Over the course of the next two days, tensions were extremely high within Tsalderek. Kazushita, Geoffrey, and I were all silently deliberating each other’s destruction. If thoughts could kill, all of Tsalderek would be littered with corpses. I’m not sure if this is what whoever founded this organization had in mind when he instigated the system of agents and promotions, but it seemed like the only thing it accomplished was to spread feelings of hate, ambition, deception, and pain. Without Dani to curb my hatred, it raged like a cold and violent storm inside of me. If given the opportunity, I would have killed either of my rivals.
I didn’t see Dani one single time. I certainly didn’t blame her for avoiding everyone. I hated myself for having to do that to her. She probably felt hurt, betrayed, and miserable. Most likely, she wouldn’t even show up to the final test. We all knew she had no chance of winning the promotion.
I always knew that I would be spending my life alone, but that brief taste of sweet companionship and happiness made the harsh reality that much more bitter. Nothing mattered now except for fulfilling my destiny. I wasn’t exactly sure what that entailed, but what I did know, is that the door would be opened to me when it was time. I needed to be prepared to walk through that door, and the only way to do that was to be as strong and well-trained as humanly possible. It was also absolutely essential that I was promoted to being an agent. I couldn’t imagine anyone purifying humanity and restoring peace by sitting behind a desk or knitting socks or anything like that. I needed to be on the field, where stuff was happening. If Hanson said that the only way to become an agent and save mankind was to abandon all relationships and personal ties, then that’s what I would do.
The days passed quickly as I prepared myself for the final test. I was obviously the best choice for promotion in terms of skill and ability. Sagar had confirmed that. Unfortunately, Hanson did not like me, which seemed to factor quite greatly in the final decision. (I wonder if he forgot that I’ve already been on a real mission, and saved his life. Asshole) Because of the way that the promotion system worked, this real-life simulation of a mission was heavily weighted in the decision as well. At this point, anyone was still in the game for selection as long as they could prove themselves. This raised the stakes even higher.
The day of the final exam, I was donning the required equipment in the locker room, when Sagar appeared.
“Hey.” He greeted me softly.
I silently nodded with respect, and looked up at him. He had his typical somewhat pained smile on his face, where it was difficult to tell if he were forcing it, or if that was simply how he smiled.
“I know you’ll do well, Milo.” He began, sitting down beside me. “I’m completely blown away how far you’ve come, and I know that you’ll do even greater things someday. Whether you’re promoted or not, I don’t care. I couldn’t be prouder of you.”
I nodded again. Although I’m sure his words were well-intended, they meant nothing to me. The only thing that mattered was perfection. I had to win, no other outcome was acceptable. I wasn’t demanding promotion because of some massive ego, I don’t think so anyway. The only reason was because it was my responsibility. I was born to do this, and I was going to complete it or die trying.
“After the test, I have something important to tell you. Something I’ve been wanting to tell you for six years now, but the time’s never been right.”
Hm. Either he was going to tell me that he’s my father, or that he lied about the whole prophecy thing. Well, I could worry about that later. Right now, I had a job to do. As I stood up, I finally spoke.
“Master Sagar, I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve given me.” I tried my best to put my honest feelings into words. “I’m not so great at talking, but I just want to say how much I appreciate your training and teaching. It’s because of you that I’m here at all.”
Sagar also stood, and nodded slightly.
“It’s been a pleasure, Milo. I could never ask for a better student. You’ve always been like…a son to me.”
OK. It’s really starting to look like he’s gonna tell me the father thing. Whatever. He was a great guy, and I would be perfectly fine knowing that he was my dad, but I couldn’t have any family ties. I would have to abandon all in order to do what I had to do.
“Um…Thank you, sir. I’d better be going. The test starts here soon.”
“Yeah. OK. Good luck, Milo.”
A short time later, I found myself alone in a dark room. I knew that soon all of the prospective agents would be released into a mock-mission field, with a specified objective. We had been transported to the site in a windowless van, so I had no idea where we were. Every student who had taken the exam was sworn to never talk about its contents, but rumors still existed. Apparently, it was a bit like some kind of Hunger Games knock off.
Our mission was to find a number of power cores that were hidden in the environment, using any means necessary. We also had to obtain the key to enter the command center, and input the power cores into the central unit of the building, causing it to self-destruct. The students were not given any weapons or tools. Instead, we were to improvise based on what we could find in the environment. Additionally, there were traps set throughout the woods, and guards for the command center, who would not hesitate to use force. Altogether, it was a very difficult test which would push all of the skills and training that we had obtained through the years to the limit.
