Zugzwang

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Chapter 1

As the first rays of sunshine topped the surrounding hills the windows of the cement buildings started to shine like a million sparkling eyes gazing skyward. Not many walked the streets at that time. Not many were allowed. Only the scarce few were needed to wander about their tasks. Those few wore their pressed grey uniforms with straight spines and walked with brisk unease as they traveled. In their ear they all wore the earpiece that stayed forever silent. Their eyes remained down cast as they passed through streets, alleyways, through districts of businesses and homes. As they walked through the burning fog they refused to meet each other’s eyes, focused.

They entered the square from different directions. The last of the remaining fog curling up before them, like smoke from an invisible fire, as they hurried to different directions. Some of them scrambled for their keys, others calming entered their darkened businesses with the same tense posture they held every day. None of them dared look over their shoulders towards the looming hills that held the mansion of the Lords.

They shut the doors behind them and flipped on the lights. Only then do they risk a glance out the window to the world they had just shut out. The square is quite but in a little over an hour they all knew that the first signs of life with start to charge into the square. They silently met each other’s eyes, as if the separation of brick and glass has given them newfound courage. They nodded to each other and took one final glance about.

The sun started to pick up it’s pace. The fog has almost completely disappeared, evaporating in the growing heat of the rays. It was just clear enough for them to see over the tops of the buildings. They could makes out the peek of the school, its pointed roof jutting up to the heavens. The sight was a relief and worrisome.

The very sight of the school could cause most women of the city to shiver in fear, cause most men to pale. Women of the city would turn to their arguing children and threaten to send them to the school’s dark halls if they did not behave. Children told dark stories about what happened behind its walls when the Lords were not watching. They told of bigger boys that had been bred to kill with their massive hands going about the halls and smashing the skulls of their peers. They told of girls that could stab you with only the length of their index finger. But not one of them had actually been in the school.

That morning, as the Citizens were turning from the window and starting to sort through their morning chores, the students at the school stood in two lines in the basement. The high ceiling of the room didn’t give way to windows; the only light came from two large florescent lights on the ceiling. To the right of the lines hung a climbing rope used during class, to the left of the lines stood the racks of weapons, their new polish shining in the bright light of the basement. The students ignored all of it. They stood quietly waiting for the Master of the floor to come striding down the stairs. It wasn’t often that they were called straight to the basement early in the morning but everyone knew what it meant—new arrival.

There were thirty-two students in the school; a far cry from the hundreds the Citizens thought roamed the halls. There could be no more and no less. Sixteen boys and sixteen girls stood perfectly still, holding attention, to see which group would need to face off today.

The distant clicking of footsteps sounded from the stairs and echoed through the basement. It grated on nerves, the slow footsteps deliberately making them wait. Making them guess. Finally he appeared.

He was an older man; his neatly trimmed grey beard outlined his face and doubtless hid much of the wrinkles about his mouth. His eyes still sparkled with determination of a much younger man, his hands were callused and large, used to holding the lazer that was strapped to his belt. His black uniform matched the students with one minor difference; along his bicep of his right arm were three bands of silver that glowed in the dim light of the basement. He looked over the students with his usual set frown then nodded to himself. He began to pace before them.

“You all know why you are here,” he growled at them, “Someone else has come to join us, but we seem to find ourselves full and as far as I’m concerned they can go fuck themselves if they can’t protect themselves,” more students shifted restlessly, the master glared over them all.

Silence. Jaws set with anticipation. Hands that were clutched by their sides tightened until the knuckles turned white. The master chuckled, amused. “Ladies,” he called, the girls stood up straighter, their heads held that much higher, “You’re up.”

The boys relaxed. One even sighed. The master glared over at them, “You lot are dismissed to your room, do not move until you hear the all clear buzzer and report back here. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” cried the boys as one.

“Dismissed,” the master nodded to them.

The boys filed out of the basement in silence. The master watched them go, his glare never fading. As the last boy left he turned back to the girls. “Gather your weapons.”

