Chapter Two

“What were you doing last night?” the commander of the VI4C, Steppe, asked her. He was standing with his back to her, in his office. Renee nervously licked her lips.
“I was out, with a friend,” she said evasively, trying to remain calm, cool, and collected. He radiated hatred, power, and the ability to cause major pain. Due to that, he naturally managed to cut everyone down to who they really were, or make them seem weaker than they truly were. “Why do you ask?”
“There was an assignment last night, Septifiria!” He screamed, whipping around.
“What?! There were no assignments!” Renee said, her eyes wide at the sight of the man’s mangled face. “I checked before I made any plans. There was nothing!”
“It was scheduled!” He shrieked at her, spit flying. One half of his body turned to solid steel and he drew back his arm as if to hit her. She raised her arms in defense, and woke with a gasp.
“Oh, gods,” she whispered. “Oh gods.” She slipped out of bed and crossed the room quickly and quietly. Pulling her cell phone from her purse, she quickly opened the calender. Checking the day before’s activities, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank goodness,” she murmured, closing her phone and putting it away. She returned to her bed, lost in thought. Laying down again, she tried to relax enough to go back to sleep. Allowing her thoughts to wander, she half consciously thought of Nito and how he’d kissed her.
Jade was right about the flirting,‘ she thought. ‘Could she be right about the rest?‘ Thoughts like that kept her awake for the next hour and a half. Finally at four, she got out of bed and crept to the kitchen, where she made herself a cup of tea.
Sipping it slowly, she tried to tell herself that it had just been a dream, and not a vision from Steppe’s ghostly assistant, Oracle. Things like that did sometimes happen, and they were happening a lot more recently. Rene finished her tea and returned to her room, still lost in thought. Leaning over her desk she tugged a large folder out of the stack- ‘No, landslide,’ she thought- of papers on her desk and sat down on the edge of her bed, opening it.
Renee thumbed through the pages, biographies of the known mutants. She selected the more recent ones, and reading through them, she noted that they were more tragic that the first few. Reading through bios she had selected, Renee was appalled to see that well over half of the VI4C member’s ended in the death of the person. Usually a person KIA (killed in action) on an assignment or a mission of Steppe’s assignment. Even worse was the realization that she had known and was friends with most, if not all, of the deceased mutants.
Renee set down the biographies, and rubbed her face vigorously with her hands. ‘Those aren’t ALL the mutants,’ she thought. ‘Just the VI4C. There’s another folder of the suspected mutants and a third folder with the non-VI4C mutants.‘ Turning back to the VI4C folder, she pulled out her own bio, complete with every success or failure she had ever had. Reading it, she knew that her time was coming. Very, very soon if something wasn’t done about Steppe. Laying down her file, she knew deep down what she’d have to do.
Running her fingers through her hair again, she sighed. Standing up, she looked around her room with a new view of just how precious life truly is. The knowledge that after she challenged Steppe to a duel to the death, there would be no turning back. She closed her eyes as the room pitched and spun, and took a deep breath. Opening her eyes, she looked around the room one last time, knowing that she may never see any of this ever again.
Walking purposefully to her closet, she pulled her uniform out with trembling hands. Placing it gently on her bed, she slipped down the hall to the bathroom for a shower. For every step, a new sense of terror enveloped her. For every Steppe, a new reign of terror enveloped the people.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Septi walked into the office, nervous, yet with a sense of purpose that would help her keep her nerve. Stepping up to the desk, she tossed her dagger onto it,. Steppe, who had been reading paperwork, looked up at her and leared sickly.
“Steppe, I, Septifiria, challenge you to a fight,” she said boldly. “The winner gains control of the VI4C. Complete control.” He stood, nearly a head taller than her. For the first time since she walked into the office she began to worry.
“You think you can defeat me?” he asked her with a wheezy laugh. He clenched a fist, and his body turned to steel. She smiled a him coldly. “You think a weak little girl like yourself could possibly defeat me?” He laughed maniacally.
“I believe I could if I try,” she said, cool and relaxed on the outside, every inch a scared little girl inside. She flashed a quick, devil-may-care smile at him.
“Well, then try, by all means,” he said, turning away. His body turned back to flesh, and his voice dropped, deadly low. “It will take place tonight. Training room, at seven.” Septi turned on her heal and took her leave. When she was a good distance away from the office she broke into a run, heading for the teen’s wing. Skidding to a halt, she knocked on two of the doors and waited until they swung open and their occupants stepped out.
