It begins with a coin-flip.
That sweet sound of metal twirling into the cold winter air.
Damned Chance, what other way is more fair? What other way is more sure to screw you over each and every time? Damned Chance, she’s a cruel handmaiden of the Bitch-Queen herself . . . that whore Fate.
Damned Chance had me assaulting the Mound instead of defending it.
Ultra Class ’09 spread out along the edge of the Mound.
Mound . . . seemed like a false name all of a sudden. Hill. Mini-mountain. The one piece of Up On High in all the Asylum. Taller than even the Admin and Ultra buildings. Tall, tall, fucking way too tall.
Taller than me, that’s for sure. But when ain’t that been true?
I could only see a slice of it, my little slice of shit pie. Shit pie . . . even cinnamon can’t fix it.
Stupid ass Welf and his stupid ass plan.
Going to get swept again, just like Single. Embarrassing. Made me want to put a fist through a wall. I suppose at least there was a tactic this time. Plenty of them. We got ourselves up deep in Winter War strategies after the first massacre. Plenty to choose from but picked the worst one. Wouldn’t listen though, oh no. Heinrich Welf knows best.
Stupid ass plan.
The cheers and jeers and just plain voices swept over the Mound, all of the Asylum come out to see the show. This was our Superbowl. Only . . . if the Superbowl kept happening right in a row for a week straight . . . and if Peyton Manning could shoot lightning from his asshole. It is pretty downright awesome when you’re on the watching side . . .
It’s even pretty awesome when you’re the team defending the Mound . . . but when the coin-flip goes against you . . .
Just like last year.
I couldn’t see every member of my class. Thirty kids to cover the whole Mound. Welf’s supposed genius. Stretch out the defense, find a hole. Use the size of our class to our advantage. Take on Ultra Class ‘08 one on one, not as groups. Those that win ignore buttons one through four and make a gambling charge for the end prize . . .
You think the Nazi would be more for the Blitzkrieg than this chicken shit . . .
Pocket was on my right, if something like fifty yards away counts as my right.
He looked excited, bounce in his step.
Probably helped that he didn’t have a single person from the opposing team guarding him.
Valentine was on my left, same distance.
She looked determined, blond hair wrapped up in a pony tail, feet set in a sprinter’s stance.
Wasn’t a person guarding her either.
All three of us wore black colors, the color of necromancers. Giving honor to our illustrious leader. Stupid plan, stupid way to choose a leader. Class rank, can you believe that shit? Grades fucking me extra for once. And Ceinwyn has the nerve to tell me to try harder on my tests if I want to be the leader! I was fourteenth in the December Evals! That’s a miracle for me . . . and she wants MORE?
At least it wasn’t Miranda in charge like last time. The bi-polar swings between panic attacks and know-it-all-ness during our Single Winter War practices were best forgotten . . . and then the plan . . . and then the massacre . . .
Singles never win the War. Singles never even win a match. Singles barely even win a game. We were all high on ourselves, going to be the first to beat the Quads at a game in twenty-three years, going to be the first Singles ever to win a match . . .
Like . . . if Hurricane Andrew had raw ass sex with Hurricane Katrina. And then their spawn from this meteorological ciotis had itself a temper tantrum.
All three of us had artifacts on, these clasp-on vests that covered our chests and backs. Kind of like life-preservers, except not as bulky, and blood red instead of rebel fighter orange. I fidgeted with mine. Not as bulky, but still heavy over my coat. Could have been armor for how heavy it was but . . . it had more in common with a straightjacket.
You let them hit the vest hard enough or just hit it enough and the thing would stun you, warn you to exit the Mound: you’re out, kiddo. Removed from play. On the bench. I ignored the stun last year, thought I could take the occasional reminder I was cheating and just keep swinging . . . I’d never do that again . . .
Valentine had something else, something extra around her left hand and up her wrist. The teachers do some messed up stuff to us—like make the classes do the Winter War and record the damn thing—but they aren’t so far gone as to let pyromancers run around burning kids down. Or electromancers doing their own version of the taser. Some of the disciplines get the glove—an anima-projector—and get told they can’t use the Mancy directly at other students.
