Chapters 12 – 14

12 – Trisk vs. Templetine

 

 

“So does that mean we can’t save anyone?” Trisk asked.

“Do you always have to be so negative?” Darrow accused. “This here with the park is just a paradox. It doesn’t mean that we have no chance at all.”

Mean waded through the odd water. “I thought we weren’t trying to change anything this time anyhow,” she said. “We still have one more trip after we get back, right? After we learn what happened, we go back again for the big changes.”

“Of course;” Darrow said, “I almost forgot. This is just recon this time.”

Mean folded her arms and sloshed toward the next room. “Yep. I wouldn’t be wasting time here if I knew there was something we could be doing.”

“We could be practicing for the matches,” Trisk said, staying at the hex door. “One of us still has to make it to the end.”

“Oh, right,” Tome agreed. “What’s the lineup, then? Who’s next?”

“I am, I think,” Trisk said. “I go against Temple guy.”

Vornis yawned. “Then it’s me against, um–”

“Tenny,” Trisk finished.

“Right,” Vornis said, smacking his lips across his large teeth. He pointed a claw over at Mean. “Then we’ve got you against Parlay.”

Mean splashed to her knees. “I don’t even want to think about that;” she groaned, “what happened with the male version was brutal.”

Vornis cleared his throat. “Well, you may not have noticed, but this earlier Parlay’s a bit nicer.”

Mean sunk further into the water, blowing bubbles as she sighed. “Tell that to Kay Kary; she got beat so quick I didn’t even have time to see it.”

“You can fly–keep your distance,” Trisk offered. “Kary didn’t think of that.”

“Yeah,” Mean said, rolling onto her back and floating there. “I won’t be caged up this time, either.”

“So you just–pow–levitate that chair outside the ring like you did with her,” Darrow said, splashing past. A mannequin dressed like Hilo gazed down at them from the rafters in the next room. Mean shivered when she saw it.

“She’ll probably be ready for that. That vein stuff absorbs patterns when it turns blue. The patterns that affect giant chairs, anyway.”

Vornis huffed and plowed across the odd water, sending Mean bobbing atop the surface. “I wouldn’t worry about that,” he said, turning sideways to fit through the passage. “Now let’s get swimming; I want to see the looks on peoples’ faces when my smiling face pops out of the water.”

 

—–

 

The sky was clear–save for ‘KING’S FAIR’ written in cloud–as people appeared at the Imperial Pyramid’s corner hex doors. The vendors greeted them with various cries as they meandered to their seats. At ringside Darrow, Tome, and Mean huddled around Trisk.

“I think Mean should check you for anything strange,” Tome said. “The tar and shackle were on Caldera before he even got into the ring. Something kept him from noticing or remembering that they were there. If we look now we can prevent Templetine from doing it to you.”

“Okay,” Trisk agreed. She tossed off her sweater and ran her fingers through her long, black hair. Mean patted down Trisk’s sweat pants and checked her tank top and shoes.

“Looks clear; you’re ready,” Mean told her. Murmurs came from the stands as Templetine entered the ring. His clothes no longer sagged and he walked with fair posture. His head was turned up at the sky and his chin was bristling with fresh, grey whiskers.

“What the heck?” Darrow asked. “Did he get taller?”

“Trisk, be careful,” Tome warned. “That person is not normal.”

Trisk nodded at her friends as they walked up to their seats. She turned and stepped up into her side of the ring.

“What did you frisk Trisk for?” Vornis asked Mean as she reached their seats. “You worried she’ll shank someone?”

“We were checking for sabotage,” Darrow said. Vornis set his arms on the twin spikes at his sides.

“Smart,” he said. “Do any of you know who that guy up there with King is?”

“Guy?” Tome repeated, sitting down next to him. He checked the pedestal, where King was now joined by Conneld. “Shoot! It’s his brother!” Mean let out a gasp.

“That’s one of them; one of the people Hellzoo showed us up–”

Tome seized her arm. “Be careful; don’t say anything–don’t think anything. King’s brother Conneld can see thought patterns: just like I can.”

“Didn’t know he had a brother,” Vornis stated. “What’s he doing here? Sorry, was I not supposed to be talking?”

Tome kept his eyes on Conneld, who was watching Trisk and Templetine in the ring.

“He’s an investigator,” Tome whispered. “He was sent after me a few times.”

Pinada was gliding over to the ring and several people stood, cheering for him. He shook his head, waving them back into their seats. With a gesture he lifted the four glass walls to encase the ring.

“Begin!” Kello shouted.

Trisk edged to the right, looking past the throne. The gold weight from Caldera’s match was at Templetine’s feet again. He also had a pouch fastened to his waist with a belt. He reached into it and brought something small out. It was a cluster of feathers.

Donzel Veinsmith leaned across the long table. “Hey, that looks like the hilt of my sword.” He checked the case behind his seat: the rapier and the cutlass were set in their spaces, along with the broadsword with only the tang where the hilt should have been. It blinked out of the case and snapped onto the piece that Templetine held, becoming complete again. The sword dipped in Templetine’s grip; he hoisted it up before the blade touched the mat.

“Ah, he knew we’d check her!” Mean shouted. “Hey! You can’t steal other people’s things!”

Templetine smirked, turning an ear to the reacting crowd. He looked over in Trisk’s direction, but did not meet her gaze. The number on the blade clicked to zero; he gave the sword a sharp practice swing.

“Excuse me? Gamemaster?” Donzel asked, raising his hand. Caldera laughed.

“She’s not going to care,” he said, smiling beneath his domed hat. “If she let him go into the ring with it, it’s legal.”

Trisk dipped her head and charged; she passed the throne and went straight for Templetine. He flinched, hesitated, and jabbed the blade at her. Trisk weaved to the side. He slashed horizontally and she bobbed out of the way. Templetine frowned, swishing the blade around in a haphazard manner, missing every time. Trisk let out an audible chuckle.

“Trisk watch out!” Mean shouted as Trisk’s ankle bumped into the gold weight. She staggered and fell flat on her back.

“Crap, crap, crap,” Trisk muttered; Templetine leapt at her . He rose the sword up and the blade’s number jumped to sixty. Trisk shielded her face with her arms and the blade was torn into two as it fell on Trisk’s wrists: the blade bouncing past her head and Templetine left with the hilt and a gleaming stump.

“Oh! You keep surprising me,” Templetine said. Trisk grabbed his arm and pulled him down, kneeing him in the gut. She rose; he caught himself with his hands. She dragged him sideways; he collided with the back of the throne. Trisk stood over him, clapping her thin fingers around the high back of the chair, tipping it toward her. It fell and pinned Templetine to the mat. Trisk panted, wiping her hair away from her face. She stepped on the chair and sat down on the back’s cushioning.

“One,” Kello shouted.

