Chapters 3 – 5

3 – King’s Fair

 

With a hiss, the glass casing slid up. The empty clock face awaited the others.

“Uh, after you, Dark?” Darrow suggested. “I do have to operate the controls, after all.”

“AUTOMATED PROGRAM ACTIVE;” the voice hummed, “AWAITING NEXT PAIR ON PLATFORM.”

Darrow sighed, walking over to where the glass case hung. Trisk remained at the console, and Mean tapped at a small device threaded into her shoulder-length hair.

“Just going to leave a message for Dad,” she said. “Didn’t know we were going to be gone a whole week.”

“Right,” Darrow said. “Maybe I should–ah–”

Dark came up behind him and set his glove on his shoulder. “Listen, Darrow,” he said, “I think everything’s going to be alright.” He turned back, checking to see Mean talk to the empty cave while Trisk lingered by the monitors.

“But what if I messed up?” Darrow asked. “What if I pressed the wrong button?”

“If we had any doubts we would have said something,” Dark said. Trisk came jogging over, and Darrow turned to her.

“Trisk, maybe we should check our pictures again,” he said. She took hold of his flowery shirt and dragged him towards the clock. She placed one shoe on the face and let go of him.

“We all trust you. I trust you,” she said. “Now come on.”

She stepped onto the platform and turned to face him; she pointed down at the spot beside her. Darrow marched up, and as soon as he did the glass lowered again, sealing them off. Mean came up, watching with Dark as the wailing sounded again, as the cave blacked out, and as the lighting returned. With Darrow and Trisk gone, the glass hissed open for them now.

“Well, let’s not keep them waiting,” Dark said. He stepped up and held out his hand. Mean took it, and hopped up onto the clock face.

“Wouldn’t we all appear at the same time, though?” she asked.

“I suppose so,” Dark laughed. “You’re pretty good at this time travel stuff.”

Mean smiled as they stood together on the clock. The console buzzed at them:

“AWAITING NEXT PAIR ON PLATFORM.”

Dark folded his arms, looking up at the floodlights. The overpowering light glinted on his helmet. “But we’re both here,” he said. Mean clicked her tongue.

“No, it must need to sense you,” she said. “Here–I’ll turn around, and you can just, you know. Open it up.”

Dark chuckled as she stood back-to-back with him. “You make it sound so indecent.” He put his hands to his face. A glowing crack appeared on the smooth curve of his helm, spreading from his forehead and down to his chin.

“Well, I told Dad that I was spending the week with you,” Mean said. Dark’s voice came out, muffled, from inside the armor.

“Mean! He’ll freak out over that more than the truth!” The glass cage slipped down now, and Mean felt her ears pop. The inside of the casing was silent; though the lights outside flickered as dust fell from the ceiling.

“Nah, I don’t think he will,” Mean replied. “He thought you were a little strange at first, but I think he’s over it now. He’s just glad I’m–well, around somebody.”

She fell silent, staring into blackness. She jumped as a loud pop broke the silence and a rush of wind tossed her skirt; daylight flashed at all sides and revealed a forest of fir trees in the distance. The two stood inside a wooden gazebo, and the planks were all painted green. A paved path lead from it, joining with others; winding past a triangular kiosk toward a group of small buildings.

“It worked–we made it!” Dark cried, taking his hands from his helmet. The crack sealed itself up as he turned to her.

“Everyone else, too!” Mean said, spinning him sideways to see two other hex door gazebos nearby: one containing Vornis and Tome, with Darrow and Trisk running out of the other.

“I hear noises!” Mean said, leaping to the back rail of the gazebo where the trees stood beyond it. “Chirping, clicking–those are animals, bugs!”

“Guys!” Darrow shouted, tearing over grass. “I think it might have worked!”

“Yes! It did!” Mean cried, hugging him as he arrived. “You did it!”

Vornis and Tome came from their gazebo next, both staring with wide eyes at the scenery.

“We’re in Brinkland,” Tome stated. “It’s near where I grew up! I never thought–” he covered his mouth with his hand, and his eyes teared up as he watched the trees sway in the sun. “I didn’t think I’d ever hear those silly crickets again–but there they are! It’s like I never left. It’s like it never happened.” He wiped at his yellow eyes, smiling.

“Oh man,” Darrow said. “That’s right, you were around back then. It must be weird for you.”

Vornis grumbled. “Hey, I was around too, you know.”

Darrow waved him off. “Well you probably just ate the crickets or something.”

“I did not eat crickets,” Vornis said. “Where do you get these outrageous ideas?”

“Guys, look over there,” Trisk said. She nodded at the buildings. The group turned to see a woman: dressed in a suit and walking out of a revolving door. She took the path that lead toward the gazebos.

“A person!” Mean squealed in a hushed tone. “We really did it–a person! Alive!”

The woman looked over at the group–squinted at the man in dark armor and the bladed monster–and hurried off towards the hex door that was furthest away. She took an object out of her purse as she reached the gazebo. She vanished.

“Well, that was thrilling,” Trisk sighed. “I’ll be going off on my own now. When do you want to meet back up?”

Tome tugged at the wool collar on his coat. “No–we need to stay together,” he said. Trisk leaned against a gazebo post.

“And do what? Listen to crickets?”

Tome paced. “I think Pinada was telling us something with the letters he carved into his glass.”

“We don’t need letters,” Vornis growled. “Mean told us that Parlay saw how it happened. We need to find Parlay.”

“Won’t that be a bit awkward?” Tome asked. Vornis smiled with white teeth.

“More than you think. And at this point in time, Parlay is with that idiot King. I’m guessing that’s what the ‘K’ stood for. I can think of a few things the ‘F’ can stand for, too.”

“King’s Fair,” Tome said. “I heard of it as a spirit. People were thinking about it just before the end happened.”

“A fair!” Mean cried. “Trisk, you’ve got to admit that sounds fun!”

“It’s just a reason to show off his hex doors and company products,” Vornis groused. “And show off Parlay, no doubt.”

“Aren’t there magic tournaments as well?” Tome asked. Mean caught Trisk’s eye with a curt nod.

“Alright, let’s check it out,” Trisk said, pushing off from the post and moving to the center of the gazebo. Mean and the rest followed, all standing within the wooden frame.

