The Valley (P-III)

This is just the beginning of something I started writing a loooong time ago and never got around to finishing. I’m putting it here because, why not xD

I hope you enjoy 🙂

 

Prologue

“They’re here!”

The shout spread through the small forest camp, joined by the howling of a siren. In a tree, fifty feet from the camp’s outer perimeter, Rennoy watched the commotion for a moment and jumped to the next tree.

Like watching an ant hill, he thought, as he made his way through the treetops towards the camp, keeping an eye out for anything unexpected. His contact lenses provided a combination of thermal and night vision, so he could discern not only the tents but also the people inside. Some were healthy, most were wounded though, but they nonetheless scrambled from their bunks, picked up their weapons, and ran, shuffled or crawled to their positions as fast as they could. A few were already firing blindly into the dark forest that surrounded them and which gave no reply.

Mid-jump, he felt something. Not a rational thought, more like an instinct screaming out to him. He obeyed and tilted his head to the side. A stray bullet whizzed past his ear. It flew so close that, for an instant, he could feel the wake it left in the air.

I knew they’re no snipers, Rennoy thought, frowning as he landed on the next branch, but they could at least try to hit the general direction.

He landed on the next tree and crouched on a thick branch, high in the treetop. Below him was the southern barricade. He allowed himself a few seconds to gauge the situation and then moved on.

Caroline sure seems to keep a tight ship, but they’ll still get massacred.

In less than two minutes, the whole camp was armed and at their posts, taking cover behind­ sacks filled with earth and anything else that would shield them. Men and women alike peered into the darkness, clutching their weapons.

Nobody is looking up. Why does nobody ever look up?

“Remember, kid, nobody ever looks up.”

He could almost hear his master. “And when they do, you make sure it’s too late, you hear?”

His teacher was right. Despite full battle readiness, nobody noticed him gliding from treetop to treetop. As Rennoy reached the tree above the largest tent in the center of the camp, he stopped and looked around. When he was convinced that nobody had seen him, he checked the time, fastened a rope to a thick branch and rappelled down.

A series of loud cracks echoed from the sky. The camp lit up with flares, which bathed everything in reddish light. Rennoy was now in plain sight. His tight black suit, covered with pockets and holsters, kept him well hidden in darkness, but now his silhouette was clearly discernible, hanging from the tree on a rope like a giant spider.

Of course, he thought, rolling his eyes.

Even though he was in full view, everyone seemed to be too busy at the barricade to look what was happening inside the camp. But Rennoy took no chances. He unhooked the rope, dropped the remaining ten feet, landed with a roll and disappeared in shadow behind the central tent.

She had better be ready. His lips rounded and he made a cricketing sound. After two seconds, he heard the same sound come in reply from the inside. He unsheathed the large knife he carried square across his lower back, cut the side of the tent open and entered.

In the dim light, he saw a man pointing a pistol at him and a woman with a baby in her arms, standing behind the man.

“Drop your knife and remove your mask,” the man ordered.

Rennoy was frozen solid, his eyes fixed on the eyes of the man holding the gun. Any second now…

An explosion shook the ground and the air itself vibrated from the mighty shockwave. The man and woman lost their balance, but Rennoy was ready. The moment the gun’s sights moved away from him, he pounced. His first strike hit a pressure point on the man’s lower arm and the pistol dropped to the ground. The second hit the man’s jaw, tilting his head backwards, dazing him. Rennoy spun around and into a crouch and swept the man’s legs from under him, sending him crashing to the ground. After kicking the pistol to the other end of the tent, Rennoy placed his boot on the man’s throat, pinning him to the ground.

“You ever point a gun at me again, I will shov–”

“Brother, that’s enough!” The woman’s voice changed from the sweet song, with which she was trying to comfort the crying baby, to a commanding bark.

But as Rennoy looked at her, his right eyebrow raised, she softened it. “He was just trying to protect me. Please, let him go.”

“If everybody in your cell is like him, I’m impressed you’re still here,” Rennoy said. But he took his foot off the man’s throat and stretched out his hand. The man didn’t take it. He got up by himself and went to retrieve his pistol.

The rattle of machineguns and assault rifles grew louder, and Rennoy noticed that Caroline was growing paler by the minute. Still, rush or not, he had to take a second and just look at the face he had last seen five years ago.

