Chapters 18 – 20

18 – Retroactive Law

 

Darrow stood over the couch, a red crease on his cheek. Mean was asleep on the cushions with Dark’s black cape wrapped around her. Dark was next to her, curled up in a ball.

“Geez, guys,” Darrow said, “if you aren’t going to use the other beds let me know; it’s not like I’m sleeping on that beanbag because I want to.”

Mean let out a startled murmur. With blinking eyes she sat up, shrugging off the cape that covered her.

“Oh, Darrow,” she mumbled. “I was just cold, so I took his cape–”

Darrow pointed past the couch to the bedroom doors. “There are beds with silk sheets I could have been using! Honestly!”

“Sorry,” Mean said. “Crud–what time is it? I need to get ready and eat or something.”

“Oh, I swiped some more food,” Vornis said. Mean turned to see him, Tome, and Trisk around the kitchen bar. Something was sizzling in a plate Vornis held, and the spikes at his sides and neck were now a translucent, reddish hue.

Mean looked between them all, and Trisk fought back an amused smile.

“New spikes?” Mean squeaked out. “Red ones?”

“Like your face right now, yeah,” he replied.

Mean covered her forehead with her hand. “Fine. Just give me some of those eggs,” she sighed.

 

—–

 

The sun shone into the hallway at Dark and Mean’s backs; they stood before the hex door room on their suite floor.

“THERE ARE FOUR GROUPS IN THE QUEUE;” a monotone voice declared, “PLEASE STEP INTO THE TRANSPORT AREA AND WAIT.”

“Busy day,” Dark stated. “They must all be coming to see your match.”

Mean stepped forward with him. “Yeah,” she grumbled, “like how everyone saw us before we woke up this morning.”

“Saw us?” Dark repeated. “Oh, on the couch together?”

“Uh-huh. Even Trisk,” Mean finished. “Of all the times for her to actually be in the room.”

Dark chuckled. “Come on, it’s not like we were doing anything wrong. I had to make sure you got some sleep, didn’t I?”

“And I did,” Mean said. “Thanks.” She drew in a breath and exhaled. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen today. The match with Templetine–I don’t even care about that. We’re about to see everyone get killed.” She spied Tome and the others coming down the hall toward them. “I just–I just want to know what it is and get it over with. I didn’t realize we’d be spending any time meeting people–getting to know them. I thought it would just be our little group, going around and keeping to ourselves as we solved the mystery. But after seeing Tenny, King–even Parlay turned out to be nice–I don’t want to see any of them hurt.”

Dark stepped aside with Mean, allowing room for Tome, Trisk, Darrow, and Vornis on the hex door platform.

“I think everything is going to work out,” Dark said. “We just need to get through this day. And we know we do, right?”

Mean touched his arm and the sunlight came down bright on all sides: they stood on top of the pyramid’s roof along with the crowds.

“Hey, look, it’s her!” someone called out. Several passers-by pointed and acknowledged the group; the people exiting the hex door before them turned and stepped aside to let them pass.

“Thanks, hi,” Mean said as she walked past them and into the path through the vendors’ stands. Conneld met them as they went, stepping out from the shadow of a funnel cake stand.

“I know who you are,” he whispered.

“Congratulations,” Dark said. “Many have tried to guess, but–”

“Not you–her,” Conneld said, nodding down at Mean. “After this match I intend to get answers to a lot of questions.”

“Yeah, don’t we all,” Vornis muttered. Conneld scowled, departing again as the group reached the losers’ table.

“Hello, Beast!” Donzel greeted. “I sent my swords back home; Templetine won’t be snatching them to use against your friend.”

“Yeah, we all came unarmed,” Jelk said as Trisk, Vornis, and Dark sat down. “It’s true that the dude never took anything from me in the first place, but I’m sure he was just waiting for the finals.”

“I was going to bring something for you, but left it at the house,” Parlay added. “For when you win.”

“Yeah, go get him,” Caldera threw in.

“Thanks guys,” Mean told those at the table. She glanced back at the ring, seeing Templetine already standing within. His slacks and buttoned-up shirt were tight on his body; muscle filled in his shoulders, arms, and legs while a generous gut padded his belly. The white-tipped black hairs swept up from his brow and down from his jaw. He had his eyes closed.

Mean sighed. “Let’s get this over with, I guess.”

“Hold on,” Kello urged. She was pacing ringside, checking her watch. Tipping her parasol to block the sun, she caught King’s eye from where he sat on his pedestal. “Where is Pinada?” she mouthed up.

King shrugged at her. “Can you start without him?” he said, giving his rory’s shell a pat. Kello nodded, clicking the button on her parasol to address the crowd.

