Categories > Games > Final Fantasy X-2 > Interim Report

Interim Report

by Ikonopeiston 1 Reviews

This is the second in the series of stories dealing with Nooj in his youth

Category: Final Fantasy X-2 - Rating: PG-13 - Genres: Drama - Characters: Nooj - Warnings: [V] - Published: 2005/10/19 - Updated: 2005/10/19 - 6486 words - Complete

Square/Enix owns the names upon which some of these characters are based. Since they did not bother to fill in the blanks, that part of the work is mine.

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Interim Report

He had finished the first year of his training to become a Warrior. Now he was back home on Kilika, back among those who had grown up with him. During the year away on the mainland, he had become much taller, flourishing like a seedling which had been copiously fed and watered. In his cadet's uniform with his waist length hair arranged in the manner prescribed for his age and condition, he did not look like the same lad who had left the village eighteen months before.

He had always been taller than his contemporaries. Now he was lanky to go with it. His gangling height made him look older than his age, yet another trait which had affected his life. He had always both looked and acted more mature than his years.

After the necessary rituals of greetings and praise which defined such returns by a native of Kilika, he had, with the sure instinct of a wounded animal, sought out the secret place of his earlier life on the island, the place he had made his own sanctuary.

It had not been the happiest of homecomings. His studies had started well. He had an obvious and great talent for military discipline, particularly in the area of strategic planning. That, coupled with his natural gifts as a leader, had drawn the attention of his instructors.

They had privately agreed among themselves to watch him carefully and push him as much as possible. To that end, they quietly put him charge of his age group at the training camp on the edge of the inaccurately named Calm Lands. At this camp, young Spirans were taught to battle against the common pests of their world and were hardened for the eternal struggle against Sin.

With only a little more than three years to learn how to fight both alone and cooperatively before they were thrown into the war against the monster, the young from all parts of the planet were expected to apply themselves to their training with due concentration. As a result, there was no time for being children after they entered into their studies. Mutual respect and a care for the safety of one another were amongst the most important lessons they would learn.

It was in the last precept that Nooj was doomed to fail. He was aware of his errors and knew his punishment had been fair, but there was still something troubling to him about the entire incident. He had been placed in a position for which he was neither prepared nor suited and then beaten for being true to his nature. He knew he must learn to work within the system if he was to become a Warrior but he was not sure he was willing to compromise his own internal principles and twist his own convictions to achieve the goal he had long thought to be his dream.

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Nooj had been called to the office of the Captain of the Cadets, a man named Jounne, and told that he was to lead a contingent from his group toward the edge of the flatlands to the the spot where a narrow path dipped down to a small plateau, open the locked chest to be found there and return with the badge inside as proof of the completion of the mission. It was nothing special, just the sort of routine foray most of that age had been doing from the time they left their cradles. In fact, it was designed to test, not the group of students, but Nooj - to see how he would function as a leader.

Nooj had gathered the dozen members of his charge and checked their weapons and armor. They were now permitted short swords and daggers in addition to spears if they wished. Nooj himself spurned a spear, preferring to close with his enemies. He liked to see the life flicker out in the eyes of those he killed. He was not altogether happy with the assignment, having all his life preferred to act alone without the hindrance of a crowd around him. Had it been permitted, he would have explained this to the Captain and asked that another be placed in the position of leader but all he was allowed to say was "Yessir!"

Satisfied that his underlings were as prepared as they could be, he arranged them into the traditional order and led them off into the grasslands. They had been carefully told to avoid the areas of high brush where Queen Coeurls were known to lurk. These feline creatures with their long whip-like whiskers could kill a grown man with a single attack and were far too risky for beginners to take on. It was unlikely any patrol would encounter them in daylight in the open meadow, but care was advised.

What the instructors did not know about their star pupil was that he had been strongly affected by an event which had occurred just weeks before the his arrival at the training camp. At the age of thirteen, he had killed a man, a soldier. He had not only killed him but had done so at close quarters and had been gravely wounded in the affair. Healers and sorcerers had worked their magic on the wound in his arm, but the mark on his soul remained, hidden and raw.