“The fair is held at King’s Imperial Pyramid,” Vornis began. “There should be crowds of people in ridiculous costumes; Dark, Darrow, and I will fit right in.”

“Hey now,” Darrow said. Mean chuckled.

“Dad told me about that place,” she said, clearing her throat. “Hex door, take us to the Imperial Pyramid!”

There was a pause, and a monotone voice announced:

“TOLL CALCULATED: FIFTY AURONS PER OCCUPANT.”

Mean and Darrow stood stunned as Vornis burst out laughing.

“That’s right! King’s toll!” he said, slapping his jeans. “The hex doors in our time are busted–I can’t believe I forgot!”

“Money?” Mean uttered. “We need money just to use the hex door?”

Tome’s entire face drooped. “I didn’t even think of that. We’ll need money for everything, and we could have just taken all we needed before we came. Now we’re stuck.”

Vornis intertwined his clawed hands and cracked his bony knuckles. “Pff, we don’t need money; I never used the stuff anyway. Let ol’ Vornis show you how it’s done.”

“Are we going to mug someone?” Trisk asked.

Vornis smiled. “I could empty a whole bank–but no. You see that kiosk by the path over there? It collects money, but it also has a kind of tech support system: You can call up someone on that monitor and they’ll help you if you have a problem with the door. Back in the day, I would always pretend that I was stranded with no cash–they’d usually let me through for free.”

“‘Back in the day’ you looked normal,” Dark said. “How are you going to pull that off now?”

The beast gave Dark a once-over. “That helmet covers your face; just go stand in front of the screen and I’ll do the talking from behind.”

The group exited the gazebo and walked over to the kiosk: it was a tall, triangular pillar with a monitor on one side. “Hex Door Help” was written beneath a ‘K’ insignia. Dark stood in front of the monitor, and Vornis guided Trisk and Mean to his sides.

“If we get a guy, just try to look sexy,” he said, hiding behind the pillar. “Dark, not you. Just gesture with your hands as I talk. Now push the help button.”

Trisk frowned and Dark faced forward, rocking his head on his shoulders. He pushed the button labeled “HELP.” A short jingle played, and a woman wearing a crown-shaped pin on her blouse appeared on the monitor.

“Welcome to King Technologies tech support–how may I help you?” she asked.

“Yeah, uh, I was on my way to King’s Fair, but I kinda have a problem,” Vornis said. Dark clasped his hands. “You see, we were picking up some costumes in Brinkland, but, well, I put on my costume over my wallet. Now me and my five friends are stuck here.”

“Can’t you just take the armor off?” the woman asked.

“Oh, well, it’s not me: Vornis has all the cash inside his costume,” Vornis said, and Dark made an attempt to pantomime with his hands. “Hey man, can you come over here and show her?”

Vornis lumbered into view, freezing his face still in a sneer. He locked his eyes forward as he faced the monitor. The woman recoiled.

“Oh, wow, that’s quite an elaborate one–okay, I’ll just let you guys through. How many are there? Six for the Imperial Pyramid fairgrounds?”

“Yes, that’s it. Thank you so much!” Mean said.

“Oh–wait!” Trisk added. “I think I can reach your wallet, Vornis, hold on.” She took her long fingers and dug them in between the scales on Vornis’ back; he let out a small yelp, doing his best to keep his countenance still.

“No, go on; don’t worry about it,” the tech woman told them. “Have fun at the fair!”

Dark saluted her as the monitor went blank. Vornis let out a breath, gasping.

Try to look sexy?” Trisk hummed, releasing him and walking off toward the hex door.

“Alright, sorry,” the beast replied. “I got us through, didn’t I?”

“Clever thinking,” Tome said as they gathered back under the gazebo’s roof.

“Sticking it to King’s system is what I loved to do,” Vornis said. “Let’s see this ‘fair’ of his.”

And as he pulled his left spike into the boundary, the fir forest vanished: the clamor of hundreds of voices came at them from all sides. People were climbing out of other marked hexagons and following the many signs that stood in front of them: leading to forked roads which were all lined with booths, vendors, and shops. Tree-covered hills rose in the distance, along with a shining building that dwarfed them all. The structure, a pyramid, had one point facing the ground; the angled sides spread up from the bottom, holding up a massive, square base to the sky. The sun flashed over rows of slanted windows and ornate carvings that decorated the surface, glinting across as the entire building rotated on an unseen axis. Long cars sped along suspended tracks that wove through the air around the pyramid, spiraling, looping, and heading off to the hills. The clouds in the sky spelled out the words: KING’S FAIR.

“Holy crap,” Vornis said.

They moved out of the hex door, and several waiting people stepped into the border as they left. Other groups moved in and out of the hub; no less than twelve sets of large hex doors were set up nearby.

“It’s upside down! It’s floating!” Mean stated. “Dad didn’t tell me it looked like that!”

“It didn’t,” Tome said. “King must have changed it. I can’t believe so much happened after I left my body!”

“Mommy, a monster,” a little girl said. She ran up to Vornis and hugged his knee.

A teenager wearing a wooden chest plate walked up to Dark. “Hey, nice one,” he told him. “What guy are you?”

“Oh, thanks,” Dark said. “I’m, uh, Darklord.”

“Sweet,” said the boy, walking off. Mean grabbed Dark’s arm, tugging it.

“I smell food!” she said. “I don’t know what it is, but it really smells like something I want!”

“Oh, it does?” Dark laughed. “Are you just going to steal it?”

“Steal?” Mean asked. She hung her head. “Right. No money. Crap.”

“Hey guys, this thing says King and Parlay are here!” Darrow shouted. He was standing in front of one of the information boards, looking over times, events, and descriptions. “He’s at some thing where you meet some guys for a game.”

“It says it started at three-thirty,” Tome said, glancing over. “We’ll have to hurry.”

Vornis hobbled away from the group of children that had gathered around him, following Mean, Trisk, Tome, Darrow, and Dark as they headed down one of the streets. Mean sniffed at the air, staring at every food vendor they passed, and the stream of people around them swerved around Vornis’ long blades. After passing beneath a wooden tower fitted with water slides, the group reached a wide path that lead down to a curved amphitheater and stage. Everyone stopped at a banner that depicted a row of people from the waist up. Colorful explosions were printed on the cloth, along with the words “MEET THE ‘TWO LIVES TO PLAY’ FINALISTS!”

