My cape fluttered in the wind rolling off of the distant ocean; the salty shores lapping against the steel monolithic battleship, gleaming in the way that only old steel could. Full armor. No need to treat this as anything less than a real battle. Eradicator gear. Goggles. Protective plating. Everything from the kit.
Never had to wear it before.
Wish I’d gone in like this into Dauphin island, but I’d thought the weight would’ve made me even more than useless.
Would’ve made me feel as strong as it did right then.
Better prepared than I’d ever been. Had too much time to stew and think this over. Too many ideas discarded. Too many things I’d considered.
But none had stopped me from being at the battleship park, in a distant field. The crisp and haunting bite of salt water soaked against my skin. A storm was brewing off the coast to batter Mobile for the afternoon showers, but it wouldn’t stop either of us. The purple strip fluttering behind me was wet with humidity, polished to an elder gleam that refracted the dimming sunlight. Gloves snug against fingers, though the hot lash of air against my bare fingertips made them feel like a second skin instead of anything artificial.
Heart thumped in my chest against my rib cage.
Somehow, I couldn’t tell if the adrenaline was from terror, or being excited.
Colton, 5’9”, Pensacola native, stood across from the field. He’d donned his hero outfit; one of the first times I’d seen it in use apart from the patrol or two we’d gone on, bright red interlaced with lines of spiralling silver, blades surrounding a thumping heart. He looked like the epitome of confidence, and the opposite of what I was wearing.
But the crowd gathered around, drowning out the distant noises of rain, but not the pounding of the wind against the battleship itself.
“You came after all,” Colton said, audible over the roar of those gathered.
The capes we saved that were off duty, the civilians who wanted to see us fight, Ironmarrow (though the rest had stay to guard the graveyard, a silent sentinel that brought a weight of moroseness to their absence) were a safe distance away.
Safe being relative. My attacks wouldn’t hit any of them. I hardly had any attacks, and Colton…
“Of course I came,” I said, stepping forward. “It’d hardly be alright for me to turn you down on this.”
“Risks a lot, doesn’t it?” Colton asked, cooly. A knife spun across the tip of one of his fingers, then disappeared back into the aether from which it had appeared from. Then another, whirling between his fingers.
I laughed at the display, and called upon the wind to flutter both of our clothes. “If I ignored your challenge, I’d be down you, Colton.”
“And what would that loss cost you?” Colton cocked his head to the side. “Some tactical advantage? Seems risky to me.”
“It’d cost me your respect,” I said, though he was right about the advantage. Colton was the only b rank left in the city willing to fight. If my guess was right… and surprisingly, my guesses hadn’t been wrong, only unfortunate… then the troubles would start as soon as the food supply got threatened.
Would start after this fight.
So this would decide quite a few things, wouldn’t it?
“You never had my respect, Gale,” Colton said. “Only my acknowledgement.” His fingers tightened into fists, and I saw blades fracture in his grip and slide down into nothingness.
“Then I’ll get your respect when I beat you, won’t I?” I replied, watching his eyes. The wind slid across his body from the distant shore, sliding in from the waves. Could feel his muscles twitch. Could hear the beating of his heart.
Not enough to do it, but the microseconds of precognition it could give me… the endless hours I’d spent learning, trying to scavenge something more…
It might pay off.
I’d chosen the arena, and knew he’d approve. It was flashy, wide open. Equal playing ground for both of us. Colton didn’t want to beat me in a narrow hallway where there was nothing I could do.
He wanted to show me that might was right. Wanted to show me the way things were.
So he’d play fairly, to show me why the rules didn’t matter. Why they shouldn’t constrain us.
Why they didn’t protect people.
But I didn’t need protecting.
“Well?” Colton’s eyes flicked over to Osteor’s. The doctor had set up a place to heal either one of us, assuming it got that far before one called it quits. Could see her eyes, the concentration on her face.
“Cameras are rolling. I’ll be utilizing this for my research into power development,” Rebecca said, soullessly. “On my mark then?”
Research. What could she see from the two of us? What did she want?
What was Fafnir?
Why did both of us qualify?
What did the doctor see in us?
“On your mark,” I repeated.
“The only mark that’s going to be left here is on you, Gale,” Colton said, grinning. “Cause no matter what happens, I win here.”
Could see the knives spiralling in his grip again. Thought back to dauphin island, where he struck, again, again, again, blood spurting across his features. Wondered what it was that made my blood boil when I thought about it.
