008.0 Alternatives

Training Area

Isaac read the schedule board.  Apparently he’d dropped a rank, despite not having been challenged.  He was number twenty now.  Hector had said that most of last week’s challenges had been people from the lower ranks who were going after someone in the top ten, so it made sense that if one of them lost, Isaac would drop a rank.  Actually, from what he remembered, most of the class had challenged.  It was a little surprising that he was still as high as he was.  The people at the top must have been there for a reason.

He found the new name above him, Anna Insight.  It sounded vaguely familiar, so he used his phone to check his mail for last week’s schedule.  Huh.  She’d gone from last place to first.  Weird, but why did he recognize her name?  Isaac was pretty sure he didn’t know her.  To tell the truth, other than his housemates, he hadn’t really spent much time with any of the trainees.  Well, except Jenny.  She had a surprisingly good head on her shoulders. It was impressive, especially for a teenager.  He would’ve liked to say the distance he was keeping was just the age thing, but… yeah.  Something to talk about tomorrow, maybe.

And there was his name on the list of challenges.  Looks like he’d have to fight again.  Not something that made him happy, but something he’d need to do, regardless.  If Isaac couldn’t manage to get through a training match without losing his cool, there wasn’t much point in him being here.  Hopefully, whoever scheduled the challenge matches would set his late enough in the day that he wouldn’t have to reschedule his meeting with the counselor.

Regardless, he’d have to do his best, make sure Donald Dust didn’t just take his spot.  Poor kid, that was just awful.  Maybe Isaac should let him know that alliteration was neither required nor a good idea when it came to naming?  He’d have at least one more opportunity to change it.  Trainees took a new name when they were accepted to the Citadel, but they weren’t final until they graduated.


Medical Section

 

“So this anger, it’s not a new thing?” Jessie Healer asked Isaac.

“No.  I’ve always-” he paused to think, “I’ve always been angry.  Not at anyone or anything in particular, but…  well, sometimes I’d have cause.”

“How do you mean?” she asked.

“It used to be, if I lost a match or failed a test, that I could feel it.  It was like a red fire in my stomach, pushing me.  I’d use it to train harder or study more, and eventually it would fade.” he tried to explain.

“That sounds like it was constructive.” she observed.

“Sometimes, yeah.” he admitted, but that wasn’t all of it.  “That was when I was angry at myself.  The times when I messed up, failed.”  He’d told his wife about this but it wasn’t something he’d shared with anyone else.  “There were other times.  Someone would say something in a bar, maybe a party…  I tried to keep control of myself, but… there were a couple times when it got violent.”

“Who started these fights?” she asked.

“They did.  I wasn’t a saint or anything, but I never threw the first punch.”

“Is there… something you’d like to add to that?”  Right, empath, he’d let himself forget.  “You don’t have to.  You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

“No, you’re right.  Not much point coming here if I’m not going to be honest.” he admitted.  “I never swung first, but I was pretty good at making sure they did.” he sighed.  “You say the right thing, smile the right way, and you can get most people to start something.”

“That’s true.”

“I guess I’ve got two types of mad.  The first one’s hot.  It pushes me forward, makes me try harder and won’t let me quit.  The other, it’s cold, dark.  That one, it doesn’t push me.  It’s more like…”  He couldn’t say it without sounding silly.  A strange thing for a man like him to worry about, but there it was.

“Go on, please.”

“It doesn’t push me.  It’s more like, it pulls everything else into place.  I see what to do, how to do it, and I don’t have a choice.  It’s not that it keeps me from stopping, from holding back.  I just can’t imagine doing anything else.”

“So this cold anger, that’s what you felt when you put two men in the hospital?  I believe it was during your freshman year.”

“How-?”  The cops had ruled it self-defense.  He wasn’t even charged.

“You consented to a background check when you applied to the Citadel.  We are very thorough.”  There was no judgment in her voice.  “The police reports didn’t have much detail.  Would you like to explain what happened?”

“My roommate OD’ed.”

“Ronald Roost, is that right?” she asked.

