This place was nothing like the forests of Ixa'taka. It was cold, and dark, and everything was black metal all around her. She struggled against the bindings that kept her arms behind her as she was walked down the hallway by a pair of guards that looked much like every Valuan she'd ever seen. She was beginning to think they didn't have faces under their helmets.
All she'd wanted was to find some cute men! She and her sisters had a duty. Each of them had to find the one who was meant for them so they could one day continue the Ixa'ness lineage. Were the Valuans really such stuck-up prudes that they'd go so far as arresting them for it and dragging her back to their ugly country?
Tara muttered a few choice insults to the guards as they hauled her up to an elaborate-looking pair of double doors. "Probably need those big swords so you can compensate…"
She thought she felt the gloved hand on her right arm twitch, and a grin spread over her face. It wasn't much, but irritating any of her captors right now felt like a real win.
The guard on her left pushed open one of the doors, and she was dragged inside. Finally the hands on her arms let her go, and she stumbled forward a step into what looked like a giant meeting room. There was a long table in the center, flanked by three chairs on either side with a larger one at the far end. She could see a bay window on the far wall of the room. Before it stood a man, his body hidden beneath a dark, encompassing cloak.
"Lord Galcian! As requested, we've brought the leader of the Ixa'ness Demons for your inspection." One of the men who'd "escorted" her snapped off a salute at the man on the far side of the room.
"Excellent." The cloaked man turned around and began to stroll around the table towards them, his eyes on Tara. She met his stare with a hot glare as he drew closer, taking in his features. He had grey hair, cut close to his head, and a neatly-trimmed beard and mustache that framed his mouth. He was much, much taller than her, and when he drew near she had to crane her neck upwards to keep her eyes on him. "You may leave," he said to the two guards. They both snapped off another salute before hastily departing and leaving Tara alone with him.
He smirked at her, but said nothing. He seemed to be letting her have the first word. "Your cloak makes you look tacky," she snarled, before spitting in his face, or at least as close as she could get to it. He really was dauntingly tall for the normally bold-spirited teenager.
He grimaced slightly and withdrew an arm from his cloak to wipe at his cheek. "You are about as petulant as the reports suggested," he muttered. "I am Galcian, lord admiral of the Valuan armada. I presume you do not understand the punishments Valua levies against pirates."
Tara huffed haughtily. "You can't scare me, Gal-shin! I was raised to be stronger than that."
"The penalty for piracy is death, little girl."
A tiny shiver ran down her spine, but she kept her rebellious front up. She couldn't afford to show fear in front of an enemy, especially a Valuan. "I don't care what you do to me! Kill me and my spirit and the spirits of my sisters will hunt you down!"
Galcian didn't seem perturbed by her threats, however. If anything, he seemed… amused. He lifted a few fingers to rub at his chin as he smirked down at her. "Really, now? I might've been troubled by that claim if you and yours hadn't been subdued by the likes of peons."
Tara growled as anger flared in her chest. "It took twenty of your armored puppets to take us down!"
The lord admiral turned away from her, his black cloak shifting as a chuckle rumbled out from his chest. "You so badly want me to believe you are strong."
"I am!" Tara hissed. "I'd take you down right now if I had a weapon!"
More laughter. It made her want to punch something. Then he walked to the double-doors she'd come in through, opened one, and leaned out, saying something to one of the guards outside. He extended a hand through the doorway, and when it returned it held a longsword. Tara swallowed a lump in her throat as Galcian stalked back towards her, the door swinging shut behind him. He lifted the sword to her throat, and she froze up, trying not to breathe too deeply lest the cold steel bite into her. For a moment, the anger on her face evaporated. Panic welled in her chest as she finally, truly considered what dire straits she'd found herself in.
"I see the fear you strive so valiantly to hide," Galcian said, his tone never changing. The sword suddenly left her throat as he stepped past her. She felt a rush of air behind her, the song of steel thrumming in her ears as the blade slashed cleanly through her bindings without so much as grazing her skin. Again, she stumbled forward, righting herself just in time for something to bump against her heel.
