It was then I realized that I wasn’t going to get any sleep. Everyone else’s day of training was just beginning, and Hanson wasn’t going to let me go and nap. No, I was part of the squad now, and everything they did, I would do. Sagar was in charge of the five of us, but Hanson would ultimately decide how our training would proceed.
The first thing we did was run laps around the large room. I think that the older students would run outside, but since we were all around age 12, we just stayed in the gym. Making me join right in like this without resting…they must have been trying to test me. Well I wasn’t going to show any weakness. My meatball sub and sleep in Sagar’s car would be enough for me, and I pushed on.
After the run, we did a set of pushups and situps, until our coach announced that it was time for breakfast. The five of us stopped what we were doing, and followed Sagar up a set of open metal stairs to the second floor. From there, it was only a short walk to the mess hall, which was already full of people. Everyone in Tsalderek ate in the same place, but in shifts. The people were assigned a, b, c, or d shift, depending on their occupation within the organization. We students were automatically in d, so we went last. It was probably to teach humility or something.
After standing in line to get a tray of scrambled eggs, some kind of weird sausage-ish substance, and a banana, the five students headed back to the tables. Kazushita, Geoffrey and Rachael intentionally separated themselves from me, and sat on the opposite side of the room. I sat down at an empty table, alone with my thoughts. For about three seconds.
Danica plopped down with her tray directly across from me.
“Hi Milo!” She cheerfully greeted.
“Um…hi, Danica.” I hesitantly responded.
Honestly, what’s with this girl?
“Oh, you don’t have to be so formal! Just call me Dani!”
As I ate, I kept my eyes fixed on my food. I could feel her blue-eyed gaze on me. It tickled, for some reason. The very instant I took the last bite, Danica removed my tray and pushed hers into its place. I looked up at her.
“I’m not hungry!” She said. “Here! You can have it!”
I was not sure what to do here. This was really awkward. Before I had the chance to make any stupid mistakes, someone dropped down into the seat next to me.
“Hey, Milo! Danica. What’s up?”
It was Takeji. Trinity sat across from him, next to Danica.
“Hi guys! Hey, what are you doing here? Don’t agents eat at ‘a’ breakfast?” Danica asked.
“Yeah, usually, but we traded with somebody so we could sit with you.” Trinity explained. “’A’ block meals are like an autographed copy of the Bible, limited edition, made out of gold. Very valuable. You can trade it for pretty much anything.”
The feeling of discomfort had been resolved by the arrival of our friends, so I began eating the extra food Danica had given me.
“I heard you were really awesome today, Milo.” Takeji said. “I wish I could have seen it.”
“Yeah, he was awesome!” Danica interjected. “He whooped all three of those tough guys! Pow! They didn’t know what hit ’em!”
“That’s what I heard. Very impressive.”
“Mm…thanks. I don’t think they like me very much though.”
“Ha! You don’t say? They absolutely loathe you, and may already be plotting your untimely demise.”
“Great. I should’ve just let them win.”
“No, you did fine.” Trinity consoled. “There was no reason that you shouldn’t have done your best. It’s not your fault that your best was awesome, and theirs sucked.”
“Yeah, we’ve seen their type pleeeenty of times before. They place all of their worth on what they can do. And if they can’t do something as well as somebody else, well, they get ticked off.” Takeji elaborated.
“It’s just the way Tsalderek is set up. It does that to people.” The woman looked sad. “They teach that the only way to earn God’s love, and earn your place in the organization, is to do good things.”
“Yep. ‘Faith without works is dead’. It doesn’t matter what you believe, only what you do really counts.”
When Hanson told of this doctrine, it seemed to make a lot more sense. But coming from these two, I just wasn’t sure what was right. So I said so.
“Well, isn’t what we do important? Nothing gets done if we just sit around.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Well, I mean, I’m sure you could seriously put the hurt to some metroids if you just sat on the couch all day, but that doesn’t count for much.” Trinity admitted. “It’s just, I’ve been reading from the book that the higher-ups are always talking about, the Bible.”
“We both have.” Takeji added.
