Using the staff to push myself up, I kept a wary eye on the far-too-casual Doxer. The older boy was simply popping the knuckles of one hand all in a line, then the other while watching me stand up. He wasn’t concerned in the least. In the background, I saw Columbus and Sean having a pretty bad time trying to lay a finger on Pace, who evaded them with perfect ease. She was giggling like it was a game.
“It’s funny,” Doxer began, his tone calm and even. “They go on and on about how dangerous you Crossroads kiddies are and how we shouldn’t underestimate you. Gotta say, right now? Not impressed.”
“That’s funny,” I replied while moving to the left away from Sands. Hopefully we could make this guy focus on just one of us. Not that it was likely to make that big of a difference, but every little bit helped. “Because I was just thinking pretty much the same thing about you guys. The unimpressed part.”
The big guy’s response was a sneer. “We’re kicking your asses pretty thoroughly, little girl.”
Nodding, I took another step to the left, forcing him to turn slightly as his eyes continued following me. “Yeah, that’s the part I’m talking about. Or was I supposed to be in awe of your stunning ability to win a fight against a few teenagers that’ve been training for all of a month? That’s so unremarkable, they don’t even make a trophy for it, and they have trophies for coin flip event participation. Fifty-fifty shot, lose, get a trophy anyway. Still a more genuine victory than you assholes throwing your weight around.”
His chuckle was low, dangerous and without humor. “I like you. I think I’ll make this one last.”
At the last second, with a look straight into my eyes that was as mocking as any I had ever seen, the boy pivoted away from Sands’s strike that would have nailed the back of his head. His hand lashed out, snatched the length of the mace, and then he yanked her forward off balance while bringing his knee up. A cry of pain escaped the other girl even as I leapt that way, the air driven out of her by the blow.
She hit the ground hard, mace falling beside her as Doxer dismissively dropped it. His foot lifted to kick at her, but he pulled back to avoid my staff as I lashed out at him. “You know what I really hate?” I asked while using a wide swing of the weapon to force the boy to step back quickly. “You know what really pisses me off? People who think they can do whatever they want to. People who think they have all the power, so they can get away with hurting others that don’t have as much power as they do. Like you. You’re not avenging anything. You’re not protecting anyone. You’re not a warrior. You’re not a hero. You’re no better than the Strangers they’ve been teaching us about. Only in this case, you don’t have the excuse of the whole monster thing being part of your DNA. You’re just a dick.”
“Aww, your opinion makes me so sad,” he retorted before pantomiming writing in his palm. “Mental note, be sure to reevaluate my life after I’m finished beating this bitch to within an inch of hers.”
Flipping the staff around in my hand, I aimed it out and down toward at an angle toward the ground. “Start now,” I suggested flatly while triggering the concussive blast. It shot out of the staff and into the ground, spraying a thick cloud of dirt and light debris into the air directly toward the boy’s face.
Doxer reeled, grabbing at his eyes with a cry while I followed up with a quick strike toward his unguarded stomach, twisting my body into the swing to put more force behind it as I swung.
The blow took the boy hard in the gut, but it hardly seemed to matter. It was like hitting a boulder. I probably did more damage to my own hands than to myself. Christ, what was this asshole made of?
Blinded but still quick, he grabbed for the staff. I reversed it, spinning away from his grasp just in time. Before he could recover from the lunge, I lashed out with a quick series of blows, running it the way that Avalon had taught me. Two quick jabs at his face with the right end of the staff, then a low strike on his left side toward the knee with the opposite end. Quick step back, reverse the staff, and bring it up in a rising blow toward his exposed wrist as hard as I could. Each move, by that point, was quick and effortless. They came without conscious thought, the way Avalon had insisted they would. That was why we had drilled through them over and over so many times, so that they would be instinctive. Two strikes at the face to distract and make them reel back, hit the knee to hopefully disable or at least make move their guard that way, then use that exposed guard to hit their wrist hard enough that they can’t hit you back. One, two, three. The second that I stopped thinking and just acted, the motions were easy.
Except I was pretty sure that I’d gotten more of a reaction out of the training dummies that Avalon had made me practice with. At least the reinforced wood there had reacted as if my hitting it repeatedly actually did something. With this guy, I might as well have been attacking a chunk of granite.
I kept going anyway, hoping that I’d hit something weaker than a brick wall before he recovered. With a grunt, I twisted around into a spin to put the full weight and strength of my body behind the next blow.
