Thunder exploded down the firing range.
Thunder exploded along with one of Ben's nukes as it came screaming down from the sky. Screams shrieked their way along the battlefield as the war raged on. Rubble crashed into the ground, throwing up dust in its wake.
The shot exploded out of the barrel of the gun.
Swords and fire flashed, slashing and searing their way through their opponent's bodies. The scent of iron and dust and fear and death choked the air. Spilled blood slicked the ground and stained it red.
The bullet whistled after its target, locked on.
Buildings rumbled and crashed down, falling to pieces. Figures leapt from spot to spot, the power of the gods contained within, leaving apocalypse in their wake. The echoes of the dead followed them.
Don't dream it's over…
The moving clay target shattered into a multitude of tiny pieces as the bullet kept moving and embedded itself in the wall behind it.
Rhia stared at the shattered ceramic on the floor and the hole in the wall and sighed. "It's just not enough. It's not." Fingers slid through already much tussled hair as she tugged at it again.
The rifle made a quiet clank sound as it was set down for Rhia to disassemble it.
It's not enough.
She didn't realize she was crying until the droplets landed on her gun. Rhia choked, wiped the drops off her gun with a finger, and nearly bent over double with her sobs.
It took a good while for her to stop.
The communicator rang four times on the other end and beeped.
"This is the Librarian. I can't pick up right now, so leave a message and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks… AND NO, Aster, you cannot have more manga." Beep.
"Hey, Adrian, it's Rhia," She sighed. "I need to talk to you, if you could spare a moment or two. Ring me A.S.A.P. Thanks."
She clicked the communicator closed and stared at it like it'd grown a head and was berating her for shutting it closed too hard. "Voicemail. Really." She gave it a shake. "Really? Just my day…" She slid it back inside her pocket and decided to hunt him down physically. Maybe it might be easier.
She blinked and looked around at the five-way intersection that was in front of her.
'Easier. This is supposed to be easier. Riiiiiight.' She huffed and took the path to the front.
An hour later found Rhia footsore, frustrated, and more than a little ready to give up on finding Adrian for the day. The man was always around when you wanted him, but the moment you needed him for something, 'pfffft', gone.
The hallways were starting to get a little monotonous too. She knew where she was—she'd just passed Adrian's room—so she wasn't hopelessly lost, but tired was the order of the day.
She turned the corner and almost bounced. "Oooof!"
Arms wrapped around her and kept her from tripping over her own feet. She looked up into violet eyes and white hair. "Hey, careful."
He gave her a small smile. "That's me. Hello!"
"I've been looking for you." She crossed her arms at him and frowned.
"Uh-huh. Where have you been? I even left a message on your Communicator." She huffed.
"Well…ah…" Adrian blushed slightly, and Rhia noticed the mussed state of his hair. "Um…With Tash." He nodded once.
"Ah. Well, I need to ask you a big favor."
"Oh?" One eyebrow quirked up as his whole demeanor changed, running an eye over Rhia's nervous posture and clenched fists. "What's up?"
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to re-gather her courage. Her fear and her pride battled with themselves one last time before she opened her mouth.
For a moment no sound came out.
She swallowed and tried again, Adrian waiting patiently.
"I need training."
The other eyebrow quirked up and joined the other.
"I'm outclassed. Horribly, horribly outclassed." Another swallow. "I always have been. I've just been lucky enough to survive so far."She gave herself a wry snort. "Worst injury I've gotten away with is a broken kneecap. That's light, in comparison to everything else." She grit her teeth. "I can't keep up. Not at the level I am now. I've already had one encounter with a Sovereign. How many more am I going to have?"
Hazel eyes met violet in the hardest stare he'd ever seen from her.
"Train me. Make it so I'm not a burden on anyone else in a battle. I don't want to get anyone killed saving my ass, and I don't want to die."
Adrian held her gaze for a moment longer before nodding. "I'll find you tomorrow at noon. Be ready to work, Rhia. If I do this, there will be no mercy for you. I will run you into the ground, force you to pick yourself up, and run you back into the ground. Again and again and again. Do you understand me?"