And as he did, a flood of memories surfaced.

It was twenty-seven years ago, when he was first brought to the Red Glove rebel cell. His parents were the leaders of another cell and they were assassinated by The Association when he was only four. The new leader sent him off to another cell – according to her, for his own safety – and there he met Caroline. She was a shy girl, a year his junior, and they soon became best friends. They spent almost every waking moment together, growing inseparable, soon referring to each other as brother and sister.

Then came that day, when Jeney came to their forest encampment. Rennoy was playing with Caroline, when he was told that Jeney wanted to see him. As he stood in front of Jeney’s tent, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Nobody would tell him anything. But he gathered his courage, slowly moved the tent flap aside and entered. There sat Jeney on a chair in the middle of the tent. He was an old man, from a child’s perspective, even though now Rennoy knew that Jeney can’t have been more than forty at the time. Jeney smiled and waved Rennoy to come closer.

“I heard of your parents, kid,” Jeney said. “Would you like to get back at the people that killed them?”

Rennoy could not believe it. He already grew tired from asking various cell members for help in getting his revenge, but everybody just sadly looked at him, shook their heads and walked away. They kept telling him that he was too young. And now, here was this stranger who was offering him exactly that?

“I work for an organization, which can help you,” Jeney continued. “You come with me and I’ll show you how to get back at them.”

Rennoy’s eyes widened and he made a step towards the man.

“But you will likely never see your friends here again.”

“Even Caroline?” Just a second ago, Rennoy was ready to go with the man, be it a trick or not, but now, he was not so sure.

Jeney nodded. “Even Caroline.”

Rennoy thought for a second, but his mind was made up. “OK.”

The next day, he said his farewells with Caroline, and left the camp with Jeney. They rode on Jeney’s motorcycle, which easily crossed the forest paths. After a few hours, Rennoy gazed in awe, as the landscape began to change from the dark forest to open fields, meadows and grassland. In the distance, he could make out enormous spiked walls like he had never seen before in his life. They seemed to reach up to the sky, their tops colored in white.

“Master Jeney,” Rennoy spoke into the microphone in his helmet, “What are those walls?”

“They’re not walls, kid, they’re mountains,” Jeney’s voice came from the helmet’s speaker. “We’re in The Valley now.”

Rennoy had heard about The Valley before. It was too long to walk on foot and so wide, you couldn’t see across, even on the clearest of days, he had been told. In the north-east it led into the dense Greywood Forest, which stretched out far and wide. In the south-west, it opened out into a great desert. He once heard someone say that nobody who went into that desert ever came back.

After two more hours, they reached the outskirts of Aluvia. Rennoy had heard about Aluvia as well. It was a giant city, stretching from one side of The Valley to the other and twice as long.

As they made their way through the busy streets, Rennoy almost broke his neck trying to take in everything at once. Skyscrapers, great domed halls, and gargantuan multiplexes towered over the roads. People were hurrying in all directions, all wearing colorful clothes like Rennoy had never seen before.

He almost regretted that the drive was over. They pulled into the garage of a rather imposing building with Ministry of Regional Security written in large letters over the side of the building.

That day, his training began. Master Jeney was hard and suffered no failure. Yet when Rennoy succeeded at a trial, Jeney would laugh with him, congratulate him and they would celebrate together. At age fifteen, Rennoy successfully passed the last challenge of the Alpha Wing. Due to outstanding performance, he was immediately promoted to the rank of agent and given his first assignment. Before they parted ways, Jeney gave him a parting gift – a large Lonsdaleite knife – and a time-locked message, which only Rennoy’s DNA print could decrypt, but no earlier than on his twenty-fifth birthday.

He never saw Jeney after that day, but he didn’t expect to. That was just the life of a Ministry’s agent. No ties to anybody.

The day of Rennoy’s twenty-fifth birthday came and, finally, it was time. Rennoy dug out Jeney’s holographic message from his closet. He watched it decrypt and play. His world collapsed.

“Rennoy!” Caroline’s voice cut through his memories and brought him back to reality. “This isn’t the time for spacing out.”

It felt like waking from a dream, but he was back. He listened for a second and then turned to her. “That explosion will have destroyed your barricade, and there’s no way that your army of cripples can hold them off much longer.”

