The platform trembled.
Abel grabbed onto the railing, skin loosing color as the sides of the floor came apart and dropped at sharp angles. He stared, unable to believe his eyes. The Warom was changing, the mechanics shifting – this was supposed to be illegal. The Warom Commander stood off the side, on the other side of the barrier, with his hands clasped behind his back. Abel knew, then, that this, all of this, was staged.
‘They want to see me break,’ Abel’s jaw clenched, cheeks flushing as the realization cut through him in angry waves. His gaze shifted to teammates, all who were scattered about and hiding or immobilized on the ground, as his nails bit into his palm. ‘They mean to see me fail, here. They want to show the whole school a kid can’t beat impossible odds.’
Abel’s lips pressed into a thin line as his gaze darted across the still-changing room. On the other end of the room, Core Black was drawing away from the field to the safety of their Gate. Abel’s team didn’t have that option. They couldn’t draw back, not with the bridges down. The alleyways on either side were shifting, breaking apart and twisting into a new format. Going that way was impossible, not when Core Black had snipers on the rooftops to pick them off, one by one, should they take that risk.
Closing his eyes, Abel reached up to his ear and let his forefinger press against the device wrapped around his ear. Two seconds and a small beep told him he was broadcasting to his team. Exhaling, Abel said, “We have a clutch situation. Change positions. Project URC begins now. All agents granted autonomy. Move out!”
Abel shut the comms down and swung out into the open. His gun was up and the trigger pulled. One of Core Black’s members fell within seconds. Abel stood over the fallen agent, a grim smile spreading across his face. Immobilized, the Core Black agent could only stare mutinously at Abel as the younger, smaller boy knelt beside him.
Grabbing the older boy by the hair, Abel murmured, “I warned you not to underestimate me. Now all your hard work will be for nothing. Enjoy being demoted, Dickerson.”
Abel stood and pressed forward. He saw some of his own agents shifting from one place to the next, a blur of shadow and agility. Core Black continued to have their agents fall, their cries cut off within seconds. As Abel closed in on Core Black’s commanding officer, Abel slowed. His eyes narrowed, a sense of uncertainty rising as Viola Emerson turned to face him, helmet tucked under her arm, with a Cheshire grin.
“Why the long face, Gray?” Emerson mused as she stepped over one of Abel’s teammates, her gun held loosely in her other hand. Her long hair rolled around her as if caught on some unseen breeze, her amber irises bright and excited. She paused in front of him, a full head taller, as she murmured, “You weren’t expecting me, were you?”
He hadn’t thought Emerson would be here. Akian, yes, but her?
“No, I wasn’t,” Abel knew the Black Gate was not far. He could feel the charge in the air, could hear the energy humming through his veins. He held her gaze as he said, “Akian is your Core Commander, yet you, his Second, stand in his place.”
He didn’t want to shoot her. She knew that, too.
“Abel Gray,” his name rolled off her tongue like some rare, exotic weapon she longed to study. He forced himself to remain calm, to be impassive, as she lifted the gun and pressed the barrel to his forehead. Her smile was softer, now. Gentle. Her eyes were hard and cold as she murmured, “As much as I’d like to not decommission you, and thus your team, I’m afraid I have no other choice. Akian was very clear when he gave his orders.”
Abel no longer heard what she was saying. His attention zeroed in on the way she held her gun, how her shoulders were set, the shadows in her eyes – as she pressed down on the trigger, Abel swung out in a circle. The bullet grazed his cheek, cutting through the skin with a loud, ominous bang. Emerson’s eyes were wide, lips parted in disbelief as she eyed the smoke coiling through the air seconds before realizing Abel’s hand was curling fast, and tight, around her wrist.
She didn’t resist when he unarmed her, only fell to her knees. He shot her in the back, his own eyes dark as he watched the energy coil through the suit encasing her body. She fell onto the ground, laying on her side. Her eyes were closed, her chest rising and falling steadily. Abel turned and left her there, her gun in hand as he made his way up the stairs.
Akian would think twice about trying to kill him.
Abel would make sure of it.