“ Young ladies. Young men.
Welcome to the BATTLEGAME. ”
She was running, breathless, legs pumping, skidding around dark corners, driven by the overwhelming and unfamiliar sensation of fear. Fear of what moved in the dark. Fear of those who used to be her friends, now hunting her like wolves. Every friend could be a foe, and every foe was a killer, and so it hadn't taken long for her to realise that trust was something she could only place in herself. The BATTLEGAME was a frenzy of youths fighting for their freedom; it didn’t matter who you killed, every Prodigy down was an increased chance to win… win the GAME and return home.
Her heart swelled at the thought of it. Home. At last.
The Fortress, previously a training facility with military soldiers lined up against the stone walls, and endless rows of tall windows that illuminated all dark corners and possible hiding places – was now a dark maze. Every place where light entered that wasn't a door had been covered with cracked planks of wood, casting the entire Fortress into shadow. Shards of sunlight still slanted through small gaps. It was near impossible to see who approached from the other end or even to hear how close they were, as footsteps echoed endlessly in the stone passages. Even worse, the sound of screams – screams of the slaughtered – would ricochet, petrifying those still alive.
She tried to ignore the blotches of blood on the grey concrete at her feet, and eventually her run slowed to a jog, her fear subsiding to determination. Good. Determination was something she could work with. Fear was something else completely. Even under the gaze of the mirthless Captain, with his eyes of cold steel, she hadn't succumbed to fear. Fear scrambled your brain, it made you lash out without reason, fear was the reason so many Prodigies were already dead. Fear was the reason the BATTLEGAME was such a successful project.
Why though? What was the point? Why waste all of that effort; the expense of food and water and clothing and time? Sixty-four kids, who didn’t have a future anyway, we got put through something worse. Why? What is really going on here?
Run. Run run run.
We should’ve refused. Made a stand. Then we’d all die, if we were lucky, execution by gunfire. Done. Simple. Only it’s not that simple... brothers are here, and sisters, and friends... they’re trying to protect who they care about. And I need to protect –
Her ears pricked up at footsteps. Her body had already tensed and prepared to move before her mind had decided what exactly her body would do. Silent and swift, her foot kicked off the nearest wall and she shot upwards; hands and feet pressed hard against the walls and ceiling, wedging her body in the shadows. Waiting. Nobody came into view, but she still waited. Better to wait and be sure, than be hasty and die.
I could've been anybody. Anybody. I could've been a hero. I could've been famous. Instead, I'm here. I'm going to die here, and nobody will know what happened to me, everybody will forget about me. But it doesn't matter any more.
Run. Run run run.
Her eyes flicked up and down the quiet corridor. She could see flakes of dust floating when she looked at the rays of sun that shot across the corridor. Eventually, she slid down from the ceiling and landed on two light feet, shifting along the corridor again. The footsteps had stopped. She began to move faster. And faster. Run.
Her foot stepped down on something that rolled backwards – “Oh sh –!”
She crashed to the floor face forward, bringing her elbows up to her face just in time, but it still knocked the air from her lungs and precious seconds were lost by the fumble. Instantly she rolled over and snapped up to sitting, going stiff, waiting, listening, making sure that her echoes weren’t in fact the movements of another. Bruises were already forming, though she didn’t really feel it like she used to. The only type of pain she knew now was torture; training all day under a burning sun, cuts from samurai swords, her face forced under shallow water or her hands burnt when she disobeyed her orders. She knew pain. This was nothing.
Her hand reached out in the half-dark and groped along the floor until it found what she had tripped on, closing her fingers around a long, slim object. One end was pointed, the other soft. A pencil. A pencil. There were Prodigies running around Fortress Island with guns, and all she’d managed to find was a pencil.
She exhaled with disappointment. Her luck couldn't be so dismal. How do you even fight with a pencil? she thought. Ninja would know. During a sparring assessment on the edge of the forest surrounding the Fortress, she’d seen Ninja snap up a branch with a pointed end and stab it into her opponent’s shoulder, as swift as anything. Her smile fading, she glanced at the pencil again. Ninja has always been resourceful.
She broke into a run again as soon as she could. Had Ninja or Tomei found any good weapons? Were they protecting themselves or joining in with the slaughter? Can I really blame them if they are? she thought, her mind racing ten times faster than her feet. They’d been abducted just like her, snatched away from everything they knew to be trained on an Island in the middle of nowhere for a whole year. This was their final chance to return home. The situation was dire, and the Prodigies were desperate. Another reason why the BATTLEGAME was so successful.
She would've rather been eaten by the Predators.