Templetine twisted beneath the throne, facing up. He touched the back of the chair that held him. “I almost forgot; I can’t,” he said, pulling back. He rummaged in his pouch, pulling out a pistol’s grip: unattached to a trigger or barrel.

“Hey!” Dark said, feeling a snap at his side. He pulled his cape back and saw that his gun was gone; Templetine now held it, complete.

“Four,” Kello counted.

Templetine disassembled the gun again: separating the barrel and grip away from a crimson ball. In his other hand, the sword hilt split into three parts as well: the hilt, guard, and a strip of crimson. The strip vanished and the gun snapped together once more, leaving the crimson ball behind.

“Eight,” Kello said. Templetine pointed the gun at the thone and squeezed the trigger. Trisk wobbled as the chair lifted into the air. She tossed out her arms and she fell as the chair tilted upside-down.

“Frickin frack,” she muttered, slamming onto the mat. Templetine picked himself up.

“I don’t’ think I’ve ever seen anyone do that,” King told Conneld. “He’s spitting up patterns and refiguring the components into new weapons–all without destroying the original. Oh!” He gasped as Trisk stood; Templetine flung the throne at her with his gun, sandwiching her between the back of the chair and Pinada’s glass wall.

“Neither one of us is up to our full potential, are we?” Templetine wondered, rubbing the grey stubble on his chin. “I know what I’m meant to be, though. I know what I need to be complete. You–well, you don’t quite know what to do yet, do you?”

Tenny watched with Smatter and Charlie from a spot near the vendors. “She almost had him,” he said.

“You think she’ll warp out of the way again?” Smatter asked.

“I hope not,” Tenny replied. “Templetine would see it coming. But there’s still a way out. She can’t touch the chair, but the glass–”

Trisk took her thumb and jabbed it into the wall. The glass tore away at her touch. Templetine kept the gun held on the throne as he walked over to the gold weight. He touched the shackle on the end and two pieces popped off in his hand. He continued on to where Trisk was trapped, and he dipped down to place the parts of the shackle around her ankle. The rest of the weight followed in a blink, joining with the pieces to hold her. Trisk ignored him, carving away the wall in a semi-circle.

“Ah, I’m missing something,” Templetine hummed. He snapped his fingers. The gold weight spilt and reformed: the crimson, circular core that had come out of the gun vanished from where it lay. Bright sparks flashed from the gold to Trisk’s leg and she grit her teeth, seizing up. Templetine bounded at the throne and plopped into it; it thumped against the mat.

“One,” Kello called out. Trisk slumped over, held in place as the gold weight at her ankle sputtered and fizzled.

“It’s going to kill her!” a woman behind Vornis screamed. “Get her out of there!”

“What are you doing, Kello!?” Tenny cried. “What are you waiting for–she can’t move! Call the match!”

Kello stared straight ahead as Pinada looked up at King. He shrugged back, wincing.

“Hey, Tenny, she knew what the risk was,” Charlie said, touching his exposed shoulder. “And you told her–”

He jerked away. “I didn’t think this would happen–I thought she’d have a chance to quit if things got too dangerous.” He marched up to the side of the ring, kicking it. “I’m the one who told her not to change arts–”

“Tenny, please back away from the ring,” Pinada said. Kello counted to four.

In the stands, Tome jumped in his seat. “What was that?” he uttered. He twisted to look at the woman behind Vornis, then back down at Tenny. He marched over to the stairs that lead into the ring and strutted right up to the corner. He rolled up his sleeve and made a neat slash with his fingers: whisking away a portion from the glass walls.

“Tenny!” Pinada warned. “Participants may only enter the ring during their designated matches.”

“Bite me,” he answered, slashing at the glass yet again. Pinada braced his arm on the glass and launched his case at him, crashing into Tenny’s body and knocking him to the floor.

“I can’t let you into the ring–sorry,” he said. Tenny bounced onto his feet. Pinada swept sideways, barring his way.

“Let me through, Pinada!” Tenny demanded.

“No,” Pinada replied.

Tenny swept his fingers over his lips, shuffled in thought, and struck at Pinada’s glass with his palms. The surface sparked and crackled under his fingers; Pinada touched the inside of his case, holding his hands there. Kello ceased her count, staring at them as gasps arose from the spectators.

“Keep counting!” Templetine shouted at her.

“What’s he thinking?” Dark said through the gap in his helmet. Tome shook his head.

“Something happened to his mind,” he said, his eyes darting. “Thoughts–they’re moving from person to person. I can’t tell who’s doing it.”

He flinched back. He stared at Mean, Vornis, and Dark. “Oh no. Whatever is happening just happened to you.”

“Well, we need to stop this match first,” Mean said, bounding straight out of her seat and into the air.

“Yeah,” Vornis agreed. He stood, crooked his knees, and leapt over ten rows of people to the side of the ring.

“No, don’t!” Tome cried, reaching after them. He turned to Dark, who was slipping past people as he made his way to the stairs, apologizing as he brushed someone’s lap with his cape.

“Can you let me through, please? I need to stop this match.”

“What are they doing?” Darrow cried, “They’ll all get kicked out!”

“I think that’s the plan,” Tome said. “Shoot–I didn’t want to–”

He closed his eyes and dipped his head; Vornis crashed to the ground face-first at the foot of the ring. Mean, soaring toward the top of the glass wall, sunk with a sharp jerk; she grasped and twirled as she was pulled down to the floor. Her feet hit first, then her knees and palms. Her hair hung straight past her face as she wobbled and fought to stay up. A clatter sounded as Dark fell, too.

Pinada, still locked with Tenny, glanced over at Vornis and then at Mean: watching them both pressed flat to the ground.

“That spell–!” he gasped, taking his hand from the case. A hiss came as Tenny’s fingers punctured Pinada’s glass barrier. Vapor streamed through the holes and Tenny swept the entire box out of his way. Pinada shrieked, slapping his hand over the holes. “No, no!” he cried and the breech closed, sealing over with smooth glass again. “Pinada!” Kello shouted, “You attacked the hero Pinada!” Tenny ignored her and chopped away at the ring’s glass walls now, creating a jagged gap and wiggling through.

“Tenny, you are so disqualified!” Kello roared, clenching her umbrella’s handle. “Intrusion! Intrusion in the ring!”

Templetine leapt up from the seat, backing away from Tenny. “Hey, look, she’s fine,” he urged him, pointing to Trisk. The gold weight was broken into three pieces and the shackle on her leg was shattered on the floor. Tenny grimaced at him and went to the chair. He wedged himself between the wall and the throne, shoving it out of the way and taking hold of Trisk. Her eyes were open and she leaned on him for support.

Kello sighed. “Templetine goes to the semifinals,” she announced. “And due to Tenny’s disqualification, Templetine’s opponent will be the Beast.”

The people around her reacted with cheers and applause, others booed, stood, and jeered at Tenny.

“Throw his ass in jail!” one shouted. “Pinada, do it! Go get him!”

