Into Her Darkness: Part 3

3.

Full of Surprises

True to Angela’s word, morning came early. Crystal’d wept herself to sleep then slept like a baby. Nearly the whole night too. Angela’s voice snapped her eyes open from the doorway. Crystal found herself still warm, nestled beneath fresh, thick blankets. The room focused, and all of her fears of dreams or hallucinations faded. Angela was real. Her home was real. The bed and its warmth were real. So was the deal she’d made that exchanged Angela’s hospitality for her compliance. It remained difficult to believe, but Crystal knew somehow, somewhere, stranger things were happening.

Angela leaned in the door jamb, “Sleep well?”

Crystal groaned with a pleasureful stretch, “Is that really a question?” Angela laughed. She glanced around the room, “What time is it?”

“Four A-M,” she said, straightening in the jamb. “Wear the clothes from last night. We’ll get you more later. Meet me in the kitchen. Breakfast’s ready.”

“Breakfast?” Crystal asked, more surprised than she should’ve been.

Angela was already down the hall. Crystal dressed in a hurry, admittedly more hungry than she’d been in a long time. Despite the previous evenings meal, she’d merely activated her long-dormant appetite, not sated it. She pushed her way into the kitchen, found Angela on the island’s far-side, shoveling food into her mouth. A digital newspaper was thumbed upward on a tablet, a headline reading something about “corporate take-over.” Crystal’s attention was too focused on Arthur shuffling about before a stove. His burgundy bathrobe and silk pajamas were frayed with age. His slippers, even older, scuffed a symphony of equal parts stubborn survival and enduring comfort. The hardwood floor thunked softly as he turned, pan in hand, and shoveled bacon and eggs for Crystal.

Her mouth watered at the sight– to say nothing of the heavenly aroma. She took it with a “thank you.” he grunted in reply. “Not much of a morning person, Arthur,” Angela said to her. He grunted again. They chuckled together. “Anyway, don’t overeat. You start training today. I can’t have you getting sick.” Crystal hesitated mid-way through a bite with a wide-eyed look. Angela gave her a sidelong glance, “I’ll go easy today. But it won’t last. Today’s evaluation. I need to know what you can do to focus your training. Besides, we have places to go. You’ll need energy for that, so I won’t beat you… up too much.”

Crystal smiled over her food, finished the bite. “Where’re we going?”

Angela gave a crooked grin, “It’s a surprise. I promise you’ll like it.”

She winced. Angela questioned her with a look. “I’m not really a surprise person. The last surprise I got was ending up on the street.”

Angela grimaced, “Sorry. Just remember what I said: trust me. You’ll like this.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

Breakfast was mostly silent after that, more from world-class cooking than anything– then again, Crystal realized, it could’ve been the worst food in the world, but so long as it was fresh and hot, it was just as enjoyable. An empty plate later, she followed Angela back past her room for the door at the hall’s end. The seemingly normal door opened onto a monstrosity of a room three or more fold the height and five the width of the rest of the apartment. The combination gym, obstacle course, and climbing section alone was the size of a football field. The far-end continued through a set of doors, and on into mystery.

“Holy hell,” Crystal breathed.

“Welcome to the training room.”

“This is amazing.”

Angela chuckled, “You’d be surprised what you can do with money and elbow grease.”

You built this?”

Angela led her toward the far doors, “A couple people helped– Arthur was one– but yes. Built and designed it myself.”

Crystal rubbernecked the room, “But why?”

“I take the winter off. This year will be different, but I don’t want to go soft lounging around. So instead of working, I train.”

Crystal followed her to the back-wall, neck craned. Apart from the hand-holds across the walls and ceiling, hooks for zip-lining and over-hand holds were dotted or lined here and there. The course was constructed with every type of obstacle Crystal could name; barbed wire, hurtles, thick wood for vaulting, ropes for climbing– so much it was difficult to take it all in.

She passed through the doors and found herself staring down a long, wide hallway. Concrete block replaced the training implements and homely décor. She trudged along, feeling distinctly like a recruit in boot camp. Angela sensed it, felt the same from a Drill Instructor’s position.

They passed a few doors before pushing through one on the left. A large exercise room rivaling the adjoined kitchen and living room was filled with fitness machines and weight benches. They lined the walls with sturdy readiness. Meanwhile, the central area was filled by specific weight-sets and machines. Angela had accounted for every type of work-out imaginable. Crystal could only imagine what more lay unseen.

