The Queens Army, страница 4часть #1. 5 серии The Lunar Chronicles
Z was glad that he was not the only one who gasped. He instantly peeled his gaze away from Her Majesty and stared straight ahead, at the black cavern wall. His palms began to sweat, but he resisted the urge to wipe them on his pants or check his face for remnants of their meal.
The piece of meat blissfully relinquished its hold on his tooth, and he swallowed.
“Gentlemen,” said the queen. “I am here to congratulate you on the progress you’ve all made as soldiers in my brilliant new army. I have been monitoring your training sessions for many months now, and I am pleased with what I’ve seen. ”
A low rustle slipped through them—the faintest of fidgets. Z did not know how she could have watched them without their knowing. Maybe their training sessions had been recorded.
“You are all aware,” the queen continued, “that you are among the soldiers being considered for a unique mission that will aid in the hostilities between Luna and Earth. This is a role of honor, reserved for those who have risen above the confines of their past, the limitations of their bodies, and the fear of the unknown. They will be my most prized soldiers, chosen not only for their strength and bravery, but also for their intelligence, cunning, and adaptability. My court and I will be making our final selections soon. ”
Her words were blurred in Z’s thoughts and he could think of nothing past a bead of sweat making its way down his temple and how his fingers were beginning to twitch with too much energy and no outlet.
The queen, who had been as still as the soldiers until now, a faceless sheet speaking to them, lifted one arm and gestured to the thaumaturges. “I’m sure that I do not need to remind your thaumaturges that those who are in control of the selected packs will receive instant advancement in their court status. ”
Z dared a glance at Jael and saw that his dark eyes had gone fierce, his jaw set.
Z snapped his gaze back to the wall.
“Your thaumaturges have asked for the opportunity to showcase some of their brightest soldiers. I look forward to the demonstration. ” She swirled her fingers through the air and the thaumaturges spread out into the crowd.
Jael’s walk was tense as he reached them. “Alpha Brock,” he snapped, “you will be fighting. No teeth, no claws—I want to show your skill. Understood?”
Brock fisted his hand against his chest. “Yes, Master Jael. Who will be my opponent?”
Jael’s gaze swept to Beta Wynn. Though technically, all Betas had the same rank in the pack, everyone kept a mental record of wins and losses, of victories and failures, and everyone knew that Wynn wasn’t far behind Brock in his abilities.
But then Jael let out a slow breath. “Ze’ev. ”
Z’s eyes widened, and he glanced at Master Jael, heat flooding his face. But Jael showed no humor or uncertainty, only a stern determination as he paced past the others and came to stand before him. Their gazes clashed, and it was with some shock that Z realized he was now taller than Master Jael too.
“She wants a show,” he said. “This time, don’t hold back. ”
Z’s brow twitched, but he tried to remain neutral as he saluted his thaumaturge.
His thoughts were frenzied as they were marched into the largest training room. Her Majesty had been escorted onto a platform on one end and placed atop a throne so that she could watch the proceedings in comfort.
Fifty packs. Fifty fights.
Z’s stomach was roiling as they began. He couldn’t focus on the brawls. He was only seeing Jael’s dark eyes, hearing his words over and over again. This time, don’t hold back.
Did Jael think he faked his losses? Did Jael believe he was capable of defeating Brock, or did he only want to ensure that he lasted as long as he could?
Only once did he dare to glance over at his opponent and saw that Brock had a furious scowl. He obviously didn’t think Z was a worthy opponent, not in front of the queen herself.
Ran, too, looked sullen, and although not a person in the room would have expected Ran to be chosen as one of Jael’s examples, Z sensed that Ran had fantasized about such a chance to prove himself more than once.
Finally, their turn came.
Jael bowed to Her Majesty and introduced them—Alpha Brock fighting Beta Kesley.
Z could smell the blood from the previous fights, still warm and salty, mingling with the regolith dust. He and Brock trekked to the fighting circle and stared at each other.
Only when he sank into his fighting stance did he feel the panic and confusion subside.
He didn’t win all his fights, but he won more than he lost. He had become strong and fast. He would not make a fool of himself in front of Her Majesty.
And if they amused her, perhaps she would choose their pack for her special mission. He would never have to go through the rest of the surgeries. He would never become a mindless beast in her army.
Brock’s eyes flashed. There was a burning in his gaze that Z didn’t recognize, but he was sure it carried a promise of pain.
Brock came at him first, with a right hook aimed at his jaw. Z ducked easily—too easily. Brock feinted at the last moment and drove his other fist into Z’s side. Z clenched his teeth and pushed himself back, retaliating with a front kick to Brock’s stomach.
