Chapters 15 – 17

15 – Dead Zone

 

Mean returned to a room abuzz with activity: Tome was pulling his coat on while Darrow hurried to finish drinking his mug of juice.

“Good; you’re back,” Vornis greeted. A wool coat like Tome’s hung at his sides, with his long spines protruding through two jagged slits.

“Where are you guys off to?” Mean asked. Darrow smiled, tossing her a thick cap.

“To the Dead Zone!” Vornis said. “And get a coat–you’re coming with us!”

Mean pointed at Vornis. “So you’re going now?” she squealed. “You’re going to see her? Oh, oh, this is good!” She bolted into one of the adjoining bedrooms.

“This is going to be more than good,” Darrow chuckled. “Oh man, I can’t wait.” Vornis growled.

“I’m only taking you guys because I need you for my cover story,” he said. Mean reappeared, swinging a tan coat onto her shoulder.

“Okay, let’s go!” she said. Vornis nodded, and they all left the room. “It’s not going to be too cold, is it? And where are Trisk and Dark at?”

Vornis lead the way to the hex door. The sun was just dipping into view through the long, slanted windows.

“I sent him first,” Vornis uttered. “Didn’t want anyone to suspect me. Just play along with whatever he says.”

“And Trisk is off with Tenny,” Darrow told Mean, walking beside her. “She just swung through and poof–she was gone again.”

“We need to be staying together,” Tome said. “Has she forgotten why we’re here? Now isn’t the time to go off on dates.”

Mean sighed. “Yeah, I think I need to have a talk with her.”

“Assuming she shows up before everything goes kaput,” Darrow grumbled. “How late was she out with him the other night? You were up, right, Mean? Practicing that move?”

“Darrow–!” Mean hushed. Tome reached the hex door and glared back at her.

“You were practicing it!?” he cried. Vornis gritted his teeth with a wince, turning away to the payment kiosk. “That spell is dangerous–you said you wouldn’t copy it! Mean, I almost destroyed the world with that!”

“Yeah,” Darrow scolded with an exaggerated jerk of his finger. “Don’t make us take another trip back through time to stop you from destroying the world!”

“I’m serious,” Tome said. “I don’t want you using that again.”

“Okay, I promise,” Mean assured. Vornis turned back.

“Well, looks like Dark got us in for free. Let’s go.”

Tome pulled his collar up as they gathered together, vanishing from the room as a group and finding themselves in a large, metal hangar. A brisk chill and a gentle wind hit them: breezing in from the open garage door leading out into the night. The hex door on this side was marked by six lampposts. They were all alight with flames flickering at the tops.

“Oh, there they are!” a voice exclaimed from one of the hangar walls. There, a girl in a furry hood pointed past Dark, who turned and waved. They both began walking over.

“Check this place out,” Darrow said, staring at the many iron tracks bisecting the floor. “And is that another roller coaster over there?”

“It is the resort coaster, yes,” the girl in the fur hood proclaimed. “It should take you all the way to the reception area on the other side of the valley. Your friend Dark told me all about the strange feelings you’ve been having. I just hope this little trip clears it up.”

Darrow whined. “That was supposed to be private, Dark!” he lamented. The resort girl held her hands out.

“Oh! I’m sorry!” she said. “I was just so curious. I won’t tell anyone else, I promise!”

“I’d appreciate it,” Vornis said. “Now how does this vehicle work? Or will you be the one driving it?”

The resort girl stared at Vornis, lingering on his clawed hands for a moment. “It doesn’t need a driver; it just rolls over the hills. Natural gravity. We could power it on this side, but we like to conserve magical energy this close to the D.Z.”

“Sounds great,” Vornis said, stepping sideways past the glowing lampposts. Everyone else followed him, along the side of a railing separating the tracks from the concrete floor. Other lamps lit their way, flickering a bit behind their glass shades.

“This stuff is so old,” Darrow remarked as they came to a gate. On the other side a small train of interlinked cars sat on the tracks: sporting red, peeling paint and hitched to a post with a tether.

“Yes, it’s not much,” the resort girl said, opening the gate and ushering everyone though. “But we accept donations–oh, please–one person per car. Spread out.”

Darrow choose a car, digging around in his coat pocket before sitting down. Taking out all the aurons he had, he handed them in a noisy clatter to the attendant. She yelped at her overflowing mittens.

“Whoa!” she cried. “Thank you very much!”

“Eh, I don’t even know what to do with it,” Darrow admitted. “I just kind of go where the tracks take me.”

The attendant giggled, stuffing the money into her coat and taking a long, bristled swab in her hands. After slathering the tracks ahead of the coaster with grease, she went to the tether and unhooked it from its post.

“Alright guys, I sent a telegram; they should be expecting you. Have a good trip–I’ll see you all on the way back!” She walked to the back of the train and added: “Oh, and put your seat belts on.”

With her feet scratching at the floor, she pushed on the back car. The coaster inched forward with a squeak, gathering speed. Past the hangar door the track curved down, taking the cars with it into the night with a whoosh. A few startled shouts came back at the attendant though the breeze, and she stayed, listening, until the clatter of wheels upon tracks could no longer be heard. Breathless, she walked back to her post. A man in a plain cloak was walking toward her from the hex door.

“Oh, darn! Missed the train,” he said.

“Yeah,” the girl said with a sniffle. “I can call for another–”

“No, no, that’s alright,” the man told her. “But say–who was that large person? I thought I saw spikes.”

The woman stopped at a lamp that stood with no flame. “They were actually the people from that other world–the ones in the news.”

“Really?” the man said, pulling at the manicured beard that jutted out from his hood.

“Uh-huh,” the attendant went on. “The one in the armor said they were homesick, and that they needed to be somewhere without magic. I guess that’s how it is all over their world.”

“That seems–” the man started, closing his mouth as the hex door rippled. Out of it came King.

“Conneld! You! Stop! I know what you’re doing!” he roared.

Conneld closed his eyes and dragged his palm across his face. “Great.”

“Is that King?” the attendant asked. “From the King hex door company?”

