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Matt met Cross at the door to Winters’ office and she led him with barely a word to a nearby disused classroom. They sat on either side of a small plastic table, and the Ashes woman set down a clipboard.

“We will proceed like so,” she said curtly, “You will make predictions. I will record these predictions for analysis. I will ask any questions I deem necessary. Am I clear?”

“You are,” Matt said gently. Be unflappable, he told himself – confident and unconcerned. “But let me be as well.” He gave Cross a kind smile and was pleased to see the short woman appeared slightly perturbed. “I will see what I see. Nothing you or I can do can force the sight. We cannot choose which points are held static in time.” He glanced around at the small room. “Can you dim the lights please?”

The sudden reversal from giving orders to taking them seemed to throw Cross. Nevertheless, she rose without a word and walked over to adjust the dimmer. While she was doing so, Matt removed his phone from his pocket and set it face up on the desk, the music player opened to a playlist of deep forest sounds.

“Take my hands,” he commanded calmly, holding his palms out face up, as the sound of soothing jungle noise suffused the mood-lit room. If Cross had seemed perturbed before, it was nothing compared to how she looked now.

“I don’t-”

“Take my hands please,” Matt smiled, the embodiment of mystic calm. Reluctantly, Cross did as he asked. Matt gently gripped her cold, stumpy fingers and, still smiling, closed his eyes, leaving the Ashes woman sitting stiffly and looking very uncomfortable.

Cross, Matt thought, was a powerful, professional woman, and, he’d wagered, both unused to people unaffected by her authority and put off by unsolicited intimacy. Matt slowly caressed Cross’s fingers in time with the soundtrack, feeling the tension confirm his theory. And that wasn’t all.

They remained in that position, with the sound of an optimist’s version of the Amazon washing over them, until Matt felt that a sufficiently dramatic amount of time had passed.

“You’re not married, are you?” he asked, slowly opening his eyes and phrasing the question so that literally any answer Cross gave would be correct. But as he suspected, the middle-aged Ashes woman shook her head, her eyes wide and her lips set tight. Matt nodded.

“I see a ring,” he continued, “Maybe not soon, but some time. A part of you will want to reject it, a part of you won’t. Neither will be entirely right. You’ll have to make peace with that.”

Of course, Matt had simply felt the lack of a wedding ring on her index fingers. The rest was pure demographic pandering – any intelligent single woman past a certain age harboured some level of misgivings about not being married, and any intelligent person full stop would have doubts about a proposal. As for the proposal itself well, Cross would need to be dead before she could definitively disprove that prediction – heck, he had a great aunt who’d married at eighty.

Matt closed his eyes again and took a deep, slow breath.

“You have so much unused potential,” he said quietly, lifting his head but not opening his eyes. Well obviously, the woman was an Ashes (Ash? Ash-ling?), she’d been slated to join the Legion at some point. And even if she hadn’t, the fear of not making the most of your life was almost universal. “You will have an opportunity to do great things, to seek your limits. When that time comes, you should follow the colour grey.”

That was straight guessing. Cross started to say something, but Matt shushed her ever so slightly and kept on with his pretending.

They sat that way for a few more minutes before eventually Matt lowered his head slightly, opened his eyes, and looked directly at Cross. “I also see lies,” he said, a little more firmly, “Soon, in your future. You’re going to tell a white lie to save another person’s feelings.”

Literally everyone did this.

“And,” Matt continued, gently releasing his grip on her fingers and folding his arms, “I’m sorry to say, but you’re going to be a victim of theft.”

This too was almost statistically guaranteed.

Matt let out a long dramatic sigh. Then without warning he turned away and stood up, leaving Cross sitting momentarily stunned, the spell suddenly broken. Matt silenced and pocketed his phone, then crossed the room and undimmed the lights.

“That’s all I can see for now,” he stated plainly, turning back to Cross, his hands now in his pockets, “I’ll let you know if anything more comes up. But for now that’s all I’m getting.” Without waiting for her invitation or approval, he turned to leave.

“Oh,” he added, suddenly stopping, his hand on the doorknob, as if he’d suddenly just remembered, “Except for the dancers.”

“Dancers?” asked Cross, still partially shaken but trying to hide it, “What, um, what dancers?”

“A man, dancing with a woman,” Matt replied casually, holding up an indifferent hand and examining his cuticles, “Not sure if it’s you, could be, maybe not. He loves her too much. It’s going to get him in trouble.”

Let’s see her disprove that, Matt smirked to himself, walking out before the stunned woman could say another word.

*****

Arena’ was the wrong word for it. ‘Arena’ sounded small and personal, and this was closer to a football stadium with a raised square stone platform in the middle, thought Jane. She half expected some man which a container strapped around his neck to be wandering around shouting about hotdogs, like in the movies. At least it’d been easy to find – hard to miss actually, being a big random stadium that looked like it’d been picked out of a city somewhere and dropped next to Morningstar. The Legion’s main sparring stadium – her first class of the day.

