Second Opinion Chapter 2: A Prequel
Claire was left with a most tiresome task. The raid on Highland Island was over, having been nothing more than sending a standing army to crush a colony of fishermen. The Northern soldiers had scoured the battlefield when the slaughter was finished, taking those among the fallen who were still breathing as prisoners while leaving the rest for the crows. Any of the captives who hadn't been rendered comatose by their injuries were kept sedated just long enough for Claire to decide their fates.
She walked down the rows of gurneys, glossing over the wounded Highwind warriors. A group of medics trailed her, shrinking in number each time she would send two or three to tend to a specific patient. Those she overlooked (assuming they managed to survive their injuries on their own) would be thrown in Schuezneit's dungeons the moment they could stand on their feet, where they would presumably rot whatever remained of their miserable lives away. However, she was picking out which individuals would be lucky enough to be granted what she considered to be a generous alternative. She was looking for test subjects.
Claire grumbled in boredom as she gave the next lingering patient a quick look, saw severity of his injuries, and shook her head. She continued to the next gurney with her servants attentively behind her.
She stopped at the feet of another enemy warrior, this time a female, and frowned at the mass of bandages that half-mummified the girl.
Another few feet forward, and she stopped in front of another resting man. After studying him from afar for a short moment, she spoke with a casual shrug.
"Operating Room C. Maybe they'll get some use out of him if they don't put him out of his misery."
A wing of Claire's followers broke off and quietly did as they were told. By the time this smaller group was lifting the gurney, Claire had moved to the next candidate.
"This will do. Have him processed with the other."
Another pair of medics nodded and followed their orders. Claire let them to their task as she resumed forward, passing the closest prisoner with a disappointed sigh.
Claire abruptly stopped at the next bed. Amidst the sea of broken and bruised Highwind soldiers, just in front of Claire's keen eyes, was a raven-haired young woman suffering from a fever and being haunted by what must have been a bad dream. She was dressed in light rusted armor that left much of her arms and midriff revealed, displaying a frame that was softer than her other comrades' but still apt for combat. A look of delight overcame any boredom or disappointment the devious noblewoman had exhibited moments earlier. It was love at first sight.
"Who's this pretty little thing?"
One of the servants answered Claire's inquiry from over her shoulder.
"The rebels were calling her 'Melissa' during the battle."
Claire crossed her arms before thoughtfully cupping her palm under her chin and tracing a fingertip over her lips, fascinated. The gears in her head continued turning as she pitched her voice in the general direction of her helpers.
"Any idea what her rank was?"
The same assistant as before replied.
"It seems she was the leader of the resistance. We found her on the beach when it was over, far away from the others. They must have thought she was dead and left her."
A new spark of life appeared in Claire's eyes at the first part of the news. Such promise. When the servant explained the conditions in which Melissa had been recovered, however, a frustrated sneer appeared on her face. Her eyes dropped to the floor in reserved grief.
"Only those Highwind savages could be so cruel. We'll have to take much better care of her."
Claire now stepped closer to Melissa's prone form to get a better look. After a few seconds, she thought aloud so the medics would hear.
"None of her injuries seem to be fatal."
She reached forward and curiously traced down Melissa's bare stomach, starting from the bottom of her ribcage and stopping just over her navel. She drew a small circle with a single finger, being careful not to scratch the delicate merchandise with her nail, as she continued her commentary.
"Good muscle tone, too."
Claire's hand then slowly jumped to Melissa's sleeping face. She brushed a few locks of black silk off of her prisoner's damp forehead before letting her fingers come to rest on the girl's cheek. Melissa seemed to shudder briefly under Claire's touch. Despite her body being fast asleep from injury and her mind aimlessly drifting anywhere but realm of reality, some part of her must have feared what was in store for her. A sultry grin crossed Claire's lips.
"A bit on the mangy side, but she should clean up nicely."
The Northern beauty then stepped back to address her underlings. Her tone was sterner now, moreso than it had been to any other order she had given.
"Strip her of these rags and have her prepped for surgery in Huaren's private lab. I don't want some amateur butchers handling this one."
One of the medics politely bowed.
