Finn walked into one of West Private’s combat rooms and gave a low whistle as he looked around. Thick slabs of concrete made up the walls, floors and ceiling. Probably steel reinforced. It made sense at least. If the builders bothered with that much concrete, why use wood for support beams?
More interesting was the tiered window ceiling, allowing a viewing platform up top to witness fights below. Judging by the curvature, Finn guessed there were half a dozen combat cells at least ringing the central viewing room. The walls also included a myriad of semi-concealed cameras for recording every angle of a fight.
He whistled again at the budget this place had.
“Hey, you gonna stand there all day?”
Finn finished turning in a circle and looked across the room towards his opponent. The other bloke was tall, with a lean body that came from an average amount of muscle stretched over too much frame. Shaggy blonde hair hung in styled waves, framing a strong, rugged face.
“What are you, a model? You look like you belong on a magazine.”
“Are you faking that accent?”
Finn laughed. “You should hear me try to speak Southern, I’m right terrible with it. So let’s start, shall we?”
“Please introduce yourselves,” spoke a voice over an invisible intercom.
“I’m James Leland,” said the tall blonde model.
When no response issued, both men looked at each other. Finn shrugged and lifted his hand and beckoned. James just grinned when the intercom at last said “Begin.”
Then the tall blonde disappeared in a thunderclap of light. “I’m completely knackered,” Finn said with a groan, throwing himself forward and twisting around.
Sure enough, James burst out of a flash of light and swung a clumsy punch through the space where Finn had been. The model steadied himself and took a second to find his target. Finn grinned cheekily. Then he made a fist with his hand and punched out. A dozen feet away, James staggered as a telekinetic fist hit him right across the jaw.
Growling, James vanished once more. Finn drew his hands together, then spread them wide. His mind expanded in all directions, driving force in the wake of his thoughts. Just as James appeared, the telekinetic bubble swept over him. Finn didn’t really have enough strength to do more than push his opponent back a little. Then again, he didn’t need much more.
It bought him enough time to pinpoint James and punch the other guy before he got punched. James took the shot across the chin, leaving Finn to follow up with a kick that almost knocked both of them down.
“Blimey, I’m rusty,” Finn muttered.
“Shut the fuck up!” James’ roar took Finn by surprise, as did the tackle. They both went sliding across the floor.
A fist crashed into Finn’s side and he decided he’d had enough playing around. He grabbed his opponent by the throat and looked him right in the eyes. As he glared, James’ crystal sharp blue eyes dented in slightly.
“What the fuck-“
“That’s a nice teleport trick you have there,” Finn said. “Good on you, mate. Now yield or I crush your eyes.”
“G-uh, yeah, I yield. I yield!” James shouted, clearly terrified.
The rough concrete of the arena made Nate nervous. It looked like the kind of place that was sluiced with blood often. In fact, he was almost dead sure he’d played an Unreal Tournament map that had these exact cells.
Gibbing an opponent repeatedly or doing headshots was fun until you had to fight someone for real.
The other dude was Joe Shaw, the guy in class who’d asked about gender segregation. Joe was taller, broader, stronger and basically better looking in every way. It made Nate all too conscious of how physically frail he was despite an hour of cardio a day. Weights! He’d had a gym set in his prison of a bedroom but they were so heavy and painful. Why hadn’t he used them?
“Um, I’m Nate Insley,” he said when the intercom prompted him.
“I’m Joe, Joe Shaw,” said his opponent with a cocky confident grin.
“Begin,” said a voice over the intercom.
The first thing that happened was Joe running at him. Nate lifted a hand defensively and tried to concentrate on what the Dean had said. Just use his ability a little. Focus only on single instructions for a specific purpose.
Stop where you are and punch yourself in the face.
And Joe slid right to a stop only a few feet away. Confusion spread over the handsome guy’s face. He visibly strained to move forward but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. Then Joe’s fist raised on its own and he started hitting himself.
Nate grinned, sweating with relief. It worked! It was even easier than he’d thought it would be, given he hadn’t had a chance to practice.
As a minute passed, though, Nate realized the punching wasn’t doing the trick. Joe looked utterly undamaged. Unsure of what else to do, Nate balled up a fist and half-jogged towards his opponent before throwing a punch of his own.
Joe caught his fist easily with his spare hand, yanked on Nate’s arm and spun him around. A powerful arm wrapped around his throat instantly. Squirming, Nate flailed helplessly as he tried without success to dislodge the steel-like forearm crushing his neck. He couldn’t breathe! And he couldn’t see his opponent to issue a command!
Blackness crowded Nate’s vision, then claimed him completely as he passed out still trying to find a way to win.
Four rounds later, Jia walked into the arena with an easy, confident stride. It’d been a hell of contest so far.
After Amara, she’d faced Marie, Dani’s roommate. That fight had just been weird as Marie had the ability to screw with hers. After almost crashing out of the arena with a single step, Jia finally caught up to the girl and shut her down. Next was Nicole Cassidy, the strong girl she’d spotted in Gym running laps around everyone. They’d traded a dozen blows before Jia hit the other girl so hard she actually knocked Nicole through the steel door in the arena. The last fight was against Natasha Adler, a shifter who could turn into a giant winged version of herself clad in razor-sharp steel feathers. Jia took a couple of cuts but the fight was basically over as soon as she circled Natasha faster than the other girl could react and knocked her out with a double-fisted blow to the base of the skull.
This was round five. Last fight of the day. After this, she’d be back as first in her class.
Jia cracked her knuckles as the steel door opened…only to admit Alley Amherst.
“Holy shit, look at you,” Alley said, stopping at the front of the door and placing her hands on her hips. “You’ve kicked ass, taken names and you’re ready for the crown.”