As she turned around, the sound of flapping fabric reached her ears. Galcian had removed his cape, tossing it aside to reveal a set of light armor, partially covering a black uniform. The sword had disappeared from his hand, and as Tara looked down, she realized he'd tossed it at her feet. She quickly picked it up, wobbling a bit under its weight. While it had been perfectly deadly in Galcian's hands, with her smaller stature the nearly four-foot sword was unwieldy at best.
"You think you are strong, Ixa'ness? Prove it to me," Galcian said with a beckoning gesture of his fingers.
Tara grit her teeth as she held the sword in an awkward two-handed grip. She was used to handling spears, and those had been fitted to her size. This thing was heavy and much too large for her, but she wasn't about to turn down an opportunity to free herself. She let out a battle cry as she lunged towards him with all of her speed.
Galcian sidestepped her as she crossed the distance to him. She growled and shifted her weight, turning her charge into an arcing sideways swing that she hoped would cleave into his thigh. Instead, she found the blade swept aside by Galcian's armored vambrace, before a palm collided with her chest and sent her flying backwards.
"Slow," Galcian's voice intoned, evidently unfazed by her attack. She let out a sputtering cough as she clutched at her chest with one hand, the tip of the sword scraping the floor as her right arm alone failed to hold it upright. He was very strong. If only she'd had her spear, and her sisters backing her up… but she wasn't going to give up yet. She bit down on the ache now blooming from her chest as she took the sword in two hands once more. She came at him again, this time putting a little more thought into her swings in hopes of getting around his defenses.
He backed away from her first horizontal swing. She transitioned it into a forward thrust with the blade's tip, but he again brushed it aside with his wrist. This time she managed to dodge to one side as he counterattacked with a closed fist. Again the tip of the sword dragged against the tiled floor of the meeting room as the weight of the blade pulled her outstretched arms downward.
"Where is your strength? Where is your bite?" He was starting to press the offensive now. He took an imperious step closer, throwing another fist at her. She managed to lean to one side in time to avoid it, and hefted the sword to try to cut him while his arm was preoccupied. His arm drew back faster than she could swing before cracking against the side of her head. Her ears rang as metal collided with the side of her skull, and she stumbled for several steps as her grip on the sword slackened.
Galcian's voice brought her out of her daze just in time to register a roundhouse kick with an armored boot sailing towards her head. She ducked under it, still slightly woozy, and tried to catch him with an upward slash of the broadsword. He hopped back, landed on two feet, then caught her squarely in the chest again with a straight kick.
Her grip on the sword finally failed her as she sailed backwards to collide with the wall. Both her back and her ribs protested loudly as she crumpled down into a curled-up sitting position, trying to assuage the pain that now flared from all over her torso. "D-damnit…" She couldn't win on her own, not like this. This bastard Valuan was too powerful.
"It appears you are at your breaking point," Galcian's voice carried an undeniable smugness as he trudged closer to her, the click of his boots now sounding like thunder in the girl's ears. "You are not strong enough."
She couldn't deny that as she flinched away from him with what little strength she had left. Whatever bravado she'd been showing him before had faded, to be replaced with the survival instincts the jungle had taught her long before anyone from Ixa'ness had ever begun training her. "Stop…" The word came out raw and angry and desperate.
"Stop?" Suddenly Galcian was before her, looming over her like a shadow from his full height. "You want the pain to stop?"
She nodded jerkily.
"Pain is all you will ever know while you continue to cling to your misguided ideals. Pain, and an ignoble death." His voice felt like it was rattling around in her head. "Pain is the burden of the weak. If you wish to stop feeling it, you must be willing to cultivate true strength."
A long silence fell between them—Galcian observing, Tara considering.
"How… how do I do that? What is… 'true' strength?" she asked, the venom in her voice failing to mask a note of curiosity.
"That is something I can teach you," he said. Her eyes tracked up to his—cold, calculating silver that seemed to see right through her. A sneer crossed his features as he watched the gears turn in her head. "But you must forswear your loyalty to the Ixa'ness. Power comes at a price."
Tara felt another shiver run through her as she weighed his words.
As Galcian watched the subtle shift of her expression, though, he knew the decision was already made.