“Our guest referee Pinada has not arrived yet. However, the match only requires me to be present. I will start the match on time, and the safety walls will not be raised. Me-anne, please enter the ring.”

Tome and Darrow were at the ladder that ascended to King’s platform. “Where do you think he is?” Darrow asked.

“No idea,” Tome said as he gripped the rungs. “I suppose it makes sense: otherwise he would have just told us how it happened himself.” He started up with Darrow following, and Mean hopped into the ring.

“You came to see me,” Templetine hummed. He opened his eyes, looking off past the edge of the roof to the forested hills.

“Yeah, you,” Mean said, walked up to the throne. “Not your friend, just you.”

“I don’t need him anymore,” Templetine responded, lowering his voice and creeping closer. “So many on this world are watching me now, and that’s what they’ll see: me and no one else.”

“So no tricks, then?” Mean asked. “No gold weights or traps hidden in your pockets?”

“I’m complete now,” Templetine said. “And you’ve brought me everything I need to win.”

Templetine said nothing else, never meeting her gaze. Mean walked to her side of the ring and Templetine retreated to his.

“Let the final match of the “Two Lives to Play” tournament commence!” Kello shouted.

Mean dashed forward and her toes left the ground; she stumbled, dipped, and caught herself on the throne. The audience murmured.

“Look what you brought, Me-anne,” Templetine said. He wandered forward and caught Mean by the arm.

 

He whips me away from him and I try to catch myself. “Fly” I think, but that isn’t what happens. The pictures appear in my head again: the fall down the apartment stairs when I was ten, the worst of the tumbles from the platform I used to practice on in Tenny’s Tower with Trisk. And I fall again, away from the throne.

Templetine stays at its side. He thinks I can’t take it. He’s doing the same thing from before; from Trisk’s match. He took thoughts from other people and forced them into my head. But this time the feelings are my own. Alright, I don’t need to fly.

I point at the chair and Templetine takes a cautious step away. Then new images blur in and I see my own hand, dropping a plate of food on a customer; slipping and cutting the stem of a plant. I was carrying that plant to the window-side garden for Mom. It was one little slip, but I killed it. We tried to put it in water again but it didn’t grow back. The throne doesn’t move, and Templetine claims it as if it were his.

“I love the strong ones,” Templetine says. “All those adversities they’d overcome in their lives: the ones they think make them better. It only gives them a mind rich with failures to use.”

I try to step forward but I can’t even move: I’m trapped in Mackaba’s wall of liquid. I feel the pressure on my body and the pain of the needle in my skin. I’m bound by my arms and hanging somewhere. I can’t move and I fall. Again, I fall. I try to look to Dark, Darrow, anyone for help but I can’t see them. I only see the people that I tried to hide from. I always tried to hide the fact that I wasn’t Jesian. I always hid my food so they wouldn’t know. I can’t let them see me.

I hide my face and I gasp. I just want to breathe but I can’t even do that. I’m on the platform with Parlay as we rise toward the hall. That plant clouds the air with foul smoke and I cough as that stuff tears at my lungs. He slams me into the floor and any breath I have left is forced out.

“This is where you all belong,” Templetine tells me. “Down on the floor. Your face cast down–you don’t get to look at me. This is how it is on Arsaling; this is how it’s going to be here from now on.”

I sniffle back a staggered breath. What did he say? Arsaling? I’ve heard that somewhere before. An image appears in my mind again; of Parlay’s flying platform, but this time Hellzoo is there. That horrible red circle screaming at us. It says it’s taking us to Arsaling. Is that where this guy is from? My chest takes in air again and I raise my head up. Templetine is staring at me: it’s the first time I’ve seen him look directly at anyone’s face.

“What is that?” he asks. “Is that–how did you see that? That’s Shirka’s avatar. How do you know about that?”

I plant my arm and push up off the ground. Shirka. Is that Hellzoo? Is that what her name really is? Does this guy know her? They’re just people somewhere, controlling those things? She said it was a puppet. The image of us crashing into the city appears. We smashed her into the road. She said it was a puppet. I see Kates’ house and there Hellzoo is, being smashed to pieces again while Dark holds her. That’s right. I’ve beaten her twice. I see the ring and the throne clearly now. I point at it and it rockets backward. Templetine falls now. This guy’s one of them? I beat Hellzoo. I can beat him too.

“You couldn’t have beaten one of us,” Templetine blurts out. It’s like he’s just looking at my thoughts and he’s scared. “You can’t. I need these people more than she does; they should be mine, mine!”

I tip the entire ring up. Yeah, just raise one end right up into the sky. I hold the throne against the slanted mat and I hover over to it, sitting on the seat. I watch as Templetine rolls down the incline and is dumped on the rooftop right next to Kello. She has no idea what’s happening and the crowds are cheering but she counts anyway. Templetine is still staring at me, flat on his back.