Pinada sneezed. “No,” he replied, sniffling. “The punishment for breaking the rules of the game has been carried out–there’s no need for anything more.” He coughed into his hand.

“Thank you,” Tenny expressed from the ring. Pinada waved him off, dabbing at his nose with his scarf. He lowered the four walls and Mean, Vornis, and Dark stood upright. From their chairs, King and his brother overlooked the scene.

“Did you see the spell that was holding them to the ground?” King asked.

“Yes, I did,” Conneld replied. King shifted in place.

“Did you see who cast it?”

“No,” Conneld said. “There was too much going on at once–too many people. But it was precise. Just the way that he used to do it.”

Below them, Eon rose from his seat at the table.

“You know who it is,” he shouted up at them. “Sing has appeared to us–I told you! Sing is here! He lives! You saw!”

Individuals murmured in their seats as Eon swept his hands out to the crowd.

“Now, there’s no need for concern,” King assured the onlookers. “I’ll find out who’s responsible.”

Conneld rested his arm on the pedestal’s railing. He watched as Parlay and Tenny helped Trisk out of the ring.

 

—–

 

Templetine touched the hexagonal key to the door. It slid apart, letting in sunlight from the slanted window. He walked in, tossed the key onto a table, and began talking when he heard the doors click together.

“Nice work out there; those suckers had no clue was was happening.”

A metallic device on the table stirred, and a cylinder affixed to its top began turning.

It’s a bit more forceful than what I’m used to,” a distorted voice spoke. “But once I got going I just couldn’t stop! It was just so exciting! I may have gotten carried away with those last three, though.”

Templetine laughed, wrenching a shoe off and tossing it onto the floor.

“I could have won the whole tournament right there if someone hadn’t stopped them from charging into the ring. Too bad.”

But who stopped them?” the voice pondered. “And do they suspect you?

Templetine kicked his other loafer free. “They’re all idiots here–you should see them,” he chuckled. “They think some criminal who’s been dead for years is causing it. It’s pretty sad when some bogeyman gets more respect than the planet’s owner.”

The voice on the radio cackled. “She is quite inept, isn’t she? How simple it is to take all we want!

Templetine hummed in agreement and his sunken eyes narrowed. “She’s not as foolish as you think,” he said. “Are you being careful over there? Has anyone asked about me?”

My twin commented on how you haven’t been seen for a while,” the voice said. “I think he’s hoping that your people managed to kill you. I’ve been sending them out to harvest though–don’t worry.

“Good, good,” Templetine said. He sat down on a nearby couch, picking up a withered fruit that sat next to the whirring machine. “Contact me if anything happens. We’re both dead if we’re caught.”

The cylinder on the device ceased to spin, and Templetine stared at the fruit in his hand. With a sigh he began to peel the skin off.

 

13 – One Life to Play

 

Tome paced across the group’s suite; every participant in the game had been ordered back inside of the Imperial Pyramid.

“They think it’s me–that has to be it,” he mumbled. “They saw my spell. Pinada saw it right away, I know he did.”

Darrow sat in his beanbag. He conjured a large, chipped mug into his hands. “Can they trace it to you?” he asked.

Tome circled around Vornis and his long spikes. “Not unless someone trained to read patterns had their attention on me at that moment. But still: that spell is one I was known to use.”

“It was strange,” Mean said. “I didn’t know there was a spell like that; it isn’t like the others I’ve learned.”

“You’re right about that,” Tome replied. “The spells you know change gravity’s effect on objects. My spell creates gravity itself. It is what I used to alter the comet’s trajectory through space all those years ago.”

“I think I got the gist of it,” Mean said, standing up. “Maybe I can practice up and use it on Parlay.”

Tome stopped where he was and glared at her. She frowned and plopped down next to Dark on the couch.

“Ah, too bad; I always wanted to see a comet up close,” he sighed. A jar was in his hand and he was rubbing red jam on his breast plate. The rory slithered out from under his cape, swirling around on top of the jam.

“What the heck is that stuff?” Darrow asked.

“It’s Cocoa’s food,” Dark replied.

“You named it?” Mean said with a grin. Dark smiled back.

“When we were molding it back into shape it smelled just like hot cocoa,” he explained. “Either that or car exhaust. It’s been a while since I’ve smelled either.”

Vornis rolled his large, white eyes. “So what happened  to us during the match?” he asked. “When I leapt out of my seat to help Trisk, it felt like my protective instinct kicking in–I just acted. You said you saw something go into us?”

Tome nodded. “Yes, they were thoughts. Ideas. But I’ve never seen them leave someone’s mind before. It’s hard to explain. When Trisk was in trouble I noticed that people were thinking ‘save her.’ That’s the thought that was moved: it just flew out of their heads and into your own. It overpowered your will. It was all I could do to keep you three from running off to disqualification.”

“Well, you didn’t stop Tenny,” Darrow said, taking a sip from his mug. “Poor guy. Poor, poor, guy.”

“Yes,” Tome coughed, “and please don’t bring that up when Trisk is around. I thought Pinada had him occupied; I was quite surprised to see him tossed aside like that.”

“We were lucky you were there, Tome,” Mean said. “But we need to figure out how he’s messing with us.”

“It’s baffling,” Tome admitted. “I think it might be someone in the crowd, though. Those walls Pinada puts up around the ring block patterns; they’re there to prevent any sort of interference in the match. If I had straight line of sight on Templetine I could check to see exactly what he’s doing.”

Vornis rested his arms on the long spikes at his sides, glowering. “You know, King has a pretty good view of the ring from his lofty perch of kingliness.”

Tome pointed at him. “That’s right–he’s above the wall.” A knock came from the door. Vornis rose on his haunches and went to answer.

“Hello!” Parlay chirped. She and Tenny stood in the hall, with Trisk glowering behind them. “Thought you might want your friend back!”

“Trisk!” Darrow and Mean cried. They rushed over to her while the others stood and turned to the door.

“I got beaten,” Trisk admitted.

“But you’re okay!” Darrow said. “Did Parlay do her stuff?”

“Yeah, she was amazing,” Tenny said. He patted Parlay on her head. “You still get all worried for no reason.”

“I just didn’t know if the process would work on Jesians,” Parlay replied. “I’m lucky that your nervous system is similar to ours. I had to go a bit further back to find a whole body pattern, though. But hey–she’s about a month younger now! That’s nice, right? Her mind should still be the same though–still remember everything, Trisk?”

“Yes. Unfortunately,” she said. “I don’t know what happened out there.”

“Tome said there was some really weird stuff going on,” Darrow broke in. “Mind control or subliminal messages or something. He saw–”

“Ah-ah, now Darrow–” Tome interjected. Parlay and Tenny watched him, attentive. “Well, ah, we have devices that control brains back on Jesice. So, uh, please humor my conjectures–did anything strange happen to you out there? Like maybe, perhaps, you were thinking things that you shouldn’t have?”