“Yes, miss, and I’m sorry my intrusive brother is bothering you,” King replied, hurrying over. He glared at Conneld. “You are tracking them.”

“Observing,” Conneld corrected. “I noticed that their room keys had a tracer. Now who do you suppose gave them keys like that?”

King rubbed his bare, hairy forearms. “Well, I did,” he admitted. “But it’s for safety! The pyramid is a military base the rest of the year; I can’t have keys to the floors unaccounted for if they get lost.”

Conneld pulled out a device from his cloak. It had a concave dish on the end, with a monitor and buttons displayed over a steel panel. The attendant watched the two men as she used a lighter to re-ignite the extinguished lamp’s wick.

“What are you doing?” King asked.

“My job,” Conneld said. He pressed a few buttons and the monitor emitted a glow. A mess of colored lines appeared in a jumble, and he walked over to the end of the hangar. Beyond, all was dark: save for a patch of far-off twinkling lights. He pointed the dish toward the city and the screen went black.

“They really saved me quite a bit of trouble,” Conneld said, adjusting a knob. “Their residual magic will light them right up–ah, there they are.”

Five wobbling patterns came into focus. One was much smaller than the others.

“That armor is making his mind difficult to see,” Conneld muttered.

“Well good,” King shot back. “I don’t approve of reading thought patterns. Not unless they’re suspected criminals.”

“So are you going to leave?” Conneld asked. King stayed where he was, rubbing his hairy arms as the cold breeze wafted in.

 

—–

 

Flurries of snow fell on the unloading platform as Vornis, Mean, and the rest unbuckled their seatbelts. A man in a leather uniform greeted them as they climbed out of the coaster, his face flickering into view as gas lamps blazed overhead.

“Welcome to the D.Z.,” he began. “The area you are entering contains dormant biohazards. While there is no risk of infection, I am required to warn you of their presence.”

“Are you sure it can’t get us?” Darrow asked, stepping onto the wooden planks. “We’re aliens, so it might be different.”

“The Slate virus can only reproduce within a few days of host bonding,” the man answered. “Every infected guest here has been screened and isolated until the contagious cycle has ended. You are absolutely safe.”

“Okay, cool,” Darrow said. “Thanks.”

The uniformed man nodded and readied his glove on a lever. As the group passed him, he gave it a tug. There was a click and a line pulled the coaster away: taking it further down the track until it vanished into a brick building.

“This is a nice place,” Mean said, walking with the rest down the concrete road. Shops with illuminated windows lined the sidewalks, with pots, furniture, and pieces of art on display. “It’s the closest thing that I’ve ever seen to a city on this world.” Ahead, a carriage waited. A large, shaggy animal harnessed to it.

“Yeah,” Vornis agreed. “With no magic people can tolerate living in a close space. It feels kind of nice. I don’t feel too bad about Zenny having to live here.”

“And she probably has a job, right?” Tome chimed in. “Non-magical goods are always in demand on the outside.”

Darrow pointed at a window with wooden crossbows and revolver pistols propped up behind a locked case. “Check out those old guns! I didn’t know you guys had stuff like that. Dark, can I have some money real quick?”

“You just gave all your money away!” Dark said.

“And besides,” Mean chimed in, “Dark spent all his money buying guns first.”

“This is one reason why goods here are so popular;” Tome explained, “weapons without patterns are more difficult to stop.”

Vornis snorted. “No kidding. And you haven’t even seen the guns they have on their world: I’d take a bullet over a lightning death cannon any day. It took weeks for those scales to grow back.”

 

Conneld kept a watch on the patterns. “It took weeks for those parts to grow back,” he relayed to King.

“Ouch,” King winced. “Wait–weeks? But he recovered in one day when Donzel Veinsmith cut him up.”

“The Beast is acting as if the other world isn’t his own,” Conneld said. “He’s been lying to us. And who is Zenny?”

King’s rubbed at his reddening cheeks. “He has to be from that world; nobody here looks like that. Not anywhere on the planet. And I should know; I’ve been everywhere! Are you sure you’re reading those patterns right?”

Conneld sighed. “There is literally no better condition for reading patterns than there is right now, King,” he stated. “And why is that Tome person so knowledgeable all of a sudden? Something stinks like manure. And that Darrow kid said that last part, not me. They’re getting on a carriage, I think.”

 

A man in a long coat called out from atop the wheeled vehicle. “Welcome travelers!” He twisted around in his seat, pointing at the group with a cane. “My coach can take you where you need to go: come in from the cold–and the smell!”

“Might as well, right?” Dark said to Mean. “This is probably the only place in any world that we can ride in a carriage pulled by whatever that is.”

“That’s the spirt!” the driver remarked. “Where to, where to?”

“The corner of Light and Hurst will be fine,” Vornis said, pulling open the door to the coach and maneuvering in. Seats and cushions lined three sides of the car, with Mean and Dark taking one side; Darrow and Tome on the other; and Vornis with his wide spikes left by the window. Tome shut the door.

“So what was the story you gave that girl back there, Dark?” he asked.

Dark took a folded blanket on the seat nearby, offering it to Mean. “I told her that we wanted to be in a place without magic, like our world. It wasn’t exactly lying. It’s fascinating to see how far along their conventional technology is.”

“Quite right!” Darrow piped up. He lurched in his seat as heavy steps thumped outside and the car rocked forward.

“I think it would be fun to show them our world,” Mean said, pulling the blanket up to her neck. “The cities, the cars, the cliff–I think they’d be blown away by it all.”

Vornis laughed. “Are you going to give Parlay the grand tour? She’ll probably get to go before I do.”

“That would be nice,” Mean admitted. “She’s done so much for me; I’d love to be able to do something in return.”

Darrow leaned as the coach swerved. “Assuming we can fix everything. And I’m still not sure how much things will change, even if we do. Will Hardpan City still be there, then? Will Hellzoo?”

Mean stretched her short legs out, knocking her shoes together. “I’ll just whop her again. I mean, geez; we’ve done it twice.”

The animal’s clomping slowed and the cart rolled to a halt.

