Ten swung the axe in a hard overhead arc, snapping it down at the last second to intensify the force of the strike. The log split cleanly and fell into pieces beside the stump she was using as a platform, each half dropping into a large pile of split stock. She grabbed another log and balanced it atop the stump. A few seconds later, and this one snapped apart as well, joining the dozens before it.
She stopped when her count told her she had split one hundred logs into quarters. A gentle flicking motion sent the axe head into the stump to secure it as she began the task of gathering the quarters four and five at a time for the trek back to the woodshed. It was dull and repetitive work, and with every step, with every load of wood, she thanked Tole for the simple nature of the task at hand exactly as she had with each swing of the axe. She reminded herself again and again what an opportunity she had been given here. Every step, every swing was good healthy exercise. The grass beneath her toes reminded her that Tole had provided for her. The pale grey wood of the thick-boled trees, while dense in composition, was easier to carry than the weight of her sins.
Fifty paces to the shed. Fifty paces back to the piles. Nearly a hundred trips back and forth, half the time carrying a load of wood in her arms. When she got to the shed with each load, she stacked it carefully in the bins she had made. Soon split wood sections lined the interior walls to a height that made her stretch. This was not her first day stacking wood.
She returned to the stump and slipped the axe free of the scarred wooden surface. She held the blade up toward the sky, letting the evening sun tell her what she needed to know. There were minor scratches and a tiny chip in the blade near the tip, but nothing that couldn’t be filed out. That would happen before she went back into the house tonight.
She had yet to step away from the stump when the feeling swept over her like icy water poured down her back. Adrenaline flowed through her veins in response and she felt a sort of electricity take hold, stiffening all her hairs.
“No, please,” she whispered.
Her answer came in the form of a stinking, fleshy hand that wrapped around her face as a heavy body slammed into her from behind. The hand sought to cover her mouth, and Ten let it. There was no one here to overhear, anyway.
Old reflexes took over and she dropped a shoulder while shifting her weight. The thick furry form behind her slid over her right shoulder and crashed to the dirt for a second before righting itself and jumping once more to its feet.
The rat was average size for its breed, although a little fatter than she had previously seen on any combat force. He wore some kind of mottled brown coverall that was not much different than the sections of fur she could see on him. A belt and suspenders rig held equipment and a scabbarded knife hung low on his left hip. His eyes were glittering beads set wide in his face, and radiated hostility.
“I am sorry,” she said, striving to recover her calm state. “I did not mean to hurt you, but you struck me unannounced.”
“Well, this time, I’ll tell you,” he responded. “Stay quiet and I’ll make it quick.”
The knife slid free and he led with it, the tip held out and up. Ten sidestepped, spinning the axe in her grasp. The wide, flat head rang as it impacted against the knife, sending the smaller blade spinning away into the dirt. Laughter erupted from behind Ten as the rat looked with surprise at his tingling hand.
“Thought you said you could take her,” said a voice. Ten cursed in silence at her own failure to notice that he was not the only foe. She was obviously slipping.
Master Shear had hands like iron, and his use of them left bruises. Ten knew better than to sidestep the blow, however. She had earned it by not paying attention to her surroundings. His paw took her across the cheek, spinning her to the side.
“Your eyes see ahead but there is more to your world than what lies before you! Use your ears, your nose, whatever you must. If your opponent can arrive undetected, you will surely die!”
Her ears rang with pain, but Ten digested his words as the gospel they were. From that day, she became adept in situational awareness, using reflections to see behind her, sounds and smells to assess her surroundings, and growing to trust more and more that nagging feeling inside that told her she was being observed.
She paced to the side, turning her body away from the rat who had held the knife. Her movement brought her closer to the place where it lay in the dirt and, as he circled to maintain space, increased his distance from it.
They came into view in her peripheral vision. Nearly a dozen of them, all armed and prepared to do battle but currently laughing at their comrade and his discomfort at having been bested by a skinny-looking raccoon. In their ranks she saw rifles carried by all of them, and more than a few handguns of different sizes and styles. None had come into play yet, as this was a crew made for stealth. They would not want to expose themselves so far from their target by shooting a farmer.
The only constants among them were the uniform they wore and the malicious looks in their eyes. Of course, as was standard with the rats, the crew was exclusively male. While the vast majority of Empire Rodentia had no trouble mixing sexes in their armies, the rats themselves did not. Their females were scientists and inventors first. The Emperor had commanded that they be kept from the front lines and protected. The rapid breeding cycles and growth of the rats was what made them the most fearsome of opponents. They never seemed to stop. No matter how many were put down, others would flood to fill their place.
“Clearly you are an insertion force,” Ten said. Her voice was calm and flat. “I beg of you, turn back now. Do not do this.”
“I’ll show you an ‘insertion force’,” one of the rats called out, grabbing obscenely at himself.