“Where are you getting these strange ideas?” he shouts up at me. “They can’t have happened!”

He slams his fist into the ground. I think he knows. I see that he can’t win because he couldn’t have. If he needs people to grovel at his feet–if he needs them alive–then he isn’t the one that kills everyone the future. Which means he can’t win here, in the past.

 

On King’s pedestal Tome whispered over at Conneld.

“You’re seeing this, aren’t you?”

Conneld set his mouth in a frown. Templetine lay at the bottom of the ring’s slope, shaking his head and gasping in between rants.

“How do you know that?” he yelled up. “I lose everything? I see it. How can I see it if it hasn’t happened? How!?”

“Ten,” Kello finished. The crowd let out triumphant shouts and Mean lowered the ring back into place.

“That is not possible!” Templetine cried. “How can my loss be a fact? How can my loss be a fact!?” “Because you lost,” Kello said. “Mean is the winner.”

 

20 – Whittler

 

King slapped his rory’s shell, turning to smile at Darrow and Tome. “She did it! Mean won!” He worked a tablet out from the folds of his velvet clothes. It read ‘King’s Fair’ on the surface; he wiped the words away with several smears from his thumb. “Give the clouds time to dissipate, then I’ll write her name in the sky!”

Templetine turned his head up to the cloudy words looming above: the straight, white lines faded against the blue expanse, spreading into a blur. Two objects remained rigid and black, hanging in the sky where the “K” and “F” were.

“What are those?” King asked. He tipped forward, peeking beyond the pedestal’s awning.

“You mean those aren’t the things making the clouds?” Darrow asked. Tome stood and hissed through his teeth.

“The letters on the glass–that’s what he meant! He wasn’t telling us where to go; that’s how Templetine’s been cheating–it’s been hiding right there!”

Mean held her palm against her forehead, peering up. “That’s another puppet, isn’t it? Like hers. What’s it doing?”

“Oh, you didn’t see this did you?” Templetine said with a weak chuckle. “Whittler isn’t like the rest of us.” He rose his voice to a shout. “Give her control! Bring her out!”

He dodged his way past Kello, sprinting away from the ring.

Conneld leapt across King’s platform, pausing at the ladder to point at the roof’s hex doors. Several people in plain clothes dashed toward them at his command, barring the way.

“Watch out; he has something with him!” Kello warned. Templetine broke through the loiterers at the vendors, swerving away from the path to the hex doors: he dashed across the open space between him and the pyramid’s ledge. Mean pushed away with her feet, bounding up from the ring and soaring over the bleachers.

Templetine spied her coming. “Have fun,” he cried. He pulled a metallic part from his pocket. Taking a breath, he vaulted over the railing. Mechanical pieces sprang out as he fell, combining with the part in his hand. They built upon each other and twisted around him: encasing his body in a cylindrical pod. Mean halted at the pyramid’s brink, watching it drop. Flames lit up from tiny slits in the hull, propelling Templetine across the canopy of tents in a rising arc. A marking on the curved surface swiveled into view: it was a word that had been blotted out with black paint. The craft flickered and vanished.

“What the–” Mean uttered. At her back, a crash shook the roof. The twin objects in the sky had fallen into the ring.

They lay parallel to each other: two spiraling tubes that terminated to a point at both ends. They rolled together in unison, interlocking. The two objects fused into a single piece, changing color to white and adapting a glossy sheen on its surface. It remained still, stretching from the foot of the throne to the edge of the ring.

“There’s a mind there,” Conneld shouted, stepping down the ladder. He dropped the remaining distance to the floor. Tome, Darrow, Dark, and King were descending behind him.

“Stay away from it!” Tome called down.

“King’s tournament is done–I’m not standing by any longer,” Conneld announced. He strode past the losers’ table; everyone was still seated there, watching the ring. The spectators in the stands were taking cautious steps down the stairs and around the sides of the arena as Conneld climbed in.

“I don’t know what you are but you have one chance to leave.” He stood over the motionless lump, reaching into the flaps of his uniform. With a gasp he withdrew his hand: drops of blood were wet on his fingers.

“What?” he croaked out, grasping at the medals adorning his chest. They were changing; protruding out in long knobs. He took one and yanked: a blade came out with it, sliding out of his chest. The others ejected on their own, falling as knives upon the white lump and spattering it red.

“Con!” King cried as Conneld fell sideways. He landed half-way out of the ring with a thump. His arm sagged over the corner, and slits were bleeding out where his medals had been. Several in the audience shrieked.