“Brains?” Parlay repeated. Tenny stepped into the room.

“Yeah,” Tenny started. He looked back at Trisk for a second. “I wasn’t going to run in after Trisk at first. I know she’d probably be embarrassed if I–or anyone–had to go in and save her. But then it hit me–wham! I had to rescue her: even if it meant taking down Pinada.” His eyes widened. “Oh no, Pinada! I attacked the world’s hero!” He cringed. “I told him to bite me!”

“It happened to us, too,” Mean said. “We couldn’t help it either.”

Parlay drew her hands to her chest. “It sounds like instinctual programming, but I didn’t–”

“We know you didn’t do it, Parlay,” Vornis said.

“That’s right,” Dark added. “And we probably shouldn’t mention this around King or anyone else yet, either. It is just ‘conjecture,’ after all.”

Trisk turned away and began walking to the end of the hall.

“Uh, Trisk, where are you going?” Darrow asked. She kept on walking and vanished upon reaching the hex door room.

 

The first two floors of the tower were dark, and Trisk sat at the edge of the mandala on the floor. She gazed up to the upper sections, the angle showing her the stars through one of the long windows there. She jerked as a ripple of air broke the silence.

“Here you are,” Tenny said, walking over. “Your friends were worried. They thought something happened.”

She cleared her throat with a whimper. “Did something happen?”

“You walked away–”

“No, not that,” Trisk said. “In the ring. I could have switched styles to escape. But I didn’t.”

“You promised me you wouldn’t,” Tenny said. “Well, you implied it. I think.”

“I can’t be sure about what I wanted to do; not after hearing about what happened to you guys,” Trisk went on. She crossed her arms. “I don’t like people making me do things.”

Tenny crossed the floor and sat down cross-legged beside her.

“I was able to tell that I had done something weird after it was over,” he said. “Did you suddenly feel that your mind had been changed?”

Trisk sighed. “I did. I wanted to warp away–and then I wanted to prove I could win without doing it. But that’s just how I am. I’m indecisive sometimes.”

“I heard Templetine say something about that,” Tenny admitted, scratching his nose. “When you make up your mind you seem to go right for it, though.”

Trisk nodded. “I know.”

Tenny looked away from her face to her hands. They were folded at her stomach, with one finger tapping.

“So maybe I can help with some of that,” Tenny said. “If you’ve got some conflict I can give you some advice. Smatter comes to me all the time.” He chuckled and Trisk rose her eyebrows at him. “The final decision is always yours to make, though.”

“Well,” Trisk began, smiling a bit. “I’ve been trying to figure out a few things since I’ve arrived on your world.”

“Like what?” Tenny asked.

Trisk kept tapping her finger. “I thought I wanted to date Darrow for a while,” she stated. “But then I think I changed my mind to someone else.”

Tenny kept his eyes on her hands. “Oh, really?” he said. “Is that–Is that fair to, ah, Darrow?”

“It isn’t,” Trisk answered. “I didn’t think I’d ever have a chance with this other guy, though. But then things changed.”

“So what changed?” Tenny asked.

Trisk shifted her dark eyes to the window, then back to Tenny. “I met you and the rest of your friends. I never thought I would. And even now, after I have, I don’t know if it’s something that can last.” Tenny was silent as she went on. “Someone told me once that I cling to whoever is closest to me. I think that’s what I might have been doing with Darrow. And I don’t think I want to take the safe choice anymore.”

They sat in the dark for a while, with faint light from the upper floors playing across the empty floor at the bottom. A painting of Caldera was outlined in shadow: his grin flashing beneath the brim of his hat as he sat on the throne. A fallen man was sprawled at his feet, and Tenny’s eyes gazed at the scene.

“So what do you think I should do?” Trisk asked. She unfolded her fingers and reached up with one hand. Brushing his cheek, she guided him over to her. He closed his eyes as their lips met.

 

—–

 

Mean sat on a stool, and a tiny lamp illuminated the counter where her breakfast plate sat. Behind her, in the gloom, Dark lay on a couch. Deep breathing came through the gap in his helmet. A tap came from the suite door, and they slid aside: Trisk came sneaking in along with a small shaft of light.

“Trisk, you’re back,” Mean whispered as the doors closed. Trisk nodded, circling the counter and sitting next to her. Mean began to push her plate of eggs and toast away. “I’m sorry, I’ll eat this later–”

“No, it’s fine,” Trisk told her. Mean moved the plate back.

“We were getting worried,” she said. “I woke up and you still weren’t here. Tenny went after you; did he find you?”

Trisk nodded, a small grin on her face. “He did.”

Mean chopped up the edge of her egg with a fork. “And what does that mean?” she asked. “Does it mean what I think it means?”

Trisk tipped her head, letting her long hair hang to obscure her face. “I went to the tower–the old one, where we first practiced–he found me there.”

“Mm-hm?” Mean hummed, chewing the egg.

“And then we made out,” Trisk finished. Mean smiled and put down her fork.

“All night, huh?” Mean asked.

Trisk swept her hair back over her shoulders. “Well, the floors of the tower are in different time zones, so all night and all day in some places.”

Mean uttered a laugh as Dark let out a snore behind them.

“I haven’t felt this way since Tyle,” Trisk admitted, and Mean stopped laughing.

“What? Tyle who?” she asked. “You don’t mean–I know that you knew him, but I didn’t think that you guys–”

“I didn’t tell you?” Trisk said. “We dated for a long time.”

Mean shook her head. “No, you didn’t. Geez, that must have been rough: fighting him when he was on Parlay’s side.”

“It wasn’t something I was expecting,” Trisk said. Mean let out a sigh.

“But wait, let’s be serious for a minute here:” she proposed, “How is this going to work? How are you going to date Tenny? We’ll go back to our time soon.”

“I don’t know,” Trisk replied.

“But you can’t just get attached,” Mean said, keeping her voice low. “If we don’t stop, you know, the disaster from happening–”

“I just want this,” Trisk said. Behind her, Dark sat up, stretching. The two women turned; Mean remained seated while Trisk got up.

“I’m going to take a nap,” she said as she walked off. “Wake me up when it’s time for your match.”

She disappeared into one of the bedrooms; Dark shuffled over to where Mean sat.

“What’s going on?” he asked. Mean sighed.

“She’s dating Tenny now, I guess.”

Dark made no sound, only mouthing ‘what’ through the crack in his helmet.

“Yeah,” Mean said, going back to her egg.

 

—–

 

The sun rose and its light filtered through a thin blanket of cloud. Parlay sat atop the pedestal that overlooked the ring, chatting with King as the spectators gathered below.

“You seem to be getting along rather well with Miss Mean and her friends,” King inquired. “They didn’t object when you used your magic on Trisk yesterday?”

