By Nicola Ward
Part 1: Changes
All too soon those last two hours were up and I had to leave the Academy for good. To compensate for the loss that I was bearing, Jackson let me keep the car that I had rented previously while on my way to Metra City. Nearly all the people I had known since I was nine came out to see me leave. With a heavy heart I put the suitcases in the trunk, trying to hide my tears. Marcus was in the passengerís seat watching through the window and Pip was in the back, sleeping the long day off. Without waving I reversed the car out of the drive and onto the road, keeping my eyes averted from the crowd that stood behind us, waving. I spotted Lor as I drove the car, saw the pain he was feeling at seeing me leave and knew that it mirrored my own at me leaving him. But I didnít stop and was eventually on the highway, every now and than looking into my rear view mirror until the Academy was out of sight.
I was truly on my own now.
"Donít be so down," Marcus said softly. "I know that itís difficult at first, leaving everyone whom you loved behind you. But you will see them again. I donít have to make a promise just to be sure of that and neither do you."
I wiped my eyes of tears quickly and nodded. "I guess so." I glanced at Marcus. "It still doesnít make it any easier though."
Marcusís face showed nothing but shame and sympathy. "I know. But you canít blame me for trying."
"But I can blame you for taking my life away from me," I said coldly, my tears falling freely again.
"I guess you can," he replied and watched the world pass us though the window. Nothing more was said between us until dawn rose through my new bedroom window the next morning.
Marcus didnít come into my room until later on after the sun rose, when other people soon began stirring in their beds. My eyes were sore from crying the night before, and the ache that I had felt hadnít left me either. I was still hurting badly.
He didnít say good morning when he came into my room. He just came and sat beside me, watching me watch him, until I finally lost my resolve and embraced him, sobbing in his chest as he stroked my hair and back softly, crying with me. I couldnít say that I hated him. I disliked him, but a part of me needed the comfort that he offered. I didnít have anyone else that I knew and Pip wouldnít have understood, not like Marcus did.
When we both eventually stopped I sat up and wiped my eyes, trying to get my breath back. Marcus held one of my hands in both his own, squeezing it every so often, reassuring me that I wasnít alone in my pain, my homesickness. He was suffering from what he had done to me, my life, too. Over and over he kept saying how sorry he was until I had to beg him to stop, telling him that him saying sorry all the time wasnít making me feel any better. It only made me feel worse. "Letís try and put it behind us," I said. "Weíve got the future to look forward to now. Brooding on the past is just going to open old wounds." He agreed and left me to wash and change in time for breakfast.
Pip didnít look very well when I got downstairs. But I quickly figured out that it was because he was back in the city where Iíd found him and that his old boss would surely be looking for him. Holding my arms out to him, and finally holding him tightly, I assured him that we were going to get out of this city. Even if Marcus had to come with us, we werenít going to stay there.
After a quiet breakfast the three of us went to the sitting room where we sat and talked for a while. Pip was curled in my lap, glancing around nervously at the butler and at Marcus while we all talked. I tried to keep the conversation going between Marcus and I, trying to show him that I didnít hurt as much now and that I wanted to make up for our differences.
"I understand that you want to move away from the city," Marcus said.
"Yeah. I feel for Pip having to come back here. This place will always scare him. He said he had a nightmare last night. That his old boss came and took him back to the hideout and beat him with the whip again." I couldnít talk about this while Pip was awake; it was a godsend that heíd even got to sleep in the first place.
Marcus glanced at his watch and motioned for the butler to come over, whereupon he whispered in his ear and the butler nodded, walking into another room. "Christopher, remember what I asked you before you left?" He looked at me expectantly.
"You said that you wanted to know how good my skills were." I stroked Pipís hair as he stirred slightly before settling down again.
A small smile broke out on his face. "Yes. I did didnít I. Well, Iíd like to show you today why I asked you that question. Would you like to see why?"
I thought about it and agreed. "I suppose so."
"Good. Come with me then."
The journey from the house to the outside of the city took roughly half an hour because of the amount of people in the streets, but Marcus had insisted in taking the car. Pip was low in the back seat, hiding from any eyes that mightíve warned his old employer about him being back in the city.
With Marcus directing me, we made good time and soon we drove up to a huge cliff-side, roughly five miles away from the city. I had seen this place before, but hadnít taken much notice of it.
"Come on than," said Marcus, and he got out the car, walking towards the cliff, humming a strange tune that I hadnít heard before. I quickly followed him, Pip running behind us to catch up.
The cliff was much bigger than Iíd realised, made of granite, which had been pushed to the surface. Marcus was busy running his fingers over the stone, concentrating. "What are you looking for?" I asked.
"There we go." Marcus pushed a stone and a door slid open in the rock, showing a staircase leading downwards. "Follow me." He quickly disappeared down the steps, humming that tune again. I was a little hesitant at first because there wasnít much light, but Marcusís voice told us not to be afraid and Pip and I eventually caught up with him.
