This wouldn’t be the first time I died. Sure as hell wouldn’t be the last, either. But while most watched this virtual world from the safe haven of reality, there was nowhere else I’d rather spend my Saturday night.
Crouched high on the tower’s parapet, I overlooked a sea of wheat fields. The scent of lavender and taste of wheatgrass wove together in the air, drifting with the breeze as it swept through my hair. I took a deep breath and smiled at the irony, as thick as the mountain air filling my lungs. Lavender. Wheat fields. Tranquility.
Peace, in a place anything but peaceful.
Movement in the fields caught my eye, down and right. A zigzag carved its way through the ten-foot-tall stalks, heading straight for the tower. My smile widened. Maybe this sucker had the balls to take on Kali Ling.
I stilled inside. Even breaths. No fear. At the field’s edge, the stalks trembled violently. The air filled with the rainstick rustling of brush and dry grass. Yes. Someone would emerge. I gripped the sword sheathed across my back and waited, muscles tight, mouth watering. Come on. Give me something. A brute. Six—no—seven feet tall, wielding a mace. Or an axe.
Give me anything.
A rabbit scurried out from the field. Nothing followed. The grass fluttered in the breeze. Birds chirped, nestled in the nearby sycamore trees. It was the rabbit, and only the rabbit.
I punched the parapet’s brick wall, but when my frustration subsided, I realized another irony. In 2054, most twenty-year-olds hid behind a barricade—of textbooks. Studying for hours, days, or even years on end, they’d hide away from the real world only to remerge bright and eager to end up in jobs they’d hate. Meanwhile, I strapped on battle gear, sword and all, and headed into these fields.
Fields I now frowned at, which had stilled just to spit on my excitement. Only streams of sunlight punctuated the stalks from above, like skylights from the heavens. Everything blended together in shades of beige as if the landscape had been whitewashed through a sepia lens. In the distance, the enemy’s tower loomed, wrapped in a corkscrew of mountains and rocky terrain. How many of them remained? How close were we to victory?
Shuffling footsteps turned my attention inside. I leapt from my perch and landed on the tower’s stone floor with the impact of a fallen leaf. The wind whispered around me as it bowed to my movements.
The warrior. Pffft. I shoud be the ninja.
A pigtailed blonde stood in the center of the tower, dwarfed by more than the stories-high walls around her. Lily, fair-skinned with delicate features, like the flower she was named for. Dressed like a scantily clad Scandinavian warrior, she wore nothing but fur-lined armor and a wicked grin. Her hands rested on the pair of short axes sheathed at her hips. Not so much like a flower.
Lily shook her head as she approached.
“Your eyes,” she said.
“They can’t see your eyes.” She pushed up to her tiptoes and brushed strands of raven hair away from my face.
“Does it really matter?” I asked.
She frowned. Of course it mattered. Soft and black, my eyes were a distinguishing trait. How marketable.
How perfect.“It’s the Death Match,” she said with a tsk. “Everything matters.”
“Did Clarence teach you to say that?”“Do you think I would have listened?” She grinned and nodded at my perch. “How’s the view?”
A piercing scream ripped through the stillness, resounding off the tower’s walls. My ears perked up, and I seized the dagger at my waist. Dust clung to the air in suspended animation, trapped like the breath inside my lungs. Then, chuckling at myself, I exhaled, released my grip on the weapon, and nudged Lily.
“Really? Did they tell Hannah to go down easy? God, they’ll do anything to add tension.”
My chuckles faded when I met Lily’s taut expression. She shook her head, drew an axe from her belt, and crept toward the tower’s entrance.
“Lil, come on. There’s no way someone took her out that fast.”
“I’ll check it out anyways.”
“From the treetops?” I called out.
Lily disappeared from view through the tower’s entrance. Leaves crunched, and branches snapped as she climbed. Then it went still.
A breeze drifted through the tower and brushed against my bare midriff. I adjusted the armor padding on my shoulders and gripped the sword at my back, drawing it out slowly, purposefully, to catch the late-afternoon sun glinting on the blade. As if millions were watching me.
Absolute quiet blanketed the tower. The birds stopped chirping. The wind stopped rustling.
My breath hitched.
I planted my feet, sword out. Ready. Scuffling footsteps and soft grunts sounded out beyond the tower walls, followed by sharp chopping and wet splats, like cleavers hacking up meat. Or a person. Then, nothing.
I took a step forward.
Then footsteps, heavy and rough, beat up the dirt path to the tower. Two men appeared in the entranceway, both tall enough to brush the top of the tower’s entrance. The metal armor covering their chests, wrists, and calves struggled to contain the muscle beneath, every buckle and clasp strained tight. Ribbons of blood snaked down the swords gripped in their hands. Not bad, boys, but certainly not enough.
Not for me.
“Is this it?” I asked with a grin. “I was hoping for a challenge.”
On cue, two more men appeared behind them.
Four? What kind of crazy-ass ploy was this? Pushing into a tower with four left only one to guard their own. Where was the rest of my team? Why hadn’t they taken the enemy’s fortress?
Of the foursome, one had a cut down his eye and cheek and wore no armor on his chest. He moved toward me first, and the others fell in step behind. At the sound of their pursuit, he held a hand up and gave a swift shake of his head. They halted.
Taking me alone, One-eye? Impressive.
And completely dumb-ass stupid.
He broke off from the pack, leaving them at the door. The trio paced and whimpered, like hyenas waiting for the lion to make the kill. But like good animals, they obeyed their master.
One-eye charged, weapon raised, footsteps pounding across the stone floor. I remained, feet planted, bringing him to me. Breaths filled my lungs, slow and steady. A smile pulled at my lips.
He grunted as he swung for me, muscles straining. I parried his blows and swept him to the side. Like wind. Like water. Metal clanged against metal in a steady beat, his weapon slipping across mine every time.
We broke apart.
He grimaced, muscles clenched. Sweat dripped down his face. I grinned and rolled my shoulders, muscles like liquid. His knuckles turned white around the hilt of his sword. My weapon rotated with the flicks of my wrist, like an extension of my own limb.
He came at me again, making chopping motions in the air. The wind whined under the sharp slashes of steel. I stood tall as he reeled back and swung. As his sword whooshed through the air, I ducked. He stumbled past, revealing the canvas of his back. My sword ripped across it in so many rapid successions, I nearly wrote my name.
Zorro could kiss my ass.
One-eye went down to his knees, shaking. Breaths rasped through his lungs. Snorting like a bull, he pushed up to his feet and came at me again. Wielding his sword with both hands, he swung it like a bat, hard. The impact reverberated down my arms and knocked the sword from my grip. It went flying, smacked the far wall, and tumbled to the ground out of reach.
He grinned at me and brought his weapon down. I rolled, missing the blow. Drawing the dagger from my hip, I pushed up to my feet and slammed the blade into his shoulder. It disappeared down to the hilt. He groaned. I jerked it sideways. He cried out and dropped his sword. It clanked on the floor.
Blood poured out of the wound, gushing over my hand. I lost my grip on the dagger and tumbled to the ground.
The instant my back hit the floor, I pushed up, but my heels slipped across the bloody floor. One-eye ripped the blade from his shoulder and advanced. I scrambled backwards.
Keep space. He can’t hit you if he can’t reach.
I backpedaled, trying to get my feet beneath me, heels not catching. Blood sprayed out from my kicking heels.My back hit the wall. Cornered. First rule of fighting: never get cornered. Damn it.
One-eye closed in.
My chest tightened until I gulped for air. No. I was fine. I’d died before. Simulations. Practices. They teach you how to die. Fighting with honor.
For the show.
He knelt and delivered a swift backhand across my face. My head snapped to the side, vision reeling. Pain blistered across my face with the sharp sting of a rubber band. One-eye straddled me and pushed his weight into my stomach. I gagged and wriggled beneath him, trying to free myself. No luck. His weight and legs formed a vise around my lower half.
In a sweeping arc, he swung the dagger toward my neck, like a reaper wielding his scythe. Skin slapped skin as I caught his forearm with both hands and strained against him. He grimaced and leaned forward, adding weight behind his strength. My hands trembled, muscles screaming in protest.
The blade lowered.
Cold steel kissed my skin. I gasped and bowed my neck in. Come on, Kali. Fight.
Every nerve in my arms and chest ached. The trembling in my hands descended into violent shakes. One-eye grinned down at me like an animal driven mad with hunger. The dagger dug into my throat, sharp and burning. I squirmed and clamped my teeth shut on a squeal.
“Shhh,” he hushed, condescending and overexaggerated. His crew of douche bags giggled in the background.
Blood trickled out of my neck. Fucking bastard. Didn’t cut deep. I’d bleed out in minutes, not seconds. He was drawing this out, purposely, to make me suffer.
With one hand, he pinned my wrists above my head and with the other, held the knife over my face. I braced for the final blow, straining every muscle against a shudder. But instead of bringing the knife down, he let it dangle just above my lips. My own blood, sweet and metallic, dripped down and seeped into my mouth. I sputtered and coughed. Laughter rumbled in his chest. He was enjoying this, sick asshole. And he should. He’d won.
I closed my eyes. This was it. Defeat. Might as well accept it.
No. That wasn’t part of my image. That wasn’t Kali Ling.
I wrenched a hand free and punched One-eye hard across the face. His head jerked sideways, but his weight remained planted on my hips. Damn it. I reached for his shoulder wound, dug my fingers inside, and pulled. He threw back his head and howled, legs convulsing around me from the pain.
I grinned, then faltered.
My breaths morphed into gasps for air as the blood continued to drain from my throat. Numbness captured my fingers, and they slid down his chest, trailing three rows of fading blood across his skin. He looked down at me. Our eyes locked.
He laughed, revealing a row of perfect, bleached teeth. That sardonic laugh reverberated in his chest, flexing muscles I’m sure were already flexed. It was over. He had won.
My hand collapsed to the floor. Coldness crept up my limbs as my vision whirled and faded.
No. This wasn’t happening. We don’t lose.
We never lose.
The weight pressed against my stomach lessened as One-eye leaned toward my face. His breath came out in snorts, ghosting across my cheeks. Sweat dripped from his skin and mingled with mine. It swirled together with the blood in my mouth, salt and metal. I gagged from the taste, and from the blood bubbling up my throat.
My breaths shortened. He grew closer still, until the heat from him radiated against my skin. An inch. Maybe less.
I could just picture the cameras zooming in.
“Night, night, sweetheart,” he whispered as my eyelids fluttered, and my head rolled to the side.
Despite the numbness, a flood of emotions rushed through me. Shock from losing the fight. Fear as the darkness closed in around me. Rage fueled by the adrenaline pumping through my veins. And beneath it all, I had to admit I was impressed.
He knew how to put on a damn good show.