She passed the empty classrooms where they had been taught Anatomy, Maths, Health and Injury, Geography, Weaponry… she halted at the doorway, staring into the half-gloom of the Weapon Assembly room.
Inside, rows and rows of glass cases were set into the wall. Aquamarine-blue light glowed from the bottom of each glass case, the light shining upwards and make the whole room look as if it were underwater. And every case was filled with firearms.
Her shoulders tensed, but she stealthily crept into the room. It seemed empty. The strange light made her skin glow blue as if she was filled with water instead of blood. Her thoughts raced – the cases had a weight sensor and the removal of any weapon caused an alarm to sound. She’d have to smash it with her bare hands and run fast. She’d be fine if she had a gun in her hands. When she decided this, she walked into the centre of the room determinedly, then froze. Shit.
All of the weapons had been removed from the room, or rather, removed from the GAME. Fury welled up in her like a storm and she could only barely hold in a vicious string of swear words. Her memory teased her with the magnificent collection of firearms that she knew had once been here, now out of reach. The Coordinator’s work. Two steps ahead, as always. She remembered that ruby-red smile.
She returned to the corridor, grudgingly, and wondered where else she might find a gun. Perhaps in the East Wing… but she’d first need to escape this Fortress and its maze of corridors. With the next corner she turned, she got lucky. At the end of the corridor, there was an exit, an open archway where daylight shone in like the guiding light of a miracle. Gratitude morphed into caution. No telling what or who was on the other side of that doorway. She approached it, passing doors that were ajar and boarded-up windows that blocked most of the morning sunlight, holding her pencil in what the Captain called ‘Stabbing Position’ when they trained with blunt knives in Weaponry. It was when the fingers curled around the handle, with the sharp end of the knife protruding where the little finger was instead of where the thumb was, which would be ‘Slicing Position’. She raising the pencil above her head and inched closer, praying she wouldn't have to attack a hiding enemy. She could hear Ninja’s quiet voice, telling her with a sinister chuckle, Who knows? Maybe you could survive this GAME without making a single kill.
This was, of course, bullshit. But still, she found comfort in the thought.
A cautious step beyond the doorway, and she blinked a few times to adjust to the blaring sun that reflected off the glittering waves of sand at her feet. Towering trees with widespread leaves stood not too far in the distance, their leaves rustling with what little breeze there was, and the smell of the sea’s salt was heavy in the air. Not a single person was in sight. The black and blue Lycra suit that she wore covered all of her arms and legs, and the sun’s heat was so intense that she tried to rip the damn thing off, but all it did was stretch. Dizziness made her sway. It was all she could do to yank the elastic band from her hair, the heat trapped there bursting free as russet-brown locks fell to her shoulders, the dizziness lifting –
Muffled footsteps in the sand from behind moved faster than her sharpened mind could process them. Fingers closed around her neck and shook it, determinedly tightening a bit at a time. Air was cut off, she choked. Panic exploded in her chest. She gave a dazed thought to the incredible amount of strength in those fingers before her training kicked in and her own hands reached up to her neck to liberate it – she realised too late that one hand still clutched the pencil, and quickly moved into Plan B. The fingers tightened. She stopped supporting her weight and her body collapsed into a crouch position, using her own weight to drag her attacker down, and then pressed off the balls of her feet as if trying to do a backwards roll. The attacker was thrown onto their back, a muffled cry escaping them. Sand wiggled into her clothes and hair, little pricks against the skin, almost as uncomfortable as the itch that that couldn't be scratched. The moment her attacker’s fingers loosened, she flung those hands off and scrambled to her feet. A deep breath revived her. There was a WHOOSH of air beside her ear, but her mistake was glancing back to see what caused it. The Prodigy – girl or boy, for that matter? Their T-shirt and muddy face wasn't giving away any clues – was attacking her with a log, now a makeshift-bludgeon. WHOOSH – another swipe with the bludgeon made the air scream, and she instinctively ducked but felt it brush along the top of her head this time.
“Stop! Stop!” she yelled. The sun half-blinded her but she kept moving, dancing backwards as the bludgeon kept coming at her, each swipe closer then the last. A cry burst from her throat. She knew she’d have to kill somebody eventually if she didn't want to be killed herself, but she was startled at how fast the pace of the GAME was moving. She hadn't even had the chance to find a remotely useful weapon. But anything would suffice now she stood on death’s doorstep.
That muddy, sweating face was beginning to look familiar.
