Leeja turned to face Eberhard. Her hair writhed like white-hot flames.
"You stand in the Arena. You have both declared your readiness. Your lives are forfeit."
"There are plenty of things that need killing in this place. But not him. I will not."
Leeja bowed her head ever so slightly. Her arms held out to either side, a short sword in the right, a hand-axe in the left. She knew all about the Arena. All too damned well.
Eberhard stood up from her darkly-draped bench. Her eyes smoldered blackly. Her visage was all the more terrifying for all that looked out from behind those lustrous black eyes. Those eyes were like twin abysses. They were far from soulless. Not empty. By no means voids. Those eyes, those hot black eyes contained multitudes. It was not at all what either of them were expecting. The very idea of carrying such a grim burden humbled them both. And is was clearly a burden. It exacted a heavy toll on her. The kind of thing no amount of bluster or make-up could disguise. She didn't even try.
"Indeed. There is much death in this place. You have shed more than a little blood upon this very culling floor. Why do you balk now?"
"There are other options. He has taught me that. I don't intend to kill him just because you tell me to. I'm not a mindless killing machine--"
"Ah. So you wake up at last." Eberhard nodded ever so slightly. She stared down at Bujilli. "I was right about you."
Bujilli bowed the way he was taught by his uncle. Never bend your knee, never submit, but bend from the waist, a gesture of respect from which you could still defend or attack as necessary.
"You are quite correct Leeja. There are many things requiring killing both here and all around us across the Parallels, Adjacent Worlds and elsewheres. But if we lose our selves to the killing, let ourselves become killing machines, then we do not serve humanity, nor ourselves, either one. A virus can kill. A bacteria. A speck of dust. It is no great thing to be able to kill. No real accomplishment."
"Then why do you make so many of us pass through this place?" demanded Leeja.
"Would you send out those unable to defend themselves into the Low Streets, or to the Burned Over Districts? Let alone to the wastelands or dead worlds surrounding us? Would you send our people forth empty-handed and heads filled with quaint rhetoric to face the horrors you know full well await them, often right inside these very walls? That would be irresponsible."
"Do either of you know what principles, what charter, what mandate this Academy was founded upon? What we do here? Why this place exists? Why we persist in the face of everything that has gone wrong?"
"It is a place of learning..." Bujilli looked about him. The arena was a very real place. A test. Eberhard had called it a 'culling floor.'
"Monster Hunters, Grue Killers, this is where the best of the best got their start--"
"Failures. Drop-outs. Most never made it past the Entrance Exam."
"Would you become a monster? You who have come so very, very far. Fought so hard. Struggled against your upbringing, rejected and spurned, already you carry the stigma, scars and label as your birth-right. You were born a monster by your own people's laws. Your own parent's decree. Unsanctioned. Unwelcome. Unwanted. Hunted. Hated. Despised. Feared. How human are you really, Leeja? I wonder..."
"Stop it!" Leeja shouted. Her eyes blazed green-gold.
Leeja's hair whipped about like a swarm of angry cats.
For a moment Bujilli thought that she might attempt to attack Eberhard. He realized that he was tensed. Ready to jump. To join her in the fight. Consequences be damned.
She looked down at the gritty floor.
Flexed her arms.
"Are you afraid? There is no place here for cowards."
"It isn't about fear. It is about what is right."
"Of all the accusations you recited against me, which ones were anything I did? Would you assign the blame to me for how I was born? Is a child responsible for the union that produced them?"
Leeja looked to Bujilli. He nodded. They were kindred spirits. Well met. Well matched.
Eberhard stared down at them both.
"You reject the judgement of your people?"
"What people? Whose people? Like you said; I have been cast out, unwanted, hunted. They do not claim me, nor I them. I see no point in allowing them to define me. I am a free agent. I choose my own course. Go my own way."
"Rootless. Rudderless. Are you then a loose cannon or an ill wind that brings no good to anyone, not even yourself?"
"I came here seeking knowledge. Not. This."
"Yet you have spilled blood here, in this place. You have killed. Reveled in it."
"Yes. I have. It is in my nature..."
Leeja looked up at Eberhard. Stared right into her black eyes. "More."
"I am the sum of my mother and my father, but I am not either of them. I am something...someone...new."
Eberhard nodded. Once. The lights went out.
"Well and good. If you can both make it out of the Arena, you will have passed your Exam."