Chapter Eleven – Match
The following morning was wet and cold. It seemed autumn had finally bucked the last of the summer’s hold on September. Ash waited in the hallway that lead into the combat cells. He was vibrating with barely restrained energy, his strategy running over and over in his mind. Run, Touch, Release. Run, Touch, Release. A simple strategy, maybe, but from months of practising against Anya in preparation for just such a match, Ash was confident he’d be able to pull it off.
As the clock displayed on a nearby monitor clicked to read 10 O’clock exactly, Ash heard the door whir and hiss open. He walked briskly into the room, eyes searching for his opponent. Like him, Luke Smith had entered as soon as the doors opened, however he was far more careful as he made his way into the room. His eyes studied Ash warily, bottom lip worried between his teeth.
They reached the centre of the room and Ash waved, smiling at the other boy. Luke nodded back, his own emotions far less jubilant. The speakers above the two boys crackled to life.
“Good morning boys,” came the deep voice of Coach Barkley. “We’ve got a few other ranking matches today from the other students in the years above so try not to wreck the room. In a moment you’ll hear the bell signalling that the match has begun. Remember no lethal force.”
The speakers hissed then shut off. For a moment neither boy moved, they simply stood and looked at each other. Then the bell rang.
Ash leapt forward, his legs pounding as he dashed towards his opponent. Startled, Luke dove left, throwing his heavy form to one side. Ash skidded to a halt and turned to see his opponent now surrounded by deep shadows. When they parted, gone was the chubby blonde boy. In his place rose a tall figure completely cloaked in darkness. Where its form meet the floor, it seemed to liquefy before spreading out, a pool of writhing blackness.
Mentally Ash cursed. His plan would still work but his odds had decreased significantly. He didn’t know if he could affect the shadows of Luke’s Shifted form or if he’d need to get under that hood.
“Give up,” whispered the hooded figure. Its voice was dry and layered, as though it spoke with a thousand different mouths. “I watched your match against the aerokinetic, you didn’t stand a chance then, and you don’t stand one now.”
Ash grinned, teeth gritted and bared. “Oh that was Monday, Sundays are a whole other kettle of fish my friend.” He ran once more at his opponent, a mantra of Run pulsing through his mind. Luke hadn’t been the only one to watch the other’s matches. Ash leapt over the first shadowy tentacle Luke sent at him, relieved that the other boy hadn’t changed his patterns. He also successfully ducked under the second attack, his arm outstretched as he neared the other boy.
“Not so fast,” Luke’s shifted form hissed. The figure glided backwards, widening the gap between him and Ash before sending more tentacles of shadow out in an attempt to grip the boy. Ash ducked, dodged and dived, desperately trying to keep ahead of the shadowy strikes. Had he had Super speed or reflexes, he may have been able to keep up his evasion, but he stumbled after one particularly hasty duck causing him to pause just long enough that Luke was able to grab him round the waist with a long shadowy limb.
Ash struggled against the cold and startlingly solid appendage, his efforts quickly thwarted as more tentacles appeared, one wrapping around his legs, another about his neck. He stilled, knowing that further thrashing could cause him to dislocate of even break something.
He tried using his power on the tentacles binding him, but the limbs were shadowy constructs, not really a part of Luke or his shifted form. Whilst he racked his brain for a way out of his predicament, Luke slowly moved towards him.
“Do you surrender?” He rasped, his voice giving no sign as to whether Ash’s earlier gymnastics had worn him out in any way.
Ash paused, looking up at where his opponent’s face lay hidden in shadows. He tensed, waiting until his opponent was in front of him, trying not to make any sudden moves.
“Not yet.” With a quick burst of energy, Ash thrust his hand into the ominous folds of the hood. As he did he once more let his power flow through him, feeling it successfully hit his opponent as his fingers scraped… something hidden in the depths of the cowl.
Luke jerked back, silently cursing himself for allowing the boy to lay a hand on him. He paused, waiting to see what ill effects his challenger’s touch would impart. He let out a breath as no burning pain or freezing paralysis or anything really happened. He began laughing as he used his shadow limbs to give Ash a good shake.
“Is that all you’ve got?” he cackled, the eeriness of his voice making it sound as though the room were filled with a thousand laughing wraiths.
