Sweat drips down my back and trickles off my forehead. It’s freezing in this tunnel, but my jacket remains tied around my waist. My long braid must be matted with grime. A nice, thick layer of dust covers my jeans and tank top. My legs are killing me and my stomach keeps growling, but I can’t stop. In this small shaft, which tunnels through the Rocky Mountains, I hurry toward the beam of light ahead of me. How can five hours have passed already? I have to move faster or he’ll catch up to me.
My breaths puff like steam in the frozen air to echo in soft whispers off the mineshaft’s walls. A musty smell fills my nose from the stirred-up dust. I tread lightly to hold down the echoes of my steps.
Ahead, a small cove screams at me to sit and be hidden. Only for a minute; that should be okay. I hurry toward it like it’s my lifeline. Using the wall as a guide, I slide to the rough ground before my legs give out. I take out my last bottle of water and take a small sip, enough to wet my mouth and wash out the taste of dust. Sweet relaxation lures me to stay, but I know I shouldn’t. I should be moving.
Something shifts against the dirt maybe thirty yards behind me. I let out a groan before starting to my feet, shoving the bottle back in my pack. Too long—time to run. My legs and feet protest, but adrenaline pushes me forward. The beam of light gets brighter. I’m making more noise, my every step echoing through the shaft, but I don’t care now; he’s drawn too close already. His light footfalls advance on me as he gets nearer. Too close, damn it!
I push harder. Even if I make it through this tunnel, I still have so far to go. The thought makes me wish I were still at home in my soft bed, sleeping the day away. His feet slap against the dirt only yards behind me as I ponder my two choices: keep running or face him. Feet away from the mouth of the tunnel, I make up my mind. Slowing my pace slightly, I hear him grunting softly. Stopping dead in my tracks, I spin around, seeing his arms extended toward me. He’s menacing, so much taller than me, thick muscles bulging against his t-shirt. Even on this trek through a hole in the mountain, he’s clean, which is more irritating than anything else. His hair still in place, clothes unscathed compared to me—a dirt-covered mess.
I dive to the ground past his left side as he lunges for me. He stumbles slightly behind me, but not nearly enough to fall. My hands scrape against the dirt as I turn to see him towering over me. Ignoring the stinging pain in my hands, I wrap my arms around one of his legs, pulling hard against the back of his knee. He falls backward, his head cracking on a rock, sending an echo through the cave as his pack crunches beneath him. I climb on top of him, sending a few good jabs to his face, making him growl in slight discomfort.
Baring his teeth in a snarl, he bucks under me, making me topple to the side. I mutter multiple expletives under my breath as I stand over his stomach and slam into his gut with both knees and all my body weight. He grunts loudly, doubling over. This would be my opening to pull a dagger out, finish him off. I shake the thought from my mind. This isn’t an assignment, only training. Focus, Payton!
Coming back to my senses, I take off, finally escaping the godforsaken tunnel. When coming to the mouth of the tunnel, I have no time to look behind me at the Rockies, the beautiful trees devouring the slopes. I’m close to the bottom of the mountain, but there’s a minor slope. Jogging down it, I stumble slightly but catch myself before I fall. Moving forward is my only option.
A road is at the bottom of the hill, and I look for cars as I get closer to make sure I won’t be seen. I cannot be spotted or stopped by anyone. None are coming, so I run across as fast as possible. Glancing back, I see he’s gaining on me again. If he catches me, I won’t have the strength to get away again. My calves scream, my lungs burn with every breath. My heart is racing; I have maybe ten miles until I reach my target.
Nine more now; I can make it.
I leap over the large rocks in my path. Up ahead, a cliff shoots up, juts out and flattens at the top. I’ll have to scale it; there’s no way around. Glancing back again, I see he’s only yards behind me now, so I start to climb. I may be short, but my lean muscle helps me pull my way up quickly. I’m careful about feet and hand placement, making sure every inch I climb isn’t in vain. I can’t help but glance below; he’s making his way up too fast. Frustration and a little bit of panic shoot through me at the sight of him using tools to scale the cliff. He must have stored them in his pack. I want to smack myself for not thinking to do the same. He’ll be on top of me in seconds if I don’t move.
