James Mitchell entered through the main entrance of the Institute for Paranormal Studies.
As he passed by doors labeled “Introduction to Magic” and “Vampiric Lore,” the admittedly nerdy side of his personality was intrigued by the prospect of learning about the paranormal.
What excited him most, however, was the opportunity to train at a state-of-the-art facility and test his skills against some of the kingdom’s best fighters.
Despite how he felt about his tryout bout, he had impressed the judges enough to qualify for study with the institute. Unfortunately, there would be several mandatory classes he would rather not have to take to maintain his place on the active training roster.
Five minutes later, James found Lecture Hall D. Upon entering the room, he saw that it had stadium seating, and over three quarters of the seats were filled with people engaged in various conversations.
A red-haired girl four rows up and near the middle of that row motioned for James to come sit with her.
James smiled, then after a several awkward seconds of brushing against people, joined her.
"Hi.” Her voice was sweet and cheerful. “I'm Rebecca. Nice to meet you."
"James. Nice to meet you too. Thanks for saving me a good seat.”
“Don’t mention it. I just wanted to be the first one to welcome Professor Martin’s nephew.”
“How did you know?”
“I was his aid last semester. He was always bragging about you.”
“Really? Julius Martin bragged about me? You think you know a guy.” She shoved him playfully.
“He said you were silly.”
“That I believe. So, if you’ve been here long enough to pick up my uncle’s slack, why are you taking the tour?”
“I just like taking it every few months because they switch things up."
"How many times have you taken it?"
"Um, four, counting this one. I can't help it. I get so excited. Sounds weird, right?"
"Nah. It’s pretty cool that you’re still this excited. Makes a guy look forward to the future.”
Before they could continue further, a man wearing a sweater that fit every stereotype James had of college professors entered the room.
"Good evening class. I'm Professor Oliver." His voice was deep and reminded James of the man who did voice-overs for action movie previews.
"I see some new faces tonight, as well as a few familiar ones. For those that are not skipping a class to hang out with me, I just want to be the first instructor to welcome you to the Institute for Paranormal Studies. Take advantage of everything this school offers. From the mundane to the mysterious, nothing is out of your grasp if you choose to reach for it. Let the journey begin."
Just then, a dozen students entered the hall. James’ eyes were immediately drawn to one of the women.
She was easily the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in person. Slim but curvy, her face was round with expressive, dark eyes and full lips, framed with dark curly ear length hair.
Professor Oliver droned on about something probably school related while James tried to will the woman to notice him in the crowd.
“Earth to James.” He looked over to a beaming Rebecca. “You are adorable.”
“Somebody has a crush,” she sang just loud enough for him to hear. “You’re not the first. Johari has that effect on most guys.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look.” She offered him her tablet.
He skimmed the Orientation section and discovered that, along with about another dozen students, he would be taking his tour with Johari.
“Funny how these things work out,” she told him as she put a hand on his shoulder. “Good luck.”
Despite the initial anxiety when he first saw her, James eventually found the conviction to talk to Johari during the tour.
Having accomplished that small miracle, he was surprised to be suddenly alone with her.
“On a scale of one to ten, how nervous are you?” The way she smiled at him infected him with one of his own.
“Is there a ‘forgot how numbers work’ option?”
“You are so silly.”
“You wouldn’t believe how often I hear that. So what’s your favorite thing to do in school?”
“See, no reason to be nervous around me. I’m just another student like you. To answer your question, research is my absolute favorite thing to do here. But a very close second is watching the challenges.”
“Really? So when you say challenges, I can just challenge anyone to a fight?”
“Well, not anyone. There are checks and balances. Keeps new students from getting discouraged their first few fights here. For instance, you wouldn’t be able to challenge Mustafa or Malcolm.”
“Maybe not today. But I look forward to the challenge.”
“I like that attitude. There’s nothing quite like watching a good fight.”
“Maybe you can watch one of mine soon.”
Before she could respond there was a buzzing sound, and he watched her check her tablet.
“I’ll think about it.” She smiled again and all he could do was nod his head. “Let’s meet up with the other groups.”
Twelve hours later, one thought was at the forefront of James’ mind: Johari.
After his tour group had rendezvoused with the others for refreshments, he had been unable to speak with Johari again. It was nice seeing Rebecca again, and she had agreed to help him with his less face-punching studies.
There was something about Johari beyond a mere physical attraction. He was drawn to her in a way he had never felt before. Her mere presence filled him with anxiety, yet he found it incredibly easy to speak with her. It was honestly a bit concerning.
“You seem remarkably cheerful for a guy that got knocked unconscious less than thirty-four hours ago.”
James finished his last sit up and looked up at his best friend, Michelle Watson. The slightly older woman stood behind the sofa holding a bottle of water.
“No pain no gain. Who told you? Probably Uncle June.” She tossed him the bottle and he caught it.
“You’re just mad that he likes me more.”