The girls turned to the weapons rack. Some grabbed staffs, some lazers, others simply grabbed rope then they filed back to stand before the master. He looked them all over one last time, “You’ve been trained, each of you has won your own first day elimination so I expect the best from each of you,” his eyes locked on the girl before him. Her blue eyes held his cold stare, her shoulder length blonde hair was tightly tied out of her eyes in a ponytail and her black uniform was just that much straighter then all the rest.

She met his glare with her own and smiled slightly. He nodded, “You will have two minutes to get into a position. The whole building is fair game, anyone is fair game.”

He turned on his heel and left the basement.

The girls scattered, not willing to be near any of the others when their two minutes were up. That would be suicide.

They all knew that the new arrival would have a head start. They always did. But the new arrival would not know the school as well as the rest of them. Some of the girls scurried up the stairs and into the top floors of the school, counting on the noise an untrained foot would make on the stairs. Others went to the cafeteria to barricade themselves behind tables and have the inevitable firefight. But two girls stayed behind in the basement. The blonde haired girl smiled as she saw her peers sail up the steps, as the last of the footsteps faded from the room she turned to the other. The girl had a bird’s nest of brown hair and wide eyes that sparkled anew at the smile that was playing on the other’s lips.

“A beautiful morning for a killing, isn’t it Ari?” cooed the blonde as she made her way towards the light switch by the stairs.

The other, Ari, threw back her head and laughed, “Beautiful is a bit of a stretch…early morning…it’s a bit of an early morning for a killing if I do say so.”

The blonde shot Ari a stare, “you say that every elimination.”

“And it never ceases to be true, my dear Lexie,” Ari sighed, dramatically throwing her hands in the air producing a thin flash light from her sleeve in the process.

“Ready,” Lexie asked, her hand poised on the light switch, “Two minutes are almost up.”

“Like those jackasses would come back down here.”

“Ari-“

“Yes, flip the damn switch!”

Lexie flipped the switch as Ari turned the top of the flashlight. The thin beam was not much but it was enough to find the door to the large supply room on the far wall of the room. Lexie pushed the door open as Ari swept the light back and forth before they entered- could never be too cautious during elimination.

The beam from the flashlight swept back and forth in the small space revealing stacked boxes in the corner and a few rows of shelves stacked with supplies: extra charges, carving instruments for staffs, and other various things the floor master taught his students. As the light moved there was no stir. No slight jump that would display the inexperienced and no sound of the slight shift that would give away the ones about to spring. They were alone.

Ari nodded to Lexie before she slipped into the room, Lexie followed quickly behind her pulling the door shut as she went. Lexie turned to Ari who was already bouncing over to the boxes in the corner. “Same as always?”

Ari smiled over her shoulder as she slipped a lazer out of her pocket, “Always, have yours?”

Lexie pulled her lazer out and instinctively checked the charge. Green, fully loaded and ready to go. She nodded to Ari and started to head behind one of the bookcases. She squeezed behind the last one in the row, it was just far enough away from the wall that Lexie could crouch behind it and peer towards the supply door with her lazer at the ready. She shifted a little in her position to make herself comfortable and then looked over to Ari.

Ari was looking over at her from behind the boxes, crouching in the same manner. Lexie nodded to her that she was ready. Ari twisted the light off. Lexie blinked the bright spots from her eyes as she was thrown into complete darkness. It took a few seconds for her eyes to fully adjust but eventually she caught sight of Ari’s bright teeth in the darkness as she smiled, the flashlight once again safely hidden up her sleeve.

Lexie flashed her a smile but quickly returned her attention to the door. She could faintly hear the sounds of lazers going off above them in the cafeteria, old grudges that always came out on elimination day. Lexie listened to the shouting that echoed off the walls of the cemented halls and tiled floors.

Some were taunting shouts, others cries of pain. She could hear running, but that could be anywhere. She heard the faint whistles of lazer beams as they pierced the air. But then her ears caught something out of place. A panting gasp. Only the untrained could make such a mistake during eliminations. And it had been close.

Lexie glanced at Ari, who nodded her agreement. She had heard it too. Lexie quickly shifted one final time, just out of sight of the door, and waited. She heard the gasping turning into a quite sob as unsteady footsteps neared. It always happened that way.