“No, they can’t,” she said. “That’s why there’s no time to space out. We’re done, Rennoy.”

“What do you mean, done? Why didn’t you run?” But he knew the answer. While rebels preferred hit-and-run tactics, this cell was too badly beaten up. There was no escape.

“The wounded… they volunteered… they will cover our escape,” she whispered. “The whole camp is rigged with explosives and there’s an escape tunnel under that bunk.”

She sat on down on a small chair and watched the baby sleep for a few seconds. Then, pale like a ghost, she looked up again. “The ones that can run will leave through it before the camp is lost. When we’re gone, the explosives go off.”

She gently stroked the baby’s hair and resolve seemed to return to her. “But I want my daughter safe. I already lost her father. I’m not losing her too.”

Rennoy couldn’t help but frown. “Are you sure relying on a bunch of half-dead freedom fighters with a death wish is a good idea?”

The man that, until now, had been just silently listening stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Don’t worry, sir, I will make sure that nothing happens to the leader.”

Rennoy’s eyes snapped back to the man and his eyes narrowed again.

He’s just a kid, Rennoy thought. His face is still soft with a child’s features.

“Do you trust him, Caroline?”

“I trust everybody here with my life.”

The gunfire was now interspersed with grenade explosions and shouts indicated that, here and there, melees had started.

“We’re running out of time,” Rennoy said. “Nobody saw me come, and nobody except for you two will see me leave, so no one will know.”

He scratched his neck. “But, Caroline, you sure you want to do this?” His gaze dropped at the little girl in his sister’s arms. “Even if we pull it off…”

Caroline’s eyes were glistening with tears, but she nodded hurriedly.

“If I take her, she will grow up thinking you and her father were traitors.”

Caroline looked at her baby, and then gently put a hand on Rennoy’s cheek.

“I know,” she whispered. “But she’ll be alive.”

Rennoy watched her hug and kiss the girl one last time. Then, he took the baby in his arms and walked towards the slit in the tent’s wall. “What’s her name?” he asked without turning around.

“Nica,” Caroline answered.

He disappeared through the slit. Caroline hesitated for a second, but this was stronger than her.

“Rennoy!” She ran after him, but as she looked outside the tent, he was gone.

Chapter I

The fireplace crackled and cast its light, warm glow over the gloomy room. The windows were covered with frost and even though the moon was full, its light struggled to get through. In the room, a faint scent of lavender floated in the air, coming from the old wardrobe in the corner, mixing with the smell of burning wood. It was not a big room, but what it lacked in size, it made up in comforts. It was rectangular and with a very high wooden ceiling. A baroque chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling, its candles unlit. There was a long sofa with thick pillows placed at one of the longer walls, together with a mahogany tea table and two chairs. A giant tapestry covered the opposite wall. Once upon a time, it must have been an impressive sight. Despite the toll of centuries, it still held an air of majesty, its fields of gold motif reflected warmly in the gentle light of the fire.

An old man sat in an enormous armchair, resting on a cloud of old pillows. His hair was long gone and his narrow, pale face bore witness to the many seasons he had seen. His legs stretched out towards the fire. He was gazing into the flames. Every now and then, a spark jumped from the fireplace and landed on his pants. He smiled and put it out. He was in no hurry. He was in the winter of his life, but he still had plenty of time left. He pulled the checkered, wooly blanket on his lap up to his chin, covering his emaciated body. He liked the soft, warm feeling it gave him. He closed his eyes and, listening to the crackling of the fire, drifted off to sleep.

Behind him, an ornamented door slid silently open. A shadow slipped inside. It took a look around and glided towards the wardrobe, each of its movements performed with uncanny grace. The wardrobe doors gave a faint screech and the shadow froze. The old man grunted but he did not seem to wake. Reaching into the wardrobe with its black gloved hand, the shadow felt around, until it found a small, plastic cover. With a flick of the wrist, the cover was opened and the key, which was under it, removed.

The room started changing. The ceiling turned to silver and the chandelier disappeared. The tapestry and windows were gone, replaced with silvery panels. The fireplace flickered and vanished. The wardrobe was replaced by a computer terminal with an empty port. The furniture was gone as well. The armchair and pillows the old man was sitting on were now a reddish transparent wireframe, yet they still gave him the same support. The light remained dim, even though its source was now nowhere to be seen.

