Equilibrium

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11: Trials and Tribulations

Larke, 1182

Dean led me through the corridor, wordless. We passed our rooms, and I eyed my door as we left it, memorizing this landmark. The rest of the doors we passed by seemed identical to ours, all miniature apartments for permanent residents. I tried to discreetly peek around, to see exactly how far this manor went on, but the empty walls held no obvious clues. I would have to explore later. Our footsteps tapped loudly, sharp against the stark silence between us.

After several twists and turns and a staircase or two, we came to a distinctive door. It stood there, imposing, staring us down, heavy locks and thick reinforced steel frame. A guard sat cross legged on the floor, with his head rested against the wall, eyes half closed. Upon hearing mine and Dean's approach, he scrambled into a hyper-alert standing position in front of the mysterious door. I saw Dean's slight grin, amused with the guard's behavior. Whatever Dean's position in this organization, it was enough to inspire sudden action.

Dean nodded at the man, who stumbled over himself to unlock the door for him.

The door swung open, the rusty hinges creaking under the weight.

It was dark, the smell of copper permeating the air. I recognized the scent immediately – blood. Dean entered first, and I composed myself before I followed. What would a farmer's wife do in this situation? I steeled myself, preparing for whatever I would have to do, mentally donning my disguise. Dean avoided my gaze as I walked through that ominous frame towards him.

The room, or dungeon, rather, was dark and smelled musty underneath the obvious odor of blood. The walls had shackles bolted into the wall placed every few feet, and two more doors appeared to hold more secrets beyond them. They were similar to the heavy entry door, but were smaller, each hiding what must be two more secluded cells. I didn't envy those trapped inside of them.

It wasn't until I heard the quietest of whimpers before I noticed a human being puddled up in the far corner. What I'd mistaken for a pile of rags in my peripheral vision, was actually was a man. As we approached, I realized he was clearly the source of the smell of blood. He was covered in it, all of his wet, dirty clothes were soaked with it, and blood dripped from his lips, and probably other places as well considering the sheer amount of it he had on him. He had been here a while; yellow bruises speckled in with the other colors of deep blue and purple all over the visible skin. The slight jingle of chains clinked together as he breathed heavily, his chains attached to the wall.

"This is a Royal guard to the Usurper," Dean said, his words biting and sharp.

"What use is he to us?" I asked warily, unable to tear my eyes away from this man's miserable existence.

"Nothing, now," Dean said, his excitement undeniable. "He's told us as much as he can."

"What would you have me do?" I asked quietly. I mustn't appear too comfortable with this idea, though a certain amount of zeal wouldn't hurt my cause. I knew what Dean would ask of me, but a farmer's wife wouldn't dare assume.

He felt behind his back and pulled out a knife, still in its sheath. He must have had it secured to his belt, hanging off of the back. He held it in front of me, what meager light we had shining just enough to reflect off of what little metal was visible.

"Kill him," he said, the knife flat in his palm as he extended it towards me.

I stared, open-mouthed, at his bluntness.

"Shouldn't be too difficult," he said, eyeing the encased knife. "Just like butchering livestock."

I took the knife from him. The pleasant, sarcastic yet lighthearted man I had met before was gone, replaced by a demon shrouded in a beautiful vessel. His smile all at once became evil, the grin taking on a rather sinister air. I killed because it was required of me, not because I enjoyed it. Could Dean say the same?

I turned the knife in my fingers, leaving it sheathed. I closed my eyes, mentally donning the invisible mask I always wore when I had to commit an act I abhorred. When a task was too dreadful, too horrible to perform, yet also necessary, I just had to do it. Telling myself I wore a mask, that I was someone – or even something – else, was a technique that Liss had taught me years ago. He told me once that if he could visualize somebody else doing it, that it wasn't him, that it became easier to shoulder the inevitable guilt and shame. I had been doing this for years, wearing the mask. It was the only way I'd gotten through this life thus far.

"No time like the present," reminded Dean, stirring me from my thoughts.

Slowly, I unsheathed the knife, deliberately handing Dean the casing and pressing it back into his open palm. The blade, sharp and deadly, felt heavy in my hands. But, the girl in the mask knew this to be easy; she could do anything she needed to. She was strong, capable, and fierce. And sometimes, I could pretend she wasn't me.

The knife felt firm in my fist, knuckles white. The girl in the mask stabbed into the mass of human before her, precise and forceful. She wrenched the knife out as quickly as she'd inserted it, and it came back glistening wet and red. I could tell by the feel that I'd hit my mark exactly as intended.

The guard screamed in pain, grasping his fresh wound, his chains restricting his efforts to staunch the bleeding. It was a novice's fumbling, to stab the meat of the arm. A sob racked my lips, as I pretended to be horror-stricken. Gasping for air, I dropped the bloody knife on the dirty floor, the clang echoing against the stone walls.