“Trisk, look at those guys,” Mean said, pointing at two men on the banner. One had short hair and a focused expression. He wore a sweater like Trisk’s, and the loose neck hung off one shoulder. The other man wore a wide, domed hat and a vicious sneer.

“That first guy is Tenny, isn’t it?” Mean asked. “And the other is from that painting in his tower.” Trisk studied the portraits a moment. She descended the stairs in wide bounds toward the stage at the bottom.

“I’ll just stay up here,” Vornis said as Mean and Darrow followed Trisk. Tome hung back with Dark, peering over the tops of heads as sparse groups of people meandered in the stands.

“So who do you recognize, Tome?” Dark asked. A long table had been set up on the stage, and there were nine people seated to face the audience. Others awaited in a roped-off line, and a woman in the front was being ushered up to the stage. She trotted around the front of the table, stopping at where a teenager with a long tuft of hair at his chin sat.

“The one in the middle is King,” Tome said, nodding at the hairy man in the largest chair. “I have no idea who the others are; I don’t even see Parlay or Pinada. Oh, wait–what is Trisk doing!?”

Down below, Trisk was dashing past the line of waiting people, right up to the edge of the stage. She looked at a young man at the end of the table: the short-haired guy from the poster that wore the lop-sided sweater. Mean caught up, panting.

“Trisk, is that him? Is that Tenny?” she asked. Trisk nodded, staring up at him as he signed a cloth T-shirt laid on the table. A woman took it, thanking him. She glared at the man with the domed hat as she walked off the stage.

“Wow, wanna meet him? The line’s not that long,” Mean offered, looking back. Trisk ignored her.

“I have a better idea,” Trisk said, planting her elbows on the side of the stage. King was speaking with a woman seated at his left, and Trisk called up to them. “Hey! You’re in charge of all this, right?”

King was brought out of the conversation with a chortle. He rose an eyebrow, peered over at Trisk, and grabbed a microphone from the tabletop.

“Yes, I’m in charge of this,'” he stated with a smile. His words boomed throughout the amphitheater as he pointed upwards at his name in the clouds. “Did I not make the sign big enough?”

There were several chuckles from the gathered crowds. Trisk went on.

“What kind of game is this?” she asked. “Is it a tournament?”

King smoothed his compact, velvet clothes as he stood. “It is a great tournament!” he thundered. “From every nation–from every walk of life the challengers come!”

“Aw, you got him started again,” the teen with the long tuft of chin hair groaned.

“My nation isn’t being represented,” Trisk told them. “I want to be in the tournament too.”

“Trisk–” Mean uttered, tugging on the girl’s sweater, “I think maybe we shouldn’t–”

“And what nation is that?” King boomed again. “All the world was invited; if your nation isn’t here then it’s no fault of mine.”

“I’m from Jesice,” Trisk said. “I want to join the tournament.”

King held back a laugh with a snort, and he had to hold his crown to keep if from tipping off his head. “Come up here; come up here,” he said to Trisk. Mean clamped on to Trisk’s arm.

“What are you doing!?” she whispered. Trisk wriggled free, climbing up on the stage and walking in front of King’s spot at the table. She brushed her long hair back and he pushed the microphone to her.

“Where were you from again?” he asked.

“I’m from Jesice,” Trisk repeated, and her words echoed, amplified through the mic. Tome and Dark hurried down the steps as people around them turned their attention to the stage.

“Tell me, how do I find this nation?” King said, taking the microphone from the woman next to him. “I thought I had spread hex doors everywhere–it seems I have missed a spot!”

“It seems you have,” Trisk told him. “It’s on another planet.”

Laughed erupted in the amphitheater. Dark and Tome ran up to Mean as she buried her face in her hands.

“What is she doing!?” Tome expressed. “Everyone’s watching her!”

“Another planet!” King chuckled. He pointed at a faint, round world in the sky. “Do you mean the Eye? So nice of you to visit us! Everyone–everyone! They’ve finally made it over! This is the most historic fair yet!” He rolled his eyes and collapsed back into the chair. Several whistles and mocking cheers rang out from the crowd.

Trisk glared back as they laughed at her, and she held the microphone up to her lips.

“It’s the truth,” she said. “We had to come here, since you guys couldn’t make it up to our world. Hex doors? Please. Us Jesians crossed all of that vast space without them–and what do we find? You’re scrawling your names in the clouds like children. We should have stayed home if that’s the best you have on this planet, King.”

“Ooh, burn!” the guy with the long goatee said, slamming his fist on the table and pointing at King, whose smile faded. Others in the crowd chuckled amongst themselves, eyeing the words in the sky. King’s cheeks blustered through his beard. He regained his composure and grinned.

“So you’re aliens? How would you like to prove it?” he asked, beckoning Trisk over. “Surely your physiology would be different than ours.” He looked over at Trisk and then down at the reddened faces of Mean, Darrow, and Tome. “My friend Parlay can check that sort of thing, you know.”

Trisk hummed, placing her hands on the table. She stared King in the face. “Fine,” she said. “Go get him.”

At once a cold tingle shot up through her arm. Trisk leapt back from the table; the woman next to King had touched her hand.

“What was that!?” Trisk demanded. The woman shrunk back in her chair: her wide eyes were yellow and her hair fell in blond, feathered layers to her shoulders.

“You just said I could check, didn’t you?” the woman asked. “I’m Parlay.”

 

4 – Parlay!?

 

“You’re Parlay!?” Trisk uttered. She kneaded her hand where the blond woman had touched her.

“Of course it is!” King bellowed. “Don’t tell me you’re going to back down; you gave her permission!”

“No, no, it’s okay,” Parlay said. Her vest hung loose over a tight shirt with a lace collar. She fingered the hem, looking down at it. “If she doesn’t want to it’s fine.”

Trisk looked back at Mean, who was staring with an open mouth along with Darrow and Tome. Trist turned back to the table, rolling up her sweater sleeve. “I was just surprised,” she told Parlay. “Please, you can check all you want.”