Ash blinked, trying to right himself after the shake his adversary had given him. He smiled back at the laughing figure, eyes alight with fierce triumph.
Seeing that triumphant look in the trapped boy’s eyes caused a tingling sensation of worry to start in Luke’s stomach. His worry turned quickly to confusion, then terror as the world began shrinking around him. The tentacles restraining Ash retreated before disappearing and Luke looked down to see he’d reverted once more to his regular, weak human form.
“What!” he squeaked, panic flooding him, “You’re a null?”
Ash’s grin turned feral as he stalked over to the other boy.
“Today I am,” he beamed. “And now, things are going to go a little bit differently.”
Ash reached forward and placed a firm hand on Luke’s trembling shoulder. He raised his other hand and quickly socked his opponent in his soft belly, forcing the air from the stunned boy’s lungs. Wheezing, Luke, in his weak and unconditioned human body, was no match for the far fitter and well trained Ash. He quickly fell unconscious, the bell sounding a second later.
“The winner, and new 6th ranked student, Number 16.”
In the observation room, Ash was met by cheers from his friends. Bruce, Anya, Derek, Neil, even Tom, all congratulated Ash on his impressive victory.
“I have to say mate, I thought you were a goner going up against the sixth ranked student like that.” Ash turned to his Australian roommate, a grin spread across his face.
“Have a little faith my friend,” he said, clapping a hand on Derek’s shoulder, “I’ve been preparing for that match for years. Even if I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what their power would be, most Super’s are too reliant on their powers. Take them away, and it becomes a match of fists.”
Derek nodded thoughtfully. “That’s why you picked Luke. He’s strong in his shifted form, but not very tough normally.”
“Exactly,” Ash confirmed, “The other student’s I could have faced would have either taken me out before I could nullify their powers, or were likely to beat me hand to hand. Anya here has won every hand to hand match we’ve ever fought.”
Anya smiled at the compliment before adding, “And I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.”
Around the room, other students who’d turned up to watch the match were looking at the once last ranked boy with new eyes. Few outside of the group knew the true extent of Ash’s powers, though for now they knew enough to suspect he wasn’t just a nullifier.
After five more minutes of chatting the door to the observation room opened once more and a freshly healed Luke made his way into the room. Ash, seeing his defeated opponent had appeared, excused himself from the group to intercept the other boy.
“Luke,” he called out, smiling, “that was a good match.”
He was shocked when Luke turned towards him, a look of burning fury on his face. He spat at Ash, hatred colouring his features. “Stay away from me!” he growled. “Cowards who trick their way to victory shouldn’t be allowed in the HCP!”
Around the room, the other students had fallen silent. Ash was stunned at the venom in the boy’s tone. He knew his win might seem a little underhand, seeing as how his earlier match had made him look so helpless, but that didn’t call for such a violent reaction.
Luke sneered at Ash before turning on his heel and marching towards the exit on the other side of the room. A hand clasped Ash on his shoulder and he turned to see Bruce standing behind him.
“Don’t worry about that prick,” his normally quite friend said into the quite of the room. “Some people just can’t take a loss.”
Ash nodded. A few of the other student’s in the room, ones Ash knew were friends with Luke, had also left the room, several shooting glares at him as they left. It left a bitter taste in his mouth to see how many of his classmates seemed to hate him for his tactics.
Before the silence could dissipate, the monitors in the room lit once more to show the next Lower Sixth match. The students moved back towards the screens, their attention drawn to the next surprise match up.
In the white walled cell stood Kris and her opponent, Bethany Parks. Ash hadn’t spoken much with Anya’s American roommate, but even he’d been told to call the girl by her nickname. On screen, the normally bubbly purple haired girl stood, her back straight, eyes fixed on her opponent. In contrast to Kris’s serious demeanour, Bethany appeared almost, relaxed. She waved brightly at the cameras in the corner of the room, smiling genially at Kris. However, when the bell rung to signal the start of the match, both girls moved.
Kris summoned forth a swarm of bright yellow butterflies, ones Ash recognised from watching one of Kris’s recorded matches. The yellow insects caused paralysis on contact, as well as shocking the target. Because Bethany’s powers were still unknown, Kris had to use her less lethal summons to ensure she didn’t accidentally kill her opponent.