“Yeah, Ronny.  I knew he was partying too hard but…  Anyway, they sold it to him.  I tracked them down, found the bar they dealt out of.”  This might get him kicked out, but so could holding back.  “I bought some stuff, then I got them to think I was going to snitch to the cops.  They decided to jump me.  One of them pulled a knife… and I guess you know the rest.”

“What is it that’s bothering you?  Here and now, I mean?”

“I figure this is it, the thing that takes me off the list of operative candidates.” he admitted.

“No Isaac, it isn’t.  I can’t speak to the rest of your training, but this falls well within the psych profile we already had for you.”

“What?”  That didn’t- he’d as good as murdered two people.  Why would they-?

“Isaac.  You may have provoked them in a fit of… well, I suppose fit of rage isn’t quite the right phrase.  While you were in the grip of this cold anger, you provoked two criminals whose actions contributed to the death of your friend.  You provoked them, but they chose to act.  Have you had your class on Procedures, yet?”

“I have.”  He didn’t see where she was going.

“Would you mind explaining Class Five and Four threats, and the acceptable responses?”  Oh.

“Class Five, an Empowered individual poses an immediate threat to the life of another person.  Class Four, an Empowered individual with a history of repeated Class Fives, or who poses an immediate threat to the lives of a small group of individuals.” he recited.  “Accepted method for a Class Five, apprehend the individual.  Their death is acceptable, but should be avoided.  Class Four, kill or apprehend the individual.  Death isn’t mandatory, but their survival isn’t a priority.”  Not exact, but the sense was there.

“I realize none of you were Empowered at the time.  But. if you had been, would the Citadel consider your actions acceptable?”  He thought about it, taking the time to be sure.

“Yeah.   It probably wouldn’t even come up for review.”  He wondered if that was a good thing.  He didn’t regret what he’d done, but he wasn’t sure it had been the right thing, either.

“I’m afraid we’re pretty much out of time here, but there’s something I’d like to say, before you go.”

He nodded.  “Go ahead.”

“Your anger, even that black rage, is as much a part of you as your powers.  You’re learning to use the second.  It sounds like you already know how to use the first.  Maybe you should try learning how to use them together?”

“I’ll think about it.”  If you said the right thing, the right way, you could get anyone to take a swing at you.  Or, stop them.  “This isn’t exactly the way I’d thought anger management therapy would go.”

“Isaac, this is the Citadel.”  She smiled again; it wasn’t a warm one.  “We do things differently, here.”


Isaac smiled at Jenny on his way out, but he didn’t pay much attention to her greeting.  He was still thinking about what Jessie Healer had said.  It wasn’t quite right, but there was definitely something there.  Anger… in a lot of ways, it was what fueled him.  Even before the- No.

Even before, it was anger that motivated him.  A refusal to quit, an inability to accept things as they were, that had been what had driven him to success.  He’d told people that he’d been an accountant.  He thought he’d mentioned doing some boxing in college.  That was true, but not the whole story.  He’d won a diamond belt and used the prize as seed money.  Isaac had been an accountant, but he’d been the owner of his own firm.  Admittedly, a small one, but that was still a highly unusual thing for a twenty five year old.  By the time he was thirty, he had a dozen employees and he’d been trying to convince- He’d wanted them to work together.

This wasn’t a problem of motivation.  When he’d lost it against Hector… he’d wanted to…  He didn’t have the words.  Hurt?  Kill?  Protect?  Everything, all at once.  Every last feeling he’d ever had during a fight had been in his head at the same time.  It pushed his power, hard.  But strength wasn’t his issue.  Against Jenny, he hadn’t felt anything but a bit of worry and then surprise.  As far as Isaac was concerned, he’d lost both fights.  For the same reason too, he’d lost control.  That was it, then.

When he was hot, he pushed himself forward.  When he was cold, he pulled others in.  He didn’t need that extra bit, that desire to hurt that came with the cold, but he could still use the basic approach.  He was already strong enough, he didn’t need to work for that.  Now he knew what he would work for.


The Sparring Fields

Isaac kept his face still, impassive, while the healer asked them about their powers.  He let the Dust boy answer first.