I took a deep breath, and prepared for the door to open. The most important part of the test was this: all of the participants were pitted against each other. In order to successfully complete the test, one student would need to be in possession of all of the power cores and the key, and make it to the command center alone. All others, that is, former classmates, were obstacles at best, mortal enemies at worst.
Abruptly, a sliding door retracted into the ceiling, and the room where I had been placed was flooded with light. My immediate reaction was shock. I wasn’t in a temperate coniferous Canadian forest like I had been expecting. It was a tropical rainforest! How was that possible?
Without wasting any time contemplating it, I plunged forward into the jungle-like woods. Apparently, the contestants were released into the mission field at different locations, because I didn’t see any of them. As soon as I made it into a thick patch of trees, I stopped to gain my bearings. My eyes had never seen a place like this before. It looked and felt like an honest-to goodness rainforest.
Well, there was no point in wasting any time wondering how Tsalderek’s engineers managed to create something like this. Every second spent idle gave Geoffrey and Kazushita that much more of a head start. I quickly began to form a method to proceed. I didn’t really have any idea where to begin looking for the power cores. They could be literally anywhere within this jungle, and there was no way to know just how vast it was. Also, there was the key. The proctors weren’t exactly clear about what they meant by “key”. Was it a code? Or perhaps a physical card key?
The more I thought about it, the more apparent it became that my first course of action should be to find the mock command center. There was a good chance that everything would be located radially from there. It was unlikely that they’d keep the key under the welcome mat, but it would be a place to start.
I increased my pace to a jog, and picked a direction. The room from where I had been released was obviously along the perimeter of the testing area, so my path led directly away from where I had started.
After a minute or two of moving quickly, I still hadn’t seen anything of interest in this forest, but my senses were elevated to their most sensitive level. If there were to be anything to see, hear, or smell, I would catch it.
Suddenly, a nearly silent twang, like an overly-loose guitar string sounded. It was nearly muffled by my footsteps, but I heard it just in time. Reflexively, my body performed a hands-free cartwheel in the direction of my momentum. My head passed only inches above some kind of swinging metal bar. The swish sounded loudly in my ear, but I escaped unscathed. Upon landing, I was immediately ready for whatever would come next, but nothing did.
After waiting a moment, I approached whatever it was that had attempted to hit me. It was a metal rod which had swung like a gate by an attachment point on a tree. Along the rod was a series of lethal-looking metal spikes. The device was positioned about two and a half feet off the ground. It wasn’t intended to kill, just to disable. Huh. No wonder there were so many crippled people in Tsalderek, even among the civilians.
Thinking to make use of it, I decided to remove one of the metal spikes to use to my advantage. However, they were strongly welded to the bar, and I was unable to pry it off. Instead, I used the razor sharp object to carve a piece of a tree branch that I found to a dangerous point. While attaching my makeshift weapon to my belt, I thought about nothing but my mission. I would complete it, no matter what the cost.
With the experience of nearly getting impaled by that booby trap, I proceeded on my way far more slowly and cautiously. Several minutes later, I came across a small brook. This was a fairly conspicuous place to put a brook, but I guess anywhere in this arena would be kinda suspicious. I easily hopped over it and continued, veering a little to my right. Just then, I noticed something hidden in the foliage. There was a gunmetal gray building, only one story tall with a slightly domed roof. It looked like something that might have been on the moon of Endor.
This was definitely the command center. OK. Where to go from here? Would the power cores be buried, or perhaps in canisters camouflaged in with the flora of the environment? Before I could make a move in one way or the other, I was suddenly grabbed from behind. A powerful arm wrapped around my neck, while the other entrapped my head. Who was this?! Kazushita?
I struggled, but could not escape the strong grip. Thinking quickly, I pounded my elbow into the attackers stomach, then grabbed the arm that was around my neck, and leaned down, flipping him over my back to the ground. I pulled out my pointed stick, and lifted it above my head to plunge it into my adversary’s body. At the last instant, I stopped.
The man was unfamiliar, and certainly not Geoffrey or Kazushita. He wore jungle camouflage. He was also out cold. I reconsidered mauling him with my makeshift weapon. This guy was one of the people tasked with hindering the students taking the test. He could have struck me from behind with lethal force, but instead, he elected to try to choke me out more or less harmlessly. He didn’t deserve to die.
Rather than skewer him, I quickly searched his uniform. Maybe…just maybe…
Ah ha! I procured what appeared to be a key card from a pocket on his vest. It was black, with a series of grey and green interconnecting cubes drawn on it. I didn’t know if this was the only one, or if there were enough for every student to have one. It didn’t matter to me. I had this one, and now I all I need is to obtain the five power cores.