Around her, combatants milled on the width of grass running uniformly around the outside of the raised central square. Jane ignored their glares, like she ignored the derogatory shouts occasionally hurled down from the smattering of people in the grandstands – her eyes resolutely focused on the gigantic figure looming in front of them.

“Listen up, you scum-sucking pieces of subhuman trash,” snarled the man, one foot on the marble stairs leading up into the centre ring, one foot on the ring itself, “My name is James Conrad, I am a strongman, and I am a Senior. Do you know what that means?”

Nobody answered. His face split into a broad-toothed smile.

“All so shy. You will answer when I speak to you. Sir yes sir. Now I’ll say again, I am a Senior – do you know what that means?”

SIR NO SIR!

“Good,” James Conrad smiled, like a shark before a corpse. He was huge, a monster of a man. Six foot eight, maybe twenty-four, with skin as dark as dusk and every inch of him bulging, rippling muscle. Veins on his arms the width of her fingers, cables in his neck, legs like pistons and a chest that threatened to tear his grey shirt apart. Her whole head could’ve fit in his hand, and she doubted it would have lasted there long. “Admit your ignorance. I admire that in peasants.”

He dropped to the ground, both feet thumping into the grass in a clod of dust and dirt. Even on their level he towered above them.

“It means I have been here the longest. It means that I have endured and advanced while wave after wave of you pathetic wannabes have washed out.” He curled his fingers to fists, cracks popping through the open air. “It means I am the best of the best and don’t you ever forget it.”

He looked around at them, over the top of them. Why he needed to make this stupid speech was beyond Jane. She was the only one who was new. Probably. Jane glanced around the crowd of Acolytes, trying to catch a face. Were they intimidated by this act? Did he say this every time they went to fight? But the backs of heads and blank expressions gave her nothing.

James was still talking, though Jane was getting impatient listening. “You will fight who I tell you to fight, how I tell you to fight. You will stay inside the square. You will show no mercy-” he grinned wide and savage, “-until your opponent taps out or lies bleeding. I like to see strong. I like to see ruthless.” He liked the sound of his own voice, more like. “I like to see contenders.”

He started to pace slowly, then stopped. “Who here thinks they have what it takes to be in the Legion?” he asked, almost softly. There was a menacing twinkle in his black eyes that Jane didn’t like. Nevertheless she, along with everyone there, raised their hands. James’s grin widened.

“Well isn’t that appalling. A flock of fools. You think you’ve got what it takes because you were the best rock-thrower in some hick town?” He laughed. “You need to wake up. And I’m here to awaken you.”

He took a step back onto the stairs, his arms raised wide. “I am first among the Seniors. I will be first into the Legion. And I’m gonna make you an offer, fair and square – beat me, right here, right now, and you can take my place at the front of the queue.”

A stunned silence fell over those gathered. James smiled a giant’s smile, looking down at them with bared teeth. For a second, nobody did anything – except Jane.

Her hand shot in the air. The hulking man’s eyes caught it and traced down to her. To the mark on her cheek. His smile grew.

“Well, well, the empath,” he whispered, “God is good.” Two dozen heads turned to look at her, and a swarm of muttering filled the air. The crowd parted even further around her, opening her path to the waiting, hulking monster of a man.

To hell with it, thought Jane, I can take him. So what if he was strong, it hardly mattered. She had three powers up her sleeve. If this trash-talking idiot wanted to fast-track her ascension he could be her goddamn guest. He was big, sure, but what did that matter when you were set on fire or electrocuted from a hundred yards away? Some cocky line-backer with an ego ten times the size of his brain – he wouldn’t be the first to underestimate her. But he might be the last.

“Step forward empath,” said James with a fake, mocking bow. He retreated up the steps into the square, facing her the whole time, “Step forward, our newest ‘recruit’.” He said the last word laughingly, as if the very concept was a joke.

Jane started to walk forward slowly, watching her steps, her heart beating faster than she would’ve liked. There were hisses around her – muttered, inaudible threats.

“See who comes to challenge us,” crooned James. He was walking backwards now, step by step, towards the centre of the square. “A plagiarist. A parasite.” He kept moving backwards as Jane ascended the stairs, his eyes never leaving hers. “Here to do old Heydrich proud? Here to prove him right? To finish the job?” There was a rush of hisses, and murmur of boos from the Acolytes waiting in the wings. Jane ignored it, staying focused on the Goliath in front of her.

James had reached the opposite end of the platform. He stopped and straightened, rearing up to his full height. A slight tremor ran through Jane’s arms – he really was big. But she stayed steady.

He stared her down, still wearing that mocking smile. “Prepare yourself," he said simply, “I am the strongest man alive.” He paused and surveyed the attending crowd. His knees bent. He cracked his knuckles, rolled his neck.

A hush fell over the assembled.

