Chapters 6 – 8

6 – Initial Rounds

 

Caldera stood at one end of the ring. His wide, domed hat shaded his face from the sun. Templetine stood on the opposite side, with baggy clothes and a downward gaze.

The throne sat between them. The crowds in the stands quieted as Kello pushed the button on her blue parasol.

“Begin the match,” she announced.

Templetine’s clothes rustled as he jogged the distance to the chair. He threw himself at it, twisting to land in the seat.

Caldera chuckled, dipping his head and dashing to meet him. The audience booed Caldera as he wrestled Templetine’s scrawny body from the throne: taking hold of his baggy, buttoned-up shirt and heaving him sideways.

“You arrogant punk–running right for it,” Caldera said. Templetine fell on his side, and Caldera smiled beneath his domed rim.

“Hey now”–Temple wheezed–”isn’t this game supposed to be fun?” He shuffed backwards on his hands. The audience murmured as Caldera chuckled.

“You poor sap,” he said. “You don’t win this by playing for fun. But you don’t have a clue, right? Just a rich noble that bought his way in.”

A sharp cough sounded from the other side of the throne. Caldera paused. With a cautious glance he noticed another man in the ring. He was on his knees, and he wore a large sweater.

“Show me how it’s done, then,” Templetine asked, looking at the floor. “Show me how you win this.” He smiled as Caldera’s eyes drifted away from him. He gave a slow nod as he turned to the throne, taking the armrest and settling into to seat. The man in the sweater coughed again.

“I thought that would work,” he said, his head bobbing. “I think–I think you might have won this.”

“One,” Kello counted.

Templetine picked himself up, smoothing his baggy shirt with his hand. Caldera smirked down from the throne at the man in the sweater. “He’s stalling,” Templetine said, shuffling to the back of the chair. Kello continued with the count.

“This kid is a punk;” Caldera laughed. “I’ve beaten more capable.”

Templetine rested his head on the back of the chair. “But you need to be sure,” he whispered. “You can’t let one of his kind get noticed. Show me how it’s done. Show me how you win.”

“Five,” Kello said. Caldera sniffed.

“I do need to be sure,” he told the man on the floor. “You people shouldn’t even be allowed in this ring.” He touched the rim of his hat and it glowed blue along the curved edge. A halo appeared on the floor, encircling the throne.

“Hold on;” the man in the sweater pleaded, “I said you win! I give up!”

The surface of the ring began to bubble; the man on the ground yelped, falling on his side. Wisps of smoke swirled up from his clothes and a layer of steam met the halo that surrounded the throne. Templetine leaned in closer to Caldera, keeping inside the circle.

“Final round,” he whispered. Caldera pointed at the man, whose sweater had ignited. A boom and instantaneous flash consumed the man; a plume of flame shot skyward. Charred bits and ashes fell into a crater left in the ring.

“Caldera has won the Two Lives to Play tournament,” Kello announced.

“Where is he!? What did you do to him!?” Tenny demanded, racing down from the bleachers as the crowd booed and screamed. He faded before he reached the ring’s edge, and the ring’s mat turned to brown dirt and grass. The noise from the crowd yielded to silence; Caldera found himself sitting in a chair with the breeze blowing smoke away from a hole etched into the desolate landscape.

“What? Where am I?” Caldera asked. Templetine slinked away from him.

“You’d better hurry,” he said, pulling a coin from his pocket. “Our match is about to begin.”

Caldera looked at his hands and he touched the rim of his hat. The halo of light vanished from the ground, which was thick with dust and scorched grass.

“Two for the Imperial Pyramid summit, please,” Templetine asked, walking to six pillars at the edge of a paved area. A wooden sign read “WELCOME! LITTLE TRAIL CAMPGROUNDS.” He stepped between the markers and the sun above shifted position. The pyramid roof stretched out ahead. He walked to the stands, where Dark stood, waving. Templetine looked at him.

“Well!” King boomed. “With the entire roster announced, I guess we can–” He paused, noticing Templetine. “Ah! There’s our first contestant now! Templetine, we’re about ready to begin.”