“I, uh…”  The boy interrupted himself to look at him, swallowed, then continued.  “I’m normal.  Any… anything that gets through will hurt.  But… but I’m good at stopping that.”

“Very well.” answered the healer.  “And you, Trainee Isaac?”

“I can’t be harmed.” he said, coldly, then turned to look down at his opponent.  “I don’t know why you chose me.”  He had to force it, but he put a bit of contempt in his voice.  “I promise, it will not go well for you.”

“Enough!”  The Healer interrupted him.  “Trainee, if you say another word before the match, I’ll call it here and now!”  That was the first show of emotion he’d seen from one of the Citadel’s healers.  “Is that understood?”

Isaac just nodded, not taking his eyes off Donnie.  The kid was visibly wilting before him.  He felt a little bad about this.  But, if it worked, it could make the difference between being an operative and a washout.

“Trainee Dust, your use of force against Isaac is unrestricted.  You win if you render him helpless or he says ‘I yield.’  You forfeit the match if you speak the same phrase, or you break through the dome’s walls.  You may also tap the ground or your opponent, if you wish to yield but are unable to speak.”

Isaac wished he could read the healer’s expression.  Those masks they wore, traditional for healers in and out of the Citadel, covered their mouths and noses.  They might have been meant to stop the spread of infection, but they did a good job of hiding a healer’s face as well.

“Isaac, you win if you render helpless Trainee Dust or if he speaks the phrase ‘I yield.’  You forfeit the match if you breach the dome, speak the same phrase, or exceed acceptable force levels.  For the purpose of this match, lethal force constitutes severe damage to Trainee Dust’s torso or head, as well as full amputation of one of his arms or legs.

Do you both understand the terms of this match?”

Isaac just nodded, while Donald was answering.

“Then please enter the combat dome.  You may begin when the tone sounds.  Stop, immediately, when it sounds again.”

The two trainees separated and entered the dome from opposite sides.  As soon as they left the healer, Isaac began concentrating on his field.  He needed it as strong as he could get it, but he wanted to keep the visual aspect to a minimum.  After a few moments of that, there was a slight rippling in the air around him.  It looked like heat distortion.  He could feel the burning, just behind his forehead.  He kept pushing at it, making it stronger, until it felt like a spike driven into his skull.  He tried not to let the struggle show on his face, kept it cold and distant.  He stood straight, crossed his arms, and waited for the match to begin.


Don hadn’t done any research before the match, didn’t even try to put a face to the name he’d picked.  All he’d known was that Isaac Strong was five ranks above him.  He wanted to get as high as he could before graduation.  They said rank didn’t affect that, but it was obvious how they’d pick the trainees who went on to intervention teams.  He met Isaac for the first time when they both approached Geoffrey Healer, just before the match.  He’d tried to introduce himself, keep it friendly, but the big man just acted like he was offended, like Don was beneath him.  He shouldn’t have let it bother him but…

Isaac scared him.

He heard the tone and let his power out.  Dust began to pour out of his skin, gathering around him.  Isaac just stood there, his arms crossed, that look on his face.  He drew out more of the dust, gathered it into a mass around him.   He couldn’t see anything, but that was okay.  Don reached out with arms made of the black stuff his power created, felt the sides of the dome.  He used that to orient himself, then pressed in against himself with the dust he’d kept close to his body.  Don rose about twenty feet, almost to the ceiling, and cleared the air around his face.  Isaac was still standing there.  He almost looked bored.  Don knew what he could do, what his power was capable of.  That Strong asshole thought he couldn’t be hurt?  Fine, he wouldn’t hold back.

Don raised an arm of black dust, squeezed it together until it was as hard as stone, and sent it flying across the room.  He felt the impact as it slammed into the big man, hard enough to crush a car.  Isaac didn’t move.  He let the dust collapse into its natural powder form.  He sent more and more, burying Isaac in it.  When he had enough to cover the man’s entire body, he started to squeeze.