“Corner of Light and Hurst!” the driver called out. “That’ll be eight for the ride.”

 

Conneld rubbed at his eye. “Hellzoo,” he repeated. “How do they know about that!?”

King coughed. “Ah–well–it’s a story they’ve–they’ve probably just heard about it from someone.” Conneld stared back at him, mouth ajar.

“They act like they’ve seen it! And what do they mean, ‘fix things!?’ Fix their city?”

“Oh, I’m sure that’s what they meant,” King said, checking behind him. The coaster attendant was still at her desk, reading a fashion magazine. “They probably have to fix up the city: you know, get it clean before any of us come over. I would like to see it.”

Conneld lingered a moment on King’s hopeful eyes before turning back to his pattern-viewing device. The lights flickered off.

“Well that’s it,” he said. “The magic they brought in with them is gone.”

 

“You folks have a good night, now!” said the driver, steering the shaggy animal away from the road’s curb. Darrow waved goodbye and Dark checked on Cocoa, who was wrapped in his cape.

“So where’s her place?” Mean asked. “We can wait here if you want to go alone.”

“I think she came out to meet us,” Vornis replied. “Over there.”

A woman stood beneath a lamp light, her back to the group. Vornis smiled, walking across the street to meet her. At the middle of the road, he jerked still. He frowned, and a low growl came from his throat.

“Wait. That isn’t her,” he said.

“Huh?” Mean uttered, swirling around. The gas lamps cast a shadow as a large, metallic object rolled past the intersection of road. The coach driver yelped as a massive metallic ball rolled into a brick building, shaking the street and kicking up dust.

“You cheaters,” the hooded woman accused. The metal sphere backed away from the building, and bits of loose brick clattered to the pavement. With a bounce, it flew over toward where Mean stood.

“I’ll just–” she cried out, reaching for it.

“You don’t have magic!” Dark shouted, shoving her out of the way. The ball struck him: rolling over his armor as it rumbled past. Darrow was running away as Vornis bounded toward it; the beast intercepted the orb and slapped against the smooth sphere with his arms outstretched. With a squeal the orb slowed; the air became thick with the haze of gas lamps and dust.

“Just give up. You can’t win,” Kay Kary said, peering out from her hood. Her dark eyeshadow was stark in the lamplight. Vornis growled as the ball pressed against him; his clawed feet scraped across the road. At his back, the brick wall of a building loomed. A female voice rang out from somewhere.

“Vornis, help!” she called out. “You’re the only one that can save me!” The beast grit his white teeth and his eyes were wild.

“How is he doing that?” Kary shrieked. “What’s going wrong?” Vornis planted his feet, butted his forehead against the steely surface of the orb, and drove forward.

The coach animals howled and the sound of a coaster rushed through Vornis’ ears. He kept on pressing, each step taking him further.

“He’s going to break it!” someone yelled. With a final shove the giant ball was launched from the beast’s hands: flying across the road and into a shop window, spraying glass as it shattered the side of the building.

“That’s impossible!” Kary said, her body splayed on the ground near the shop. “It worked before!” Vornis marched forward, the hem of his coat swinging under his spikes.

“I won’t let you hurt Zenny,” he said. “Not her or anyone.”

Kay Kary crawled backwards as he advanced, over the street and broken shards of glass. “Who? Who is that? What are you talking about? Get away from me! Gamemaster! Call it! He lost!”

“Gamemaster?” Vornis repeated. He tipped sideways, righting himself with a stagger. The dust kicked up by the orb grew thick, and Vornis caught glimpses of figures through the haze. Rubbing his eyes with his clawed fingers yielded many more people: all staring at him and talking in murmurs.

“What–” he spat out and he fell to his knees; the concrete road wobbled. The sound of coasters rushed through his ears once again, and the mist flickered as the gas lamps brightened like day. He rose his eyes and saw a broken throne before him: sitting in pieces against a glass wall. Beyond it, crowds seated in bleachers were watching him with quizzical stares. Templetine lay on the ring nearby, breathing through a wide-open mouth. Vornis twisted in place, seeing Pinada past the edge of the ring. His eyebrow was arched up over his glasses.

“The Beast is disqualified,” Kello announced. “He has destroyed the throne; Templetine wins by default.”

 

16 – Unexpected Flight

 

Vornis watched, dazed, as the glass surrounding the arena was lowered. The plate next to the shattered chair was cracked, and the broken surface ground against the ring as it slid out of sight. Voices gathered in the beast’s head now, along with the remarks of his friends as they came from the stands. Templetine stood, chuckling. The hair on his chin and his scalp was longer now, radiating in sharp tufts away from his face. Every strand was a deep black up until the end, where a tiny length of pure white marked the tip.

“You’re just like everyone else,” Templetine said, his voice deep. “Breaking everything that you touch.” He spoke to Vornis, yet his eyes were fixed at a point in the sky. “And you call yourself ‘beast.’ As if that would distinguish you from the others. You all wear the same face to me.”

He uttered a laugh, and turned to the crowd with his eyes still aloft. “I will conquer the final opponent tomorrow!” Templetine announced. He strutted out of the ring as Mean arrived, landing next to Vornis.

“You okay?” she asked.

“I don’t think I know,” he replied. “I was with Zenny, then–I was here? I am here, right?”

“You’re here, Vornis,” Tome said, climbing up the stairs. “I saw what Templetine was doing this time. He was cheating.”

“You saw what now?” Conneld asked, landing on the emperor rory with King, Dark, and Darrow. “You’re making it sound as if you could see the patterns–even through Pinada’s wall.”

Tome closed his eyes, sighed, and squinted over at him. “No. But after watching Parlay’s match yesterday I noticed that I could just observe a reflection.” He nodded over at Dark. “Dark’s armor reflects certain patterns. With him sitting up on the pedestal with you guys, I realized that I could catch any that bounced off from the ring.”

Conneld stood with his lips puckered over his manicured beard. “Tell me what you saw, then.”

“Alright. Vornis:” Tome began, “You started out fine. But Templetine tried the same trick that made you all rush the ring during Trisk’s match: He took thoughts out of other people’s minds and overrode your own.”