Claire made it a priority to be there the moment they cut Melissa open. From the comfort of the observation room, she watched every second of it. Claire didn't even flinch as the lead surgeon and his crew carefully grafted a small, gemstone-shaped to the outer wall of the captive's heart. Integrating Melissa's circulatory system with her body's new secondary power source was a dangerous and tedious task, but Claire could only think of the benefits of the process. A look of innocent curiosity remained on her face through the entire spectacle, never showing the slightest hint of disgust.
Near the end of the operation, a shadow crept out of the corner of the observation deck and came into view at Claire's side. It was the brutal Commander Schuezneit, with his arms folded behind his back and an expression that said he was indifferent about whatever was on his mind. His female subordinate seemed almost oblivious of his presence, as her eyes never left the operating room. He blankly turned his head toward her for a second, then sighed toward her optimism.
"You shouldn't get your hopes up. Most of the others we've operated on today are already dead. They've become too deformed for us to salvage the prototype Kamond we used."
Schuezneit's words wounded some of Claire's high spirits. Her smile began to flatten and she lowered her head and replied. She had already known the fates of several other subjects, but this was her first time admitting it.
"So I've heard."
Claire was always one to bury her worries and remain hopeful, however. She tilted her head slightly as she wondered aloud.
"How's she doing?"
Schuezneit was now glancing into the operating room himself. His answer came in a careless tone, the way someone accustomed to disappointment would be expected to speak.
"Her heart made it through the installation phase without any major problems. Now they're just about ready to mend the incision. She's stable, but there have been others in better shape who still ended up rejecting the procedure."
Even so, Claire's smile only grew all the more confident.
"I think she'll surprise you."
Schuezneit shook his head in doubt, failing to why she concerned herself so much over this specific patient and missing whatever point she was trying to make. History showed them all of their efforts would probably be a waste.
"You were pretty assertive in securing our highest quality Kamond and asking for a couple additional features for this one. Why are you so certain she's not just going to be another failed specimen?"
Claire allowed her eyelids to fall halfway as she replied in a scheming tone.
"Call it feminine intuition."
Her gaze finally broke away from the surgeons at their work and turned toward Schuezneit. All of her attention fell toward him as she courteously offered a proposal.
"If she lives through this, I was wondering if I could enlist her under my direct command. A successful subject is going to need some sort of chaperone, and I think I could optimize her value to you."
Schuezneit didn't let the issue linger for long before he gave his response. It would have surprised him if everything worked out well, but he had no objections toward letting his loyal follower have her way.
"In the slight chance you manage to get this project to produce one viable result, yes, I'll let you keep it for yourself. We already have more full-time Sentinels then we know what to do with, so there's no immediate need to manufacture more."
Claire appeared as cheerful as ever when she replied.
"I won't let you down, sire."
Melissa awoke to the feeling of warm sunlight grazing her face. It took her no more than instant to realize the room was too richly dressed for a Highwind hovel. All she could remember was fighting on the beachfront, and then being lifted off her feet and strangled by a gargantuan brute of an invading Northern Forces soldier. She hoped she had bought enough time for Juto and his friends to escape.
Sitting up, Melissa felt cool air freely brush down her back. She had been disrobed, and the only thing preserving her modesty was the thin white sheet she had been covered with. Then she became aware she wasn't alone.
One other person was in the room, a woman with a friendly smile and a complexion Melissa failed to recognize. She was holding something in her arms; an indiscernible stack of crimson and white fabric. The Highwind swordswoman blinked in confusion and held her sheet close to her collarbone before the stranger spoke.
Shifting her head to study her surroundings, Melissa replied in an understandably puzzled tone.
"Who are you?"
The woman's reply came promptly. Her friendly glance transformed into a clever smirk, as she had no doubt her introduction wouldn't be taken kindly.
"Claire Setilan. I'll be taking care of you while you're a guest of the Northern Forces."
A bit of venom appeared in Melissa's eyes. She was in the home of her sworn enemies, the ones who had invaded Highwind Island and massacred her allies; practically her family. Not even being naked and unarmed could stop Melissa from plotting an instant counterattack against her vile host.
That was when she first noticed it. A sharp sting came from her heart, slicing through her motivation. The feeling gradually faded between each beat, but it was enough to make her clutch her chest and softly wince. Looking down, she saw no scar or sign of injury on herself. She gazed back toward Claire with a mix of confusion and worry in her voice.
"What did you do to me?"
