Chapter 23 – 3x Ahead
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Shards of ice — Movements that blur the naked eye — Wet debris filtering out across the room. Victory within reach and only three minutes to achieve it. The potential future Maria saw led her team to the finals, but three minutes out of the ten remaining was a short time. Short enough that the nature of the round needed to be decided immediately, yet she felt a bit frightened recollecting the events of the final minute. Despite having a more accurate prediction, the longer it lasted, her brain couldn't quite wrap her head around the process of this third minute. Especially while focusing on Alexia.

The flow of energy moving through Maria's eyes glimmered against the remaining lights shining in the battered and broken room. An eerie silence overtook the two fighters, only the sound of rain pattering against the ceiling. The silence was finally broken by the slivering motion of water pulling into all corners of the room. The air started to cool; the first minute commenced!

From the ceiling, clumps of water leaked through above Maria instantaneously solidifying into ice shards propelling downward towards her in a frenzy. Left — Right — Right — Left, Moving with grace, Maria weaved out of the shards path only to leap onto the stage, avoiding one of the slivering streams of water from grabbing her.

Alexia swiped her right hand forward, forcing ice shards to form from the stream of water as a dozen or so rapidly shot out to pierce Maria. Ducking and rolling out of the shards path, Maria continued to sweat something clearly off either she's burning energy fast or those stardust particles are at work again.

Again, Maria's speed increased, becoming nothing more than a crimson blur. No matter where Alexia looked, she couldn't keep up only the pressure of a fist hitting her gut hard. An extra amount of pressure collided with the side of her face, the force tossing her down into the seats once more. From the stage Maria leaped forward aimed to strike at Alexia from above, this was a miscalculation on her future sight. Or at the very least her judgment of the future — Shards of ice shot from all corners of the room in a matter of seconds these shards weren't as sharp as the previous ones due to how fast they formed. Some still held liquid within them, with quite a few hitting Maria on the side, back, and in front, until she hit the ground hard next to Alexia.

The second minute was about to begin. Right as Alexia started to attack once more after turning to meet Maria, her body fell under a heavyweight of pressure. Moving like the quickness of a lightning bolt, Maria barraged Alexia with a flurry of kicks. To all watching crimson bolts of lightning were repeatedly jabbing against Alexia before her body flung upward towards the 3rd floor of seats.

Angela continued to pray for Maria keeping their hopes high and thoughts low. Even Campbell and Gabby were invested in the match in another part of the building even though the two of them have different reasons for watching the match.

"So tell me. Is this national level fighting? Because I can't see shit." Campbell being a normal human, could only see blurs on the screen. Perhaps, his eyesight finally started to get bad, but this was ridiculous.

"I can't vouch for the speedy-types. But, yeah, this is a starting point." Gabby's eyes coordinated with the screen rapidly moving about to each point where the blurs aligned. The fight captivated her, which Campbell took note of. The younger generation nowadays was always going crazy about this type of sport. In contrast, his generation only sought to improve its safety, at least on the surface.

"Win or lose, I'm going to have to contact those two."

"Are you going to decline my own offer?"

"Come now, Gabby. The foundation needs all the brightest stars to help improve it."

"Then you must know I'm more than capable. I'm highly ranked for my age group in the tournaments!"

"Yes, Yes. But, we've already tested you. If we need more, then we'll contact you. That and I think you just want to break the new units." Campbell, while being dismissive of Gabby, knew she just wanted to fight. He could never understand that weird drive in them to always start swinging or even the excitement behind it. Often taking it with a grain of salt and thinking it to be an age factor.

"Not entirely...Wrong." Gabby smiled recollecting memories now passed of destroying a few test androids built by Campbell himself. Millions of taxpayer dollars down the drain in an instant. While the fond memory of bashing droids eased up Gabby, her attention clearly glued to the match screen.

"So, you learned how to detect energy yet, Gabby?"

"No, I can feel about the same as you. So nothing. If you're asking if I feel anything from this match, then no. At this point, I'm just watching the same as you."