He could feel the space between the grains, moved them closer to get rid of it.  When it was as tight as he could get it, he stopped.  He’d made a greyish black mound around his opponent, airtight.  He knew he’d have to let the man out soon, otherwise he’d suffocate.  The rules might have allowed it, but he didn’t want to kill the guy.

Isaac started moving, slowly.  At first, Don thought he was struggling, trying to break through the surrounding mass.  Then he realized, Isaac was just walking.  He’d stuck the man in a tomb of dust, stronger than stone and feet thick, but the man was just walking out of it.  Isaac broke free, still walking towards Don, and he didn’t even look bothered.

Don raised his hands, lifting the dust he’d used to bury Isaac and collapsing it back into a powder.  He set it moving, swirling around the man, faster and faster.  Don forced it against him, and the floor.  At this speed, the dust could strip steel.  He could already feel it ripping up tiny chunks of the stone floor, gouging it deeper by the moment, and added that material to his cloud.

Cold sweat was building up on Don’s face.  He pushed harder, trying to get his power to make more dust.  He was at his limit, so he used some of the swirling cloud to strip material off the walls as well as the floor.  This was as hard as he’d ever pushed himself.  The dust storm he was maintaining was strong enough to flip a truck, the grains of stone and dust were moving fast enough to eat through the side of a battleship.

He’d have to be careful not to breach a wall at this rate, but Isaac was totally unaffected.  It was unreal.  He began compressing chunks of dust, making larger pieces.  He kept the cloud moving, used the larger pieces to strike at Isaac while he tried to rip off his skin with the smaller ones.

Isaac stopped walking when he was almost directly beneath Don.  His clothes weren’t even damaged.  He said something.  Don could feel the movement in his face.  His dust was even more sensitive than his fingers were, but he couldn’t tell what the man had said.  He thought he was finally having an effect on Isaac when the man bent over.

He realized what was happening a moment later, when the rock, a piece of the floor that Isaac had scooped out as easily as a child made a snowball, came flying at him.  Don tried to put dust between him and it, but he couldn’t harden it fast enough.  It hit him in his left hand.  He felt something give, screamed in pain, and half the dust in the room collapsed to the ground.

That included the dust that was supporting him.

Isaac caught him, cradling him in his arms like an infant.  Don tried to pull in more dust, sent it streaming at Isaac’s face.  The bastard just adjusted his grip, ignoring Don’s attempts to get free, until he was holding him up by both arms, squeezing them near the shoulders.  He could feel a red heat, spikes of agony coming from his hand every time he moved.  Isaac said something again, but Don still couldn’t hear him.  He felt the man’s grip tighten, then felt both his arms break.  He couldn’t concentrate, let go of the dust, clenched his eyes shut against the pain.  Isaac set him down, gently.  It still hurt.  This time, he heard the looming figure speak.

“Say it.”

Cold.  His voice was so cold.  Don couldn’t think, didn’t know what the man wanted.  Isaac’s hands moved lower, squeezed again.  Don’s eyes shot open as the pain got worse.  He looked away, terrified.  Isaac let go of his arms and Don was relieved, until he felt the hand on his throat.

“Please!” he begged, “Anything!  Just stop!”

“Apologize for wasting my time, boy.”

“YES!” he screamed, desperate.  “I’m sorry!  I yield! I yield!”  He heard a noise and the hand let go.  He was crying but he didn’t care, not as long as that man stopped hurting him.


Isaac let go of the kid’s throat and stood up as soon as he heard the tone.  The match was over.  He turned and left through the same door he’d entered, without looking back at the other trainee.  He had to make an effort to keep his face cold and his stride even as he heard the healer working on the poor boy.  Isaac exited the dome, then paused to look around.  When he’d found his target, standing next to an unfamiliar man in an operative’s uniform, he started walking again.

“Instructor Achala.”

“Yes Trainee Isaac?”  The coach’s voice didn’t hold any of the hostility he’d feared.  Isaac didn’t let his relief show.

“I’d like to change my name.” he said, instead.

“If you are no longer Strong, then who are you?” Achala asked, with a touch of ceremony.