The next time she dodged, she moved her back to the sun, and took that pause before the next swing to paint a diagram of the human body over this Prodigy. Like the one she’d been made to memorize in Biology. She gripped the pencil she’d found, and thought of Ninja. The next moment, she’d lunged forward and thrust the pencil forward as far as it would go into their neck, puncturing the vein she knew was there. She couldn't have foreseen how that diagram would end up saving her life, but that was no doubt the Coordinator’s work too.
A girl. She knew it was a girl now. Those round eyes went wide, that bludgeon dropped to the sand, and this girl’s body performed a graceful tilt that seemed to last an age before she hit the sand with a soft TSSS. And that was it. That was it.
Quiet. Deep breaths, each one restoring calm. She thought there’d be more to dying, more to killing, than this. The girl Prodigy on the sand convulsed for a moment, and then she went still. Had her heart stopped beating now, for real? Why wasn't she more shocked? Shouldn't she be wrecked with grief? She was a murder now! Was there too much adrenaline in her blood to feel sorrow?
Well done, Kneedle. Ninja’s voice said grimly in her mind. Your first murder.
The sound of voices shot through the trees. The next moment, another girl with a long, thick braid flapping behind her as she ran, her T-shirt and leggings already soiled with dirt and sweat, suddenly burst out of the trees and headed straight for the exit that she had just left – she was taking cover. But at least, this face, she did know.
“Run, Knee! They have guns! Run, they will kill you!” Crystalline yelled at her, leaping over the body without so much as a glance. “Knee! Run!”
If Knee Coal wasn't still so disturbed by her lack of emotion, she would've realised that this was a very good piece of advice. But now the shock was starting to kick in, the shock of having taken the lie of this girl she’d barely known in her whole year of being at the Fortress, and it wasn't the shock of killing her fellow Prodigy but of how easily her toughened hands could damage and destroy, and how much that made Gladys seem like a brittle, fragile little toy. She was so troubled by this that she couldn't urge her feet to move, not even at the sound of a gunshot. Followed by another. Several.
Crystalline had almost reached the dark, looming entrance to the Fortress that Knee had just left, when she glanced back and saw Knee hadn't moved. She skidded to a halt in the sand, almost falling forward. “What are you doing?” she screamed.
Seconds later, a boy emerged from the trees wearing a similar T-shirt to Crystalline and khakis, shrouded behind waves of heat, holding a Taser gun of some kind. He had his eyes fixed on the same exit of the fortress Crystalline was headed for, when he glanced at Knee, glanced at the dead body, then brought himself to a halt with such a panic that he almost landed on top of the body. Knee instinctively took three decisive steps back, towards Crystalline, even thought her brain still couldn't function properly. The heat... she thought groggily. Maybe it’s the heat...
“Gladys?” the boy said blankly. He put his free hand on the dead Prodigy’s shoulder, shaking her. Panic rose in his voice, and his next word came out as a strangled yell. “Gladys!”
Something about the tone in his voice jolted Knee out of her trance. Gladys. Knee hadn't known her, but if she was this boy’s friend, he might just decide to get even. she realised her hands were empty. Without warning, she ran towards the boy and kicked sand at his face. He shot away from her before it hit him, but he’d moved away from the corpse like she wanted – she jerked the pencil out of Gladys’ neck, her eye on his taser. It was still a shit weapon, but it made her feel better to hold something.
She imagined Ninja saying to her with a trace of sarcasm, Hey, you’re getting the hang of this.
Crystalline flipped her braid over her shoulder and snapped, “What the hell is wrong with you? Forget him, just run if you want to live! We can stick together. Yo! You deaf, Knee?”
“Shut up!” Knee Coal said loudly to her. “If you want to panic, fuck off and panic so I can think!”
Crystalline, taken aback, remained silent, though she itched closer to the entrance. As Knee Coal hadn't decided yet whether she was an asset or a liability, she did hope Crystalline would wait around a bit longer.
Knee Coal moved closer to Taser Boy. He looked about fourteen – no, maybe sixteen. dark hair, dark eyes, average. Scared. A thin trail of sweat ran from temple to jaw, his eyes fixed on the pencil in Knee Coal’s hand, stained red with blood.
“I want you to know,” she called to him, hoping he could hear her over the wind, “That If I fight you, I’ll win. So...? Do you want to do this?”
Sunlight made her squint and the salt air blew her russet hair across her eyes. She could only fight at close range with her pencil, but the same went for him and his taser.
“Knee, come on.” Crystalline said urgently, jerking at the sound of every distant gunshot, her braid waving from side to side down her back as she continuously glanced around her. “Come on! I saw Bryan run this way, I don’t wanna lose him!” But Knee Coal didn't respond, because she knew Crystalline didn't want to lose her either.