The effect of literally gutting a man had been to inure him to some of the emotions which serve to protect most people from themselves. As a person with no sense of pain no longer automatically takes care not to injure himself, so Nooj, now lacking the innate prohibition against killing, was no longer deterred by a fear of causing harm. In fact, he was not longer diverted by any sort of fear. He had lost that along with the innocence which shielded most boys his age. He had faced his own death and found it not frightening but desirable and so had unconsciously cast off the shackles of self-preservation. He had, most improbably, become at a tender age the perfect military officer: intelligent, fearless, without conventional restraints on his behavior.

With this dual advantage and handicap, he was ill suited for command at his age. Later, he would be able to better balance the demands on his judgment, but not at fourteen.

So when he saw a flash of movement in the tall grass to his left, it never occurred to him not to investigate. It also never occurred to him that the contingent for which he was responsible would follow him into the forbidden area. After all, it was his first time to be formally the leader of a group instead of only the first among equals.

He crept through the head-high reeds, carefully parting them with the blade of his drawn sword, slipping sidewise with only a faint rustle of sound as he tracked the source of the flicker he had seen.

With heart-stopping suddenness, he came upon the beast, or rather - beasts, for there were two of them lying on the trampled greenery before his eyes, the long whiskers lashing as they gazed at him with slanted green orbs which glittered in rage or hunger. Between them lay a minute replica of themselves. Nooj paused in awe; he had never heard of an infant Queen Coeurl found outside the parental den. Before he could signal his troop to stay back, they, too, were staring at the scene. For a long moment - much longer in perception than it could possibly have been in reality - the animals and the young humans stood transfixed, caught in a crystal of innocence in which mortal and fiend were as one and at peace.

Then it was shattered and the larger, presumptively male, Coeurl rose to his feet and, flattening his long antennae against his neck, emitted a force, a light, a sound - none of the ones who survived were able to precisely describe what they had experienced. Nooj heard the crash of a body falling to his right and struck out with his sword at the creature before him. The great feline head fell, mostly severed, and the legs of the beast slowly collapsed; the danger from this particular enemy was no more. As he turned to see to his crew, Nooj did not notice the female, frenzied by the mewls of her kit, gather herself and leap at him. He felt himself borne to the ground by a massive, muscular body, smelled the heavy reek of a carnivore's breath blowing past his face and cried out at the sudden pain as the teeth of the animal met in his right shoulder, paralyzing the limb so that the sword dropped from his hand. He tried to shift so as to reach his dagger but it was inaccessible and he was left with only his wits and his hands to save himself. His corps, uncertain as to what was the proper course , milled about ineffectually getting in one another's way and offering no real assistance.

Nooj managed to twist himself so that he was facing his enemy. He looked into the huge red-streaked eyes and tried to will himself to resist. To his instinctive horror, he found himself welcoming the agony and embracing the possibility of his death. He closed his own eyes and forced himself to consider the well-being of those entrusted to his care. He could not die and leave them to battle a monster such as this. He had already lost at least one of them and must not lose any more. He pushed his left hand past the teeth and into the mouth of the Coeurl, digging his fingers into the soft flesh of the tongue. With a snarl, the creature let go of his shoulder and he was able to sink his nails more deeply into the pebbly surface of the muscle, twisting and pulling. With a final burst of strength, he rammed his fist down the throat and, pushing with the last of his energy, strangled the fiend even as it tore long scarlet stripes down his body with its back claws. They lay, entwined on the bed of reeds, the monster and the boy, so covered with blood it was impossible to tell which - if either- was still alive.