Templetine crept up to the ring, watching Dark the entire way. Pinada slid his glass case backward to avoid a collision. Several in the stands chuckled as Templetine nearly walked into him. He caught himself, turning his attention to the ring and starting up the stairs to it. A gold weight and cord lay on one side of the ring.

“Stop!” Caldera cried, rushing past the vendors on the path to the ring. “Kello, cancel the match–I can’t fight!”

Kello was brushing bits of confetti from her parasol. “Cancel it?” she repeated. “Are you forfeiting?”

“No,” Caldera panted, running up. “I was somewhere else–something happened–I was tricked into using my spell. It was an illusion. I don’t know. I need time to recover.”

Kello rose the parasol above her head and it cast a blue tint to her face. “Both participants are here; anything that happens outside the arena isn’t my concern.”

Caldera swept past her, looking up at King. “Do something! I was tricked!”

King puckered his lips. “What happened, exactly?”

“I was coming here,” Caldera started. “And then–but I was–” He stopped, grabbing both sides of his hat and gritting his teeth.

Titters were rising from the spectators, and in the stands Tome tapped Darrow on the shoulder.

“Something strange is happening to his thought patterns,” Tome said. “He’s remembering the match that Jelk told us about–the one with Tenny’s friend. But it’s fresh in his mind as if he just experienced it. I don’t understand how it could have happened. He clearly doesn’t either.”

In the ring, King was back on his rory’s saddle. He snapped the reigns and the soft body retreated into the shell.

“I’m sorry, I can’t stop the match,” King said. The rory lifted him to the tip of the tower, where a pedestal awaited them. Caldera swore, dropping his arms and stomping into his side of the ring. Templetine stood past the throne, looking up at the sky. The gold weight was near his foot.

“Pinada, if we could get started?” Kello asked. Pinada nodded at her, spreading his thumbs and forefingers apart. He lifted his hands and four glass walls arose with them: one at each edge of the square ring. Templetine, Caldera, and the throne were encased. “Begin!” Kello shouted.

“I can still do this,” Caldera muttered. He dipped his head to the side, looking past the throne. Templetine was shuffling sideways, leaning down to take a cord on the floor. The cord was fastened to the gold weight on one end; on the other there was a small, curved piece.

“You see this here?” Templetine shouted across the ring. His arm trembled; he was unable to lift the gold weight. “I can combine the fastener at the end with the other two parts. Wherever they are, the patterns will be joined.”

“That’s really fascinating,” Caldera drawled. He reached to an ivory sheath at his belt. “And where are they?”

“Don’t you remember?” Templetine asked. “The other pieces are around your left ankle.”

Caldera checked. A golden, C-shaped shackle was wrapped around his leg. Templetine dropped the cord and it blinked across the ring along with the weight. The gold flashed next to Caldera’s foot, and the cord and fastener joined with the shackle, completing it.

“Oh, you miserable old–!” Caldera muttered. He strained with his leg, pulling the cord taut and budging the gold weight a few inches.

Templetine started toward the throne. Caldera kicked with his leg a few times. He unsheathed his knife, kneeling down.

With one hand on the armrest, Templetine made a dismissive move with the other; the knife winked from Caldera’s grip. It appeared again in three pieces: the handle in two halves and the blade alone. The parts fell next to the gold.

“You enjoy destroying things,” Templetine said, wobbling as he eased into the seat. “But I find it far more rewarding to shatter. Take what was whole. Take that potential and render it useless.”

Kello began counting and Mean and Trisk watched as Caldera grit his teeth, dragging the gold along with him as he inched toward Templetine.

“If that was me in there I’d just make that gold weightless,” Mean said.

Trisk folded her arms. “I’d just smash it.”

“He could too if he hadn’t wasted his energy,” Tome told them. Below, Caldera staggered to a halt. He touched his forehead. A black liquid was oozing out from under his domed hat.

“I think I can bear to look at you now,” Templetine coughed. The black tar was bubbling out and dripping over Caldera’s eyes and nose. He dipped his head down, covering his mouth with his hand. Kello made it to five.