The staff whiffed through empty air. Wait, no, not empty air. Water. Where the big guy had been before, water in the shape of his body remained. It stayed in place and retained that shape for a split second after my staff had passed through it, before collapsing into a puddle at my feet.
Abruptly, before I could finish looking around, a voice from nearby whispered urgently, “Drop!”
I didn’t know why. Maybe it was the tone, similar to the way Avalon instructed me when we were training. Whatever it was, I listened to the voice, instantly dropping into a roll. As I did so, Doxer’s hands swept by overhead, narrowly missing his grab for me. If I had waited a second longer, he would have had his arms around my throat. Given his size, I was positive that the fight would have been over.
Instead, I was able to escape, rolling back to my feet and lashing out with my staff before my brain had time to catch up with what had just happened. Whose voice was that? It didn’t seem to belong to anyone that I could see. The whisper had just come from nowhere. Was this the Amarok’s ability? Wait, did that even make sense? What kind of inherited super power was ‘voice in my head?’
He might have followed up the attack before I could recover, but Sands was back up. Her mace swung out, colliding with his shoulder with enough force to finally draw a grunt from the boy. In retaliation, he grabbed for her with speed that seemed at odds with his size. Still, Sands managed (barely), to escape by conjuring a wall directly between them that slowed the big guy down for a couple seconds.
“Don’t just sit there and gawk, get up and help her.” That voice in my head, somehow familiar yet not at all, ordered. “Keep him turning back and forth. Don’t let him deal with only one of you at a time.”
I still had no idea where this voice was coming from, but it had the right idea. Before Doxer could corner Sands, I came in at his back, dropping low so I could plant the full weight and force of my staff in the back of his knees as hard as possible. At the last second, I triggered the staff’s concussive blast.
That, finally, was enough to knock the son of a bitch down. He stumbled, grunting in pain. Before hitting the ground, however, flames erupted where he had been in the shape of the asshole himself.
Okay, it was fire instead of water this time. Still, I knew what was coming. Even as the voice in my head whispered an urgent warning, I was already throwing myself in a (still somewhat awkward and ungraceful, but hey) dive out of the way. I half-rolled and half-sprawled, rolling in the dirt to escape.
“Well now,” Doxer announced while looking from Sands to me and then back again. “Looks like I might have to put a tiny bit of effort into this after all. Unless, you know, you girls just wanna call it quits.” His grin widened. “I’m a fair guy, easy to please. Tell you what, we’ll have a little contest. Each of you make me a sandwich. The babe that makes the best one, well, I won’t hit her anymore. Sound good?”
It took everything I had not to throw myself at the son of a bitch in a blind rage, swinging wildly. That’s what he wanted. He was trying to piss us off, make us stop thinking and just go at him in a rush. If we did that, I had no doubt that he’d knock us both on our asses in about two and a half seconds. He wanted us to fight on his terms, so he could end the fight on his terms. Quickly and decisively.
Instead, I glanced toward Sands, lifting my chin. “The boy wants a sandwich.”
She nodded, breathing hard. “Yup. Think we should give it to him?”
“Oh yeah,” I nodded. Unlike Sands, I was breathing easily. Mostly I just felt pissed off. “We should.”
“Now girls,” that infuriating smirk was back. “There’s lots of things you could both give me that I wouldn’t object to. Especially if you work together. But before you do anything rash right now, I–”
Before he could say anything else, I pointed my recharged staff back at the ground and triggered it. The force, as I had been warned, nearly tore the weapon out of my hand. Somehow, I managed to retain my grip on it as I was launched into the air, flying up a good ten feet and forward to pass over the big guy’s head. Just beyond him, I dropped, spun in the process, and swung that staff at the back of his neck.
An outline of dirt appeared in the air where he had been, my staff whiffing through it even as I landed. Rather than remain standing, I continued my fall, dropping down while the large figure reappeared behind me. His foot was raised into a vicious kick. My quick roll meant that he only barely clipped my arm. Even that was enough to send spasms of pain down it. It felt like something had cracked.
Before he could follow that up, Sands was on him. His focus on me had taken his eyes off of her. She came in at him with another wide swing that made the boy jerk his head back away from the mace.
Unfortunately for him, he moved it directly into the path of my own swinging weapon. The staff collided with the dickface’s recoiling head so hard I thought that one of them was going to break.