When he at last got his feet under him again and the long disheveled hair shoved out of his face, he was a fearsome sight. His shoulder was mangled again almost as badly as it had been by the gunshot back on Kilika, his clothing was shredded by the pummeling feet of the Coeurl and he was streaming blood from numerous scratches, cuts and bites. With a nonchalant sweep, he recovered his sword and, after replacing it in its scabbard A weak growl drew his eye to the kitten and he prepared to draw the blade again and kill it out of hand. After all, it would, In a few months, be as dangerous as its parents. Nooj had been taught armies had a saying about the young of their enemies - "Nits grow up to be lice." Still ... he looked into the yellow eyes of the little creature and saw something he recognized. They were of a kind, he and the cat, two fierce young ones, untamed and independent. Knowing his like, he could not abandon the kit. Somehow he must take it with him. In a strange way he did not understand and would never fully comprehend, the animal was his brother, a closer kin than any he would ever know again., caught up the kitten by the nape of its neck and tucked it under his right arm, tucking the still useless hand into his belt thus forming a holder for the infant.

Nooj had no settled idea why he had picked up the animal. He was confused and in pain with no reliable internal guide to tell him what to do. He felt vaguely as if he should show some sort of bravado to reassure the others. Mostly, he wished the others would go away so that he could sort out what his next actions should be and could check to see how badly he was wounded. He argued to himself that the kit offered a distraction until he could regain control over his body and its reactions. Reasoning would have to wait.

"We'll take this with us. The commanders might like to have it for their collection." He announced calmly. "Now, on to the path. We have lost time." He was pleased at the steadiness of his own voice.

"What about Natha?" The second in command asked, "We can't leave her here."

Nooj pondered briefly, "No, pull her out into the open and leave two cadets with her. We will pick them up on our way back."

"But, she's dead."

"And we can't do anything about that. It will need an experienced White Mage to save her if it is possible. We must finish our drill." Nooj was growing increasingly pale and swayed as he spoke. He was barely able to hold on to the squirming peeping kit.

"Nooj, you can't even stand up!" His second hastened to lend a supportive arm.

Nooj pushed him aside, "Let's go." He staggered forward, out of the reeds, as the little group reformed behind him, two of their number carrying the body of Natha between them.

Seeming to gain strength as he went on, holding the Coeurl kitten to his chest where it had quieted and was now licking the blood off his arm and torso. He led the way down the steep narrow path to the designated spot. One of his followers opened the box and retrieved the necessary badge of proof. "Now we can go back," he announced and turned away. He had led the group to do what it had been told to do; that should be enough for the trainers. Still, he was aware of a terrible failure on his part. He should have thought before plunging into the reeds. He should have realized the cadre would follow him. The combined sickness of defect and injury dragged him into the internal darkness which always lay in wait for him. He did not want to face his superiors but knew there was no way to avoid it.
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Once back at the camp with Natha in the hands of the White Mages and the Coeurl kit safely stowed in a warm enclosure, the others who had participated in the exercise were questioned separately and closely. At the end of the interrogation, the instructors gathered and compared their notes. The result was unanimous.

From his pillow, Nooj looked up groggily at the figures looming over him. They were artificially elongated from his angle, like the guardian images in a temple, bending over the tiny worshippers below. He was confused by the spells and potions the Healers had used to tend his wounds and still stiff and aching from the aftereffects of the events of the day. He did not know all those events had become the property of the instructors and trainers and that his behavior had been already judged.

"How is Natha? Nobody will tell me anything." He did not want to sound so young and pathetic.

"She is gone. It was too late to revive her." No compassion leavened the blunt statement.

"If I had come right back ... ?"

"She could have had a chance." Still the cold certainty. Nooj could not identify the speaker. So many of the trainers and officials were still strangers to him.

"What are you going to do to me?" He turned his face away and covered his eyes with his left forearm. "Am I expelled? How can I pay for my error?"

"Look at us; you do not have permission to look away. You face your guilt." When he was sure he had the boy's attention, the Captain of the Camp continued. "We thought about sending you home and decided against it. Instead, you will be reduced in rank to the lowest and will be given ten lashes from the Head Trainer on your bare back before the assembled corps. Do you accept your punishment?"