“Are you surprised?” Jia grinned.
“Nah. I saw what you did to that tree. So, no hard feelings?”
“None. Though Alley…I don’t know who you faced getting this far but…”
“Aw, you’re worried about me getting hurt.” Alley grinned back. “You’re wondering how the girl with the superbrain got this far, right? I’ve faced down a girl who could turn into anything, another girl who could throw lightning and one chick who was completely indestructible. This isn’t my first rodeo, Sunrise. Feel free to hit me with whatcha got.”
Jia eyed her opponent doubtfully. The real trick would be to shut Alley down without hurting her much. Brutal force was easy but this girl was her roommate, her teammate. Her friend. Though the taller blonde didn’t seem to have any trouble with the idea of fighting, judging by the easy way she rolled back on one heel and lifted her hands, fingers spread, ready for anything.
The intercom, noticing they knew each other, just said “Begin.”
And Alley was on her like a whirlwind.
Jia took a step back, then a second. Then a third. Alley was fast, faster than the Chinese girl had believed possible for someone without a physical ability. More than that, each punch and kick was perfectly timed, flawlessly executed with the optimum balance while recovering. Alley had height and reach and she used every inch of it to full effect. Jia had fought strong Supers and she’d fought fast Supers but she’d never fought someone with such singular coordination. Only Jia’s superhuman reaction time saved her from getting hit twelve times in eight seconds.
Then Alley got a heel through Jia’s parries and hit her in the stomach. Winded by it, Jia was surprised enough by the contact that Alley was able to land an uppercut that actually knocked her down. Shaking her head, Jia rolled back to her feet as Alley backed off, hands still spread.
“First blood’s mine,” Alley said, laughing as she winked.
She enjoyed this! Alley actually liked this! Jia wiped a thin stream of blood from her lip, still in disbelief. She’d crushed almost everyone who’d ever gone head to head with her but Jia hadn’t enjoyed it. There was no mistaking the fervent delight in Alley’s eyes, though.
It hardened Jia. This was ridiculous. And she’d be damned if she let this pointless skirmish drag on longer than it had to, just for Alley’s twisted kicks.
Clenching her fist, Jia crouched…and shot forward with superhuman speed. Her hand flashed out and slammed into Alley’s chest, taking the other girl off her feet as Jia’s forward momentum carried them forward. Jia aimed right for the wall. One good smash along the back would knock her roommate clean out.
Only Alley was already in motion with Jia’s first step. It wasn’t enough to avoid the hand but it was fast enough to grip her wrist and twist. Then Alley stuck a foot at just the right angle to catch Jia’s stride and trip. Somehow, the blonde swung herself out of the way and used their mutual momentum to swing Jia off her feet.
Jia hit the wall head on with every bit of speed and strength she had.
Alley dusted her hands off as the medics carted the unconscious Jia out of the arena. Glancing up at the monitors, she lifted one hand in a defiant fist and pumped it for the cameras. That would look good on the tapes and direct everyone’s thoughts the way they should go.
It did wonders to cover up how shaky her hands were.
So close. She’d seen Jia not only chop a tree down but catch a FedEx truck the Chinese girl couldn’t remember anymore. Alley had come into this match with a good idea of what her opponent was capable of but seeing was believing. It’d taken the utmost of her ability to shut Jia down and it was close.
Alley had a pretty good idea that Jia would exceed her ability to fight in the next six months or so.
Shaking her head, she walked out only to be greeted by Professor Paul Matthias and Dean Diane Goddard. Looking between them, Alley sighed and waited for the inevitable. They didn’t disappoint.
“Very well fought, Alley,” said the Dean.
“Yes,” Professor Matthias said. “How-“
“Look, I’ll spare us both the back and forth. You’re right, I’m not remotely strong enough or fast enough to fight someone like Jia. Good thing I know Aikido. I had to use her speed and strength against her. Who knows how long that’ll keep working. Now, let’s get to the interesting part of this conversation.”
Professor Matthias stiffened at having his line of questioning interrupted. The big, muscular man in the fancy suit didn’t look like the kind of guy who was interrupted much, ever. “Interesting?” he asked, opting for the smallest response possible.
“Jia’s ability. She’s powered by faith, right? She really wasn’t kidding when she said faith can move a mountain because, with her, she actually can. If she believes she can do something, she can. I think you’re both right; she may not have an upper limit. Someday, Jia Sun might be the strongest Super on the block. No wonder you’re keeping your suspicions a secret.”
“Do I know? It’s how my brain works,” Alley said with a grin. “You see, there’s more to me than super calculation and intuition or whatever it is you think I do. I’m part of the Shadow Dance Directive, Dean, as you were about to say whether I wanted you to or not. But that’s classified. Take it up with Major Diaz if you can’t stand the mystery.”
Alley grabbed a towel off a nearby stand and mopped her brow. Then she draped it around her shoulders and started deliberately towards the showers. She stopped the instant before the Dean told her to.
“You really want to know how you can teach me without knowing how my ability works?” Alley asked, lifting both eyebrows in incredulity. “C’mon, half your students you don’t fully know what they can do. That’s what a good chunk of the first year goes to, not just teaching the student how their ability works but finding out for yourselves. I’m no different. And no, I don’t actually know you can make me better at it. But there’s nowhere on earth better qualified to help me than you guys. So, if you’ll forgive the attitude, let me pay you the compliment of saying I have the highest respect for you both and I’m grateful to be here.”
Both faculty members looked like someone had knifed them in the back. Alley forced the smile from her face, looking as seriously earnest as possible. It produced the ideal outcome. At last, the Dean just nodded and dismissed her.
Good. Now that the combat rankings were done with, Alley could get back to the real reason they were at the school. The only question was: When would the Major be in touch with their next assignment?