The metal of my sword clanged against the bracers Cecelia had crafted, with a satisfying spark that was metal breaking, rather than her lightning. Cecelia jumped back, and a burst of electricity ran over the armor. The gouges I’d managed to inflict during our clash melted into pristine metal.
That’s not going to work. I need to get around her guard, not go through it. I brought my sword up, despite the burning sensation that spread from my wrists to my shoulders. In order to prevent her from using our power interaction against me, I had resorted to using my metal in solid form. I struggled to suck enough oxygen into my lungs from the air in my armor, which I was sure was depleting faster than it was being replaced.
I took a guard stance, making my sword just fluid enough that it wasn’t going to destroy my arms by keeping it in position. FocusAlert. Perhaps the most frustrating part of this fight was that I was outright immune to her Fate-sense, and yet I couldn’t even make her work for the victory. She took a step to the side, then forward into range.
Now! I brought my sword down on her with all my strength, turning it solid now that weight no longer mattered.
Instead of evading, which would have given me a chance to go liquid at the last second and hit her, she brought her arms up and caught the blade in her bracers. With a simple step forward, she had my sword locked so I couldn’t pull it free. Despite my foot and a half height advantage, the girl was stronger than I was by a wide margin.
Electricity danced along the sword toward my body. Where natural electricity was invisible and light-speed, Cecelia’s power glowed orange and was slow enough for humans to see and react to. I was forced to make my armor go solid, which left me blind and paralyzed inside the metal shell. SuccessAttack!
She wouldn’t. The microblades on my armor weren’t as strong without my direct control, but hitting my armor would be like jumping on a bed made of knives. Even she can’t me that crazy. A resounding clang through my armor proved me wrong.
PainDetermination. The second blow was harder, enough that it overcame my weight and sent me tumbling backward. She can’t hurt me through the armor, what does she think she’s doing?
Orange entered my vision. Over the last week, we’d learned Cecelia’s brand of faux-electricity did a disproportionate amount of damage to organics compared to electricity’s normal behavior, but it still obeyed conductivity. I relaxed in the knowledge that she couldn’t hurt me, and she’d exhaust her strength long before heating the steel to the point of discomfort. I was safe in here.
Then I felt fingertips touch my neck. VictoryAnger. Fuck! She got control even though my metal was unpowered.
My presumed invulnerability breached, I gave up on defense. With a thought made as fluid breathing by our power interaction, my steel sprang to life. Now it was a battle of wills as I focused on everything I fought for against the iced rage of Cecelia’s mind.
ContemptInevitable. The best control I could assert over my power was to prevent her from using my own steel against me, which at least protected me from her electricity.
I brought my sword up, hoping to knock her off of me, but where I had nothing but a sword, she had all her other powers. In terms of strength, speed and skill I was outmatched. Her left hand caught my right wrist, while her right squeezed my neck. FrustrationDisdain.
As the pressure increased in my skull, I hit her side with my free arm, instinct and desperation rather than any strategy saw a blade formed, but that clashed against her metal armor plates to no effect.
She leaned in, staring at my eyes despite being unable to see through my mask. “You’re pathetic.” Her hand released my throat, but as I drew a pained breath, I realized it was fresh air from outside my armor rather than my protected supply. A large metal blade formed in Cecelia’s hand. Through the haze of asphyxiation, I couldn’t pull together the strength to take control of my armor from Cecelia. What little of my life flashed before my eyes proved she was right. I’ve been nothing but a failure since I got my powers, and even before then I was just another loser sitting at the geek and outcast table.
She brought her dagger down with all her inhuman strength. I’m sorry. The gravel next to my head crunched in a way my imagination would forever associate with the crushing of a human skull.
FailureDisappointment. “That’s the best you’ve got?” She sat up, straddling my waist. As her blood dripped down on my armor from cuts all over her body, it occurred to me anyone who saw the aftermath of the fight would think I was the one who won.
I gasped for breath, both from the partial strangulation and the stress I put my body through during the fight. “You caught me by surprise.” Great, even my excuses are pathetic. DismissalMeaningless. She’s right, all excuses are pathetic.
“And why did I catch you by surprise?” She didn’t seem inclined to move from her perch atop me. “You can sense my thoughts.”
“Feelings, not thoughts.” I gasped my answer, because I couldn’t speak without pain. Our Pairbond was only clear enough for the most basic telepathy with Chloe included. “I didn’t think. You’d be willing. To hurt yourself. In a training match.”
“What’s the point of training for combat if the training is nothing like real combat?” She leaned in close enough for me to feel the heat of her breath on the part of my face which was exposed. Her cheek, sticky and wet with blood, brushed against my jaw as she whispered. “Do you expect a real enemy to hold back? Do you expect an opponent to let themselves die to avoid a few little scratches? If you fight, fight to win, fight like your life depends upon it, because it does. You’re the wanna-be doctor, you should know the human body is built to sacrifice limbs if that’s what it takes to save the heart and brain. Nothing is more important than survival. Nothing. Every one of your ancestors learned that the hard way, now it’s your turn.”
The metallic scent of her blood hung in the air as I my lungs struggled to suck in enough oxygen to appease my body, and my brain struggled to find a valid counter-argument to Cecelia’s life lesson. I considered the argument that my I couldn’t go full fluid in my battle against her, so I had to carry much of the weight of my armor. I dismissed that to consider a philosophical argument about humans sacrificing themselves for others, which I also dismissed; Cecelia didn’t strike me as the type to appreciate altruism theory.
