Kassina Montatraeu ‘Breathe!’ The thought was all that Kassina could think of as she pushed her tired and aching body through the endless maze of trees and bush. Twigs and dead leaves crunched under her feet, but that mattered little to her. Tonight wasn’t about stealth though, it wasn’t even about her speed, even though she was running as fast her muscular legs could carry her. Tonight was seeing if she could out best the best, if she could give each member of her family exactly what she got, and so far she had. She had beaten her uncle in a sparring match, outwitted her father in one of his games; although she was certain he had let her win. She was down to her final test, and that was avoiding being caught by her cousin Silicius as they raced from their home on the outskirts of Enderian to the city gates. ‘Don’t look behind you. You’ll only slow yourself down.’ The day had been spent putting her lessons to the test, years of training boiling down to one entire day of putting it all into practice. Years of being screamed at of being knocked on her ass only to be told to get back up and do it better, try harder, be stronger; all of it coming to a head for one day of nonstop drills and grueling tests meant to prove that she would be capable of going off on her own. She hadn’t eaten all day, had not even taken a break since the moment she was pulled out of bed by her cousin and pushed beneath a freezing cold shower to wake her. “Get dressed. It’s time to go.” Was her ‘Happy Birthday’ greeting that morning, and every moment since had been planned to push her to the limits, either to make her crack or motivate her to try harder. They were trying to break her, but that was the way it worked with everyone. To prove themselves, they needed to be able to prove they could take everything that was thrown at them, but above all else, they needed to be able to withstand what would happen if they were caught. Blood and adrenaline pumped through her veins as she continued to push herself to her limits, her eyes skimming through the expanse of trees searching for a break to duck through. Her torso dipped and weaved around bush, feet pushing off the ground to jump over dead tree trunks and large rocks that littered the way to the city gates. Dark blonde strands fanned out behind her, getting cause in low hanging branches and stalling her for just a moment as she yanked her disheveled hair free of its trap. Every second that slowed her down brought her cousin closer to capturing her, and if he managed to get even a handful of her hair the game was over. The rules had her at every disadvantage, yet Kassina surged forward refusing to admit defeat. Her lungs burned with a need for more oxygen, the stitch in her side a heated blade the pierced her millions of times with each step. Muscles she didn’t even know that she had ached from overexertion, yet she persisted. This was the path she had chosen for herself, the one so few females dared try. She had been told from a young age that she had two options for her life; to join her family’s occupation, or marry a man who could. Marriage had never crossed Kassina’s mind, not after years of watching her grandfather with his katana, of witnessing his skills with both blade and his bare hands. She had admired him the way most young girls admired princesses, only her admiration turned to motivation rather than silly dreams of grandeur. When her grandfather was killed, it was all the push she needed to finally come to terms with her decision, and the night of his funeral she had crept upstairs to her bathroom with her father’s dagger to chop off the long blonde braid that adorned her head. Before going to bed that night she had presented it to her father amid the sobbing members of her family and her hysterical mother who had screamed bloody murder upon seeing Kassina with her braid in one hand and her grandfather’s katana in the other. Silently she had handed both to her and left the room, her decision finalized in that one short act. That was the day she had agreed to give up a chance at a normal life to become what her father and uncle molded her to be. At eight years old she began her training, learning stances and weaponry while other children her age were learning to read and write. By the age of twelve she was already being taken on assignments, her family using her to lure their targets into a false sense of security only to stab them in the back the moment their attention was on Kassina. She learned how to play the role of innocence, to stare up with wide, watery eyes the pleaded for attention. Not many could resist her when she put on the act, and it was then that she became invaluable. It was at twelve years old that Kassina had her first kill, the circumstances prior a mistake on her father’s part, but the kill itself a lesson on the sweetness of revenge. She had been dressed in one of the dresses that her mother favored the most, a pink dress covered with lace and ruffles from the waist all the way down to her ankles. Her hair had been pulled back into twin braids to make her look every bit the twelve year old girl she was, a small amount of blush applied to her cheeks to try and hide the adult mind that was hidden beneath. She had been pushed in front of the inn their target was staying at, her eyes instantly filling with tears and her nose twitching with quiet sniffles that spoke of sobs barely held back. Wandering the sidewalk she had called out for her momma the way they had rehearsed, and it had only taken Kassina one accidental bump into the older man to gain his attention. To this day she could still remember the lecherous smile on his face as he’d glanced around to find she was alone, and the way his hand had moved down from the middle of her back as he ushered her up the stairs to his rented room. What happened next could have been much worse had her father and uncle not broken through the window when they did, but the scene they burst in on was certainly one they had not wanted to see. They found Kassina sitting in the man’s lap on the edge of the bed, her body trembling with barely contained anger as the lecherous man sitting beneath her with a lewd smirk across his face and his hand reaching beneath her skirts. She had not been told she could fight back, had not been given permission to force the man to stop, so she had endured it, waiting for the moment her father and uncle burst into the room, and when they finally did she made her move. Punching the man in the throat, not hard enough to kill him but enough to force his hands off of her Kassina jumped to her feet, her shoulders and chest heaving with her tiny seething growls. It was her uncles idea to allow Kassina her vengeance, but what neither of the two men realized was exactly what the young girl would do. With a dagger in her hand, Kassina did not go for the throat or the heart, but instead aimed for the one place that made her uncle and father both cringe as they held the man motionless for her. With all the fury that had built up during the moments she was being molested, Kassina took out her aggression on the man’s groin, screaming and stabbing at until her throat was raw and she was covered from head to toe in blood. The death was one of the most gruesome that could be recalled as word spread throughout the city, but no one ever learned that it was at the hands of a twelve year old girl and not the parent of one of the man’s victims. The same anger and rage that had forced a dagger to slice through muscle and tissue had been used to her advantage from that moment on, harnessed and used to keep her focused. On that day she swore no one would ever hurt her again, that no matter what she was told, no man would ever get his hands on her. Each day she’d train it was his face she saw. Each thrust of her sword or swing of a staff was aimed at the ghost that still haunted her nightmares. She worked her butt off to never feel as vulnerable as she had on that day, and now it would pay off. Behind her, Kassina could hear the harsh sounds of her cousin’s breathing, but her salvation was just within reach. She could see the break in the trees, and beyond smallest shimmer of street lights that illuminated the gates of the city. In spite of the pain in her side, and the weakening of her legs she pushed forward, her feet hitting the ground harder and harder to give her short stature an extra boost to propel forward. She felt the tiniest vibrations against her scalp, an cool burst of air as her cousin’s hand reached out to grab a handful of long blonde strands to stop her. A feral growl tore through her throat, Kassina reaching back to smooth her hair down and out of his reach. She wanted to taunt him with his attempt, but she needed the breath to reach her destination. Silicius was still hot on her heels as her feet finally crossed into the city line, her body unable to slow its momentum even after her mind knew the test was finally over. Eventually she simply abandoned the act of standing, and with a howl of pain she collapsed onto the paved street, the unrelenting ground beneath her tearing into her knees as she dropped, ripping away her flesh and leaving her bleeding on the ground. Her elbows were next, and most likely her face would have been too if her cousin hadn’t scooped her up at the last possible moment, throwing her limp body over his shoulders with a grunt. “Shit Kass, planning on leaving half your skin on the road? Why didn’t you just stop?” She tried to think up an answer, to come up with something witty to say in response to his question, but all that slipped out from her lips was a barely audible “It’s over…” before she lost consciousness.