"Nimue is proving to be far faster a learner than I could ever have thought possible. She absorbs all the things I teach her and then perfects them far sooner than anyone could expect. It's getting to the point where I'm having to stack the odds against her at just about anything in order to challenge her. I don't know what you did to her genes when you were playing around with them in that test tube, but you seem to have succeeded beyond your wildest expectations."
―David Kahn in one of his monthly reports to Redmond Venter

Unknown time, July 2nd, 2564 (UNSC Calendar), Unknown Location

"We sent the men, just like you asked," the man said over the chatter. "I hope they're worth the price tag."

"Oh, don't worry about my expenses." David Kahn leaned back in his desk chair and gazed through his small office's one-way mirror at the exercise center it overlooked. "All that gets billed back to my client. I'm just here to make sure all this money gets spent properly."

"I see." The man went quiet for a moment, probably trying to gauge how best to probe David for more information. The Syndicate, the massive criminal organization that often employed David's services, had been very keen on finding out what exactly one of the most sought-after mercenaries in the galaxy was doing in a secluded bunker on a frontier colony ever since he'd taken up residence there. He'd deflected their probes from the very start, using careful diplomacy and a healthy dose of violence to back it up. Since then they'd let the matter slide, but every now and again one of their agents would try to score some points with his superiors by trying to dig something up on him. "And who exactly might this client be?"

"That's between him and myself." A long time ago, David might have gotten angry at this agent's persistence; did the man really think he could drag info out of him over something as simple as a chatter conversation? But his extensive career had taught him that letting his emotions get out of control over something so remarkably petty was hardly worth the effort. "Anyway, thanks for sending these goons over. They're perfect for what I need them for."

Apparently this agent wised up quickly, because he allowed himself to be steered away from the more sensitive areas of their conversation. "It's not like we want you to kill them or anything, but don't go easy on them either. Make 'em hurt a bit."

A small smile creased David's lips. "They do something wrong?"

The agent snorted. "They fucked up a delivery last week. Cost us a few thousand credits, but they sure as hell didn't let that bust their egos down a bit. These ex-military types are all the same."

"And why do you think I'm going to hurt them?"

"Why else would you ask for us to send you four common toughs? Everyone knows you hardly ever work with help. Especially not with small-timers like these."

"Well, I'll do my best to send them back to you in one piece," David assured the agent before terminating the call and tossing his chatter down onto the desk in front of him. For a man who'd been digging for dirt on him a moment ago, the agent sure was quick to talk as if they'd known each other for years. He was probably a small-timer himself, one of the many small minds employed by the Syndicate to manage its daily affairs. Men like him weren't smart enough to try climbing up the galactic underworld's blood-encrusted ladder by themselves; instead, they gravitated towards those that were stronger than them in the hopes of getting some legs up. This agent probably wouldn't last any longer than the one he'd replaced a few months. They rarely did.

But that was beside the point. The agent had shipped him the four toughs--or "specimens," as David referred to them in the notes he kept on activities like this--and they were exactly what he'd asked for. All were humans, all had once been in one branch of the UNSC military or another, and all were what one could expect from basic street-level enforcers, albeit with whatever their military training might have provided for them.

Examining the men through the two-way mirror, David sized them up. Two were almost definitely ex-Marines. Both wore traditional UNSC Marine Corps tattoos on their exposed forearms and one was even wearing the tattered remnants of a Marine's fatigues, as if he thought that they'd buy him some respect on this dirtball frontier world. Another of the goons was probably ex-Navy, though he might just have been slimmer than most Army or Marine veterans. And the third... David wasn't entirely sure, but if the man's muscles, posture, and neck tattoos were any indication, he might very well be an ex-Orbital Drop Shock Trooper. A Helljumper, one of the UNSC's elite special forces.

All in all, David was pleased with the quality of this batch. They'd suit his purposes nicely.

The four toughs were loitering in one corner of the exercise center and were looking around with a mixture of nervousness and disappointment, as if they'd been expecting more than what the room had to offer. But their attention also seemed drawn to the room's fifth occupant, who was seated in the opposite corner. The looks on the men's faces as they gazed at that corner seemed both bewildered and a little amused.

Well, enough sitting around. He didn't want these thugs sitting around in his bunker for too long; the last thing he wanted was for them to start poking around. Then he'd have to kill them, and that would probably incur even more costs from the Syndicate.

Rising from the chair, David retrieved a small equipment case from a stack of similar cases resting by the cot where he slept and strode out of the office.

The four men straightened when David entered the exercise room. They probably didn't know exactly who he was, and they certainly didn't know where they were; the Syndicate men who had delivered them here were under strict instructions not to let too many people know where this bunker was located. But David knew that his mere presence was enough to put people on edge.

His observances from behind the two-way mirror had been correct, but now the men were thrown into sharper focus. All bore scars on their faces; the man whom David suspected of being an ex-Helljumper was even missing a good chunk of his nose. They were exactly the kinds of people he despised: ex-military thugs who didn't want to simply fade away into a regular civilian life but couldn't cut it on their own as freelance mercenaries. Instead, they'd merely wound up on the streets as low-level enforcers.

