No one ever looked up.
For this reason, a black clothed figure was crouched in the gnarled arms of an ancient tree. In the sparse moonlight she was invisible against the background, waiting patiently for her prey. Her metallic purple eyes, the only visible feature, scanned the ground searching the darkness for every possible detail.
The minutes ticked by slowly.
The whisper of the breeze was chilled by the promise of winter, but she ignored the dropping temperature. Her intense focus even overshadowed the slight ache in her muscles from maintaining her position for an extended period of time.
Every rustle in the underbrush, every stirring of the leaves, brought her sharp eyes around in search for some sign of her quarry.
Finally, a similarly garbed figure passed beneath her tree, slinking from shadow to shadow. She felt a surge of satisfaction as she shifted her weight to the balls of her feet in preparation for the attack.
She dropped down from the branches and brought her prey to its knees before there was any time for her victim to react. She removed the hood and scarf of her opponent, revealing the pale, narrow face of a young woman with short sandy hair. Her features were harsh but blunt, giving her the brutish appearance of one who delights in violence.
The young woman looked up at the strange metallic eyes that were flecked with gold. She clenched her fists, immediately prepared to lash out, and her face contorted in an expression of pure loathing. “Adesina,” she spat.
Adesina didn’t need to ask how she had been recognized. She knew her eyes made her easily identifiable. “I hoped I would be the one to mark you, Basha.”
“I had hoped to kill you.”
Adesina didn’t doubt it. The two young women were part of a class of students training for an elite and selective military group, commonly known as the Shimat. The competition was fierce, and “accidents” happened.
Basha was an unremarkable student, but she was vindictive and unrelenting, which some teachers mistook for determination and strength of character. From the moment she had laid eyes on Adesina, some ten years ago, Basha had hated her. That hate only grew as Adesina excelled among her peers.
Adesina was unusually gifted, even for a Shimat. She had the uncanny ability to sense her surroundings and knew how to use that to her advantage. She was exceptionally agile and her endurance levels were far above normal. These traits, among others, were the reason why she had begun her training five years earlier than any other student.
Adesina reciprocated Basha’s intense dislike. Not only that, but she was aware of her own gifts and Basha’s shortcomings. It rankled Adesina’s pride to see Basha gain distinction through the misconceptions of certain instructors.
A number of sarcastic retorts rose in Adesina’s fifteen-year-old mind, but she ignored them. Basha saw the scornful quirk to Adesina’s eyebrows, and her own eyes gleamed with the desire for violent revenge.
Instead of voicing her thoughts, Adesina drew the dagger from the belt around her waist. “I have unveiled you, Shi Basha. Yield or be disgraced.”
Basha’s expression twisted as she debated whether it was worth the disgrace to defy the person she despised more than anything in the world. When she spoke, it was between clenched teeth.
Adesina stepped forward so she was facing Basha’s kneeling figure and placed the edge of her blade against her enemy’s cheek.
“I mark you, so that all may know of your first failure.”
Her stroke was perhaps harder than it needed to be. Basha swore, but let it bleed freely. Adesina took a small square of white cloth from a pouch on her belt and stained it with some of Basha’s blood. She held it carefully in her hand and returned Basha’s hood and scarf to her.
Basha took them and got to her feet. “A day will come when I will make you pay for this mark. You will rue the day you came into this world.”
Adesina rolled her eyes. Basha had always tended to be melodramatic. “Come on. We have to return to the school.”
Adesina began to turn, but her eyes caught the movement of a sleek shadow several yards away. It was hard to imagine that there was anything more black than the woods at night, but something darker crouched just out of sight. Two golden orbs gleamed momentarily but then seemed to disappear altogether. When she looked closer she could see only trees.
It must have been some sort of animal, for Adesina seemed to be the only human with odd colored eyes. Given the size of the spheres, it must have been an enormous creature. There had never been any beast so large this close to the fortress.
She considered investigating further, but an impatient movement from Basha brought her head around sharply. Adesina’s learned suspicion of Basha overrode her present curiosity. Frowning to herself, Adesina continued on her way.
The autumn leaves lay thick on the ground, but the footsteps of the two young women were muted by the damp soil. They were merely two silhouettes slipping through the darkness, hidden among the crooked trees that surrounded them.
