I’ll be counting down to the November 10th release of Red Right Hand by sharing sample chapters, advance reviews, content warnings, and whatever else seems fun. I’ve already shared Chapters 1, 2, and 3. Now it’s time for Red Right Hand: Chapter 4.
If you haven’t read See These Bones, please be aware that these sample chapters do include spoilers. Also? Expletives abound.
With only fifteen second-years present, it didn’t take long to get through the fights. I was the odd man out; lucky number fifteen. Other than Jeremiah, who remained in the med ward, the second-years had all cycled back into the viewing room after their respective Healings. Nikolai let the silence and anticipation build, that smile still wide on his square-jawed face.
“Paladin,” he finally barked. “You’re up.”
Paladin vs. Walker.
Guess we all saw that one coming.
I marched to the fifth pit, where Matthew and I had fought for the very first time as first-years. That had been the one and only time I’d ‘beaten’ Paladin… when he’d surrendered because he couldn’t figure out how to stop me without killing me.
The pit was fifteen feet in diameter and just as deep, rough stone dark from years of blood soaking into its surface. High above, a vid screen captured every detail in excruciating detail for those few second-years who weren’t crowded against the viewing room window. I couldn’t see the dampeners installed along the rim of the high ceiling, but I knew Nikolai had already turned them up to maximum intensity. The emptiness that always lurked within me, that hole at the center of my being, was inaccessible.
The dampeners finally being at full strength meant Paladin was just as much a normal as I was. Unfortunately, he was also the son of the Free States’ most popular Cape, and had been trained by the best instructors the private sector had to offer. My instruction had come at the hands of kids like Fat Joey, Dingus, and Tiny… older boys at Mama Rawlins’ House of Unwanted Brats who saw a little boy crying for his dead mommy and stomped on that weakness until it bled. A year at the Academy had taught me the limitations of their training. I’d gotten better, yeah, but there’s no catching a Stalwart who already has a head start.
Even after his fight with the Viking, Paladin looked like he’d stepped out of a recruitment poster. Blonde hair, blue eyes, square jaw, and spotless Academy greys. Matthew wasn’t my arch nemesis like I’d originally thought, but damn if it wasn’t easy to hate the fucker sometimes.
As we awaited Nikolai’s command, I breathed in the smell of the pit, that stench of blood that always made me think of apple pie and Mom on the day of her death. Matthew said something, but I couldn’t parse his words over the sudden buzzing in my ears, the formless howling of a wind that wasn’t there, and the heartbeat that pounded like a steel drum.
Then, Nikolai gave the order, and the time for talking was done.
Paladin and I had fought literally dozens of times as first-years. We’d long since moved beyond the feeling-out stage, but this match was different. Maybe it was the dampeners. Maybe it was what had happened out at the Hole. We circled the pit for a few seconds. Without his powers, Matthew was slower, weaker, and halfway vulnerable, but he still moved like the trained fighter he was. He’d use that training to control the distance and pick me apart, and this time, my power wouldn’t be there to let me ignore the pain.
As usual, I had to ugly things up.
We both moved at the same time. He dodged past my left jab, stepping forward at an angle to avoid a follow-up cross that never came. Instead, I pulled my jab back to my chest and spun out with an elbow.
Even without powers, he was too damn fast. Somehow, he got a hand up to block the strike. He winced at the contact, but he’d bladed his arm perfectly, catching me up by the shoulder and sapping my blow of the majority of its force.
Still… it had hurt him more than it had me, and that was a first. I almost smiled.
Then his free hand blasted into my kidney and my entire body locked up.
It only took a second to shake off the effects of the kidney punch, but that’s an eternity in a fight, and Paladin took advantage. Before I knew it, he had my left arm rotated and locked, using it like a lever to lift me onto my toes. As I flailed for balance, he drove a foot into my calf and dropped his weight. I fell to my knees and he rotated that same tortured arm, now using my own limb to hold me down.
I wasn’t flat on my belly, but it was otherwise eerily similar to what Spectra had done to Winter in their fight.
No powers, no mobility, and Paladin in a position of overwhelming strength. Maybe that should’ve been the end of it. Even a few months earlier, it probably would’ve been. But out in the Mojave, as my blood soaked into the desert soil, as I watched Carnage kill the White Knight and Fallout prepare to bring down Tempest, I’d made myself a promise. Four words I repeated every night as I lay awake in the early hours of the morning, waiting for the nightmares to come.
Fuck going out easy.
Leverage is only as good as the lever being used, so I took Paladin’s away from him. His grip tightened as I spun into the arm lock, doing the exact opposite of the escapes Nikolai had trained us in. I kept going even as the pain whited out my vision, as I heard something pop and then something else crack.
A broken arm hurts like hell. A dislocated shoulder can be even worse. But add the two together, and Matthew was left holding a piece of meat that no longer gave him any leverage at all.
Before he could adjust, I punched out with my other arm. On my knees, my choice of targets was limited, but I could have aimed for a leg or thigh.
Instead, I went for his balls.