“Yeah, and it’s like, we’ve been missing something. I mean, you know the God that they’re always talking about? Well he sent his son down to die for us!”
“Now why would he do that, if the only way to please him was to work hard and do good things?”
I was a bit confused.
“Are you saying that everything that Tsalderek has been living for is a lie?”
“All we’re saying is…we don’t know.” Takeji answered.
“Maybe…Maybe God is more than we’ve always believed.” His young wife added.
I was still skeptical of all of this, but I trusted Takeji and Trinity. They wouldn’t ever intentionally lead someone astray. Whether they were right or wrong, they would believe it with their whole hearts.
Danica’s eyes were wide with excitement. Actually, her eyes were never NOT wide open like that. It would be noteworthy if she looked calm for once.
“I don’t really know what’s going on, but it sounds really important!”
“Hm. There’s a reason we’re sitting with you, and not them.” Trinity nodded toward where our classmates were eating. “You haven’t been indoctrinated yet.”
“Brainwashed is more like it.” Takeji muttered.
“Yep. Veritable goombas, those ones. They don’t know it, but they’re being totally manipulated. There’s something else, though. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something isn’t right here. It’s something called ‘Grace’. I don’t know exactly what it’s all about, but we’ll find it.”
Just then, everyone began standing up, as the breakfast time was over.
“Well, I guess it’s time to go. It’s been thrilling talking to you guys.” Trinity said.
“Yep. Stay cool guys.” Takeji added as they stood up. “See you later!”
“Bye! Have a good day!” Danica cheerfully bid farewell.
I waved silently, not exactly sure what to believe at this point. By that time, I had finished all of the food Danica had given me, so I began to take the two trays over to the counter for the kitchen staff to wash them. The girl tried to grab them out of my hands.
“No, that’s OK. I’ve got this, thanks.” I had enough of Danica’s peculiar behavior for now. She looked disappointed for a moment, but quickly bounced back.
“Okey Dokey! I’ll see you down at the gym in 10 minutes!” She chirped, and skipped out of the cafeteria.
I shook my head. Okayyyyyyyy, well, at least she’s nice, even though she’s crazy. I dropped off my trays, and started walking down to the training area. I hadn’t gotten any sleep since Sagar’s car early this morning, but I wasn’t tired. I was too eager to prove myself to let anything get in the way.
“Alright, guys. It’s time for some conditioning.” Sagar addressed us. “Everybody, give me ten roundhouse kicks! Right foot, go!”
I wasn’t exactly sure what a roundhouse kick was, so I delayed for a moment to watch my classmates. They performed a kick where they turned their bodies, bent backward a little, and struck the bag with the top of their foot. I was able to join in on number three. The five us kicked a heavy hanging bag ten times as fast as we could.
“OK! Left foot! Go!”
Again, we performed the move with the left side. Our focus was more on speed than strength, and we all competed to finish the kicks the fastest.
“Right foot again! Harder this time! Go!”
This time, each of us put as much power as we possibly could into each kick. The bags swung back and forth, and it was difficult to match the timing of the kick with the moving target. I missed a time or two, but kept pushing forward. I didn’t notice if the others ever missed. All I focused on was me.
“Left foot! Go!”
This continued for a while, through a variety of kicks such as moon kick, front, side, and back. Each time I hesitated for a repetition or two so I could learn it. We were all exhausted, but kept pushing onward.
“Alright. Now give me as many straight punches as you can. Make ’em fast and hard. Go!”
This one I knew how to do. There wasn’t a lot of finesse involved as we pummeled the hanging bags. All we wanted to do was be the fastest and strongest. My fists flew as fast and strong as they could. My knuckles stung from the repeated impact, and I noticed a blood spot on my target. I guess that I wasn’t used to all this impact, and my hands were breaking open. The pain wouldn’t stop me though.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Danica. She wasn’t competing with the rest of us. She wasn’t even trying! Instead, the girl was hopping about, giving quick jabs every once in a while, mixed with some other strikes such as spinning back fists and palm hits. Her face had a determined but radiant smile. Was she just having fun with this?
“Alright, that’s good!” Sagar announced.