The stairs led to a huge hall; torches were lit on the walls showing the broadness of the place. In the centre of the hall were several obstacles, one leading to the other requiring different techniques. Doors led off to other rooms, some of which were the weapon rooms and another was a calming room. It suddenly dawned on me that this was a training area. I looked at Marcus questioningly and he smiled. "I keep my secrets too you know. So, where do you want to start?"
"Start?" I walked up to one of the obstacles; a rope joining one platform to another and then a maze of ropes hung high above. It seemed you were supposed to go through the maze balancing on one plank of wood.
"Yes. Would you like to start on the obstacle course perhaps? Or maybe weapons training would be your ideal choice." He nodded in the direction of a red door with two painted swords crossing on it.
The look of the obstacle course wasnít to my liking and I had no idea what kind of weapons he stored here, so I decided to let him choose. He stroked his chin with a finger thoughtfully. "Well let us start with lesson number one and weíll see how you do."
"And whatís lesson number one?"
"Go to the weapons room with the two swords crossing each other. Youíll find a uniform for the first exercise. Change into that and then come back here for your next instructions. Lesson one is obey your master and I am he."
I raised an eyebrow at him but didnít question him and quickly did as I was told. The uniform was in fact basic fabric done up in the style of a martial arts uniform in a cream colour. When I came back I saw that Marcus had changed into the same uniform as me and had his hair tied back in a thin red rope, strands of his white hair almost loose. He was standing in the middle of the room, eyes closed, seeming to be in the middle of an important calming process. Pip glanced at me nervously but remained silent. The stone was cold underneath my feet as I walked towards Marcus, standing in front of him. He slowly opened his eyes and it seemed as if he had become a new person altogether. "Well done." He crossed his arms and remained silent for a few minutes. "I asked you about your skills before we came here. However, the look on your face as you entered this place told me that you hardly know anything of what I expect from you. So we will carry out your training step by step. While you are here you are nothing more than a trainee. If you want to learn then you must listen. Discipline is high here. I will not accept petty comments or excuses when you are asked to do something. When I tell you to do something you do it. Is that clear?"
I swallowed and nodded. "And when I ask you a question you reply with Ďyesí or Ďnoí, you donít just nod your head." His eyes became mean for an instant and I quickly answered him.
"Yes. I understand." I remembered all this brutal talk from when I first went to Orion Academy, when the higher ranks trained the newbies for life as mercenaries. No one was a favourite, the training was brutal and no favours were given. I had a feeling this was going to be the same.
"Go to the calming room and wait. You too, Pip. I donít want to hear a word from either of you. Do you both understand?"
I said yes immediately and Pip answered as well, although a little hesitantly. While I went to the calming room I heard Marcus talking to Pip, telling him that he wasnít involved in my training but had to obey the rules as well. Pip agreed saying sir at the end. I smiled slightly and entered the room.
On the floor was a warm mat made of straw, which had been laced into a delicate pattern and was soft beneath my feet. In the centre a large incense holder had a stream of scented smoke billowing from it and a fire burnt in the right hand wall, paintings on the walls glimmering with the light from the flames. Not knowing what to do I went and stood beside the incense holder and waited.
Pip came in soon after with Marcus following him, and went straight to a corner of the room. I figured that Pip was told to do that, and waited for Marcus to tell me what to do. He closed the door and motioned for me to sit down, which I did, and he sat opposite me, his legs crossed. "This will be the room where we will meet before each training session," he began. "You will change into the uniform you are in now and will sit, cross-legged, beside the incense holder until I arrive. We will stay here in this place, this hall or training area, for the duration of the time it takes for you to learn what I have to teach you. There will be no question of this because it is vital for your survival. Every morning you will wake up at dawn, refresh yourself with a shower and whatever else you may need to complete, and come here. You will have half an hour to do this and failure to do these instructions will result in punishment, as is the same for every other instruction that I give you. You will not speak unless spoken to and never without permission. If you wish to speak then cross your arms and wait. Be warned that questions related to changing your training regime will not be answered and therefore it will be wise for you not to ask them at all. Questions also related to changing anything in this place regarding you or the equipment will not be tolerated.
"There will be eight lessons a day, with time left at the end for any lessons that you are incapable of doing until further training is given.
"Dinner will be served at midday and will finish in half an hour.
"We will both retire an hour before dusk, cleaning ourselves up and then coming to this room for reviews on that day. Everything I say to you must be memorised to the best of your abilities, as this is also vital for the tasks that will be set later on after your training. Do you understand?"
I couldnít believe the tasks he was setting me. My answer sounded dry and very nervous, all the moisture in my mouth gone. I was hoping that he would smile or something, just to make me feel better, but I should have thought better than that as I didnít receive anything of the sort. "Good," he said after a while. "Now we clear on the rules here it is time for your second lesson." Marcus stood in front of me and motioned for me to stand as well. "Look around you, what do you see?"
I frowned slightly and looked around the room, the paintings on the walls, on the ceiling. The fireplace, the incense holder, the floor, the door. I had to think carefully of my answer, having been asked these types of questions before and knowing what types of things the teacher was looking for in my answer. I looked more closely at the paintings on the ceiling and the walls, taking in every detail of what was happening in them. "There are paintings on the walls showing battles, legions of men," I answered. "But it isnít a battle as such. It looks like they are training with the enemy."
