Flame and Shadow

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Chapter 24

The following morning, I groaned and rolled out of my cot at the time when I usually got up. I had enough of lying still, fruitlessly attempting to sleep. As I silently crept out of the room of still-sleeping men, I cursed myself. One would think I would be able to sleep after the intense mission the night before, but I couldn’t. My mind could not stop running through everything I had seen and done.

Seeing the brutal warfare between the heroic agents of Tsalderek and the evil Nephilim of Nahalore first-hand had made an impression upon my brain. Then, fighting that woman. I should have killed her when I had the chance. I’ve never killed anyone before, and I hesitated, leading to her making an escape. And what was with my physical abilities increasing? Never had I felt so fast or so strong before last night. How did that happen?

All of these thoughts flooded and consumed my mind, making sleep completely impossible. I walked down the hallway toward the bathroom to throw some water on my face. I gasped as the cold water from the sink splashed against my skin. It did little to help me clear my head, but at least it woke me up a little.

Rather than heading back to the sleeping quarters, I decided to walk down to the training area and do a little exercise. Maybe I was an exercise addict, but beating the stuffing out of a punching bag had a way of helping me get things straight.

I reached the gym, and prepared to go into the weight room. The moment I opened the door, I found myself face to face with the Bowden brothers.

My first reaction was to assume a defensive position, but they did not attempt to attack. Instead, they only glared at me.

“What was that?!” Raphael demanded. “Why did you go on that mission?!”

“You could’ve gotten killed!” Eli added furiously.

I was considerably surprised by their reception of my actions.

“Well…Razo told me that I should be a part of the mission to get some combat experience.”

“Razo didn’t know anything about you being on that mission.”

“He wouldn’t have risked your life for something so trivial. Our future depends on you. Don’t be screwing it up by pulling dumb stunts like that!”

“But, Sagar said-“

“Sagar didn’t know what he was talking about!” Raphael interrupted. “Razo didn’t order you to go on that mission. If you keep putting yourself in danger like that, the repercussions will be severe.”

After my scolding, the two brothers pushed past me, and left the training room.

I stood, stunned by what I had just heard. My mind worked to process the possible implications of this information. It was possible the Bowden brothers were attempting to manipulate me, using scare tactics to keep me from getting experience. It was also possible that they were telling the truth, and Razo didn’t want me to get hurt or killed, jeopardizing the prophecy. That would be consistent with what Sagar had told me about Razo’s beliefs.

Hanson. He was the one who told me that Razo and Sagar had claimed to want me on the mission. Both of them had denied doing it. Maybe he was the one to want me to go along, and only feigned that he didn’t. Suddenly, everything seemed to make sense. Hanson had sent me on the mission to get me killed. He’s always hated me, and this was his chance to be rid of me.

And to think that I saved his life!

Before I did anything rash, I knew I needed to make sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that Hanson was really behind it. Although I knew he didn’t like me, I would need specific evidence before I could actually incriminate him. I still had to consider all of the other possibilities. Razo’s bodyguards had said Razo didn’t want me going. Hanson had said that Sagar and Razo did want me going. Anyone could be trying to manipulate me here. Razo, his bodyguards, Hanson, Sagar…

No. If there was one person on the planet I could trust, it was him. Sagar had been like a father to me for the past six years. Even when everyone else only wanted to use me, he only wanted the best for me. Well, given time, I would figure it out. In the meantime, training was about to begin for the day. If I wanted to sort everything out, I needed to proceed like everything was normal. I was tired, but that’s never stopped me before.

Before the first light, we began with a morning jog through the neighboring forest. I was the first to be prepared to go, and then I was joined by the other students, Geoffrey, Kazushita, and Rachael. Dani didn’t show up. Honestly, I didn’t blame her; I wouldn’t want to come out in public after what had happened the day before. Just remembering it put me in a bad mood. What was she thinking? Thoughts of the whole scenario dominated my mind during the jog, until I had created a hundred different realities and I was unsure what actually happened. My rage drove me to run faster and faster, until I had left the others far behind.

Following the morning exercise, we went to breakfast. I got my food far before my rivals, but I don’t know why. I was certainly not hungry. As I sat at my table alone with a plate of scrambled eggs and a banana, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the people I used to share mealtime with. First, there was Takeji and Trinity. They seemed to think of me as a friend, but of course that was over. Trinity was gone, and Takeji was a rabid psychopath. Then there was Dani. Through thick and thin, she had always been by my side. Why couldn’t she just have acted like a normal human being? If I never saw her again, that would be fine with me. I guess I was just destined to be alone.

I turned my head to look around the room. By that time, my three competitors had arrived, but there was still no sign of Dani. After staring at my food for some time, I took my tray to the garbage can, and dumped the eggs into it, saving the banana for later. My stomach was too knotted to eat anything.

I made my way back to the training center, and worked on stretching out my muscles before the others came. While I was doing this, Sagar entered the gym alone.

“Hey, Milo.” He greeted me.

I nodded in a silent response and continue stretching my legs.

He walked over and squatted next to me.

“It seems like something’s bothering you, bud. Now, I’m no counselor or whatever, but if you ever have something on your chest, or something you need to get off your mind, you can always talk to me.”

I gave him a strange look.

The man shook his head. “Sorry. I meant something on your MIND, or something you need to get off your CHEST.”

“Thanks.” I nodded. “I can handle it, though.”