“I’m sorry your first match was like this,” Jelk said, leaning forward from behind Trisk again. “I’m up for all kinds of dirty tricks–as long as they’re in the ring. This guy obviously sabotaged Caldera’s clothes.”

“It’s more than that–he’s forgetting certain things,” Tome interjected. “He doesn’t even remember where the chair is.” Caldera was now staggering off toward one of the glass walls, protecting his mouth with one hand and groping in an aimless manner with the other. Laughs and cheers came at him from the stands, along with calls telling him to go left, right, forward, or back.

“Yeah, he’s not gonna get any help from this bunch,” Jelk chuckled.

“Ten,” Kello finished. “Templetine wins the match.”

Laughter and cheers broke out, and Pinada motioned with his hands for the walls around the ring to recede. Templetine rose his hand to the crowds without looking, and the shackle at Caldera’s ankle vanished, returning to the floor in three pieces again. Caldera stumbled out as soon as the glass walls slid back into the floor.

“King, get your brother!” Caldera demanded. He flung bits of tar from his eyes. “I want this investigated!”

Parlay rushed around the ring to Caldera’s side. “Are you alright?” she asked. “It looks like that tar might have burned your face–”

“Don’t you come near me,” Caldera growled. He stormed away from her and Kello called after him.

“I wouldn’t go too far; you have ten minutes before the latecomer match,” she said.

“What?” he spat. A bit of black tar came out. “There are latecomers this time? Who is it? Who do I get?”

“It’s that woman up there,” Kello said. She pointed up into the stands and Caldera followed her gaze, his face smeared with black and his skin splotched red. Trisk stood up, pulling her sweater straight.

“Oh–you’re kidding!” Caldera laughed. “Another one of Tenny’s freaks!” He loosened the strap on his chin and pulled off his domed hat. “I’ll deal with her, and when I’m done with that I’m coming back for you, Templetine!”

Pinada slid over. “Want me to clean that for you?” he asked, tapping on the glass toward the hat. Caldera set his face in a frown, nodded, and dropped the cap on the ground. He wandered over to the vendors, and Pinada began tracing patterns on his glass; the tar responded, melting away from the hat’s fabric.

Tenny eyed Caldera from the other side of the ring. The girl next to him tapped his exposed shoulder. She wore a leotard with the mandala design on the front.

“You think that Trisk’s any good?” she asked.

“She seems sure of herself,” Tenny replied. “I don’t think she knows what kind of trouble she’s in for, wearing our mark around like that. I’ll go talk to her.”

He walked to the bleachers and worked his way up the stairs; Jelk saw him coming and waved.

“Hey man! You see that?” he crowed. “Caldera’s out before I am! You must be thrilled seeing him on the other end for once!”

“He isn’t out yet,” Tenny said. He reached the group, stopping near Trisk. “And you–are you really a fan of mine? Or are you just playing dress-up like Jelk does?”

Trisk folded her arms. “I was telling you the truth earlier, Tenny. I wear this because I respect you. I’ve been learning your arts.”

“That’s–you what!?” Tenny asked. “How? I didn’t teach you! Have you been spying on us?”

“Not exactly,” Trisk said.

Tenny shook his head, as the others around them watched with interest. “So which art are you using right now?”

“I’m using static,” Trisk replied.

“No idea what that is,” Jelk admitted.

“That’s good: Caldera can’t hurt you,” Tenny went on. “But–”

“We still feel pain–I know,” Trisk said. She held out the hem of the sweater. “Got slashed across here.” She glanced back at Vornis.

“Hey, I warned you!” the beast shot back. “I told you not to–uh–steal my cookies!” Jelk’s eyes grew wide, and he pulled on his goatee.

“You guys fight over cookies?” he gasped. “I’m so glad I’m going up against the quiet, armored guy.”

“So do you know any of the other arts?” Tenny asked. Trisk nodded. “And you know what happens when you switch between them? You know not to do it during a fight?”

“She doesn’t really know that last part so well,” Darrow told him.

“You’re kidding,” Tenny said. “Please tell me you’re kidding.” Trisk looked at her feet.

“It was just that one time. It worked out pretty well though, don’t you think, Darrow?”

Tenny swept his hand through his short hair. “It might have ‘worked out’ before, but Caldera is a murderer,” he said. “And that Templetine guy got him pretty riled up. Just because he’s weakened doesn’t mean he’ll be easy to beat.”

Trisk stood. “I know that. I know what he did to your friend–”

“You don’t seem to know enough,” Tenny shouted. “Because that’s how it happened: he switched arts. He got drained. He couldn’t do anything. And while he was helpless Caldera killed him.”

Trisk looked at Tenny. She brushed past him, stepping into the stairway. Near the ring, Caldera was retrieving his cleaned hat from Pinada, and Templetine was getting up from the throne. Trisk marched down to them.

“Well?” Tenny asked Mean. “Do you think she’ll listen?”

Mean leaned back in her seat, hissing through her teeth. Dark tipped his head to her.

“I think you just got her mad,” she replied.

 

7 – Trisk vs Caldera

 

The audience murmured as Trisk reached the ring. She caught the eye of a young teen wearing a mandala-print sweater and headed over.

“Hey, can you hold mine?” she asked. The youth held out his arm. Trisk swept off her own sweater and plopped it into his hand.

“Good luck,” the girl with the leotard said. Trisk nodded and turned to walk up the stairs leading to her side of the ring. Caldera was climbing up the opposite stairs, working the domed hat back onto his head. He took the strap and pulled it tight under his chin.

“I also repaired your dagger,” Pinada said. He joined his thumb and forefingers in a square shape.

Caldera swiped the ivory knife from the floor. “Thanks.” The glass walls rose up to encase the ring.

“Begin,” Kello said.

Trisk walked along the back of the ring, in her tennis shoes, sweat pants, and midriff tank top. Caldera mirrored her; sidestepping; keeping her in his sight. The two moved forward and met on one of the edges, leaving the throne off to their side. Caldera removed his knife from his sheath, wound up, and tossed it. Trisk snapped into stance, deflecting it with her arm.

“Static,” said Caldera. “You Tenny kids make this so easy for me.”

Trisk held up her fists. “As easy as you made it for Templetine?”

Caldera clicked his tongue, backing off. “I’m over that. I didn’t win this by raging over every mistake. And I wouldn’t have beaten the others if I used the same trick every time.”

He lifted his hand and ran two fingers across the rim of his cap. At his feet, a light blue halo lit up on the floor, enclosing him. He narrowed the circle so that it was only a bit wider than he was.

“The surface of the arena is made out of a special material–made to absorb shocks, that sort of thing. I can’t produce enough energy for an explosion, but I can still make the heat work for me.”

Caldera held his hands out, kneading his thumb into his palm. Trisk jumped backward and yelped; the ground beneath her wobbled under her weight.

“All it takes is a variance in temperature,” Caldea said, his eyes darting beneath the domed hat: watching her stumble backward as the ring’s surface rippled. Trisk fell back as her feet stuck in place; her hand sunk up to the wrist as she braced for the fall; her body created circular shockwaves as she impacted. Caldera headed to the throne and the blue halo at his feet froze the rippling arena in place as he passed over it. A loud thud sounded from the wall.

“Oh look–Tenny’s here,” Caldera sang.

Trisk strained to keep her head away from the floor. She glimpsed Tenny outside the ring, his fist on the glass. He shook his head at her.

“I’m sorry Tenny,” Trisk whispered. She yanked her arm free with a sucking noise.

She held her hands out and stood up straight again, her knees shaking. The air inside of the ring popped and wavered; the throne shifted downward a bit and Trisk’s shoes vanished into the riling muck. A cloud of steam was forming at the solid circle around Caldera’s feet.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, pacing over to where Tenny watched though the glass. “You want to ‘switch arts’ or whatever it is you call it. So go ahead! Try it.” He pointed out at the youth that held the sweater and the girl in the leotard. “I’ve seen her fly, so that would probably be your best chance if you know how. Come and get me.”

“Don’t do it,” Tenny said, loud enough so that his voice could be heard through the wall.

Caldera kicked the glass. “Be quiet. Don’t you want your revenge? You’ll never get it if you don’t try.”

Tenny stepped back. “I remember what you did but I don’t dwell on it. And I won’t dwell on whatever happens today.”

Caldera twisted around, sneering. “Don’t feed me that crap,” he said. The halo at his feet left a vapor trail as he walked back to the throne. “Why else would you join the tournament every year? Getting back at me is all you think about.”

“Caldera!” Trisk called out. She drew her arm back, directing her palm at him. She held, took a breath, and she dropped her arm to her right leg. She gripped her thigh and pulled her leg free, sinking deeper with the other. Her shoe was gone, and she balanced with her bare foot over the ground.

“Alright then!” Caldera called out, thumping his chest. “Fly at me! C’mon!”

A pop sounded and Trisk disappeared; her sweat pants and tank top twisted through the spot where she was, falling down into the muck. At the same moment Trisk appeared on the seat of the throne, her leg still poised as she stood there. Caldera looked up at her naked body.

“Huh?” he choked out, and she snapped her leg forward. Her scarred shin struck Caldera in the face, sending him flailing sideways; he braced for the drop with his arms and they hit, both sinking in. The blue halo from his headgear was cast around his elbows now, and the floor of the ring solidified there–locking his arms in place. Trisk staggered, caught the top of the chair, and dropped in a heap on the seat cushion. Her eyes fluttered closed and her head sagged.

“One,” Kello called out.

“You’re kidding!” Caldera cried, twisting his head to see. “She’s unconscious! Kello, there has to be a rule against that!” She counted to two. Caldera swore and thrashed with his arms locked in place. His legs, outside the halo, slipped as he struggled for traction. “King!” he called out next. “Hex doors aren’t allowed! She should be disqualified!”

King, on his pedestal, chewed on some candy. “That wasn’t a hex door,” he said to his rory.

Below, Dark was sitting up straight while Tome had his hands pressed to his scalp. Mean hid her eyes, while Darrow stared with a wide-open mouth. Jelk wiped a tear from his eye.

“This is the best match ever,” he sniffed.

“No! This can’t happen!” Caldera shouted. He jerked his head to the side but his hat’s strap held it on. As Kello made it to six he began slamming his forehead down between his stuck arms. The hat slid back but the strap kept it held to his scalp; the halo remained at his arms, steaming along the rim.

Trisk remained in the throne with her hair sprawled over her skin and her mouth half-open. “Ten,” Kello said. “Trisk wins the first latecomer match.”

“Can’t be happening,” Caldera gasped out. He let his body fall to the mat and he stared through the glass. There, Tenny held back a smile.

“I told you–” Caldera sputtered out. “I knew you–knew you’d–”

His words became intelligible as he fell into a fit of mumbling. Pinada lowered the glass walls from the ring and Tenny recovered her sweater from his friend. Testing the surface, he stepped onto the cooling mat. He tossed the garment to Trisk, covering her up.

“You know,” Pinada said, “you might just want to change your position on whether or not to dwell on memories–this might make a good one.”

 

—–

 

The ring was cleared and the throne was empty. The mat had been smoothed level again. Trisk was laying clothed on the bottom-most section of the bleachers, and Mean, Vornis, Kello, Tenny, and others were gathered around her.

“How long does this last?” Kello asked. “I need to tell her that she won.”

Darrow looked at his watch. “She was out for almost half and hour last time.”

Kello frowned. Donzel came up to her, wheeling his large display of swords behind him. “Miss Gamemaster?” he started. “I can’t go on with this.”

“Again? What is it this time?” Kello asked. “Let me guess: something you can’t explain, but expect me to understand?”

“No,” Donzel said. He ran his fingers over his tabard. “I just forfeit. I’m sorry.”

He turned, carting his swords away. Kello rolled her eyes, took her parasol, and pretended to bang her head into it. “Hey, wait!” