*CLANG! CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG!* Lowering my handgun toward the ground, I took a deep breath and stepped forward. The target I mounted against the back wall of the residence building appeared on its surface to have been untouched, though as I pressed my fingers to its glossy surface, I could make out the residues of psychic energy from which my bullets had thoroughly bombarded it.

Eight, six, six, four… And one out of bounds… In terms of stopping power, that’s…

“Brandishing a gun on campus, lady? Be careful that the dean of students doesn’t find you.”

“Oh, vice president!” Spinning around, I holstered my gun and put my hands in front of my chest. “I was just getting some… p-practice in… was all…!” He could be seen leaning against a nearby signpost, a cigarette in his right hand. It’s burned down more than halfway; just how long had Chase been watching me…?

“Since you aren’t out to disturb the peace, I suppose I can look the other way. Do you at least want to tell me what this is about?”

“Well, you see…” With a tired sigh, I lowered myself onto the grass. Chase offered me a cigarette, though I declined with a swish of my hand. “It’s just… last week’s ambush made me realize how deeply I take my talents for granted. As soon as I’ve lost track of a person’s aura, my combat efficiency drops off completely. I just… I need to learn how to shoot better without it, so…”

“Lana, if it were that simple, then you would have lost long before now.”

“Huh?”

“Those men you fought – I would gather most of them have at least a year or two of training, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well, yeah, but-”

“There can be no argument. Faced with an unfamiliar fighting style, they didn’t go out of their way to try and emulate it. Rather, it was more prudent of them to fall back onto a much simpler approach, time being of the essence. Never underestimate the power of the basics, or you’ll soon find that even a mere child could defeat you when given the proper circumstances.”

I wasn’t sure what I could say to something like that. Chase knew as well as I did that the abilities we dabbled in were lacking any fundamental principle. What exactly was there to fall back on here? Without a wide range of counter strategies, how could I possibly hope to defend myself?

“You look lost, Lana, so allow me.” Tossing his cigarette into the air, he spun around and kicked the metal post behind him. Yet there was no clang to be heard. Instead, a gust of air seemed to orbit the fixture before bending in the direction of the spent item. It burst into a bright orange flame, accelerated, and then crashed dead center into the target, the red circle now singed black.

I watched it all, my mouth hanging open. “What did you do…!?”

“It’s quite simple, actually. Take a look here, right below the edge of the sign. There’s a slight protrusion of metal, yeah?”

“Okay…?”

“This is evidence of a spot weld, and as such, there’s a slight change in the structural integrity. Meanwhile, the bottom of my boot contains a rugged wire mesh. All I need is focus the heat and sound into that weld, and the result is a very powerful combustion source.”

Pressing a finger to the metal revealed a significant change in temperature but only at the protrusion point. In fact, it almost felt as if the signpost had somehow been rendered colder as a result. In some ways, it was scary the amount of control Chase Ramsey manifested over his power. Was it truly so basic as he had claimed?

“Lana.”

“Y-Yes?”

“There is no shame in having flown by the seat of your pants all this time. You are a skilled fighter, of that there is no doubt. However, if you truly wish to overcome this hurdle, then you must expose yourself to the risk of failure, of weakness, of inferiority.”

“But how in the hell do I do that?”

Suddenly, Chase was all smiles. He walked over to the blackened target and tore it off the wall, fashioning it into a mock sword and pointing it at me. “I propose we have a bit of a survival game: your resolve as a warrior versus the institution you have sworn so valiantly to protect. No rules, no boundaries – survive a total of six hours, and you win. Well, are you interested?”

It occurred to me that his plan hinged on my agreeing to use a technique which we had only just learned about with no understanding of the potential dangers involved. Furthermore, he was advocating for the proliferation of psychic weaponry to a group of people who would likely find a way to misuse them. For someone whose job was meant to ensure the well-being of the campus, this seemed incredibly irresponsible.

“You’re on then,” I answered.

“All I needed to hear.” Taking his phone from his pocket, he punched in some information and hit the Send key. I felt my own vibrate and found it was a message which had been forwarded to all students:

“Glory to the strongest fighters! By order of the student body, a VIP battle shall commence with Lana Orion as your foe! With psychic power at your disposal, can you forge a weapon capable of taking down this mighty markswoman? Winners shall receive a $100 voucher for use at all campus locations! All students may enter the fray, regardless of skill level. The challenge ends at 10PM tonight. Good luck.”