Was it the unfairness of the situation? Or something more viscerally wrong?
That we had killed in the name of good.
That Colton would kill again and again.
Remembered the mark in his file. Fatal interventions. Were we the seeds of the next generation? Would this be some greater test, would people look at this footage?
Or were we just under a grand microscope I couldn’t see, where a mad doctor twirled footage around in a centrifuge until genetic information leaked out.
“Get set.” Colton grinned.
“Go,” Rebecca said, and the wind shifted.
It wasn’t quite like a third hand, but it was close enough. Couldn’t stop bullets, but as it whirred around Colton’s skin, I could feel the clench of muscles, could hear the thumb of his heart pick up, could feel the insane tension and confidence bloom forth.
In another situation, I might’ve found it admirable, someone honed to that sharp a point.
In the current situation, it terrified me.
His hand flicked out, and I could feel it, knew about where he was going, but I hadn’t had time to test this, not really, and the blade whizzed by cutting through the fragments of my cape whizzing by.
“You should know you’re lucky,” Colton said. “The blades are all blunt. I won’t make you a corpse here, Gale.”
The blade shattered against the kevlar lining as it tried to dig in, and then faded back into nothingness. Faded back into the depths of the blade master’s confidence.
He knew something I didn’t, or he was just that confident. “What makes you so sure?”
Colton blinked for a moment, and the wind rushed beneath of my feet.
Still wasn’t enough to make me stronger than a B class, stuck in C territory. But it gave me a bit more of a push. Made the grass whistle beneath of my feet, and sent me closing the distance.
Wasn’t a good situation, in any shape, but Colton had the advantage at a range.
Had the advantage up close, but I thought I might be able to surprise him.
“It’s quite simple, Gale,” Colton said, watching me without moving. Without hesitating. “When you figure it out, you’ll get it too,” His lips curled into a grin. “And you’ll hate me for it.”
I was within a yard of him when he moved, taking a step to the side, and then kicking me in the back like a damn mutt to keep me going.
It wasn’t hard to change directions, but the boot print remained on my cape. It was all symbols and meanings and strengths with Colton, and I wanted to feed him his knives and let him know what I thought about him.
“Or maybe you won’t, and I’ll be right all along,” Colton crowed, and I threw myself at him.
Saw his muscles clench. Felt them in the wind. Couldn’t react. Precognition told me what was about to happen but it couldn’t stop me from moving towards him.
The elbow came and hooked in against the armor on my chest. Stars danced in front of my eyes. Solar plexus, lungs, air between my lips. Another touch. Another glorious touch, a demand that I take him on, it all roared incoherently through my ears, through my lungs, across my skin, the roar of the crowd.
Then I stumbled back, barely landing on my feet.
“Don’t you think I know how to brawl?” Colton asked, spinning a blade around his index finger, stepping closer, foot by foot. “I can brawl with the best of them. Show me your mind, genius?”
And then he was before my, and I couldn’t catch my breath but…
I could catch his.
The wind whirred in his lungs, and I pulled them, pulled at his vital essence, pulled at the pulmonary sacs, and he gasped for air for a single moment.
Make no mistake. I couldn’t suffocate someone like that. To hold the wind in place for more than a few seconds was taxing beyond what I could manage. To stop them from breathing would take many minutes. To knock them out, to keep them from brain damage…
I didn’t have the skills, and this wasn’t about maiming. This was about ideals. This was about justice.
But justice had nothing to do with the elbow I brought up into his chin, and justice had nothing to do with the blood that roared through my veins, screaming at me to press the advantage.
But I barely had control over that, but I did have control over that, and I remembered, just moments before, how he hadn’t pressed the advantage on me.
So he stumbled back, air streaming from his mouth, and caught himself before he hit the floor.
“Clever trick,” He spat out a clot of blood, welling up from where his teeth had clicked together around his tongue. Then his neck snapped to the side and popped. Then he snapped it the other way and it popped again. “But I don’t think clever tricks will work again me. Not for much longer.”
Then Colton moved like he hadn’t had the air knocked out of him, with the full force of his will power, and I saw the fists he balled up, and the way he moved. Unassisted, he was on par with me using the full scope of the wind to carry me along.
The difference between the two of us; he’d been training to be a frontliner since he’d graduated.
I’d been filing paperwork, and the short while I’d been leader hadn’t made up the difference of months. Couldn’t hope to make up the difference.