“I’ll get him, King!” Parlay said. She leapt up and scampered across the top of the table. In the ring the throne twisted and stretched: forming long, pointed blades from the metallic frame. They separated and bounced to the mat, leaving nothing but cushion behind. With a sharp tear the remaining seat and backing flew into strips; the scraps went to the knives, pulling tight around the hilts.

King traced his finger through the air and a yellow array shimmered above Conneld’s body. The lines vanished before they could intersect.

“This is not Sing’s work,” Eon muttered as Kay Kary bolted out of her seat and ran. The others at the losers’ table stood, their backs to King’s pedestal. The knives that had been formed from the throne lifted into the air, their handles tipped up. They positioned themselves above the corners of the massive, white lump.

“Be calm,” Parlay told Conneld, reaching him. He gasped and sweat beaded at his brow. “I’m returning your body’s pattern to an earlier state.” She took hold of his arm that dangled from the ring. With a pop the golden chains on her amulets were yanked from her neck. The chains hovered, swirled into a wad, and flattened. Parlay kept her eyes on Conneld as the gold was molded into a knife like the medals had been. She ignored the blade as it jabbed at her skin, bouncing off with each prod. It surrendered, flitting over to the white slab. It danced and bobbed, marking neat lines at the corners. With a whoosh the larger knives hacked them off with a unified strike.

“Parlay, let’s get him out of there!” Jelk cried, coming up behind her. He took Conneld’s other arm and they hauled him off the platform. All of the knives were focused on the lump: taking careful slices out of the edges. It yielded to the blades like clay.

“That goes for everyone!” King bellowed into his mic. “Get out! Get out! Take the stairs if you have to!”

Not all obeyed; some of the crowd hid behind vendors and the bleachers, peeking out with curious stares. The rest streamed to the exits, not looking back. The knives paused.

“Darrow, you should go,” Tome said, his eyes still on the ring. “We don’t all need to be here.”

“I’m safest with you guys,” Darrow replied. Mean dropped in next to him. Trisk and Tenny came over.

“This one isn’t like Hellzoo;” Mean said, “those daggers it’s making are real.”

“I know, it’s altering any pattern near it,” Tome said. At the far end of the table, Caldera piped up.

“So this is one of those hell monsters,” he stated. “Just watch–I’ll send it back.”

The knives swooped beneath the clay block and lifted it upright. They went back to work, carving more hunks from the clay column. Caldera placed his domed hat on his head. He pointed a finger. A sphere of flame erupted at the clay figure’s side, lasting only a moment; with a sucking sound it collapsed into smoke. Ash fell in dagger-shaped swirls. The busy golden knife halted and redirected its tip at Caldera. He dipped his head and the blade sunk into his hat.

“Oh, geez!” he cried, ripping the hat off and tossing it down. “Screw this; you guys are on your own!”

The gold knife whipped back to the clay, where the block had been shaped into the crude, angular form of a person. The larger knives worked out spaces in between the limbs; the smaller blades etched out details. Muscle, hair, and the features of a woman emerged.

Conneld sat up from where Jelk and Parlay had set him near the vendors’ stalls. “I need to destroy that thing!” he coughed, watching the still, pristine form of the clay woman.

“Leave the corny theatrics to the professionals,” Jelk told him.

In the ring the knives pulled away from the white sculpture. The body remained motionless and serene. Its wide eyes were smooth, watching the crowd.

With a snap the foot jerked up from the floor: the statue wriggled to life. Dark creases formed in the joints as it flexed its arms. The placid expression on the face grinned, marring the smooth cheeks and jaw with long wrinkles. The knives lashed out half-way across the ring, holding there; the loiterers in the bleachers jumped back. The woman rocked in place as the knives orbited her body: dipping to gouge at the mat, making slashes at the empty air. Vornis gripped the vein spike at his side.

“Tome, what’s it thinking?” he asked.

“Just knives,” Tome replied. “It wants to make knives. It’s like a song in her head.”

“Neither of us is using static,” Tenny said, touching Trisk on the arm.

“I can throw something at it,” Mean offered.

“You’d just be giving it more material to change,” Tome shot back. The orbiting blades swung out wider each pass: making loud, long whooshes. Whittler bent to peer at the ground. A split in her back formed as she gestured across the smooth surface. The mat peeled up at the woman’s chiseled toes, coming up as floppy, dull daggers. She pressed her palm down, rejecting them back into place. Her blank eyes traveled over the heads of the fleeing spectators, finding the metallic, glinting bleacher seats. She poised her hands in delight and took a step toward the ring’s edge. The knives spun along with her.

“The metal!” Tome cried, “Mean, move it back!”

“I can’t,” Mean replied, “I mean, there are still people–I’d be moving them away from the exits!”