Just then, I heard a rustling in the trees to my left. In a flash, I sprinted away from the unconscious body and hid within some low undergrowth. Just as I had found my leafy refuge, two figures emerged from where the noise had originated. It was Geoffrey and Kazushita. Hm, I suppose they’ve formed an alliance against me. I couldn’t care less. I could take them both on without a problem.
Remaining under cover, I observed them approach the guard that I’d taken out.
“Damnit! He’s been here!” Geoffrey cursed.
“Yeah. Not long ago.” Kazushita added.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. We’ll find him, and finish him.”
Kazushita nodded, and Geoffrey continued.
“So, the deal’s still on, right? We work together to take him out. Then, if I get promoted, I’ll let you take my place after I get my treatment. If you get promoted, you make sure that they cure me. OK?”
“Yeah.” The burley young man nodded again.
As they walked away, I considered what I had just heard. So the two of them had partnered up to satisfy their own ambition and medical needs. Whatever. Their agreements would never come to pass. I was going to win this fight, and be the first to collect all of these power cores.
After enough time had passed for me to emerge from the shadows undetected, I made my way toward the small stream. The fact that I had been ambushed by that guard and nearly spotted by my enemies suggested that I may be more successful if I were less visible. Grabbing handfuls of mud, I smeared it all over my face and any parts of skin not covered by my gear. There. They’d never see me coming. That’s what I call good camouflage.
Before heading back into the woods to search for the power cores, I caught a glimpse something on a tree about thirty feet away. It was almost shiny, but dull, and the same color as the tree bark. Rapidly, I hustled over to where I had seen the sparkle. Once I arrived at the tree, I ran my hands up and down the trunk and lowest branches. After a couple of passes, I felt something hard and smooth. It was nearly perfectly blended into the bark, and would have been undetectable to many an untrained eye.
With a small amount of effort, I dislodged the little device from the tree. A hollow metallic piece, about the size of a miniature computer mouse, came off in my hands. Inside this clandestine container was a tiny piece of technology: a wireless in-ear speaker. Instinctively, I placed it in my right ear. It was surprisingly comfortable; almost as though I was wearing nothing in my ear at all.
Just then, a loud voice resounded. I instantly ducked down into the underbrush and looked around rapidly for the source. After a second, I realized that it was coming from my earpiece. The voice came again, and I listened more intently this time.
“Milo, I know you can hear me.”
I knew that voice. It was Hanson! What could he possibly have to say to me at a time like this?
“This is not a recording. I’m talking to you live right now. You’re the only one hearing this.”
I thought about asking him why he was contacting me, but then I recognized that my earpiece did not have a microphone, so I had to just listen.
“Listen. Dani has been caught cheating.”
Cheating? I didn’t even know that she had made it to the test. And how could she be cheating? The Dani I knew would never do anything like that!
“I know you probably won’t believe me, but it’s the honest truth. We believe that she could be doing it to get revenge on you for betraying her. We’re not sure, but this behavior cannot be tolerated.”
I could hardly comprehend what was happening. She had never been at all ambitious before, but now, she was trying to thwart me by winning the final exam? And cheating to do it, no less?
“Now, here’s the deal.” Hanson continued in a hushed tone. “If you exterminate this cheater, then I promise I’ll promote you immediately, no matter the outcome of the test.”
What?! Exterminate her?! I knew that Tsalderek was strict about their laws and morals, but this! If there were a microphone on this earpiece, I would have told Hanson to screw off. But, after I thought about it, a silent rage began to grow within me. Dani would really try to punish me with this humiliation? Not only was that infuriating enough in itself, but it might jeopardize my ability to complete the prophecy. She would pay for this.
Hanson seemed to play off of my emotions.
“I want you to kill her, Milo. Then, your life will be easy from now on.”
Kill her? I had never killed anyone before in my life. Could I do it? And Dani! I loved her! At least, I thought I did. That was before I knew what she was capable of. What a backstabbing slimy treacherous viper!
As though he could detect my fury, the man on the speaking end of the connection encouraged me to take action.
“Yes, that’s it. Take what is yours. Take your rightful place as the Shadowy One. You don’t need anyone. This is your responsibility, and your destiny, and no one can take it away from you! Go! She’s to the northeast of your position!”
With that information, I began to move quickly but carefully through the rainforest terrain, being wary of traps, but still keeping a steady pace. Only a few minutes later, I found her. Immediately, I stealthily climbed up into a tree to observe what she was doing. The girl was scurrying around frenziedly, as though she was looking for something.
