, he already has a family for crying out loud. He would see me like an annoying kid and make sure to steer clear of me."
"So you DO want him to be around," Sarah said, reading into her friend's words.
"I didn't say that." Sometimes her friend just couldn't accept the facts. Maybe she could learn a few things from Shen.
Sarah went silent, but put on that aggravating smile and kept it there the whole time they were in line. When they got their food, the chef told them it was his special volcano, whatever that meant. Jean noticed he was studying them the whole time they were there and not just their faces either. It made her remember what Shen had said about him being a lecher. She made sure not to look at all interested in the man.
Once they got back to the table, Rift had already gone and Shen was eating from a half-full plate of the colorful food. She wondered how he got ahead of them in the line. "Where did he go?" Sarah asked.
Shen glanced up from his lunch and pointed to the elevator. "He said he had a matter to discuss with the general."
"That's too bad," Sarah said, as the two girls sat down to eat.
Jean was sprawled across her bed, staring at the ceiling. She had been keeping Sarah company until not long ago, but her friend seemed to be getting along really well, all things considered. She bet it was just a front, but wasn't about to ask or she just might cause Sarah to break down.
The reason Jean was now alone was because of Sarah. When she had started talking about some of the attractive men she had seen in training, Jean knew it was only a matter of time before they went to a subject Jean didn't care to discuss. She wished she would have at least found out where Sarah's room was, before she made up something about not feeling well.
Now Jean had nothing to do. She had already gone through her dresser, twice, and had bathed too. She could always drop in on Nesh, but being alone with her thoughts would be better than that alternative. Despite her efforts to do otherwise, she just couldn't help but think of home, which made her think about how she was never going to be able to go back there.
Jean sat up, feeling lonely and homesick. An idea came to mind. She wasn't sure that he would have time for her, but she felt like the general had been a very kind man. Plus, she actually knew where his room was.
Jean walked down the corridor. It was a little earie. None of the doors were open and no one walked the halls.
Jean found her way into the elevator. It was strange being by herself in the little room. Even when she had come down earlier, another woman had been inside with her. Jean looked around for the place the panel would pop out and, after a long minute, she finally found it. The little panel showed the six digits and Jean had to think for a second to remember which floor was the general's. She clicked the fourth and suddenly the beeping sound went off. "That can't be good…." From there it only got worse when the panel changed from numbers to letters. Jean had completely forgotten this detail and now something bad might be about to happen.
Jean didn't bother putting in a code, in fact, she stepped back, hoping that if she didn't enter anything in, things would go back to normal. After a minute, something did happen, but it wasn't what she wanted.
The sensation of falling struck Jean in the gut. The beeping suddenly cut off, as did the light. She screamed, then was knocked off her feet by an impact. The elevator collided into something, then felt like it sunk another few feet down. Shaken, she was about to get up, when the doors opened, letting in a bluish light and a wave of water. Because she hadn't gotten up yet, the three feet of water washed over her, completely immersing her for just a moment.
Jean pushed up on her knees, getting just above the water, then using the wall for support, got to her feet. The water that lapped round her, was strangely warm. Her mind raced because of the adrenaline pumping through her veins. She knew she was in a bad situation. This must have been some kind of defense to deter unwanted intrusions.
Jean looked through the open doors and felt less worried because there was nothing in sight that appeared threatening. Just outside the elevator was a room with stone and dirt walls, like she had found a natural cave. This room was roughly fifteen feet across and around seven feet to the far wall, where a tunnel ran off into the darkness. The room and tunnel had several feet of water covering the floor. The source of the blue light, that gave illumination to the immediate surroundings, made Jean draw her eyebrows together in puzzlement. The light came from several torches lining both sides of the room, but rather than orange-ish-red, they were a light blue.
The strange color of the flames mesmerized her. Jean stepped slowly out into the room. A sound from behind made her turn back. The elevator lifted several feet up, just enough for the water to pour out. Afraid it would leave her, she jumped back in and the elevator sank again into the water. Jean stood there in the water for a moment, then decided she wanted to go back up. It might be worthwhile to check this place out, but she didn't really want to alone.
The spot where the controls popped out was just under the level of the water. Jean pressed the spot, but the panel didn't emerge. That's when she got the first real sign that this must have been some kind of trap. If she couldn't get back, what was she supposed to do? She pushed the place several more times to the same effect… nothing.
Jean leaned back against the wall, her head tilted back. She could be trapped in here, and was less than enthusiastic about that concept. Maybe if someone were to click the little button beside the doors that brought the elevator to another level, then it would take her back up. It couldn't be long before someone was going to use the elevator, after all there were hundreds of people in the compound and she didn't know of any other way to travel between different floors without it.