“Duck to your left, then jump right and swing at his leg the second you land. Wait for it… now.”
Still failing to understand why, I instantly followed the voice’s instructions. Ducking left, I saw Doxer’s vicious backhanded swing narrowly miss me. He was turning defensively, but my quick jump put me right at his blindspot, and gave me a brief second of opening. I took advantage, lashing out with my staff at the side of his leg as hard as I could. I was gratified to hear the hard thunk of my weapon striking home, followed by a grunt of actual pain from the arrogant piece of shit himself.
Sands was already moving to take advantage of the very slight stumble even before I’d finished hitting him. Her mace came up and around, bashing into the side of the boy’s shoulder so hard that she actually managed to draw some blood, as well as a genuinely surprised gasp. She’d hurt him. We had hurt him.
A sudden blast of air in my face replaced the boy. I saw him appear behind Sands, grabbing for her with a look of rage that had replaced his former cocky and dismissive expression. Before I could yelp a warning, she was already reacting somehow. Dropping into a side-roll, she barely escaped his grasp.
That voice returned. “Count to five, then swing as hard as you can six feet to the left of his head.”
Shrugging inwardly, I did so. After reaching five in my head, I lunged up and forward, lashing out with my staff at what still looked like empty air to me. In the meantime, Sands had been lashing out with a quick series of strikes mixed with wall construction to slow his counter-attacks. She struck hard and fast, not letting up for a second to give him any chance to regroup. It didn’t seem to do much damage, but she had been steadily driving him back a couple of steps through sheer ferocity.
Those few steps made all the difference. Just as I swung at what had been empty air, Doxer took that last step back that put himself directly in my path. The staff collided with the side of his head, and he bellowed in pain, staggering to the side while lashing out blindly and fruitlessly.
In retaliation, the big guy spun toward me while grasping with his hand. He caught my shoulder, squeezing so hard that I couldn’t help the cry of pain that escaped me. It hurt. His fingers dug into my muscle, and I heard something else crack while he tried to jerk me toward him.
But Sands was there. She brought her mace down hard into Doxer’s back, and he bellowed in pain once again. When she tried to follow up that blow, another statue of water briefly replaced him before collapsing with a splash, sending water everywhere.
That particular teleportation or… whatever he was doing carried Doxer behind Sands. But it was a trick he’d done too many times already, and I didn’t need the voice in my head to warn me before I was already leaping forward. Sands dropped the instant she realized the guy had disappeared again, giving me a clear path over her. I was already swinging, the staff connecting solidly with Doxer as he reached for Sands.
We continued that way. Sands and I did our best to keep the son of a bitch between us. We’d manage to hit him and he would disappear, but because she and I were both facing each other, one of us always knew where he teleported to and would press the attack while the other evaded his counter. A couple of times, the voice in my head whispered advice, warning me when the guy was out of my line of sight. We never let up. We never gave him a chance to recover or press any kind of advantage.
Finally, Sands all but collapsed. She doubled over, gasping for air almost desperately. She was openly panting, glaring at the bloodied, bruised guy between us. “I’m gonna…” She breathed in and then out heavily between her words. “Shove this… mace… up your… urethra.”
“Keep… wasting your breath… babe.” Doxer retorted in between pants of his own. He spat a bit of blood onto the ground before sneering. “You two can wear yourselves out with this pointless shit all you want. But you can’t keep going forever. You’ll slow down. And when you do, you’re mine.”
The boy wasn’t panting as heavily as Sands, but his breathing was clearly heavier than it had been. We were wearing him down. If we weren’t, he would have pressed the advantage already rather than taunt Sands about being tired.
Taunt… Sands about being tired. That was my first thought even though he’d clearly meant both of us simply because I wasn’t tired. At all. We had been at this for several intense minutes by that point, so much that Sands was almost dead on her feet, and even Doxer was panting. Both had slowed down over the course of this. I’d thought that avoiding his blows and countering was getting easier because I was getting the timing down. But the truth was that Doxer was getting tired…. and I wasn’t.
I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t even breathing hard. I felt absolutely fine, as if I hadn’t been exerting myself at all.
“Cover me,” I murmured. “Try to keep him off my back if he teleports. I’ve got this.”
With that, I pointed the staff at the ground and used it to launch myself forward without warning. My feet plowed into the boy’s chest. As before, it was like hitting a wall. This one, however, felt more like wood than stone. There was give to it as the piece of shit staggered backwards with a reluctant yelp of pain.
