Trial by Fire

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Cat and Mouse

“Stand squarely to your opponent. Place your feet like this. Now pivot, pivot, pivot, pivot. Good. Dip, dip, dip. Block, block, block. Advance, withdraw, advance, withdraw. Excellent, now, let’s go through our strikes.”

Xilo got in a kick-boxing stance, knees slightly bent, elbows tucked, and her stance tall. Onyx and Nike mirrored her stance. There was no sound on the sparring grounds save for the occasional dust tornado. As Xilo went through their drills Tootsie was on the cusp of the forest training with Poppy.

They were playing a game: Hide and Go Seek, except with the implication of murder. As they approached a small clearing, Poppy explained the rules to a nervous Tootsie. The knee high grass swayed as Poppy struggled to speak through the gusts of wind. Afterall, Xilo was usually the one yelling, she was without her better-half.

“Here we are. The rules are simple. We meet in the middle of the clearing. I will toss a bright blue ball of energy in the air, you will be able to sense it from at least five miles off, so don’t go too far. Once the ball touches the ground it will start to float back up but ten times as slow and green this time. That is when the game starts. The objective is simple, outmaneuver your opponent and immobilize them, or survive with the most members on your side once the time has elapsed.”

Tootsie promptly responded, “Understood, Lady Poppy.”

“Today, it will be just you and I. The same rules apply. Outlive the time, you draw, if any one of us is defeated, there is a winner.”

“Understood, Lady Poppy.”

Poppy lit a ball of energy from her hand. Before she let it go she turned her gaze to Tootsie.

“Oh and one more thing. Tie breakers are won by a knife contest. You fight in a small circle until one of you submits or is incapacitated.”

Poppy tossed the ball of energy in the air then sped off into the forest. Tootsie looked up in the sky, his sap churning as he panicked. He ran in the opposite direction of Poppy, the ball was already a fifth of the way to the floor. He looked for a small crevice, anything to hide him. Finally, he found a fallen tree. Barely fitting inside he thought it was the best place to hide, because Poppy wouldn’t be able to physically get to him, even if he was spotted.

He squeezed his tiny frame between the mangled semi-hollow remains of the great tree. Little black bugs skittered in every direction as the not-so-small intruder walked deeper in their ecosystem. As he stepped, long decayed wood squelched with his every step. At last, Tootsie found the end of the wooden cavern and decided to curl behind a protruding rock inside the tree.

Tootsie could sense that the ball was almost to the floor. He worried that Poppy would find a way to get to him regardless of how well he hid, but then it dawned on him. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t beat her in a battle with knives, real or not. If he draws, he has only prolonged the inevitable.

As the ball touched the ground the next round had begun, and the hunt was on. Poppy ran back to the clearing and looked at the grass. She began tracking where Tootsie had gone. She sprinted through the forest following the tracks, constantly finding cover just in case of the possible ambush.

A small, gentle creek with icy water flowed through the landscape. The rocks full of green algae were slick and hard to traverse. Little fish rushed out of the way of footsteps, scurrying away down stream. In the distance birds chirped their usual songs as small animals disturbed the brush in the distance.

In their classes, Tootsie paid close attention to the subjects of espionage and subterfuge, specifically the art of deceit. It was obvious that he wouldn’t make a good frontline combatant, so he threw all of his energy in the other direction. The creek offered him the opportunity to take Poppy by surprise. She wouldn’t be able to clear it safely without briefly looking down at her feet. At that moment, Tootsie had planned to spring a trap.

Using his metal claws he climbed a nearby tree, making sure to not show puncture wounds on the side of the tree that was facing the creek. He searched for a shallow spot in the bark then started clawing furiously at the flesh of the tree. Soon, he had coated himself in sap. Sticky and adhesive, if he landed on Poppy’s back he would be staying there. Then, he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

He realized that clearing the fallen tree would take Poppy some time. Sitting on a branch overlooking the creek, he waited eagerly for her to show up. He could sense the green ball was about three quarters of the way to the floor. Although he was worried, this was still his best shot. Out in the open he knew it would be over quickly.

Suddenly, a figure appeared out of the bushes eyeing the tracks he left in the mud. Slowly, they approached the creek, but something was off. Tootsie stared, moving closer to Poppy. The image of her was flickering, as if it was being projected from somewhere else. Right before it disappeared the figure stared directly at him.

Tootsie’s eyes turned white. He knew he had been found. He knew if he turned around, she would be right there staring at him with a knife to the back of his head.

So he closed his eyes and jumped.

He would have landed in the creek some twenty feet had Poppy not snatched his arm before he fell. Tootsie frantically looked up into the eyes of Poppy who literally had his life in her hands.

“You are found.” She said dryly as she hoisted him up.

Tootsie hanged his head in defeat, clearly disappointed in his showing. Poppy grabbed his face and stared deep into his eyes.

“You didn’t give up when you hid inside that tree. You didn’t give up when you had been found. You hold your head high and you listen to me.”

Tootsie’s eyes went green with life as he said “Understood, Lady Poppy!”

Poppy took her hand away then comfortably sat on the branch feeling her fingers which were full of the sap Tootsie had collected.

“It was a good idea. An amatuer tracker would have been tricked. Your best weapon will be concealment. Your claws are a great mechanism for climbing, you can use that to your advantage. Your small body is an important asset because you can cover your tracks, even mimic some of the animals in the area. Your feet are like a dru, similar in appearance. You should use that to throw your prey off. I will show you the tracks once we get back to the House, we will work on copying them in the field.”

“Understood, Lady Poppy.”

“The best assassins are masters of concealment that manage to almost completely blend in with their environment. You can’t set a trap unless you convince your prey that they have nothing to worry about. They let their guard down, then you strike. Zombies are especially easy to hunt because they feed on animals. Do you understand what I am saying?”

“Yes, Lady Poppy.”

“Next, I will teach you the after-image technique. You can project your image which acts like a clone. You can see your enemies, but they will also be able to pick up on your energy signature and find out where you are projecting from. Its main purpose is locate the enemy while also giving yourself enough time to flee if you have been seen. It ensures protection, but isn’t effective at long ranges.”

“Understood, Lady Poppy.”

“Let me see your claws.”

Tootsie held out his hands as Poppy examined them.

“Is this iron?”

Tootsie shook his head.

“It is not iron, Lady Poppy. It does not rust and stays rather sharp.”

Poppy eyed his nails in wonder.

“Do they grow any longer than this, do you trim them?”

“No, Lady Poppy. I have not trimmed them, only sharpened. They have not grown since I graduated from Osk.”

“Mmm. Onyx can shape metal, is this correct?”

Tootsie nodded eagerly, “Yes, Lady Poppy.”

Poppy let go of Tootsie’s hands.

“Very well. Come, we will join the rest at the sparring grounds.”

They both slid down the tree and briskly ran towards the sparring grounds

Sensing curiosity Poppy asked, “Little one, is there something on your mind?”

Tootsie spoke in between strides.

“Yes- Lady Poppy. I was- wondering, why I- don’t train with Onyx- and Nike anymore?”

Her face out of sight from Tootsie, Poppy smiled.

“Because assassins don’t need to know how to fight.”
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