The room we’re standing in is all white, a luminescent material making it hard for me to determine its actual size. I retract the armor on my foot and touch the floor with my toes. It feels like marble. I look up at my opponent, wondering if it’s cheating that I can already feel all his emotions and intentions before the match has even started.
“What’s your name?” I ask him with a smile.
“Forest,” he replies, offering no further comment. He already knows who I am. His skin is even darker than Professor Karim’s, but I know he’s from the Consolidated States. He’s tall, almost six and a half feet, and muscular. But his size has nothing to do with his power, which he has no intention of showing at its fullest. A shame, since I can feel how much power he has in him. It’s not suited to match style competition though and I can’t help but wonder what the real point of these early fights even is. Professor Karim already pointed out many of the flaws with ranking people off these fights, so why are we having them?
The buzzer goes off and Forest slams his hand into the ground. If his intent were to give me his all, maybe I’d let him finish so I could see what he can really do. But as it is, I sprint towards him. The ground between us is shifting, white branches shooting out of the ground. His intention is to block me from reaching him, and then finish me off at range from behind a barrier. He’s seen my matches from the Junior League; does he really think he can beat me with such basic tricks?
He is sorely mistaken. A foot from the white tree that has shot up between us, swords materialize in my hand. ‘Samson and James, please lend me your strength’ I think as I arc my right hand up through the trunk from the left and then slash down with my left hand. Both swords cut cleanly through the tree structure, though with more resistance than usual. Whatever material our surroundings are made of, it is tough stuff. Following my slices, the pieces of the tree are swept aside as if hit by several ton sledgehammer, flying off to my right and leaving the way clear between me and Forest.
His eyes widen in surprise, and I feel his intention shift to reveal moderately more power. But it wouldn’t matter, and there’s nothing to be learned here. I give him no time to recover and I spear him through with James. A moment later he’s thrown off the sword by the same force as before, hurtling back into the wall and slumping lifelessly to the ground.
The fight was over within twenty seconds and within ten more an opening appears in the wall and MediKate walks in. She strolls over to Forest and waves her fingers. His corpse twitches, then he’s gasping for breath, fully revived. I sigh in relief, grateful that her powers worked as they should, even with me around. I want to gracefully say it was a good fight, but it would be disingenuous. I just offer him a hand up, shifting James through a loop on my belt.
He takes it, a grudging respect blooming inside him. “Damn, no one’s ever handed my ass to me like that before,” he admits. “That was…unexpected. I’ve seen you use the swords on TV, but the material of The AA’s training facilities is supposed to be nearly indestructible. I figured if my power actually worked on it there’d be a chance.”
“Not a bad plan,” I tell him. “But I haven’t seen anything yet my swords haven’t been able to cut through when I will it.” With a twist of my wrists the swords vanish.
This girl looks down on me. Literally, as well as figuratively. I’m a few inches above average in height, but she’s six foot. Not as tall as Forest was, but her condescending glare makes me feel much smaller than he did. She’s wearing a pure white, form fitting leotard.
“I’ve read plenty about you, Pyrrha Valkyrie. Near invincible armor, physics breaking sword projections, all around awesome athlete. But the last one isn’t power based, so you got to go be a star in regular sports while people like me are banned,” she says with as much bitterness as she has beauty. Gorgeous blond hair rolls down her shoulders. “I couldn’t even participate in the Junior Leagues because I was too strong.”
Translation, she can’t control her strength well enough not to risk killing someone. Some of the more intense matchups take place in Hope’s Bastion to reduce risk, but you have to show sufficient restraint that it’s not the only place you can ever have fights. This is the only Academy on the planet where fatal force is an actively acceptable training method thanks to MediKate being on staff. She has minor power resistance, which was making it hard for me to figure out why she despises me so much. But I’m getting enough to feel the yearning in her, the desire for recognition, for respect, for all the things I’ve had for years.
Her comment makes her reasons clear as day. Envy is not an uncommon emotion for women to feel around me, but I’d hoped that petty bullshit wasn’t something my classmates here would feel, that they would be focused on what we were here to do.
Disappointing, but boring. What’s more interesting to me is that there’s something more than envy. Something she hasn’t said. I want to call her on it, want to get her talking so that I understand what else is going on. But my empathic abilities are not known by many and I would prefer to keep it that way. There aren’t many people with even minor mental powers, at least that have been in the open, and the level of harassment they often receive just for existing isn’t something that would be productive when trying to find powerful people to protect the world with.
“I’m sorry, you seem to have me at a disadvantage,” I say, forcing a smile. Her answering smile was icy.
“You have no idea,” she says. The buzzer sounds and a split second later her fist crashes into my face. I hurl through the white room and slam into the wall. I get back up, expecting a series of blows that don’t come. My armor is spread up to cover my face now as well, something that happened the instant her blow was incoming, no matter how fast it went. I pull out my swords and her eyes narrow into even more of a glare than they were.
