The Starving Soldier
The room wasn’t sterile so much as it was cold. It’s as frigid as any laboratory should be, Nora thought to herself. Only, she had her doubts about what lies beyond the red blast doors.
Just like any desperate rookie, Nora signed up for a one on one duel which promises to reward the victor with a day’s worth of food and clothing. “It’s not like I can blame them,” she’d tell herself. She was never supposed to enlist in the Civil Angels guard program, but her sister was never supposed to die either. Through her brutal training she learned to make use of an injectable serum made specifically for those who don’t have magic in their bloodline, and then she learned how to attack with her sidearm without accidentally taking a chunk out of her with it.
Nora glanced around the room. The walls, ceiling and floor were nothing spectacular, just grey concrete. Crowded desks huddled against the corners, seemingly divided by the red blast door which made Nora feel uneasy. The stale lighting made the staff look even more haggard than she initially felt, plus it really hammered home the lack of professionalism. Nora could have sworn the terms she signed off were already used by a previous rookie and simply had their names scratched out.
“There’s only two things you need to know; don’t be the first to pass out, and no sabers allowed.” The woman speaking was in a well-worn lab coat. She must say that a hundred times a week, Nora thought. She mulled over the idea of working in this dimly lit room while the woman ripped Nora’s saber out of its sheath, tossing it onto a bare patch on a desk and landing with a clang.
Nora rocked on her heels as she waited for staff member number two, the balding man across the room shuffling over to her with a tray. It was carrying several glass ampoules of varying colors and the slightest tremble from his elderly grip would cause them to quietly knock together. His olive dyed apron swayed gently as he cracked the glass vials open and prepared an exceptionally large needle for them.
Nora continued to hug herself as she sat down in the prep chair. She still couldn’t figure out if she was seeing her breath or not, the needle was that mundane to her. Something cold and damp scrubbed her bicep. The scent of isopropyl alcohol strangely comforted her, perhaps for its cleanliness or its familiarity.
“This girl seems a little too calm if you ask me,” the man in the apron told the woman. Out of Nora’s peripheral vision, she just caught a glowing maroon liquid flowing into her bicep. Just like all the other times she’d taken the enigmatic serum, it burned slowly all throughout her arm.
“It’s only because she doesn’t know what she signed up for,” the woman replied plainly, tinkering with a control panel for the arena. After some disorganized of lever pulling and scribbling, the woman sighed. “Okay. You’re good to go. Walk through the door.”
Just like that the heavy metallic door shot through the ceiling revealing a chamber even darker than the tiny concrete room. Nora hopped to her feet, unbalanced at first due to the drug but able to regain her composure. How hard could this be? She walked through the doorway and before she knew it, she was descending in the world’s fastest elevator.
Gears interlocked with iron tracks, an audible rumble grew to a deafening earthquake of mechanical protest. Nora could barely stay steady hunkered down to the floor. Then she noticed the spinning yellow hazard lights periodically dotting the chamber walls.
Though she pushed herself back onto her feet, gravity took hold of her and dragged her back to the floor again. She felt like a tortoise flipped onto his shell. Suddenly the chamber halted, tossing Nora back into the air before one final thud. She groaned.
The room looked like a gigantic rusted iron chute with a circular platform like a coin floating in the center, only now before the haggard girl was a rising gate with arcane symbols etched into it. The revealed gap flooded torchlight into the uncomfortable darkness, only to be obstructed by a large lumbering mass of armor and clinking flasks.
Nora could sense her widening eyes, her dry mouth agape at the knight whom she expected to be a feeble rookie like herself. Her left hand groped around for the magick ignition switch on her basic bronze student gauntlet. She had to wait for the perfect moment with only a few minutes worth of serum in her body.
The knight in the heavy black armor pieces hopped onto the outer ledge of the arena platform causing it to vibrate under Nora’s feet. He had his saber out and allowed it to scrape along the floor as he stepped toward her. Suddenly, her fear changed into a prickling sensation of hatred. How dare they!
The starting horn sounded in time with the secondary spotlights to flicker on, revealing “All-seeing eye” fixtures, the kind used for surveillance around the campus and, of course, for broadcasting duels during tournaments. The black knight moved his mouth guard just to show off his demented toothy grin.