Nooj desperately wanted to shift his eyes from those of his superior, but dared not. Deep inside he knew he would never accept a public flogging. He could not. The pride which had sustained him until now would not permit that he be so humiliated. He struggled to find a way to say this to the inflexible men who surrounded his bed. His tongue would not move and he felt paralyzed even in his thoughts. He needed time to consider, to weigh the results of what he would say before he said it.

"Sir! May I have a little time before I answer you?" He managed to force his lips to shape the words and find the breath to express them.

The Captain was surprised. He had never had a student in the first year even hesitate before accepting discipline. The usual response to the formal question was a quick "yessir". He stood for a while looking down into the still unformed face that stared back at him with a fearless gaze. This one was worth keeping; with a little whipping into shape he could be the best Warrior produced by Spira in some time. He had the proper daring, spirit, courage and he did not stop for minor things like injury and death but led his force to the desired goal. The operative word here was 'led'. There were many who had passed through this camp who had learned to give orders and to plot strategy - most of the arts of war could be taught even to idiots. It took a special kind of leader to actually lead - from the front, to put himself or herself at the same risk as the troops were asked to face. Inwardly, the Captain smiled. This boy was something like he had been at that age. Instill some better judgment into him and he would be superb. Without another word, he turned away.

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"Have you had long enough to consider your errors and to agree to your punishment?" The Captain lifted his eyebrows and looked at his charge indulgently. "It should not take you long to work your way back up to rank."

Nooj did not dare shift but held himself rigidly at attention. "I refuse the punishment, sir."

Captain Jounne looked up from the papers on his desk in astonishment. "What? You refuse?"

"Yessir, I accept the reduction in rank but I cannot accept being flogged before the corps." Nooj moved only to tilt his chin higher so that he would not have to meet the officer's eyes.

"You know this is not altogether your choice? You must and will pay for your behavior?" He tapped his fingers lightly while thinking. "Why do you reject the physical punishment; do you think you've been hurt enough? A woman died from your carelessness."

The young man flushed painfully, "I am aware of that, sir. And I do not feel I have suffered too much. I have suffered too little. But I will not permit you to flog me in public. I will die rather than that."

Jounne thought about making a remark about the self-dramatization of the young when a close examination of the face of the lad in front of him dissuaded him from that course. The boy was serious. He would die rather than be humiliated. The Captain searched his mind for a solution.

"So the price is too high for your pride? You know I can wash you out and send you home for this?'

"Yes sir." Still no movement.

The Captain look down at his hands spread on the desk. "I would prefer not to lose you. You have some good material which will be useful to the army. But you must be punished. If your pride is so tender, maybe your hide is not. You will receive fifteen lashes from the cat on your bare skin - in private. Will that do?" He looked with curiosity at the boy standing in front of him, waiting for a counter offer. The cat was a much more severe punishment than the lash, being multiple whips attached to a single grip.

"If the physical punishment is privately administered, I can accept that." Nooj had not changed his expression. He stared ahead without seeing, his face smooth.

"The actual flogging will be done privately; the fact of the beating will be announced in the mess. Will that be acceptable to your pride?" The commander's mouth twisted in a mocking smile.

After a pause for reflection, Nooj answered, "Yessir. When do you wish to administer my punishment?"

"Are you completely recovered from the attack of the Queen Coeurls? Have you been dismissed from sick bay without restrictions?" Jounne knew he had not.

"No sir. I am still slightly impaired. Nothing of any moment." Again the upward tilt of the chin.

"We shall wait until you are entirely fit."

"Please, sir. I would like to have it over and done with if I may." For the first time, there was a slight break in the steady voice.

The Captain stood and walked over to the boy, circling him and carefully observing. He saw little of the damage from the beasts remaining and taking note of the small quiver in the rigid back, made his decision. "Very well. Report to the armory at seven o'clock tomorrow morning. The Head Trainer will meet you there. Dismissed." He clicked his heels.

Nooj snapped even more to attention, saluted and spinning on his heel, marched from the room. His back still ram-rod straight.