“Students,” grinned James Conrad, “Attend your master.”

“Three.”

“Two.”

“One.”

“Fight,” he whispered. And neither of them moved.

Silence.

Complete and total silence. Jane watched intently, poised, her feet locked, reflexes on a hair trigger. Nothing. He just stood there, smiling. She wasn’t used to this – the silence, the stillness. Both just watched, waited, waiting for the other to move.

There was forty feet between them.

One heartbeat.

Two.

Then Jane rolled the coin and rippled her fingers.

ZZZZZzzzzzzak-

The bolt lanced outwards, but in the same instant the giant slammed his hands together and there was a deafening boom and the very air around her seemed to explode – she was thrown backwards, out over the grass, a ringing reverberation in her chest, blood pouring from her ears-

She burst downwards, a blast of fire pushing her back up, a wild shot but enough to force her back, keep her in the ring, crash her back onto the hard white stone and-

He was there. Already above her, across the field in a single bound, his bulk blotting out the sun and he was fast, so fast, already there with his fist raised slamming down into-

She blasted sidewards, she didn’t even know what, adrenaline and raw instinct, throwing energy out to push her just barely out of the way of his fist as it slammed into the ground. But still the force, the sheer impact sent a shockwave through the stone that rippled out and into her, under her, winding her, launching her up-

She hung there, dizzy, disoriented, trying to regain her bearings, trying to focus, focus, there was still a chance because she had distance, he’d thrown her up and unintentionally away, and she was flying, floating, falling, looking down at his grinning face and-

ZZZZZzzzzzzak-

Frrrrooooommmmmfffff-

Fire and lightning, both hands, straight down, a jagged pillar of death, but he’d already moved, already sidestepped (he was so fast) – and then she saw his smile widen and his knees bend and the stone crack and he leapt towards her, ten feet in the air-

She tried to turn, pivot, make herself thin, fall faster, move, anything, just get out of the way, because suddenly he was in the air alongside her, blocking her view, a giant, swinging a single, monstrous hand-

“ARGH!”

He’d only nicked her, barely brushed her arm – but that arm was now limp, helpless, screaming with a pain she hadn’t felt in years. It was all she could do to turn so that she landed on the other side, crashed heavily on the stone, hearing something pop, feeling something inside her crack. But her arm. Her arm her arm her arm. She couldn’t move it, it wasn’t round the right way, it felt like every bone was splinters oh God the pain, the pain the pain the pain-

He landed across the square from her, his feet sending cracks through the Arena stone. He was laughing at her, she could hear them all laughing at her. Come on. Come on. Ignore the pain, push through the- oh God her arm, just- he was coming towards her, slowly, strolling, shouting something, taking his time...

“You take powers!” the titan roared to the cheers of the watching crowd, his words blurring through her haze, a hearty sneer clear across his face, “You were never meant to have! You pick up tools we-” he gestured to the stadium, “-have had a lifetime to master! None of us are here because we were born!” He looked down at her, bleeding on the ground, and there was mirth upon his lips. “Parasite.”

And then he blurred. He exploded off the ground, crossing the space between them in a heartbeat, and then suddenly the world was falling, because she was rising, a massive hand around her neck.

No.

She couldn’t shake him. She couldn’t move. His hands were wrought steel and they were wrapped around her neck, slowly constricting, and she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t breathe-

“You don’t belong here.” He pulled her in towards him, face to huge black face, and there was no trace of mercy or kindness in his eyes. “You are weak.” And he was right. She was weak – compared to him every part of her was weak, breakable, able to be shattered in an instant. She did not have his strength.

But she still had one working arm.

“AAAARRRRRGGGHHH!” she roared and thrust her fingers up, spread out and open, straight into his mouth and nose and eyes, lightning arcing from palms. James screamed, spasming, clutching at his face with both hands as she fell, hurtling, tossed across the ring into the-

Ground. The hard white stone rushed out to meet her. She had no time, no strength, no thought with which to react. Her shoulder slammed into stone with all the force he’d thrown her with, then her hips, then her skull. She heard something crack, somethings, all through her – there was a tightness in her chest, a twitching in her mouth, she wanted to get up, but she couldn’t, she couldn’t move…

One eye refused to open, the other looked out helplessly across the ring as her opponent snarled, shaking himself like a Rottweiler, momentarily dazed, his lips drawn across his smoking face. Burns patched his cheeks and nostrils, his eyes bloodshot and furious – and focused squarely on her. He didn’t speak – no quips, no taunts, no funny insults. Just moved his feet out, spread his stance wide, faced her right on, dead centre, twenty feet across the ring. This time she saw him raise his arms. This time she saw him swing his palms together. And this time she saw it, heard it for a fraction of a second as the very air rended between them, the raw force, the shockwave. She understood, an instant before-

And then an unstoppable power slammed into her and the world went black, and Jane Walker was no more.

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About the author

Benjamin Keyworth

  • Australia

Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).

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