Nora placed two fingers under the small lever on her gauntlet and yanked it, immediately crying out in pain as the serum awakened inside of her arteries. In a flash the sweat coating her skin evaporated, thin clouds of a sinister color trailing off of her. She raised a shaky wrist to her face in order to inspect the gauntlet’s display. It had four nixie tubes for a timer, now reading “3:59” and counting down. Below that an orange-red rune came alive along with various dials and gauges which she still struggled to understand.
She lowered the gauntlet once the fire behind her eyes became palpable. Do I remember how to do this? she asked herself. It can’t matter now, she realized, the daunting figure of a blood thirsty knight with most likely plenty of experience rushing toward her. It bothered her that he hadn’t put the blade away, but he didn’t seem to be using any magick either. She sidestepped him as if he were a rushing bull, then lobbed a fizzling bundle of embers which cooled to ash before it could even leave a mark on the knight.
“Dammit!” Nora yelled in exasperation. Her frail frame sped along the arena as fast as it could take her, but the knight continued to nip at her heels. She desperately cycled through the few battle tactics she’d studied but was having trouble thinking at all. She launched herself forward through the air with a hop, spun her body around and spat fire at him, the shambling suit of armor stumbling back. She landed on her back and skull hard but she still gave a small smirk. Maybe I can pull this off, she mused. Except the smirk quickly faded upon the knight’s saber sliding through her sternum and to the floor.
The room was spinning, her ears were ringing. The flame behind her eyes snuffed out. She felt numb.
The black knight was grinning from ear to ear, she could see it even if she couldn’t see much else. This was his sport. He probably ate an hour ago! What could he do now? She supposed no one could stop him if he just wanted to lop her head off, but he didn’t seem to be the kind of warrior who prefers the quick solution.
Nora forgot all about her gauntlet which was now resting next to her wound. It beeped at her annoyingly which prompted her to raise it to her face with the last of her strength. A message blinked on the nixie tubes: “PSN2C” Or, shorthand for “Second-class poison” She was being given a choice. Walk out of here with nothing or die in agony? Screw that.
She grabbed a hidden switch next to a big red “E” with her teeth and yanked it back. She only owned one elixir and it cost her everything she had, what with not coming from a life of royalty and having to spend the rest of her money just to get into the Civil Angels program.
As soon as it released into her bloodstream she began to thrash and scream. Out of the corner of her eye she could swear the knight was laughing at this.
She thought about the ads she’d walk by for “luxury” elixirs. The kind she could never afford, the kind that rich brats injected and drank for paper cuts. They were perfumey, your nose fills with the scent of exotic flowers. They were ecstasy inducing. They outclassed most alcohols. Not this kind though, she could only afford the equivalent of dirty water that was somehow healing - but they worked.
Nora snapped back to her feet revitalized. She glared at the black knight smugly. Inky poison and old blood poured out and around the blade still stuck in her chest, then the skin stitched itself together. Finally the blade dropped to the floor with a clang, but the tip appeared to be rusted off. She felt like saying to him, look at that, for once in your life you realize you made a mistake. The knight was furious.
A great big shambling beast in several layers of black armor pieces charged toward Nora as she idly inspected her gauntlet as if nothing serious was happening. The blood and saliva which dribbled from her chin made it look like she was enjoying a plate of berries moments ago.
“This girl seems a little too calm if you ask me.”
Nora headbutted the knight, a great metallic crack ringing up and down the arena’s elevator shaft. The knight went down, his helmet melting like it was left in a blazing forge. Nora sauntered over to his struggling body, her arms completely covered in sizzling flesh that glowed like the sun. “I don’t want to leave here empty handed. Why don’t we make use of the minute and nineteen seconds I have left?” She spoke down to him as if it were nothing. With one smooth motion a fireball traced an arc between her and the All-seeing Eye fixtures, destroying them.
The man and woman from the prep room, if you could even call it that, stared at Nora nervously.
“Well? Where’s my payment? I got you proof and everything. If I don’t see the meal tokens I know who’s the unfair ones here.” Nora attempted to sound sassy but it really came out more like a hoarse intimidating command. She was fine with that. Her grimy hands dropped the burnt and bloodied knight helmet on a nearby desk. Within moments she was walking towards the steps with four large sacks of meal tokens. Something felt missing though. She glanced back at the confused two.
“I’ll be watching.”