Rhia nodded once.
"Good. Remember, tomorrow at noon." Adrian vanished down the hallway.
Rhia watched him go, tail tip twitching just above his head, and wondered if she was going to survive the training. She took a breath, releasing some of the tension that had come to a head and let it out in a heavy sigh. Well, she still had quite a bit of time.
Might as well seize the moment and what courage she had left. She was tired of pussyfooting around Cristoph. She spun on her heel and headed towards his room, her first stop in her search for him.
She met him at his door, a small smile on her face.
Cristoph rolled his shoulders, attempting to drop the stress from them, and gave her a hug. "How are you doing, Rhiannon?"
She shrugged, "All right. Got a few things to talk to you about. Do you have a few hours?"
He blinked once, wondering what exactly would require such a long block of time, but agreed. "I do. Just got off Basement duty, so I have the rest of the day free. What is it you wish to talk about?"
She shrugged again, pulling him into his room by the hand. The door clicked shut and she hugged him tight 'round the middle, face buried in his chest. "I love you Cristoph. I love you so very, very much."
"What's wrong?" She was shaking, and his hand was stroking her hair, trying to calm her.
"I…I realized just how out of our league we are… How afraid I am." She swallowed. "I asked Adrian for training, and… I'm not sure what's going to happen." She locked gazes with him. "And with things so uncertain, I'm tired of waiting. We don't have to go all the way, but I want the option. No more waiting. We might wait too long and then one of us might be gone. That's nearly happened once. Not again."
She held her breath as she waited for his response.
Cristoph's voice was soft. "What are you so afraid of?"
"Being deadweight in battle. Being the cause of someone else getting injured. Getting someone killed." She licked her lips and swallowed hard. "Getting you killed." Her fists clenched.
He nodded once, understanding coming to him with a stab of remembered sorrow, despair and fury, a vision of blood. "I see."
"Training starts tomorrow. I have some time. Cristoph, please…"
There were lips on hers, warm and pressing and she responded, kissing back, pouring in her need. Arms wrapped around her waist, pulling her into Cristoph as the kiss became harder, hotter. Rhia moaned and broke the kiss, and Cristoph took the opportunity to plant kisses down her neck. She shivered.
"Then let's make the most of the time we have." He lifted her by the waist, her legs wrapped around him.
She smiled; her eyes now even with his. "I like the sound of that."
Cristoph hummed deep in his throat, carrying her to the bed. "You should like everything else then, too."
One eyebrow raised, a somewhat silly grin mindlessly grew on her face. "Oh? I will, will I?"
"Good. I wouldn't want it any other way."
Rhia woke up late the next morning, rubbing her face with one hand and pulling up the sheets with the other. She peered at the other side of the bed, attempting to think through the fog in her mind.
'Cristoph left the bed without letting me know?' She ran a hand over the spot where he had slept. It was cool to the touch. She frowned as the fog in her mind dissipated. 'Odd.'She blinked and yawned, rubbing sleep dust from her eyes.
'Wait…' She started to scramble for her cell phone. 'What time is it?' He fingers brushed over it and she brought it to her face, the bright LED light making her squint. 'Phew.' She flopped back onto the pillows, fingers running through her well-mussed hair. 'It's only ten. I've got enough time.' She groaned and picked her head back off the pillow. 'First things first. Now, my underwear and bra should be close by, as they came off last… Oh yes, there they are…' She grinned to herself, remembering exactly what had happened when those articles had come off last night.
She grabbed everything and threw it on, dashing to her room for a shower.
She slipped into the shower without being spotted by anyone else in the hall, which she thought was odd as well, but counted her blessings. She stripped and stepped under the warm stream of water, humming in pleasure as it soothed sore areas. She only took the necessary time to scrub and rinse off before jumping out and dressing in a t-shirt, sweatpants, and sneakers.
Rhia tugged at her hair as she realized she still had an hour and a half to go.
