Marnie and Prolier stood facing Gail, her reddened eyes defiant against the odds. Gail looked a little rough, but wasn’t going to let some improvised tear gas slow her down.
“Why are you still standing?” Prolier asked. “The sedative coating my blades should’ve knocked you out by now.”
“How stupid are you?” Gail laughed. “Word travels fast when a student does something as messed up as trying to poison one of their own teammates. If you’re willing to do that to someone who’s on your side, we expected that you’d try it on us. It didn’t take long to figure out the most likely toxins you’d use. Did you think an A squad would come into this unprepared. We took antidotes for everything we thought you might use. Looks like we guessed right.”
“Go help Lethen and Renala,” Marnie said. “She was meant to be my opponent anyway. They need your help more than I do.”
Prolier nodded and turned to leave when Gail darted forward, swinging her zhua at him. “Do you really think I’ll let you leave?”
The ring of metal on metal filled the air as Marnie’s rapier blocked the reckless attack a hair before it pierced Prolier’s shoulder. “You have no choice. He’s leaving and you’re facing me.” Marnie looked at Prolier and nodded.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” Angel asked through comms. “It might be more efficient to dispatch her quickly and all go to Lethen and Renala together.”
“I won’t need any help with her. Both of you, go even the odds down there.” Marnie grinned at her foe. “That’s an interesting weapon you’ve got there. I wonder if you know how to use it.”
Gail came at Marnie with an unpredictable series of attacks. Most enemies would swing with the intention of connecting with part of their opponent’s body. Her style seemed to involve feints and attacks specifically designed to force Marnie out of position. One strike was wide enough that when Marnie went to block it, she knew she wouldn’t be able to get her weapon back to bear against the next strike. When it came, she had to jump back to avoid it.
“Strange style you have there,” Marnie said. “Hard to see where the next attack will land. Shame it won’t work against me.” Marnie held her blade straight out in front of her. “Let me show you what true weapon skill is.”
She looked like she was dancing with Gail as she gracefully hopped back and forth, lunging and pressing, looking for an opening. After a few tries, she got one, scoring a minor cut on Gail’s right bicep.
Marnie wasted no time continuing the attacks, scoring a number of small wounds on her foe. Each time it got harder. Gail was adapting to Marnie’s style much more quickly than anyone in her own squad had during their training. Marnie came in with a low feint, hoping to follow it up with a blow to Gail’s head when her blade stopped in mid swing. Gail had managed to catch the blade in the metal hand of her zhua.
Marnie tried tugging on her blade to free it, but Gail had it held fast. They pushed and pulled at each other with all their strength, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Neither could disarm the other by sheer muscle power. This would come down to technique.
As they struggled, Gail moved in close and punched Marnie in the throat.
Marnie fell back, gasping for air. The change in positions loosened the zhua’s grip on her blade and they disengaged. In her desperation to get her breathing under control, she didn’t see the back hand of Gail’s weapon coming toward her. It got her in the side of the head, knocking her to the ground. Only her training saved her as she hit the dirt in a roll, avoiding Gail’s follow up attack. The talons dug into the sand where she was a moment before.
They paused, scanning each other for weaknesses while catching their breath. The effects of Gail’s throat shot were slowly wearing off, and she seemed to be getting over the irritation in her lungs from breathing in the hot sauce mist. They circled each other, neither one blinking. Waiting for the perfect moment.
The darkness around Lethen was absolute. He felt like he was swimming, but in something more dense than water. With the pressure around him, he had only the vaguest sense of gravity, making it difficult for him to know which way was up; which way to swim in order to breach the surface. Someone had done something to him. One of his foes had accessed their daemon’s power and now he was drowning in blackness.
He stopped struggling for a moment to get his bearings. Yes, he could sense which way was up. He wasn’t sure what he was submerged in, but he knew he had to get out. While far from being an expert swimmer, he had done enough of it to remain calm. He figured he couldn’t be too far from the surface. He hadn’t been knocked out, and he hadn’t been under long. A few quick strokes and he should be able to get at least his head clear.
All it took was one good push. His head burst through into the air and he sucked in a great lungful of air. He looked around and he was still in the tent, although he was near it’s edge. He expected to find the trio of attackers mercilessly beating Renala, but instead he saw four pairs of wide eyes staring at him.
He looked down and saw that there was no liquid. He was waist deep in the sand. His legs still felt like they were treading water, but when he placed his palms down, the ground felt solid. Knowing that Lena was the most likely to have awakened a power he focused on her. “What did you do to me?”