He sucked down half of the water so quickly that the bottle collapsed into itself.
“Is that a new tank top?”
“Nice try. Stop staring at my boobs.”
“I’m hurt that you think that way about me. Hurt. Though to be honest, they are spectacular.”
Michelle threw her empty water bottle at him then rounded the sofa to stand near him.
“How was the tour?”
“Please tell me you did not pick a fight last night.”
“I have some self-control woman. I’m waiting until tonight.”
“Why do you hate your brain so much?”
“I don’t. The heart wants what the heart wants.”
“Fine, get your brains scrambled again. Just save enough brain cells to do me that favor you owe me.”
James got to his knees and crawled closer towards her.
“Come on Shelly. It’s me, Mr. Reliable. I made you a promise.”
Taking her left hand into both of his, he looked up and stared into her eyes.
"Baby it's a promise between me and you.” Michelle shook her head as he serenaded her as deeply as his voice allowed. “Don't let nobody say it ain't so.”
She tried to hold in her laugh, but when he stood up and put his face close to hers, the laughter escaped through her nose.
“I cannot take you,” Michelle snorted then giggled. James grabbed her gently by the chin then put his forehead against hers.
“Baby, I promise what I say is true, so girl just believe, I promise.”
“You are so crazy,” she choked out after finally catching her breath.
“Crazy about you.”
"And every other female that will pay attention to you.” She hugged him and lifted him a few inches from the ground. He grunted before she set his feet back on the floor. “I’ll see you tonight. Good luck."
The next few hours flew by in a blur of lectures and freshly waxed hallways between lecture.
James had barely digested his dinner as he entered the training room designated for his challenge.
To his surprise and delight, Johari was sitting ringside.
“Hi. Glad you could make it.”
“To tell the truth, I didn’t know you were fighting today. I got a message to be here. But since fate has brought us together Mr. Mitchell, show me your moves.”
“That’s the plan.”
“You two done flirting?”
James and Johari turned in the direction of the voice. On the opposite end of the room, a man dressed in a black Strong Style Unlimited hoodie approached the ring. In one fluid motion, he took another step and leaped onto the fighting mat.
“Johari,” the man continued, “whatever happens, do not interfere.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just watch. I’ll make it quick.” He then looked at James, “I’m going to try real hard not to break you.”
“Well, that sounds like my cue.” James joined the man in the ring.
Without warning, the man threw a left jab. James parried the blow. The punch had seemed faster than anything James had practiced against, but he had somehow glimpsed it. His body seemed to act on its own as it did once more when he avoided a second and third punch then closed the space between the two of them. James slammed a palm thrust against the man’s blocking arm with enough force to cause the man to stumble.
Even as the hooded man regained his footing, James aimed another punch at the man’s face. It was easily blocked but James slipped his other hand behind the man’s head then yanked it forward.
With both hands on the man’s head, James tried to knee him in the jaw, but the man defended well.
James pivoted to the left and kicked the man in the shoulder.
His opponent shook off the blow and nearly connected with a right hook. James threw three quick punches but the man easily slipped pass them into James’ guard and landed two punches to the gut.
James dropped to one knee but sprang towards the man’s legs and tackled him to the mat.
They scrambled for a moment and James mounted the other man. He only landed a single punch before the downed man swung an impossibly fast fist at him. A burst of white robbed James of his sight as his face exploded with pain.
James’ vision returned just as pain ripped through his midsection. The unguarded kick took his breath away and he rolled away from his opponent.
From the ground, he instinctively kicked at the man’s shin then used that moment to scramble back to his feet.
They traded a few punches and James felt that the man had abandoned any pretense of defense. He was curious as to whether the man had no respect for James’s punching power or just did not mind the pain. That train of thought was derailed by a headbutt that struck just above James’ left eye.
James swung blindly. He felt his opponent’s shin slam into his hip but had the timing and wherewithal to trap the leg. James absorbed another punch to adjust his grip on the man’s leg then used the newfound leverage to take the man to the mat.
His opponent kicked at him but James maneuvered around into a more advantageous position. He elbowed the man in the ribs twice and once in the jaw. From his position, he forced the other man’s arm into a painful and unnatural angle.
Even as James managed to maintain his grip, the man was somehow fighting off the hold. As James’s strained to keep the hold locked in, the the man’s free fist slammed into James' ribs and James would have sworn he felt his organs shift. Two more blows from concrete hard knuckles forced James to abandon the hold altogether.
Slowed considerably by the pain, James was practically defenseless as a wild swing glanced off the man’s chin and a hard kick knocked James to the mat. James tried to will his body to do something, but another kick ended any chance of the fight continuing.
From what seemed like miles away, he heard the faint sound of Johari yelling. He then felt his body being dragged across the ground.
A moment later, he stopped moving. Vision blurred and hearing impaired, he felt a stabbing pain in his neck. As he prayed it was not nerve damage, he felt an eerie sense of calm; then nothingness.