Renala felt terrible. Not only was she too weak to resist the fear inducing effects of Lena’s daemon gift, but she was sitting on the ground crying. She wasn’t going to win this fight. She knew it and so did Lena. She hadn’t even been able to attempt an offensive action, much less connect with anything. Her daemon was the only thing keeping this fight from being over already, and she could feel it tiring. She felt worthless.
Lena took a step back and glared at Renala. “I commend you on your tenacity. No one has been able to stand against me for this long, not that you’re standing. That truly is a remarkable weapon you have there. It’s a shame you’re unworthy of it. To think that the Dunglass family produced someone as sad as you.”
“Shut up,” Renala managed to say between sobs.
“I remember my daemon knight history. You’re family has produced some legendary knights in it’s time. Almost as many as my family. Not quite, but close. I was actually looking forward to fighting you. I was genuinely curious as to why you were put in the C squad. Now I see.”
Lena laughed. It was not a pleasant noise. “Come now. Do you really believe you are living up to the great Dunglass name? Do you even know your family’s history?”
“Your family is an offshoot of one of the clans that started Hikari. A powerful clan that birthed some of the finest daemon knights in history, though the name is now shrouded in shame. The Dunglass family was originally part of the Crawford clan.”
“Just shut up!” Renala launched herself at her opponent. That chapter of her family’s history was a closely guarded secret. No one wanted to be associated with the monster who had attempted to kill Master Carter. Theodore Crawford had a bright future ahead of him before that incident, and when he was executed, the other branches of the family distanced themselves from him. Many of the older people in town knew the Dunglasses were closely allied to the Crawfords, but not that they were actually related. Apparently the Tortuga clan kept better records than others.
The attack was futile. Her daemon was too tired to help her put much power behind the strikes and Lena was far too good to be hit by wild, angry swings. Her attacks did open her up though and Lena took the opportunity to dig her khopesh into Renala’s side.
What little strength remained in Renala’s small frame vanished. Her daemon did an admirable job of protecting her for a few seconds, but, as Lethen had found out against Silva’s men, moving itself used a lot of a daemon’s energy. It was a testament to the power of Renala’s weapon that it had lasted as long as it had.
“I’m sorry Lethen,” Renala managed to say before the pain from her side made her lose consciousness.
“It doesn’t look like things are going well for your little team Angus.”
Angus turned toward the speaker and groaned. It was Paige Stroup, the focus sensei for the A squad. He had never liked Paige, even when they were in Hikari together. She had been in the year below, in the same squad as Cheyenne. She had been a bully to the poor girl while Cheyenne was still coming into her own, and had been obviously jealous once Cheyenne gained her gift and went on to lead the team. He had become an instructor at Hikari a few years before her and had opposed her appointment. In fact, he had been very vocal about his distaste for her. He had been overruled.
“You’d be surprised what my little team is capable of. What they lack in skills, they more than make up for in something far more important.”
“Oh really? And what is that?”
“Heart. I know you don’t have one so you wouldn’t understand, but heart will keep you going when all else fails.”
Paige laughed. “You sentimental old fool. Do you really think heart is more important than skill in the world of daemon knights?”
“I do. My team may be considered the C squad, but I have no doubt they will win today. They are loyal and will protect each other. That your team was willing to sacrifice one of their own to win today tell me that you have five students, whereas I have a team.”
“That? That’s just strategy. You set aside the weak to preserve the strong and complete the mission.”
Angus bristled. “You never sacrifice a member of your team. That’s something you’ve never understood. Sacrificing a pawn is an acceptable tactic in chess, but when lives are on the line, it is deplorable.”
“Lives aren’t on the line here. This is just a game.”
“Anytime a daemon knight unsheathes his weapon, lives are on the line. And even if this game wasn’t dangerous, you are supposed to be teaching these kids how to conduct themselves in the real world. You are teaching them that it’s okay to let their teammates die if it benefits them.”
Paige didn’t have an immediate response. Perhaps he had hit a nerve, or perhaps she was just thinking of something witty to say. Instead, she changed the subject. “As loathe as I am to admit it, I’m impressed that your half-breed is doing so well. Not only did he manage a feat that only Master Carter had ever achieved before him, but he’s already awoken his daemon’s power. I never would’ve expected him to be able to control that stupid badger to that extent.”