Parlay’s eyes lit up as she shook her head. “No, they don’t even mention anything; they act like it’s normal!”

King chuckled, patting the jeweled shell of the rory beside him. “Amazing. They don’t even question it. They see the results–along with your kind heart, of course–and accept it. Maybe it will catch on.”

Parlay brushed her blond hair back. “I hope it does!” she said. “Oh, look–there they are!”

They watched as Mean and her group meandered through the network of vendors. Upon reaching the aisles leading around the square ring, Trisk pointed, said something to her friends, and departed. She bounded and weaved through the crowd, meeting up with Smatter, Charlie, and Tenny at the table beneath King’s pillar.

“And she’s getting quite friendly with Tenny’s gang,” King remarked, leaning over to see. Trisk tipped her head close to Tenny’s, placing her hand on his exposed shoulder.

“Goodness, quite friendly,” King said.

“They’re, uh, kissing,” Parlay confirmed, looking down and then back to Mean’s group. Darrow was stealing glances at Trisk as Mean told the others goodbye. Dark gave her a pat on the arm and she nodded.

“Hm, let me give you a lift down,” King said. He clicked his tongue, and the rory retreated into its shell. King climbed up while Parlay hopped on behind him. The two swooped from the ledge and dipped to the ring; the rory exploded out to cushion the landing.

“Hey, you four want better seats?” King shouted over. He pointed past Mean. “Come up here, come up!”

Mean, Dark, and Darrow climbed up on the stage. Tome bowed out, while Vornis sneered, turning to lumber up the stairs.

“You can watch your friend from my podium,” King offered, gesturing at the gleaming rory shell.

“Whoa, I can ride it?” Darrow asked.

“Well, I could hex you up there, but I’d have to charge toll,” King laughed. “Go on–hop right up. She loves people. Well, people who don’t stuff her friends into pieces of armor.” He glared at where Eon sat and then turned to Dark. “How’s he doing, by the way?”

“Oh, great,” Dark replied. He lifted a fold of his cape out of the way, and Cocoa slid around from his back. King’s rory stretched its eyestalks over. “I feed him–in return I get to have a wriggling, slimy thing attached to me at all times.”

“Yes,” King chuckled, “I’ll look into finding a home for it once the fair is over.” He waited for Dark and Darrow to mount before finding his own place on the large shell. “Good luck, you two!” he cried, and the rory lifted off.

“Thanks, King!” Parlay called back, waving.

“Yeah,” Mean said, wringing the hem of her shirt. “I don’t think this is going to take very long.”

“What?” Parlay asked. “What do you mean?” The audience cheered: Pinada was approaching the ring.

“You’re probably going to win this, Parlay,” Mean told her. She forced her hands to her sides, taking in a long breath and letting it out. Parlay wrinkled her lips in a puzzled frown.

“You two get on your sides,” Kello said. The two women stepped back, positioning the throne between them. Pinada lifted the four walls with a flourish of his fingers. Up on the pedestal, Dark and Darrow took two seats next to King and Conneld.

Mean let out another sigh. Parlay stood at her end. She grasped one of the lockets dangling from her neck.

“Alright, here it comes,” Mean murmured to herself. She buckled down and placed a hand on the glass.

“Begin!” Kello shouted.

Parlay started forward, pulling the chain free. She held out the locket, her tiny fingers clutching it.

“So, what’s that for?” Mean called over. She grasped her knee with her hand, bouncing a little.

“It’s something to keep you from flying that chair away,” Parlay said.

“Oh wow, really?” Mean asked. “And what if I try to stop you?”

Parlay smiled. “Oh yes–I’ve thought of that too.”

 

14 – Flowers and Pressure

 

Parlay touched the back of the throne with her locket. Two orange tendrils with diamond-shaped leaves grew out from between the gold clasps. The vines spread and branched; the parts that touched the surface of the chair stuck and held there. It wrapped around to the front and covered the seat and armrests.

“Wait, what’s that?” Mean asked. “It’s orange.” Parlay peered around the chair as the vines reached the mat and crept outward from the throne’s base.

“It’s a vine that clings to inorganic surfaces,” she explained. “See? It’s got the throne stuck tight to the floor!”

“You’re kidding,” Mean said. The vines were extending out to the glass walls, traveling in a zig-zag pattern and raising a carpet of tiny leaves as they went. Parlay hopped in the throne.

“Nope. Just try it,” she dared. The tendrils had grown thick on the armrests, and Parlay slipped her tiny arms between them to secure herself.

Kello began counting and Mean extended her fingers. The throne jerked; Parlay yelped as it strained against the foliage. Several strands snapped and others held taut, running diagonally from the mat to where they were affixed to the side of the chair.

“Well, alright, guess it does work,” Mean admitted. She dropped her hand and the throne settled into the leaves again.

“Three,” Kello said, and Mean pushed off from the ground with her feet: soaring over the leaves and snapping down again on the throne’s seat cushion to stand over Parlay’s lap.

“Four,” Kello called out. Mean planted her foot and grabbed the vest that hung loose on Parlay’s body. She tugged and Parlay squeezed her eyes shut, holding on to the vines. The fabric tore and Mean let go, grabbing Parlay’s right arm instead. The count reached five and Mean yanked the arm free. She crouched down, hoisting Parlay’s arm across her shoulder. With a growl Mean stood up, breaking Parlay’s back away from the chair. Parlay held on with her left hand as she was pulled upward; Mean lifted off from the throne and strained to force Parlay off with her.

“No, no, no!” Parlay squealed as she scraped at the throne with her feet. Mean felt a tingle at her shoulder, spreading from Parlay’s arm. The sensation crept under her skin and down to her chest. Mean’s eyes flew open and she tore Parlay loose from the vines: flinging her away from the throne. Those in the crowd gasped as Parlay struck the mat, bounced, and skidded still. Mean hovered, her breathing ragged. She swept her brown hair away from her face.

Parlay rolled upright. She was sniffling, her eyes red with tears.

“I’m sorry,” she uttered. “I panicked. I shouldn’t have done–I shouldn’t have done that.”

Mean massaged her skin, working the tingling sensation out. “No, it’s fine,” she said. She could hear jeering drift over the glass walls. She looked over at the long table where the losers sat. Caldera was laughing at Parlay. Next to him Donzel was frowning, his eyes alert. Kay Kary had her arms folded, and she piped up when she noticed Mean was watching.

“It’s no fun, right?” she called out. “When your cheating kind has to fight each other? It’s enough to make you cry, right, Parlay?”

“Knock it off, Kary; that isn’t why,” Mean shot back.

Parlay sniffled, rubbing her side. “I probably should give up now,” she said. “I think you got me, anyway.”

“No I don’t,” Mean said. “If I sit in the chair you could just paralyze me with that nerve thing and throw me out.”

“I won’t do that. I shouldn’t have,” Parlay said. She picked herself up and stood. The spectators were murmuring.