The old man changed as well. His head was now full of raven-black hair. His face was rounder and no older than 40. His body showed no signs of emaciation. He was, instead, rather muscular. He was still gently snoring though, motionless, and seemingly oblivious to the change. The shadow slid towards him and stopped behind the armchair.

“So far, so good, Nee.” The man in the armchair spoke, but his body still did not move even an inch. “But can you finish it?”

As the blade slashed downwards, a blinding flash of light and a deafening crack filled the room, followed by a thud a split second later.

“Lights!”

The man’s voice whipped through the room, waking her from her daze. Nica found herself lying on the floor, the room now brightly lit. The last thing she remembered was Rennoy’s hand blocking her thrust and a flash-bang grenade going off.

As her sight focused again, Nica tried to gauge the situation. The reddish outline of the armchair was gone and Rennoy was grinning down at her, his boot planted lightly, but firmly, on her throat. He was playing with a knife, idly spinning it between his fingers. She felt her face flush – it was her knife.

He watched her for a few seconds, and then, deciding that she was awake enough, pointed the knife at her face.

“If this was for real, you’d be dead and your mark alive.” He put her knife in his belt. “What did you do wrong?”

“Nothing!” Nica clenched her fists. “You cheated. You obviously knew the plan in adva­–­”

She gasped, as his boot pressed harder at her throat.

“Oh really?”

Rennoy’s boot pressed down even harder and Nica found herself struggling to breathe. She tried to wriggle free, but it felt like his boot was made of lead.

“You did nothing wrong, but now you’re here under my boot? I wonder how that happened.” He rolled his eyes. “And what gave you the ingenious idea to come at me with only your knife?”

Nica still could not breathe and was on the brink of passing out. But then, in an instant, the Rennoy she knew was back. He burst into laughter and took his boot off her throat.

“Especially since you know that I don’t do rules.”

He was scolding her, though he seemed in a quite jovial mood. “Seriously, Nee, you better step up your planning.” He held out his hand.

Or don’t go after anyone that’s not unconscious.”

Taking deep breaths, she took Rennoy’s hand and stood up. For a moment, she imagined Rennoy lying on his back, her boot pressing down on his throat. But the flash of anger passed and she almost smiled.

Nica loved her mentor. He was the one that took her from the orphanage and he got her into the Ministry’s training program.

But he was also the one, who taught her the meaning of failure. Never in a malicious way, but he just knew how to press her buttons. And he loved to press them until her face was dark red and her fists clenched so tight that her knuckles turned white. He just knew how to drive her crazy.

She would not let him do it today though.

“As I said, my execution was flawless. You cheated. The rules say that you can’t interfere with my planning,” she said, looking Rennoy straight in the eye.

Laughing, he bowed to her. “Most definitely, your flawless Majesty. Your performance left nothing to be desired. Well, except for the most important part – the execution of the execution.”

He straightened up, his face now warm and friendly. “People will cheat, people will steal, and, when they think they’re going to die, people will kill. Always remember that.”

A smile lit up his face. “Anyway, you pass this test, my dear.”

Nica’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open. “But, I thought you said that I failed?”

“As you so diplomatically put it, I cheated.” Rennoy fumbled around in his pockets and took out a small tablet. As the holographic console appeared above it, he entered a few commands.

“So, Nee, looks like this is it.”

Was it just her, or did his voice sound weird? Was that… sadness?

Rennoy pulled her knife from his belt and returned it to her. “Take good care of this and it’ll take good care of you. Never let it be taken from you again.”

Nica took the knife and sheathed it. She held Rennoy’s gaze for a few seconds and she felt her body move closer to him. Before she realized it, she tried to hug him.

“Whoa, Nee, don’t go all emotional on me now.”

And he was back. The Rennoy she knew. The one that never took anything seriously.

“Seriously, hugs? What’s next? Kisses? Better run along. They’ll be waiting for you by now and, besides, I don’t want to have to fight off a sixteen-year-old for trying to kiss me.”

Nica punched him in his shoulder, whirled around and started for the door.

As she reached it, she heard Rennoy shout.

“Nica!”

She did not turn around, but his voice told her he was serious now.

“Always remember what I taught you. Nothing is ever as it seems. And nobody ever looks up!”

The door closed behind her.

She found herself in a long, straight hallway. It was constructed of the same silvery material as the previous room, where she had passed the test with Rennoy. As she started walking, the sensors picked up her tracer chip and, as usual, the hallway began to change.

Nica still remembered the first time she saw the effects of SET. She was only six, when Rennoy came to pick her up at the orphanage. When she packed what little she had, he took her by her hand and led her outside. A large black car with tinted windows was waiting for them. On the way, he explained that he worked for an organization that made sure people could live in safety. He told her that she had been chosen for training.

He explained that she is the daughter of Caroline Kaye and that her mother tried to hurt people, so she had been killed by the military. He said that he believed she deserved to be told what had happened, but that she should best just forget the whole thing and focus on her new life at the Ministry of Regional Security.

After driving for what seemed like hours to Nica, they arrived at a large building. Rennoy took her hand and they entered together. She looked around and, at first glance, it was just a silver box. But then it began to change. For little Nica, who was used to the plain rooms of the orphanage, this was terrifying and awesome at the same time.

Now, she knew that it was only SET – the Spatial Entifying Technology, which could create a perfect illusion of space and manifest molecules in virtually any pattern. It was even able to rearrange existing molecular combinations. Using this technology, rooms and hallways adapted themselves, usually according to the preferences of the highest-ranking individual present.

Nica’s favorite SETting, as they called them, had been a tropical island since her first day with the Ministry, a decade ago. In a couple of seconds, the hallway completed the transformation and she was walking down the beach, feeling of sun on her skin and a nice, salty sea breeze.

Only now, she allowed herself some emotions. As she remembered all the things she had been through with Rennoy, she felt a lone tear on her cheek.

But this was neither the time nor the place for reminiscing. She composed herself and went on.

At the end of the hallway, a door appeared and it opened as she approached it. The next room was completely and utterly dark. Unsure whether or not it was another test, she carefully made her way forward. A deep male voice boomed out of the darkness.

“Initiate Nica, you have successfully passed the first phase of your training. Master Rennoy has recommended that, due to exceptional skills, you be admitted directly to the Gamma Wing. However, it has been decided that you are not quite there yet. Nevertheless, you will be given the opportunity to prove Master Rennoy right or wrong in this test.”

In a flash, the room became bright. Too bright. Her eyes were unable to adjust in time. She jammed them shut and covered her face with her hands.

The voice echoed through the room again. “Primary objective: Eliminate the target. Secondary objective: survive.”

Still covering her eyes, she felt her clothes and knife disappear and the floor change. The temperature in the room quickly rose until it became almost unbearably hot on her naked skin.

A different, computerized voice now echoed through the room. “Entering simulation. Warning! Safeties are off. All injuries suffered will be real and will heal at natural speed. Death will be permanent. Any character in the simulation may be another test participant. Simulation entered. Test time limit, one year.”

“Who’s the target?” she shouted, but there was no response. Carefully removing her hand from her eyes, she opened them just a little. The light was still a bit bright, but Nica could see now.

This would explain the heat, she thought, looking around. She was standing under a blazing sun in what seemed the middle of sandy nowhere.

Great. Well, can’t stay here. Better look for shade, if I don’t want to become well done.

She made a step and felt her leg hit something soft.

Chapter II

Rennoy was smiling, when he descended the stairs that led to a side alley from the Ministry. This was a good day, he thought. His protégé was well on her way to becoming a full-fledged agent and he could finally relax. He sat on his motorcycle and started it. As he twisted the throttle, the machine roared. Rennoy’s smile widened and he sped off.

Normally, governmental employees lived in the Core District in their agency’s housing. Officially, so did Rennoy – or, according to his ID, Richard Michaels, a clerk, who spent his days fetching coffee for the higher-ups and taking notes and memos. And just like his co-workers, Richard had a tiny apartment near the Ministry. But Rennoy preferred his own place, far away from the surveillance of the Core District, in Aluvia’s southern favelas.

