A week later I was already in trouble. The thing with a school full of boys being taught to kill suckers is that sparring gets to be a group event. It’s like a fight in a regular school, only here the teachers don’t intervene, or at least, they hadn’t in any of the other four fights I’d seen since I arrived. You get a mob of onlookers, all shouting, and it can turn into a melee easily enough. Things don’t stop until someone’s bleeding. Or worse. Being able to heal just makes the boys more likely to hurt themselves.
I couldn’t heal like they could yet, because I hadn’t “bloomed.” So much for being special. Here I was just as fragile as a civilian. But when you’ve spent most of your spare time learning how to make the best of what you have against things that go bump in the night, you don’t give up easy.
I came up from the floor with a punch, getting my feet under me, and Irving grabbed my wrist. He used my momentum to whip me past him, but I’d expected that, hooked my other fingers, and got a handful of his face. That’s what Dad would have called “dirty fightin’,” something he approved of in a girl.
Hey, there are no rules in a fight. Thinking there are “rules” can get you killed. Dad drilled it into my head over and over again, you fight to win, to survive. Not to look good or give the other guy a chance.
Stop thinking about Dad, Dru. I had other problems.
Irving had bet he could best me in under two minutes. We were at ninety seconds and counting, and I was winning.
A bet like that doesn’t go unchallenged. Not when your former Marine dad’s been teaching you how to kick ass for years. Not when there’s a hot boiling bubble of acid right behind your breastbone all the time. Not when you’re practically alone in a school full of teenage boys.
Not just any teenage boys, either. Boys who can turn into fur rugs with bad attitudes at the drop of a hat. Djamphir boys who are born with the eerie stuttering speed of suckers, blurring through the slow stupid daytime world like a cheesy special effect at the drop of a hat. Boy djamphir don’t have to wait to “bloom,” oh no. They’re stronger and faster from the start, and they only get better once their voices break and they “hit the drift” in puberty. Some of them hit it later, in their mid-twenties.
But even before they hit the drift they’re more than a match for any human.
I twisted, my sneakers digging into the frayed mats, and kicked back. That caught him in the knee, and I heard bones popping and loud growling. I hit the dirt, the mats scraping against my elbow because I was only in a tank top and jeans.
I’m not stupid. When you hear the distinctive noise of werwulfen changing into the furry shape that makes them almost impossible to kill, that’s the reasonable thing to do.
Except Irving wasn’t wulf. He was djamphir, and he was already committed to his leap. So where was the sound coming from?
I rolled over just in time to see Irving hanging in the air over me, pale face alight, golden highlights slipping through his chestnut curls as the aspect took him. The world slowed down, moving through syrup just long enough for me to scramble, the clear heavy weight of physicality straining against every muscle in my body. The snap! like a rubber band popped off expert fingers rang through my head as time sped back up again and he rammed down into the mats a good three feet away from where I was now but exactly where I’d been. His knee hit too hard, without my face to cushion it, and he let out a short, sharp cry. The lines across his cheek from my fingernails flushed an angry red, and his hair stood up, writhing.
Now he wasn’t just a teenage boy needing to save face in front of the crowd. Now he was serious.
And we were at twenty seconds left.
I gained my feet in a rush and skipped back twice. The mass of onlookers exploded away, giving us enough room to move. Irving bounced up like he was full of helium, his curls moving just like in a shampoo commercial, and he threw himself across the intervening space with the weird blurring speed I wasn’t even close to getting accustomed to.
The speed I couldn’t use yet.
So instinct took over. It wasn’t precisely a bad instinct, brace yourself and punch the guy straight in the face. But Dad would have yelled at me for being stupid, since Irving was so ungodly fast, and straight-on force, like in karate, doesn’t work so much for me. I’m built too thin and rangy. I don’t even have moderately big breasticles. They just look like well, never mind what they look like. At least they stay strapped down when I worm into a sports bra.
It doesn’t quite suck being a girl, but sometimes it’s close.
I should have grabbed Irving’s arm, twisted, and slid him past me, using his own momentum to help him right into the stone wall across the room. Instead, I hit him. There was a crunch as my fist met his nose, and he collided with me like a freight train. We were heading for the wall, and the thought this is going to hurt flashed through me like electricity popping through a lightbulb filament.
And it would have, too, if something hadn’t hit us both from the side, roaring. I got an elbow in the face and went tumbling, slapping the frayed, stained mats and wrenching my back a good one. I just lay there for a second, bells ringing inside my skull and the entire world seeming very far away.
It took a long time for me to blink, looking up at the arched, ribbed vault of the ceiling. This part of the complex had been a chapel, but now it was the armory and a sparring space unfolding with mats that had seen better days and the smell of healthy young boysweat. Underneath was the ghost of incense, and if it were daytime, shafts of weak sunlight might slip between the bars and pierce dusty dimness.