Chapter 2: The Art of Weaponry

            The entire camp made their way outside, all at once, but quickly dispersed into their troop meetings. Simin, who had to squint in the now-blinding sunlight, hurried quickly to the small hut where the meetings for her troop were conducted. Xena was already there, holding impatiently to a piece of chalk while staring at a note pad furiously. Alekos arrived soon after Simin, and Sandra as well. Marcelle, Thaddia, Polydamas, and Odysseus were all there as well.

            “I don’t think today will be particularly taxing.” Alekos whispered to Simin. The shade of the small canopy under which they stood provided some relief from the sun that now beat on the pavement with fervor, and Simin hoped Alekos was right. His point stood to reason, too; yesterday had seen their troop run ten miles and train for hours.

            “Listen up.” Xena cleared her throat and looked up, calling to attention the standing soldiers whose half-formed semicircle quickly became regular. “Today, we will be practicing making strategies. I will give one of you a scenario in which the enemy is attacking a different area of Kallipolis. We will travel to that area; on the way, the soldier I chose will design a plan of attack.

            “This will test more than your ability to think on your feet. I hope all of you know the geography and topography of Kallipolis—your troops won’t make it very far if you send them into a ruins that ends in a cliffface. And failure is not an option. We are patrolling the central line, the very borders of our glorious city. Let even one enemy slip and our entire security is compromised.

            “And this is no game, commanders. If your troops fail for any reason at all, you will be punished.”

            As Xena had spoken, an uneasiness had come over the parked group. Odysseus, the youngest, grew paler with every word Xena spoke. Not helping matters was Thaddia, a snarling seventeen year old who had paid for a mistake Odysseus had made the week before in combat training. Having forgotten to turn on his practice setting, his sword had sliced through her cheek and left a nasty scar. Thaddia had no problem glaring at him, her teeth nearly bared. Polydamas stood uncomfortably between them, sweating profusely. Simin, on the outside of the semicircle, could see it all very clearly. She and Marcelle, who was standing next to her, exchanged knowing looks. The only ones unfazed were Alekos and Sandra, who stood with rapt attention to Xena throughout her entire speech.

            “It looks like I have my first commander.” Xena smiled at Sandra, who bared her teeth back respectfully. “The vehicle will be arriving soon. In the meanwhile, get your weapons and gear from the armory.”

            The group quickly formed a line. Thaddia, the shortest and most adept knife user, stood in the front, followed by Alekos, the best swordsman. Simin stood behind him, grasping for the double swords she had carried since she had been trained at the age of seven. Odysseus was a brewer, a new offensive type, and typically stood behind Simin. Polydamas and Marcelle, both archers, stood in height order. Following up last was Sandra, whose hands twitched for a gun. The seven soldiers marched in almost perfect unison, save for Odysseus’s inability to get on rhythm.

It was a short and flat walk over dusty ground from the line of tents to the armory, a tall and impressive looking building that stood parallel to the dorms. Formed by a single turret, the outside of the black-brick structure was littered with various metal contraptions, growing in menace from the bottom up. The base of the building sported some modest razor wire while the upper part of the turret boasted crackling bolts of mini lightning that shot at rapid fire pace between metal spikes larger than Simin’s head. She had to shield her eyes to look at them; the sun shone directly onto them, giving them an even higher brightness. As the party entered the metal doors, they were greeted by a wide, circular room, the walls of which were lined with range weapons of all shapes and sizes. Leaving Polydamas, Marcelle, and Sandra in their paradies, the rest walked up the spinning staircase in the center.

The second floor was split into two distinct sections. A third facing them had wooden shelves jutting out in all direction, some of which sported colored liquids in varying sizes of bottles while others were lined with seemingly random objects—bird feathers, a strip of gold, and ball of cobweb were grouped right in front of the three. Odysseus quickly grabbed a feather and headed into the maze. Simin, Alekos, and Thaddia both exited the staircase and took a right, brininging them into the two thirds of the room lined with katanas, swords, and daggers of varying lengths.

As Thaddia stole away to grab her favorite throwing knives from off the wall, Alekos and Simin continued on to a section with swords longer than Thaddia stood.