“Why not?” Mean asked. “Because Kay Kary will get mad? People like her already hate us, Parlay.” She landed in front of the throne. “Or are you worried about King? Tenny?”

“I don’t want to scare them,” Parlay replied in a soft voice.

“I don’t think you should worry so much,” Mean sighed. “I mean, scared? I don’t understand all of my friends. Why does Dark wear armor all the time? Why does Trisk do the silly things she does? And I don’t even want to think about what Tome did. But I don’t care. At least, not enough to stop being friends with them.”

Parlay took one of the two lockets that remained at her neck. She peered over at Tenny and Trisk: they stood close together, hands intertwined.

“Parlay,” Kello called out. “If you’re going to forfeit, I’ll need to hear you say it.”

Parlay remained where she was. She pressed her fingers against the locket; the case twisted off from the chain. Mean stepped backwards. Parlay held the trinket away from her body, staring past it with dull eyes.

“This is the second organism I learned to control,” she told Mean. “It can be formed into any shape and absorb any pattern that appears in its presence.” She opened her hand and a reddish blob twisted out from her palm. It engulfed her hand; many in the stands leaned forward to look.

“Is that–It’s vein!” King gasped. Conneld reached across Darrow and took King by the collar.

“You told me she couldn’t do it!” he growled.

“I didn’t know!” King shot back, batting his brother’s hand away. Down in the ring, the vein spilt into two strands, both coiling up Parlay’s right arm. Upon reaching her elbow, it changed hue: darkening to blue and solidifying. King gasped again. “And she can force it into its receptive state! Why didn’t she tell me–this changes everything! No more waiting in between cycles: we could program and test right away! Oh, marvelous, marvelous!”

Parlay stepped over to the chair, holding her vein-wrapped arm between her and Mean.

“This won’t stop you from flying, though;” she said, “I’ll have to do something about that.”

The final locket clicked open in her hand and a tight bulb emerged from it. Parlay set the new plant on her left shoulder.

“Both kinds!?” King uttered. His rory tucked his eyestalks down, retreating into its shell. “Both types of vein!?”

“Whoa, wait, what?” Mean spat out, wheeling backwards. The bulb on Parlay’s shoulder opened: brilliant, white petals unfolded from it. They unfurled into a concave dish, with the stamens spiraling around the rigid pistil in the center.

“I guess that’s it, then,” King said. The color from his clothes faded along with the hue on his skin. The same happened to every person in the stands and every object on the pyramid’s rooftop. The sky became dim. Below, Kay Kary tried to shout something but no sound emerged. The spectators became silent and not even the roller coasters that encircled the pyramid could be heard. The only noise came from the flower on Parlay’s shoulder, its petals flittering. She aimed the vein spiral on her arm at Mean’s head.

Mean mouthed a curse as a brilliant pulse struck her. She dropped into the leaves. The vein flower closed, and the roof of the pyramid began to brighten again.

“One,” Kello announced, her voice faint as Parlay sat in the throne. The next count of ‘two’ was louder, and the cries from the crowd began to filter from haze back to clear shouts.

“What is it–that flower!?” Dark asked King. “What’s it done to her!?”

King kept his eyes on the match and reached for a candy. “Well, that type of vein on her arm absorbs newly-formed patterns and uses the energy to grow. But the flower–that absorbs ongoing patterns–sound patterns, light patterns–it takes them and focuses them. It’s a defensive trait. It overloads your senses: people under the effect have said that they couldn’t perceive anything.”

Dark beat his fist against his leg plates; Mean still lay among the vines, her eyes stuck open. “This would be the perfect place for it then:” he said, “A fair. Plenty of pattern activity. You just had to get Parlay all riled up, didn’t you, Mean!?”

“Six,” Kello called out. Mean blinked. Her body jerked and she rustled the leaves to the side.

“Ah–that’s right,” King said, chewing the candy. “The effect doesn’t last.”

Mean bolted up as Kello counted to seven. She pointed a finger at the throne; it did not move, and Parlay’s vein shimmered blue.

“Then it’s the hard way,” Mean said, rising to her feet and rushing the throne. Parlay stood and met her with the vein arm outstretched; the blue coil brightened red; twin spines lashed out from it. Mean skidded still and backed away; Parlay kept the vein spines pointed at her as the flower on her shoulder began to curl open again. Mean took to the air and circled to Parlay’s side; Parlay spun on her heel, blocking Mean’s way with the spines. The color and noise fell away a second time.

Mean dashed around the back of the chair as the shuffling petals sounded again. She crept low, checking the throne’s sides for movement.

Parlay remained where she stood, looking off to the glass wall. The image of the throne could be glimpsed in a dim reflection, along with Mean’s slim silhouette. Parlay aimed the points of the spines at the wall. The pulse fired, rebounded, and Mean was struck.

Dark rose from his seat atop King’s pedestal as Parlay broke the two vein spines off her arm. Mean was slouched down in the leaves again, and Parlay was walking to her.

For Mean the time passed in an instant and she awoke as Kello called “Six!” The color blared back and the sudden noise of the crowd jarred her. She tried to rise and was held: The two vein spines were driven into the mat, pinning her sleeve and pants leg. With her free hand she grasped one of the spines, pulling. The strength in her arm wasn’t enough; she imbued her hand with gravitational force to yank the spike out.

“Eight!” Kello was shouting as Mean took both hands to the spine at her leg and worked it free. Keeping hold of it, she swung at the back of the throne in a long swipe and several of the thicker vines snapped. With a push from Mean’s palm the chair jolted forward–not enough to fall–enough for Parlay to be sent flying off as it tipped.

Mean raced around to the front of the throne as it settled. She flung the vein spike at Parlay, causing her to flinch. With a backwards hop she sat on the seat. Kello began counting.

“Guys, hang on to something!” Mean shouted up at the pedestal.

Dark bared his teeth behind the crack in his helmet, shaking his head in a most rapid fashion.

“What could she be up to?” King asked. Mean struck the mat with her heel.

The vines and leaves that had carpeted the ring were pressed flat all at once. Parlay, who had just stood again, buckled at the knees and collapsed. In the stands, spectators slid forward on their seats: swinging their arms and knocking into each other as they were drawn to the ring.

“Thruh–three–” Kello said, bracing herself. Her ponytail flapped across her face and her parasol had flown out of her hand. It was pressed against the bottom of the glass wall.

“That little–” Tome squealed, clinging to Vornis as someone’s hat blew past. A vendor fought to keep their goods in the booths: hot dogs, funnel cakes, and cups all tumbled out towards the ring. A shadow moved across the aisle as King’s platform began to tip forward.