She flies at me, feet not bothering to touch the ground and I position Samson to impale her on her own speed. But I feel a wrenching in my gut, a terrible sorrow roiling through me, and Samson shatters before the girl even reaches us. I try to bring James to bear but a thought goes through my mind ‘I can’t’ and James flashes out of existence just as the girl slams into me.
Her blows are coming quickly, super speed and super strength meshing together on levels I’ve never encountered before. Dislike of me aside, this girl is strong. Maybe too strong, given the cracks appearing in my armor. They regenerate almost as soon as they form, but the ferocity of her onslaught is starting to get through.
“Are you fucking with me?” she screams, punches flowing so fast that my eyes can’t even track the hits she’s making. She thinks my swords unexpected disappearance was my fault, that I was holding back for some reason. Untrue and unreasonable, but not something I can dwell on right now. As the cracks deepen another thought flows through my mind, unbidden and unwanted, making it even harder to process her question or emotions. ‘How dare she hurt me?’ It whispers through my mind, much like the emotions of others but from the inside.
I try to reign them in, but my emotions darken. Hatred springs, matching the girl’s. ‘Oh, you don’t get it, do you?’ the voice laughs mockingly. ‘I can taste her blood on me. It tastes, familiar.’
The girl’s punches are still coming too fast for me to see clearly, but there’s blood on the scales of my armor. I move my hand and catch one of hers, the armor locking up. Her other fist slams down and I grab that one too, then I lock my legs behind her back. I want to break her, but I know the emotion isn’t mine. I force myself to be still, letting the armor’s lock prevent my opponent from moving. I don’t have super strength, but armor that’s near invincible which can lock up can make it appear like I do in some settings.
“You would have stood a chance, if you hadn’t hesitated, I’ve been shutting your power down from the very start of this match,” I force out slowly, neutrally, carefully keeping the disdain I’m feeling out of my voice, trying to will it away, to force the wretched feeling out of my head. She is still struggling, but she’s getting weaker and she doesn’t have a good position for gaining leverage or momentum. “I was hoping not to reveal it yet, but despite what all the news stories say, I am not a Weapons Meister.”
“I know,” the girl says, spitting in my face. She briefly tries to fly up and slam me, but her flight is almost gone and we get barely a few inches up before collapsing back to the floor. The struggle was leaving her. “I’ve known since the first time I saw you give an interview where you called your swords James and Samson,” she hisses. “Because I’m Genevieve Sol, daughter of Samson Sol, and you took some of my father’s power over his dead body.” My eyes widen in surprise.
‘Clever, clever. But it’s not like Samson’s gift was nearly the strongest you took that day. Was it, little girl?’ The Barber’s shadow whispers with a malicious chuckle before retreating within my mind as his armor heals. His hatred goes with it, and I’m left feeling hollow. For once, I’m entirely unsure of what to say. I can tell her strength is gone now, so I release the armor lock and roll her off of me. She immediately tries to punch me again, breaking her wrist on the plate that grows over my lower face.
Her speed is that of a normal human now, and I easily deflect the next blow. I crook my arm and take her around the neck. There’s nothing she can do as I choke her, careful not to crush her windpipe, wanting the finish to this match to be as painless as possible. I want to ask her how she could have made the connection, how she could have any inkling of my real power from an interview I did when I was ten, and a million other things. But this isn’t the place for it, and in the mood she’s in, I don’t think she would be willing to have an amiable sit down anyways.
I find there are tears in my eyes as I shove away her unconscious form.
This boy is… odd. My third opponent of the day stands across from me casually with a long pole that has an axe-head at the end. There is nothing about his stance that suggests he knows how to use it properly. What’s more, his emotions are even cloudier than Genevieve’s. But, it’s different. It isn’t like the general diminishment that her power resistance caused, and it isn’t like Gravitas’ careful control over zhi’s own thoughts. The feelings that come through aren’t diminished at all, but they’re skipping, as if someone put a block to protect his most important thoughts. I’ve heard that’s possible, but so few people can do it that I can’t imagine what sort of connections he has.
I can’t tell what his power is. I can tell that he has no intention of winning, and absolute confidence that he could, no matter what my abilities are. None of which he knows, as he doesn’t recognize me at all. That’s unusual itself for someone who doesn’t live under a rock.
He thinks I’m pretty, but isn’t filled with lust, which is nice. It’s an innocent sort of attraction. His eyes are a marvelous blue that brings back bad memories, while his hair is a deep brown hanging slightly long around his face.
“Hi, I’m B.B.,” he says cheerily.