Campbell nodded his head taking note of the information in his head, even noticing the rapid movement of Gabby's eyes on the fight. Speaking of the battle, he also took note of something altering the scenery of the stage. The light fog along the floor of the opera room became denser in seconds, with Alexia's body colliding back down to the 1st floor vanishing in the fog.

"The fog…" Maria thought to herself, recollecting the entire third minute being in a fog. She stood along the railings of the 3rd floor poised to strike down into the fog, the second minute began to pass over into the third. Maria clenched her chest, staring into the mist — why was she hesitating? Despite remembering the third minute, her actions to achieve victory required her to dive into it. But, all she could feel was fear the fog wasn't natural even if it was to be expected even her heart began to race. Still, that same feeling of excitement, the more she looked into the fog overtook her.

Despite her heart racing and an increase in body temperature, Maria leaped from the 3rd floor and dived into the fog, landing on a destroyed chair. Immediately, two fists came swinging at her dodging one and deflecting the other. Only capable of seeing the arm and fist itself due to how dense the fog was, another flurry of fist attacks came at her. These, however, were more coordinated than any the whole game resembling the motion of a quick and lethal boxer.

Retaliating with precision Maria's fist collided with the other from the fog. The energy from the punch diverted into Alexia, propelling her back towards the stage, slamming into it. Raising her fist up into the air, Maria unleashed a wave of crimson energy that dispersed the fog right as her fist was about to go down her body froze.

With the fog no longer sustained, the area's heat increased rapidly — Spheres of light enveloped both sides of the room. There were about a dozen or so on each side, these spheres resembling distant stars now close up. About the size of an average car, these balls of flame were all yellow in coloration. Maria couldn't bear the heat in the seconds they appeared, her mind unable to keep up with the events occurring.

Only one thing left on her mind: 'Victory!' without any hesitation, she brought her hand down into the ground unleashing a wave of crimson energy towards Alexia. This wave of energy rapidly approaching in seconds sharp as a blade and reaching to the top of the ceiling, Alexia retaliated by clenching both her hands into a ball.

The balls of flame began to accelerate rapidly in age, going from yellow to red until they all were colored blue in a matter of seconds. Upon reaching blue as the crimson wave of energy was about to hit Alexia, all of them burst open, expelling gas and an unholy amount of heat. Maria was the first to be hit by this heat only for her body to go slamming face-first into the floor from the immediate shockwave. Alexia being hit second after the crimson wave of energy hit her.

Suddenly, a bright light enveloped the room. The gases collided, reacting violently with each other before the entire building exploded into a cloud of smoke completely decimating the opera house.

"Game!" The monotone voice rang out as Maria and Alexia were flung out of the machine impacting the walls opposite of each other. The singularity machine sparked electricity and smoked. "Wi...n...n..e..r...St...a..r..l.." The machine shut off.

Lyn moved over to Alexia, grabbing her arm. Alexia was dazed from the explosion, her head visibly bleeding with a single drop of blood flowing down.

"W-Wha." Alexia immediately interrupted by Lyn raising her arm up into the air, the monitors and cameras in the building all showcasing Alexia.

"Starlight Academy moves to the finals!!!" Lyn stepped in where the machine failed seconds later the roar of crowds around the building were unleashed. Maria sat up, also bleeding from her head, looking shocked at her loss.

"Unbelievable….That was insane!" Her feelings were entangled — despite losing, she felt relieved, yet still disappointed in herself. This was the first time she lost in a manner that didn't involve her dominating the competition. An actual challenge that a smile simply graced her face despite being injured still due to the machine malfunctioning. She made her way over to Alexia after Lyn released her.

"You're incredible! We have to fight again sometime!"

"I don't think I'd win if we fought again." Alexia thinking back on it Maria herself was adapting to the fight and keeping up even with her strange ability.