Nearly twenty minutes had passed before Jean decided to get out of the elevator again. There must have been be another way out. As soon as she got out, just as before, the elevator raised up several feet and the water drained out. She tried putting a little of her weight on the elevator, but as soon as she did, it instantly started to drop.
With a sigh, Jean turned to regard the room again. Everything looked the same from out here. She trudged through the water to stand beside one of the strange torches. How was it this blue color? she wondered. She had seen blue before in the bonfire back home, but never the whole fire and not such a light blue either. Supposedly, the flames turned blue when it got really hot or something.
Jean examined the torch for a moment more, then reached closer and was shocked to feel no heat resonating from it. "What in the…?" she muttered. She quickly waved her hand through the dancing flames and it wasn't hot, but cold. Jean gasped, pulling her hand back. After a moment, she tentatively stuck her hand right into the fire. Like before, it was cold, really cold. After several seconds, she withdrew her hand to see that frost had formed on it. She had to stare at her hand for a long moment, before plunging it into the water to warm it up.
This fire seemed even more out of place because the water and air, except for immediately around the torch, were warm. Jean glanced off into the darkness. There was no current in the water, but it felt like something was pulling her to go into the dark tunnel. The elevator still hadn't moved and she decided that's how it was going to stay, which meant there had to be another way out.
Her mind was made up, Jean took hold of the nearest blue-flame torch and headed down the tunnel.
Shen sat there, thinking, while the trainees filed back for the final training session. A lot of them looked less enthusiastic than usual, probably having something to do with what David had done. The main thing on his mind was the elevator. Of course, there were other ways between the levels, but no one wanted to go to the hidden stairways. Whoever made those spiral steps wanted people to get lost in them. The elevator had been down for thirty minutes before someone got it to come. They found out that the last user had tried and failed to get to the general's study. It was a bad omen for sure, likely meaning someone in the compound was after their leader. Shen thought it would have been a good idea to look at the recruits more closely, but John was a trusting man and didn't feel that need.
Shen stroked his chin, blocking out his brother's ranting. Who could be after the general? Was one of the new trainees…? Had the enemy infiltrated their ranks? The real question of concern is whether it had been more than one. If there was only one, then he had likely been taken care of by now. People didn't survive too long on the sixth level, unless they stayed in the room just outside of the elevator. When they went down to check for the intruder, no one was to be found. Whoever it was, must have gone further in.
"Shen, Shen!" a girl's voice intruded into his brooding.
Shen turned to see Sarah stop beside him. She was breathing heavily and had a worried look on her face. "What's the problem?"
She took a few deep breaths then spoke. "I can't find Jean anywhere. She said she wasn't feeling good, so I left her alone for a while, but I checked her room and everywhere else I could, but she isn't anywhere!" her words tumbled out in a rush. Shen held up his hands to stem the flow.
"You say she is missing?"
Sarah nodded vigorously.
"Hmmm… I wonder. Sarah."
"Yes?" she said hopefully.
"Would you find David for me?"
Jean had gone around so many corners, she felt she probably couldn't get back even if she tried. But, for some reason, she didn't feel too worried. The warm water was calming and the air had the same effect. If she were to stop and rest for a bit, there was a danger that she would fall asleep. Something inside her head warned that this place was wrong and she shouldn't feel so calm, but the thought was pushed aside. There was nothing to fear down here. She stared at the wall for a moment, looking at her reflection. The water that ran down the wall seemed to be falling too slow, in fact, it almost looked like the walls were made of water. The only problem with this idea was that water couldn't flow through the air that slowly. She decided she was probably just imagining it.
Jean tilted her head to the side. It seemed so normal until she started thinking about it. The water-like walls weren't see through, but the reflection it gave was only a little more than a shadow. She held the torch closer, but the reflection didn't change.
Jean spun around, reacting to a sound. There was a constant sound of running water, but whatever alerted her was differed somehow. For some reason it didn't scare her, the calming feeling was still strong. Instead, it just made her curious.
When Jean was walking toward the sound, the warning voice in her head finally broke through. She stopped dead in her tracks. What am I doing? She had no idea what was down here and, judging from the fact that this she was sent here after that incident in the elevator, it probably wasn't something she wanted to see. Maybe going back to that first room would be the best course of action.
Ever since leaving the room with the blue torches, the walls had been covered with the strange water, which was disorientating. It was like the tunnels were alive, because nothing was still and shadows followed her, which felt creepy, even if they were just dim reflections of herself.
After several turns, Jean really started to get worried. Everything looked exactly the same and she couldn't remember what paths she had taken. There were many branches off of the tunnel and she could have come from any of them. Jean knew she hadn't been in this same tunnel the whole time, she had gone through several. But that calmness, the same one that was trying to lull her once again, had made it seem unnecessary to pay attention to where she went. Despite the prevailing feeling, worry was beginning to spring up inside of her. She had to get back.