“Isaac Dauntless.”

The man nodded in acceptance or maybe approval. “A good name, wear it well.”

Isaac thought there might have been compassion in Achala’s eyes, but he didn’t take the time to be sure.  Again, without looking back, he turned and left.


Private Residence

He’d seen Hector and Jason in the crowd of trainees, gathered to watch or participate in the day’s fights, but he hadn’t acknowledged them.  Breaking character then would’ve wasted the work he’d done.  Work: to create something of value.  He sighed, hoping that fit, that what he’d started would actually have value.  She… she wouldn’t have liked it.  But what she wanted didn’t matter anymore, not after what that arrogant bastard, that stupid, idiotic vigilante had done.  So, this was what he’d do, who he’d be.

Isaac heard a knocking at his door.  It didn’t surprise him.  He knew Jason and Kelly were at the matches, they each had a fight scheduled, but saying that Hector was somewhere else was kind of silly.  The young man always seemed to have a few duplicates around.

“Yeah?”

“Isaac?  It’s Hector, mind if I come in?”

Isaac didn’t answer, just grunted, but apparently that was enough.  Moving slowly, Hector opened the door and slipped in.  Isaac was sprawled out on the bed, one arm near his head and the other stretched out.  Hector took his usual seat, the room’s only chair.

“Did it work?” Isaac asked him.

“Depends,” Hector met Isaac’s gaze, his face grim, “were you trying to scare the shit out of pretty much everyone else in the class?”

“That bad?” Isaac winced.  “Not how I would’ve put it, but yeah, that’s pretty much what I was going for.”

“Why?”

“This way, I keep my current spot without having to fight as much.”

“I didn’t think you were the type to care about the rankings.” Hector said.

“I don’t, not really.” Isaac tried to explain.  “They’ve been pretty up front that the rankings don’t mean anything, not in and of themselves.  Coach Achala called them a training opportunity, or something like that.”  Hector nodded.  “I think… I think what they really are, are a chance to study us.  The fight training we’ve had so far, it isn’t about teaching technique or anything like that.  Even the exercise, I mean, it makes people stronger… but there’s something off.  It seems to me, they’re both more about teaching an attitude.  Or maybe looking for it?  I wanted to show them, the instructors, what I’m capable of.”

“You’re right.  Or at least, I’ve been thinking pretty much the same way.”  Hector agreed.

“Heroes-” Isaac felt the burning in his head and his vision took on a silver tint, just from saying the word.  “Sorry.”  He took a moment to calm down.  “Vigilantes, the ones that call themselves heroes, they talk about inspiring people.  They dress up in bright colors, costumes and masks and all that.  The Citadel, operatives, they wear black and white.  They don’t exactly wear uniforms, there’s too many differences in the gear they carry to call them that, but it’s close.  They aren’t about good and evil, just…”

“Necessity.”  Hector interrupted.

“Exactly.  That’s what the training, the lectures and the ranking stuff is all about.  That mind set.”

“How do you mean?  I get the lectures, they’re not exactly subtle.  But the rankings?”

“Take that poor Dust kid, Donny.” Isaac started to explain.

“Don.” Hector interrupted.  “He, uh, he hates being called Donny.”

“Sorry.  Guess he reminded me of someone else.” Isaac closed his eyes, just for a moment, before continuing.  “They both got in over their heads because they didn’t bother to think about what they were doing.  I’m probably the worst possible match for that kid, and it should’ve been obvious to him.”

“Yeah, the force field, right?”  Hector got it, probably had as soon as he saw what Don’s power was.

“I don’t know the details, but that kid made and controlled some kind of powder, right?”

“He calls it dust, obviously.  They’re basically bucky balls, if you’ve ever heard the term.  He’s also got a kind of telekinesis that only works on small particles and his dust.” explained Hector.

“Thought so.  You’ve been watching him, all of us.  You’re smart.  He isn’t.”  Isaac shook his head.  “I saw what he did to the walls and the floor.  That kid’s power is destructive as anything you can name.  But my field, there’s no friction there.  It only registers impact, and it pushes back against each one, individually.  The only shot he used against me, the only one that might’ve worked, was the first one.  But it wasn’t strong enough, not enough force behind it.  Against a basic Strong type, maybe even one on the same scale as me, he’d have peeled them down to the bone.”