“I can’t wait until I get to use one of these!” Alekos had said the words almost every day since he and Simin had been promoted together all of those years ago. Today, however, Simin gave him a disturbed look when he turned in awe away from the purple-edged sword. “I mean—”

Before he could correct himself, however, Simin paced away to where the double swords were located on a blue section of wall. Never had she been next to two people on one day so soon after a decree who blatantly broke it. It was a difficult rule to follow, yes—the Council’s first when it came to the regulation of spoken language—but it simply required a little thinking beforehand. Was that so hard? Simin wondered to herself. Having been pacing back and forth, listening in impatience to the mumbling conversations behind her, she suddenly attacked and chose her weapon; in less than a second, she had retrieved one large dagger-like blade and another flat one from the wall. She grabbed the leather sheaths beneath them, as well. This set was her favorite; each blade served an entirely different purpose and they allowed her to attack in a multitude of ways on the battlefield. Despite their obvious asymmetry, their maker had been keen to ensure that all would see them as a set. He had wrapped the handle of each with a green fabric, and enscribed in both of them two words:

Argentum Auream

Golden Silver

Walking back down the staircase—Thaddia and Odysseus close behind—Simin headed down an extra flight, passing the room where Simin spotted Marcelle with polished longbow, and into a basement. The center staircase let to a single door, which in turn led through a spiraling hallway where white and red doors stood eagerly. Simin opened the first one that was white; as she closed it behind her, it turned a glowing red. Within the minute, a leather tunic, some basic iron armor, and a set of pants were dispensed in a bag from the ceiling. Simin unhooked the bag and changed, attaching her sheaths to the specially designed loops of the pants. Unlike her civilian clothes, these were exclusively hers. She knew because of the letters scratched in the insided collar; written in scrawled hand was SiminGS. She had suspicions about the meaning of the GS. She assumed Cy was receiving a tunic with IS.

Unusually, the pouch dispensed for her also included a small leather bag. Simin grabbed it and, remembering her task for later in the day, grabbed her white clothes and folded them into the bag. Fully stocked, she made her way to the entrance, while other bustling troops formed and left. She waited no more than a minute before everyone was present, and the group reformed their order as the walked toward the tent where Xena was standing in uniform as well.

As they walked, Simin wondered about where they were off to first. Knowing Xena, it would likely be very challenging for Sandra to devise a strategy. She was Xena’s noticeable favorite and she thus challenged her extensively. Perhaps the Fallen Trenches? That much of a cliff would certainly give the enemy an advantage. She also wondered who they would be facing; she counted quickly in her mind the troops she had seen leave wearing yellow bands around their arms, chests, and legs, signifying their play acting.

“Get in.” Xena shouted to the troop as they approached the hovering truck bed. The seven hopped on, none of them tripping over the lack of space between floor and vehicle.

“I think we are going to the Trenches.” The whisper from Sandra was barely noticeable.

“Driver, take us to the Golden Ruins.”

Everyone in the car sucked in a breath as the bed began to move. Now that, thought Simin, was a different challenge entirely. She stole a glance to Sandra, who was clearly concentrating on mapping out the area on the paper Xena had thrown her as she had walked onto the truck. The area was just outside the current Gold Quarters, where the Council and their apprentices lived and worked. The Ruins were the quarters of older Councils or, as many of the Iron and Bronze class refer to them, the Mob. No one knew exactly how they ruled and what laws led to their downfall--not even the oldest residents remembered a time when they ruled. Their lacking prowess in government led to the name of the ruins where a palace must have once stood: golden. Not gold; just pretending to be so. Dah! The word was enough to make Simin shudder. Pretend. Disgusting.

“Attention!”

The six soldiers immediately straightened their spines and threw their eyes to Sandra, whose map was complete with dots and arrows.

“This is our plan. Sword will enter first as Dagger climbs the pillars to get a better view. Ranged and Brew, hang back behind the dense bushery until Sword reaches ten feet without attack. When Sword gets attacked or when they get ten feet off, I want Bows on any visible enemy. Dagger, throw whatever you have at anyone who approaches Sword. Gun will find a high place but stay back with Brew; shoot anyone who comes too near. And Brew, you are our last line of defense. Create a clear line and defend it. I want lingering. And—” she drew in a deep breath, the first one of the speech “—I want Sword two trailing. We don’t know how many are going to be out there; its two’s job to make sure none get away and enter elsewhere.”

The group said nothing; rather, they all stood up and faced their arena as the truck came to an abrupt stop.

