Chapter 6 - Part 3

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Awakening: Prodigy a dark fantasy novel

The contrast of the stark white elevator hampered Seth's view of the large room beyond. He cautioned a glance to Astral, who shared her silent skepticism. He had the distinct impression that the only person he was fooling with his cleverness was himself.

"After you," she insisted. He had this image of Astral pounding on the lift's interface urging the doors shut, trapping him in the darkness of his plan as she waved gleefully good-bye. He fought the urge to grab hold of her, ensuring that the terrible thought never came to pass.

"You wanna see something neat?" she smiled up at him. He had to admit, there was something frightening in her innocent smile. "No, not particularly," Seth replied, half expecting her to come up with a rebuttal implicating her core.

She watched him. He had the foreboding impression that she was much more aware of his growing fear than he wanted to give her credit for. He found himself pressed against the back of the elevator as she reached over to the console, blocking his access to it. She promptly made a couple of adjustments, though what they were, he couldn't get a clear view. "My uncle has this training program too," she smiled broadly. "It's been obsolete for a couple of decades. But I think I can... Ah! There we go..."

'Oh! God!' Seth felt his soul threaten to crawl away, wanting no part of what was to come. 'Remember: this is going according to plan!' he screamed inwardly in his best attempt to calm the sense of terror that overcame him. It was going a little too well.

"Here hold this," Astral tucked her bear into Seth pocket and thrust a long finger in his face.. "Under no circumstance is that bear to be damaged."

'As long as I don't leave the elevator, the program won't acknowledge me.' Seth forced an awkward smile onto his face. The thought did little to stop his heart from repeatedly throwing itself against his chest.

Her smile faded. "What scares you more. Me or my core?" It was an oddly honest question.

"N-neither?" It was true. His fear lay in uncertainty of what she did to an already dangerous training program. He had set it to a low-risk setting, with an incremental increase in difficulty over time. His private training had allowed him reach a ranking class of fifty within the program. He had set it to end when they reached an increment of twenty-five, which was well within his ability to handle on his own. His plan served two goals. The first, would reveal Astral's latent talents, and possibly the reason she survived where expert Hunters met an early death. He hoped that those reasons lay beyond her core and that new talent was a result of having survived in the first place. The second would sell his point on the advantages of joining his squad. A win, win scenario, or so he thought.

"Well, that's disappointing," Astral sulked. "Clearly you don't understand the situation you've put yourself in."

His eyes narrowed. He opened his mouth, ready to reveal every gory detail about his plan when the elevator melted away, leaving the pair of them in the dimly lit space. "Oh....." was all his brain managed to express as he realized how off-course his plan had gone.

He spun around, denying that the only safe place in the program had been erased. He felt around, risking a few steps into the dim space beyond, finding nothing. It denied the rules of physics. It denied reality! Wide-eyed, he spun to confront the fourteen-year-old girl who had vanished from sight.

At that point, he realized that he had made a few dire mistakes. The first, no one knew about this training station. The hardware had been in a state of ruin when he had discovered the program in the middle of his second year. He knew, having researched the archives, that the blueprints didn't list the facility. Upon further inspection, he learned that it was on an isolated system. His second mistake, which tied in with his first, was that he didn't tell anyone about his plans. Regina might alert security assuming she wasn't too angry with him for bailing on the opening ceremony. His third mistake, he hesitated to admit the sad fact to himself, is that he underestimated his target. He was confident, however, that her usurping his plan had everything to do with her and nothing to do with her core.

He peered into the darkness, searching for the girl. He'd have to keep her safe. If she thought that the program was a game, she'd be in for a nasty surprise.

He dashed behind a pillar, back against it. He kept his body lose, ready to spring into action as the first sign of trouble. The dim lights were set evenly across the remnants of a half millennia old parking garage. It was no coincidence that he was in a re-creation of the final tournament arena. He had spent his summer working diligently putting everything together. There was no program in this training module that could recreate the dashing of shadows, or the way the darkness appeared to breath around the competing squads. Even as he listened for the sounds of Astral's frightened screams, it wasn't the shadows that he feared.

He dashed from the pillar to a nearby rusted car, ducking down behind it, and peered through the broken window. There was no sign of her. Of course, she would know to stay quiet. Noise of any sort would draw the demons to their prey. The program's fiends operated on what intelligence the military had gathered over the years.

"I'm bored," Astral's voice boomed on the security speakers. Seth's nerves frayed. "Don't make me do something you might regret. Didn't you say something about wanting to learn to survive the killing fields? Do you know what good hiding does?"

There was an odd scratching sound nearby. Seth focused in on the new element introduced to the game. It sounded small, like a mouse gnawing away at something metallic. He couldn't place the sound in the listing of demons he had encountered through the program. Did she raise the difficulty level to something higher than he had used? It sounded like it was gnawing at the underside of the car. He backed away from the vehicle, slowly hoping to avoid making noise that would cause the program to spring into action.

A hollow metal object fell from beneath the car, likely dislodged by the creature gnawing at the metal supports. Insects swarmed over the car. In the dim light, all Seth could make out was millions of black insect bodies surging toward him. What sort of monstrosity did Astral revive from within the program?

"Eeeewe! I hate bug spawn!" Astral taunted. "Their regenerative abilities are... annoying." The insects swarmed together, towering over him as a single living mass. "Oh, I wouldn't stand there. Spawn often feed on their host and until they mature. They're going to look for protein. Here's a hint: that's you."

He ran. He was without a weapon, but he knew where to go to reach a weapon cache. The insect swarm skittered after him, devouring the car in seconds. "Pro tip: spawn have this unique ability to integrate unprocessed materials into their biological being."

'That means...' He heard the change in the sound, just before the air behind him shifted. He rolled out of reach as the insect swarm came down heavily on a nearby car he had to abandon as a quick refuge. It did little to slow the insects, even with it consuming the vehicle. He gasped, glimpsing their metal bodies catching the light.

"Hrm..." Seth's heart sank at the sound of Astral's voice. He dodged a spray of insects as they smashed themselves against a pillar. "I see that they haven't updated their database. The spawn aren't behaving quite right. Let me fix that."

"Please, NO!" Seth shouted, dashing behind a van, knowing it would do little to protect him from the swarm. He would have to make a mad dash for the security booth and activate the barriers. Hopefully, the metal shielding would buy him enough time to access the weapon stores. He'd be fine as soon as he had something to defend himself with. The swarm pursuing him slowed as the teenage predator initialized updates to the program.

He hoped that she wouldn't attempt to bar his access to the weapons. "Now that's better. You see, not only do spawn reuse materials for things like armor, but they can also make weapons. Look at those tiny little knives." Seth whimpered, dashing out of range of the insects as they tore into the van. "Oh quit your whining! At least they don't have lasers. I hate it when they eat lasers. It's really dangerous!"

He slid across the small space that was left to the security booth, his salvation. He slammed the reinforced glass door shut behind him. He locked it and slammed on the button that would raise the metal shields, sealing off the parking garage from the rest of the building.

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