“We’re coming through, ringtail,” declared another. He was larger than the others – not fat, but muscled and broad chested. Both his hands clutched rifles, one of which Ten guessed would belong to the one who had tried to tackle her.
“My land leads to nothing of strategic value,” she protested. “You will take longer to achieve your goals if you pass through here.”
“Bargain. Plead. Keep them talking. Take them off their aggressive front. Get them to relax their guard, even for a moment, and you will have the edge. Never let their numbers affect you, for no matter how many they are, you are from the Academy. Your life will not be cheaply traded.”
“You wear a Tolean amulet,” the big rat said. “You are no threat. We will restrain you and leave you alive. No harm will come to you.”
“Tole has put me on the path to a righteous life, it is true,” she said. She made a sniffing sound and looked up through eyes made wide. When she spoke, she forced herself to sound weak and looked past the leader to the rat who had groped himself. “You promise no harm will befall me?”
“None,” the leader said. He turned to glare at the subordinate, and all eyes went to the expected battle of wills.
Master Shear would have been proud.
The moment of distraction was at its peak, and the axe whistled up and out. It described a dramatic arc coming across from left to right, and the sound it made as it impacted the rat at the base of the skull was only minimally different than that it had made when she struck the logs. The heavy blade plowed through and emerged from the other side in a spray of blood. Before the others could react, the axe shifted and spun in her grip and two more rats fell to its bite.
She was in among them now, ducking and weaving as clawed hands reached for her. Long jagged blades sought her flesh, and more than one claimed a quick kiss as she continued to ravage their ranks with the axe. A diving roll across the blood-soaked ground, and she rose with one of the knives in each hand. The brutal axe was lodged in the sternum of a soldier, and her count put their ranks reduced by half. One of them was not mortally injured, but the missing hand was going to be an issue. She could feel the air on her back, and the fact that it felt cold told her that she had been opened there. The sticky wetness of her blood would be a sensation for later.
“Kill her!” shouted one of the rats, and they went for their rifles. The flurry of action gave her another few precious seconds, and Ten did not disappoint. She moved through them like a whirlwind, blades slashing and stabbing in a frenzy. A rifle came up and she spun to her right, slipping a blade under the barrel and stroking down across the metal. Fingers flew free from the rat’s support hand and he squealed. Six rounds thundered from the weapon as he gripped the trigger, but their intended target was no longer there.
“Never stand still. You are no tank. Your armor is your speed. Once the engagement begins, it must not stop until your foes are down.”
Her feet ached and bled as she danced her way through obstacles and across sharp-edged rocks, simultaneously dodging swinging poles that began as slow obstacles of their own but after weeks of practice became aimed stabbing attacks and brutal, bone-breaking slashes. She and her classmates learned the hard way that failure to avoid them was no laughing matter.
Sprints became longer and more frequent, with completion times that would frighten many a runner. At any point during the day, an instructor would point and yell, “Run!” The students who were pointed to ran. One hundred paces away and one hundred back, as hard and fast as could be managed. Those that were too slow were subject to a whip stroke, and the target was often far more sensitive than the student’s back. If two students were selected to run, the slower got the stroke automatically.
The class became faster and more agile with every passing day, and while some questioned how much value to ascribe to what they considered a daily torture, others recognized that there were times when the lessons learned would keep Academy graduates alive.
Her ears ached from the proximity to the rifle burst, but Ten kept going. A reverse plunge drove the left-hand blade through the paunch of one rat, the jagged edge catching on what she figured was his spine. She let it go and snatched the rifle from his hands as his voice rose in a keening shriek.
The next shot took her in the left shoulder, but the three additional rounds in the burst ripped through one of the rats that was still grasping at the fountain of blood that was erupting from his neck. She stumbled and went down, allowing the force of the impact to carry her into a gut-wrenching roll that put her body weight directly on the fresh injury. Unconcerned with hitting friendly forces, she triggered the rifle in a roaring full-auto string. Shining cases spat from the ejection port as flame jetted from the barrel. Her arm felt on fire but she managed to swing the weapon around in a lateral arc, slashing a line of bullets across the lower legs of her foes.
She thrust her hand forward, releasing the empty rifle to smash into the face of one of the rats. She stabbed down with the knife in her right hand, driving it between the shoulder and the neck of another, and then using the grip as leverage to spring back to her feet even as she severed the arteries that ran up along his neck. Caught up now in her frenzy, she snapped her teeth onto his face and ripped as her hands scrabbled to take his rifle from his grasp. She felt two more rounds strike her in the lower back and her world became a feverish agony.
Her surroundings were beginning to blur when she managed to wrest the rifle free from her opponent. Another bullet blew her right femur apart as she jammed the weapon back behind her and depressed the trigger with her thumb. Smoking cases bounced from her skin and slipped into her clothes, melting her fur and sticking to her flesh. She could not feel them, so lost was she in the fiery pain that was eating at her.