“Septi!” the Indian girl squealed, hugging her quickly. “What’s up? Oh, you don’t look to good.”
“I’m sure there’s a reason for that, Mes,” the red head said, hugging Septi as soon as Mesmer had stepped away. “So what’s up? Why do you look like you need to hurl?”
“Raram!” Mesmer scolded. “If there’s a good reason, she won’t want to talk about it.”
“So, is there a reason?” Fararam asked, ignoring Mes.
“I’m glad I’m so loved,” Septi said sarcastically. “Yeah there is a reason, Raram. And yes, I will tell you. I’m going to battle Steppe tonight, for the title of Commander. And I’m going to lose. I just know it.”
“No, you’re not!” Mesmer said vehemently. “Septi, you’re one or our best fighters! You won’t lose! You can’t! Our friends have been vanishing, one after the other! People die on those stupid missions of his! We’ll help you get ready, but you can’t lose.” Raram nodded her agreement, and stepped into her room. She re-emerged a few seconds later, a staff in her hand.
“Let’s get to it,” Raram said, an uncharacteristically serious look on her face. “A weapons practice. Powers allowed.”
“Sure,” Septi agreed tensely. “I mean, neither Steppe nor I have powers like you guys, but why not?”
“Septi, really, just relax,” Mes said, stretching her powers out to Septi, who threw her a filthy look. “Sorry,” Mes muttered, looking only mildly ashamed.
“What have I told you about you using your powers on me?” Septi snapped irritably.
“That, if we did, you’d gut us and leave us in the ocean for the sharks,” Raram quoted, trying to keep a straight face.
“Which really makes no sense, as Nevada is landlocked,” Mes said, not bothering to try to keep from smiling.
“Have I really said it so many times that you know it by heart?” Both Raram and Mesmer nodded solemnly, and Septi sighed. “Alright, alright. Let’s go.” With that she lead the way to the training room. As she crossed the floor, Septi pulled her real weaponry from her sheaths, and gathering her practice blades, which couldn’t cut. Looking at her two younger opponents, she knew that, though they were only two years younger, they had a kind of youthful innocence about them. A kind of innocence that a hard childhood, and  her years with the VI4C had made her lose.
“C’est la guerre,” she said coldly, noticing that Mes was edging towards her. Septi quickly lashed out in Mesmer’s direction, catching her by surprise and knocking her to the floor. Then she spun around and tripped Raram, who had rushed her when Septi had turned her back. Septi swiftly stepped back up against the wall, watching Raram and Mesmer as they stood up.
Raram and Mesmer attacked together. Septi swung a kick at Mesmer, knocking her back, breathless, and punched Raram in the nose. She flinched slightly as blood started pouring from Raram’s nose, and she straightened up.
“Look, this really isn’t working,” she said, looking at them. “I’m stronger, and older than both of you. I’ve trained harder to make up for my weak powers. I’m not willing to beat you two up.”
“Maybe not now,” Mesmer said, an odd look on her face. She stepped up to Septi before she continued speaking. Her words were punctuated with blows. “But after this, I’m sure you will.” she continued hitting Septi, who took the blows as long as she could. Finally though, Septi lashed out, catching Mesmer in the temple with her fist. Mesmer fell to the ground, unconscious.
Raram dropped when Septi swung at her, and as Septi’s overshot carried her a few steps past Raram, who kicked her on the back with surprising force. Lights popped in Septi’s eyes, and as she fell she tucked and rolled in a perfect somersault, landing on her feet.
Septi spun low, knocking Raram’s legs out from under her. Raram did a face plant, and Septi placed one booted foot on Raram’s back. Leaning down she whispered, “you’re really good… for a kid.” At that Raram rolled over, knocking Septi on her back, and knelt, placing a knee on Septi’s throat.
“No one calls me a kid,” Raram said defiantly. “At least they don’t call me a kid and get away with it.” Septi suddenly shifted the lower part of her body into that of a snake, and whipped her tail around Raram. Pulling Raram off, she returned to her human form.
Panting from lack of oxygen, she dove for Raram with a practice dagger in her hand. Raram stood ready for her, her body tense. Septi crashed into her, her dagger jabbing Raram, and actually drawing blood. Raram fell back, and Septi spun away. A small trickle of blood was running down Raram’s side, and Septi’s dagger was smeared with it.
“I forgot you were left handed,” Raram gasped, grabbing her staff from the floor.