My thoughts then drifted to Quash, who labeled me and those superficially resembling me as nothing but animals, and those who made his argument look true by murdering each other over trinkets as meaningless as shoes. I liked to see myself as a realist, and reality seemed to support Cecelia. After all, I was lying on my back with a metal spike inches away from an eye socket.
If I want to fight monsters, I need to fight like a monster; few are more qualified than Cecelia to teach me how a monster fights. “What would you suggest I do next time?”
“To start with? Swords are for little boys with adequacy issues.” I bit my tongue. “Your armor is weightless, exploit it by using agile weapons like daggers. Your power’s a perfect killing tool, if you use it right. Four inch blades across the surface, and I’d kill myself trying to reach you.”
“Shaping it while you’re in contact just gives you control.” A stupid argument at best, given she got control anyway.
“You hesitated. You kept enough of your armor soft to avoid hurting yourself. That moment of fear left you vulnerable.”
She was right; it was reflexive, subconscious, but I did leave the armor fluid in areas so I didn’t injure myself. “In other words, trying to not get hurt got me killed.” I took a breath, turning my agression and frustration at losing back on her. “But I think I was afraid to hurt you, and that’s what cost me.”
She slid up just a little. ApprovalControlDesire. “Smart boy, but you don’t have to worry about me.” I heard the clack of her teeth next to my ear. “I like pain.”
“Okay, that’s enough of that.” With no small effort, I put my hand on her shoulder and pushed her off.
I tried to show some consideration by focusing on my feelings for Chloe, rather than thinking about Cecelia. If I allowed myself to think about the fact that a fourteen year old serial killer kept propositioning me, it wouldn’t take an empathic link for her to see my disgust.
AnnoyanceDismissal. “I’m gonna go rinse off.” She was on her feet before she finished speaking. Pieces of armor fell around her. “After I’m done, you should get a turn. Then find a way for your armor to breathe. You smell like feet wrapped in used aluminum foil fished out of a dumpster.”
Before I could retort, she ran off toward the ocean. In spite of myself, I shifted my armor to get a sniff. Ugh. Okay, I’ll rinse off when she’s done.
We weren’t exactly in an area known to be safe for swimming, but that wasn’t an obstacle to either of us. To my knowledge, there weren’t any sharks in this area, either, which was a blessing for the sharks. Knowing my luck I’ll find Cecelia relaxing on the back of a Great White, and they’ll be having a conversation about the nuances of arterial spray.
I sat down to rework the patterns on Cecelia’s armor. Without any knowledge of runes, or any other sort of mysticism, I put the design together more or less at random. I found myself blending my knowledge of human anatomy with simple geometric structures evocative of human bone structure to etch a design. It was an incomplete pattern at best, but it served for now. If anything, the increasing complexity of Cecelia’s armor as time went on would work in our favor.
While waiting for Chloe to arrive, I did indeed rinse off. The water was cooler than I’d expected for late June, but then I’d never been in the ocean before. I climbed out of the water unsure if the itch of drying salt water was better than sweat, but at least I smelled better. A shower is the first thing I do when I get a chance.
Cecelia had put on the newest rework of her armor by the time I was finished. As far as decoration went, it served well enough, with the etched lines and triangles evocative of a science fiction convention. Cecelia’s own power created a soft, uniform orange glow in the ‘runes’ that completed the illusion; she now looked like a Gadgeteer. Which was good, as the costume was far more form than function, with steel too thin to serve as true armor. I tried not to spend too much time focusing on how the patterns accentuated her curves.
AmusementSuperiority. Her face plate opened, first parting in the middle to expose her mouth and nose. Then the top portion slid up to expose her face and eyes. The process could be mistaken for advanced technology, but it was a function of my power under her control. “It takes one hell of an ego to check out your own work like that.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Oh, as if I need to explain the thrill of victory to you.”
Now she smiled as well. “I’d offer to show you how I like to celebrate, but we don’t have time.” She gestured toward the road with her thumb, specifically at the dull gray minivan which approached from the distance.
My heart jumped in my chest. Chloe. A portion of my mind was curious enough to wonder what kind of range the girls had. For Cecelia and myself, it was measured at less than a hundred feet, and even then the initial link required touch contact between her power and mine. I guessed the van was still two miles away when the breath of comfort that was Chloe hit my mind.
ReliefSafeLove. Chloe’s presence and Cecelia’s couldn’t be more different. There was no adequate language to describe what either of them felt like; poets better than I would have failed. Cecelia was the eye-watering scent of cinnamon, and aiming a loaded gun, and Chloe a cool shower after a hard but productive day of work.
I wondered if I should ask the girls what I felt like to them, but was afraid I’d get some unflattering answers.
Jaz parked her car in the far end of the lot, under the shade of a large oak tree. Smart. Chloe was out first, and as soon as she’d closed the door, she jumped over the vehicle and cleared the distance between us in a single burst of flight. She landed a couple feet away, then reached out until lightning could jump the gap between us.
Now that we were ‘grounded’, for lack of a better term, she stepped forward and fell into my arms. The only explosion was the sensation of relief we felt. “I missed you. How was it? Are you safe?”
I glanced over at Cecelia, who’d picked a tree of her own to lean against. I saw no reason to explain to Chloe how I got my ass handed to me during an impromptu sparing; it would only worry her. I don’t need to be a killer, because I don’t need to be a fighter. “Don’t worry, she gave me no problems at all. But I’m going to need a new car if we plan to do this often.”
Davin and Jaz approached at walking speed, but I hadn’t let Chloe go by the time they got close. “You know, if you’re still looking for ways to make some money, I’ve got a camera and know a few sites that-”
“Davin!” Jaz grapped her brother from behind and planted her hand over his mouth. “I’m so sorry!”