'What to do, what to do…? Oh! I should eat something. That'll take some time.'
Butterflies flew through her stomach as she tried to make the time pass. She poked at her toast, only able to take a few bites of it. It sat on her plate going cold as she stared at the counter, trying her hardest to ignore her nerves and failing miserably.
The stool next to her screeched backwards and she jumped, reflexively cocking a fist back.
"Whoa, whoa! Calm down, Rhia. Whatever I did, I'm sorry!"
Rhia blinked and shook her head, dropping the fist. "…Ben?"
He gave her a small smile. "Yeah, that's me. Rhia, are you okay? You looked like you were a thousand miles away."
She shrugged and wouldn't quite meet his eyes. "I was, a bit."
"Aaaah. Still, you haven't answered my question." He put his hand on her shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Another shrug. "Mostly, yeah."
Ben's eyebrows knitted together. "'Bout what?"
"I asked Adrian to train me. And for some irrational reason I am much more afraid than I should be. Maybe it was the way I asked him…"
"Huh? How'd you ask him?"
She gave herself a self-deprecating sigh. "I asked him to bring me up to speed… so I wouldn't be a burden." She gestured loosely at Ben. "For example, you can throw nukes at your opponents. Admittedly they've been nerfed as the time has gone by…" They both winced as the Fourth Wall rumbled, but there was no accompanying yell from Adrian. Another oddity. "…but they're still pretty effective." She adopted a ponderous look on her face. "Michael has the Darkness, Kyle's got his own kick-ass abilities, and Tash has been nothing but badass for a long while now. And don't get me started on what the bad guys we're facing can do. I can't help but feel a little over-whelmed at it all."
"Hey," Ben pulled Rhia into a surprise hug. "I get'cha. You'll be fine. Adrian's hard, but fair." He patted her back and let her go. "You'll do fine. Now," He gave her a small but bright smile. "When did you say you were gonna meet Adrian? 'Cause it's nearly noon now…"
Rhia squeaked and jumped again, panicking slightly and dashing for the door. "Thanks Ben! See you later!" Her hand was the last thing out the door, waving at him as she vanished.
Ben blinked in surprise at her swift departure. "Wow."
Rhia's footsteps were the only things accompanying her down the hallway, soft taps as each step connected with the flat carpet. She knew Adrian said that he would meet her, but it left her feeling uncertain, not knowing where exactly to go. She hated not having a certain modicum of control. Her kitchen was her control. Her ability to fight was her control. Without it, things became erratic and high-strung tension set in. It wasn't a pretty sight.
She turned the corner and jumped as Adrian slid out of the shadows of the next corridor. His eyes caught hers in a stare, and there was no comfort in the violet gaze. A shiver ran down her spine.
"Are you ready?" Adrian asked. "This is your last chance to back out. If you do, I can set you up with Michael or someone else. They will train you adequately enough to hold your own in the upcoming battles. But I can't guarantee they will train you to what you asked. Do you understand?"
Rhia gave him a single, sharp nod.
"So I will ask you again. Are you ready?"
Rhia swallowed, and it felt like swallowing sand. This was it. She made her decision.
"I am ready."
Adrian nodded once. "Good. Follow me." He vanished into a side corridor darkened with shadows. It must have been where he appeared from in the first place. She followed him, still tense.
Adrian picked up on this. "You're afraid."
"More nervous than afraid, but yes."
"Uh-huh." Disbelieving. "It's good to have some fear, but not enough that it clouds your thoughts and vision."
"Mmhmm." A pause. "Your strengths are your throwing knives and your sniper skills. You've started teaching yourself parkour. Good choice, Rhiannon. It complements what you can already do. Your skills, by principle, mean you are going to be a ranged fighter. This means your tactics are going to be much different than many of the Society members, who have attacks that work better at close range. This does not mean you will not be able to keep up with them, but it does mean you will have to think out of the box when fighting an enemy. Not only will you be training with me to work on your speed, agility, strength and overall skills, but we'll work on your marksmanship."