Jounne shook his head, half in admiration, half in exasperation. Just what would it take to bend that spine? And what had he gotten hold of in this one? Was the lad a marvel or some sort of pathological freak? Whatever he was, he promised to make a fine Warrior if he could only be trained to obedience.


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Nooj eyed the instrument held by the Trainer. It consisted of a short handle of braided leather with three thin leather thongs emerging from the end. Each throng had a number of small hard knots punctuating its length. It was called 'the cat' and a swift calculation told Nooj he could expect almost half a hundred cuts across his back from the device.

He had lain awake most of the night worrying that he would break under the whip, not knowing how many 'tails' the cat designated for him might have. Now he was somewhat reassured. He believed he could bear this.

"Take off your clothes," the trainer barked, standing with crossed arms, the tails of the cat drooping toward the floor.

"More than my shirt?" Nooj had clearly not expected this.

"Believe me, son, you want this spread out as much as possible. Take them all off." The man smirked at the sudden flush which painted the boy's face and neck. "You got nothing different from the rest. Strip!"

Shaking with a combination of rage and cold in the cavernous room, Nooj obeyed. He removed his uniform, storing it, folded, on a nearby shelf and tugged off his boots. Finished, he stood naked before the mocking eyes of the trainer, bracing himself for the next humiliation.

Using the whip as a pointer, the man indicated an open-work structure of wooden bars about four feet high and shaped like a long mound. "Go drape yourself over that, boy. It's called the 'flogging horse'. With your attitude, you should get on familiar terms with it."

Silently, Nooj did as he was told, to find his arms being pulled forward and secured in well-worn leather straps which held him stretched across the frame-work.

"That is not necessary. I won't move." To his utter shame, his still breaking voice shot up an octave at the end of his boastful statement.

"So you'll just lie there and squeak, eh?" The trainer laughed. "You'll move all right when I begin. Are you ready?"

Without waiting for a response, the man drew back his arm to its full length and snapped the three leather lashes down across the thin back glimmering white in the dusty light. Immediately three parallel red stripes rose like lines traced on paper. True to his word, the boy neither moved nor made a sound.

Fourteen more times the punisher repeated the action, laying a pattern of marks from shoulder to buttocks, spacing them carefully so that no one area was too greatly affected. At about the sixth strike, blood began to flow in earnest and the boy's back no longer showed any white when the punishment was done. To the astonishment of the trainer, Nooj had not cried out once - although an occasional stifled moan came from him during the later phases - nor had he shifted his body on the horse. Looking at his handiwork, the burly man wondered that the boy could control himself so well. He might well be worth keeping if they could break and properly rebuild him.

He walked over to the adjoining room and drew a bucket of water, returning to splash it over the bare body stretched on the framework. Nooj uttered a gasp as the sudden, unexpected deluge swept over him.

"So, that's what it takes to get a sound out of you? You're a stubborn one, you are." The trainer unfastened the straps and pulled the boy up with one tug. "You okay? I can take you to the infirmary or put some of the salve we use for sore muscles on your back."

Nooj shook his head, unwilling to trust his voice. He was dizzy and weak, unable to catch his balance at first. But he had done it; he had borne what they had done to him without crying or yielding. He stumbled and only prevented himself from falling by placing a hand on the flogging horse. It took a minute or two for him to gather the strength to stand upright again.

"Come on, lad, let's get you to the infirmary. This was too much; I should have seen that and stopped." The Head Trainer caught him by the upper arm and helped him stand.

"No, I'm all right. Let me get my clothes." Nooj pulled away from the compassionate grip and painfully walked over to the shelf where he had folded his uniform. The clothes did not look quite right to him and when he had unfolded them, he understood why. At some time during his punishment, someone had taken a sharp blade and cut all the patches indicating his rank off his shirt. Where they had been, were now only threads and unfaded areas in the shapes of the vanished symbols. He was hurting too badly to care.

"Here, lad." The trainer tossed a cloth to him, "You want to dry off a little before you put those on."

He caught the cloth and gingerly dabbed at those still wet potions of himself he could reach without stretching. Wordlessly, the older man then took the towel and gently patted the raw back and the legs.