Bummer that . . . we never would have lost if Boomworm could do her thing.
Instead the glove read your Mancy draw rate, shot out a projected blast at the nearby vests. At least . . . that’s what I figure. Artificer or not, fifteen-year-old-me didn’t have a clue one way or the other. Now . . . it’s an educated guess. A gauge, something to signal the vests, and then a container like anima-vials to hold the discharge. Wasn’t converting anima to electronic signal . . . no way. If the Guild was that smart I wouldn’t need to be doing what I’m doing.
So the glove, so signals. Not as fun as fireballs, but . . . more fun than melting faces.
“You want help?” Valentine yelled my way.
I was shocked I could even hear her at all. All the people at our backs, the majority of the Asylum. Teachers, students, even the groundskeepers and maids and the like. In the thousands for sure. Be one thing if they were silent . . . but with all the excitement, all the cheers already . . . it was testicle vibrating loud.
“I’m fine,” I yelled back.
“Are you sure?”
She had some pipes on her. Had some other things on her too . . . gotten taller than ever the last few months, filled out her colors instead of being a lanky stick of a girl. Her grin was nothing but a flash of white at that distance but I returned it. Only girl in the class who seemed to like my company. A few would put up with me . . . Miranda, Eva and Nizhoni. A few more would deal with me if we got partnered up . . . Debra, Naomi, Malaya, even Yvette if she was in a good mood. Then there was the whole weird Isabel thing . . .
But drop down beside me for a bit of gossip? Wave me over at lunch or breakfast for a question about homework? Only Valentine. Boomworm. Coolest girl in the class. And a chance to become the most popular girl in the class judging by how pissy Hope is getting towards her . . .
“Are you really sure?” she teased me. “Or are you just showing off sure?”
Good reason to tease too. I had a chunk of Class ’08 standing right in front of me, all ready to defend the Mound by smashing in my face first and foremost. Guess I shouldn’t have been such a braggart leading up to the match. My mouth . . . Ceinwyn always says it’s going to get me killed.
At least gonna get me beat up . . .
In about a minute according to the countdown clocks.
Only question is, punks . . . how many of you assholes am I gonna take with me?
“Stick with the plan.”
Down went my clock, tick, tick. Lower it went the harder to hear Valentine it got. First match, first game of the Winter War. The teachers or Learning Council or whatever was in charge had really outdone themselves this year. The Mound changed every time we had a War. Spices things up, I guess. Last time they’d handed it off to a cryomancer artist, turned the whole Mound into an ice fortress with tunnels and battlements. Intimidating as all fuck.
This year . . .
“Plans are only good until you see what the other side is doing!” Boomworm really had to yell.
This year the Mound was traditional, I suppose. Divided into four zones. Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. I was at Fire . . . so . . . a wasteland of burnt trees and ash, pits of sand and . . . would you believe it? Burning bushes.
I kept ignoring it. Kept staring at the big screens they’d put up. Four of them too, facing the Field where everyone was camped out. One for each zone, a top down view of the whole mess we would be sprinting through . . . guess the Asylum had itself some Lakitus on retainer to fishing-pole some cameras. Even more cameras you don’t suspect, Price. This is really a test, ain’t it? Not some game. Not some sport. You think the tapes end up in your file? Think your reactions are psychoanalyzed?
Yeah . . . I do.
That’s why I planned to give them a show worth analyzing for years to come.
“If we don’t stick to the plan then Welf will just sulk for weeks! We’ll never hear the end of it!”
When she laughed it always made me feel better.
Even when I’m about to get my ass kicked.
“Ten seconds!” Mordecai Root screamed out, even over the speakers you could barely hear him from the noise.
Wave after wave of sound.
Clock ticking down.
Val and Pocket focused on running.
Me focused on . . .
All cracking knuckles.
In fact . . . six corpusmancers, a spectromancer, and a cryomancer.