“That is not possible,” Conneld stated. Tome swept at the blond stubble on his chin.

“Can you just let me explain this?” he asked. “You did ask me to share what I know.”

“So–what–you saw the patterns?” Conneld asked. “You picked them out of the crowd and witnessed them moving between people? With all the interference here?”

Tome took a slow breath. “Yes. I saw two people in the audience thinking “the Beast should lose.” These two thoughts were shifted to the Beast’s brain. They merged with a third thought in his mind and overpowered it: causing him to believe that he should surrender. But for one reason or another, it didn’t work completely; he resisted.”

“Probably because “the Beast” isn’t his real name,” Conneld said.

Tome nodded. “A possibility.”

“I don’t remember doing any of this,” Vornis grumbled, sitting cross-legged.

“Well, that’s when Templetine began to get worried,” Tome went on. “As you fought the fake suggestion, he started to take every other thought pattern out of your brain. No–not just any thoughts. Memories. Everything that had happened today. You stood there, unable to think, as he sat down in the chair and Kello counted.

“But when he got to the memories from last night something happened–your instincts kicked in. The ones, well, you know the ones. The protective instincts. They were confused however; they knew you were in danger, yet the only thing going through your mind was your meeting with Zenny at the Dead Zone last night. So your brain improvised. Your mind concocted a false confrontation in order to make sense of what was happening in the present. Like a waking dream.”

Vornis’ grey brow wrinkled and his white eyes narrowed. “The last thing I remember is fighting Kay Kary–so, wait, that didn’t happen? A giant wrecking ball didn’t smash up her town?”

Mean chuckled. “No, what? We left you and Zenny alone for a while. We haven’t seen Kary until today.”

“This is going beyond absurd,” Conneld laughed. “I didn’t notice any of this and I was watching directly!”

“And there’s something else,” Tome said. “Templetine couldn’t have influenced the audience through Pinada’s walls. This leads me to believe that someone else is the one shifting the thoughts around; all Templetine is doing is combining them when they reach their target.”

Conneld suppressed a chuckle, shaking his head. “Pinada, are you hearing this?” Pinada was still outside the arena. He had one of his long coat sleeves pulled back. He stared at his watch.

Kello, who had arrived during Tome’s postulation, coughed. “I didn’t observe anything strange either.”

“Well, there’s a lot going on,” Tome said. Kello sniffed.

“I did not miss anything; my job is to remain focused on the match.”

“And who is this other person ‘manipulating minds’ or whatever?” Conneld asked.

“I can’t tell who it is,” Tome admitted.

Conneld smirked. “Of course not.”

“And here I’d thought I’d heard every excuse for losing,” Kello said. “Oh, wait–maybe I know who it is! Maybe Eon was right: the traitor Sing is haunting the arena!”

Tome’s yellow eyes snapped over to her and Conneld. “You’d see it too if you didn’t let your minds wander every few seconds. ‘This country is too hot.’ ‘I should buy a new parasol.’ I’m amazed that you concentrate enough to count all the way up to ten.”

“How dare you–!” Kello accused. She wrung her umbrella’s handle. Conneld frowned.

“Now, we don’t need to insult our gamemaster,” King said, stepping between them. “After all, we can’t prove any of this happened.”

Tome nodded. “I can. It seems that our mystery person can’t destroy memory patterns outright; he can only move them out of one mind and into another.”

“You’re saying they’re still here?” Conneld said.

“Oh that’s just wonderful,” Vornis growled. “So who has ’em, then? Did you see?”

“They’re right over there:” Tome said, gesturing, “At the losers’ table.”

Vornis twisted around, groaning. Caldera sat at one end, and Parlay at the other: with every other previous contestant seated between them.

Tome started over. “Now, we just ask about any anomalous memories that they have.” He turned back to Conneld with a small grin. “And since I know you were spying on us last night, you should be able to tell if their memories from the Dead Zone are true.”

King chuckled. “He’s quite good, isn’t he, Conneld?”

Conneld muttered, walking with the others as they left the ring. Vornis was first to the table, and Parlay look up at him with her wide, bright eyes.

“I’m sorry you lost,” she said. “At least you got to the semi-finals! That’s further than me!”

Vornis flexed his arms before letting them sag with a frown.

“Seems I’ve got a problem, though,” he announced to the table. “My memories from today and last night got swapped into you guys. We need to–ugh–hear about them from everyone. So that we can prove Templetine’s cheating.”

Jelk slapped the table. “Dang, so that’s why I ate breakfast twice!” he exclaimed. “And I remember going into the ring without getting booed.”

Conneld rolled his eyes. “Anyone else? Something from last night? Someone more serious, perhaps?”

Eon cleared his throat. He was clad in a bright yellow jumpsuit with the front zipper open half-way down his massive chest. Underneath was a shirt that bore the likeness of a man with drooping eyes. “I remember something,” he said. “I was in one of those areas free from the taint of magic. There was a woman. It was cold. She wanted to know why I had abandoned her there. But this vision is a gift from Sing: showing me the path I must take. I must free people like her–”

Caldera snickered. “Oh, right, your glorious psycho. Sorry to break it to you, but the only path you’ll be taking is to a padded cell.”

“What did you see, then?” Eon asked. Caldera looked down at his hat on the table. He touched one of the small, square bandages taped to his nose.

“I don’t have to tell you guys anything,” he said.

“Excuse me?” Donzel interjected. He raised his arm. “I remember something.”

“Oh, hey,” Vornis greeted. “Good to see you again.”

“Likewise,” Donzel replied. “And I remember the same woman, I think. She is important to you, isn’t she?”

Vornis swept his palm over the bald spot on his head. “Yeah. I don’t think things are going so well, based on what Eon said.”

“Well, I was kissing her in the, ah, memory,” Donzel stated. “I was–well, you–were quite passionate.”

“Woo!” Jelk squealed, stomping his foot. “Go, beastie, go!”

Donzel glanced at him. “Anyhow, after a while you began to tell her that you’d atone for some previous behavior. That you were going to make things better between you two.”