Without acknowledging the favor, Nooj stepped into his breeches, easing them up until he could carefully smooth them over his buttocks. He was grateful for the color - scarlet would not show blood so readily as other hues. He fastened the loosest catch at the waistband to keep them in place while he got into his shirt.

First one arm was steered into the sleeve with success then he tried with the other. He discovered he could not flex his shoulder to insert the other arm without pulling open the still oozing cuts on his back. After pausing for a moment, he bit down hard on his lower lip and, with a sudden move, yanked the other side of the shirt over his arm and chest. The abrupt wash of pain made him dizzy and nauseated, so he bent over the hurtle in front of him and retched weakly, bringing up nothing but froth from his empty stomach.

The Head Trainer, caught him again by the upper arm, avoiding any touch of the lacerated back, and held him in a steady grip until he was over the spasm. Nooj shook his head, speechless, and pulled away from the support. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and began to fasten the buttons on his tan shirt which was already showing streaks of brownish crimson on the back. He then loosened the fastener at his waistband and tucked in the shirt, before closing the waistband again and tightening his belt. In spite of his efforts a short, muffled cry escaped him at the last.

Finally, he lowered himself to the bench, being very wary of how he sat, and tugged on his boots. For a few moments, he remained there, frozen, not daring to move even one muscle for fear of the tsunami of pain he knew would follow. Then, with a supreme effort of will and because his pride demanded it, he stood and saluted his torturer before turning to walk through the door of the armory into the hot sun bearing down upon the quadrant.

In the cool dimness of the interior, the Head Trainer watched him in unwilling awe and pondered his report to Captain Jounne. It might turn out to be harder to shape this one than they had thought. But if they succeeded, they would have an incredibly valuable tool at their reach.


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When the door of the armory opened, the cadets in the quad were acutely aware of the sound but dared not turn to look. They had heard the announcement of the punishment decreed for Nooj at their morning meal and had been shocked by the severity. Some were disappointed that they would not be able to witness the flogging, others could almost feel the lash on their own backs.

All watched from the corners of their eyes as the tall slender figure emerged. Nooj moved with gingerly precision, careful not to swing his arms lest the cloth of his shirt be pulled against his lacerated back. Even with his extreme caution, streaks of blood were already showing through the material, gluing it to his skin.

No trace of any emotion showed on the boy's face, neither shame nor the pain he must have felt. He walked across the sun-seared quadrant toward the classroom apparently oblivious to the surreptitious glances of his fellow cadets. The blood-stained shirt no longer bore any marks of rank, only threads where the insignia had been ripped away. Since he had gone directly from his morning ablutions to his appointment in the armory, this was his first encounter with his peers this day.

The beating and disgrace meant to shame him before the other cadets had instead the effect of creating of him an instant legend. Those who watched him walk unheeding of the fact that the back of his shirt was steadily reddening never forgot it and held in their minds until their days ended this as a icon of courage and strength. The ones who had thought him only a braggart saw him as the silent ideal of what a Warrior could bear when required and those who had been devoted to him from the first found their admiration increased many-fold. With his proud stalk across the parade ground, he achieved a sort of schoolboy immortality.

In the classroom, Nooj sat upright, his back not touching his chair, his legs tensed to lift as much weight as possible from his hips, and took notes from the lecture being given the first year class. All around him, his fellows kept shifting to look at him secretly and tried to find excuses to walk behind him to see if he really was bleeding. The instructor, observing these actions and watching the pale, drawn face of the youth, was concerned and approached him. She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, only to feel him flinch as if even that light touch was too much to bear.

"I'm sorry. Do you want to go lie down? You don't look well," she inquired in a soft voice.

"No, thank you, ma'am. I'm all right." He did not turn his head to face her.

"If you need to leave, you may do so with no further permission." It was the best she could do for him if he would not accept help.