We all stopped, and tried to catch our breath. My arms felt like rubber bands, and my face was sweating like a can of soda, but I didn’t want to show any sign of weakness. My body wasn’t accustomed to this intensity, but I guess that’s why they call it conditioning.
“One last exercise. Burpees! Ready? Go!”
The other four kids simultaneously dropped to the floor. I watched them as they did some ridiculous exercise. Apparently, a Burpee consisted of dropping into a squat, kicking your legs out into a pushup position, doing the pushup, then pulling your legs in, and jumping as high as you can. That’s one. I joined in on number two.
We were all tired to begin with. Each repetition was harder than the last, but no one would give up. Giving up would be admitting weakness, and that was something these kids would not do. My heart was beating hard, and I grit my teeth and focused on each movement. Down, out, down, in, up. Down, out, down, in, up. I heard the other students groaning, until eventually Rachael could do no more. She went down, and stayed down.
We three boys kept going, grunting with exertion. One more! Come on, one more! I kept this up until I looked over at Danica. Again, she was not racing. Instead, she was varying her speed with each step in the move. She was just finding a way to make it interesting, and didn’t worry about the competition. This wacko looked perfectly happy and content, like she could keep it up all day.
Just when Geoffrey, Kazushita, and my strength was almost completely gone, Sagar stopped us.
“Alright, that’s enough.”
We plopped to the ground, panting. Good thing he interrupted when he did, because I wasn’t sure if I could do another one. As I dragged myself to my feet, Kazushita pushed down on my shoulder, forcing me to the ground as he stood up. Sagar must not have seen it, because he didn’t say anything. My blood boiled, and I wanted to complain about it, but then Danica took my hand to help me to my feet.
“Don’t worry about it. He does that all the time.”
“Great. Thanks.” I said through rapid breaths. She helped me stand up, and I faced our teacher.
“Nice job, guys!” He congratulated. “That was not an easy thing that you just did. I’m impressed.”
None of us could really say anything. We were too out of breath. Geoffrey, Danica and I had our hands on our knees, gasping. Kazushita was severely trying to keep from imitating us. Rachael was still laying on the ground, crying.
Sagar looked down at her.
“You too, Rachael. Don’t feel like you failed, just because you couldn’t keep up with the others. There’s more to being an agent than being able to do kicks and burpees.” He looked up at all of his students. “That goes for all of you. Each of you has more to offer than can be tested by any one test. That’s why the graduation won’t take place until you’re ready. It’ll be a few years at least.”
A few years? Fine. I would use as much time as I had to get better than everyone else. There was no way in the world I would accept anything other than first place.
“Take a breather, kids.” Sagar announced. “Next, will be some classroom learning about our enemy!”
Learning about our enemy? That should be interesting! As we moved toward the classrooms, I matched my speed with the teacher.
“Mr. Sagar? I have a question.”
“Have you ever fought the Nephilim?”
If he was surprised, he didn’t show it.
“Yes, I have.”
“Have you ever killed one?” I pressed further.
“Yes.” He answered simply.
“Was it hard?”
“No. Although they’re very dangerous, they are no harder to kill than a normal human.”
“Does that mean you’ve killed humans too?”
Sagar was silent for a moment.
“I’ve done a lot of things I’d rather not talk about, if that’s OK with you.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry sir.” I looked at the ground, felling like I’d overstepped my bounds.
Sagar rustled my hair.
“Hey, don’t worry about it. It’s not too late for you to be different from me. I’m going to teach you how to be the best you can be, and you can make your own choices, hopefully better than the ones I made!”
“Tsalderek is growing too strong. It is time for a culling.”
“But, sir? Hasn’t the Shadowy One been found? Won’t the end come soon?”
“We don’t want them to upset the balance before the time comes.”
“And the Fiery One? I thought the prophecy said they would appear at the same time.”
“…The Fiery One has not been found. We mustn’t allow Tsalderek to destroy Nahalore before both of the prophesied ones appear.”
“Shall we cull Nahalore as well?”
“No. Their numbers are equivalent, but their fighting force is far lower. Only Tsalderek need feel our pruning shears at this time.”
“Yes sir. It shall be done.”