"Still! It's infuriating that I lost to someone like you, but at the same time, I still want to battle you again!" This hit a cord in Alexia. "Someone like her?" She thought to herself, it felt more like an insult than a compliment. Taking a closer look at Maria, she was clearly gifted in some shape or form. If by some chance, her team wasn't in the tournament, there was no other way around it, Saint Mary would be winning the tournament. At least from her perspective, the ability to react and see the future even if it wasn't accurate is an insane power. Something most people could only dream of having for better or worse.

To Alexia, this girl in front of her was like a child throwing a tantrum. It seemed she couldn't say no out of this situation with Maria continuing to pester her. With a hefty sigh, Alexia spoke once more.

"Fine. We can fight again, Just don't get mad at me if the results stay the same." Showcasing a smirk, Alexia extended her hand out to Maria.

Maria took it and shook — the same smirk on her face as well. "Fine by me, I'll just have to improve in the process." A win-win for both of them."AAAAAAAND THERE YOU HAVE IT! STARLIGHT MOVES ON?!" Joel's voice rang out through the halls only to be met with the clapping hands of Pearl.

"Bravo. A marvelous fight from both competitors."

"Indeed! Showing good sportsmanship as well!"

"In the professional tourneys, most would be filtered with salt from a loss, but I guess the youth are more promising." Pearl made mention before getting up from her seat, thinking back on the crazy pressure both fighters released. The fact that the machine broke meant both of them were monsters, perhaps on the national scale.

"Pro Schnider, I don't believe you should be saying that." Joel replied back as the monitors around the building began to switch to commercials. In Saint Mary's room, most of them would be in disbelief as to what occurred.

"No way! Mary lost?!" Angela couldn't quite believe it, but even she had been in awe of the power and skill displayed by Starlight throughout this tournament. Their vice-captain and captain, in particular, being dangerous ones.

"I mean...There is always next year?" Aiken looked unphased by them losing. They did make it pretty far, semi-finals were no joke.

"It's easy for you to say, freshmen, to say. But, Quinn and I only have one more year."

"Yeah, so we'll just get them back. Easy peasy~."

"You forget we were aiming for East Bridge, their star-players only have this year to participate in." Joan entered the conversation only for Quinn to stand up, raise both hands into the air and smack his bald, shining head.

"LET'S GO MARY?!" Quinn shouted out.

"It's already over, Quinn." Angela said.

"Sorry, I just needed to get it out of my system."

"Oh, Deary." Was all Lennox could muster for his team. "I'll have to give Reynolds my regards." With Saint Mary out of the picture, there was only one school remaining in Starlight's path to the nationals. East Bridge High, which dominated their semi-finals match without the help of Gabby.

Gabby herself rose from her seat and proceeded to exit the viewing rooms. "Hold it now, not even going to give me a comment on your thoughts of who won?" Campbell looked in her direction.

Gabby stopped in her tracks tightening the bandages strapped to her arms. "You'll see on the battlefield. I have high hopes, so Starlight shouldn't disappoint. See ya tomorrow." With the wave of her hand, Gabby was off, leaving Campbell to himself.

"Urgh...Kids these days." Having a look of disgust on his face after Gabby left, he couldn't help but notice that same excited expression when she left. Singularity users not only freaked him out, but their expressions just didn't sit right with him. To him, they weren't even human, but they provided the details to a fruitful paradise. The disgust quickly faded upon standing up from his seat. With his tablet of data in his hand, he quickly rummaged through the bits of data that was gathered from the fight and went about his day. "Maybe I'll go see one of them tomorrow."

Within the confines of Starlight's room, Reynolds exhaled a sigh of relief. Though he knew this moment of peace wouldn't last long for East Bridge was the next obstacle and arguably the toughest one they'll face.

"Yeah! Onto the finals!" Roy slammed his fists together, pumped up for the finals. Where he can truly shine in front of a live audience for once. "We finally get to use the actual machine too."

"Eh…" Heidi didn't seem intrigued by the thought of actually using the proper singularity machines. The miniature ones they used this entire time were good enough. "It just means we're sharing an entire stage, nothing drastic." She let out a bit of a yawn now that nighttime had arrived outside. Maybe she should sleep more often during the day, but it just wasn't her style.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Tomorrow is going to be rough regardless, don't underestimate them. We nearly lost to Saint Mary after all." Cheveyo reeled the conversation back a bit. Roy seemed to stop his excitement immediately and began to look a bit more worried thinking about it.