Biggest kids in Ultra Class ’08.
Wasn’t like last year either, I’d had time to adjust to the Asylum—a whole three-hundred-and-sixty-five days to learn the names and learn the games. Knew some of these kids. Cryomancer was named Leo. Gifted mancer that guy, which explains how he’s Second Tier and still leads his class in rank. Also the reason why all eight of ’08 wore cryomancer blue and whites.
I’d told Leo for a week running that I would be knocking him out personally. Guess the joke is on me.
Maybe you can do it.
Going down one way or the other, might as well cut off the serpent’s head or some shit . . .
The spectromancer was Quinn Walden’s older brother Jacob. Odds are he’s a snobby brat just like her, don’t know him well enough. Do know he was too shocked to make a comment the day before when I asked him why Quinn’s vagina glows in the dark.
Then the corpusmancers . . .
I’d put on four inches and almost forty pounds that first year at the Asylum. Spent a lot of time in the Gym making sure it wasn’t fat but muscle. Those guys gave me shit day after day . . . until I started breaking weights with the Mancy as they lifted them. Knew it was me, couldn’t prove it . . . found ourselves some balance. Only now they could beat on me all they wanted until my vest went off.
Why I get the feeling that most of the punishment will be missing the vest and instead be smashing into my skull?
So loud I only knew what Root said because I expected the words. By sound they were nothing but muffled noise, blown over by the eruption of cheers.
I cracked my knuckles, set my feet.
Eight of them.
With the high ground.
What could I possibly do?
But then . . . they seemed to be forgetting . . . high ground or not, it’s still ground, ain’t it?
The game started with a blast from each screen’s speakers, countdown clocks immediately switching to views of the Mound. I caught a brief glimpse of the other three zones.
Earth looked almost unchanged from how the Mound was set day-to-day in Asylum life. Large trees shading dirt and flower beds with a single rock pathway towards the very top. Only now the trees ran out of control, the flowers flowed over their boundaries, and in place of a careful slope the ground was shattered, odd angled, and just plain rough. Shapes waited among the trees for our team to start the climb.
Water had a whole line of waterfalls, falling to ponds, then falling again. Cliffs wet from dew, fountains blasting streams of water all the way down the Mound. Only one ‘08er was in view here. Sabine, their hydromancer. A French foreign exchange student skipping out of the Continental Academy of Elementalism for the Asylum instead.
I’d give a better description of how hot she is but in the moment I couldn't give a shit about women. I know . . . from me . . . it happens occasionally . . .
Hydromancer with tons of water, what could go wrong?
Air looked promising. I assume. Not a whole lot to see even on the camera views. It was shrouded with fog, some of it boiling, some of it twisting, and even a bit that sucked into the ground. Anything could have been inside that zone . . .
Perfect place to sneak through . . .
Only . . . I was left with Fire.
Sand and ash.
Maybe an explosion or two knowing the teachers.
Least I wouldn’t have to swim . . .
The grass of the Field changed to the sand of the Mound as my feet dug in, surging me forward. Sixteen fists came up in front of me, quite a few of them grinning at the meal quickly approaching their den’o’pain.
Eight-to-one. My hands balled into fists too, pumping at my sides. I didn’t move fast, never did move fast. On either side, I could just make out the black-colored forms of Pocket and Valentine hitting their marks, completely ignoring the group of ‘08ers in front of me. Eight-to-one, King Henry, all alone.
I strategized as I ran. Eight-to-one, hard to get over those odds, but not like pretending they didn’t exist would make those corpusmancers disappear. Corpusmancers, in the classical mold: big and buff, four guys and two chicks. Wouldn’t have sexualized those girls for nothing . . . I mean . . . they’re buff enough to have vagina muscles that could snap my dick off. ‘08 gets buff chicks with vagina muscles and ’09 gets freaky Isabel’s body changing, Nizhoni switching her hair color, and Yvette giving herself a nose job . . . seems fair.
Muscles . . .