Claire's calmer demeanor returned when she answered. She hadn't planned for the Kamond to bother Melissa, at least not yet. The ache was perfectly natural considering what she had been through, however, and all was well as long as it didn't last.
"You were in pretty rough shape when we brought you off the battlefield, but we were able to save your life. What you're feeling is just residual pain."
It wasn't too terribly far from the truth, Claire thought to herself. True, Melissa likely would have recovered without the added strength and vitality the Kamond granted her. However, Claire's intervention had saved Melissa from either a life as one of the Northern Force's lowly prison dregs—which no sensible person would say was a life worth living—or a messy execution. She was only vague about what she had actually done to recruit because too many technical details would lead the girl to ask too many questions. Secrecy was her greatest advantage.
A look of uncertainty reappeared on Melissa's face. The more she thought about what she was told, the less sense it made.
"Why would you put so much effort into saving your enemy?"
Claire reacted as if she were anticipating that exact question. She began her slow approach toward Melissa's bed as she answered, using a humble voice.
"I've been doing plenty of research on you since we retrieved you, and I think we can benefit from each other. I can help you achieve the combat potential I doubt you even know you have, assuming you'll be willing to complete a few errands for me."
She referred to the potential Melissa couldn't have known she had, the potential the Kamond had given her, but there was no need for explaining all the rules just yet. And it was true she had taken the time to learn much more about Melissa as she recovered, becoming all the more interested in her when her body began exhibiting unprecedented compatibility with the Kamond..
Before Melissa had a chance to question her words, Claire was already at the side of her bed presenting her with the stack in her arms. Up close, she saw it was attire for a female elite guard: A short, deep red combat dress with a white flower motif. Matching leather boots sat on top. Claire was quite courteous with her next words.
"Please try this uniform on. I had it furnished to your exact measurements."
Melissa's eyes narrowed in suspicion. She was insulted by how her captor honestly expected her to switch sides at the first chance, and she quickly let it be known.
"What makes you think I'll just turn on my friends and do whatever you say?"
Claire was briefly amused by the question. Then something sinister appeared in her expression, and she lowered her voice to answer.
"They'll have no chance of survival if you don't, my dear."
Some of Melissa's resilience faded when Claire posed a question of her own.
"You're close to the Highwind Island natives, are you not?"
Melissa grew all the more concerned. It didn't take much to see where Claire was heading.
"What if I told you our forces had the power to annihilate every single person living there just as we did with your coastal village, and your cooperation was the only thing that might make us reconsider?"
Melissa didn't doubt it for a second. She had been there. She saw what the Northern Forces were capable of with only a small portion of their army, and she knew they had done it with no remorse. As a plea for mercy, she dipped her head and muttered in defeat.
"Give it to me."
Claire returned to her more friendly posture in response. She passed the folded clothes to Melissa with a playful grin on her face. It was a gesture Melissa found all the more sickening.
"I knew you'd see things my way."
Melissa kept to herself as she reluctantly accepted the stack in one arm and lowered it to her lap. She stared at it while remaining silent, hoping she would at least be granted the privacy to try on her new raiment by herself.
Claire seemed to understand Melissa's hesitation, as she gave a satisfied nod before beginning to turn the other way and make her exit. With her back toward her new subordinate, Claire anxiously left some parting words.
"I'll guide you to the training grounds when you're ready. I want you to regain all of your strength before your first assignment."
Melissa dreaded the last words that left Claire's mouth. She tried thinking of an escape strategy that would spare the lives of the Highwind people, but she knew she was teetering on the edge of a delicate balance. She felt no glee in this arrangement.
Claire suddenly turned back to her charge with one last afterthought. Stepping back toward Melissa's side, she spoke in a carefree tone.
"Ah, and one last thing, Melissa. It's a simple rule, but it's the most important one you need to follow from now on."
Melissa answered with an impatient but pondering look. How much worse could it get?
"What is it?"
Claire leaned forward so her knees rested against the edge of the mattress through her deep blue skirt. Her eyes narrowed into threatening slits and her voice took an ominous quality when she finally answered.
"Never, ever betray me."
She reached out with one arm and pointed her index finger forward. It pressed against the thin sheet shrouding the top of Melissa's left breast, pushing ever so lightly against her heart.
"There will be grave consequences if you do."
Melissa wouldn't find out what the warning truly meant until it was too late.