“I’m Pyrrha,” I say, wondering if the name will spark any recognition. It doesn’t. I smile slightly. Then a stab of his determination comes through and resonates with a memory of someone I once knew. For the second time that day tears fill my eyes. The emotion is gone and I shake my head. The buzzer sounds for beginning the match, but I make no move and neither does he.
“Are you ok?” he asks. “It looks like you’ve had a rough day. I can understand that, I’ve already died twice today.” He makes no move towards me. Fine, I guess, given I’ve already started attacking him with a power shutdown. Talking would only ensure he can’t win, though I’d rather at least see his ability before beating him. Especially if he’s confident that he could win if he chose to.
“I’m good,” I tell him. “Sorry, for a second you just reminded me of someone…that I haven’t seen in a long time.” There’s a slight rush of empathy from him, a memory of loss, and then it’s gone. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t call me on the fact the person I’m remembering is dead, that my euphemism is much more transparent than I ever would have imagined.
For the first time since coming here I feel a real sense of comradeship. I felt loss from a lot of my fellow students in the assembly hall, but Forest hadn’t had any serious ones and Genevieve’s was muddled by her power resistance and hatred of me.
There’s something slightly off about his loss though, like he’s not allowing himself to feel it all. A guilt is behind it, but not one due to causing it or anything. It’s more like, the time I ran into someone who was the kid of a drunk driver. His father died slamming into a family of four and there’d been no survivors. And the kid knew his father was at fault, that he’d been to blame for killing all those innocent people…but it was still his father, gone forever.
B.B.’s mind skips over the reason. Whatever it is, someone took great pains to make sure no one else could tell. My power draining does nothing to the skips and I’m not sure what it means. Even Genevieve’s hatred and sorrow was clearer once I’d stripped away the rest of her abilities.
Nothing about the rest of his behavior or emotions would suggest he’s experiencing any of the discrepancy that I am, but I’ve never encountered the level of power resistance that would be needed to make a permanent power block in someone’s mind on this level that wasn’t affecting their actual behavior or thought patterns on a biological level and couldn’t be brushed aside or at least diminished by my power drain.
“You’re trying to shut off my power,” he said, mildly impressed. “No need to, I’m not planning to use it.” He takes a few steps back.
“Why not?” I ask him, wondering how he could tell I’m draining his ability without using it. There’s still no indication as to what his power is.
“Didn’t you hear Professor Karim, there’s so many good reasons to choose from,” he says with a laugh. “It wouldn’t be any fun just to tell you.”
“Mistrustful? You haven’t even given a real name. If you’re going to use a code-name you can do better than B.B. I think,” I tell him.
“Maybe,” he said thoughtfully. “How about B2 then?”
“You’re hopeless, you managed to find the one name worse than B.B.,” I say incredulously. “What is this, a game of Battleship now?”
“Obviously that game is an appropriate proxy for fighting to the death in weird, white arenas,” he says pacing slightly. “But B.B. is fine with me for now. I mean you’re free to call me whatever you want I guess. But if you’re making up ridiculous names I’m somewhat impartial to Handsome Dragon or Dangerously Suave Secret Agent.”
“You’re ridiculous. If I’m making up names, it’s going to be guessing what B.B. stands for. The first one’s easy. Blue, for your eyes. I think for today, we’ll just go easy and say Boy. Today you are Blue Boy,” I say.
“Blue Boy huh? Well, I guess I can live with that today. This has been a most informative chat; I got a new name and everything. I’m not eager to end it, but I have to ask if you plan on showing me your offensive abilities any time soon. Power neutralization with high defense and resistance could maybe get you in here if it was fast acting enough or had enough range. But unless you are hella’ holding back, yours has neither of those qualities. It’s a linear decline based on range. You’d never be able to take out an Armageddon class with that and it’d even be a hard sell to have you hunting powered serial killers.”
I look at Blue, forever named such now in my head, in shock. He can measure his exact power level? How? I’ve scarcely ever used my power draining skill before coming here, not wanting it to become public knowledge through the Youth Leagues. But of the handful that know I’ve had it, none could tell its effect changed even within its field of range.
“Sure, I guess I can humor you, even if you’re being stubborn about showing me your own,” I tell him. I consider walking over there and beating his ass with just my armor. Hell, given he doesn’t know how to fight, I’m betting I could beat his ass without my powers at all. Maybe I even should, given how stingy he’s being with information. But our chat has been nice, and I don’t want to be a jerk just because I can. Besides, he asked for it. ‘Please James, don’t fail me this time,’ I say inwardly, reaching for the energy. The sword forms instantly in my hand.
“Wait,” Blue says. “I’ll make you a deal. If you let me fight at full power, I’ll use it, just a little. And you can try to guess what it is.”