The pencil was loose in her hand but it would take less than a second for him to react if she attacked. She didn’t want to kill him just because she thought he might attack her. Wasn’t that what every other prodigy was doing? Reacting out of fear? Her jaw tightened and she tried not to look at Gladys. Her heart slammed against her ribcage.
Knee Coal raised her arms to the other Prodigy, trying to ignore the way they involuntarily shook. “Aren't you going to fight me?” she said softly.
He shifted. “I don’t think I can.” he laughed shakily. “My muscles have frozen.” Knee Coal felt a pang of sympathy, but ultimately she was glad she’d conquered her fear prior to this. That fact that he couldn't move was nothing more than an inconvenience to him.
His eyes flickered to her left. “You killed Gladys.”
She determinedly stared at him, fighting not to look back at the body herself. If she didn't look, she could pretend that she’d just knocked her out... or something. But she ended up looking anyway. Sand had already begun to cover it, and the blood that had streamed down her neck was already dry in the face of the sun. A moment ago, that corpse had been moving and breathing. It was beginning to seem unreal.
“I’m sorry that you had to see this, but I did what I had to do to save my own behind. She tried to kill me.” The wind barely carried her voice, but the look on his face answered her question. When she imagined Ninja lying there in place of Gladys’, she instantly knew the horror he must feel.
He laughed bitterly. “That’s not hard to believe. Everybody’s gone out of their minds – my closest friends just tried to decapitate me.” His expression darkened. “Anyway, I know who you are, I've watched you train. I know I don’t stand a chance in hell of killing you. I was waiting for you to finish me. I was praying you’d just make it quick.” He voice dropped so low, that without the breeze she wouldn’t have caught his last words.
Knee Coal raised a hand to her temple and slowly massaged it, feeling the dizziness begin to return, and blocking out the gunshots so that she could try to figure out what was going on. “Where is everybody finding their weapons?” The boy shrugged. She glanced back at Crystalline, who managed to look extremely pissed and extremely frightened at the same time. Knee Coal knew the risk she was taking by hanging around, but decided it was worth it for a shred of information. “Well, when the Co-ordinator announced the start of the BATTLEGAME, did the boys dorm go crazy like the girls dorm did?”
His lips curled into a sour smile. “Is that a joke? Some of them never even had time to leave their beds. Most of us bolted. The Brothers all made it out. So did Romeo, I think, Khalil and Bryan too – all the best prodigies, all the people that matter, managed to make it out.”
This was when Knee Coal finally began to worry. With everybody behaving so wildly, their lives might have been taken as easily and Knee Coal took Gladys’. She hoped Ninja had somehow managed to brave it. She couldn't imagine leaving this place without her, her or Tomei.
She cleared her throat and said steadily, “What about Tomei? Did Tomei get out?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Crystalline shrieked from behind her, pulling at the loose strands of hair around her face, moving forward and back as if unsure whether to run or wait for her friend. “We are this close to being murdered and you’re trying to arrange a reunion! Seriously, Knee, I'm leaving without you.”
“Did he?” Knee Coal demanded, ignoring her.
The boy nodded. “He was with me and a couple other guys trying to figure out what to do. In the end, he left with Jin and headed West. Me and another dude were heading for the Fortress, but he got shot in the head by… by another prodigy.”
The gunshots grew significantly louder, and now to accompany them were rustles in the forest-like gathering of trees. Knee Coal inhaled sharply, and understood at once that their time was up. As she backed away, she called, “You’d better run. If you follow us, I promise I won’t kill you. If you behave.”
“Screw this, I'm gone.” Crystalline yelled, bolting right into the Fortress exit that Knee Coal had exited not too long before. Knee Coal started to jog after her, glancing back once more at Taser Boy. Now she could see that he was terrified, she felt sorry for him. Leaving him behind meant certain death, but then again, she knew enough about treachery to be suspicious of even the weakest soul. Some Prodigies were damn good actors, so every single Prodigy here was under the microscope. Even Crystalline.
He shook his head tiny fractions left and right. “I can’t. They were my friends. I can’t kill them.”
“I'm not asking you to kill anybody! Just run!” she shouted. He didn't move. She shook her head and said simply, “You’ll die.” Figures in T-shirts emerged from the forest-like gathering of trees, and gunfire rattled in her ears as Taser Boy’s body dropped to the sand with a soft TSSS.
Move, Knee! Move! she thought urgently, turning on her heel and sprinting towards the dark entrance. She hoped she hadn't lost the only ally she’d encountered in the GAME so far.
Read Author's Notes For This Post
Chapter One [ Part 2 ] - COMING SOON