They backed away from each other, bouncing on the balls of their feet, hands poised in front of their faces. A trickle of sweat dropped down Z’s spine.
He squinted, watching the way Brock’s body swayed, noticing how he briefly clenched his left fist.
A roundhouse kick was coming.
No sooner had he thought it than Brock whipped forward, aiming his foot for Z’s head.
He caught it and pulled, throwing Brock onto his side.
Z danced out of Brock’s reach, panting. Salt was beginning to sting his eyes. Brock didn’t stay down long. He flashed his sharp teeth and rushed forward—
Jab to the ribs. Elbow to the face. Sideswipe kick.
He saw them all happening an instant before they did. Block. Block. Jump. Attack.
Teeth snapped as he landed an uppercut to Brock’s jaw. A left hook to his side.
Brock withdrew, face contorted in fury. It was difficult for Z to hide his own surprise at this newfound skill.
But it wasn’t new. It was from years of sitting on the sidelines, watching and studying and inspecting every fight, every brawl, every punch thrown, every victory won. He knew how Brock fought.
And, he suspected that if he were pitted against any one of his pack members, he would have seen the same signs, recognized the same tricks and tells.
He could beat them.
He could beat all of them.
Brock stretched his neck to one side and Z heard the sound of his spine popping. Brock shook it out like a dog, then sank into his stance again.
His eyes glinted.
Bolstered, Z shot forward.
Z gasped, pain ripping through his abdomen as five nails dug into his side, piercing the flesh above his hip bone. Brock squeezed, digging his fingers deeper into the flesh. Z nearly collapsed, catching himself on Brock’s shoulder with a strangled grunt.
“I will kill you before I let you win this fight,” Brock breathed against him.
He let go all at once and stepped away. Without his support, Z fell to one knee. He pressed his hand against the wounds, not daring to look at Jael or the queen, to see if anyone noticed or cared that Brock had disobeyed the rules Jael had laid out for them.
But no. They were wild animals. Predators who ran on instinct and bloodthirst.
Who would expect a fair fight from such monsters?
All she wanted was a show.
He heard a low growl and didn’t at first realize that it was coming from his own throat. He dared
Flashes of red sparked in the corners of Z’s vision. His side throbbed.
“Best just to stay down,” Brock said.
Z snarled. “You’ll have to kill me. ”
He pushed himself off the ground and lunged forward. For a moment, Brock seemed startled, but then he was blocking again, knocking away every advance. But Z was fast, and finally a punch landed against Brock’s cheek.
With a roar, Brock reached toward Z’s wound, but Z dodged away and grasped Brock by the wrist, pulling him so close he could smell the meat lingering on his breath. With his free hand, he grabbed Brock’s throat. Hesitated.
The words stole into his head like the long night came upon the cities—sly, but complete. They possessed him, their command working their way into his desires and hunger and desperation and crawling down into his pulsing fingertips.
I want to see how you would do it.
He gritted his teeth.
Brock’s nostrils widened. His eyes glowed with disdain as he sensed Z’s indecision.
Z felt the shift in his opponent’s weight and he knew it was coming. Fingernails in his side, the blinding pain, the white spots in his vision.
With a roar, he let go of Brock’s wrist and grabbed the back of his head.
He dropped the body to the ground before the light went out in his eyes.
Z’s heart was thumping painfully, his blood a tsunami rushing through his ears.
But outside of him there was silence. Complete and endless silence.
Licking his salted lips, he tore his gaze away from Brock and the way his neck was bent all wrong.
His pack was watching him with disbelief and awe, but, to his surprise, there did not seem to be any hatred there.
His gaze continued. They were all gaping at him. The other packs, the thaumaturges. All except Jael, who didn’t look exactly pleased, and yet didn’t seem surprised, either.
Only when the queen stood did he dare to look at her. Her head was listed to the side, and he imagined a pensive expression behind the veil.
“Clean and efficient,” she said, bringing her hands together for three solid claps. She had not applauded any of the other fights. He did not know what it meant. “Well done…Alpha. ”
His stomach flipped, but the queen was already gesturing for the body to be removed, for the fights to continue, and Z had to stumble off toward his pack before she retracted her praise. Her words followed him, as kind and gentle as a bell.
Well done. Alpha.
He had killed Brock, and in the law of the pack, he was now to take his place as the undisputed leader.
He was the new Alpha.
He paused in front of his pack brothers. None of them seemed surprised by the queen’s words. They had all known it the moment Brock hit the ground.
As he watched, they each brought their fists to their chests in mute respect. In silent acceptance of his victory. Even his brother saluted him, but there alone was bitterness. There, alone, was anger over Z’s success.