Blades & Barriers: Chapter 8

                She was much stronger than he’d expected. From the previous matches, Angela had seemed to be barely eking out wins, even against opponents who should have been easy to beat. Truth be told, Brett had begun to doubt just how hard of a program Lander was, if this was their undefeated champion. Then he’d stepped into the cell with her, and it had all become clear. Fighting her was nothing like watching her, as she seemed to slide just out of reach with incredible precision, every movement honed and practiced until she’d become living grace incarnate. How much had she trained to move like that? Blow after blow from weapon after weapon rained down on his shield, failing to pierce through but continuing nonetheless.

                As she charged forward, golden armor gleaming in the artificial light, Brett tried to prepare a counter-attack. He might not be losing, but as things stood he sure as shit wasn’t winning. Angela’s right hand reached out, forming three golden daggers between her fingers and whipping them forward. At the same time, her left conjured a golden sword that she swept upward, aiming for his torso. Both attacks bounced off harmlessly, and Brett was ready. Stretching out the shield from his right arm as fast as he could, the enlarged fingers swung around behind her, cutting off an exit. It wasn’t by much, but it slowed her down long enough to wrap his already growing left hand’s shield around her shoulder. Before he could lock in a firm grip, however, her armor dissolved and Angela dropped to the ground, immediately retreating to a safer distance.

                “Nice moves. Guess I can’t just wear you down after all.” She’d yet to reform her armor, though her eyes were trained on him, waiting for a single aggressive movement. It was strange, unnatural, the way her predator’s gaze made his stomach churn. Brett was safe; he had the ultimate defense against her power and a slew of Heroes overseeing the match. All the same, every time he met her eyes, some animal instinct inside him tried to panic.

                “You did very well,” Brett told her. “Quite a fine display of skill. But it should be obvious by now that this is a bad matchup for you. We could sit here all day with you hitting me over and over again and doing nothing. Meanwhile, all I need is to catch you once and it’s done, you’ll never escape my grip. You can’t win.”

                “Maybe, maybe not. Wearing you down might not work, but there’s always the option of breaking through.” Angela held out her right arm, and a new weapon began to form in her hand. As it did, the various smaller ones littering the battlefield dissolved, until her in-progress creation was all that remained.

                “You’ll never break through.” Brett wasn’t entirely sure which of them he was trying to convince, as the strange weapon grew larger by the second.

                “Won’t know until I try.” She gave the weapon a test swing and it moved fluidly, despite the fact that it was far too large for her to hold, let alone wield. The whole look of it was strange, a dozen small curved blades wound in a circle around a central core. It looked like… well, like a giant chainsaw fashioned to a hilt, honestly.

                “You already know you can’t win this fight. What do you want to prove?”

                In response, the smaller blades on her weapon began to whirl, proving that Brett’s impression of the sword had been spot on: it really was a giant chainsaw. She must have been moving the blades with her power, just as she’d controlled the daggers after throwing them or manipulated her armor. They picked up speed, and Angela ran the blurring blades along the floor of the cell, leaving sliced and broken chunks of concrete in her wake.

                “What do I want?” She was smiling again, bigger than before, wider. The terrified piece of Brett’s brain tried to gain more steam, and he pushed it down. This was showmanship, nothing more. She wanted him to make a mistake, to weaken his resolve or his focus so she could slip a dagger through while he paid attention to the chainsaw-sword.

                “I want your blood. And I want your soul. And I want them both, right now.”

                She was faster without the armor, not that it should have been a surprise, but it was still frustrating as she seemed to effortlessly slip through his attacks in spite of the massive weapon in her grip. Angela didn’t slow for a second; she closed in on Brett and swung hard, slamming the whirring blades down on his face. They were only millimeters from his eyes, separated by nothing more than the suddenly too-thin blue shield that kept him safe. On pure instinct, Brett widened the shield around his head, pushing the chainsaw back several inches.

                He felt the pinch around his neck only a second before the whirring came to a complete stop. Angela released her weapon, which vanished in a bright flash the moment it left her hand. Her grin dimmed slightly as she met his eyes and gave a nod toward his neck. Before she said it, he knew. Not the how, but the end result. He could still feel the slight tightness encircling his neck as she made her announcement for all the Heroes and teachers watching their battle.


*             *             *

                “After it was over, I put some of the pieces together,” Brett said. “I thought Angela could only form the weapons from her body, not in mid-air, because she’d done that all during Intramurals. With that ruse and her intimidation, she got me to give her an opening. Apparently she could form objects using the light inside my shield, and that’s how she put a collar on me. If it had been made of daggers, I’d have been dead on the spot, which meant she was the winner. For the life of me, I still can’t figure out how she knew that would work though.”

                “Interesting,” Unseelie said. “Angela, how did you know?”

                “Had no idea,” Angela replied. “I was testing a bunch of different strategies during the match, but the moment I saw Brett’s first fight I knew that one would be my best chance. I figured I’d only have one shot, so I wanted to get it somewhere that counted. Giant chainsaw, creepy smile, and my favorite line from Tombstone seemed as though it would make someone like him push away.”

                “What does ‘someone like me’ mean?” Brett glared at her from across the room, but Angela simply shrugged as though she couldn’t sense his annoyance.

                “Someone not used to losing, to feeling scared. Your power is really strong, Brett, and you made it through the HCP without losing any matches to another student. That means you’ve had to think on your feet, show resourcefulness, and train like hell. Still, you’ve always felt safe. You’ve never had to fight back the genuine terror of not knowing if you’ll survive the next few minutes. Without experience, instinct takes over in those moments, and I bet heavily that you’d do what anyone would when a chainsaw wielded by a psycho was right next to your face: push it away.”

                “Good God, what kind of training was Lander giving you if you feared for your life?” Brett glanced at Justin to see what his reaction was, but Justin’s face was as inscrutable as one would expect from a Subtlety Hero.

                “Nothing that dangerous, but you’re not the only one who started their training early,” Angela replied. “And my grandfather was adamant that we not let our instinct overpower our judgement when shit got real.”

                “It was a well-thought out strategy,” Unseelie said. “But what would you have done if it didn’t work?”

                “Maybe kept pounding away, or tried to enclose him in a wall of metal. He went for grabs over punches, so I assumed he didn’t have much striking power. It’s hard to say, truthfully. There’s a good chance he’d have beaten me if my plan failed.”

                That took Brett’s reply from his mouth. She’d bet everything on that strategy? That crazy, seemingly half-mad strategy? He’d assumed she had a half dozen waiting in the wings, but if he’d pushed past it, he could have won. Brett adjusted his measure of Angela, taking away some of her cunning and adding in a whole lot more crazy. He wasn’t entirely sure that made her less terrifying, however.

                “No shame in admitting that, Brett had quite a useful power,” Unseelie told Angela. “Since he’s just finished talking about yours, though, why don’t you go ahead and walk your fellow interns through what you can do.”

                Angela smiled again, and that same piece of Brett’s mind shivered against his will.

                “With pleasure.”