“So what does that say about this attitude you were talking about?” Hector asked.

“The exercise.  With that Aid guy there, you literally couldn’t fail.  All you had to do was keep trying.  With the lectures, they’ve been emphasizing making a hard call in a no win situation.  Fight training was the same thing, on a more personal scale.  Get us, those of us that need it, used to hurting someone.  Used to being hurt, too.

“The first time’s the hardest, same as most things.  It gets easier to deal with.  Every single time, it’s easier.  The rankings… that’s a little different.  My take on it is that it’s about planning, fitting strength against weakness.  It’s like Instructor Verres said, no one’s so strong they can beat all comers.”

Hector hesitated, before answering.  “I’m… not so sure about that last part.  But I think you’re right about the rest.  Everything they’ve done so far, it isn’t about training the body.  They’re trying to shape our mindsets.  And I’m wondering… just how honest they’ve been about it.”

“What do you mean?”  Isaac sat up, suddenly concerned.

“You remember that guest speaker, the one from Monday?”

“Sights or something.  What about him?” Isaac asked.

“He was wrong.” Hector said.


The Sparring Fields

Kelly examined her opponent from across the room.  Jim Feral was a little under average height, with light brown hair and a build that wasn’t quite heavy enough to be called stocky.  She’d picked him for a couple of reasons.  Kerry had fought him during the initial rankings and had been willing to share what she knew about his abilities.

He had the basic physical enhancements: strength, durability and reflex speed, but they weren’t enough to stand out here.  Coupled with fairly high end regeneration and natural blades, he was the perfect opponent for her to test out her new form.  He could do enough damage to get through anything but the really outstanding defenses and she didn’t have to worry about hurting him too bad, if her form worked better than she expected. Of course, the most important reason was that she hadn’t seen him in a while, wanted to reconnect.

“I hate fighting people like you.” he called, strolling forward.  Her first reaction was a mixture of betrayed hurt and anger.  She almost attacked right then, but that sort of thing didn’t really fit him. He’d never had a problem with her… ‘oddity’ before.

“What do you mean?” she asked instead.  He stopped around thirty feet away, close enough that they didn’t need to yell but far enough to let him react if she tried to sucker punch him.  It was smart, smarter than she’d have expected from him.

“The tiny little girls with ridiculous powers.” he explained.  “If I win, I get crap for beating up a little girl.  Losing is even worse.  No one gives you sympathy for getting torn apart by a fucking dragon if they think of it as a cute little red head.”  His tone was bitter but he was smirking as he said it, amused.  “It’s a lose-lose situation.”  Kelly shifted to her basic male form.

“Better?”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”  Jim lunged forward, faster than Kelly expected.  A bone spike slid out of the palm of his hand as he came.

Kelly turned aside and stumbled back, barely avoiding the attack.  He looked down, saw a cut in his training uniform that showed a bloody patch beneath it.  That spike was needle sharp and more of them were sliding out as he watched.  Jim was staring at him, crouching just a little with his arms spread to the sides, as they slid into place at his knees and elbows as well as his other hand.  Kelly needed to buy time to get into his new fighting shape.  He shifted to the climbing form instead and leaped for the nearest wall, just above the door he’d come in through.

Kelly’s fingers had wide, sharp claws that bit into the stone surface of the wall.  He knew his skin had a weird, pebbly look to it but that was just the side effect of the tiny sucker like extrusions that covered most of his body now.  They were modeled on a gecko’s setae and let him cling to surfaces, even vertical or upside down.  It wouldn’t have worked without the hollowed out bones or the super light, thin frame that he’d gotten by removing most of his internal organs.  A custom designed body could do things that Mother Nature never dreamed of.  Kelly crawled, as quickly as he could, up the curved wall of the dome and out of Jim Feral’s reach.