Parlay held out both of her tiny hands, and Trisk nodded, offering her arm. The two held still as Trisk felt a tingling sensation spreading from Parlay’s fingers. She swallowed as it worked through her arm, spreading out into her chest. Parlay’s eyes flew open and she gasped.

“The heart is near your shoulder,” she stated. “It’s small–wait. There’s another one!”

King reeled in his seat. “Another what? Heart? She has two?”

“And no stomach, either,” Parlay announced. “It’s like some kind of–extended intestinal tract.”

Trisk gave a nervous smile as the others at the table leaned and stared at her body. She glanced over at Tenny, who averted his eyes away from hers. The teen with the tuft of hair under his lip rose his eyebrows.

“Hey, where are those hearts?” he asked, flexing his fingers. “Can I feel one?”

“Jelk, stop being vulgar!” King shouted. Jelk swished his hand through the air at him and leaned back in his chair.

“The hearts are near the base of each limb,” Trisk explained. “Us Jesians have four. They pump blood through their own quadrants. Tenny–come on over here.”

“Me?” Tenny asked. Parlay got up from her seat, letting him through as she let go of Trisk’s arm. “How do you know my name? Who are you? Why are you wearing one of my gang’s sweaters?”

“I’m Trisk–I’ve been a fan of yours for a while,” she said, taking his hand and guiding it her stomach: just below the shortened hem of her sweater. He felt for a moment while the crowd watched.

“There really is a heartbeat there,” Tenny announced. He drew his hand back, studying her face. An outburst in the crowd caught his attention next, along with the large shape of a clawed beast strutting toward the stage.

“Let’s make this a bit easier,” Vornis said, trudging through the masses with heavy footsteps. “If it’s ‘physiological differences’ you want”––he bent his knees and leapt to the stage––”then here they are.”

“Good lord,” King gasped, bumping into his high-backed chair as Vornis landed with a thud. The large, hanging scales at the beast’s waist and chest clattered. Parlay staggered sideways.

“Geez, this is all for real, isn’t it!?” Jelk said. The crowd’s murmurs grew as they took out imagers and began recording. A steady flow of excited people had begun to flow into the amphitheater now, and King snapped out of his shock, running around the long table.

“Now, everyone, I hate to cut this fascinating visit short,” he announced into his mic, “but there are many preparations that need to be made if––Trisk, was it?––if Trisk is going to join our other champions for the big game tomorrow!” He hustled up in his colorful, velvet clothes, standing next to Trisk and Vornis. “Everyone who is with you, come with me: I’ll take you all up to the pyramid together.”

“We’re with her!” Mean said, crawling up on the stage. She pulled Dark by the arm, helping him up as Darrow and Tome followed.

“Good, good!” King said, shaping a hexagon in the air above with his hands. He set each angle with chop from his hairy arm, and took a great deal of care spreading the lines to a width that could accommodate the party.

“Wait––I’m coming too!” Parlay said, stepping up on her chair and walking over the tabletop. She hopped down next to Mean, standing at about the same height.

“I will see you all at the games tomorrow!” King called to the crowd. “Perhaps, by then, I’ll convince the others from ‘Jesice’ to join up as well!”

The array flashed and the bright sky vanished; they were now in a plush room with soft lighting. A hall with slanted windows extended out from the door.

“Sorry for the quick exit,” King said, standing away from the group and looking Vornis over, “but news travels fast, thanks to my hex doors. That place would have been overrun if you guys had stayed there much longer. Now, what are all of your names?”

“I’m Darrow!” Darrow said, extending his hand. King shook it, as did Parlay.

“Dark,” Dark said, and King clasped his gauntlet, attempting to peer through the black, reflective helmet.

“I’m Mean,” Mean said, and Parlay smiled at her.

“Good to meet you,” the blond-haired woman replied. Her grin was large and her yellow eyes were bright. She kept her gaze away from Vornis. Tome stepped forward.

“And my name is Tome,” he said, bowing. King and Parlay looked at each other, then returned the bow.

“And I usually go by ‘the Big Beast of the Ley Ledge,'” Vornis said, “But just ‘the Beast’ will do.”

“It will do, it will do!” King laughed, and Parlay grit her teeth with a weak chuckle. “Now tell me: what’s the story? Why did you guys pick this particular time and place to, ah, reveal yourselves?”

“It’s my fault,” Trisk said. “My friends wanted to travel incognito, but I wanted the chance to meet Tenny.”

“Spur of the moment thing?” King hummed. “Well, let me show you to your room–all competitors are staying here in my private suites.” He bounced out of the room, motioning for everyone to follow him down the hall. The fairgrounds could be viewed through the slanted windows: a bright jumble of tents, booths, towers, and roads packed with visitors. Mean looked through the glass as they strolled along, watching the roller coasters glide along the twisting tracks below: dipping and rising along with the shouts of those riding them. King stopped at sealed double doors bearing a “K” insignia. The sign was formed with overlapping triangles.

“Construct guest room type 5 and six keys,” he stated, and a loud hum answered him from the other side of the door. After a great deal of muffled clanking, a tiny slot opened on the wall. Inside, six bronze hexagons dangled on hooks.

“Each of you take a key,” King said. “They can open the door to the room, and you’ll need to be carrying them if you want to take a hex door to this floor of the pyramid. Yes, just touch the room door anywhere with the key; it doesn’t matter.”

Darrow took one of the hexagons and rapped the doors with it; they slid apart and everyone entered the fresh-smelling room.

“Wow, it’s so clean!” Mean said, rushing onto the thick carpet.

“It was just made!” King laughed from the door. Vornis entered last, and one of his blades nicked the textured wall.

“Oh, how careless of me,” he said. He plopped down on a lavish couch, grinding his large scales into the fine material as he rested his clawed feet on a plump ottoman.

“It’s fine;” King assured, “I just construct a new room after every guest anyway. Much easier than cleaning.”

Vornis grumbled as Mean skipped into one of the five adjoining bedrooms. “Look at this place!” she said, running her fingers over silk cushions and sheets. “A walk-in closet, too!”