Ash switched his gaze from Kris to Bethany. The other girl had run for a corner of the room where she now faced the oncoming swarm. In front of her had appeared a small black cat with strange white markings. The cameras were too far for Ash to make out what they were. As he watched, the butterflies rushed Bethany, each one trying to reach the cornered girl. However as they flew at the girl’s summoned cat, they hit a flaming barrier, burning several of them to cinders.
Over the observation room’s speakers, Bethany’s voice sounded. “Ciarán! Burn them!”
The small cat leapt upwards its mouth open as it let out a stream of fire, quickly incinerating the remaining swarm. Both girl and cat then began running straight at Kris who scrambled to summon another wave of butterflies.
The battle quickly became close quartered as Bethany attempted to land blows on Kris, whilst her cat, Ciarán, shot bursts of fire at the sporadic clouds of butterflies Kris summoned. Despite the continued destruction of her butterflies and the feedback that was likely causing, Kris managed to hold her own, dodging and parrying Bethany’s blows. The next wave of butterflies Kris willed into being were ones Anya recognised.
“These ones might get her a win,” she muttered, gaze glued to the combat on screen.
The cat’s fiery breath washed over the winged insects, only to appear to do no damage to the ice blue butterflies. They quickly swarmed Bethany, coating her in increasing layers of ice. In the observation room, several students murmured in appreciation for Kris’s successful comeback.
There was a pause as Kris backed up from her opponent, summoning more of the icy butterflies at regular intervals to refreeze Bethany when her summons attempted to defrost her. The parts of Bethany that were still visible strained against the ice, but it was too thick for her to break through.
“Do you surrender?” Kris panted, failing to hide her exhaustion. Whilst her opponent was currently pinned, the effort of doing so had taken its toll. Ash hadn’t met many summoners before coming to Brashmoore, but from what he understood, the rapid destruction and resummons of summoned constructs caused a lot of mental feedback that physically and mentally pained the summoner. Whilst Kris’s own summons seemed to be very low end in terms of individual complexity, she had summoned them in large quantity, hence why the feedback she must have felt would have been on par with any summoner losing a mid to high level construct.
On the monitor, Ash saw how Bethany’s summoned cat used the ice to climb up to its master’s shoulder, using its claws to get a grip on the ice. It didn’t appear that the icy butterflies could freeze the fire breathing feline. The cat reached Bethany’s head and though no sound could be heard, Ash could have sworn the two were conversing.
Suddenly there was a bright flash of light and when the camera was able to bring the room back into focus, everything had changed.
Bethany was no longer coated in ice. Instead she was wearing what appeared to be a blazing coat of flames. Her summoned cat was also now covered in a crackling coat of red and orange fire.
Next to Ash Derek let out a low whistle. “Looks like she can borrow her summons’s powers too,” he whispered to Ash, “though how she’s able to keep that cat with her… that’s beyond anything I could do.”
Ash nodded. Changing a summons’s form was practically unheard of. Only a very few summoner’s could manage it, though it was likely that this summons was the only one Bethany could bring forth. The ability to take on properties of a summons was also very tricky, many scientists saying that such an ability was far more costly than just normally summoning a creature, as it often drained the summoner’s energy far more quickly.
As if to prove that point, Bethany began a rapid salvo of fiery attacks, her approach suggesting that her all-out attack had a time limit. Around the room the other students held their breath as the classes two female summoners went head to head once more. Unlike the last time however, the outcome of the match seemed far clearer.
Bethany managed to land several flaming blows to Karissa’s body, sending the purple haired girl to her knees. Once down, she quickly raised her hands and surrendered. Around the room discussions broke out as the outcome of the first two ranking matches were decided. That the bottom two students now stood within the top five for their genders was stunning. It was a rise not seen within an HCP in decades.
On the screen Ash watched as the other previously last ranked student backed up from her opponent. As a healer came into the room to treat Kris’s burns, Bethany relinquished her coat of flames and banished her summons.
Then she collapsed.
Bethany had known going into the fight that she wouldn’t be able to hold back, but she’d hoped to be able to beat her opponent as quickly as she could. As she stood waiting for the battle to begin she could feel her partner stirring at the back of her mind.
‘Remember, we need this win to cement our place in the HCP. We can’t give the Dean or that professor any reason to kick us out. Not this early anyway.’