"Yeah, you're right. But don't worry, I got this. Just you wait. We're going to easily sail into the nationals."

"For now, I want all of you to rest up. We have a long day tomorrow." With that, Reynolds gave his blessings to the team as the day was coming closer to an end. Whereas in another part of the building before the day was over — East Bridge gathered together in their room.

The door gently opened up, revealing Caitlin coming through with the same instrument case on her back closed up. Her demeanor looked a bit dull, perhaps bored even from finishing up her match, having given her team their 3rd win preventing the game from entering into the 4th and 5th rounds.

"Yo~. Welcome back, Caiti." Tommy laying across the couch, greeted his teammate in his hand. He held a gaming device playing it as the day came to a close. The rest also began to chime in and welcome her back.

"GO!!! CAITI~!" Daniel proceeded to showcase his muscles in the spirit of Caitlin. Keeping the team's morale high was quite easy; at least in his mind, he excelled at it. Vincent gave a congratulatory clap welcoming Caitlin into the room.

"Excellent performance as always, but I can assure you if you had aimed higher than normal, your shots would be 2% more accurate." Vincent gave a more knowledgeable approach to Caiti's fighting.

"Implying 2% more would give me even more of an advantage."

"Ease up, Vince. Not like the other teams can dodge her shots." Blaster noises coming from Tommy's game with a digital explosion afterwards.

"THAT'S RIGHT! FOR OUR LOVELY CAITI IS A MAGNIFICENT SHARPSHOOTER!!!" Daniel started to pose the smell of burning paper lingering around him, which only caused Caitlin to swat away the smell upon sitting next to Tommy. But, to their surprise, the door opened again — Gabby peeked her head into the room, wondering what the team was up to.

"If it isn't Gabriel~! Ready to take my spot?" Daniel smiled.

"You know, we aren't trading spots this late into the tournament. Have fun in the morning. As for the rest of you, nice work out there."

"Gabby, we need to talk about Caiti's accuracy. It's gotten worse." Vince said, glancing at Caitlin. Only for her to return the favor with an annoyed expression.

"Tell Vince he needs to lay off about the statistics."

"Personally, I think you both should quit while you're ahead." Explosions rang out from Tommy's gaming device. A soft chuckle coming from him as well.

"That's not important right now, what's important is our enemy for tomorrow." Gabby closed the door behind her and approached the rest.

"Oooh. Let me guess, Saint Mary!" Tommy paused his game.

"No, Starlight."

"Starlight?"

"Yes."

Tommy, Caitlin, and even Vincent glanced at each other a bit bewildered. Did starlight win against Saint Mary? Surprising news, but not impossible considering the girl they ran into yesterday.

"Do you think that girl we ran into had something to do with it?" Caitlin looked a bit concerned, recalling the energy she felt the other day.

"That or her team's also pretty good. I did see a match of theirs yesterday. From what I saw, one of them resembles the New York champ in abilities." Tommy continued tampering with his game, listening to the conversation.

"OOOOOH YEAH!!! This means we have to give it 200% of our power!" Daniel, on the other hand, was more thrilled than the rest. Gabby enjoyed his spirit, to say the least, yet this next fight won't be easy. It wasn't going to be in the first place — to them, Saint Mary was the main contender and a threat to their title the same as last year. But, a new school appearing out of nowhere was aiming for the top, just like them.

A spark of flame emitted around Daniel as Gabby proceeded to place her hand on his shoulder. "To tell you the truth, I'm interested in Starlight, but for the wrong reasons." In the back of her mind, if Starlight was quite the foe, so much so that she wanted to savor a piece of it for herself.

"Regardless, We won't let them have the title of State Champion that easily." With that, Gabby simply held in her excitement, tightening the bandages around her arms.

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