The fact I’d brought up my armored forearms to block only meant that I was still in the fight, not that I was winning when he collided with me with all the force of a steam engine. Not that he was going to be beaten just because I thought I could, or because I was wrestling against him.
“Submit, you idiot,” Colton roared. “And STAY DOWN!” My hands came up to stop the oncoming blow and I was too slow again and he struck again, my nails digging into his skin, matching my blow to his chin with his elbow. Stars. Head hurts. Blood trickled from my nose.
Then I was back underneath of Patrickson as his fists came, again and again, and wondered where I would get a puddle of my own fluids when the ground was so porous, and wondered why I was fighting so hard to remain the leader. The leader hurt. The leader bled.
But I hadn’t stopped in that lab. Couldn’t stop now. Couldn’t stop fighting back, though my mind begged my body to, my body didn’t listen, and blood roared through my ears, and I let out a scream that might’ve been heroic from another mouth, but was strangled from the blow that thumped into my stomach.
Thunder crackled overhead and illuminated the shore all at once, and the storm picked up.
No fancy tricks, but the whir of air settled around his head, making his eyes water, preventing him from hearing anything as I tightened the sphere again and again, his eyes going wide.
Then my knee flicked up and gouged into his stomach, and his grip loosened on me. Then it wasn’t a throw so much as I hurled him, sliding him across the ground as I leapt back to my feet.
Spat out drool, spat out bile, spat out things that made my throat burn. My nails were chipped and bleeding under the strain of trying to hold him back, and his bare forearms were studded with bleeding marks. Ugly fighting. Nothing like what we wanted heroes to be.
Water ran down Colton’s limbs, raindrops slightly acidic, trickling across cuts. The blood swirled away and down across his bright red clothes. He hauled himself to my feet while I took my breaths, hot and greedy, thump thump thump went the heart and my muscles screamed at me to stop.
“Still got a bit of a bite, eh?” the knife master asked, pulling his hands together. The rain glinted off of something invisible for a bare second, and then a blunted sword rested in his hands. It glinted like pure steel, though I could see it woven from his mind. Angry shapes, pared down to size.“Guess I’ll see if you can get past this.”
For a bare second, just enough for my eyes to try to adjust to the change, we locked eyes across the field, rapidly reduced to mud. I blew out a spray of blood from my nose, mixed with pain, and rainwater, stinging along bruises.
“Remember this Gale,” Colton said, barely audible over the downpour. “I win.”
Then he moved forward with all the force and fury I’d come to expect from him. Like an angry cat, his steps were sure, his grip on himself eternal. His power came from his will. His confidence. There wasn’t a hint of doubt in his frame. Nothing to stop him.
Last time I’d seen that rigidity had been written across the form of Negalli, or Patrickson. Had seen it before, with Excelsior.
The willingness and ability to do whatever it takes to make things right. How I admired it, for that brief moment, Colton’s black hair plastered against his skin, the curve of his teeth, bared as he stepped forward. Eyes narrowed to keep the water out of it. Could feel the rain touching his skin, seeping into his clothes. Could practically taste the wind to know that he was in this a hundred percent.
I wasn’t there. Not yet. Needed to wait for a lull in the storm for my plan to work.
I snapped the goggles on over my head, and his eyes widened a bit, then slid into a smirk. “You prepared for this.”
“It’s Mobile, Colton. It rains.”
It wasn’t a baseball bat he was swinging, it was far lighter, but I knew the tip could still bludgeon me out. Cause serious damage, even against my armor.
But I wasn’t in this to be straight forward. Wasn’t in this take blows.
Not when for once in my life, I had the advantage.
I tugged on the wind of the storm, and wondered, for a brief, beautiful moment, if this is what it felt like when my dad flew, when the wind answered with a beautiful and spectacular roar around me. I couldn’t conjure the wind like this, but when there was already wind around… it didn’t take much to convince it to carry me.
Useless in any place but a storm.
But I was used to be useless.
Suddenly, I was faster than Colton was, could move with my feet barely disturbing the puddles beneath of me. Drifting about, not sliding in the mud.
“Fancy tricks again,” my opponent said. “But interesting ones, nonetheless. You know you have to come to me in order to win, and I’ll just hit you every time.”
And then I went at him like an arrow through the wind, closing the distance between us within a blink of an eye. Colton eyed me the entire time without blinking, could see acidic storm water drip down one of his eyes.