Rhia blinked in surprise at her full name.
"Understand this, Rhia. I am simply giving you what you asked of me. When you're picking yourself off the ground and every muscle in your body is screaming at you to stop, you were the one who asked for this."
Adrian shook his head. "No. Not yet, you don't. But you will." He stopped his hand on a doorknob. "Through here your first training session will begin. You have to pass this session to continue. If you don't, I pass you onto Michael. And, well, if you don't, you might not want to be passed on to Michael." He shrugged. "After you. Take five steps straight in and then stop. If you take more, you might fall off a ledge."
The door creaked open, revealing nothing but pitch blackness. She did as told, straining her eyes to see anything. Adrian stepped in after and clicked the door shut, waiting a moment before flipping a switch on the wall.
The lights came on with the low hum of electricity and Rhia gasped at the sight.
The room was huge, easy dwarfing an Olympic stadium. Filling it, however, was something she did not expect. Rock walls lined the sides, rope ladders hung from the ceiling and from other walls, some dangling from exposed wood posts. Wooden beams jutted up from the ground, creating short but perilous paths to other platforms. Crumbling, rundown buildings were interspaced within the room, walls nearly falling apart. Some large wooden columns had beams jutting out from them and would rotate, making it difficult for a person to jump from one place to another. And there was more, but Rhia simply couldn't see it yet.
"Here," Adrian tossed her a pair of fingerless gloves. "You'll need those until you get the proper calluses on your hands."
Rhia quickly slipped them on and tightened them properly, testing the fit.
"Your starting point is right in front of you. You have ten to thirteen minutes to reach your goal, using any path you wish. You may get there however you want, as long as you do so within the time limit."
Rhia tilted her head, eyes already scanning the field. "Where's my goal?"
Adrian blinked. "You mean you haven't spotted him yet? Hm, another thing to teach you…"
"Him? What do you mean?" Dread started to build in her stomach.
"I'll be nice and point him out to you, just this once. Look up and to your left, at about eleven o'clock."
Rhia did so and stopped breathing. "Cristoph!"
"Ah. You've spotted him."
"Why is he in that tank?" Anger colored Rhia's question.
Adrian's face was stony. "That's why the time limit is ten to thirteen minutes. When you start, I push a button and water starts to fill that tank. It will take ten minutes for the water to fill that tank, and the human body can last a maximum of three without oxygen. Less, depending on how well he's controlling his heart rate at the time and how much he oxygenated his blood."
The glare Rhia was sending Adrian would have killed anyone else at point blank range. "You are actually threatening to drown him?"
"Exactly. I know your biggest fear is drowning. Seeing him drown," Adrian jerked his chin toward Cristoph, "is probably worse. This is the biggest incentive I could ever give you to move. This is the training from Hell, Rhiannon. I'm not going to be nice about it. You want nice, go talk to Michael."
Rhia seethed. "He drowns, and I kill you. Tash or no Tash."
She simply growled at him.
"Oh, by the way." Rhia narrowed her eyes at him. "You have to get past me to stop the water from filling the tank." He smiled, almost mockingly. "See you on the other side."
Rhia nearly snarled.
"Begin in 3…"
Rhia turned back to the starting point.
"2… 1… GO!"
Three things happened simultaneously. Adrian slammed his hand down on the button. Water began to fill Cristoph's tank. Rhia shot off like a rocket and leapt to the first platform, three feet away and two feet up. Adrenaline was giving her a very useful boost.
There was a gritty smack as Rhia grabbed a pole in mid-jump, letting her momentum carry her half-way around before she let go, shooting off in a different direction. She nearly staggered as her feet hit the ground again, but she managed to keep upright and kept running. She poured all of her frustration into her legs, pumping them faster and faster, and threw herself at the rope ladder at the other end of the hallway. Her jump carried her halfway up the ladder and she scaled the rest of it in an instant, ignoring the creaking protests of the old rope.
Using the last rung of the ladder as a brace, Rhia launched herself through the hole in the ceiling and onto the roof of the building. The vista that came into view as she did so reminded her to slow down. The building she'd just finished climbing had been one of the taller ones, but she was still less than halfway through the course.
Taking a deep breath, Rhia launched herself across the roof, aiming for a section of broken brick wall at one end. Rapidly calculating the height of the wall, the distance to the roof on the other side, and her own speed, Rhia planted a foot onto the crumbling stone, pulled herself up and leapt across the gap. There was a sickening crunching sound as her feet hit the ground and for a nanosecond she thought she'd broken something. Then the roof around her fell in, dumping her onto the grimy tile floor on the flight below.
Rhia groaned as she rolled onto her side, she could almost feel the bruises already forming. A shooting pain was crawling its way up her right leg. The thought of just lying on this floor for the next year or so had just crossed her mind when Adrian's face materialized before her.
"What's wrong? Getting tired already?" the specter smirked. "Looks like they were right. Cooking is the only thing you're good for. Just stay in the kitchen where you belong."
Rhia snarled, diving forward at the apparition, only to have it dissolve into thin air. Still growling, she charged down a hallway and threw herself through a hole where a window once stood. Grabbing onto a rope hanging from the roof, she quickly pushed off from the wall and found her feet on the ground.
Without hesitation, she turned and ran. Time was ticking. She felt it with each heartbeat and each breath was one less that Cristoph had.
Her footsteps pounded the concrete, eyes searching for another way up. Darting to the left, she ran into a thin alley, the walls barely five feet apart. Bounding off the walls, she leapt up onto another roof.
The Librarian watched as Rhia nearly ran up the remaining ledge of the obstacle course, flipping herself over with a single hand and coming out of the accompanying roll in a dead run. His face remained blank as she whipped a knife at him in mid-run. He casually knocked it out of the air with the back of his hand and then landed a solid kick in her gut before her raised frying pan could come down. "You can't get by me with a pathetic effort like this, Rhia! I bet you'll look good in black at the funeral."
"Shut UP!" Rhia straightened and lunged again, hands out stretched to strangle. But a sliver of light flashed in front of her gaze and then she went flying to the side. She hit the ground and rolled, letting out a cry of agony as her brain finally realized he had slashed her across the torso and landed a kick to the side of her head.
"Next time you're that reckless and hot-headed, my blow will shake your brain and knock you out." Adrian said calmly, turning to face her.
Behind him, the water in Cristoph's tank rose higher.
Rhia got back to her feet, producing both wakizashi from their sheaths at her back and darting forwards, though more cautiously this time. As she closed the distance, she spared a glance at Cristoph's tank and growled at the water level.
The moment's distraction almost cost her head, Adrian's sword slamming into her crossed-blade block and throwing her back again. The chef managed to keep her feet this time around and dashed forwards.
From the moment their blades connected again, it was clear that Adrian wasn't even trying against her. He still had his sword in only one hand, simply rotating his wrist and flipping it in his grip to easily block her strikes. "You're not used to using two swords and your moves are so slow, I could block them in my sleep. You'd be dead a thousand times by now and pretty soon, Cristoph will be."
Rhia abandoned any pretense at fighting and simply threw her weight into her next strike as she tried to shove Adrian back and drive her weapons into his shoulders. His blade intercepted hers and he slid his foot back to keep his balance. The chef seized on the advantage for all she was worth, shoving and digging her heels forwards.
He shook his head and disengaged the weapons, knocking her back a step and then catching her foot before it reached his crotch and throwing her away again. "Weak…"
Behind him, the water in Cristoph's tank rose higher.
She snarled and darted at Adrian again, slashing at him from the side. He only sighed and shook his head. "You know that doesn't work. BOOT TO THE HEAD!" Rhia went tumbling head over heels to land, sprawled, a good couple yards away from Adrian with a bright pink boot print on her face.