Spread out in front of them was a full square mile of broken stone. Every five feet or so, a pillar shot from the ground stood precariously. The stone was colored as it would have been in sunset; it was a soft golden glimmer with reds speckled here and there. No amount of dirt could be seen underneath the rock. Simin winced at the ankle injuries she knew she was about to receive. Behind them, the humble library and dorms of the Gold class stood with genuine glittering laud.

As they were staring at the ruins of past lives, however, Simin saw in the distance a quick movement. “Enemy!” she shouted, and the seven soldiers flew into formation. From behind her, Simin could her the crack of a glass bottle being broken open. Odysseus quickly poured the contents into the bit of dirt at his feet; he took it in his hands and started forming the clay into a long coil. Polydamus and Marcelle each drew their bows in unison, and the two began to spread out from each other while staying back. Thaddia immediately raced ahead of the troop, jumping onto the nearest pillar and climbing it with the dexterity of a monkey. “We have two hundred yards!” she shouted from her vantage point. As Thaddia jumped from pillar to pillar, Sandra joined the higher points as Alekos walked a few feet in front of her. Simin stepped to the side as the two walked with relative calm across the rocky terrain. It took everything in Simin’s power to keep her ankles straight; she privately wondered how the troops in front of them were faring so well.

As the opposing party approached, another yell came from Thaddia: “A hundred yards! We’re talking six full troops, all of whom have guns. And they have wooden feet things—it lets them run on the rocks!”

Thaddia had barely finished her sentence when the group heard the first firing from Sandra’s gun. A few running soldiers, fifty feet in the distance, were shot down, but the remaing three dozen had little trouble running over their fake-dead friends. “Archers, up! Swords, split! Dagger, advance!” Sandra shouted from the top of her lungs as she attempted to take down a few of the ten or so soldiers that were joining her and Thaddia on the pillars.

To command, Simin broke off to the left and charged forward, knives drawn, to a group of three soldiers with yellow bands around their common-issue tunics. They shot at her, but Simin used the flat edge of her blade—and her high dexterity—to dodge and deflect the bullets coming at her. Dropping to her knees, she surprised her enemy and took the moment of their incapacitation to slice through their ankles. Well, that is what would have happened had her practice switches not been on; instead, the knives simply passed through their ankles like holograms, and all three dropped to the ground. Momentarily sheathing her flat knife, she grabbed the guns and stabbed each through with the rapier knife, rendering them useless. Before she could take back her flat, however, a footstep above her demanded attention. Faster than she could react, a large, blonde man had struck on to her head, forcing her to the ground. Her knees, already bleeding from her earlier drop, were hit again, as was her chest and chin. The man—at least a hundred and eighty pounds of pure muscle—was stradled around her back. The only defense available, Simin curved her spine and kicked her feet backwards, hitting the back of the man’s neck, hard. She used the slight jump to spin around from her face-down postion to face her attacker, who she recognized as Andries, a boy about to be brought up to the regular ranks. Seeing Simin’s face, he quickly tried to punch it by brining the full force of his tree-like arm, but she dodged successfully. Before she could call victory, however, Andries redirected his fist sideways and hit the side of her head. Had it not been for the practice mode gloves he was wearing, Simin was sure her ear would be bleeding. Still, the ringing and pain—though not from any permanent damage—were painful to feel. Taking the opportunity as Andries reading another punch, Simin pivoted her rapier in the hand stuck under Andries’s leg and pointed it through her enemy’s thigh, piercing through and making Andries let out a scream of pain. He jumped off of her, the sword still in his leg, and desperately reached to get it. Simin sprang to her feat and grabbed her other knife, which she quickly used to lunge at Andries’s open neck. Before she could get there, however, a small knife came whizzing by her head and through his throat. He let out another scream of pain, this one garbled with imaginary blood, and dropped to the ground, defeated.

“You got five more, twelve o’clock.” Simin’s causal savior monkeyed away to her right, where she saw Alekos in combat with four soldiers each using their gun as a bludgeoning weapon.

The five soldiers in front of her immediately started shooting at her, their bullets whizzing past her. Despite her best efforst, she felt one or two hitting her armor. The armor was made of a light-weight fabric that resisted bullets—a break-through in technology that meant guns were no longer the only practical choice of weaponry as they had been for thousands of years—but Simin new from experience that she could not take more than fifty shots at this range. The soldiers, much to her dismay, began to surround her, shooting her from all directions. As one passed behind a pillar, however, Simin took the temporary opening to throw all of her weight onto it. The Hail Mary payed off and the pillar thudded to the ground, taking out a soldier. In the dust cloud that emerged, however, Simin was temporarily blinded and felt two soldiers grab each of her arms, and the remaining two positioning their guns on her stomach and chest.