“We’re so lucky, aren’t we, Mean?” Dark chuckled. “plenty of space to hang up the one dress you brought and the suit of armor that I never take off!”

Darrow cracked up, laying down sideways in a fluffy beanbag. Parlay met Mean as she walked out of the bedroom, smirking.

“You really don’t have any clothes? It looks like we’re about the same size; I can let you borrow some of mine,” she offered.

Mean stared back, blinking. “Uh, alright. Thanks?”

“We’ll go get things prepared,” King said, backing out the door. “I’ll check in on you all in a little bit.” Parlay nodded, smiling with her huge grin, and she left with him down the hall. The doors slid closed, and the six remaining gathered in the central living room. Darrow sat up in his beanbag.

“Okay, what is going on!?” he demanded. “Parlay is a girl!? Did anyone else see that!?”

“Yes, Darrow,” Trisk said. “I was the one getting probed by her, after all.”

Vornis sighed. “Now you know why I couldn’t deal with that male version you saw–this is the Parlay that I knew.”

“So it’s the same one?” Tome asked, pocketing his key. “This past Parlay is the same one that gave me this body?”

“Yeah, I could sense that they were the same person,” Vornis said. “I just don’t know what happened physically. After the end came, I guess she just couldn’t deal with seeing everyone die. Sure, she survived–but she was left on her own. Maybe turning into a strong, arrogant male was the only way she knew how to cope?”

Trisk put her hands on her hips. “What does being male have to do with being strong?” she asked.

Darrow coughed. “And you certainly don’t need to be male to be arrogant.” Trisk clomped her foot down on him and his beanbag chair, squashing him further into it.

“Hey, I’m not saying I know why it happened,” Vornis said. “I don’t like talking about friends behind their backs; I just thought I’d share what I knew.”

Dark slipped his key into a fold in the black cape. “Wait–Vornis, isn’t this after Parlay turned you into that beast form? Didn’t she recognize you?”

Vornis shuffled on the couch. “Oh, yeah, she definitely did. Don’t worry, though–she doesn’t want to advertise any relation to me; she’s still trying to suck up to King. Ugh–did you hear him? ‘I’ll just throw the room away when I’m done!’ Pompous blowhard.”

“He may be pompous, but his fair is the best lead we’ve got,” Tome stated. “I was–ahem–a bit worried when I saw Trisk go up on stage, but it seems that things are working out in our favor. For the time-being, I suppose.”

After a moment, four loud knocks sounded at the double doors.

“What, is he back already?” Mean asked, walking over to the doors and touching her key against them. A woman stepped inside as soon as they opened.

“Are you Trisk?” she asked, her ponytail swinging as she faced Mean.

“No, she’s in in here, with the sweater,” Mean replied. The woman swished around her, swinging a folded parasol up to her shoulder as she reached the center room.

“I’m Gamemaster Kello,” she said, tipping the brim of her cap. “I understand you want to be entered into the Two Lives to Play tournament?”

“If that’s the name of the game that Tenny is in, then yes,” Trisk answered.

“You don’t even know what it’s called?” Kello chuckled. “So I’m going to assume you will need a copy of the rulebook, then?”

She tapped a button on the parasol’s handle, and a thick pamphlet and pen appeared in her other hand. Trisk took the papers, sitting down with them in a chair.

“Now, the tournament is single-elimination,” Kello informed them, “and the brackets have all been decided. As per the rules, all latecomers must wait until the first rounds are completed: only then can they enter the tournament, where they will face one of the losers from the first round.

“How is that fair?” Mean asked, walking up next to Dark. “Trisk has to play against more people than anyone else!”

Kello bounced her parasol on her shoulder. “I don’t make the rules. She can decline if she wants.”

“I don’t care about that; I’ll do it,” Trisk said, signing her name.

“Good,” Kello chirped, taking the page with Trisk’s signature. “Now, this leaves me with three more latecomer slots open, and King asked me to ‘convince’ the rest of you to join up. Normally, I’d try to find people that have actually heard of the event, but since the game starts tomorrow–I’d be glad if you did.”

“Sure, sign me up,” Vornis said. Kello gasped as he spoke, took a step back, looked him over, then pressed a button to make another rulebook appear. “How about you, Darrow? You in?”

“Maybe,” Darrow said. “Is it like a card game or something?”

“Combat,” Kello stated. “You enter with your own magical energy and up to five branches’ worth of devices. A throne will be set up in the ring; your objective is to remain seated on it until a ten-count finished.”

Darrow sat up in his beanbag chair. “Wait, so this is dangerous, then? Trisk–”

“Oh, come on, Darrow,” Trisk said. “You’re the king of sitting around well past the count of ten.”

Kello chuckled again, clicking out two more stacks of papers and setting them on a small coffee table.

“Oh, I’ll do it,” Mean said, grabbing one. “It sounds easy.”

“It is not easy,” Kello scoffed, watching Mean take a pen to scribble her name down. “It is an exercise in creativity and guile. And at least read the disclaimers before you sign.”

“We shouldn’t even be playing in this game at all,” Tome objected. “We have–we have much more important things to be worrying about.” Dark picked up the last pamphlet, taking it over to Tome.

“Look at this,” he said, pointing to a group of names near the top. Kello was listed as ‘Gamemaster.’ Below that was: ‘Guest Referee – The Hero Pinada.’

“This seems like the place to be,” Dark informed him. Tome swept a palm over the scruff on his cheek.

“Alright–but I’m not participating,” he said.

Dark nodded, thumbing through the documents. “Then I guess that just leaves me.”

“Aw, for real? Yeah!” Mean cheered.

“If this were being held in my home nation,” Kello began, “we wouldn’t need to rely on celebrities like Pinada to draw in crowds. But if it gets more people interested in the game, I suppose it’s for the best.”

Darrow wriggled to the side, watching Dark as he picked up the pen. “Tome, what’s he writing? His real name?”

“The rules state that I may use an alias and costume,” Dark said. “As long as I follow certain procedures.”

“You actually read it–impressive,” Kello stated. She took the pile of signatures, rolled them up, and stuffed them into her back jeans pocket. “Okay, the game starts on the roof at noon. While you won’t be playing quite yet, I recommend you show up to see how it works”––she glared at Mean––”unless you just want me to mark you up for a loss right now.”