“Boo,” he whispered, and I read his lips, and then his muscles twitched as nerves fired out in response, and I could taste it on the wind, could taste it, could feel it, could feel it moving, and I
Wasn’t fast enough.
The blunt slammed into my stomach, and all of my momentum abruptly stopped. Air stopped moving. I wasn’t air, I was flesh, pathetic flesh, divorced from myself, and staring up at the sky.
“Faster that time,” Colton whistled, looking down at me. “Proof you’re improving at least. Might still makes right.”
I laughed from the ground as the storm rumbled on. A puddle dripped down my stomach. “Why don’t you just end it?”
“Want to see what you’re willing to try here,” Colton said. “I already know I win this fight. Why not see how you play it out?”
The sword rested next to my head, and then against it, and I could feel the cold steel of his mind against the soaked flesh. Could see him considering me, eyes sweeping over my body.
“What do you want?” I asked. Muscles refused to work. I kept trying. Needed to stand up.
“I want a leader,” Colton said. “And I want to know if you’ll be that, really. To figure out who you are. Are you the idiot genius I saw back in school, resigned to uselessness?” He took a step forward, and his boot splattered against the ground. “Or are you the one who took out a monstrous villain and keeped standing back up. Again and again you stand back up.”
Colton was over top of me now, staring down with curiously, his eyes twitching from the rain water. “And yet when you’re not in a fight, what do I see, Gale? You cower. You monopolize. You cringe. You shake. You learn. Which are you? Hero?”
I took a deep breath and shakily stood back up.
“Or are you a fake?” Colton grinned at me, and the sword faded back into nothingness. “Don’t you get it? I win this fight.”
The sudden sureness of the situation struck me all at once. I knew what he was going to say next.
Knew suddenly that Colton was also more clever than I’d given him credit for.
“Not like that, idiot.” Colton leaned in, a grin on his lips. “If I win, I get to know you’re a fake and a phony. If I lose, then I have a leader to respect, one that can save this miserable world we live in. If I win, I win. If I lose, I win.”
The words sank into the air like the humidity had before, like the static in the air. The rain died down into a slight downpour. Fickle weather.
I’d been played. For a moment, I stood there, aching, and laughed.
“So am I right?” Colton asked, smirking. “Does Might Make Right?”
“You’re an idiot,” I said. “And you never wanted me to fight you like this. I shouldn’t’ve fought you like this.”
Colton’s eyes glinted with amusement. “You’re right.”
“When I could’ve just done this and ended the fight.” My hands drifted down to my hips and pulled the pin on the gas grenade that came with the Eradicator armor. “I thought I’d need to teach you a lesson through martial means to get you to accept me. I thought this entire time, what you wanted me to do was show you I was strong. I can’t beat you at your own game. The problem the entire time has been that I’ve been trying to beat people at their own games.”
His eyes widened, and his mouth fell open for a moment. The knives littering the field, the ones he had dropped, sparked, and then disappeared back into the aether.
Then he laughed. “You idiot, you’re standing in the center of it with me. Is this a suicide attempt?” Tears ran down his face against his will, and he gasped for breath, clutching his stomach, his lungs burning. He started to move out of the cloud.
It’d been easy to figure out how to beat Colton. What had been hard was figuring out how to get him to respect me. With the knowledge at hand, I knew his powers would stop working if he were distracted, or injured, or had his confidence broken. It was child’s play to engineer a distraction powerful enough to stop him.
I’d been going about this all wrong.
Purple smoke billowed forth in front of me, and my smile twitched to the distant part of my aching face.
He wouldn’t move fast enough.
Then I controlled the gale around me and brought the gas across Colton’s breath and just Colton’s breath. The rain cut into the cloud, but I didn’t need it for long. Just needed it enough for one move.
“Heh…” He laughed, then wheezed as a complicated series of chemical reactions turned his nerves into fire and his nose into a fountain of gushing blood.
The gas wasn’t anything special. You didn’t need special means to beat a hero. Tear gas did the trick.
“I’m not going to ever convince you I’m strong, Colton,” I said, watching his eyes. I spat out blood and bile at his feet as he recoiled from the smoke around him. Could see his eyes staring at mine. Found myself reflected there. How strange I looked in victory. “I’m smart.”
Then my fist reared back and I smashed him across the face. Then I hit him again, since he was still standing. Then I kicked him across his armor on the ground.
There were cheers.
There were people running onto the field.
But Colton’s eyes never left mine. They never gleamed with anything short of victory.
and somehow, I wasn’t angry about it. Not really.