“We are defeated, my Prince,” the lord with graying brown hair said as he slumped into a chair. “They have killed everyone.” He let his helmet clank to the floor.
Darkin raised his hand. Between them, a ball of crystal framed. Within, all could see their women and children gathered in the Main Hall. Surrounded by daemons, terrified and crying, they would be kept alive, it seemed, to serve.
“All it not lost. We can still defeat them. Stealth may serve us better than brute force.”
Kael looked at him. “How is that possible? We hide like mice with barely enough supplies to last a month.” He motioned to the cabinets that lined the walls, the kegs and crates in the other room.
“We are alive, Kael, and not without resources.”
Darkin turned to the door where the last of the Elite strode through. It sank to Its knees not in courtly manner, but in agony. It felt the passing of the fifth Elite.
This one was the only one able to answer the Call radiating from Darkin.
It stood, turned Its back on the survivors, and faced the only entrance.
Darkin touched Its arm.
It placed the sword and mace carefully beside the door. It turned to face the Prince and picked at Its wrist.
The hand slid off like a used glove, falling heavily to the floor, revealing a delicate white one with long fingers. It performed the same motion with the other hand.
It raised Its arms and twisted Its neck grotesquely before pulling it off and shaking down white hair that fell in thick waves incongruously down the spiny back.
Black eyes sparkled in a pale, refined face.
The head of the beast fell to the floor, horns scraped stone.
She shrugged and the body crumpled, leaving feminine curves draped in a sleeveless blue tunic that stopped at her knees. She stepped away from the suit and drew a deep shuddering breath.
The suit protected her from everything, including emotion. But once removing the suit, all pain returned. She inhaled slowly, exhaled slower still, straightened and faced the Prince; damp lashes the only hint of grief.
The Prince sank down on one of the folding chairs behind him.
“Not even your father knew this secret. Anyone can become one of the Elite. It is only a matter of training and magic. She is most powerful and clever. She is our deadliest weapon.”
She nodded to the Prince and walked to the nearest cabinet on the far wall. Without a hint of shame, she stripped off the tunic and replaced it with a proper lady’s gown the color of autumn leaves. Somehow, her long hair and the door hid all but pale arms and legs, but the lords and soldiers turned their heads.
The Prince felt his face flush, but he was unable to take his eyes from her. She knelt and donned matching slippers. With practiced dexterity, she braided her hair atop her head, adding small gold ribbons to twinkle in the firelight. She placed a veil of delicate lace held by a thing gold wire that came to a point on her forehead. She closed the cabinet door and faced the Prince, curtsying low, the perfect lady.
“Kael, meet my daughter, Koren.”
However, she was not done with the transformation. Tears fell; her eyes grew puffy and bloodshot. She dabbed at her face with another piece of lace in her hand and blotches appeared on her cheeks. She reached down and ripped the bottom of her dress to shreds, grabbed the waistline and yanked a slightly revealing tear along her hip. Her feet slid across the floor, scuffing the slippers beyond repair.
She knelt before Darkin with a proper lady’s reverence.
Darkin touched her chin and lifted her head so their eye could meet. He allowed the moment to linger a little longer than necessary trying to convey everything he wanted to say to the daughter he had not laid eyes on in twelve years. And he knew that the tears in her eyes were real. He could do nothing for her until she accomplished the mission.
He cupped her face in his hands and brushed tears away with his thumbs. She looked so much like her mother…
Golden shimmers of light surround her. Then she was gone.
Darkin motioned with his hands, again producing the crystal bubble. He held it so everyone could see his daughter huddled with the other women as if she’d always been there.
The door before them was large, wooden and elaborately carved. Mistress Hollis took Koren’s hand, the one with the Owl scratch, and led her through the last and final door. On the other side, what Koren saw did not make sense.
Her friends stood in the center, all of them. Myrna, Corliss and Tynan parted just enough for Kerr to look up from the magic in his hands to meet her eyes. They crinkled at the edges when he smiled.
“Told them you could do it.” The magic in his hands flickered out. He stepped forward and took her hand from Mistress Hollis.
“Yeah, but for us, the Test is not the hard part.” Tynan grinned and reached for one of the many weapons lining the wall.
Corliss and Myrna followed suit, grabbing weapons of their own. Swords, maces and Myrna’s whip flashed in the light of the fire centered in the room.
Kerr wrapped his arms around Koren. She took those few moments to center herself. This was familiar. This was her foundation.
Kerr let her go and guided her through the room. Weapons of every sort hung ordered and shining along the walls.
Behind them, Mistress Hollis waved her hands. The fire in the center disappeared replaced by torches lighting up one by one down each of the walls. Nothing else littered the floor. It was open, an arena.
“Pick one,” Kerr said, “and that’s where we will begin.”
Mistress Hollis said, “Your magical training is complete. Now, we train to fight. For our Destiny is to protect the Royal Family.”
“I don’t understand,” Koren turned to face her teacher. “What royal family?”
“The Kadari Mountains,” Corliss said, “are far from home.”
Myrna piped up, “Far from anyone’s home. This is a place of secrets. We don’t talk about where we came from, who we really are, and most of all, we don’t tell anyone what we study.”
“I know, I know. Religious students remain in the Church. Sorcery stays in the Mountains. And regular students attend one of three universities.” Koren spun around to each of her friends.
“So many different people come to learn and control their abilities, the Counsel has ruled that we keep to ourselves and not disturb the townsfolk. Therefore, secrecy is vital if we are to maintain a central place of learning, away from our different kingdoms. Sons and daughters of enemies come here to learn side by side. When they return home, they can take back either diplomacy or methods of mayhem. That is not ours to control. But we six are from the same kingdom. We go home, only when we are Called, when we are desperately needed.”
“We stay here to guide the school,” said Myrna.
“To maintain peace in the valley,” said Corliss.
“To learn everything that we can,” said Tynan.
“To grow strong,” said Kerr, wrapping one arm around her.
“And to fulfill our Destiny,” Mistress Hollis gestured to six suits of armor lining the far wall, six suits that transformed the wearers into monstrosities.