I didn’t wait. Dropping back to my feet, I lashed out as quickly as I could into a rapid series of blows with my staff. Right side low toward his leg, left side up at his wrist, left side higher at his face, reverse and flip the staff around, use the momentum to come all the way up on the opposite side to crack the weapon against his other bicep, jump back and jab inward with the staff to smack off his face.
It wasn’t perfect. He countered, a mixture of flailing and pointed strikes that would have done much worse damage if they had been more patient and collected. Instead, two things were happening. The first was that he was getting more and more frustrated as I refused to fall down and stay there.
The second thing that was happening was that he was getting more tired with each passing moment. And I… wasn’t. At all. The difference was becoming more and more profound. He was clearly stronger, faster, and more skilled than I was. But he was getting tired, and I wasn’t. I wasn’t tired at all. For all my body had reacted, I might as well have been taking a casual stroll to the fridge.
Even then it wouldn’t have been enough without Sands. The boy could have teleported behind me and ended it completely with one quick blow. But the other girl was there, constantly jumping in whenever he tried to do that. And when she wasn’t quite fast enough, the voice in my head warned me in time.
In the end, however, it wasn’t my sudden inexhaustible energy that finished the fight. It was a gunshot, followed by a squeal of pain.
Heads snapped that way, and I saw the girl, Pacer. She was on one knee, holding a hand against her shoulder where the bullet had gone through. In front of her, Columbus was on the ground, clearly unconscious, while Sean half-lay and half-crouched in front of him. Vulcan was between them and the bitch herself, growling menacingly in spite of half a dozen dents spread over his metallic body.
And behind them, Scout stood with her rifle raised. She waited another half-second, then pulled the trigger again.
Doxer vanished with a puff of fire, reappearing next to Pacer before both of them vanished, leaving twin clouds of dirt behind that time.
“Trice!” Doxer bellowed. “Time to get out of here!”
“Not… yet.” Trice retorted. Blood covered the right half of his face from a deep cut, and he couldn’t quite stand up straight. “We’re not finished.”
Avalon, meanwhile, wasn’t doing so hot either. She was holding her arm at an odd angle, which considering how much I knew about the regeneration, and how many more of those peridles she had killed compared to me, said a lot about how much damage she’d taken.
“Sniper’s up!” Doxer retorted, vanishing in another puff of air along with the injured girl. “And Pacer’s in trouble! If the shooter’s up, the blocking spells are gonna fail soon. You-know-who can’t distract the staff for long.” He looked back toward Sands and me. “I’ll be back for that sandwich.”
“Way I see it,” I retorted, “You still haven’t finished the one we were trying to give you.”
Growling in anger, Trice pointed at Avalon. “This isn’t over. I will kill you, cunt. I’ll listen to you beg me to stop. Just like my brother did. But I won’t. I’ll listen to you die over and over again, just for the hell of it..
“Bring it,” she spat the words, hands held up defensively while she glared.
“Later,” Trice shot back. “Just know that you aren’t safe. None of you. With a little help from our friend, we can get you any time, any place.
Then they were gone. With a rush of wind and fire together, the three figures vanished.
Sands collapsed. Sean let himself fall the rest of the way before turning to check on Columbus. Scout ran to check on her sister. Even Avalon slowly sank to one knee, then slipped onto her side with a grunt of pain, breathing hard and shuddering. Her arm hung useless and loose to one side, the bones in it broken almost beyond recognition. I could see it start to knit back together.
Embracing her sister tightly when Scout reached her, Sands looked to me. “Thanks. Good thing that Amarok had some kind of telepathic communication, huh? Couldn’t have have gotten through that without your help. And how did you fight and keep giving instructions at the same time?”
I stared at her for a moment. “You heard a voice too?”
“Of course I—wait, it wasn’t you?”
The two of us stared at one another for a second. Then I shook it off and moved to check on Avalon and the boys. As before, I wasn’t tired at all. None of what had happened even made me yawn.
That was the power that the Amarok had given me. A seemingly endless amount of stamina. I could have kept fighting all night without a single break. That was the ability I’d inherited from the giant wolf.
… so where had that voice in not just my head, but Sands’s too come from? Who had been helping us? Who had been directing us through that fight?
And most of all, which of my new teachers had helped those three make this whole thing happen?