Vornis leaned closer. “Did she buy it? I mean, what did she say?”

“She seemed wary,” Donzel went on. “But I don’t know what happened after that.”

Jelk toyed with the tuft of hair below his bottom lip. “So who’s got the next part? This is getting juicy.”

“I’ve heard enough of this,” Conneld said. “If I need to know any more, I’ll investigate on my own.”

“But wait!” Vornis cried. Conneld cut him off.

“I’m sorry for what happened, but there’s no way I can link any of this to Templetine.” He tugged at his uniform and the medals clinked as they bounced on the ribbons hanging at his chest. “I’ll notify Kello of any progress I make.” He stepped away from the table, and Vornis looked to Parlay, Tenny, and Trisk.

“Well, do any of you know what happened next?” he asked.

“No,” Tenny replied. “I only remember being with Trisk last night.”

Jelk sat straight up. “Whoa, are you for real? How come I only got the crappy memories?”

Donzel shook his head and Parlay shrugged her shoulders. Vornis hissed through his teeth, looking over at where Caldera sat.

“What?” he uttered.

“You know what happened next–I can tell,” Vornis said. Caldera drummed his fingers on the domed hat that lay on the table.

“Why should I tell you?” he asked.

Vornis touched the blade sticking out from his side, then drew his hand back. “Look, I don’t have anything against you,” he said. “And we both got beat by that jerk. He’s scamming all of us somehow, and I think that the less we fight each other–the less satisfaction that smug idiot gets.”

Caldera clicked his tongue, looking sideways for a moment.

“Alright, fine; here it is: You said that after the tournament was done you’d try to get enough money together. You said that you would find an apartment in the dead zone.” He took an exasperated breath. “So that you could be with her from then on.”

Parlay attempted to hide a smile. Vornis slapped his hands down on the table, nearly causing it to tip.

“I said that I’d live there!?” he gasped. “How did she talk me into that!?”

Donzel looked down at the tablecloth with a blush. Darrow slapped Vornis on the shoulder.

“I’ll miss you, big guy,” he sobbed. “Have a great life.”

Vornis grumbled and tipped his head at one of the empty chairs next to Trisk. “So I guess I sit at the loser’s table for now.”

“And I suppose we’d better get in the ring, Dark,” Mean said. “We don’t want Little Miss Parasol tossing us out because we were two seconds late.”

“Yeah, good luck Dark,” Darrow said, walking off with Tome. “I mean, we know who’s gonna win, but good luck anyway.”

“Gee thanks,” Dark said, heading for the ring stairs.

Jelk perked up, sticking two fingers in his mouth and blasting out a whistle. “Time to party with the Darklord!” he cheered. “You got this!”

“You’re kidding, right?” Caldera chuckled. “He has no chance. I don’t see his guns and she can move that armor he wears.”

“Oh, I know,” Jelk said. “I’m just talking about his performance. Do you think people remember me for my wins? It’s the antics they crave!”

Dark climbed the stairs to the ring. Half of a smile stretched beneath the crack in his visor as he took his spot.

“What?” Mean called out. She took her side as well with a raised eyebrow. “Are you going to do something silly again?”

“Nope. I’m just thinking that you’re going down–” Dark expressed, pointing at the floor, “big time.”

Pinada lifted the glass walls. Mean let out a smirk.

“Start the match!” Kello announced.

“Alright, here we go,” Dark said, fishing around in his cape. “And look what I got!” Out from the black folds he presented an object: a remote control adorned with flat buttons.

“What is that?” Mean asked. She crept forward, keeping the chair between them.

Dark pointed it her way. “I thought you’d remember;” he said, waving it around, “you used it all the time!”

“Oh! My remote!” Mean said. “My thing-making one!” She put her hand on her hip. “So you’re going to use my own tricks against me?”

“Well you weren’t using it,” Dark replied. He began to press a few of the buttons. Mean flicked her fingers and the remote slipped from his hand.

“What was that?” she hummed. She gestured again and Dark wobbled. He clattered to his knees, catching himself with his arms.

“Hey now–you’re getting a bit too cocky,” he said, his arms quivering as he fought to hold himself from the floor. “I think someone needs to shut you down!”

Mean took light steps around to the chair’s seat. “I guess you’d better get rid of that armor if you want to teach me a lesson,” she said, sitting down.

“One,” Kello counted. Dark bowed to the mat: his helmet clunking against the surface.

“Oh wait!” he chuckled. “I can just fly out of here!”

The mat rebounded as Dark flew straight up into the air: his cape twirling as he flipped and came down next to the throne. As he landed, Mean jumped and sputtered.

“What!? How!?”

He picked her up in his arms. “How ’bout I throw you somewhere for once?” he asked, tossing her aside. She caught herself, hovering, as Dark plopped down in her place. Kello began counting for him now.

“When did you learn that!?” Mean cried. She pointed at Dark and he jerked forward. He leaned back into place with little effort.

“Oh, I’m not doing anything,” he teased. Kello counted to two.

“You’re moving your armor–canceling me out!” she protested. She gestured at the throne and it slid back; Dark fell from it. Mean floated at the chair again; Dark rose from the mat as well, barring her way in mid-air. He held his arms out from his sides, and his cape fluttered at his back.

“Okay, how are you doing this?” Mean said.

“Powers of Darklord,” he replied.

“Powers of bull crap,” Mean shot back. As Dark’s cape caught a breeze, Mean spied the rory clinging to his side.

“Told you it wasn’t me,” Dark said. “Cocoa thinks it’s his shell and that I’m just riding along. It started that night you went out to practice that spell. I’ve been practicing too.”

Mean shook her head, chewing her lip.

“Yeah, you thought this was going to be easy, huh?” Dark said.

Mean darted, swiping her hand at Cocoa. Dark swished away in a swirl of cloth, shaking his finger at her.

“Ah–remember!” he said. “Stone rories shouldn’t be touched!”

Mean withdrew her fingers. Dark danced in place.

“You’re loving this,” she stated.

