A clipped sound echoed along the cavernous street as Selah Rishon raised her foot onto a stone bench. She jerked her head up to glance around the abandoned streetscape.
A groan bounced from the building facades.
Eyeing the landscape cautiously, she secured her dark mop of unruly curls that sorely needed a visit from Mother’s shears and finished tightening her exercise shoe. She stretched her calf muscle. Time to get this done before the sunrise and hot temperatures took over.
She switched feet, tightened her other shoe, and stretched again as she squinted into the soft rays of the morning sun trying to climb over the horizon. Dramatic shadows sliced across the ancient brick buildings creating elongated, one-dimensional fright-men. She shuddered and pushed off on a slow jog down the broken, weed-congested street. A shadow slid to the edge of the surrounding darkness in a doorway two building cavities away on her side of the street.
Selah stopped. Her chest constricted as her heart rate ticked up, pushing starbursts into her vision. She squinted at the different shades of black, attempting to distinguish a face among the sprinkled flashes. She deciphered the outline of a short club protruding from an overly thick hand, probably gloved. Her mouth went dry. She sniffed at the air. She could almost distinguish his smell. Sweat and vegetation mixed with musk and dirt. A male.
The black-clad figure separated from the darkness and lunged onto the uneven sidewalk. She inhaled to draw in calm and studied the shape and posture of the figure. A little taller than her five foot six. Broad at the shoulders, rectangular stance between legs and hips. Yes, it had to be a man.
Her heart pounded a staccato rhythm against her rib cage, drowning out her thoughts. Control your breathing.
She turned to run the other way. Adrenaline surged, prickling up the back of her neck and across her scalp. A movement whispered in front of her.
A second figure emerged from one of the numerous doorways, blocking her retreat.
How did she miss him? Not paying attention could get her hurt.
She pivoted and her back faced the street. No! Bad move. Another attack angle unprotected. She spun, positioning her back against the building. One assailant stood to her left, the other approached from the right. If she let them get close at the same time, she’d be done. Her legs trembled. She steeled herself for an attack.
A squeak. An audible click. The man to her left flicked open an auto-blade. He brandished the knife and lunged. Selah jerked her wrist up to block the attack but overswung. Her hand accidentally connected with her own chin and she bit her lip. The taste of copper heightened her senses. Selah balled her fists tight to her chest and thrust out her left leg, planting her foot in his stomach.
He doubled over as air expelled from his lungs with a grunt. The knife flew from his hand and skittered across the broken street surface. He scrambled for the weapon. Selah bounced to a defensive stance. Pivoting her hip up, she kicked out to the side with her right leg, connecting with his chest. He collapsed to the road, gasping.
Emboldened that she hadn’t suffered a blow, she bolted in the other man’s direction. He raised his club and she assumed a fighting posture. He swung. She blocked the downward motion of his left wrist with an upward thrust of her right forearm. It rocked her core, stinging her arm. An adrenaline rush absorbed the pain.
His right fist jabbed at her head. She pulled to the right side. Her left leg shot out in a low kick and connected with the outside of his knee, knocking him off balance. As he started to fold, she maneuvered a hefty jab and shoved her fist into his nose.
Spittle flew from his mouth.
The man grabbed his face. “My nose! Why, you—” He cursed and released the club. It clattered to the ground.
She sprinted down the street, crossing to the other side. Her core buzzed with the electricity of rapid-fire movements and precision strokes. Her speed felt fluid and natural.
Pay attention. Focus. Focus, she recited until her breathing leveled off.
Stinging. She shook her hand, blew on her fingers, and examined them. Tiny smears of blood dotted the back of her hand. She had skinned two knuckles.
White AirStream at three o’clock. Someone in the pilot’s seat.
This time she wasn’t taking chances. She dodged behind a tree and used the street-side refuse container to hide her advance. She sprang from the hiding place, ran to the AirStream, and crept along its length to the front. With her back against the sleek side, she reached across her chest with her left arm and snatched the occupant out by his tunic. As his torso exited the cockpit, she jammed her right hand into the space between his left arm socket and shoulder blade. She felt his shoulder separate and he howled in pain.
Lowering his center of gravity to throw him off balance, she drove his face into the narrow grassy strip at the edge of the sidewalk and planted her knee on the back of his neck.
“All right, all right! I’m down!” With his plea muffled by the grass, the man fell limp.
“Okay, Selah,” boomed the speaker mounted high on the side of a nearby building. “Your session is done, and by the looks of it, so are my men.” Taraji, the head of TicCity security, chuckled over the intercom.
Selah looked up at the tiny visi-unit mounted on the street illuminator and smiled. “Okay, Taraji. I think I may have broken Arann’s nose. He zigged when he should have zagged. And Hex needs to lubricate his auto-blade. His prop has a serious squeak.” She looked down the street and assessed her friendly victims.
Arann, still holding his nose, raised his hand in a thumbs-up. Selah waved and jogged back to the training zone entrance.
A black-clad form dropped in front of her. Selah recoiled as the hooded figure crouched like a jumping spider and charged. She blocked the charge and spun to the right, executing a roundhouse sweep. The figure jumped her leg and came in with fists flying. The two of them parried back and forth, blow for blow, slice for slice. Selah’s comfort level with the defensive moves increased with her added speed and confidence.
A smile pulled at the corners of her lips. She felt exhilarated.
The spider figure lunged, rolled, and swept Selah’s feet from under her with one fell swoop. Selah landed on her back with a grunt as the air rushed from her lungs. The figure scrambled over her and pressed a glove-covered fist to Selah’s throat.
Selah raised open palms. “Augh! I surrender.”
The black-clad spider figure ripped off its hood. Taraji grinned at Selah. “Never let an opponent see your level of confidence because they will use it against you every time.”
“I really thought I had you.” Selah shook her head.
Taraji held out a hand and yanked Selah to her feet. “You would have, if you hadn’t stopped to grin at me. It made for a perfect break in your concentration. But your increased speed is phenomenal. You’re ready to move to the next level of training.”