Pain, it was all he could think about and it was taking all his concentration to control his face and body. He did not permit himself to shift his position from one side of his buttocks to the other, correctly assuming movement would only increase the pain. Instead, he focused on remaining as still as he could as if immobility would bring surcease. He had been taught to block the perception of pain when he was a very young child, but he did not have the strength or experience to do so for hours on end. He knew he would eventually break and hoped to postpone the time until he was in a private place and could scream unheard. Or faint. Neither was possible here in this crowded classroom. His notes were illegible scribbles and he had no memory of anything the instructor had said, not even the topic of the lecture. The buzz of the bell brought him back to the room and he awkwardly gathered his notebooks and pushed up from the desk. The world swung sickeningly about him as he stood upright but, by sheer force of will, he regained his balance and marched through the door. Only one more class before recreation. He could do that. He was sure of it.

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The day finally ended and he had survived. With a relieved sigh he returned to the dormitory where he slept each night. The others domiciled there were in the showers getting ready for the evening meal when he wearily approached his bed. Having no desire for food, although he had eaten nothing except a few bites at mid-day, he thought he would wait for them to leave before he bathed and went to bed. He did not look forward to pulling the shirt and breeches, which were now glued to his skin with dried blood, away from the raw areas and he intended to stand clothed under the warm water until they came free. When he was finally alone and could carry out his plan, he leaned against the tiled wall and with the gushing water to conceal the sound, permitted himself to sob in pain and weakness. It was the last time in his life he would cry.

Nooj could not bear to put on more clothing, so he eased himself prone onto his bed, pulling up the light sheet to cover him. He had left his ruined clothes in a sodden heap in the corner of the shower Pulling up the light sheet to cover him. He loosed the tight control on his conscious thoughts and, with a sense of great relief, let himself escape into other scenes he had avoided during the night-mare day. He had seen the Coeurl kitten safely stowed in a large enclosure before he had collapsed the preceding day. Now he revisited his little brother in his mind. It was fed and secure; something had been preserved from the debacle. This would pass so long as he held on to his pride, his dignity and did not let the other cadets see how gravely he had been compromised in his own eyes. He declined to provide the other boys with a spectacle for their entertainment or to be an object for their pity. When they returned from their meal, buzzing with conversation, he pretended to be asleep and none had the temerity to disturb him.


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That had been three days ago and now he was home for a brief furlough before continuing the training for his eventual profession. He had learned his lesson well, even if it was not the one the Captain had intended to teach. He had learned to be wary of situations in which he was expected to take control without the tools to really lead. Never again would he permit himself to be used in such a fashion.

By his choices as his education continued, he could shape the course his life would take in the profession he had elected. When he had first considered his career, he had taken for granted he would be in the regular army, now he knew it would be a bad fit. Initiative and individual enterprise were not rewarded there. As soon as it was offered - and he knew of a certainty it would be - he would opt for the special forces, the elite Warriors, the Crusaders.

He had been confirmed in his budding misanthropy and was less inclined than ever to engage in cooperative endeavors. Now he sat hunched in on himself in this private place, still hurting from his flogging, and brooded about his future. He would be a Crusader or a rogue.

There was one thing more which continued to peck at his mind. Why had he saved the Coeurl kitten? He had wondered that since he had swept it up. Now as he shifted position gingerly to ease the pressure on his still painful buttocks and leaned with careful slowness against the trunk of the tree behind him, he thought he understood his motivations. He had looked at the snarling, menacing little creature and recognized himself. They were of a kind, he and the young beast, both fierce and untamed. Seeing that, he could not abandon the kit. Now that he permitted himself to recognize the kinship, he realized he could not permit his kindred spirit to remain captive. He would have to free it as soon as he returned to the camp and must not be deterred by anything - not even the thought of the further punishment he might bring down upon himself. The thought of the kitten in a cage made him squirm as though he contemplated his own imprisonment. Neither of them could long bear confinement.

With the outlines of a future, both for himself and the little animal, decided, he slid down and turned until he was lying on his stomach and pillowing his head in his folded arms, he slept. He slept well and deeply for the first time since he had led the ill-fated venture across the Calm Lands. He would survive, for now.
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