“Me?” She asked. “What makes you think this was my doing? You’re the one who vanished into the earth.”
Lethen lifted his legs from the dirt and when his feet landed on the surface, there was no sensation of liquidity at all. That Tortuga girl knew something and he would find out what. He started walking toward her, but with every step, he became less sure about what exactly he would do to her. Every inch closer he got, he could feel his confidence wavering, replaced with fear of what might happen. If she could already access her daemon’s gift, how would he defeat her.
He swung his shovel as soon as he was within range, but he now felt more fear than anger and the shovel wouldn’t cooperate. He knew he should be more angry, but somehow the terror kept forcing it back down. Each time he tried to attack, the daemon fought him and Lena was able to wave the strikes aside as easily as brushing away a mosquito.
“Tell me what you’re doing to me,” He tried to shout, but when the words came out they sounded more like a plea. He looked toward Renala and found that she’d regained her composure. Now that she was no longer facing Lena, she looked like her old self.
That was it! Lena had unlocked more than one daemonic gift already. She could also make her foes quiver in fear. Had she already drained a secondary ability from someone? He thought he was the only first year to have already performed a draining. And how had Renala been able to keep her at bay? Lethen could barely keep himself motivated enough to raise his arms, but she had been able to parry everything thrown at her. He knew she had been affected, but it wasn’t stopping her.
He took a few steps back and eyed those around him. Renala was the only one that could fight Lena solo. Lethen would have to take care of the other two. Despite everything, their current plan was still their best one. Back to back, hoping to either catch a break or have reinforcements arrive. He knew their bowman was still out there somewhere, probably between the oases. Lethen hoped he wouldn’t slow down Prolier and Angel too much.
Lethen charged Mikael, hoping that he could get into position before anything could happen to Renala. Mikael swung at him and connected, but Lethen continued anyway, barreling into his midsection and knocking him to the ground. Rather than going down with him, Lethen turned on Gianni. He needed to get both of their attention back on him, so Renala could focus on her fight.
He could hear the ringing sounds of battle behind him and realized he no longer felt afraid. Once Lena’s efforts were focused on Renala again, he felt as he usually did in a fight. He had been trying not to let the daemon get hurt, and would continue to do so, but when it came to whether he would protect Renala or his daemon, he would choose Renala.
Either way he would need the daemon’s help to win against two skilled opponents. He had to get angry. It wasn’t terribly hard. He felt the resistance vanish almost at once. As he began his wild swinging, he even started to feel the daemon swing with him, adding speed and power to his movements. He was actually pushing them both back.
“How’s it going out there?” Lethen asked.
“This might take a few minutes,” Marnie said.
Angel came on the line. “We’re almost there. We’re taking it slow, trying to spot their range man, but nothing so far. Just a few more minutes, assuming we don’t run into trouble.”
“You’re going to run into trouble,” Lethen said. “He’s not in here, so he’s gotta be out there. Hopefully he’s looking this way.”
“I don’t know if I can do this.” Renala wept. “I’m not cut out for this. I can’t be a daemon knight. Why did I even sign up for this”
“You’re doing great.” Lethen knew what was going on and felt sorry for Renala. He knew that despair you felt while fighting Lena. “You are holding your own against the strongest first year in the school. She’s unlocked the ability to cause fear in her enemies, that’s what you feel.”
“So she’s already done it,” Angus said. “The power of fear has been in her family for a long time. Renala, do you understand why I paired you off with her? You’re the only one who can fight her. Your daemon desires your safety above all else and will fight harder the more danger you’re in. Even perceived danger focuses him. I know it’s a heavy weight on you right now, but you have to bear with it.”
Lethen stepped to the right to avoid a nunchaku to the jaw, but as he shifted his weight, his leg sank into the earth. Lena was doing it to him again. He pulled himself out and stumbled. He tried to catch himself but then his arm sank. He was fighting a losing battle to stand back up as his limbs randomly disappeared into the sand. He could barely move, let alone fight, but luckily he didn’t have to worry about it. Mikael and Gianni were both laughing to hard to be much of a threat to anyone.
After a few more tries he managed to get all of his limbs above ground. He ran at Mikael, hoping to catch him while he was laughing too hard to fight, but when he got close, his leg pulled the disappearing act again. Lethen reached out and grabbed his foe for stability. Once his body stopped sinking, he noticed that holding onto Mikael hadn’t stopped his decent, although he was still holding on. He released his grip.
Mikael was buried in the sand up to his chest, but unlike Lethen, he couldn’t move.