Sure, muscles . . . scary to most, I guess. Vagina muscles scariest to most, I guess too. But not what I really worried about. Jacob being a spectromancer and Leo being a cryomancer—much more intimidating. Leo had on a glove just like Val. Could have ended me before I got within ten feet of him if he wanted. Glove simulates a blast of ice and cold and then I’m out before it even begins.
Don’t think he would waste it on me though.
Think he wants to save the pool for later. After I’m a beaten and bloody pulp lying in the sand his group would retreat, start searching for ‘09ers from behind. Flank attack. Envelopment. Old school war tactics.
Had to believe this was true.
Only chance for me to make a difference in this game.
If I can just hold the eight of them long enough . . .
Then . . .
I jumped into the air just in front of their line. Anima ripped down the length of my arms, into my fists. Not iron fists. One nice hit and I’d be out. Couldn’t do that. Too many of them. Got to . . . improvise. Into my fists as I threw my whole body forward and down, arms and hammer-fists jackknifing into the ash-saturated sand.
Anima exploded on contact, carrying with it hundreds of pounds of material, material in the form of grains and motes and the smallest of the small. Behind me, I heard all two-thousand-odd of the crowd gasp as the cloud filled the air, blocking out camera views, blocking out eye views too. Before me, I heard eight enemies curse their favorites.
Fuck won the post-debate instant polling.
Me . . . I was silent.
I like my fighting silent.
Only talk if it gives me an edge.
A silent hunter.
Couldn’t see but a squint, but neither could they.
And there’s only one of me, assholes.
Know I ain’t beating on a friend.
Turn them tables.
Who’s a ninja, motherfucker?
Daddy needs to buy himself some nun-chuckers.
I’d like to say I opened up with a flip kick or something else totally I-Know-Kung-Fu badass but instead of foot-to-face sound effects, the silence was broken when someone tripped over me from where I knelt in the ash. Thud went one of the corpusmancers. Don’t spurn Fate when she’s showing you her tits, Price. I pounced on the guy, little fucking hop right on top of his body and then up and down with an elbow into his vest. Thing gave him the shock and a buzzing noise.
“Shit! He’s here!” the guy yelled, trying to cheat and hold on but I pushed off quick, rolling around in the ash and adding to my cloud.
“I can’t see shit!”
“I got him!”
“That’s me, Jacob!”
My eyes watered. Dirt colored or not, they don’t take kindly to dust any more than yours do. It hurt, screams along every nerve for me to close them, but I kept them open, kept wiping at my face with a sleeve. Foot of vision might not be much but it was too much an edge to waste.
You could run.
I stopped cold on the ground, a foot sliding into view that just missed my fingers. I could run? What coward part of my brain did that shit come from? Grabbing the foot, I pulled with both hands, tugging the next off balance. One of the girls. Caught me with a punch on the way down, but to the back of my head, not to my vest.
It’s smart to run. Leave the idiots behind, make a play for the button. Win the game, be the hero.
A stiff body punch to each side of the ‘08er girl’s stomach got her vest going.
“You asshole, Foul Mouth!”
“Keyra?” a voice called.
“I’m out!” Keyra—I guess—grimaced, “He’s here! Get him!”
“No! Everyone stop moving around, you’re only making it worse.” That was Leo, knew the voice. Calculating the odds. Cryomancers are pretty cold bastards personality wise. Like to do themselves the mathematical equation and follow through on the answer no matter what or who gets crossed out.
Like you should be. Run. Now.
If I ran then I’d miss out on beating these guys up. No, I’m not enough of a tardflower to think that I’m going to take out all of them. Figured I’d get a couple more before Fate turned on me and kicked my bare ass to the curb, not even a decent enough woman to throw a man his jeans. But a couple more . . . four, maybe five in all . . . that’s worth it. Especially if one of the four was Leo . . .
“Don’t try to find him. Come to my voice instead.”
I finally said something, “Don’t listen to him, boys.”
“Come to me. Watch your feet and don’t kick up the ash,” Leo ordered, voice carrying fine through the murk. “Do it.”