As they walked, Adesina’s mind turned back over the events of the night. It had been a surprise to be shaken from sleep and told that tonight would be the final test for their year of training. If they passed they would be eligible to advance to the next year. If not, they would be put through a remedial course of training.
They had been individually led to different parts of the forest northwest of the school and told that their one objective was to find and unveil one of their classmates. Those unveiled were to be marked by the victor.
Now Adesina and Basha emerged from the forest and approached a small camp. It consisted of two small tents set up on the hill overlooking the forest. The three instructors of Adesina’s group of students stood waiting, robed in black. In the darkness they took on the spectral appearance of the harbingers of death, and the young student felt a chill run down her spine at the sight. Beside the instructors stood a spidery device similar to a brazier, but with flames instead of coals.
Adesina looked at the faces of the men that had taught and trained her since she was five years old. They regarded her gravely as the two young women approached. She greeted them respectfully in order of seniority, bowing to each. “Shar Breyen. Shar Jareb. Shar Per.”
They bowed back. “Shi Adesina.”
Basha went through the same ceremony, but did not receive any acknowledgment in return. Her pale blue eyes smoldered even though she kept them lowered.
Breyen indicated toward the brazier. Adesina took the stained square of cloth she was holding in her hand and gently laid it on the fire. The flames licked at the corners of the cloth, blackening them and curling them as if it were contorting in agony. Adesina watched it dispassionately and wafted the smoke onto her face before stepping back again.
This was a symbolic ritual of the Shimat. The stained cloth represented the victory won, and all that the victory had cost. The sacrifice, the skill, the lessons learned. By breathing in the smoke, it all became part of you. The ritual was also a way to honor those who made you stronger.
Per nodded approvingly. “Shi Adesina, take your prisoner to the medical wing and then you may retire.”
Both students bowed again before walking past their instructors.
The hill leveled out to become flat ground after a few steps. The grass was greyish-green in color and coarse in texture. In the meager moonlight it took on a sickly appearance. This, in addition to the thin mist swirling over the ground, gave a ghostly feeling to the fortress that served as the school and training facility.
The fortress was set on the edge of a cliff that overlooked the ocean. The great outer wall looked harsh and forbidding at night, but during the day it gave a strange sort of comfort in its solitary strength. There were no other cities or villages near the fortress; no other buildings that might call themselves neighbors. The fortress stood alone for many leagues, and it seemed to take power in that seclusion.
The massive gates stood open, which was quite unusual, but several Shimat guards compensated for the lapse of security. Three stood along the wall directly above the gates, and two more stood on the ground on either side. The others were positioned at even intervals along the wall like dark columns, upright and unmoving.
All of them wore the black uniform that Adesina and her peers had been privileged to wear for the night’s activities. Black clothing, knee-high boots, gloves, a high-collared black leather vest, and a hood and scarf that only left the eyes visible. These glittering spheres watched the two young women closely, but the guards remained otherwise still and silent.
Basha fumed inaudibly as they walked. Her burning glare was fixed on the ground and her fists were clenched at her side. When they passed through the gates, she turned to Adesina and said venomously, “I can go to the medical wing by myself.”
Adesina shrugged and walked away. Less time spent in Basha’s presence was always a good thing, and she wanted to get what rest she could before dawn.
Basha took the corridor to the left and Adesina turned right, back to their sleeping quarters.
Each of the rooms that served as sleeping quarters held ten to fifteen students. There were two or three metal washstands per room, and one large mirror on the wall in which they could thoroughly inspect the neatness of their personal appearance.
Every Shi, or student, was instilled with a strict sense of order, which carried over into every aspect of their lives. The uniform had to be meticulous, the hair combed back from the face, proper hygiene attended to, and so forth. All such rules for personal care and general cleanliness were set down in what was casually called “the code.”
Keeping this in mind, Adesina resisted the urge to simply plop into bed fully dressed in spite of her fatigue. She took off the Shimat uniform she had been given for her assignment, folded it carefully, and placed it on the small chest located at the foot of her cot.
Under normal circumstances, a student wasn’t allowed to touch such a uniform. They were only worn by full Shimat, and had to be earned. For certain tests, however, that rule was waived.
Adesina put on her sleeping uniform, unpinned her hair from its tightly braided knot, and climbed carefully into bed. With a weary expression on her face, she settled down for some much needed sleep.