The LEDs threw light across blue-mat covered floors, sank into or bounced off the modern black-and-chrome equipment. The room was as much a high-end gym as a personal one, but Crystal knew that was exactly Angela’s intention. She was led to a corner where Angela dug through a cabinet, for work-out clothing. She shut the cabinet, gathered the stuff into a pile.

“You’ll need that stuff clean for later.”

Crystal was internally ecstatic. New clothes were one thing. Two sets of new clothes was like a holiday she’d only dreamed of. She sat on a weight bench, unlaced her boots, then changed while Angela thumbed her tablet. She hesitated, then began to scribble with an attached stylus.

“You ready for this?”

Crystal knotted her fresh running shoe. “Hell yes.”

Angela was stern, serious. “I wanna see what you can do. Don’t hurt yourself. I need to know honestly what you can handle to design our regimen. Don’t be a bad-ass. We can’t waste time waiting for you to heal. We’ll start small, move up ‘til you can’t handle it. Got it?” She nodded. “Let’s do it.”

The next few hours were a grueling test of Crystal’s endurance and strength. She went through each machine pushing, pulling, thrusting, ran miles on a treadmill– or rather, sprinted a few seconds then jogged the rest. She biked miles more on a stationary cycle, trudged more still along a stair-master. The whole time, Angela stood beside her, almost silent until forced to urge her on; half-cheerleader, half Drill Sergeant.

It was only three hours before Angela called for a stop. Finished in the weight room, Crystal was ready to collapse. She panted, wheezed, sweating as if dunked beneath water. Angela let her catch her breath, throw down some water, then escorted her back to the obstacle course.

“You’re serious?” Crystal asked, feeling the first aches from her sore limbs.

Angela’s brow rose, “You want out, say so.”

Crystal winced, breathed, “No.”

Angela walked her along a section of course, illustrating what was expected: She would begin with a short sprint. Vault over a half-wall. Drop to crawl under a small fence. Sprint into a rope-climb on a full-wall. Jump from atop it to the next. Then, to the floor below. From there, the last section was a series of hurtles and vaults, ending in a long balance-beam and full-wall she would finish atop.

The course covered less than a third of the room’s obstacles. Either Angela was being charitable, or it was simply impractical to expect more of her yet. Either way, Crystal was glad for that. The course wouldn’t be easy, especially for tired limbs. She took her place at the course’s start. Angela stood beside her, tablet in-hand, and gave a three-count. At “Go” Crystal bolted.

She sprinted, stumbled, recovered. The first vault was sloppy. She toppled over it, landed on tired calves, then stumbled to her knees. She used the momentum to throw herself prone, passed beneath the fence, then staggered back up into a run, calves and thighs searing. She hurled herself at the rope wall. Her hands and arms ached, throbbed. She kicked and grabbed, groaned, struggled for the wall-top. The jump beyond was easier. The landing came with another stagger that nearly knocked her off its far-side. The hop was slower, but she was focused on the course ahead. Her mind and heart ran even faster, unconsciously calculating each step and pump.

She reached the first hurtle, cleared it: landed, stepped, vaulted. The process repeated rhythmically, brought her to the last section of floor and beam. Her burning legs sprang. Fire sputtered within, launched her over the last vault, atop the beam. She crossed it in fast, easy steps, landed on the floor beside Angela.

“Stop!” Angela commanded.

Crystal doubled over, panting, aching– but more alive than she’d ever been.

Angela gave her a water bottle, “That was a helluva lot better than I expected.”

“Thanks,” she said breathlessly, squirting water into her mouth. “I tried.”

“Ever been athletic?” Crystal shook her head. “That’s damned impressive.”

Crystal took another squirt of water, straightened, “I… don’t want to go back… to the street.”

“I know the feeling.” She motioned her along, “C’mon, we’ll get your stuff. You can shower and then get your surprise.”

She managed a laugh, “Whatever you say.”

Crystal and Angela parted at the bathroom. The former soaked her aching muscles in a hot shower, tossed the clothing in a pile near her bed, sat atop it to lace her boots. For once, she was excited about a surprise. She wasn’t even sure why. So much good had happened that having a little hope only felt right. Trusting Angela felt only fair. Such kindness was rare enough. A little faith in return was hardly a burden to repay.

She met Angela in the kitchen, her upper-half clad a leather jacket with sunglasses propped on her head. She motioned toward the garage and led the way to a mid-70s Plymouth Roadrunner, then slid into the driver’s seat. The engine started with a billowing roar. It rumbled to the elevator, then rose into the alley and the fresh, afternoon gray.