“I’ve got this,” Vornis growled. He snapped off his vein spines and hefted one in each hand. Donzel set his foot on the table, stretching his leg.

“I’ll go too,” he offered. “Beast, can I borrow one?” Vornis tossed one of the red spikes over.

“I’ll go in first;” he said, “then you get her from behind.” He bent his knees, bounded up, and thudded on the far side of the ring. Whittler halted. She turned to him and two of the orbiting blades rushed at the beast. He batted them away with his spike; they swished back and clanged against the plating at his chest. Donzel leapt into the ring, charging and thrusting his spike through her stomach. Whittler staggered, and the swirling knives drew back to her. Donzel yanked the spike out, hopping back. The flats of the blades smoothed over the punctures in Whittler’s clay skin.

“Where do I stab it?” Donzel shouted out. The largest blade came down hard at him; he bounded sideways.

“You have to smash the whole thing!” Mean yelled back. Whittler made two wide swings at Donzel again: the blades coming in slow. He sidestepped again; wincing and grasping his side: the tiny, golden knife had snunk into his ribs.

Whittler’s head bobbed in a silent chuckle. Mean flung her arm and the tiny, golden dagger whipped out of Donzel’s body. Vornis rushed Whitter’s back, sweeping his spike at her neck. Four blades whipped through the air, intersecting in a cross shape between her and him. The vein spike shattered upon striking it.

“I can’t move those knives very far,” Mean told Dark. They had retreated with the rest, standing at the pyramid’s edge. The nearby hex doors flashed as the last of the escaping spectators funneled through them. All around the rooftop people remained, hiding behind the vendors’ stalls or at the stairwell. They watched and some held recording imagers, looking on as Vornis and Donzel stood against the white, cracked figure.

Donzel was holding the spike low, his side bleeding out. Whittler kept one blade flitting around him while she focused on Vornis: she joined the other knives into one massive cleaver. The edge caught the glare of the sun as it hacked into Vornis’ left shoulder and drew back.

“Beast!” Donzel cried. He let his spike fall to the mat, stumbling across the ring to where Vornis was. Whittler stretched her arms out and clay flaked from her fingers; the bleachers surrounding the ring trembled. The front row of each one cracked into countless shards, and they all peeled up in a flurry of gleaming blades. The swarm flew into the ring, converging at the spot where Donzel stood. He closed his eyes and threw his arms across his face as they slashed him.

“Stop it!” Vornis shouted. The knives flashed as they ripped through Donzel’s tabard. He winced, crumpling down to the mat; the blades raked across his backside and neck, sending up a cloud of torn cloth.

Vornis crouched and leapt at Whittler with a roar. The flat of the large cleaver struck him back down with a clang. Whittler sent the knives from the ring to join the others at the bleachers: people were leaping over the edges to escape as the metal transformed, leaving nothing behind.

Donzel peeked through his sleeves. His face was bleeding from straight slashes across his brow and cheeks. He looked over at Vornis. “Beast, you need to regenerate–get out of here.”

Vornis chuckled, crawling over with his unwounded arm. “Lied about that. Sorry.” He covered Donzel with one side of his plated chest. Shadows flitted on the mat: thousands of tiny blurs. The sky above teemed with the knives and the swarm had stretched around them in a dome, reaching the rows of vendors’ stalls. The booths sounded with the hail of metal on wood; the festive banners shredded and the sides splintered apart.

“Why are you guys watching!?” King cried, pulling at Dark’s shoulder. “I can’t hex them out; that thing changes patterns too fast! We need to leave through the doors while there’s still a door left!”

“I can get to it,” Parlay stated. Her yellow eyes were on the thin spike of vein that Donzel had dropped. The swarm was growing thicker and the roof itself was flaking up in bladed pieces. With a long creak King’s pedestal toppled over, shattering.

“I’ll cover you,” Mean told her. A knife whizzed past her leg. “I’ll keep as many off you as I can, anyway.”

Whittler threw her arms up and the humming dome of knives bulged out on all sides. Dark shielded Mean as the wall of blades hit; Parlay gritted her teeth, bracing against the wave.

“Go!” Mean shouted as two knives doubled back to slash at her knees. She knocked them to the ground and threw her hand out past Dark. A clear path opened in the cloud of glinting metal; the blades were tossed back.

Parlay dashed toward the opening. She ran and the swarm closed in on her with each stride. A jagged crater in the roof caused her to slow; the blades darted in.

She flinched as she felt her skin tingle: sharp edges were zipping across her arms, chest, and head. Clumps of her blond hair fell along with shreds of her clothes. There was a loud clatter and the knives were pushed away from her body again. She looked over to see Kay Kary peeking out from the stairwell at her.

“Just go kill it!” she yelled.