“Thank you, and yes, we’ll check it out,” Dark said. Kello smiled at him as she walked out, swinging the folded parasol as she went. Mean held her breath until the doors closed.

“Little Miss Rules,” she said with a mocking, drawn-out sigh. “She’d be a perfect match for Mackaba.”

“She thinks we’re chumps,” Trisk chimed in. “She’s going to be in for a shock. I can’t wait.”

“Well you guys are going to have to look through all these rules,” Darrow said, flipping through the stack of pages. He stopped on a photo of a square ring with a throne set in the center. Tiered seats were set up outside the ring, facing inward.

“Wait a second–Darrow, I’ve seen this,” Mean said, taking a packet from the table and flipping it to the same page. “When Parlay and I were in that cage near the hall: Hellzoo made it look like we were surrounded by people sitting in those stands!”

Tome stared at the picture. “She did? What happened?”

“They just stared at us,” Mean explained. “Then they started freaking out–running, shouting. A bunch of them vanished and their clothes went flying.”

“Was Hellzoo showing you something that really happened, though?” Darrow asked.

Mean nodded. “I think so. Parlay was really scared when he saw it. ‘I don’t want to see this again’ is what he said.”

Tome sighed. “Maybe I should have signed up for the game after all. If we want to see what happened–we’re going to need to stay in that tournament as long as we can.”

 

—–

 

In a different hall on a different floor, King watched the fair from a slanted window. There was a small pop at his side, and another man joined him.

“Hello, Conneld,” King greeted. “You’ve heard about my new guests?”

“Where are they?” the other man asked. He wore a garish uniform; ribbons and medals hung at his chest. His beard was trimmed and fashioned into small points.

King chuckled. “They’re here! Right here, where we can keep an eye on them. Isn’t that how you detectives work?” He turned, cocking his eyebrow at the man. “Something they said must have tipped you off; you wouldn’t have come here on Parlay’s word. Was it that place they mentioned? ‘Jesice.’ Do you guys know about it?”

The man tugged at his uniform. “Classified.”

“Aw, you’re no fun,” King grumbled. “And I even did part of your job for you: I checked the hex door they came to the fair in. They came from Brinkland.”

“And–?” Conneld asked.

“And nothing,” King finished. “They appeared at that Brinkland hex door at four-thirty. No point of origin could be traced. None of their faces show up in the records; they haven’t even been sighted by security imagers until they showed up today.”

“I can have them tracked while they’re here,” Conneld suggested. “Bug their room–set up imagers of my own–”

“No, I won’t allow it,” King said, cutting him off with a wave of his hand. “Every nation is watching this fair: anything suspicious will put my credibility into question. And besides–if our friends from Jesice can circumvent the hex doors, who knows what else they can do? They could have technology that puts ours to shame; they might be able to see past any deception. If they get angry and leave–”

“Who knows when we’d be able to find them again?” the uniformed man finished. “At least we know where they are if they’re here as your guests. Looks like you did the right thing.”

King chuckled, patting Conneld on the shoulder. “Right, right! And the games will give us the perfect opportunity to see what they can do. No covert trickery necessary!”

The man grinned behind his manicured beard. “I’ll leave the fair to you, then. Just remember: if they leave the grounds–they’re mine.”

 

5 – The Competition

 

Tome held a large tray of food in his arms, and grasped the hexagonal key to the room in his fingers. As the doors slid apart the morning sun blared in from the slanted windows, hitting Darrow on his beanbag and Trisk on the couch.

“Food’s here!” Tome announced. Darrow groaned, rubbing his eyes. Trisk lay asleep with her back facing outward and her hair covering her face. “For those of us that eat, anyway.”

“Pancakes!” Vornis cried, crossing the room in a bound and grabbing a stack. “How’d you manage it?”

“I know some tricks,” Tome said with a smile. He sat the tray down on the coffee table, spilling a little of the juice from the six cups.

“Why do you have to sneak around?” Darrow asked, his arms and feet scraping over the floor as he stretched. “Do they even know Jesians don’t eat?”

Tome took a bite of buttered toast. “Well,” he said, chewing, “When Parlay scanned Trisk she said she didn’t have a stomach. I just thought we should be safe.”

A soft slapping sounded across the polished wood floor; Mean was padding out of one of the bedrooms in her bare feet, wearing the same yellow sundress from yesterday. Her face lit up as she spotted the food.

“What are these?” she asked. “Oh–I don’t care! I haven’t eaten since we got here!”

As she began to drag a cushioned chair over to the table, a soft knock sounded at the door.

“Hide it,” Tome whispered, and Vornis reached for the tray.

“Oh, you’re kidding,” Mean growled, swiping a juice off before Vornis whisked the entire thing into the bathroom. Tome chuckled, answering the door. Parlay stood on the other side with a large, wheeled rack of clothes.

“Hi! Can I come in?” she asked. “Am I too early? Is this a bad time?”

Tome stepped aside. “Come right in. I see you were serious about loaning Mean some clothes.”

Parlay wheeled in the rack. Mean chugged her drink and set her cup down, breathless, as she caught sight of the colorful garments on display.

“Uh, hi,” Mean said, standing up. “Wow. You did keep your word, didn’t you?”

Parlay looked at her with wide, bright eyes. “Oh! If you don’t like it, that’s fine. It’s fine. I can take it back–”

Mean walked over. “No! No, I just wasn’t, uh, expecting so much!” She thumbed her way through some vests hanging loose on their hangers. Unsnapping some thin slacks from the rack, she held them near her waist. The hem fell to her ankle.

“It’s tough to find stuff in my size on Jesice,” Mean said. “The jeans usually drag past my foot.”

“Oh, that’s how it is here,” Parlay chimed in. “These are all tailored–I used to have to get everything in kid’s sizes.”

“It’s so humiliating, isn’t it?” Mean laughed. “Going clothes shopping in the little girl’s section. I had to sift through hearts and princesses and crap just to find a plain shirt.”

“Well just keep the whole thing,” Parlay said. Her smile wide over her entire face. “I want you to look good for the tournament today. Just don’t wear the same thing I have on.”