Bethany gave a mental nod. Though she outwardly projected an appearance of indifference and carefree relaxation, inside her mind was reviewing every aspect of her opponent’s known skills.
She’ll likely start with something non-lethal but strong enough to incapacitate me. Maybe the ones that induce sleep? I’ll need to get out the way quick so I can buy enough time to bring you into battle. This last remark was directed to her partner who sent back the equivalent of a mental nod.
‘You’ll need to appear to direct me,’ her partner added. ‘You’ll need something to address me by won’t you?’
‘How about fluffy?’ Bethany joked.
She heard an amused snort before her partner replied. ‘No, I doubt that will inspire much fear in our foes. You may call me Ciarán. It’s a name I’ve been called before… or at least it’s pretty close.’
The dark amusement that laced her partner, Ciarán’s, mental tone peaked Bethany’s curiosity. Her mother knew little of what the creature’s true nature or history was, it was never discussed and the topic discouraged. She stored this insight for later, resolving to google it after the match was concluded. You could never have too much knowledge, especially when dealing with something like Ciarán.
The ringing of the bell brought Bethany back to the matter at hand. Without sparing a glance for what Karissa was doing, Bethany turned and ran for one of the corners of the room. As she did, she pulled on her power, willing the gateway open. Normally, opening the gate caused time to pause whilst her partner materialised but, given the number of eyes on her, Bethany opted to rush the opening, allowing Ciarán to materialise almost instantaneously by her side.
Upon reaching the corner, Bethany whirled around to face Karissa’s opening salvo. In front of her, her partner stood, its body tense as it waited for just the right moment to unleash its own counterattack.
A wall of flame sprang to life, catching many of the bright yellow insects. The drain on Bethany’s own energy was greater than she’d anticipated. She was very glad that she could lean on the walls behind her to hide her sudden rush of fatigue. Reading her partner’s intentions, Bethany shouted out a pointless instruction for the observing audience. Ciarán’s follow up, a series of intermittent bursts of flames to catch the stragglers, was thankfully far less taxing. They had practised with pyromancy, but even prepared, the drain was sudden.
The first wave taken care of, Bethany launched herself off of her supporting wall, moving quickly so that she could hopefully strike at her opponent. If she could take the American out quickly she wouldn’t have to expend too much energy. She left Ciarán to deal with the other butterflies Karissa summoned, trusting it’d be able to deal with enough of them.
The butterflies that were fireproof however caught both off-guard.
‘Damn,’ Bethany thought. ‘I didn’t think she’d use these on an unarmoured opponent.’
‘Clearly we’re more trouble for her than we believed,’ Cianrán mused, tail lashing back and forth. Bethany wished they had been slightly less trouble as the coating of ice that had frozen her in place was steadily growing. Her partner’s attempts to free her were easily negated by more butterflies and her own feeble struggles didn’t so much as cause the ice to shift. Through the ice she heard her opponent say something, but she decided to ignore it.
‘Much as I hoped to avoid this, looks like we’ll have to go with Plan B.’
‘I agree, though I warn you the price is steep.’
Bethany gulped before steeling her resolve. ‘What have you got?’
‘I can get us a win but it’ll require a lot of energy or a sacrifice. In terms of energy, you’ll lose consciousness once you release me and stay comatose for roughly 24 hours. On the other hand, the sacrifice would likely need to be something large, a big dog or sheep maybe. Don’t suppose you have one you could prepare within the time limit?’
‘Not without arousing more suspicion than it’d be worth. Fine, energy it is.’
In her mind, the image of two hands shaking appeared, the normal sign that a deal had been agreed. She instantly felt power coursing through her and, upon opening her eyes, she saw the ice quickly melt off her new coat of flames.
Well this ought to do it, she mused, determination filling her. Unless she wanted that twenty four hours to grow, she’d need to finish this. Fast.
Beside her came a low growl and she glanced down to see that Ciarán had also developed a coating of fire. Tearing her gaze away from the flaming cat, Bethany launched a new attack at Karissa whose attempts to block the blows with more icy butterflies was futile at best. Within a minute of making the deal, Bethany had her opponent on the ground surrendering.
She waited until a healer had entered the room before releasing her partner back into its own dimension, before crumpling to the ground, unconscious.