“Thanks,” Parlay whispered, circling the hole in the floor. She bolted to the arena and threw herself on it, grasping tight onto the vein spine as she rolled over the mat.

Whittler stared down at her with blank eyes. They were still smooth among the wrinkles and folds spread over her face. Beyond the edges of the pyramid screeches resounded and screams rose up from the fairgrounds. The coaster tracks were unraveling, the long rails of metal rising into the sky as pointed skewers. Parlay stood and rammed the vein spike through Whittler’s chest.

Her body shivered. She reached for Parlay’s head. The white, cracked palm clapped across her mouth and nose. Parlay’s neck bent back, and her hands slipped: yet her tiny fingers held tight on the vein.

A tearing noise came from within Whittler’s body. She pushed on Parlay with both arms now; her feet scraped over the ground, leaving chalky streaks. Daggers swooped in, pounding at Parlay with their blades and their hilts. Whittler’s face convulsed and her clay skin bulged; a mass of red vein exploded out from her, shredding the body, head, and limbs in an instant.

The knives swarming the pyramid dropped to the ground in a downpour, drowning out every other sound with a loud, steady clatter. Parlay stood with her hair hanging in uneven clumps, her clothes in tatters, and the shattered pieces of a woman at her feet.

 

20 – Time to Kill Everybody

 

“How are you, Mean?” Dark asked. His arms were still around her, and she peeked out over his elbow.

“I got cut a little, but not bad. I think.” He withdrew and she stepped between the knives laying still on the roof, watching her leg where blood trickled down from her knee.

“Is it done?” King wondered. He dabbed at his head. “Conneld, is it gone?”

Conneld used his hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun on the settled blades. “It’s gone. Parlay really did it.”

“Hey, people are cut over here!” Jelk shouted from the other side of the roof. King set his jaw, tipping his crown.

“Right. We need to clear all this away,” he insisted. “Pyramid roof: restructure command. Fair day one. Remove and store all extra material.”

A growing hum resonated, vibrating the blades where they lay. The debris from the vendors’ stands and pedestal were all taken with a series of flashes and loud ripples. Some knives slid into the empty spots left behind; others were whisked away by the hex door arrays that winked across the rooftop. Parlay knelt on the ring’s mat, treating Vornis and Donzel.

“So did you guys do it?” Darrow asked amid the noise. “Is that the thing that was going to kill everyone?”

“I do remember seeing some of this,” Mean said. “Hellzoo showed me knives stabbing King’s brother. Donzel was cut, too.”

Tome was checking his body for wounds. “That thing was getting stronger–I don’t know how big it could have gotten.”

The final knives were vanishing, and the holes in the roof were being filled in. The bleachers reformed, surrounding the ring on three sides again. Donzel and Vornis were on their feet. They thanked Parlay and she hopped down, heading over to where Jelk was beckoning.

“I’ve got Kay Kary over here: she’s bleeding pretty bad,” he told her. Parlay dashed past him. Kay Kary was leaning against the stairwell, her fingers pressed to her forehead. Her eye makeup was mixed with blood, running past her cheeks in a smear.

“Kary, it’s me,” Parlay said. “Do I have your permission to help?” Kay Kary nodded.

“Don’t care what you do outside the ring,” she told her. “I’m sorry I yelled at you before, though.”

Parlay smiled, her sliced hair hanging lop-sided across her brow.

The people were returning through the stairs and the hex doors at a slow trickle: walking, staring.

“Yes, come on back,” King told them. “The monster’s dead, and I’m not going to let that thing ruin the award ceremony!”

“Parlay killed it!” Jelk told the crowd. “I helped a little, but she finished it off!”

Parlay smiled, letting go of Kay Kary’s shoulder. She stood, and people began to flock to her.

“Please, let through anyone that’s hurt,” Parlay said. “I don’t want to hog all he attention; Mean beat the game, not me.”

“I really can’t be too proud of that,” Mean chuckled from nearby. “Templetine beat out all the others by cheating, after all.”

“Hi, Mean!” Parlay said. “Oh, you’re cut–let me get that.”

“Hey,” Mean replied. “No, I’m fine. Dark saved me from the worst. Go help the people that need it.”

Parlay’s grin widened and she took Mean by the hand. “Okay, I will. But I still need to see you later; I have a present that I need to give you! You know, for winning.”

Mean clasped her small hand, returned the smile, and then let it go. King swished his fingers and a massive hex door took the knife-scarred ring away. He led Parlay to the center of the roof, where Jelk, Caldera, and the other players were meeting up.

“So what do we do now?” Darrow asked. Mean looked at him, then up at the sky. A cube of glass was descending. Pinada was standing inside. Others turned their heads up at him, pointing as they made their way back into the bleachers. Pinada landed where the ring used to be, his heavy, black coat open. When the spectators noticed him, they began to clap.