“Sure am,” Dark said. “I think we should find a better way to settle this, though. How about a race? We fly to–oh, how about that tree on the hill over there and back? First to the chair wins.”

Mean scoffed. “Pft, the hills are covered in trees.” Shading her eyes with her arm, she peered out over the pyramid’s square sides. “Do you see that building the coasters are coming out of?” she asked, pointing with her free hand.

“Alright!” Dark confirmed, his body rocketing off before Mean could reply.

“Hey!” she called after him, zipping off in his wake. On the pyramid’s roof, Kello tossed her parasol down.

“King, your rory!” she demanded, motioning at herself. He raced to comply: straddling the shell and diving from the platform with one hand on the reigns and one on his crown. Kello scrambled on as he dipped close, clasping King around his hefty waist. With a kick of King’s heels the rory ascended again: racing after the two specks in the sky, leaving the spectators abuzz.

“I’m sorry!” Dark shouted back. He tipped his helmet forward and his cape rippled in violent waves behind him. “Cocoa just took off!”

“Yeah whatever!” Mean said, coming up behind him and snatching the hem of the billowing cape. He slowed for a moment and Mean nudged past him: kicking off his armor with one foot. As she whipped ahead she sent Darklord spinning. He righted himself and stopped to unfasten the clasps on his cape.

“Darn thing’s slowing me down,” he exclaimed, taking the cloth and tossing it back. King dipped his rory to dodge it; the wind caught the cape and blew it into Kello’s face.

Mean soared onward and the tops of colored tents rushed beneath her. A lone track snaked across her path, soon joined by others as she neared the painted, wooden tower. With a steady rumble and a choir of screams, a coaster rolled past. Mean dipped and followed behind it: settling on the tower’s roof as the cars were guided inside.

“Okay, Dark, I made it!” she called out, twirling back to face the pyramid. With a metallic flash the armored man bulleted onto the roof as well: catching the surface with outstretched legs and arms; taking off a few shingles as he slid to a halt.

“Oh, yeah, that’s much faster,” Dark said, leaping up. He brushed grit from his hands and shuffled a shingle back into its spot with his boot. Mean folded her arms.

“I’m kind of jealous;” she admitted, “that helmet and suit make you pretty aerodynamic. And the wind gets in my eyes–you don’t have that problem.”

“You’ll just have to wear a leotard,” Dark laughed. “And goggles. It would totally look great on you. Uh, oh–look who it is.”

He pointed up at the jeweled shell hovering in the sky. Kello gestured at them with steady strokes, counting.

“Oh, we touched down out of bounds,” Mean said.

Dark smiled. “It would be funny if we both lost right now.”

They both let out a chuckle and launched themselves from the roof. Dark took a quick lead and Mean swerved as he did: squinting her eyes and trailing at his heels. The Imperial Pyramid loomed before them, its wide top towering overhead. The layers of slanted windows stared back: tapering down to the pointed, angular base. Dark caught a glimpse of Mean following him in one of the window’s reflections.

“Hey! You slacker! You’re drafting!”

Mean smiled and they both cleared the rail at the roof’s edge. As cheers welcomed them, she gave Dark a nudge: his speed doubled; he overshot the ring and continued upward. Mean laughed and dove into the ring, where seventeen identical thrones now sat.

“What!? What is this!?” Mean asked. Knowing chuckles sounded from the crowd. She scowled back at them, and with a shimmer another throne materialized.

“Oh, you little–” Mean uttered as Dark came back from his trip, settling on the top of the glass wall.

“I set your remote to scan the chair and copy it while we were gone. How good is your memory?” he teased. King and Kello landed ringside.

“Goodness,” King stated. “What happens now?” Kello hopped from the shell, retrieving her umbrella from the ground and sweeping it onto her shoulder again.

“People have tried things like this before,” she sighed. “There’s a sliver of vein on the true throne; it can’t be duplicated.”

She watched as Mean lowered herself into one of the chairs.

“Hey, Kello,” she shouted, “does any chair count?”

The gamemaster said nothing. Mean muttered something as Dark settled into the chair next to her.

“So close, so close,” he said. His grin behind the helmet was brief; no count came; Kello shook her head.

“Crap,” Dark said, “Where was it?” He and Mean leapt up at once. She vaulted over the armrest and into the next chair in the row; he did the same, taking a chair in the other direction. Kello counted ‘one.’ Dark and Mean stared at each other.

“So who do you think got it?” Mean asked.

“Get up and find out,” Dark proposed.

“Two!” Kello announced. Mean rolled her left shoulder, staying where she was.

“So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh, Miss Mean Lavir,” Dark said.

“Yes it is, Mr. Dark Lord,” Mean replied. “You said whoever got to the chair first wins; this just makes it fair.”

Dark tapped the armrest with his fingers as Kello counted upward. “Makes it more excruciating, you mean.”

“Come on, man!” Jelk yelled from the loser’s table. He whipped his fist through the air, urging the crowd into a frenzy.

“Did you see which one got it?” Parlay asked.

“I lost track,” Vornis said.

“This is so stupid,” Caldera groaned.

“Ten!” Kello finished. “Me-anne wins! She will face Templetine in the final round!”

Applause showered the two as they rose from their chairs; another throne appeared and fell to the floor. Mean snapped the remote to her hand and she turned the thing off.

“You did it,” Dark stated, walking to her. “Good job.”

“You too,” Mean laughed. She took his hand and clasped it in hers: raising it up as the glass walls came down.

 

17 – What Happens Next

 

As the spectators finished their applause, Kello led Dark to sit at the long table.

“The last match will take place tomorrow,” Kello announced. “And now that the two finalists have been chosen, I can hand out the prizes for the runners-up.”

“Oh, wow, we get something?” Dark asked. He sat at the far right end, where King thumbed through a thick stack of pale envelopes.

“Of course you do–” King expounded, “the very best prizes from all of our sponsors!”

“I can hardly wait,” Dark said as he took the packet with his name and broke the seal. King continued down the line: handing out the envelopes as he complemented everyone in turn–save for Eon. Many spectators passed Mean’s way as they left the arena, shaking her hand and showing her high praise. When most of the crowd had passed and the seats stood sparse, she found her way over to the table and leaned on the side where Dark sat.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“My consolation prize:” he replied, “free meals at ‘Crab Masters’ for the next five years.”