Angela backed the length of the alley in a half-second, watched the elevator sink, then spun the tires and threw the car around to face the open road. Angela slipped on her sunglasses, dropped the clutch and burned along the block. An inexplicably giddy joy crept up through Crystal as they zoomed through the city. She was once more the carefree girl she’d wanted to be. She might as well be out ditching class and hell-raising again.

Twists and turns led them into downtown. She hadn’t seen the place in as long as anything else outside her street-living haunts. The illusion of her place as another, normal person was only bolstered by their eventual destination. Angela pulled into the parking lot of the city’s super-mall.

Crystal sensed a joke: the mall was like someone had combined every consumerist desire possible into a few million square feet. In combination with the massive food court of fine and fast dining, the place was the epitome of every person’s slobbery, materialist desires. Moreover, it was a hell of a place to spend the day.

They angled into a space and the minor fear slipped from Crystal’s mouth, “You’re serious?”

Angela laughed full-on. “Surprise. Time to shop.”

“S-seriously?”

“C’mon, we’ll have lunch first, then blow as much cash as possible.”

Crystal’s legs were rubber. She wasn’t going to be living like a normal person after all. She was going to be living like a movie star, like royalty. Better, even– Angela knew how to have fun. She climbed from the car, groped along it for its trunk, then wobbled after Angela.

Never in a million years would she have expected this. Not because she underestimated Angela’s benevolence, but because it’d been so long since she’d even thought of a shopping spree that it never could’ve occurred to her. Past fears be damned, this was one hell of a good surprise.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t help but wonder about the eventual balancing of the cosmic scales. She wasn’t sure could ever level it. Only time would tell. For now, she merely hoped there were no catastrophic repercussions. Given the last decade though, she wasn’t holding her breath.

Short Story: Ritual for the Bereaved

She had skin like an ebony goddess with a face painstakingly carved from stone by masters’ hands. Sweat gleamed off her as if she’d been coated in lacquer, fired in a kiln. Beads of water formed streams, forced downward by gravity to mix with sweat. Her wiry hair was wild; stray strands cascaded down her face, jutted out from her bun-ponytail, and framed her prominent cheek bones.

She began at an edge of the black-mats in the wooden room. In her hands, thinly-curved steel of two katanas readied in a down-angled point at the floor. Her head hung, chin against chest, as her mind sank entered a placid trance. Her muscled thighs parted just enough to give her legs their due gait. Then, with a breath, she sprinted forward a pair of steps.

Her feet and calves worked in a spring. The blades remained motionless as she flipped forward, landed. Steel rose in double, whipped through the air with audible swipes, made inward slices. She spun on a single foot, a ballerina in a fouetté turn. The blades followed, parted to swipe one high and one low. Her body compelled them to follow through.

With a backward flip-kick, her wrists rotated, whirled the blades around. She landed, jammed them backward to penetrate phantom foes. The swords pulled free from the phantoms, fused with a wide sweep that saw them righted in her hands. She saw the swipes catch the throats of five armed men around and in front of her. Had they been there, she would have been deathly right.

Her powerful legs made a deep lunge, right hand thrust a blade forward, inward. The toes of her left foot dragged forward as she straightened, put her fists knuckle-to-knuckle. The mirrored steel shined from the large’s rooms LEDs, reflected half and quarter views of its innards. The reflections became blurs; the blades dropped, began to spin, whirl, twirl, while her body made small pirouettes and leaps.

She did a final, backward stab, eyes shut, then pulled the blades forward, flattened her arms outward. Her wrists angled to keep the blades flush with the t-pose, extend the breadth of her reach. Together, steel and skin sank back to her sides. The swords returned to their down-angled point, her chin once more against her chest as it heaved from exertion.

A door opened behind her, a scent like smoldering wood coals wafted over. A smile crept across her mouth. She turned on-heel, eyes open and head leveled. Before her stood a tall, equally dark skinned man. The white and gray that peppered his beard matched aged-eyes wrinkled at the corners. A large scar ran down the right side of his face, through his eyebrow and a piece of his upper lip, and made his smile unique, peculiar.

“Jazmin,” he said gruffly as he crossed the room.

She met him half-way, “Dad.”

“Am I interrupting, sweetheart?” He asked respectfully.

She shook her head, led him toward a corner to sheath her swords. She patted a towel at her neck with one hand, used the other to ready a water-bottle to drink, “What’s the what?”