This day, he decided against taking the highway. It was late in the evening and there would be little traffic, so turned onto the Sixth Avenue, which ran from the ring around Core District to the south, separating District I on the right, with all its hi-tech stores, from District V on the left, which boasted art galleries and studios, opera and concert halls and other cultural venues.

After fourty minutes, Rennoy reached the checkpoint at the end of the avenue, where Aluvia officially ended, surrounded by gargantuan SET-walls, which provided Aluvia’s inhabitants with idyllic surroundings. This time, Aluvia was a city in the mountains with a beautiful view of a valley far below.

“Good evening, Mr Michaels.” One of the checkpoint guards waved him to the front of the line of people waiting to cross.

“Seriously, Jim? Mr Michaels? I’ll have you call me that the next time we’re playing poker.” Rennoy laughed. “How’s the wife doing?”

“Shut up, Rick, you know I have to say it like that,” the guard said with a grin. “Miranda’s fine, still trying to keep me away from your poker table.”

“Why don’t you bring her around the next time? I bet I’ll manage to convince her I’m OK.”

“Bring my girl to your place? You think I’m crazy?”

“Well, you are still playing poker with me, aren’t you? Anyway, we’re still up for tonight, right?”

“Of course.”

“See you then.” Rennoy gave Jim a fist-bump and drove off.

Every time he drove through the buffer zone between Aluvia’s outer wall and the beginning of the favelas, he tensed up. He could feel the dozens of automated machineguns’ aiming lasers on his back. But he soon passed the buffer zone and as he entered the favelas, he could finally relax. There were no automated machineguns here. No non-stop surveillance. Even though officially under Aluvia’s jurisdiction, their peacekeepers rarely ventured into the favelas.

Rennoy drove up to a shack and dismounted. He left the motorcycle out front – people had tried to steal it before and all that tried wound up with broken limbs, or worse. Rennoy knew that the message was clear – Stay away from Rennoy’s bike!

He entered the shack. It was a run-down place.

Chapter III

What the…

Nica looked to her feet and, to her surprise, saw a linen bundle.

What do we got here… She opened it. Inside, she found a small water bottle, a black bread bun, some hemp rope and a pointy shard of glass. She drew its edge over the bun and it effortlessly slid through. Sharp.

Nica went over her newfound treasure again and then focused on the bundle itself. It was quite a large piece of linen, she noticed, as she stretched it out on the sand.

Bastards could’ve at least given me some clothes… or sunscreen.

She thought for a minute, picked up the shard and went to work.

Nica smiled at her fashion statement. Two holes for the arms and a cut down the middle, and the piece of linen turned into something resembling a very poor man’s bathrobe. It was not much, but it would have to do. She put it on and used the rope instead of a belt. Her new robe reached down to her knees and it was a far cry from the mixed silk and Kevlar action suits she was used to. It lacked pockets, so she stashed what little she had behind the fold above the rope.

She cut off a narrow strip of linen from her new robe and wound it around a part of the shard, fastening it with a piece of the rope. It was no lonsdaleite dagger, but at the very least she had a weapon. Figuring that she prepared as best she could, she started walking.

As the sun began to disappear behind the horizon, the temperature took a dive. At first, Nica was happy – she had been walking in the sun all day, without as much as a single cloud that would offer some respite from the hellish sun. It was long since she drank the last drop of water and she felt she truly deserved a rest. However, she had to keep going. If morning caught her out in the open again, the sun would be the death of her.

There’s got to be something here somewhere. An oasis or something. There’s no point in a test that doesn’t even give you a chance. Her brain was buzzing. But her stomach wouldn’t be ignored either, and the bread bun was long gone.

“I really wouldn’t mind some dinner, you know!”

Her shout went unanswered, but as her mind painted the image of a nice cup of coffee and some buttered bread, she tripped and fell face-first onto the cooling sand.

“Stupid walking, stupid desert and stupid sun!” She was tired, hungry and thirsty and her patience was at its end.

After doing her best to get the sand out of her robe and her hair, she looked what the cause for that trip to the ground had been.

Is that a stone? It looks remarkably round… too round for a stone… almost like a human sku–.

“Look, Jerry, I think the young lady found our deposit hole.”

She almost jumped out of her skin. Still on all fours, she turned around and noticed two men on ATVs. They wore helmets and were armed with assault rifles, though they did not remove them from their shoulders. One held a coiled whip in his hands and wore a throwing knife belt strapped across one shoulder.