No! Not like this, not now! With the last bit of strength in her body, Simin leveraged the two soldiers on her sides to throw her bleeding knees into the bodies of the soldiers in front of her. Both shocked, they stumbled backwards, one even tripping and landing on the back of her head. Simin had hoped the two holding her would be equally shocked, but their grips remained firm. “Archer!” Simin’s last hope was to call on a fellow troop member.

She barely had gotten the word out when she felt the pinging of bullets on her chest from a gun just a few inches away. The dark-skinned boy who had been pushed away by her knees was now firing magazine after magazine into her chest. Simin knew she had maybe another ten seconds if he kept hitting the same point on her armor, and squirmed around as best as she could. She could hear Alekos’s shouts from the few yards away, screaming for backup. Simin could just see Thaddia leaping from falling pillar to falling pillar, barely getting a chance to throw a dagger at her attacker. The rest of ranged were no where to be found.

A yell changed all of that. Marcelle, long bow in hand, charged at Simin’s attacker, wooden contraptions tied to her feet as she let out an aching battle cry. The boy had time just to turn his head to the figure charging toward him, which unintentionally gave Marcelle the perfect target. An arrow already loaded and pushed back, she shot it with incredibly accuracy through his eye and out through the other side of his head. Still alive, he dropped to the ground, mumbling his reluctant congratulations.

This caused enough shock for Simin’s temporary holders to release her, and she wasted no time using her newly freed knives to stab a rapier through an eye and brain and slice the flat knife through a throat. Both soldiers—a girl with striking blue eyes and a boy with what must be some of the darkest skin in Kallipolis—were more giving with their congratulations as they too dropped to the ground.

Marcelle and Simin both broke out running to where Alekos was still fighting two gunsmen and Thaddia was barely eveading the pushing of pillars by an Andries-like girl. Marcelle herself ran up a pillar and took a shot at the pushing girl, while Simin used her two knives to make mincemeat out of one of Alekos’s attacker’s spinal cord. The one threat gone, Alekos had little trouble pretend-decapitating the other.

The four soldiers fell back, seeing another wave of ten wood- and gun-bearing enemies. Before they ran, however, Thaddia hopped down from her pillar to untie with lightning fast hands the wooden planks the four soldiers had been using. Once they ran the twenty feet or so back to the line where Oddyseus and Polydamus stood, the four attackers strapped the planks to their feet and ankles.

“Where’s Sandra?” Odysseus, despite not having moved anywhere in the duration of the battle, gasped as though he had been running for hours.

“Get on them!” From a pillar above the six soldiers, Sandra stood with a bleeding eye that was wounded shut. Simin had to suck in a breath as she looked at her—the sun glinted off the rocks and onto her lean form, with a right hand that held a battered gun and a left foot that stuck out commandingly.

Simin took less than a second to take all of the beauty in front of her in before charging back into the rocked fray. She took out another three soldiers while the clanking of wood on stone echoed all around her, yells of pain and victory being let out every two seconds by both the friend and foe. After slicing through another two, Simin climbed a pillar to look out for her friends and find wherever they were. She saw Alekos and Thaddia fighting off at least ten, but they looked like they were doing well. Marcelle and Sandra had teamed up to shoot a horde of soldiers that were gathering at the base of their respective pillars, about thirty feet to the west of Sandra. Looking back to the line, she could even see Oddysseus and Polydamus effectively fighting off the soldiers that made their way pass the fighters, with Oddyseus throwing glass bottles full of some fowl smelling liquid that made them immediately drop to their knees while Polydamus shot down any others.

A well-oiled machine. That was Simin’s thoughts as she saw Polydamus shoot down the final soldier that had made it through. The five other soldiers still in field made their way back to the line, Thaddia and Sandra still looking to their backs for any more soldiers. The seven reunited at the line, where Xena stood with her hands on her hips, an approving look on her face.

“You’ll get to talk about how to improve as we make our way to Tower Three. But I’m glad you fought effectively.”  It was a high compliment from the trainer, who normally had much harsher words to give out. The seven hopped back into the bed of the truck, quietly smiling at each other.

“Alekos, you’re up next.”