“Ooh, very nice–quite classy,” Vornis said, unfolding his letter. “For people that eat food, anyway.”

“Is that so?” Dark said, tapping his envelope by Mean’s hand. “I think I know someone who might appreciate this.”

“Really,” Mean sang. As she rose her eyebrows at Dark, Vornis growled at his letter.

“Crud–all I got was money.”

Mean banged on the table. “Hey, that means you can afford a place next to Zenny! If it’s enough, right?”

A sigh whistled though his monstrous white teeth. “I know.”

“Hey, that’s great!” Parlay said, touching his arm and whispering up into his ear. “I would have helped you out with that anyway.”

“Heh,” Vornis uttered. “Thanks. So what fabulous piece of junk did you win?”

Parlay glanced over to where King stood talking to his brother. “It’s a dance floor!” she giggled. “One that flies!”

“A what now?” Vornis asked.

“A ‘mobilized party area,'” Parlay read from her prize brochure. “When am I ever going to use something like that?”

Mean held out her hand. “Let me see.”

Parlay complied, brushing her long, blond hair over her shoulder. On the brochure a square enclosure with a shining, hardwood floor was depicted. People stood inside of it, dancing in place with big smiles on their faces. One woman was leaning over the padded edge: tossing confetti over a few tiny houses on landscape far below.

“Oh, geez,” Mean uttered, passing it over to Darrow, who was reading it over her shoulder.

“Yeah, did you see this disclaimer?” he pointed out. “‘Not responsible for accidents that occur while higher than five feet above ground.’ What a crock.”

Parlay smiled up at him. “Well it wouldn’t be a problem for me,” she said. “I might have trouble convincing anyone else to go up with me, though.”

A gruff laugh sounded beside her; she twisted around, staring into Eon’s wide chest.

“Oh, you can be convincing when you want to be,” he said.

Parlay squirmed in her chair. “What?”

“During your match with her–when you used the vein,” Eon said. “You spoke with conviction. I can’t help but wonder why you don’t act like that all the time.”

Parlay’s yellow eyes darted away. “Well, I just don’t want to be like that all the time.”

“A shame,” Eon said. He stood, taking his pamphlet with him as he walked away. “That kind of resolve suits you, I think.”

Eon walked off, his bright jumpsuit clashing with others’ clothes as he passed. He descended the stairwell at the far end of the roof.

“Well!” Jelk exclaimed, clapping his hands on his legs. “Now that the life of the party’s gone, there’s no sense sticking around. I’ll see you guys tomorrow for the big finish.” He got up and pointed at Mean as he passed behind Trisk. “And I wanna see you beat that guy tomorrow. Us jerks just aren’t meant to win these things, you know?”

“No promises!” Mean told him.

Jelk laughed. “At least you’ll look good losing. Like Dark here–nice lose today, man.”

“Ah, thank you,” Dark replied as Jelk patted his shoulder and departed. As Mean chuckled King and Conneld strolled over to their end of the table. Pinada was following them, smiling.

“I’m sorry about your prize,” King said to Dark. “I’m sure we can switch it out to something else.”

Dark held up his palm. “It’s okay; they still serve drinks, right?”

“If you insist,” King said. Conneld stroked at his beard.

“And Conneld is still investigating your claims,” King went on, nodding at Vornis. “The last thing I want is for the finale to be interfered with.”

“Don’t worry, King,” Pinada assured with his loud voice resonating past his case. “It will be a big day; I won’t let anything happen. Nothing will jeopardize tomorrow’s events.”

“It’s good to see that none of this has you worried,” King replied. “Well–the rest of you have fun until then. Enjoy the fair: rest in your room; do whatever you want to do. It will be your last day here.”

“Ah–at the pyramid, you mean,” Pinada hummed.

“Yes, that’s right,” King said. “This building is used by the military when the fair isn’t running. I hate to kick you all out, but–”

“I’ll have to sleep outside again,” Darrow lamented.

“It’s okay; we’re used to roughing it,” Dark agreed, pushing away from the table. “Well, Mean, shall we try out our free drinks at ‘Crab Masters?'”

Mean smiled. “Yes, let’s.”

 

—–

 

Templetine sat in his room with a lamp’s light directed at the table before him. The tiny, illuminated device there whirred and the cylinder on its top shifted in minute increments.

“You did too much,” Templetine accused. “They were talking about it–one is smarter than the rest–he saw the patterns being exchanged!”

I did notice that,” the voice from the machine buzzed. “How cute.”

Templetine picked at a fruit in his hand. “Not to me; I’m the one here. If they find out now–now, when I’m so close to winning–”

He peeled off a bit of the fruit’s skin and flicked it away.

“They break everything. Just like on my world. I hate them.” He dug his fingernail into the fruit, pulling it out as juice began to ooze from the cut.

You don’t have to worry,” the voice assured him. “I found a nice solution. If things start to go rotten.”

“How?” Templetine wondered. “Any more minds altered would lead them back to you; she’ll find out.”

I know that,” the voice said. “That’s why I’ll use Whittler instead.”

Templetine set the fruit down. “What? You–you have her there?”

The buzzing voice let out a discordant chuckle. “Oh dear, yes; she’s quite angry. It will be the perfect scapegoat on my end. As for you, well, Whittler will do such a thorough job of cleaning up those suspicious persons.” The voice laughed again. “So to speakoh, I wish I could see it.”

“Don’t do it unless I lose,” Templetine spat out. The white-tipped hairs bristling around his face shook as he spoke. “And if you do, you have to give me time to get away; don’t give her control until I’m gone.”

Of course,” the voice replied. “I do need you for my turn.

Templetine nodded, reaching to shut off the little machine.

 

—–

 

Darrow plopped down on his beanbag while Tome sat on a stool at the kitchen bar.

“So, do you think that King’s brother believed you?” Darrow asked. Tome rubbed at his shoulder, dipping his head.

