After descending thirty floors beneath the surface, they approached the smooth, plain white wall – everything a muted but austere white, impersonal and utilitarian. A hidden panel slid open with a flick of his hand.
The coolness of his palm pressed into her back as he ushered her to a bank of monitors that stretched further than she could see. Without a word, he released her restraints and gestured toward the first one.
Gently, hesitantly, she pressed her right palm flat to the screen, and slowly the smooth black surface revealed its intent.
The thirteen year old girl stood tall and proud. It seemed a foreign thing to her, standing like that. A combat staff, taller than the girl, leaned upon her shoulder as she wrapped her hands and wrists in layers of thin, white fabric.
Taking the staff in hand, she assumed a perfect combat stance. Her feet, wrapped in the same material as her hands, planted firmly on the planks.
A boy, three years her senior, approached her from behind. She knew who it was by his footfall. She didn’t turn, instead holding her position. He was studying her stance, her breathing, gauging the levels of her strength and confidence, her nervousness.
Coming round to face her, their eyes met as he began his assessment, “Well done; you’ve surpassed my expectations, and in such a short time at that.”
She tried not to focus on the nearness of him, the way his bright blue eyes pierced into her. She remained silent, expressionless and alert, her gaze unwavering.
Arching his left brow, he smirked, “Alright, tough stuff. But are you ready for them?” He nodded toward the wings, and a trio of stout boys padded out in v-formation, staffs at the ready. They looked experienced and displayed natural, unstudied assurance.
She rocked slowly, measuring her breaths and waited for their approach.
The woman released her hand from the monitor and looked down at her feet, whispering, “It was you, wasn’t it? Henry. You’re Henry.”
“Why did you quit?,” he quietly implored. “You were good, a natural. You took all three of those boys, made it look easy. Why didn’t you come back?”
She slowly looked up and into his eyes, hers welling with tears, “I couldn’t. I didn’t believe in myself. I may have been a good fighter, but you were a family. I was an outsider. I could fight, but I couldn’t do the rest of it.”
“You mean you wouldn’t,” he softly accused. “Not for me. Not for you. Not for anyone.” He ushered her to the next monitor, took her wrist and placed her palm upon it.