“Hold onto me!” King roared. He took his rory’s harness with one arm and reached out with the other; Darrow took hold and Dark pushed Conneld over to King. A chair slid over the side as the platform tilted. King’s rory pulled into its shell and lifted off sideways, taking King, Darrow, and Conneld along with it. Screams sounded as the tower fell against the high glass wall that surrounded the ring. It crashed and came to rest at an angle, shaking loose debris and everything that rested on top. Chairs, food, Dark: it all spilled into the ring.

“I didn’t think you’d use the floor against me,” Parlay said through the blond hair that clung to her face. The vein on her arm squirmed and it dripped right back down to the mat. “And you’re held to the chair so paralyzing you won’t matter. I’ve lost.”

Mean stared down at her with her brown hair hanging straight past her eyes.

“Ten!” Kello announced, squinting. “Me-anne wins the match.”

Pinada stood near the corner of the ring, holding himself steady against his case with his arm. He made a spreading motion with his fingers, and everything that was stuck to the ring and the glass clattered and fell to the floor all at once. People gave relieved sighs and let go of their seats: some cheered while others held their foreheads in a daze.

“She will go on to face Dark,” Kello went on, marching over to where her blue parasol lay, “that is, unless King wishes to press charges for her wanton destruction of property and for indirectly assaulting everyone here.”

“Now, now, no one got hurt!” King said, pressing through the throng of people that were coming forward for their belongings. “No one did, right?” He looked at Pinada.

“Don’t worry!” Pinada told King. He gave him a thumbs-up through the glass. “I cushioned a few falls, but they should all be okay. I’m Pinada, after all!”

King laughed, walking off, and Pinada gestured downwards with his hands. Three of the glass walls descended, leaving the fourth to support the fallen pedestal. Pinada levitated into the ring, and the glare from the sun streaked across his glass cube. Mean was helping Parlay up, and Pinada settled next to them. “You were able to copy the spell used on you yesterday?” he asked Mean. “After only seeing it that one time?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “I didn’t quite get it right, though.” She turned to Parlay, who was sweeping her long, blond hair back. “I didn’t think I’d have to use it–you really surprised me.”

“I kind of surprised myself,” Parlay said. “Sorry I stabbed holes in your–oh–my own clothes.”

Mean poked a finger through the tear in her sleeve. “Well, thanks for not sticking those vein things in me. That was really close, though.”

Pinada backed away and took to the air again, hovering over the crowds. Darrow, Trisk, Tome, and Vornis were working their way to the ring. King’s rory was zipping through the sky as well, and Pinada followed it to the base of the platform. The losers that had been seated at the table had scattered amongst the spectators. King and Conneld were there, searching the rubble.

“Unbelievable,” King said, picking his crown up from the dirt. “I’ve never seen Parlay act like that.”

“It’s like she was another person,” Conneld agreed. “Or rather: more like the person I’ve always suspected she is.”

King scoffed, shaking something sticky from his hat. “Mean just got her fired up is all. It’s good to get excited sometimes.”

Pinada tapped at the bridge of his nose, pushing up his glasses. “Conneld could be right,” he proposed. “There could be more to Parlay than we thought. Something hidden.”

“It’s not like that,” Tenny said, walking over to them. “That’s just how she used to be.”

“Oh?” King said, brushing wisps of hair back as he crowned himself. “That’s right, that’s right; you and she were together in school, weren’t you? So she used to be more–ah–”

“Sure of herself?” Tenny finished. “Uninhibited? Yeah, she wasn’t like the Parlay you know–the kind that only cares about being acceptable.”

“Well, as long as she doesn’t get too wild,” King huffed. “Like it or not, Tenny, this world is full of people. And people need to be persuaded into accepting change. You may be fine with keeping your secrets exclusive to your little club, but Parlay is thinking about all of society. She wants to help everyone.”

“Well, you’re right about that,” Tenny agreed, tugging at his sweater to cover one shoulder and expose the other. “Anyway, I just came over here to apologize to Pinada”–he looked through the glass at him–”sorry for what I did yesterday.”

Pinada’s hollow voice boomed through the case. “Oh, there’s nothing to apologize for!” he said. “I just got distracted a bit.” He smiled, toying with his scarf. “I’ll be much more careful the next time you decide to attack me.”

 

—–

 

Parlay, Mean, Dark, Darrow, and Vornis appeared in the center of six intertwined tree trunks. Their maroon branches laced overhead, bright with a rigid trellis full of yellow, pointed leaves. Stretching out ahead was a neat, brick path, its sides lined with manicured, flowering bushes. The blooms alternated between red and orange all the way to the mansion at the end.

“There’s a bit of a walk–sorry about that,” Parlay said. “The house has been in my family a while; I didn’t want to tear anything out just to install a hex door.”

“No problem,” Darrow replied, gazing up at the leaves swaying above him. “It looks so much better than, uh, anything we have on Jesice.”

“Yeah, looks just like how I left it,” Vornis remarked with a sideways glance. He swiveled his spikes around the tree trunks as he stepped out into the sun.

“So does anyone from your family live here now?” Mean asked. Parlay frowned. She lead them down the brick path.

“No, my parents are both gone–” she said, “passed away.”

Mean trailed behind her, watching her blond hair sway as she walked. “I had a parent die too–my mom,” she explained. “I can’t imagine what both would be like. I’m sorry about that.”

“It’s okay,” Parlay said. “I’ll see them again. And they left me with these”–she reached out a hand and brushed an orange blossom–”the plants that got me studying biology.”

Darrow looked over at Vornis and saw that his eyes glossy and red. They were fixed at a spot on the lawn; on an empty patch next to a fountain flowing with clear water. A tiny object whizzed by, diverting Darrow’s attention.

“Dark, you’re getting more friends,” he said, pointing at his cape. Dark pulled the cloth across his arm, lifting the speck into view. It was a tiny rory, sliding around with a shell molded from clay.

“It’s a little one,” Dark stated. Several more tiny shells zipped past, all landing on the flowers that lined the path. The rory’s slick bodies popped out as they alighted on the pedals, and there they stuck.

“Oh, yuck,” Mean exclaimed, flicking a rory from her arm with a finger. Parlay chuckled, nearing the stairs to the mansion.

“They can be pesky, but they keep the mold off the house. Here we are. Hold on.” She jogged up the stairs and ahead of the group, and the large twin doors opened as she reached them. Everyone followed her, past the shaded overhang and inside.

“Vornis, are you okay?” Parlay asked, holding the door as they entered. “Your eyes are watering.”

Vornis sniffled. “Just my allergies. All these stinking flowers.”

He plodded into the house with the others, where a foyer lit with rose-colored tones welcomed them. Darrow was already crossing over a well-trodden rug to an area set off from the rest of the floor: a shallow pit with heavy planters set at the edges. He peeked past the coiled stems that swirled up from the planters and into the pit. A flat, leafy plant covered the ground. In the center, a compact bud bloomed.

“Oh, be careful,” Parlay advised, going over and touching his arm. “It’s a dream lily.”