Sagar shrugged.

“OK. I know. You’re tough. But if you ever need someone to talk to, I’m not just your teacher, I’m your friend.”

I nodded again. I really appreciated that, but was unsure of how to express my feelings. Sentiment was not one of my most impressive attributes.

A short time later, the remainder of the class had come, and Sagar prepared to begin the lesson.

“Alright, today we’ll be reviewing stealth approaches. Stealth is the most vital weapon you can possess, and it’s one that you can have in any situation, as long as you make use of your surroundings…”

After the lesson, we all went our separate ways for individual training. Everyone had a specific physical goal we were trying to reach, and we all did it in our own way. I didn’t know where the other students went, and I didn’t care. All I cared about right now was pushing my strength to the limit. Whenever we had individual time, I would go to the weight room and lift. My progress was steady, and my strength increased almost daily. My dedication helped, but my body was simply powerfully designed.

Today though, my mind was just not in it. I was unable to concentrate on my normal routine because I was so caught up in everything that was going on. Lying on the bench, I pressed a heavy weight off of my chest, but my mind wandered to thoughts of battle, conspiracies, and prophecy. My arms wavered, and I was barely able to get the bar back to the stops.

After I successfully replaced the weight, I sat up and released a deep breath. Everything was so complicated. How could I possibly hope to make the right choices?

I decided to go for a walk to attempt to clear my head. My feet took me from the weight room into the open gym. As I walked across the large, empty space, I heard a faint noise. It sounded like the beating of a drum, or, more likely, a punching bag.

I followed the sound to its source, and stopped just outside a small, secluded room slightly removed from the main gym. Without giving away my presence, I peeked into the room to see what was going on.

Inside, Rachael was repeatedly striking the target. Her speed and strength, although not on par with mine, were quite impressive. The dark-skinned girl always wore bandages wrapped around her hands, and this was probably why. She put a lot of effort into her training, and pushed herself until her body bled and could go no further. It was her that made me feel the guiltiest about my natural talent. She really tried, but just couldn’t really compete with me.

As she continued to hit it, her punches and kicks became faster and more furious. She began to shout with exertion, rocking the bag with each strike. The more she beat on it, the louder she yelled. All of a sudden, a nearly-transparent greenish arc whipped from her hand, and sliced the heavy bag in two.

My eyes narrowed. That was a Wind Blade attack. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Rachael was a Nephilim!

The girl fell to her knees, angry tears burning in her eyes. She looked down at her open hands, and the tattered bandages that had covered them. So that’s why she wore them. She was attempting to suppress her powers. Well, it didn’t work, and at the worst possible time for her.

I stepped into the room without a word. She spotted me, and her body jolted so much with surprise that she sprawled backward. I walked toward her, with a deadly look on my face. Rachael quickly attempted to explain.

“I-it’s not what you think…”

“It’s exactly what I think.” I contradicted. “What are you, some kind of spy? A traitor?”

The girl was almost crying with fear as she backed away.

“I’m not a spy! I swear! I’m just-“

“Then what are you doing here?!”

“I didn’t mean to do anything! It’s not my fault! I’ve tried to control it, but-“

“I should turn you in to the authorities! Or maybe I’ll give you to Takeji, I’m sure he’d have some fun with you! Or maybe I should just kill you myself…”

At that, Rachael began to change her tactics. Her voice contained a sweetness and timidity I had never heard before.

“Milo, I’ve always liked you. Even when all the others hated you, I had a deep respect for you. Your skill and strength was always what I looked up to-“

“YOU’RE LYING!” I interrupted. “You’ve always hated me, just like everyone else. Everyone either hates me or wants to use me! I can see right through you, scum!”

What a pathetic ruse. I could feel her animosity every bit as much as I could the day we met. She was just trying to earn my mercy. Just then, I saw an opportunity to reduce my amount of competition. I leaned forward into her face, and pinned her arms to her side.

“I’m feeling compassionate today. If you run away, and never come back, I won’t kill you.”

Her eyes were filled with anger and fear. The girl couldn’t even speak.

“Don’t try to go to anyone else, because when they find out about you, they won’t be so kind. So leave, or die. Your choice.”

I pushed her back and released her arms, then turned and walked away slowly. Rachael scrambled to her feet. She was desperately trying to come up with what to do. My ears picked up the sound of rushing wind, and I knew what was coming next.

In a voice choked with terror, she breathed a furious threat.

“Yes, I’m a Nephilim. I don’t know how or why, but I am. And this Wind Blade is capable of far more than cutting a punching bag.”

I decided to run an experiment to test my observations. Without turning to face my attacker, I continued walking away, and positioned myself in the shadow of a support beam. The moment that I heard the wind reach its peak and make a whooshing sound, I performed a backflip.

My jump carried me well over the zephyrous projectile. The instant I landed, I moved with blinding speed and lifted Rachael into the air by her throat. I was right, walking into that shadow had increased my strength and speed enough to easily avoid and counter attack.

I growled at my old rival, now in my power.

“This is your last chance. If you don’t run away, I’ll kill you.”

I dropped her unceremoniously, and turned to leave the room again. This time, the only sound I heard was that of the girl scrambling out the back exit of the room to the outside.

Good. That will make my life that much easier. Dani was out of my way. Rachael was gone. Geoffrey was weakened, and would probably die soon. Three down, one to go.

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