Rhia pulled herself up onto her knees, panting, teeth gritted together to block out the pain from the numerous wounds she'd accumulated. "Dammit. Dammit all. I can't…" She punched the floor in frustration, both of her arms shaking from exertion.
"Hurry, Rhia. You're running out of time." Adrian's voice made her jerk her head up to look at the tank Cristoph was caught in. The water was well on its way to the top, the surface already brushing Cristoph's chin. Dread and helplessness flooded through her as she clenched the hilts of her swords as tight as she could. She looked down at them, her thoughts racing for one more idea that might work.
"How…?" Going head-on at Adrian just meant getting thrown back. But he didn't attack. He just stood there, blocking her from going any further. Rhia growled again as she looked at the distance between Adrian and that tank. It was so close!
Rhia stood as a light bulb lit over her head, her eyes measuring the distance between Adrian and the tank. Her eyes steeled as she crouched.
The Librarian's eyebrows quirked, sensing the change. "So you decided to come at me seriously now, hm? Good. I'm waiting."
She took a breath and charged him, one sword held in front of her, no hesitation in her eyes.
"What the-? I guess you gave up. Fine." He blocked her strike with ease and as he kicked at her head, a whistling sound flew by his head and behind him. He ignored it.
As Rhia fell back, she smirked at Adrian. "Screw you, Adrian…" With that, she collapsed in a heap at his feet in a dead faint.
He frowned and sighed at her crumpled body, shaking his head. "You tried," he remarked, before a loud cracking sound made him spin around and stare at the water tank.
Cracks were spider webbing their way across the surface from a point almost dead center of the tank and one of Rhia's wakizashi was lying on the floor in front of it, like Excalibur pulled from the stone. He looked back at his feet and Rhia was only holding one sword. She'd thrown her sword like a knife in the hopes of breaking the tank.
Adrian put his hands on his hips and smiled. "Well, that's a way to do it." Another cracking sound crashed through the area and the glass shattered, letting water shallowly flood the floor. "Good job."
Rhia twitched and groaned, feeling every wound she'd just gotten as consciousness came back to her. She let herself simply lie there for a moment, breathing, slowly pulling herself back together. There were two quiet voices coming from above her and… why was the ground wet?
Wait. Wet meant water. Water meant a tank and—
"Cristoph!" Her eyes snapped open and she tried to sit straight up, only to gasp and lean back down when her body protested the movement. "Ow."
A small chuckle came from her left. "Yeah, you're going to be hurting for a while." Adrian placed a hand on her shoulder. "You did a good job. You figured that there was no way to get past me at the moment and did a little out-of-the-box thinking. That's what I wanted in the end."
A mix of a groan and a growl came out of Rhia. "And threatening Cristoph was how you went about it?" She snorted. "That's so nice of you."
Adrian shook his head. "He was never in any danger. Had the water gone over his head I would've cast a spell so he would've been fine. Nothing to worry about and it got you to move."
Rhia growled again. "Jerk."
"So I've been told sometimes."
Adrian snorted. "Okay. I'll talk to you later when you're rested. Cristoph, she's all yours."
The white-haired Librarian left her field of vision only to be replaced by a wet and slightly bedraggled ninja in black. Rhia smiled at him and winced again as she tried to sit up.
"Easy, Rhiannon, easy…" He brought an arm around her shoulders and slowly pulled her up.
She moaned and flopped against his chest, regardless of the fact that he was soaked. She was exhausted. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I'm fine."
"Good. Mmmnph." Her eyes slid closed. "'Least I know why you were gone when I woke up today. Did he ask you or just straight on kidnap you?"
"Oh." She snorted. "Wonderful." The sarcasm made itself apparent even through her exhaustion.
"I'm sorry Rhiannon, but I couldn't say anything."
"I know." She sighed. "It's all right."
"Thank you, milady." He nuzzled the top of her head.
"Mmnph. If you don't pick me up and kiss me, then we're gonna have some problems."
Cristoph smiled. "Yes, milady."
Rhia sighed happily as Cristoph picked her up bridal style and kissed her warmly.