The ex-Helljumper--probably the leader of the group--stepped forwards. "You the guy who wanted us?" he demanded. To his credit, he didn't seem too intimidated by David's sudden appearance.

David nodded, and the men seemed to relax a little more. "What's the job?" the ex-Helljumper asked, cracking his knuckles for effect. David wasn't impressed.

"I don't need you for a job," he told them, causing the small group to ripple with confusion. "Just a little exercise. You boys can handle hand-to-hand fighting, right?"

The men nodded. "Well sure," said another, one of the two ex-Marines. "You mean like a sparring match?"

"Yeah," David told him casually. "A sparring match."

Opening the case he'd taken from his office, he withdrew four combat knives and hurled them to the floor with quick, expert precision. They buried their tips in the exercise room's polished wood floor and stayed upright, quivering from the impact. The assembled toughs seemed surprised by his sudden movements, but none of them flinched.

The ex-Helljumper looked down at the knives, then back up at David. "You want a knife fight?" he asked. "But there are only four knives. Where's yours?"

"Oh, you won't be fighting me," David told them. He turned back to the far corner of the room. "Break's over, Nimue. Back to work."

The girl rose from where she had been sitting for the past half hour, working on the breathing exercises David had taught her back when she was a toddler. At only ten years of age, she only came up to a little higher than David and the other men's waists. Her slim body was clad in a jet-black exercise suit that matched her inky hair, which fell down to her shoulders.

She was the reason for the bunker, the secrecy, and David's expense-covering clients. He'd spent the past seven years raising her to be the best assassin he could make her, teaching her everything he knew, from firearms proficiency to hand to hand combat. He'd been throwing her into live combat scenarios like this one since she was seven years old. This was just the latest in a series of tests he continued to throw her into. She wasn't ready for her first kill yet--one of the most critical parts of an assassin's training--but she was getting there. She'd already proven herself quite capable of savagely incapacitating the opponents that David pitted against her.

The reason he'd requested former UNSC soldiers was that they were the kind of men that Nimue would be fighting once he completed her training. David had been hired by the insurrectionist Humanity Liberation Front faction to do all of this; they'd provided him with the bunker, most of the training gear contained within it, and--most importantly--Nimue herself.

David was certain that once he delivered her to his clients they would immediately put her to work killing off every important UNSC and Interspecies Union official they could get close to, and he was determined to ensure that she was ready to survive and win when that day came. But for some reason that David often had a hard time understanding, he wasn't in a hurry for that day to come.

The thugs stared at him, incredulous.

"You want us to fight... a girl?" the ex-Helljumper asked. The look on his face said that even he had some lines he wouldn't cross, and beating the stuffing out of a ten year old was one of them.

"Yep." David stepped back as Nimue approached the row of knives in the floor, flexing and stretching as she did so. "You boys get the knives, and all you have to do to win is cut her once. Whoever does that gets double whatever the Syndicate paid you to do this job. Understand?"

One of the ex-Marines snorted. "Thanks, pal, but no thanks. I ain't cutting up any kids."

The ex-Helljumper began to turn away. "Yeah. Easy money, but, uh, no thanks."

David leaned against the wall. He hadn't anticipated such scruples from these toughs, but he was sure they'd come around to his way of thinking in a moment. "Fine," he said with a shrug. "Suit yourselves."

And Nimue struck.

Leaping over the row of knives, she lashed out with a vicious kick to the ex-Helljumper's jaw. There was a sickening crack as it dislocated; she'd targeted the perfect spot. As the man staggered, clutching at his face in pain and surprise, her other foot swept his legs out from under him and sent him crashing to the floor. His head made a cracked impression on the hardwood floor as blood and broken teeth leaked from his mouth

The man's training must have taken over, because he managed to push himself up with one hand while reaching for the knives with the other. Just as his fingertips brushed a knife's hilt, Nimue brought her small foot down on his hand, shattering the veteran's fingers as she once again aimed for the "shatterpoints" of the human body Kahn had been drilling into her for years. The second foot swept in and fragmented the man's elbow. With an agonized gargle, the ex-Helljumper rolled over onto his back and writhed in pain.

It all happened in less than five seconds.

The three remaining toughs backed away, staring at their whimpering comrade with stupefied horror. Nimue didn't share their shock, and lunged into them with a gymnast's grace.

Ignoring the screams, cries, and thuds of well-placed hits, David strolled over to the row of knives that he'd done his best to provide the men with. The ex-Helljumper's blood had trickled between the hilts like a scarlet river.

Picking up one of the knives, he returned his gaze to the melee a few feet away. To be fair, Nimue had the advantage of surprise on her side, and these men's skills must have surely rusted quite a bit as they prowled the streets in their enforcement work for the Syndicate. But David couldn't help but feel a little proud of both his student and the efforts that the two of them combined had put into her training.

He raised the knife and offered it to no one in particular. None of the thugs were in any position to accept it, but he felt that it was only sporting to give them a chance at it anyway.

"Hey," he called out. "Anyone else want the knife?"