Dean rushed to my side; his sudden presence more comforting than I'd anticipated. He held me to his chest, squeezing me tight with his arms around my torso, securing me to his body. I buried my face in his neck, breathing in his scent. The guard's pool of blood grew, and he whimpered and begged for mercy that would never come.

"The throat will be quicker," Dean said quietly into my hair, his breath moving it so that it tickled my ear. "Go for a horizontal slice. He'll bleed out and it'll be done."

He let go of me, looking at me to see if I was okay. I pulled in shuddering breaths, the mask still tightly secured in my mind, eyes darting wildly across the room, looking anywhere but at the knife or the guard. Dean bent down to retrieve his weapon from the floor, wiping the blood off haphazardly on his pants before handing it to me once more.

In my hands again, the knife glistened with evil intent. This time, I would finish this. Before I could question myself, I arced out, the blade a mere extension of my wrist, so sharp that the slightest touch was enough for the skin to sever. Again, blood poured out, but this time, the cry of pain was muffled by blood choking him, gagging him, as he bled through his esophagus.

It wasn't long before he bled out, and slumped silent on the floor, motionless. The blood pool still grew, the dark liquid staining my shoes. I refused to step back.

"Mercy is a quick death," said Dean somberly.

Instantly, I was transported to the first time I'd taken a life.

~~~

The ground hard under my feet, the autumn air still around us in the training yard. Two lines of Suryan Mages in training faced each other, the tension thick.

"The blunted blades only," said a deep, commanding voice belonging to our High Suryan Premiere. Liss. "No magic."

The recruits all nodded in agreement. My sparring partner, a boy of fourteen, two years my elder, stood across from me, his arrogant smirk irritating me. He thought he was better than me, it was clear on his face. I knew I hadn't won many fights yet, but I was still learning. My body, gangly and awkward, was still growing; I didn't know how to move gracefully. His stare incensed me, and I vowed to win this one.

We began our bout, the pairs separating enough to give plenty of space, and lifted our training blades towards each other. The sweat dripped down my spine despite the cool, brisk, air.

"Just give up already," the kid taunted, "you can't beat me."

I gritted my teeth and bared my lips, advancing towards him.

Attack after attack, I stumbled through, he blocked every single one. I tripped and fell forward onto my knees. How embarrassing, I thought, that I couldn't even do this. How would I be a Suryan Mage if I couldn't beat him?

I glanced up to see Princess Nya relaxing at the edge of the training yard accompanied by one of her ladies in waiting. Her hair shone, as it always did, and she looked so composed and regal it distracted me.

His blade smacked me hard on the shoulder.

"Get up, loser."

I growled under my breath, cheeks reddening. Awkwardly, I returned to a stand, immediately met by another attack that pushed me back to the ground, the impact jarring through my bones.

His laughter rang in my ears. My rage overcame me, and I became blind to my surroundings. I gave into the anger, and energy built up inside me before I could stop it.

Suddenly, the energy was too much for me. I felt my emotions feeding the energy, allowing it to grow out of control. I couldn't hold it in, to do so would be like to stand in front of a tsunami and expect it to fall at my feet. I closed my eyes, feeling the power push itself from my fingertips and instinctively extended my arms as far away from me as I could. Blind, I felt the energy finally breach the threshold of my body, and light seared through my closed eyelids.

As the energy exited me, it knocked me backwards once more, reducing me to a pile of spent flesh, my bones aching from the stress, my muscles sore from trying to hold back, my skin tender all over, as if I'd been standing out in the sun for hours.

I blinked, the contrast from the heat of my body and the explosion I'd just created against the fresh autumn air making my eyes water. Slowly, I was able to make out what was in front of me. A large figure knelt over my opponent, long dreads draped over his back, the glint from his rank on his shoulder blinding me once more. His head turned to me, his eyes immeasurably sad, shoulders sagging, mouth pulled tight into a line.

"At least he had the mercy of a quick death," he whispered, staring at me meaningfully. "Skyward may his soul be."

~~~

"Are you here?" Dean asked, waking me from my reverie. "I think I lost you there for a minute." He rubbed my arms up and down, generating friction. "The first kill is the hardest." His eyes stared deeply into mine.

I could see the sympathy in his eyes, and it hurt more than the memories.

That hadn't been my first kill, but the tears in my eyes were from that day years ago, when I was twelve years old. The subsequent deaths had never wrecked me as much as that first one had. He had been a child, somebody's son, somebody's brother, and a fellow mage. His death at my hand was quick, but senseless, unnecessary. It wasn't mercy, it was a butchering. I refused to even glance at the body on the floor, my freshest kill. At least his death accomplished something.

"Welcome to the Naga gang," he said enunciating each syllable with meaning.

We ignored the dead man just feet away, and all we acknowledged was this achievement, this monumental act of loyalty that I'd committed. I was in.

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