“Oh come on man!”  He heard Jim cry out, below.  “I know there’s not a time limit, but how long are you going to hide up there?  I got other stuff to do today!”

Not long at all.  Kelly couldn’t answer out loud; the climbing form lacked a vocal apparatus.  He just needed enough time to picture his next change in detail.  The ones he used most often were as easy as taking off a shirt, a reflex he didn’t really need to think about.  New forms required concentration and a detailed mental image of what he wanted.  Kelly had spent the better part of the week putting together his plan for the new combat form, but this would be the first time he’d tried it for real.

The basic body was an iguana’s, scaled up massively.  Kelly had tweaked a few things here and there, titanium scales, diamond-like structures for the bones and muscular system that was both denser and far more extensive.  The wings were modeled on a bat’s, but he had to really rework the skeleton’s shape and the muscles in his back to accommodate them.

The final touch was the head and neck.  Someone in the Citadel kept snakes, either as part of their duties or just as a hobby, and Kelly had been allowed to ‘sample’ a real Naja ashei, the giant African spitting cobra.  Of course, he’d reworked the venom sacs and altered the coloring to something more appropriate.

Kelly felt the tingling as the change started and pushed himself free of the ceiling, twisting in midair.  The climbing form had the inner ears of a cat and a custom designed tail, so it was a trivial for Kelly to make sure he landed on all fours.  It should look awesome.


“Holy shit.  This really is like fighting Kerry.”  Jim muttered, watching as Kelly’s body rippled then transformed into a twenty foot long dragon, minus the tail, while it was still in midair.  There was a tremendous crash as it hit the ground, sending up a cloud of dust and shattered stone.  “Or maybe not.”  Jim said, as he moved forward, cautiously approaching Kelly’s prone body.

“You okay?”  The dragon thing didn’t look right.  Maybe hurt in the fall?  Its legs weren’t broken, but there was something wrong with the joints.  “Hey, just wiggle you’re tail if you’re okay.”  There was something sticking up, distorting the skin around the nearest one.  Was it still called skin when there were scales on top of it?

He gave a sigh of relief as Kelly’s body shifted, the joints visibly reshaping back to something normal.  Jim darted forward, stabbing at its neck with both of his hand spikes.  Kelly stood up, his snakelike head meeting Jim’s gaze.  He hadn’t been able to get through the scales at its neck so Jim leapt back, trying to get out of range before Kelly could swipe at him with those claws.

Apparently, he’d had plenty of time.  The motion came, but it was slow and badly aimed.  It didn’t even come close to hitting him.  Jim ran back in, moving as fast as he could.  He stabbed at the neck again then used his elbow blades to cut at the dragon thing’s legs and sides as he ran past.

Kelly was moving too slowly to get him easily but, given its size, all it would take was one mistake and Jim might be down for the count.  The tail turned out to be more dangerous than the claws.  It was moving faster than the other limbs and he hadn’t thought to watch out for it.

“Fuck!” he swore, as it collided with his thigh.  Jim fell and started rolling, opening up distance between Kelly and himself.  He couldn’t turn off the regeneration so Coach Achala had consistently paired him with the harder hitters in combat training.  Jim was grateful, now.

He could tell the difference between a broken femur and one that just hurt, a lot.  It wouldn’t take long for him to recover, then he’d be back in the fight.  Jim Feral might not be the best there was at what he did, but he was determined to show that he was better than his current ranking.


Kelly looked down at his opponent.  Jim was too far away for him to reach with claws or tail and this new body was turning out to be really hard to move around in.  The coordination was awful and everything just felt so heavy.  He tried to take a step forward and almost fell.  Well, that still left him one option.  He’d embedded flint into his snakelike tongue and iron into the roof of his mouth.  The spitting cobra’s venom had been replaced with acetone.

Kelly would’ve preferred gasoline but acetone was easier, most bodies used it in small amounts already.  He raised his head and reared back, prepared to spit a blast of flame at his opponent.  He didn’t like the idea of hurting Jim, but he’d heal and this was going to be really cool.


Jim watched, stunned, as Kelly’s head exploded.


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