Chapter 40

The first tendril arced forward, a curiously soothing hum emanating from the impossibly fast speed of the blood. It was met by several weapons, all of which were sliced in half as soon as they made contact. The cleanly-cut pieces fell to the ground, some dissipating before they even made landfall.

The second tendril was slightly slower in its approach and was met by one of the tower shields. Unlike the weapons, this golden defense didn’t cleave instantly; however it only took a few seconds on contact before the blood-saw shredded through it and a pair of uneven shield halves fell to the ground.

A surprise attack like that might have overcome a lesser opponent, but Angela was not at the top of her class because she was easily rattled. The armored figure backed way quickly, placing the second shield between herself and the nearest tendril, then directing the entirety of her armory at Chad. For a moment, Chad pressed his attack, striking at the shield clutched in her armored hands. A surge of effort tore a deep groove in the golden surface and knocked both the shield and bearer to the ground. Always a warrior, Angela fell with the shield on top of her to provide one last bulwark of defense. At that point, however, her own offense was able to turn Chad’s focus on keeping himself safe. With his blood-saws out, he was unable to move, so he was forced to use them as defense, chopping up the weapons before they could land blows on him. True, his bone armor offered him some defense, but the need to move freely had forced him to leave much of his body uncovered.

By the time he’d destroyed enough of the attacking weapons to refocus, the golden-armored warrior had emerged. Rather than picking up the battered shield, Angela summoned ten more, each tower sized, then grabbed the smaller one in her left gauntlet. A golden sword appeared and deposited itself in her right hand. There was no more witty banter; it was clear that now was the moment these fighters would finally clash. Both knew there was likely to be only one such confrontation.

Angela charged, the ten tower shields circling her in various directions as she ran. Chad moved quickly, lengthening the blood-tendrils so he could strike several at once. The blows rang out and the song of blood slicing through constructed light filled the room. He was fast, he was focused, and he was good, but as Angela neared striking distance she still had two tower shields remaining. His options were limited: he could try to take out the shields, but Angela would definitely close the gap, and he was far more vulnerable when using this skill. He could drop the tendrils, but then the encounter would play out like his first try, only this time Angela would be waiting with her blade when he went down.

That was when a desperate idea, the sort that can only come when one has no logical options left, was born. Chad let the tendril on his right arm drop, merely ceasing the flow and sealing the hole rather than trying to undo all the reconstruction. The exposed blood splattered to the ground like fat red raindrops, a sickening scent of copper permeating the air. It was nauseating, but it had the effect he’d hoped for. Only having to sustain one tendril freed up his concentration enough to become mobile.

The remaining tendril lengthened and darted, curving around until it was striking both of the remaining tower shields. It stopped them as it sliced, but Angela was able to slide underneath. She kept forward, last shield raised in defense and blade at the ready. Chad waited patiently, a look of feigned concentration still etched onto his face. Just as she arrived and swung, he leapt back a half-step, sending the attack wide and knocking her off balance. The blood of the last tendril splashed to the ground as Chad let its movements cease.

He stepped forward, knocking the sword to the ground with one blow while sending to the shield flying with another. Strong as Angela was, he was the better in up-close combat. Whirling quickly, Chad knocked her feet out from under her, grabbed her shoulder plate with his left hand and brought his right forearm around so that the bone-blade rested against the glowing chainmail on her neck.

“Deathblow,” Chad said, his breathing heavy. “I win.”

That was when the armor came apart, snapping away on hidden seams, and throwing its various parts and pieces around him. The hollow armor quickly became a golden trap, grabbing Chad’s various appendages and yanking them back before he had a chance to understand what was happening. He began to struggle, but then he noticed a dozen pinpricks of pain along his neck and spine. The trap armor had blades within, ones now pressing with observable force on the skin between gaps in his armor.

“Actual deathblow,” came a voice from across the room. The scarred shield, the one Angela had fallen under moments ago, lifted up to reveal his blonde opponent, no longer clad in any armor save for her unassailable confidence. “I win.”

In that moment, it crystalized in Chad’s mind. He’d seen her go under the shield, then he’d seen the set of golden armor getting up from next to it, but in the fracas of battle he’d never actually witnessed her emerge.

“I yield,” Chad said. “You could have killed me. This victory is yours.”

“Angela DeSoto wins the match,” announced the voice from the speaker. As it did, Chad’s bindings, along with the rest of the glowing objects in the room, vanished in a shower of light. Chad found himself falling to the floor now that he was free, and found no real inclination to stop himself.

Angela crossed over to him and knelt next to him. “I guess you’re down to one weakness now. You don’t know how to think sneakily.”

“It seems I do not,” Chad agreed.

“Well, you lost, so I think you know what this means,” Angela said.

“Of course. I will keep my distance from you as much as possible from now on.”

“No, dipshit. It means you have to pay for dinner tonight.”

Chad looked up and found himself entranced by the wild smile of the woman who had just defeated him.

“But I lost.”

“Which is why you have to pay. I’m not looking for someone stronger than me, Chad. Shit, who knows when or if that would even happen? I’m just looking for someone I like, who gets me, and who isn’t bothered by the fact that I’m never going to be a delicate flower or a damsel in distress. And yeah, the fact that you just gave me a real run for my money doesn’t hurt either. Different as we are, we’re pretty similar deep down.”

“Do you care for Italian or contemporary American?” Chad asked, pulling himself to his feet.

“No way, buddy boy, you’re not getting off that easy. Seafood, and someplace classy.” Angela leaned over and gave him a kiss on the bone armor that still covered the cheek of his face. “Oh, and go back to your regular look before I pick you up. All that getting each other stuff is well and good, but I don’t go for uggos.”

“I will be downright presentable,” Chad said, smiling without intending to. Any other time he’d have wondered how an unintentional expression slipped through his defenses. For the moment, he was smiling too much on the inside to give a damn.