Angus had started to tune her out until she mentioned the badger. There was no way she could know what the natural form of Lethen’s daemon could be. Unless of course she was in on the binding. He had to find out everything she knew. “He is much more than I would’ve expected to and I have faith he can take this team to victory. In fact, let’s make this a little more interesting. Care to make a wager?”
Paige smiled. She was known to have a gambling problem. Well, it was known to everyone except herself. “Name your terms.”
“If my team wins, you will tell me everything you know about Lethen’s daemon, including how you know it’s natural form. Only someone involved in the binding would know that.”
Paige paled when she realized how monumentally she’d slipped. “And if my team wins?”
“I will give you what you’ve wanted since you were a first year student.”
“You presume to know what I’ve wanted since then?”
Angus merely cocked his head to the side. What she had wanted had been obvious. It was only in her later years that she got better at masking her desires. He held out his hand. “Do we have a deal?”
She smiled, taking his hand. “You’ve got a deal.”
Angel found that once he had a good charge in his weapon, he could hold it without too much concentration. That gave him the freedom to continue the search for Ventrus. He hoped that the bastard would show his face soon. It may not take much focus, but it did take effort. The little focus he had disappeared when he heard a noise behind him. He loosed the blast without aiming and turned around to find someone he didn’t recognize leaning over Prolier.
“Who the hell are you?”
The young lady looked up at him with her ginger locks bouncing gently around her face. She was beautiful. “I am a third year training to be a medic. If a student is unconscious for more than ten minutes during a test, or if they are in need of immediate medical treatment, we come in and remove them. Don’t worry, I’m taking him to a safe place.”
“What’s your name?”
Angel stared at her for a moment, finally moving his eyes from her face and noticing her obvious white uniform with a red caduceus on the arm and breast pocket. It took a moment for his eyes to move away from that front emblem, and it had nothing to do with the caduceus. “Take care of him please,” came out of his mouth, although what he’d wanted to say was how he loved her.
“I will, but you might wanna get your head back where it should be.” She smiled at him and he almost fell over. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
“I hope so.”
Angel forced himself to refocus himself on storing energy. He wouldn’t be able to do too many of these shots, but hopefully he wouldn’t need to. Once he’d charged up as much as he dared, he lifted his head back over the crest of the dune. He couldn’t believe what he saw.
A ten foot diameter hole had been blown out of the large dune in front of him. He looked around quickly to see if Ventrus had popped out and saw nothing.
He decided to try an experiment. Normally his goal was to focus all of his stored energy into the smallest possible space like a laser. When he’d released the shot without aiming he had skipped that step. This time, instead of narrowing the shot, he widened it and fired at the same dune he’d scarred before. This time the top fifteen feet of it vanished into a cloud of flying dust.
Seeing this brought back something he’d once heard in a movie, though he couldn’t remember which one. If your opponent goes to ground, leave no ground to go to. If he couldn’t get Ventrus to poke his head out from behind the dunes, he would remove the dunes.
It took all of about five minutes for him to clear a significant portion of the desert area around him. He didn’t need as much power as he’d put behind the first two shots, especially for the smaller dunes. When he scanned the cleared land, he knew they were in trouble.
“Lethen, I’ve got some bad news.”
Lethen stood opposite Gianni. His foe was still wiping the dirt from his face, but looked like he could see well enough by the way he was watching Lethen.
“What is it Angel?”
He didn’t have to wait to find out what the bad news was. He felt a sharp stab in his left buttock. He spun around to see Ventrus sitting atop a dune about a hundred yards away. He was lining up another shot. Lethen quickly circled Gianni, putting his enemy between Ventrus and himself. Ventrus could still see him due to his vantage point, but the target was smaller and hopefully Ventrus would hesitate with his teammate in the line of fire.
“I’m sorry, he must’ve headed your way when he realized I wasn’t going to keep playing his game. I can’t believe I lost him.”
“It’s fine, just get here as soon as you can. He’s on the eastern side of the oasis. If you can come and occupy him again, I would greatly appreciate it. I’ll just have to stay close to Gianni and pray he won’t shoot into a melee.”
A rustle from the right turned his head. A tired looking Lena and a very sandy Mikael were coming out of the tent.
“Renala?” He asked. He had heard her words, but only now was he beginning to realize that they were final ones. “Renala. Can you hear me?”
“I think she’s down,” Angel said. “I imagine she was saying sorry because you’re about to be surrounded.”
“There’s no about to in it. It’s four on one down here. I don’t know if I’m gonna last until you get here.”
The three members of squad 1A in front of him wore similar grins as they advanced.