“If you just want to use it a little, why does it matter if I stop draining your ability?” I ask, pointing James at him. He looks abashed at my question. There’s a frustration. A desire to show-off for me, even if just a little. But he won’t, not if I’m draining him, not even if I’m draining him slightly. He would rather I run him through with this sword than use it while even slightly hindered. And it’s not because he can’t, not because I’ve taken everything away already, but… fear. “I promise I’ll tell you someday, but today I’m just asking you to promise you won’t drain me if you want to see it,” he says. “Come on, due it for ol’ Blue Boy. This could be the last day Blue Boy exists.”
“I don’t know, that name’s growing on me. I think Blue Boy might be around a while after all. But fine, have it your way. Get ready!” I stop draining him completely, then a second later whisper ‘Pierce him, James,’ The sword, weighing nothing in my hand, extends nearly instantly towards Blue Boy.
He deflects it with the axe pole weapon and my mouth nearly drops open in shock. There are several reasons that should not be possible, first and foremost being that James should have cut straight through his weapon without a problem. Maybe it’s still having an issue after the encounter with Genevieve though. But even if his power were to make invulnerable weapons, I was aiming center mass with a nearly instant attack, there’s no way he should have had the strength or speed to deflect it in a way that didn’t at least scratch him. And the moment he suffered a scratch, he’d suffer the after effect of a cut of one of my swords and the fight would be over instantly.
“Invincible weapon?” I ask him with a raised eyebrow, returning James to his original size. Was he refusing to fight with the power drain on because he was worried his weapon would break? Not getting the feeling I’m on the right track though.
Blue shakes his head. “A gift from my…aunt.” Not exactly accurate, I sense, but close enough. Someone close to his family. An impenetrable mental block and an invincible axe thing. Who the hell does this boy know? “Any equipment is allowed, as long as you can use it.”
I snort. He’s technically right about that. There was even a normal human in one of the earliest known classes of Executioners, outfitted by some of the best tech geniuses around. Not sure how he earned their trust, but he died a hero, saving millions. Unfortunately, the next time tech geniuses handed over that much gear to a normal guy, he killed them all and became a crime lord. It hasn’t been very common for tech geniuses to hand over user friendly military tech after that.
“Then it has something to do with your deflection,” I say, aiming James at him again, staring at him intently. James extends towards him, shining body flashing out across the distance between us. Blue barely moves, but his weapon blocks James’ strike and once again my sword misses his flesh by a hair when there’s no way it shouldn’t have hit him. I swear I felt something for a split second there, but can’t quite figure out what. Super reflexes? Super speed in general? Omni-competence? None of those abilities would get him in the door here, not even with his invincible present.
I’ve seen probability manipulators make some impressive dodges, but not getting that sense here. I fought a subtle teleporter once, a girl who could teleport so quickly and with such precision you might miss the twitch as she left the space you were swinging through and reappeared. Didn’t help her against me much in the end, but she won several matches against ranged attackers, leaving them confused about why nothing was landing. Could that be it? He just stood there and smiled.
Exasperating. I’m not used to being unsure of what’s happening and it’s been a frequent occurrence all day.
“Well then, let’s see if you fare as well at close range,” I tell him, rushing forward. Blue takes a half-hearted fighting stance that shows he’s seen some martial arts movies and not a lot else. I sweep past his guard, ready to strike down, and he hurls himself backwards.
There’s a jerk, ever so slight, that takes him out of the range of my attack a split second before it would have connected. It wouldn’t be uncharacteristic of a teleporter, except for the complete lack of grace in his recovery, and the fact his emotions had continuity to them. My empathic abilities are disturbingly honed, and given Blue’s regular gaps it tells me something that there weren’t any at all whenever he dodged.
But there’s one afterwards, for a second or so as he rolls backwards with zero control, landing on his ass and sprawling out on the ground. I move James casually to Blue’s throat. “You win points for most confusing power ever,” I tell him. “I still have no damn idea what you do.”
“What, dodging for dummies doesn’t definitely qualify for me for the job?” he asks in mock disbelief. “What about surrendering? Because I can do without death number three today. Well, yet. I’m sure my next match won’t have as merciful and caring an opponent as yourself.”
“I don’t know, I think there’s something symbolic about dying four times in one day,” I tell him. “But I always hated English classes, so I guess we can skip the symbolism. Your formal surrender is accepted.”
He smiles at me, a playful, unusually innocent smile that reminds me so much of a friend long lost. My heart breaks a little, but the smile I return him is the first full, genuine one I’ve given all day.
But as much as he likes me, as impressed as he is by what he’s seen, the belief he could win never leaves his mind. Next time we’ll probably fight like this might be in a mental simulation, and I’m looking forward to making him show what he can do there, whether he wants to or not. For now, I’m kind of looking forward to my final match of the day.