He certainly had a way with words. All that was left was to initiate the sphere. I raised my hands in the air, and he did the same. “ABSTRACTION GATE! TRANSPOSE MANIFEST!” As it had before, the air became saturated in a flash of purple light. It engulfed the entire university, and I could feel my body surge with newfound power.

“Heads up!” From the corner of my eye, Chase threw something which reflex caused me to catch. When I looked down, I could see numbers counting down. Shit! I chucked the sound grenade as hard as I can, watching it explode about fifty feet away.

“The hell was that for!?”

“Your challenge has begun, lady! Grit your teeth and carry on!” He ran off toward the student union, a mighty guffaw echoing from his belly.

“You son of a bitch! Alright Lana, come up with a counter strategy…” I closed my eyes and materialized a pistol as well as three hornet drones. “Let’s move out! Target anyone using psychic power!”

“Yes, ma’am!” With that, my hornets scurried over the top of the residence building before spreading out in different directions. It was time for me to head out too. With a rebel yell, I rushed around the building to its rear entrance. Little did I know that people would already be waiting for me.

“Those vouchers are mine!” A boy carrying a shotgun stepped out of his room and fired into the first hallway. I ducked down as low as I could, sinking four rounds into his chest. The weapon disappeared, and the word “OUT” hovered over his head. One down.

Each time a door opened, my powers would lock on target ready to fire. I witnessed everything from samurai swords to the equivalent of Molotov cocktails, though each time I managed to evade, if just barely. Close quarters was clearly the way to go if it meant keeping my foes from grouping together. Of course, that wasn’t the only potential problem.

If I attempted to seek cover in my own room, they could easily use explosives to flush me out; and were they to band together within the hallways, there’d be more attackers than I could shoot with only a handgun. My best bet would be to keep moving and avoid the exits, which were likely to have already been blocked off anyway. Opening a side door, I took the stairs two at a time, destination being the top floor.

Stealthily, I let myself into the common area, only to find it empty. All of the rooms had been left open, yet there was not a soul in sight. I peered into one, and when I did, a hail of bullets nearly took my head off.

Booby-traps!? You have got to be kidding me! Run! Just run! Sprinting with the dexterity of a wild elephant, I made it to the bend in the hallway and rolled hard into the nearby shower room. A thorough scan of the walls revealed it to be safe. I slumped against the door with a sigh of relief.

“Status report!”

“Melchior opening fire above the campus library!”

“Balthazar reconnoitering the campus access roads!”

“Caspar currently under heavy fire at the student union!”

“Balthazar, make your way over to Caspar and provide support! Melchior, change positions to the residence building!”

“Roger that!”

Now then… “Mode Change!” Within moments, my handgun had transformed into a short-barrel automatic rifle. Throwing open the door, I sent a volley forward, and a second back the way I came. Nine people dropped, the word “OUT” hovering over each of them. With grunts of exasperation, they made their way back to their rooms.

The firearm returned to its original shape, and I slumped against the nearest wall. Damn… that really took a lot out of me… Now where do I go from here? The roof access was on the opposite side of this floor. I would have to take the hallway all the way around in order to reach it. Would there be even more traps waiting for me? Only one way to find out.

I rushed quickly between the rows of rooms, my next stop being the floor’s small kitchen. A quick peek out the window revealed that the building had indeed been surrounded. Just as I was about to move out, however, I felt a surge of pain through my abdomen.

“FUCK! Melchior, status!”

“Ma’am, there’s too much heavy fire! I can’t sustain my form-!”

A high pitched screech echoed in my brain, and the hornet’s manifestation was immediately cut off. Shit! I’m out of time! “Caspar, Balthazar, return link, now!”

“Roger that, ma’am!” A glow of light surrounded my body, the strength deficit gradually being restored. I knew that I had enough in me to make the needed push toward the building’s roof, but what would the strategy be once I got there? With my diversionary tactics having been thwarted, it wouldn’t be long before the enemy converged upon the building en masse. They’d line the hillsides with snipers and bombard the roof with psychic artillery. The moment my stamina ran out, I’d be finished.

What would a hero do in a situation like this…? I suddenly found myself thinking back to cartoons from my childhood. The heroes would constantly find themselves down to their last health and surrounded on all sides, yet they always managed to prevail somehow by landing one-in-a-million shots or by rewriting the flow of events entirely. Such tropes were necessary to ensure the heroes would always win, except for during those times where it was important that they lose.