Not much time left. One foot became two feet became three feet. Soon as they stopped bumbling about the air quality improved quick-like. All my life in smog filled valley and just when I’m using it to my advantage . . .
“Not very smart, Leo,” I told the ‘08er team leader.
“And now I know where to aim, Foul Mouth.”
I chuckled. “So do I.”
There was a gasp from the same direction as his voice.
I charged it, snarling.
A corpusmancer outline formed at my right, saw me, took a swing. Nicked my vest, but not hard enough to put me all the way out. Low beep from it. Yeah, yeah, I’ll change your battery tomorrow.
Two more figures formed in front of me. Jacob looking awkward. Leo in his usual white and blues. Behind, the corpusmancer followed after me. Three more shouts, could be anywhere, focusing in on Leo just like me.
Visibility to five feet but it didn’t matter any longer. I was a freight-train, a locomotive, running to tackle. Choo, fucking, choo. Didn’t matter that each of them outweighed me. Didn’t matter that they were taller. Didn’t matter that they were older. I knew what I was doing. They didn’t have a clue.
I gave a shoulder into each gut, hearing a small beep from two vests for the effort. One of them twisted with the momentum and fell away from me. Whoever I’d caught blubbered up some cries as I wrapped my arms and drove him into the ash. He screamed some more as we rolled, throwing up extra dust. Five feet back to four feet.
I popped a couple hammer-fists at his vest, but didn’t even earn beeps. Not hard enough. Trying to push up off his body, I saw he didn’t have a glove and realized Leo had gotten away. Jacob Walden, not who I wanted . . . but I’m looking forward to telling everyone how you—
The world went starry out of nowhere.
I was pulled off the spectromancer, head ringing. Full Nelson under my arms, up my shoulders, Hercules Hernandez style. Big muscled corpusmancer showing off, lifting me into the air. I growled, cursed, kicked his shins. Whoever he was, he laughed at me. “Someone punch him and finish it.”
Leo materialized. Black hair swept back, blue eyes sharp, tanned skin tight over a scowling face. The fist without a glove bunched up. “Honor goes to the captain, I think.”
“Fuck you,” I told him, trying to throw my head forward into his nose.
“Just do it! We don’t have time for this . . .” Jacob Walden called, still on the ground, still keeping his distance from me.
Only Leo didn’t quite listen to his buddy. First thing he did was kick me in the balls. “That’s a favor for Welf, Foul Mouth, hope you enjoyed it.” I didn’t answer, seeing as how getting kicked in the balls hurts a whole shitload. I almost had enough of a pool for iron fist . . . if only I could get my arms free . . . “I don’t enjoy it or much care, but the price paid was worth taking up the task.”
Welf, payback for earlier in the year. I should have known. I worked up some words. “What he do, give you Vicky for a night? Or he suck you off himself?”
Leo was too busy being all Summer Movie Villain, “Now . . . to eliminate you and then to close my trap on your friends.”
Can a fucker get a MUAHAHAHA up in this place? “Hope the suck off was worth it, man, all this waiting around punting my nuts gave my friends plenty of time to win this thing.”
The scowl went the way of pleasure, of satisfaction. Hitting me, he might not have got a rise out of that, but Leo enjoyed winning. “It’s only delayed my victory, only delayed, Foul Mouth.”
Next bit was simple. A punch to the gut. A beep and an extra-red vest. A little shock to remind me I’m out of the game and should exit the Mound without interfering . . . or else . . .
Or else . . .
Fuck your ‘or else’ . . .
Anima snapped, not flowing into my hands but into my feet. Not so different from a hanging sit-up is it? Just with a kick on the end. Not iron fist . . . no, sir . . . got us a new name for this beauty. Iron boot. Right into Leo’s so satisfied face. The second that I connected with the kick Leo disappeared from view. I hit him so hard he almost vaporized into the mist. There was a soft thud of impact from down below us.
My vest gave an angry beep, a flash of red . . .
Can’t say how much it hurt, I was unconscious at the first flash of pain.
Just like last year . . .