Marcus smiled softly. "Yes, it does doesnít it. What does this tell you?"
I looked back at him. "That we have to train from the enemy? We learn from the enemy?"
"Yes. Everyone, in order to defeat the enemy, has to learn the enemyís weaknesses and strengths. In your training, the best people you will learn from are your enemies. In tasks set it may involve socialising with them and it is vital that you know the weaknesses of them. However, we will get to this on another occasion.
"It is time for your third lesson. We will remain in this room and you must do exactly as I tell you in order to achieve what I want you to achieve. Sit down with your legs crossed, back straight, eyes closed." I did this and knew that he was going to do the same. "Now, breathe deeply, slowly and donít over-exaggerate." I felt calmness spreading through me. "Imagine a field. Green grass, wind blowing and a blue sky, a solitary tree atop a hill. Go towards it." I imagined myself walking towards the tree, could almost feel the wind in my hair and on my face. "You will see me underneath the tree, relaxed, calm, at peace with myself and everything around me, in the position that your physical being is in. Go and sit beside me." I went and did so, my eyes closing, and then there was nothing but blackness. I felt as if I was really in the field underneath the tree with my mentor, calming my body and soul and becoming one with everything around me. "Open your eyes."
I did so and breathed out deeply, trying to recapture that feeling of calmness. Marcus was sitting there watching me with his arms and legs crossed, his mouth a thin line and I got the impression that was he displeased. "I thought you would have done a lot worse then what you actually did. Well done. When we are in here we will do a long period of meditation to clear our minds so that you are ready for physical training. But it will take time. Now letís get on to your exercises. Our exercises."
I had never been through such physical pressure in my life. Even though the movements were soft and long, the tension in my muscles was unbearable Ė a bad sign that I hadnít been working out enough. Nevertheless I refused to show weakness and carried on copying Marcus until he too was exhausted, unable to carry on with our graceful dance. He looked at my face for a long time, apparently trying to find signs of weakness, but, after finding none, nodded approvingly. The other two lessons were relaxation and stretching exercises in order to relieve our aching muscles and tired minds, using physical techniques. I wondered about the other three lessons, but I didnít question Marcus and just did as I was told. Yet, when it was time for retirement, I couldnít feel anything in my limbs and it took a huge amount of will power to even walk, the exercises had been so strenuous.
"So, what have you learned today from the five lessons? I havenít done eight lessons with you because we didnít have time and it is dusk." We were both in the calming room, the both of us sitting on the straw mat with the fire blazing behind us. Marcus had changed into another set of clothing, light blue for calmness, the same as me.
I took a deep breath and tried to resist the urge to put a hand to the shoulder that had been hurt the most. "I have learned techniques that soothe and calm the mind and the body. I have learned how and when to do them. I have also learned physical techniques for my body that increase strength and stamina."
Marcus seemed to be staring straight through me and I wondered what he was thinking. "Move your arms and shoulders," he said. I rotated my arms and shoulders and this time my face contorted with pain, but again I refused to lift my hand to calm it. Marcusís eyes slid downwards and he sighed. "Donít try to hide your weaknesses from me, Chris."
I looked at him surprised and crossed my arms. "When I was a member of Orion Academy I was taught by my betters that to show weakness was a liability, a key for your enemy to enter by."
"Yes, you may have been taught that," he replied. "But I am your teacher and therefore I need to know your weaknesses in order that I may teach you how to overcome them. Understand this, Chris, that I will not hold it against you. Itís showing me that you havenít been training hard enough and that you need to use the techniques that I am going to teach you. For me, you need to show your weaknesses because if you donít then you will show them to your enemies and that will lead to your undoing."
"I hope so." He stood and stretched from head to toe. "Time for rest now."
"Whereís Pip?" I stood with him but didnít stretch.
"Heís already in bed. Donít worry about Pip any longer, he is safe here and is taken good care of by me. You will still see him, but you must focus on the days ahead. If you donít then how are you going to complete your tasks?"
I knew the answer to that one. "I wonít."
"Exactly." He put his arms around me and held me close. "If you find that your body is hurting too much than there is medicine in your room. But please refrain from using it. The body tends to heal quicker by itself and there may be a time when you wonít have access to medicine at all. Okay?"
My room was bare of luxuries, though the low bed had a thin mattress that wasnít totally uncomfortable. There wasnít a cabinet for my clothes, there wasnít anything that I could store anything in and there was a hole for my toilet that ran down a tube to wherever it went with a lid to cover it. There was a fire to keep me warm but that was it. All in all like a prison cell with a small round window about the size of my head with the moon shining through it. I slipped into bed quietly, ignoring the medicine that lay on the ground beside my bed and readjusted my pillow to make my head more comfortable. For the first time in my life I regretted being as good as I was in Orion Academy and wondered what the others were doing.
What Lor was doing.
I sighed and fell to darkness.
(more chapters to come)
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