Wait a minute… That’s it! Quickly, I fished my phone out of my pocket and re-read Chase’s message. The challenge specified multiple winners, meaning I could take as many hits as necessary provided I stayed within the bounds of what the institution could afford. Even so, I would only have one – maybe two – chances to pull off my plan.

I ran down the hall with a renewed urgency, firing at anyone who dare stand in my way. Finally, the roof access was in sight. I took the spiral steps two at a time, threw open the door, and crouched down on one knee with my handgun pointed upward. Sure enough, the snipers had already taken their positions on the hill facing me. “Shield!”

The students opened fire, shots bouncing against the wall of light which covered my crossed arms. Three… two… ONE! I lowered the shield, a powerful blast colliding with my left shoulder and knocking me back several feet.

“You got her!” someone shouted. “Quickly! Open fire!” “Take her out!”

This was it – do or die time. The ground forces had already launched their volleys into the air. Their trajectory was locked over the point where my body had been only seconds earlier. Arms stretched out in front of me, I took careful aim with my gun. “POSITRON VECTOR!”

*SCREECH!* A burst of white light rang out, made contact with the enemy projectile, and deflected it along the path of the center-most sniper. There was a flurry of panic, followed by a massive explosion which knocked out each and every sniper all at once. Slowly, the mark on my shoulder disappeared. It appeared that my predictions had been correct after all. I limped my way to the balcony and looked down at the crowds below.

“If you thought this would be easy, you were dead wrong! I’ve fought ghosts stronger than the likes of you!” Yeah… let’s see your resolve hold up now.

“What the hell happened!?” “She can deflect bullets now!?” “Go for the heart next time!” “How are we supposed to get a kill shot!? That’s impossible!” Little by little, the seeds of discontent began to spread throughout their ranks. Right on cue, others began to play devil’s advocate, only adding to the confusion.

“She’s still just one woman!” “If we bombard the roof surely one of us will take her!” “Yeah, but who gets the win!?” “I want that voucher so badly!” “What if she deflects it back at us again!?” “There’s no way she can do it twice! Ascend the hill, double-time!” “Hey, who made you the commander!?”

Come on, come on… I was starting to become woozy. There was no way I could keep this up. Falling to my knees, I rolled my back against the side of the balcony. Dammit, just a little more…

“Now, now, this doesn’t seem very fair, does it!?” The voice which echoed across the campus was unmistakable. “I, the magician girl Rhiannon, shall not allow this injustice to continue!”

“Look! On the student union!” “Holy crap, is she gonna jump!?” “There’s no way she’ll make it!” As the spectators looked on, the magician girl took a flying leap off the roof of the adjacent building, seeming to cartwheel through the afternoon sky. She landed perfectly on the roof of the residence building, walked over to me and lifted me to my feet. Raising my left arm over my head, she looked down on the crowd.

“Our talented Lana has put forth a valiant effort in spite of the odds being stacked against her! She never should have been tasked with dispatching an entire army of students! Will none of you speak out against your peers and defend this woman’s honor!?”

The clamor of the crowd was soon little more than a whisper of murmurs. Nobody dared speak against her, for they knew her words were a gospel of truth. Then, after nearly a minute of contemplation, one girl stepped forward.

“I will answer the call, lady Rhiannon!” To my surprise, it was Cassandra, the matron-saint herself. “Look at us – fighting over common money and worse yet, attacking the one who gave us these weapons in the first place! Think about it, people! Will we ever have a chance to do something like this again!?”

Cassandra’s words were so very touching that I found myself wiping a tear from my eye. It didn’t take long for the tone of the students to shift completely.

“Yeah! To hell with this!” “Let’s make us a better tournament!” “Battle of the sexes!” “No! Class warfare!” “I say we do a flag battle!” “Yeah, that sounds awesome!” Shouts echoed across the campus, and even the fallen combatants had returned to the field for a shot at redemption, no pun intended.

*Riiing Riiing* There was another message from the vice president. “The rules of engagement have changed. The magician girl Rhiannon shall be under guard by battle captain Lana Orion. Freshman and sophomore students shall assist; all others shall attack. The prevailing team shall receive a special celebration to be put on by the losing faction. The clock starts now.”

By the time I had finished reading, shots were already ringing out below. There was no time to question it. Shaking off any lingering exhaustion, I took Rhiannon’s hand. “Let’s go!” Together, we made our way down the stairs, where friend and foe alike would be waiting for the two of us. The time remaining was four hours.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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