He smiled, her lingo ever foreign. Such was the way of generational gaps between fathers and daughters. He knew the meaning of this particular phrase, sensed she was all business today.

He responded in kind, “Your assignment just came down from the top.”

She gulped a squirt from the bottle, panted, “Since when’s Dahl been giving you my orders?”

“Since the assignment concerns an old acquaintance,” her father replied seriously.

Her neck stiffened, eyes widened to match his, “You can’t mean–”

He interrupted gravely, “I do.”

Their eyes met with a hardened narrowness. Somewhere beneath her confidence and determination, Jazmin’s core was shaken. To hear such words meant any hope for peace was gone.

She spoke with a stiff spine, “When do we leave?”

“Now. There’s a van waiting.”

A quarter of an hour passed before Jazmin pushed her way from the gym and into the night. The Zen garden beside and behind the gym gurgled with a hand-made waterfall at the edge of its Koi pond. Japanese Maples in cement and paver-stone planters cast her in sparse shadows beneath the palette of copious neon signs and incandescent poles lighting the streets. She followed the cobble stone path along the garden’s outer-wall, found her father waiting before the an open side of a black van.

She gave him a look as if yet unprepared. He sympathized, “You know, I can talk to Rachel. She and I are old friends. If she–”

“No,” Jazmin said definitively. “I trust her judgment. If she believes I can do this, then she knows I should.”

He gave a small nod. She tossed her duffle bag inside, gripped the vans roof with a hand to launch herself inside. He sighed, climbed in behind her.

It took almost two days to travel from Hong Kong to the remote region where they would find their mark. The Nepalese scenery of verdant, earthen hues and white-capped mountains would have been a jarring shift from Earth’s densest, rain-laced city were it not so gradual. Jazmin found herself enamored, but her joy was always quickly suppressed by the assignment at hand.

They reached the mark’s hideaway; a small temple on the precipice of a mountain where snow fell eternally in screaming winds. Her father led the way inside. Two pairs of blades readied, one after the other, and slipped through the temple’s double doors.

The woman was in her late forties, clearly honed from a life of agile aspirations and training. There was no incitement to violence– it was already clear in her eyes. Something said she expected the two assassins as more than a mark could. A clear spite was beneath the expectation: she’d been the one exiled, cast out for daring to challenge Dahl. In place of death, she was told to flee from beneath the sword at her throat and never return. The spark of hatred in her eyes then had since grown to a raging, animistic fire. Twenty years of planned revenge and festering rage still fueled it.

Her own blades were out. Jazmin and her father were ready. One of each of their blades blocked the woman’s. The free blades sank through her fleshy torso beside one another. Her eyes went wide. Blood trickled from a corner of her mouth. Jazmin and her father pulled back together. The woman shriveled to the floor. The thirsty, aged planks beneath her lapped up blood that spilled down her sides. She gasped on the floor, eyes distant and glazed.

“Jazmin,” she whispered.

The girl knelt beside her to listen carefully. Her dying breaths were on her, all of them knew it.

She wheezed a wet breath, “T-take my swords. T-they ar-are yours n-now.” Jazmin gave a singular nod with a blink. The woman raised a bloody hand to caress Jazmin’s cheek, “You’re so beautiful.” Eyes began to tear up. “I-I’m s-sorry I couldn’t be there to see you grow.”

Jazmin took her hand, “Shh. It’s okay. I understand.”

At that Jazmin was sincere, she understood the woman’s absence, the rationale for her exile, even the anger that had prompted the attack that led to it. More importantly, Jazmin understood why there was no epic fight; simply, it was easier for all if her death was quick, in defense of themselves.

She squeezed Jazmin’s hand, “N-never f-forget that I l-love you, sweetheart.”

Jazmin suppressed her own tears, “I love you too, mom.”

The life left her mother’s eyes and her body went limp. There was no one to blame; not her adulterous father whom caused the challenge to Dahl, nor herself that put the blade to her, not even the exile whom sought revenge, consigned herself to her fate by declaring all out war on the Order. She would have never hurt her family, but even Dahl knew she couldn’t allow anyone else to take the assignment, put down her would-be assassin.

Jazmin collected her mother’s blades and sheathes, slung them over her back, then lifted her for a pyre she and her father had already built. Absent or not, respect was due, and if there was anything the Order knew, it was the importance of rituals for the bereaved– no matter whom put the blade to the mark or why.