“Never forget anything you know about your opponent,” Septi said seriously. “Know all you can about your opponent, and don’t you ever forget it.” With the last word she threw the dagger, aiming for Raram’s throat. Raram ducked and swung her staff at Septi’s midsection. Septi shrunk and, turning into a hawk, flew at Raram angrily. Raram, using her power, created little bugs all over Septi. The bugs, though illusions, looked and felt real, especially their stings. Septi fell to the ground with a shriek, and returned to human form once more, as Raram’s illusions faded. Mesmer, who had been laying off to the side, stirred, and Raram took her eys off Septi and knelt beside Mesmer.
“Are you alright?” she asked, ignoring Septi, who quickly advanced and kicked her. Raram gasped as she spun, grabbing Septi’s boot and twisting, knocking Septi down. Septi twisted in Raram’s grasp, kicking her in the face with her other foot.
“Rule number two; never ignore your opponent,” Septi said laughing despite the pain as Raram’s sweaty hands gripped her calves. Raram fell back and released Septi, trying to staunch a bloody nose.
“You didb’t hab to do dat!” Raram said thickly, tilting her head back and pinching her nose. Septi stood and approached, hesitating slightly. She leaned in and hugged Raram, who stood stiff in her arms. “Rule number tree; never trust your obbonent,” she said, attempting to punch Septi in the nose and bringing her heel down on Septi’s foot, scraping Septi’s shin on the way down.
“I had that coming,” Septi said, blocking the punch then slipping away. “And you really need to-” she gasped as Mesmer’s arm came around her neck and the cold tip of a practice dagger was jammed against her throat. “Learn,” she finished weakly. A heavy wafy of Mesmer’s perfume surrounded Septi and she coughed, choking on the strong scent.
“Septi, I think we defeated you,” Mesmer said as she released Septi. She stepped up and high-fived a bloody Raram. “And you think we’re just kids, too!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Septi said hoarsely, massaging her neck. “Let’s just pray that tonight’s battle doesn’t go like this one.”
“Hey, there’s only one Steppe, and there were two of us fighting you,” Raram said.  “He can’t clone himself. You really should stop worrying. It’s not good for your health. Besides, it’ll be fine, Septi. You’re an amazing fighter.”
“Yeah, you seriously need to relax, Septi,” Mesmer said, brushing a strand of hair off her face. Septi looked at them and sighed.
“So you say. Look, I need to prepare for tonight.”
“Hey, chill. Septi, we love you, but seriously, whatever possessed you to challenge Steppe to a duel?” Raram asked, giving Septi a remorseful look. The kind of look that says ‘It was nice knowing you’.
“Someone had to do it,” Septi said. “You yourself said that you noticed how many people are dyeing by Steppe’s hand. You know that you could have been the next ones to die on one of those suicide missions he has the gall to call ‘assignments’. Don’t look at me like that, you both know it’s true.” Septi pushed past them, leaving the training room. Mes and Raram exchanged worried glances and followed her.
“Septi, everything you said is true. But no one was forcing you to do that!” Mesmer said, trying to keep up with Septi’s near run. Raram caught up with them, and grabbed Septi’s arm. “And if you lose, you’ll be the next to die!”
“The facts were forcing me!” Septi said, whipping around and jerking free from Raram. “Have you seen the folders with the deceased’s records? It’s terrifyingly huge, and let’s not forget those mutants who were wounded beyond recognition! The reason I had to was because I don’t want to see more people die. Especially not my friends.” She turned away and pressed her forehead to the wall. Mesmer put her hand on Septi’s shoulder, but Septi shrugged it off. “If i don’t succeed, please tell Jade that I’m sorry.” She fought the tears as she shoved away from the wall and sprinted down the hall, locking herself in the bathroom. Then and only then did she break down into tears. A hesitant rap on the door coupled with Mesmer’s voice made her try to regain control.
“Septi? Septi, unlock this door,” Mes called her voice muffled by the door. “I know you’re crying. Please, Septi, let me in.” Septi turned her back on the door and, sitting on the floor, she tucked her knees under her chin with silent tears streaming down her face.
“Go away,” she called, desperately trying to stop crying. She heard Mesmer sigh, exasperated.
“Septi, I’m not gonna leave. In fact, I’ll have Steppe break down the door if you don’t unlock it right now.” Septi stood swiftly and silently, and hastily opened the door causing Mesmer, who was leaning against it, to fall into the bathtub.
“You wouldn’t,” Septi said venomously, even though her nose was a little stuffed up from crying. “Even you’re not so inhumane as that.”
“You’re right,” Mes said standing up and brushing herself off. “I just wanted to get you to open the door. What’s wrong?” she stared at Septi, concern written on her face.
“Nothing,” Septi said, looking at the ground. “And everything.” She brushed her tears away and sat down on the edge of the tub.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” Mes asked, sitting down beside her. Septi glanced up at her.
“I don’t want sympathy,” she said coldly. Mes shook her head.
“I won’t sympathize, then.”
“It’s a… a guy. He took me out last night. My friend, Jade, says he’s a flirt and a two timer,” Septi ran her hands through her hair. “I say that Jade’s just jealous, cause she went out with him and he ditched her. We had a fight, and now she’s not speaking to me.” Mes rested a hand on Septi’s shoulder.
“Is any guy worth losing a friend over?” Mes asked.
“I don’t know,” Septi said, anxiously. “I just don’t know anymore. Normally I’d say no, but Mes, Nito’s like an angel.”
“Oh, gods,” Mes sighed, leaning back slightly and rolling her eyes. “Girl, you are obviously smitten with this guy. I’m not gonna get anywhere with you.” Mes stood and put her hands on her hips.
“Hey, I can’t help it if I’m stubborn. At least you know a lost cause when you see one,” Septi said, laughing at the forced, over-patient look on Mesmer’s face.
“You’re not stubborn, you’re smitten,” Mesmer said seriously, fighting a large grin. Septi shot up, angrily. “Why the strong reaction? Is it cause you are smitten?” Mes asked, slipping back, a demonic little smile on her face. Septi sighed and tossed her hair.
“Anything I may or may not feel is irrelevant. Let’s just drop this, tres bien (okay)?” Septi said, trying to push past Mesmer and leave the bathroom. Mesmer caught her and held her still.
“Look, Septi, you obviously are, so don’t deny it! Enjoy it! Live it up!” Mes practically sang, shoving Septi back. Septi looked at Mes full in the face, extremely irritated.
“Is it that obvious?”
“I KNEW IT!” Mes shouted and took off running, leading Septi on a lively chase through the hideout.
Not cool, Mes!” Septi called angrily. “Trick me into telling you something, then using it against me. Real mature!” When Septi saw Steppe on the second floor, she stopped dead. He approached her with the vaguest hint of a swagger in his step.
“Such a silly little girl you are, Septifiria,” he laughed sickly. “It’s alright. I’ll be nice to you tonight. When I defeat you, I won’t kill you. I’ll maim you instead.” He leered at her as he passed .
“At least I’ll have stood up for justice,” she retorted. He spun, his face covered in a metal plating. He raised a fist, covered with the same plating, causing it to look like he was wearing a gauntlet, ready to strike her. She stared at him coldly, hiding her terror. Steppe was known to break bones with a single blow. He laughed sinisterly, and lowered his fist.
“Not short on courage, ” he said grudgingly. “It’s a pity it’s tainted with stupidity.” He added snidely, sneering. As he walked away, Septi sagged against the wall, only looking up when Oracle passed, going the opposite direction. He glanced back and stopped.
“Septi, I heard that you challenged Steppe?” he asked in his creepy, hoarse voice. She nodded sharply, a giddy-sick feeling in her stomach. “How can you? He’ll kill you! you’re just a-“
“A what?” she asked sharply, cutting him off. “I thank you for your support, but if you don’t have any useful information, I’d rather you leave me alone.”
“I just meant that you’re a fresh face on our force,” he said huskily. “And the fact that no one’s defeated Steppe for years, practice or real battle, makes me worry for you.”
“I know that the chance of me surviving aren’t very high,” Septi said, looking at him full in the eyes. “But if there’s any chance at all for me to defeat Steppe, then I’ll take that chance. He can’t be allowed to keep killing us!”
“I know,” Oracle said tiredly. “Do I ever know.” Septi smiled at him sadly.
“It’s not like you could do anything, either. You’re information, while I’m a Fighter and Kidnapper. We all have our jobs, and Steppe’s abusing his. Pray that I succeed at this, of very soon there will be no VI4C.” She walked away from him with no particular destination in mind. Her thoughts and fear had abandoned her, and they were replaced by a cold peace. She knew one thing, and one thing only; she had to defeat Steppe. If she didn’t, the world would be in great danger.

Renee sat bolt upright in her bed, panting heavily. Sweat was beading on her nose and in her elbows, and her sheets were wrapped tightly around her legs. She quickly untangled herself from her sheets and took a hasty gulp of water from the cup on her bedside table.She glanced at the clock, also on the bedside table. It was 2:30 AM, and she was thankful that it was a dream. Then a thought struck.

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