Her leg gave out beneath her and she fell to the ground, rolling onto her back in time to have the last rat who had shot her fall atop her. She battled out from under him, sweeping her gaze left and right in a desperate search for any remaining rat. The rifle came up and barked twice as she settled the sights on those that had been injured but not killed. She was not in the habit of leaving her foes alive to strike at her back, and even now that reflex was in full swing.
Finally satisfied that she had succeeded, Ten leaned back against the bloody corpse of the leader. The sky above her was slowly darkening, and she wondered if it was because of the hour or her injuries. Were she prone to gambling, she would have bet on the latter. She laid the rifle along her leg, pointing the barrel at one of the dead, twitching rats, and pulled the trigger again. After a minute, she did it again. She had fired a fourth round when she saw them.
The badger named Zeke was in the lead, his claws wrapped around a short little needle-nosed automatic carbine. Two more ArCorp mercenaries were visible behind him, but she did not immediately recognize them. She had spoken once to the badger at the Exchange, and she generally did not forget a face.
“Miss Bray!” Zeke shouted. His words seemed to come from a long distance. “ArCorp Security! Drop the rifle!”
She smiled around teeth tinted scarlet and let the weapon fall. Her eyelids closed as it struck the ground.
She finished the blink, letting her lids flutter open, and her surroundings were entirely different. It took her four full seconds before her brain processed that she was in a hospital bed, and her mouth protested the feel of the hard plastic tube down her throat. She tried to swivel her eyes around more, but they began to flutter closed once more and she felt darkness envelop her.
The next time she knew what to expect and she took a quick glance around the room, committing the layout to her hazy memory in case it should prove necessary. As she fell back to sleep, she willed the images to stay in her mind, that she might explore them in her dream state.
On the sixth occasion of opening her eyes, she realized that the tube was gone, replaced by a cannula that fed raw oxygen up her nose. She smacked her lips and looked around her.
“Would you like some water?” asked a voice. She tried to answer but her own voice was nothing more than a croak. It was apparently enough, as a copper-toned paw slipped from her right and into her vision, holding a small squeeze bottle. He dripped water into her mouth and she fought the urge to gulp it down. Instead, she held it in her mouth and let it moisten the tissues there before finally swallowing. He repeated the action twice more and then she managed to speak.
“You are welcome,” the voice said. Moving with a slow precision, he stepped fully into her sight. He was a setter, she noted, and his eyes were kind behind the thin eyeglasses he wore. The high-collared shirt of cerulean blue marked him as an acolyte of Tole.
“My name is Sean,” he said. “Sean Goodwin.”
“Sergeant Sharn saw your amulet and asked me to come and speak with you.”
She remained calm, although her heart was pounding faster than she could remember. Everything around her felt cold, and she recognized the symptoms of adrenaline dump. Her fight-or-flight instinct was going into overdrive. At her side, her hand had clenched the sheet in a grip tight enough to crush.
“You do not attend sermons in the church,” Sean said. She looked at the wall rather than meet his gaze.
“Tole tells us that violence is pointless,” he continued. “That it creates a neverending cycle of more violence that escalates.”
“I remember. ‘Be not as the beasts who lose themselves in rage.’ I know.”
“From what I was told, that scene was an abattoir.”
“Will He forgive me?” she asked.
“Of course He will. The question of the moment is, will you?”
“I reacted, Father. It was not something I wanted to do. It is ingrained in me, and it is why I came here.”
He gave her some more water as he watched her eyes. He managed a smile.
“You are running from a violent past,” he said, and her silence was the answer he expected. He turned, and a scraping noise preceded the chair that he dragged over to her bedside. He sat and reached a paw out to take her hand.
“He understands, cub. He knows that not everyone comes from a place of purity, and that the darkest souls often shine the brightest when they have joined his light.”
“You will find none darker in this colony, Father,” she told him.
“Who are you, Ten?”
She made a sound that could have been a chuckle, despite the shudder it sent down Sean’s spine.
“In the grand scheme of things, I’m no one,” she said. “A hand gripping a sword. The finger on a trigger. A blade in the dark. All these and more, and you tell me that Tole can forgive me?”
“Any who turn away from the ways of the blade can see the truth He speaks.”
“I can’t understand. I am a monster.”
“He sees beyond that, Ten. He sees the part of you who wishes never to be violent again. Give that part to Him, and He will help you push beyond the past that ensnares you.”
“That’s exactly why I came here,” she repeated.
“Tell me what you are escaping. Together we shall stand with Him and I will speak your repentance to His divine ears.”
She settled her head on the pillow.
“I was five years old when I was chosen,” she began.