“Oh, don’t cheer for me, folks–” Pinada told them. He held a microphone in his hand. “Parlay and King are the real stars today. Come on, everyone–applaud for them both! They deserve it!”

The people in the stands cried out louder at his plea: stomping on the metal and calling out their names.

“Pinada, where were you?” King asked, clapping along. “You were supposed to be at the final match. We were attacked! We needed you here.”

Pinada ignored him and slid over to where Parlay was. She was blushing, attempting to hide her smile.

“You don’t need to be modest,” Pinada went on. “You’re the one that gave me the idea–the idea that’s going to kill you all today.”

The spectators sank into their seats and the applause dwindled.

Pinada chuckled. “You may not all know this, but Parlay was banned from a particular Dead Zone. A place that holds the slate virus and its infected hosts. A virus that Parlay planned to cultivate and release.”

Parlay’s face fell and she seized up. Pinada tossed the mic; flipping it; catching it by the handle.

“Oh, but it wasn’t going to be fatal kind:” he continued, tapping his glasses, “the slate virus learns–replicates a singular, imprinted pattern. She was going to teach it the one thing she knows: static.” He traced a circle on the glass with his finger: looping around Parlay’s head. Her eyes were watering and she covered her mouth.

“A world where everyone is like you:” Pinada hummed, “Static. Unchanging. That is disgusting. You should apologize to all these people. Right now.”

Vornis growled, watching along with Mean and the rest.

“No, not him,” Tome muttered. “Anyone but him. It can’t be, it can’t.”

“He sure seems like the one,” Trisk sighed. Tenny eyed her.

“What do you mean?” he asked. “This is some kind of trick he’s doing, right? Parlay would never do that–I know her!”

In the center, King spoke up again. “Pinada, I don’t know what you’re getting at, but these are serious accusations. I’m not sure what the joke is–”

“The joke is that you think this is a joke,” Pinada told him.

King staggered back. He looked up at the corners of Pinada’s case, where the four ornamental spires were perched. He swished his finger at him. Nothing happened.

Pinada glared at King before turning back to the stands with a pleasant grin. “I think Parlay realized that her plan wouldn’t work; even the fatal strain of slate would have been stopped. The hex doors are programmed to search for abnormal symptoms; any people with those dark lines on their face would have been denied travel and the area locked down.”

He shrugged his arms. “So what was I to do?” he asked the audience. “Killing everyone in the world seemed so incredibly hard.”

“Everyone–!” King gasped. Pinada toyed with his scarf.

“But all I needed was the right piece,” he said. “The pattern of time.” He let go of the sheer fabric and tapped on the glass plate. “Moving an object or changing its composition is easy; the real challenge comes from telling something what time it needs to be at. That pattern is tricky; a departure and destination must be set. I was able to program a chair to leave at two o’clock, for example, but since I couldn’t figure out the destination code it just never came back.”

His case swiveled around at Parlay’s side. She was still motionless. Kay Kary put her arm around her, watching Pinada.

“But that isn’t really a failure if I put it to good use;” he went on, “that is, to say, it was the perfect killing code for your slate virus. I could program you to leave and never come back.” He pulled back his coat sleeve, peeking at a large, silver watch.

“And I realized I could set the moment of death at any time I wanted. With an instant result I could infect people undetected. No symptoms–no clues.”

He turned to the audience: people questioning each other in their rows; looking to King, to Pinada, Parlay.

“And I have a world that trusts me, of course,” Pinada chuckled. “So much that they’d let me stand here and talk about how I’m about to commit genocide.” He looked at them through the glass.

“It’s only going to be a few more seconds now.”

It took only one, leaping out of his seat before the rest followed: rising in a panic and surging sideways. The bleachers rumbled with footfalls and then a great noise drowned it out: a rippling boom trembling throughout the pyramid roof. Many people in mid-stride vanished: their clothes and belongings swirling in all directions and falling in heaps. Those unaffected shrieked and exclaimed.

Parlay flinched as Kay Kary’s round bracelets dropped to the ground next to her feet. “This can’t be happening,” Parlay said. “It has to be a trick. Hex doors–”

“He blocked them,” King squeaked, watching men and women trip over each other in their race to get out. “It’s real. They’re gone.”

“But it can’t spread that fast!” Parlay said. “It can’t be worldwide!”

Pinada turned to them both. “You don’t think hex doors alone can spread it that far?” He set his palm on his cheek. “If only there was some giant event taking place!” he laughed. “Where every nation of the world was invited!”