The top of the cliff seems so close; I’m sure I can reach it in only a few more moves. I steady my breathing, shifting my feet and hands up the cliff. He’s only feet below me when I finally reach the top and huff out a sigh of relief. I pull at the lip of the cliff, dragging myself to the flat ground. My feet kick beneath me, and I chuckle at the thought of dust getting kicked into his eyes. He’ll love that. My muscles are like jelly, but this is the last stretch before I get there. I can make it!
I push myself toward the landing strip ahead of me, the castle beyond that. The three towers with their green, copper spires reach skyward. Right now, that castle is my beacon. I have to get there before him. I have to complete this assignment or he’ll hold it over my head for the rest of forever. I hear him again, closing in as I run over the tarmac beyond the large hangar. His loud grunting and heavy breathing sounds as if he’s right behind me. From here, the training arena—a huge warehouse attached to the castle—is in my sights. That’s my target. If I make it there before him, the assignment is over.
He makes one more lunge for me when I’m a yard from the door to the arena. I dodge out of the way, but he still has strength left and uses it to intercept my movement. His arm swipes for me, but I duck under and elbow his ribs as hard as I can. He lets out a puff of air, groaning as I reach for the door. Right when I touch the handle and swing the door open, it’s done. I’ve completed this task. Thank God! Now, I need a shower.
We move in to the arena, covered in sweat and breathing hard. Leaning against the wall, I slide to the floor, because there is no way can I walk any further. Cadmar doesn’t sit; he stands over me, dark gaze piercing me. I’m happy to see his dark hair isn’t slicked back anymore; it’s now hanging down, framing his face. We stay silent, trying to catch our breath as I take my water from my pack and empty it. He does the same with his own, while still watching me.
“You did well.” His tone is smooth as he runs a hand through his hair, brushing it away from his face then shifting to lean against the wall. “That only took you seven hours, far less than the last time.”
“The last time, it was snowing,” I counter with a glare, shoving my empty bottle back into my pack. “And I would have been further ahead of you, if you didn’t cheat.”
“That wasn’t cheating.” He glares right back, but a smirk works at his lips. “That was only me creating a…more difficult challenge for you. Now get up, and go clean up. Scarlet will have dinner ready soon.”
“Fine.” I roll my eyes as I grab the hand he holds out to me.
He helps me up to my wobbly legs, which feel like they’re filled with Jell-O, but my feet are steady beneath me. I make my way to the small bathrooms right inside the arena. Once inside, I look in the small mirror above the sink to see a light layer of gray dirt covers my face and hair. Ugh, that’s going to be a blast to get out. I take the sweater off from around my waist, and remove my boots and sweaty socks, revealing the tattoo of my favorite flower on my right foot. After stripping off the rest of my dust-coated clothes, I rinse off quickly in the small shower, watching the gray dirt run down the drain as my body becomes clean. My hands are a little raw once I get all the pebbles rinsed out, but nothing too serious.
After the soap runs off me, I kneel on the cold tile of the shower floor in my Virasana Pose. The water runs over my head, trickling down my closed eyes, as I channel all my senses and begin to meditate. It may seem an odd time to do this, but I’m afraid if I wait, it could be too late. Every time I’m done with training or an assignment, I have to meditate to close all the doors and shut down the killer in me. Exactly as I do before my trainings or assignments, in order to open those doors and let the killer free.
I’ve done this ever since my first assignment. I was horrified with how well it went; how easily I could look at someone and see the different ways to kill them. That’s when Cadmar trained me to meditate, to channel my skills when they’re needed and shut them down when they’re not. As I close the metaphorical doors in my head, a wave of relief flows over me. It always scares me, the part of me that is a skilled killer, who has no trouble taking out a target. I especially hate these trainings with Cadmar. Whenever I see him approaching, I can easily scope out the simplest ways to kill him. It makes me sick, makes me hate myself.
When I’m done, I am rejuvenated; my muscles not so sore anymore, my mind calmer. I throw on a spare pair of sweats and a pink tank top, but keep my feet bare—they’re too sore to try shoving back into my shoes. I comb my long hair out—glad I was able to get all the dust out of it—and keep it hanging to the middle of my back. Cadmar is leaning against the wall, waiting for me in a fresh pair of jeans and a black, long-sleeve shirt.