No way… how did they… there’s no way that I wouldn’t hear them approaching. Nica was incredulous. She knew that her presence perception did not fail her. It was just as if these two men were not even there. Why can’t I feel them…

She thought back to one of the first group training sessions, when she was only seven years old. An old master was teaching them how to feel someone’s presence, even if all senses were distracted. She loved it. He would have each of them lie on the floor in a room, poke a few pressure points on their bodies and block one of their senses. With time, he would block more and more senses, until none were left active. Then, all they could do was to relax and try to feel a presence, or multiple presences in the room. Nica loved this exercise and she was a natural at it. She could do it better at seven years old than many fully trained agents, so she knew it cannot be her.

The first man spoke to his companion again. “Do you reckon a cat ate the young lady’s tongue, or is she just a shy gal?”

Jerry was looking at her with a weird look in his eyes. “Well, Bobby, only one way to find out,” he spat and cracked his whip over his head. “What’s your name, girl?”

Nica was still confused, but she got back to her feet and looked Jerry straight in the eye. “None of your business.”

“Oh, look, she can speak.” Bobby grinned. “That whip of yours sure does seem magical now. If cracking it in the air gives the gift of speech, what do you reckon it’ll do if you crack it over this fine little face?”

Jerry laughed and his whip struck towards Nica. But now, she was ready. Tired or not, this was what she had been training for every day for the past decade. Her hand shot out, caught the end of the whip and, in the same graceful motion, she rotated her hips and pulled with all her strength. Jerry was caught off guard and crashed off his ATV. Bobby roared with laughter. “Aww, Jerry, grounded by a little girl. Wonder what the guys’ll say to that.”

Still holding the whip’s handle, Jerry was now scrambling back to his feet. “You little bitch,” he said through clenched teeth, “Looks like I got to teach you some manners!”

“You’re most welcome to try, darling,” Nica said. She felt her mouth smile, as she said the words. Let’s dance.

Jerry growled and jerked on the whip, but she was prepared for it, poised like a snake ready to strike. As she felt the pull towards him, she pushed off the ground and used the momentum to fly at him. Adrenaline flooded her body and everything seemed to move in slow-motion now. Her right hand went into her garment and brought forth the glass shard. Jerry raised his hands, but too late. She was already flying past him, circling the shard around his neck, cutting a carotid artery and his windpipe with one hand, while the other deftly removed a throwing knife from his shoulder belt. He was dead before he hit the ground. She landed with a roll and immediately the knife went flying from her hand, aimed just past Bobby’s eyes. As the knife passed his head, Bobby jumped backwards from his ATV. But the shock from what he had just witnessed was too much for him and he tripped. He crashed hard on the rifle slung across his back, letting out a painful gasp. Before Bobby could make a move, Nica’s foot was on his Adam’s apple, pressing down, but not quite enough to kill him.

“My turn,” Nica said. “And let me warn you. Don’t even think of…”

Before she could finish the sentence, the man tried to punch away her leg. Her hand flashed downwards and hit a pressure point on his fist. His hand opened. She expertly grabbed his wrist and slowly twisted it.

“No… wait… stop!”

The man roared like an animal and she let go of his wrist. His hand was now hanging at a quite unnatural angle.

“What I was going to say,” Nica continued, “was that you really shouldn’t even think about trying to do anything stupid, because I will just break whichever part of your body you try to use for it.” She pressed down on his throat a bit harder, and he tried to grab her leg with the other hand.

He howled again, both his hands now useless.

“I warned you.” Nica pressed on his throat even harder and he started to choke. “So, did you understand what I said, or will we have more idiotic attempts at combat?”

The man’s legs twitched, but he did not try to resist anymore.

“Good.” She smiled and let him breathe again. “Now, the basics first. Who are you, and where am I?”

The man was still trying to catch his breath, but he managed a croak, “I ain’t telling you shit and without me, you’ll burn.”

She looked at him for a second, raised her foot from his throat and brought it down hard. His windpipe collapsed and he began to suffocate. She crouched next to him.

“Oh, I’ll manage. And when I find your friends, I’ll tell them you said hello, before I send them your way.”

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