“Oh, right, you’re in it too, aren’t you?” Mean asked. Parlay nodded.

“Maybe we’ll end up in a match together!” she said. “Won’t that be fun?”

Mean managed a weak smile.

 

—–

 

The words “King’s Fair” were still written with clouds in the bright sky, and far beneath them crowds were popping in from the hex doors set up near the corners of the Imperial Pyramid’s square roof. Vendors were placed along diagonal rows that lead to a raised mat with four sides. A throne was placed in the center.

“Can we just sit anywhere?” Mean asked, walking past a vendor’s hot dog booth. The jeans and shirt she were wearing fit her, with lace adorning the cuffs. Dark trailed at her side, his cape flapping in the breeze.

“Yeah, I looked:” he said, “there’s no specified area for the combatants. All you have to do is be in the ring before the match starts.”

The two were at the ring’s edge now: a small incline of three steps lead up onto the platform at the corner. They walked along the side of the ring, checking out the large throne positioned in the center. Bleachers were erected at three sides, with people seated in them. On the fourth side an empty table sat, overlooked by a tower. Mean and Dark headed up into the stands. They sat in a wide, empty stretch in the middle.

“Geez, I hope they stop this spinning,” Mean said, looking off past the opposite side of spectators. The hills beyond slid in a slow scroll toward the right, and a small, shining object zipped above them. It glittered, approaching at a rapid, steady pace. Mean gasped as the object zoomed closer: it was a large, pointed snail shell crafted from stone. Inset jewels and filaments of gold sparkled on its curved, polished surface. King rode on top of it–seated in a plush saddle–steering the shell with a stirrup in each hand. He swooped over the three sections of bleachers as the people below gasped, spiraling around to the middle of the ring and hovering above the throne.

“Welcome!” he boomed to the audience below, and with a snap from the stirrups, his mount plummeted. A pink, slimy mass ballooned out from a hole in the glittering stone, cushioning the shell as it landed with a jiggle.

“Whoa! Did you see that!?” Mean cried, placing her hand on Dark’s armor. “Is it–?”

“Emperor rory,” Tome confirmed, walking by Mean and sitting past Dark. His coat was gone; all he had on were jeans and a T-shirt. On the stage, two eyes extended on stalks from the pink body of the rory. King leapt down, taking a microphone out of his velvet tunic.

“Before we get started, I’d like to show you all the updated roster,” King said, his voice booming. “If you were watching the news yesterday, you may be aware that we have some exciting changes!”

He gestured over to Trisk–who was picking her way through the stands–and applause broke out along with loud cheers. She gave tiny nods to the crowd as she sat next to Mean. Darrow followed her, waving both arms.

“But first: the original contestants,” King said, pointing at the small tower. A monitor lit up on its front, showing a clear image of the tournament bracket. “Gamemaster Kello, if you will?”

Gamemaster Kello stood beneath the monitor tower, her parasol open. The material was a translucent light-blue. She wore tiny shorts and a striped shirt; her legs were covered with thigh-high stockings. She clicked the button on the handle of her umbrella.

“We have ‘Caldera’ in the first slot,” she said, her voice carrying over the roof of the pyramid. The face of the man with the domed hat appeared on the far left of the bracket along with his name. Loud booing and moaning began almost at once.

“That’s him, isn’t it?” Mean whispered to Trisk. “The guy in that painting on the first floor of the tower.”

“An awful shame–” a voice from behind them expressed, “he killed his opponent several years back.” Trisk turned and the teen with the long tuft of hair under his lip smiled back. “Oh, hello! I believe we met yesterday–my name’s Jelk.”

Trisk swept her hair back, staring at him. “Who was it? Who did he kill?”

“A friend of Tenny’s. Big guy. What–don’t you know? It’s his shirt that Tenny always wears. Who’s your cute friend here?” He leaned forward and Mean sighed, staring up at the image as another portrait appeared beneath Caldera’s.

“You guys shouldn’t ignore me;” Jelk said, “I’ve been in this thing more than once. I can give you good info on everyone fighting–well, except for this guy right here.”

“Templetine will be Caldera’s first match,” Kello announced. Templtine, on screen, had sunken eyes and a receding hairline. Jelk pointed up at him.

“I don’t know who he is, but he’d better be good–Caldera won this tournament the same year he killed Tenny’s friend.”

Mean twisted around. “Wait–you can kill people and still win?”

“Oh yeah,” Jelk chuckled. “There ain’t no rule against that. We’re dealing with a game from her land, after all.” He tipped his head over at Kello, who was twirling her parasol. When the crowd’s indifferent murmurs died down she called out the next player.

“In bracket two we have Tenny,” she said, drawing cries from the crowd.

“Oh, listen to that!” Jelk squealed. “He and Caldera could go at it if they both win their fights!”

Trisk’s eyes followed several spectator’s pointing fingers: Tenny was standing next to a booth. A small group of people stood at his sides. They all wore sweaters with the same mandala design woven into the fabric, and they all watched the bracket with eager anticipation. A man next to Mean stood up and shouted at Tenny: “Caldera’s killing you next!”

A long, sharp blade grazed the man’s head; he sat down at once as he noticed Vornis’ grey skin and white teeth smiling at him.

“You need to watch where you stand,” the beast said, his scales jingling as he lumbered past. “I wouldn’t want anyone to get killed before the games even started.”

He twisted his blades to the side, and people backed up in their seats, giving him a wide space to walk through. He sat down behind Trisk and next to Jelk.

“Jeez, I hope you aren’t fighting,” Jelk said, scooting forward. “How come you look so much more different than the rest?”

“I drink more milk than they do,” Vornis said. Jelk laughed as Kello called the next name.

“Tenny’s opponent will be Donzel Veinsmith III.”

On another section of the stands a teenaged boy stood up to laughter and cheers: he wore an elegant white tabard and a crisp haircut bleached of all color. Mean shook Dark on the shoulder.

“Holy crap, I’ve”–she stopped, looking back–”I’ve heard of this guy!”

Donzel Veinsmith,” Jelk repeated, stroking his hair. “Yeah, I forgot that they let him in this year. His specialty is some sword-dueling game–he’s famous for winning it all the time. It wasn’t ‘challenging enough’ though, so he thought he’d try this game instead. He has no idea what he’s doing; he’s gonna get creamed.”