Darrow backed away. “The low light in here must mean it’s a magic-based plant, right?”

“Yes, very good!” Parlay said, “It absorbs magic from the air through those flat leaves. But it has a defense: if the leaves are threatened it uses magic to change the air into a toxic gas.”

Dark looked over at Mean. She nodded behind Parlay’s back.

“The rest of the plants should be safe though;” she said, walking around the planters to a hallway. “I’ll be back in a minute with Vornis’ letter.”

“Thanks for coming out here with me,” Vornis told the others as Parlay left through a hallway. “King’s brother might make a connection if I came out to Parlay’s alone.”

“Whatever man,” Darrow said, poking at the plants with the coiled-up stems. Mean wandered off to a corner where a grand piano sat. A metronome and sheet music lay upon the glossy, black top: along with a framed portrait of Parlay, grinning. In a moment footsteps sounded on the marble floor and the blond-haired woman returned.

“Alright, I got it,” Parlay said. She held a sealed envelope.

“And this came here?” Vornis asked, taking it.

Parlay nodded. “But it’s addressed to you. I think I know–”

“Well of course we know who it’s from!” Vornis snapped. “What–did you tell her?”

“You know I wouldn’t,” Parlay replied. She looked over at the others as the beast slit the top of the envelope with his claw. He removed a folded sheet of paper.

“She recognized me,” he announced, his eyes scanning the print as his bald brow wrinkled. “Watching the fair games. How is that possible?”

“Well I didn’t change your face,” Parlay said.

Darrow cackled. “You’re kidding.”

“She wants to see me again!?” Vornis continued, pacing over the worn rug as he read. “She wants me to come to the Dead Zone.”

“Wait,” Mean broke in, “Is this the girlfriend that you told us about? The one with the–uh–”

“Incurable disease,” Vornis said, lowering the letter. “As in: we don’t want Parlay to come cure it.”

“Well, we were banned from the place,” Parlay said. “You might be able to see her now, though. Maybe they wouldn’t recognize you; you’ve fooled the rest of the world, after all.”

Vornis shoved the letter into his jeans pocket. “Even so–I’d still need to make up a reason to get in.”

“You’re good at that part,” Dark said. “But I can’t be your dummy anymore now that my helmet’s cracked.”

“I’ll think about it,” Vornis said with a white smile. “Later, Parlay,” he said, waving. Mean stopped the group as they headed for the door.

“I’ll be along in a bit,” she told them. “I just want to give Parlay’s clothes back.”

“My room’s on the end of that hallway,” Parlay pointed out. “Pick anything you want out of the closet; you can just leave the torn ones on the bed.”

After Mean had changed out of the damaged clothes and into a green top and brown skirt, she returned to the center room. The front door was open and Parlay was gone. Mean walked out to the porch and saw Parlay sitting on the steps.

The flowers and leaves were bobbing under the weight of the tiny snails hopping between them, and the fountains were gurgling beneath the bright sun. Mean hummed and sat down too.

“It’s beautiful out here,” she said. “We don’t have many outdoor gardens back home.”

“Really?” Parlay asked. “This garden is my favorite. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have it.”

“Well, we do have plants,” Mean explained. “Just not many on the cliff where I live.”

“You live on a cliff?” Parlay asked.

“Yep. It’s pretty amazing in its own way,” Mean said. “There’s a city on the ground, and then another one above that. It’s fastened right into the rock with struts.” Mean held up her slim forearm and gestured with her other hand: showing where the cities were in relation to the cliff. Parlay’s bright eyes danced and she look up to the sky. A faint crescent of the planet could be glimpsed in the blue sky.

“I want to see it sometime,” she expressed. “It’s always up there–but it would be great to see it up close! Do you think we could get a hex door? King says it’s possible; we’d just need to use a lot of power.” An uneasy smile crossed her face.

“I’m worried about what they thought of me today,” Parlay admitted.

Mean leaned back on her hands. “Well, I was the one causing ‘wanton destruction.’ I think you’ll be fine.”

“That’s how I used to act, though,” Parlay said. “Back when–back when I changed Vornis into a monster.”

Mean tilted her head back. A small rory was caught on a gooey film that ran between two beams in the porch. “Are you afraid you’ll end up doing something?” Mean asked. “Something you don’t want to do?”

Parlay swallowed. “Has Vornis told you why we were banned from the Dead Zone?”

“He doesn’t say much,” Mean told her. “But you made a monster for some reason, right?”

Another rory flew straight into the thin film, causing it to wobble.

“I was going to release a virus,” Parlay spat out. “It’s called Slate, and it’s what Vornis’ friend has.”

“The one that causes whisker marks on the face?” Mean asked. “Kills people, right?”

“It can,” Parlay said. “Slate learns a command from its parent: and it forces the host’s body to obey this command. I learned how to send magic through nerves using a similar method–but I also figured out a way to use the virus itself. If I could act as the parent, I could show new viruses how to protect instead.”

“Static,” Mean stated.

“Yes, that’s what Tenny calls it,” Parlay confirmed. “It holds the body’s pattern stable, making it impervious to harm. I wanted to send the virus to infect everyone: no accidents would end with death ever again. People would never have to be quarantined in dead zones when they caught something fatal. I wanted to save the world.”

“But you decided not to,” Mean finished. Parlay nodded.

“It wouldn’t be right,” she said. “The virus feeds on the host’s magic energy so they wouldn’t be able to use it for much else. And it wouldn’t have spread fast enough anyway; people live so far apart from each other. I’d need a giant concentration of people. More like what you have on your world.”

She stopped and touched Mean on the arm. “Oh–but I wouldn’t do that, though! Your world doesn’t have magic anyway; it wouldn’t even be possible.”

Above, the filmy strand snapped back into the mouth of a fat, grey toad. It opened its bulbous eyes and smacked its mouth, swallowing the two rories it had caught.

“Yeah,” Mean said. “I know you wouldn’t.” She stood up from the steps. “Anyway, I gotta get back. I wanted to catch Trisk before she went out with Tenny again. Might already be too late.”

“Oh, right, I noticed that,” Parlay said. “He’s a great guy. She should be happy.”

Mean brushed off the back of her skirt. “So, you and Tenny–how far back do you guys go?”

Parlay fidgeted with her vest. “We were in school. We dated. Off and on.”

“Really,” Mean stated with a grin. “So is there anything–like–”

“No, no,” Parlay assured. “We broke up for good, I think. It was the differences in our–what do I call it?” She shook her head. “I just don’t agree with his methods. Sorry. I know you learned from him–training in his tower, or whatever you did.”

“No worries,” Mean said, walking back down the path. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? You can come sit with us for the rest of the matches.”

Parlay stepped up to the door, grinning. “I will!” she called after her. “And thanks for encouraging me today! My final match would have been quite dull if you hadn’t!”

Mean waved as she strode away: down the brick path and back to the door.

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