Paladin grunted, but held on anyway, so I followed up the punch by grabbing him between the legs and squeezing.
That got him to let go. He went up on his toes, yelling something I still couldn’t hear, and I powered to my feet, driving a shoulder into his washboard abs and toppling him to the stone floor. There, I climbed him like one of those cartoon monkeys you see in vids, dropping a knee into his already tortured groin on the way.
I ended up on his chest, that same knee now buried in his sternum as my other one pinned an arm to the ground by its sleeve. Face purple, he tried to buck me off. I hooked a thumb into his eye socket, tilting his head back to expose his throat.
“Enough!” Nikolai’s voice boomed out. I froze, part of me still trying to solve the mechanics of finishing off Paladin when—thanks to my own actions—I lacked a second hand to punch his throat with. “Walker wins.”
Adrenaline drained out of me, and the sounds of the arena trickled back in. The murmurs of the other second-years high above us. The hum of the dampeners. The squeaking of wheels as gurneys raced down the tunnel toward our pit.
Beneath me, Matthew was perfectly still. “Could you take your thumb out of my eye, Damian?”
Whoops. I coughed and did just that, taking care to avoid damaging the eyeball on the way out. In a life or death struggle, I’d have driven my thumb straight through his eye, but the school Healers could only do so much. Instead, I’d used his socket to get my own little bit of leverage.
I rolled off Paladin and choked back a scream as my mangled arm flopped to the floor. Next to me, Matthew was still on his back, but his hands had dropped below his waist, fluttering around—but not quite touching—his groin.
It was the most human thing I’d seen him do in twelve months.
He coughed. From the look on his face, even that hurt.
“I take it you heard Kayleigh and I are dating.”
As Twos, Gladys and the other school Healer were a far cry from what Unicorn would have become if he’d lived, but the damage Paladin and I had taken was well within their capabilities. Twenty minutes later, we were back with the rest of the class.
“Not bad,” Nikolai was saying. “The progress you’ve all made since last year is gratifying, but there is a very, very long way to go.” He folded his massive arms across his chest and nodded in my direction. “Now that Walker and Paladin are back, who wants to explain what happened in their fight?”
“Paladin lost. Again.” volunteered Caleb. “And may now be incapable of having children.”
“Because that psycho went for his nuts? We’re not all Titans… some of us are vulnerable down there.”
“I wasn’t asking about your delicate little man bits, Supersonic.” Behind me, someone tittered. “I was asking why Paladin lost the fight. Anyone else?”
“Because you turned the dampeners all the way up,” guessed Spectra.
“So without powers, you think Walker is the better fighter of the two?”
“Well, I mean… it kind of looked like it.” She shot the blonde Stalwart an apologetic look. “Sorry, Matthew.”
“Is that what you think, Paladin?” asked Nikolai.
“Not really.” Matthew studied the floor. “He was faster than I remember—or I was slower without my powers—but I still should have had him.”
“So why didn’t you?”
“Experience.” Alan Jackson’s contributions were rare and almost always unwelcome. At least this time he wasn’t suggesting I be decapitated.
“The Crow’s seen real battle. Life or death stakes. It changes your mindset. He didn’t treat this like a sparring match.”
“Exactly.” Nikolai turned to me. “You’re one of the few second-years who has participated in a true battle between Powers. What was your take on it?”
“Perhaps you could elaborate?”
“Total chaos. Shit happening on all sides, bullets flying, people falling out of the sky…” I swallowed. “Everyone was faster and stronger than I expected.”
“Then how did you survive when so many others didn’t?” That was Patty, our class’ one remaining Hydromancer, and Vibe’s former roommate. It was the first time she had ever spoken to me.
“A lot of luck, the intervention of the White Knight, and…” I shook my head.
“Fuck if I know. I was trying to stop Fallout and save Tempest—”
“Epic fail on both counts,” muttered Supersonic.
“—and just kept pushing forward. What else was I going to do, lie down and die?”
“Like I said,” rumbled Alan Jackson, “life or death stakes.”
“Yeah.” I shared a look with the Shifter. All I knew about him was that a Finder had brought him in from the Badlands. If anyone knew about real stakes, it was probably him.
Come to think of it, that might explain why he was such a nightmare to fight.
“In real battle,” said Nikolai, once again addressing the class as a whole, “some of the people you fight will be like Walker.”
“Black Hat asshole Crows? Yeah… no kidding.”
The look the professor sent Supersonic’s way was chilling. “Survivors. People who will break their own arm rather than be trapped by it.”
“Then why did we spend months learning joint locks?” demanded London.
“Because they’re useful.” Nikolai shook his head. “The vast majority of the time, anyway. As Capes, you’ll need to learn to make that judgement on the fly. Sometimes, an arm lock will take the fight out of your opponent. Other times, knocking them out or choking them unconscious will do. And still other times—”
“Rip his head off.”
It had taken Alan a while, but he’d finally gotten back to his favorite subject.
Next week, I’ll be back with our final sample chapter, Chapter 5. See you then!