We walk through the large training arena, which takes up two of the fifty acres this property consumes. It’s filled with exercise equipment, a swimming pool, a springboard, a running track and a long, closed-in shooting range at the end we’re moving away from. Basically, everything one needs to be a trained killer. Ha, right. Next to the shooting range is a small room, the size of an office, which is the lab where Cadmar and I do experiments on new weapons. One of the few things I actually enjoy doing here. The arena is connected to our enormous ‘castle’ located on the edge of Estes Park. Cadmar and Scarlet had the place built when they decided to start adopting. I like it some days, but most days, it’s too much.
We take the long walk to the kitchen. Moving silently under the stone archways, the stone floors cool my sore feet. I can’t say whether he’s too worn out to talk or if he just isn’t in the mood. You never know with him. I don’t say anything, though; there isn’t anything I want to talk to him about at the moment. My eyes graze over the boring paintings on the walls, which Scarlet handpicked. It would be nice if there were some fun, family photos to lighten the place up, but that will never happen.
We push through the large butler door in to the kitchen where Scarlet stands at the island, slicing vegetables for another healthy meal. Her golden hair is pulled back into a low bun with a few wisps falling in to her pale face. She’s only a few inches shorter than Cadmar and has a very slim, fragile-looking build. She has the body and looks which any supermodel would make a deal with the devil for; I’m not so sure she didn’t.
“How did it go?” she asks, without looking up from the cutting board.
“It only took me seven hours,” I answer quickly as I grab a water bottle from the fridge. “I would have stayed further ahead of him if he hadn’t cheated.”
“That was not cheating,” Cadmar smirks, catching the water I toss him. “There’s always the chance of a person having tools which give them the upper hand. I was only making sure you’re prepared for that in the future.”
“He’s right, Payton,” Scarlet says in a serious tone, still not looking up at us. I keep myself from turning a glare on her from fear of her catching it. Wouldn’t want to rattle the beast’s cage. “If you don’t know this by now, we must have made some serious mistakes in your training.”
“Of course I know there’s the chance of the other person having an advantage.” I roll my eyes. I’m not in the mood for a lesson I’ve been taught a million times already, so I change the subject. “Where are the others? Are Bryn and Eva back yet?”
“Nice attempt at changing the subject.” Cadmar continues smirking as he leans against the counter where Scarlet is working. I turn that contained glare on him, which only makes his smile widen.
“The attempt was futile,” Scarlet sneers, turning her hard gaze on me. She lays her knife down, wipes her hands on a towel and pierces me with her dark, gray eyes. Her perfectly-glossed lips become a thin line. “This is not a joking matter. You are nearly to your hundredth assignment. This lesson is of the utmost importance. If Cadmar can get close to you that easily, I’m surprised you haven’t been killed yet.”
“Scarlet.” Cadmar takes her hand, making her eyes soften faintly when they turn on him. “I wasn’t playing very fair. I’m ashamed to say, my ego was scarred from her being able to stay ahead of me so easily. She’s doing well. You know that.”
Their gazes lock for a long minute. They’re having one of their silent arguments they often get into over at least one of us girls. She does know I’m doing well, but that doesn’t mean she likes it or that she’ll confess as much. Rather than dwelling on it, I take this chance to go to the counter on the opposite side of the kitchen to grab an apple. Right as I’m about to make my escape, Scarlet finally answers my question.
“Bryn and Eva haven’t returned yet.” She picks her knife back up and starts chopping away again. It wouldn’t kill her to keep her attention on me for more than five seconds. I’m sure it wouldn’t. I watch the knife scrape along the cutting board as she slices asparagus in to bite-sized pieces, wondering whether she would pay attention to me if I maybe smacked her. Just a little tap, to get her attention, you know? “They should be landing at the assignment base in an hour or so. They had some trouble muddying their trail; someone was intent on following them.”
“But who would be able to follow them so closely?” It’s known Bryn and Eva are usually cocky and careless, but I would never voice this to Scarlet. The world may end if someone says something bad about her protégés.
“They sent me some pictures,” she replies, shrugging slightly while still chopping away. “I haven’t been able to find the man in our database yet, which is worrying, because I can find anyone in there.”
“We’ll find him,” Cadmar growls, his lip pulling up on one side. “And when we do, I’ll take care of him myself.”
“Well, anyways,” Scarlet changes the subject, even with all the tension clouding the kitchen. “Kadence is in the library and Reiley is in her room. Go get them. Dinner will be ready in twenty minutes.”
“Fine.” Obviously, I’ve been excused. Thank you, Lord!