He gestured at the glass plate on his left and it displayed a colored image on the surface: multiple locations were shown in turn. Some had nothing but clothes littering empty floors and resting upon furniture. In others people ran through blank streets or only stood, staring. The image blinked off and the glass became clear again.

“No,” King whispered. “Not me. Not my fair.”

“Every country!” Pinada shouted, raising the microphone to his mouth. “Every race, King! Every place a hex door can reach! You and Parlay did it! Let’s hear it for them, everyone!” He clapped, still holding the mic in his hand. King took off his crown and looked skyward; his rory was flying in wild circles above.

“I spread five strains,” Pinada explained, twirling to the people fleeing from him. “The times are spaced out: increments of five minutes. If you’re having trouble keeping track, perhaps Gamemaster Kello can count for you.” He looked over, seeing her parasol wobbling on the floor. “Oh, she’s dead–never mind.”

“That’s what it was,” Vornis said, gathered with Mean and the others near the far bleachers. “Every few minutes. Every few minutes I felt people disappear.”

“This is awful,” Mean said. “Let’s go back. Let’s go back and beat the crap out of this guy.”

“What are you guys talking about!?” Tenny shouted. “How can you all be so calm!? He’s killing everyone–I just saw Jelk disappear! Conneld was right there–he was fine–but now there’s just clothes–”

“Tenny, please,” Trisk said, grasping his bare shoulder with her fingers. “We came here to stop this.”

“You came–you what?” Tenny stammered. “You knew this would happen? You knew!?”

Donzel dashed over to King. “The hex doors aren’t working!” he cried. “You need to send me back home! I have a sword that can get through his armor!”

“Are you talking about this?” Pinada asked. He held the left side of his coat away from his body; hanging at his hip was a long, thin scabbard. “‘The sword that slides through patterns,'” Pinada recited, dropping his coat back into place. “I saw it in your case earlier. You know, I think I’m the type to claim trophies from my victims.” He dropped his voice to whisper that echoed through his cube. “That’s where I just was, King, since you were so curious.”

“You stole it?” Donzel shouted, beating on Pinada’s case with his fist. “That sword belongs to my family!”

Pinada laughed. “I didn’t steal anything! I walked right in and asked for it. They handed it over. I wonder why they did that.”

“People trust you;” Donzel said, beating against the case again, “you’re supposed to protect them!”

“I never asked to be trusted,” Pinada said, touching his glass plate where Donzel pressed his fist. The glass oozed around Donzel’s hand, encasing it.

“He’s got Donzel,” Tenny said, pleading with Trisk and the others. “Are you just going to let Pinada kill him!?”

Vornis began to step forward; Tome pulled him back by the shirt.

“Don’t!” he called out, “We can’t draw his attention! If we’re caught now, it will all be for nothing!”

“We already have his attention,” Vornis growled. “Did you forget? He’s the one that sent us back in the first place. We’ve all been conned and I’m not going to just sit here and wait while my friends are all killed.”

Tome looked up into the beast’s face with his yellow eyes. “I’ll hold you back–you know I can.”

“I don’t think you will,” Vornis said. “Tenny, you with me?”

Tenny nodded, glaring at the others. “Distract him while I break through his glass.”

“Right,” the beast answered, and he bolted forward with Tenny racing behind him. Pinada frowned, watching them approach.

“Oh no. Help,” he droned in fake alarm. “I wasn’t expecting you to attack. Please demonstrate your abilities in a week-long tournament so I can get ready.”

He knelt to the foot of his case and the entire thing lifted straight up from the roof. Donzel screamed as he was carried along, hanging from his arm, still caught in the glass. Vornis bent his knees to prepare for a leap; his feet sank into the roof, stuck. Tenny tried to backpedal away; the floor beneath him swallowed his legs up to the knees.

“I was a bit startled when you penetrated my glass case the other day, Tenny,” Pinada shouted down. Donzel writhed beside him, his feet dangling while he struggled to pull himself up. “And I know why you keep coming back to this tournament: you want to make sure that no one else is killed like your friend was. That must have been horrible to watch. Well, let’s see what you think about this.”

He touched the spot on his case where Donzel’s hand was caught. The glass unwrapped from around his fist. Donzel fell backwards, and Vornis and Tenny both reached out. Donzel bounced against the floor beyond their reach. There was a crack and his body was still.

Tenny screamed. He cupped his hand and swiped at the floor near his encased shin. A piece of the roof was carved out; he rose his arm to strike again and another rippling boom resounded.

Vornis shielded his face as Tenny vanished, his sweater flung up in a whirl. It landed on Donzel’s body and a well of shrieks rose up across the roof again.

Pinada looked down past his feet at those panicking. The jeweled rory’s shell plummeted from the sky, empty, shattering against the roof with a crash.

“Three waves left,” he announced.

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