From my vantage point, hidden in the tree, I watched her through angry eyes. What was she even doing? Is this the cheating that Hanson was talking about? It didn’t look like much. After moving around for a while, she focused her attention on one area, underneath the exposed roots of a large tree. She reached around and inside of crevices until she was apparently satisfied, then she got up and started running out of the area.
Before following her, I dropped from the tree to investigate what Dani was doing. It only took a moment of reaching into the wide-open root system for my hand to contact something. When I pulled the object out to look at it, my mouth dropped open in shock. It was one of the power cores of the mission objective! How could Dani have come so close to it, and yet be unable to find it! I attached it to my belt. Well, I guess I’ll follow her to see what else she’s up to.
A couple of minutes later, I had caught up to the girl. Again, I remained out of sight while she bustled about. Out of curiosity, I allowed her to finish what she was working on, just to see what she was doing. Dani fiddled around in the tall undergrowth for some time. Then, just like last time, she pulled up and started heading in a different direction. When she was gone, I again jumped out of the tree to see what she had been looking for. Again, not to my surprise this time, I found the second power core for the command center.
She couldn’t possibly have just missed such an obvious device, especially when we were given specific instructions on how to complete the mission. Clearly she knew where it was, why wouldn’t she take it herself?
Gradually, it began to dawn on me exactly what the nature of her cheating was. Maybe…but was it possible? Before I acted on my suspicion, I had to know for sure. Once more, I stalked Dani through the silent jungle. She accidentally activated a trap similar to a snare, but managed to avoid being caught up in it.
She searched through the jungle for quite some time, before entering a clearing with rather sandy soil. With my eyes watching her from a hidden perch in the towering flora, she started to dig in the light dirt with her hands. Her back was to me, but by straining my neck, I could see that the buried payload she had discovered was yet another power core.
Momentarily, she stopped moving the dirt aside. Without turning around, she called out:
“Milo, I know you’re there. I know you’ve been following me.” Then a pause. “I can feel you.”
How… well, it didn’t matter. I dropped down from the tree and glared at her. Hanson began to whisper ferocious commands into my ear.
“Finally! Kill her Milo. She’s making a mockery of everything you’ve ever worked for. She also defied everything this organization was founded upon! This girl doesn’t deserve to live! Do it, and I’ll promote you automatically!”
I imperceptibly nodded, and began marching slowly toward where Dani was standing. Seeing my intent, she spoke again:
“Milo, I know they told you to kill me; and that I’m a cheater. I’m sorry. I feel sorry for you. I know this can’t be easy for you.”
Her voice was choked with tears, but she was forcing a smile on her face. I steadily walked forward, not showing any expression.
“Well, I wasn’t cheating, not that that matters now. I knew that you were following me, so I was just finding the power cores for you. I want you to win, Milo.” She shook her head, still trying to smile. “I want nothing but the best for you.”
I slowly pulled my improvised wooden spike from my belt, and continued my approach.
The girl clutched the third power core tightly. Her voice was almost muted by sorrow and terror, but, with a slight smile still on her face, she managed to express her feelings.
“If you have to kill me, that’s OK. I just want you to know that I love you. I’ll always love you.”
It was then that I sprung. Rather than impaling her with my weapon, I dropped it and wrapped my arms around my girl.
She stiffened in shock, and the power core fell from her hands to the ground. Then, she relaxed, and leaned into my embrace; putting her arms around me and laying her head against my shoulder. She had nothing to say, only to sob in brief, gasping spurts like only one who was unexpectedly granted life can.
After a few seconds, I pulled her head back with a hand on either side of her face. We looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, wordlessly. Then I slowly, and ever so cautiously, leaned forward and pressed my lips to hers. She reacted sharply at first, but then relaxed, closed her eyes, and gave in to it. I had never felt anything like this before. It was pure delight, comforting warmth and refreshing cool all at once. I moved one hand behind her head, and the other wrapped around her body, and kissed her more deeply. How could I ever think I could live without her? No one had ever loved me like she did, and I never loved anyone like I loved her.
Suddenly, Hanson’s voice began screaming in my ear.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, MILO! FINISH HER! YOU’LL NEVER BE AN AGENT! I SWEAR TO GOD I’LL KILL YOU! YOU HEAR ME? I’LL MAKE YOU PAY FOR THIS…”
Without breaking our kiss, I slowly reached my hand up, removed the earpiece, and placed it in my pocket. Right now, the only thing that mattered was Danica. She was willing to give her life, just to help me achieve my goals. Suddenly, being promoted didn’t seem so important. Neither did the prophecy, the fate of mankind, and certainly not Hanson’s violent threats. If I could find a way to reconcile my prophesied duty with my love for this girl, that would be great.
If I had to choose…
I choose her.