Chapter 1, Scene 1 of my WiP
“Brigid MacCray” the sterile voice pipes into the bare room, echoing slightly off the smooth walls. “Proceed to Entry Gate Two.”
My jaw clenches reflexively at the command, but I quickly ease the muscles. Over nineteen years I have been trained as an elite soldier of the Elysian Empire I have learned to school my initial reactions. I’ve focused countless hours of energy to tamping down the rebelliousness that my parents have spent equal hours lecturing me about. So, with a neutral expression I leave the oppressive room and march down the equally oppressive hall to stand in front of large double doors.
From my place I can see Milo, my final competition, out of the corner of my left eye. His broad shoulders are taunt with preparedness, his tanned corded forearms ripple under his arm braces as his fists open and close, open and close. His hard jaw is discolored with a fading bruise from his last trial. Only his eyes, so pale a brown they are almost yellow, show anything to contradict the force his body emanates. He catches my gaze, running his eyes over my person in his own assessment, before giving me a curt nod.
The stomping of the crowd above us sends sand into our hair. I fight the urge to scratch my scalp and dislodge the itchy impostors, instead sending my fingers over my belt to adjust my short sword, down to my calf where my trench knife rests, up to my shoulder where a pair of long daggers cross my back.
I take a deep inhale through my nose, exhale through my mouth. I let the beat of the stomping feet above my head center me, let it wash away the faces that will be watching me. I run over the past trials I have passed to make it to this point. The physical tests, the intelligence exams, the field exercises with each legion of The Commanders undefeated army. I note each victory, letting the reassurance of my abilities bolster my confidence. No matter how I hate taking commands, no matter how much I hate working with people obviously inferior to me, I am what I was trained to be. I am a soldier, and I am one of the best.
The doors creak open, their ancient wood revealing a large oval arena. The sand has been combed and washed of blood since yesterday. A large box juts from the opposite end of the stadium, and in it I can see the silhouettes of The Commander, flanked by his most trusted advisers, one of whom is my father. He’s easy to spot, we share the same pale skin, the same hair that sparks when light strikes it.
Milo and I stalk to the center of the arena, planting a fist over our hearts and bowing our heads. The sharp trill of a bell tells us that our salute has been received, and that it is now time to fight.
We spin to face each other, and I tilt my chin slightly to look him in the eyes as we both draw our first weapons. I pull my short sword from the leather sheath, and he his pair of daggers. I’m weakest with the sword, but use my fresh strength to swing, strike, and parry until he twists the weapon from my grip with a clever spin of his daggers on either side of my blade.
I spin out of his reach as soon as the weapon is gone and pull my twin blades as his hit the dirt and his sword is unsheathed. The first point goes to him, but I know that clever move too and soon have him disarmed and us both to our last weapons.
The sword and daggers are standard for every soldier, as well as a rifle and pistol, but those are not allowed in the trials. We aim to show out skill, not to kill one another. Milo pulls a staff from across his back, it’s narrow and elegant, and wicked with the speed at which he spins it.
I jump out of range, landing a kick to his knee as I go, and grip the hilt of my knife tightly, resisting the slip of my sweaty palm and squeezing until the loops of the trench knife’s knuckles bite into the soft webbing of my fingers. Father has always hated my preference for the “uncivilized” weapon, but I appreciate it’s ability to multi-task.
We circle one another, breathing hard, slightly crouched, poised to strike at any moment. A bead of sweat falls over my brow and into my eye, I blink hard to relieve the sting and hear the whoosh as his staff fights the air, angling to strike my shoulder.
Before my eyes are completely open, I’m dodging the blow. Rolling toward the sandy ground of the arena, my shoulder connecting with a soft thud. Throwing my weight to send me up again, lashing out with my own strike and connecting with a sickening thud. Milo’s head snaps back, a bubble of blood welling from his split brow. His body follows his head and he staggers back a step, I lower my weight, swinging a leg forward. My ankle hooks behind his and he’s on his back, the staff falling from one hand.
My foot shoots out, smashing down onto the knuckles of the fingers still clutching the polished wood. He grunts loudly before pulling me off balance by the tail of my braid, sending me hard to the ground. Utilizing the backwards momentum I swing my legs overhead, rolling into a reverse somersault. Landing in a crouch I launch myself froward, grasping Milo around the middle as he tries to regain his feet, sending us both to the solid earth. The impact purges his lungs of air and while he hiccups for breath I straddle his torso, pinning his arms and resting the point of my knife against his soft throat.
The cheers from the stands erupt, deafening me. Milo regains his normal breath, his eyes narrowing to vicious slits and pairing with a hiss of breath that escapes through his teeth. I bare my teeth at him in a feral grin before pulling myself up, squaring my shoulders, turning to The Commanders observation box, and presenting him a small bow, fist clenched over my heart.
When I straighten I flick my eyes over The Commander’s shoulder to Father. He looks resplendent in his tailored and polished uniform, a more refined version of my close fitting pants and shirt, stiff leather breastplate and arm-guards. When our eyes meet for a moment there is a softness in his silver eyes that few ever see, and a small nod tells me I have made him proud.
The Commander raises a hand, almost daintily, his wrist barely higher than his hip, and the arena falls silent.
“Congratulations Student MacCray,” his voice is soft but strong, echoing effortlessly across the stone and sand. “You have impressed us all, and strengthened the reputation of your illustrious family. It gives me great pleasure to award to you the position of Apprentice to the Chief Interrogator.” He angles his head slightly, focusing his gaze one me, and even though I can’t see the harsh angle of his eyes, I can feel them boring into my skin, looking for a weakness. “I look forward to the revelations you two unravel from our newest prisoner from Calypso,” he finishes.
His gaze shifts to Milo, standing half a step behind me. “Student Reznik. A valiant effort, especially for a young man from one of our colonial Academy’s.” A murmur drifts through the stands at the mention of a colony. Students from the colonies face additional trials before they can participate with Elysia’s students, few make it into this arena, and fewer still finish this high in the rankings. I see Milo tense out of the corner of my eye, a pink tinge brightening the tips of his ears.
Pretending to stifle an amused grin behind his hand, The Commander continues. “Such a fine prize we have for you. Apprentice to the Warden of our Special Prisoners Block at The Fortress.”
It’s not a bad job actually. Prisoners of war and enemies of the state are housed in the SPB of The Fortress. Very high profile. It’s where I will be trained to become the next interrogator.
An involuntary shiver runs down my spine. I clench my fists, willing my stoic facade back in place. Interrogation, a fancy synonym for torture here. The realization of my new job chills my bones. I knew this was the prize for victory, yet I couldn’t help myself, sometimes I hate my arrogance as much as my peers.
With a small nod of dismissal from The Commander, the crowd once again burst into cheers, flower petals rain down on us, filling my nostrils with a sweet scent that temporarily washes away the stench of sweat, blood, and dirt. As soon as we sink deep enough into the bowels of the arena for silence to overtake us Milo speaks up, his voice is rough with defeat but laced with respect “Congratulations Peer MacCray.”
Peer. The title that shows we have graduated from The Academy, faced our trials, and been placed within Elysia’s vast legions. I meet Milo’s gaze, it’s distant and professional, but something lurks underneath, just out of sight. “See you at work,” I respond before we branch off into different tunnels to prepare for the nights festivities.