Kello continued: “And starting off the third bracket we have Parlay.”

A mixture of angry shouting and clapping broke out; Parlay was nowhere to be seen.

“You hear that?” Mean said to Dark. “I guess some people really don’t like her.”

“Oh, yeah, she’s always been controversial,” Jelk interjected again. “Her magic controls cells–just like Tenny’s boys’ can. She led a riot a while back. Some dead zone clinic. Lots of people hate her.”

Vornis rested his arms on the long blades at his sides. “So what do you think?” he growled. Jelk grinned.

“Oh, I think a little controversy is healthy!” he chuckled. “And she seems like a sweet girl. Too many people let taboo and superstition control their lives. I keep forgetting that you guys are new here. Wait ’till the games start and you’ll see.”

On the bracket display, a woman with dark eyeliner and red streaks in her hair appeared. “Parlay’s opponent will be Kay Kary.”

“Ah, rats!” Jelk cried. He lowered his head, shaking it.

“What is it?” Trisk asked. “Is she strong?”

Jelk looked at her. “No! It means that I know who my opponent will be now! And he’s boring! Gads–I’ll bet they set this up on purpose.”

“And starting off the final bracket is Jelk,” Kello said.

Jelk leapt up and hopped on top of his seat. Taking three balls from his jacket, he tossed them up and began juggling them. “Hey everybody!” he cried to the crowd. “Guess who’s going to win this year!”

“Sit down!” a woman demanded, while others laughed. “You’ve never beaten anybody.”

“That’s right!” Jelk answered, bouncing one of the balls on his forehead. “Jelk’s going to take home the grand prize!” He tossed one ball into the ring while he shuffled the other two in his hand. It ricocheted past King as he tried to catch it, and the ball exploded in a small cloud of confetti.

“Who are you going to be this year?” a boy from the crowd asked.

“How about you try to be someone that can last longer than twenty seconds!” another yelled.

“I’m not telling! Too bad! You’ll have to wait past all those boring matches to see!” Jelk answered them, exploding the other two confetti balls over his head. “You just want to save the best for last, huh, Kello?”

“And Jelk’s opponent will be Eon,” Kello finished, using her parasol to deflect the confetti fluttering down to her. On the monitor, an armored torso appeared at the bottom of the list. Two narrowed eyes glared out of the gap in his polished, wooden helmet.

“Now what’s so boring about him?” Dark asked. “He’s got armor. Armor’s interesting.”

“He’s just so serious,” Jelk said, plopping down. “Always going on about bleak doomsday prophecies. All the people in the Cult of Sing are like that.”

“The what!?” Tome shrieked. “The Cult of what–!?”

Trisk, Darrow, Vornis, and Dark all stared at Jelk. Mean twisted in her spot, her eyes wide. “You don’t mean–they don’t have anything to do with the Sing that–you know–”

“Yeah,” Jelk confirmed, raising his eyebrow at them. “The guy that dropped the comet on the planet. What–it’s not like anything they believe is true.”

“Anything they believe!?” Tome repeated, clutching at his shaggy, blond hair. “What is it that these people think!?”

“They think he’s still alive, for one thing,” Jelk chuckled. “And I’ve seen pictures of the body–no one could survive the beating he got.”

The people around them were turning their heads, and they began to applaud and whistle at what they saw. The stands rattled as everyone rose to their feet; Mean hopped up, standing on her tip-toes to see: Pinada had appeared near the edge of the pyramid.

He wore his black coat and the sun glistened on the glass cube around him. Four bronze spires decorated the top corners of the case. It slid towards the ring, and Pinada shook his head and motioned with his hand for those standing to sit.

“Speak of the devil,” Jelk said, clapping. Tome and the others applauded as well, and–after a moment of Pinada’s enthusiastic protesting–the crowd settled back into their seats.

“Our guest referee: The Hero Pinada!” King cried, lifting his arms. The clapping began once more, and the stands thundered with stomping for a good thirty seconds more.

“Alright, enough of that!” Pinada laughed, his hollow voice carrying over the racket. “We’re not even done with the roster; save your accolades for the participants!”

He gestured over to Kello, who made a curt bow to him.

“Quite right. There are four latecomers that must face each round’s loser. If the latecomer wins that match, they move up into the tournament. If the loser defeats the latecomers, they are granted a second chance against those that defeated them. The first of these latecomers is Trisk, who will be placed under Caldera and Templetine.”

Trisk was deaf to the cheers around her; she sought out Tenny with her eyes. He studied her from across the arena, and Kello continued on with her speech.

“The second latecomer is the Beast,” Kello went on, “who will be placed under Tenny and Donzel Veinsmith III.”

Vornis bounded up at this, his blades swiping inches away from several faces.

“You aren’t against me; oh, thank you, thank you!” Jelk professed, getting down on his knees and slapping his palms together. Vornis bounced on his heels, rattling his scales and flexing. Past the stands he spotted Parlay: she was slipping in behind Pinada. She smiled as he posed, and she nodded her head at him.

“The third latecomer is Me-anne, who will be placed under Parlay and Kay Kary.”

“Me-anne?” Mean said, gagging as her picture appeared. “Where did she get that? Me-anne?”

“Oh, that’s you?” Jelk asked. “That’s an exotic name.”

The audience applauded again and Mean looked sideways at Dark. He laughed with his hand over the spot where his mouth would be.

“How can she mispronounce it!?” she growled. “My name is from this planet! That little–”

“Oh, come on, Me-anne,” Dark said, still chuckling. “You may as well go with it; they don’t know you’re from this world.”

Mean tugged at the lace on her sleeve, frowned, and folded her arms.

“And the final latecomer is Dark Lord, who will be placed under Jelk and Eon,” Kello finished.

“Well I guess I’ll stand and wave,” Darklord said in a loud voice to Mean. “Even though she obviously said my name as two words instead of one–mangling my made-up alias forever!” He brushed at an invisible tear on his helmet.

“Shut up,” Mean said, smiling, shaking her head.

“Well!” King boomed. “With the entire roster announced, I guess we can–”

 

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