Another sound echoed through the tunnel. Jean spun around, searching for the noise. It sounded like someone moving through the water behind her. At first, she passed over the vague shadow with her eyes, then realized it wasn't on the wall like the others she saw had been. It was directly in front of her in the passage and, on top of that, it was bigger, a lot bigger.
Jean turned back, slowly, as if she hadn't spotted the follower. Her heart was starting to beat faster and fear was breaking through the calming atmosphere. She continued forward. After a few minutes, she thought she might have just been imagining things, because nothing had approached and there had been no noise, when the sound of someone in the water from behind reconfirmed it.
Jean turned on her heels and saw the same dark form just at the edge of the light, so that it was only a huge shape, no features showing. "Don't come any closer." She would have been proud of how confident she sounded, if her voice didn't break at the end. It was quiet for a whole minute, then in response, a very deep chuckle echoed through the tunnel. It was far too deep for any normal man's voice. Once the echoing stopped, two eyes appeared atop the shadow, as if they had been closed until now. The eyes were the same color as the fire, a very light blue, almost like she was staring into glowing ice. That gaze sent chills up and down her spine, despite how warm she was.
The shadow took a large step forward, becoming more defined. Though details weren't completely clear, the silhouette looked like a large man with horns. Jean wanted to turn and run, but the eyes locked her in place and made her feel like she was in someone else's body, unable to use it. She didn't think she had ever felt this kind of terror. She didn't think a creature like this could even exist. She finally got her body to move, though it didn't react as she wanted. Jean stumbled backward and lost her balance and a terrifying thing happened. The torch met the water and everything was plunged into darkness as she was briefly submerged. A scream ripped from her throat as her head came out of the water. She didn't think it possible, but maybe somehow, someone would hear her.
Everything was silent, aside from the sound of flowing water. Jean didn't wait to hear her stalker make the first move. She had more control of her body now that she wasn't gazing into those icy blue eyes. Jean found the wall with one hand and put the other in front of her. She moved as fast as possible without falling, trying to get away. A moment after she began her escape, the creature could be heard trudging through the water, faster than before. It was coming for her this time. Jean screamed for help again.
A wall halted Jean's progress. She turned, putting her back against the wall, the water running slowly over her. Those blue eyes shined in the darkness as the creature came closer. Tears mixed with the water running down her face as she saw the creature approaching. She could feel its presence now. It could only be described as evil, similar to the feeling immediately after waking from a nightmare. Whatever being those icy eyes belonged to, was malevolent. She knew it was over and that just made the tears flow more freely. She didn't want to die, she had to live for her parents and for the village that no longer existed.
"Please, please don't kill me," she begged between sobs. The creature stopped ten feet away from her and another one of those inhuman laughs burst from it. A splash came from the left and, an instant later, light flooded the passage. It wasn't the light blue firelight, but genuine orange-red light. Before Jean could register what was going on, a cloaked shape was standing between her and the now visible creature. The best word to describe it was demon. The demon was standing eight feet tall with tattered pants and no shirt, showing off every inch of solid muscle. The demon's skin was abnormal, as if living in this dark place had bleached his skin, making the beast a light blue to match those eyes. A long skinny tail waved from side to side behind him, making the demon seem impatient or annoyed. His hands were topped off by claws that were half as long as his horns, which must have been almost two feet long each. The demon's face was handsome, despite the fangs shown in the grin he gave them.
The demon's gaze didn't draw Jean in like before, but that was because now they were trained on the newcomer. She recognized that cloak and the voice immediately when he spoke.
"Stay back Thailog!" Rift threatened. He held a torch in one hand and a long sword in the other.
The demon answered Rift's threat in a voice, like his laugh, far too deep to belong to a mere human. "You presume to give me orders, boy!?" The sound of his voice sent fear rippling through her once again.
Rift didn't answer, only held his ground between her and Thailog.
The demon seemed to have blue fire leaking from his eyes, a blue mist, but it wasn't possible for fire to flow from the eyes. On second thought, this demon shouldn't exist either, so maybe it wasn't such a stretch. Thailog looked like he wanted to approach, but for some reason didn't. "No… no… I need you alive for it to be possible…." Thailog seemed to be talking to himself, rather than the two humans standing in front of him. Once the demon went silent again, the previous grin that had vanished at Rift's command, returned. Without another word, the demon turned tail and trudged off into the darkness. A stunned silence prevailed for a long time, then Rift twisted around to regard her. He seemed even more beautiful to Jean than before, though it probably had something to do with how relieved she was.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
The question made the tears and sobbing come back in full force, then Jean stepped forward and threw her arms around him, crying into his chest. Rift awkwardly sheathed his blade, then hesitantly reached up to stroke Jean's hair. The gesture was comforting and she stood there holding him for a long time as she cried.