You arrive at the school and you become overwhelmed with the amount of brutal horror within. First is the disbelief then comes the crushing reality that this is not a game, the thing in your hand is a real lazer and the others are real people who will kill you. Lexie remembered the feeling well. Hers had only been a year ago.

Lexie heard the footsteps nearing, coming painstakingly closer. Lexie’s thighs began to whisper of an ache; she pushed the inconvenience to the back of her mind and kept listening. There was a slight gasp from the other side of the door and the new arrival finally found the handle to the storage room. The handle rattled once.

Lexie allowed herself to peek over at Ari. She nodded and her lazer disappeared into her pocket. Lexie leaned back as the door flew open and terrified steps entered their darkness. The door slammed shut with enough force to make Lexie flinch. She rolled her eyes and eased herself to her feet.

The gasping was a constant drumming in her ears. She heard the girl relax and lean against a bookshelf. Lexie peered over at Ari, who flashed a smile and kicked one of the boxes she crouched near. Lexie smiled as the girl cried out and fired her lazer in the direction of the noise. “Wh-who’s there,” the girl stuttered.

Ari laughed, not looking away from Lexie’s gaze, “You’re a really bad shot you know that?”

The girl gasped, apparently not expecting an answer, “What do you want?”

“That’s a bit of a stupid question.”

“You want to kill me?”

Ari winked at Lexie before turning her full attention to the girl, who wasn’t used to darkness and waved her lazer back and forth, “No, I want to live. Mind If I give us some light?”

Lexie heard the girl’s breath catch, “You have light?”

“Some people went for the weapons, I went for the more practical approach.”

“How do I know you’re tell the truth?”

Ari sighed, “The only way you can know that is if I show you.”

“Are we the only one’s in here.”

“Not if you don’t keep your bloody voice down,” Ari snapped, “I’m going to stand up, keep the blasting end away from me if you would.”

Lexie watched Ari slowly stand and twist the end of her flashlight. The tiny beam cut through the darkness like a knife and Lexie caught her first glance at the new arrival. She was a wiry girl with black hair that ran down to the small of her back. She might have been pretty if her hair was combed, her eyes weren’t puffy and red, and her Citizen’s uniform wasn’t torn to nearly pieces. She held her lazer still pointing at Ari with shacking hands.

“You see,” Ari said, lifting her hands in the air, “I’m unarmed but for the flashlight. I don’t really like galloping about the school firing a weapon at any shadow that moves. What’s your name?”

“Why would you care? Don’t they give you all different names,” the girl snapped behind clenched teeth, Lexie silently stepped closer.

Ari laughed, “No, you get to keep that. I’m Ari.”

“Odd.”

Ari shrugged, “It’s a nickname. What’s yours?”

“Charlotte.”

“Well that is pretty, isn’t it? Remind me to introduce you to a friend of mine. She would love to meet you, she has an old fashioned name too.”

Charlotte seemed to relax and lowered her lazer a little, “What’s her name?”

Lexie breathed in deeply, feeling her emotions slowly drain away. She raised her lazer and took aim. She breathed out, slowly, her lazer pointing to Charlotte’s head. She had the shot. In her peripheral vision Lexie saw Ari scratch her eyebrow. That was the signal. Lexie pulled the trigger. The whistle sounded in their ears as the beam shot forth sending Charlotte jerking forward. A spray of blood burst from her forehead onto Ari. She didn’t flinch. Charlotte’s body fell to the floor in a sickening sound. Ari smiled over at Lexie who had held her position, half out of the shadows of the bookcase and half in the dim light. “Lexington,” Ari said, her eyes sparkling mischievously.

A loud buzz sounded the all-clear call about the school. Lexie stepped out of the shadows and walked towards Ari. “No bad,” Lexie smiled.

Ari laughed and shrugged, “You weren’t so bad yourself,” she bounced the rest of the way to Lexie and kissed her on the cheek, “Come on, if this blood settles in my hair it’ll take days to get out.”

Ari bounced out of the storage room with Lexie close on her heels.


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