“No, he didn’t,” came the weary reply. “He’s too busy patting himself on the back for catching Mean’s last name.”

“So he couldn’t see those thought patterns switching places?” Darrow wondered. “Didn’t you say he’s one of the best?”

“I obviously spoke too soon,” Tome grumbled. “Everything was right there and he missed it. Incompetent. Lazy. No wonder they all–”

He cut himself off. The plush beanbag let out a squeak as Darrow shifted.

“I’m sorry; I need to calm down,” Tome said, swiveling on his stool. He looked over at Darrow and sighed. “That’s how I earned my reputation, you know: thinking that everyone else was lesser than me. I would see things they wouldn’t acknowledge; I’d get angry and lash out.”

“You’ve never gotten angry at me for not understanding things,” Darrow offered. “And I don’t think anyone would have blamed you. Man, I didn’t even know what patterns were when we met.”

Tome smiled and he pressed his hand to his brow, sweeping back the shaggy blond hair on his head. “You know, I don’t think I’ve told you this: when I was bodiless, I asked for a second chance; to be able to show kindness–just a chance. It’s what kept me going all that time alone. Then you all showed up. It was easier than I thought, and I couldn’t fathom why I had ever acted any other way.”

“Well, I can’t imagine you acting the way people here say you act, Tome,” Darrow said.

Tome chuckled. “But I did. And I didn’t even want to tell you about my past. I kept putting it off because I saw how you all reacted to the future Parlay–the male one. He reminded me so much of my old self: always arrogant, always condescending.” He sniffed, looking at the ceiling. “I think I’m just afraid. If that sweet woman can change into that–how easy would it be for me to revert? I’ve been there once, after all.”

Darrow shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry about it. You both went through the same end-of-the-world event–but you were the one that changed for the better.”

“Yes,” Tome agreed. “And it’s almost time for that same event to happen again.”

 

—–

 

Vornis entered the mansion, tilting a bit so that his spikes cleared the door. Parlay set a package aside as she got up to greet him.

“Hey. What’s that?” he asked, peering over at the box.

Parlay grinned. “It’s just something I was going to give Mean tomorrow after she wins. I’m not sure I can trust those sponsor prizes to get her something good.”

Vornis grimaced. “Parlay, I don’t think you should be–”

“What?” Parlay asked. “You don’t think she can win?”

“It’s not that,” Vornis muttered. He let his eyes roam to the tall, potted plants behind her. “Anyway, what did you call me out here for?”

Parlay’s bright eyes lit up. “I want to–well, with your permission–I want to alter your body again.”

Vornis’ eyes snapped back to her. She offered him a wide, nervous smile.

“What about your code?” he asked. “Why would you even want to change me? I don’t want to be normal.”

“That isn’t what I want to do,” she said. “But with Zenny back in your life I felt I ought to do something. It was something I had planned long ago, anyway: conversion of your thorns into vein.”

Vornis stared at her, settling his arms on the spikes protruding from the sides of his stomach. “And why would that make any difference to Zenny?”

“Well,” Parlay started, “Both vein and the slate virus absorb magical patterns. However, I’ve found that vein is much better at it. So, the idea is to let the vein on you snatch up all the magic before Zenny’s virus can have it.” She made several grasping motions with her hands in the air. “That would leave the slate powerless as long as she’s near you. Now, I’m only talking about short trips outside the dead zone–this is nothing permanent. It would be way too risky to try anything longer than that.”

Vornis scoffed, and the plates beneath his shirt jingled.

“Why would you do this? Don’t get me wrong; it sounds great. Just–you have rules against this sort of thing.” He shrugged. “Why change now?”

“I’ve been doing some thinking since yesterday’s match,” she went on. “While curing her would go against the wishes of her family, I decided that I could still accomplish some measure of compromise indirectly. Through you.”

“But you decided not to alter anyone ever again,” Vornis argued. “Not even if you had their permission. We both decided against it after we saw where that path of reasoning was heading.”

“I’ve changed since then, Vornis;” Parlay said, “I can keep that part of myself under control.”

The beast folded his legs and sat on the rug with a thud. He squeezed shut his thin lips and stared at the box that Parlay had been wrapping.

“Well you think about it,” she said, sitting back down and picking up a thin ribbon. “After all, there’s no rush; we have plenty of time.”

 

—–

 

At Tenny’s Dojo a monitor was set up: it displayed two people competing on a court marked with a grid. As one of the competitors fell, the action cut to a referee seated on a tall chair. Behind him, the Imperial Pyramid stood, lit up with spotlights against the black night. Trisk and Tenny watched from their spot on the large mat with the mandala design. Smatter was seated on the deactivated training model, eating popcorn. Others in the room chatted or watched the monitor, some wearing sweaters and some in plain clothes.

Trisk smiled, snuggling closer to Tenny.

 

—–

 

Mean and Dark sat on the couch in the dim pyramid room, with a tiny table-top lamp the only light. Darrow lay on his beanbag and the shadows blanketed him. A limp leg and arm hung to the floor.

“Okay, I think I’m done with this,” Mean whispered, pushing the plate away. It scraped a bit over the tabletop and she stopped, looking in Darrow’s direction.

“He sleeps pretty soundly,” Dark whispered back. “What’s wrong with the food? Isn’t it good?”

“It’s good,” Mean admitted. “The crab shells are tough. It’s so much work for so little meat.”

She wiped her buttery fingers on a napkin, setting it off to the side before settling back in the seat next to Dark.

“Oh, I’ll still go back to that place,” Mean whispered. “I just need more practice with the little shell-cracker things.”

“You’d better,” Dark said. “I worked really hard to lose to you for that prize today.”

“You did,” Mean agreed, smiling. “And I had fun.”

She leaned in closer, touching her fingers to his arm. Looking up, the faint ghost of her face reflected back through the helmet at her; the smooth surface marred by the jagged gap. The small bit of his face she could glimpse was speckled with unshaved hairs. He drew her in close with his arm and she set her head on his chest.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep much tonight,” she admitted. “You know. Because of what happens next.”

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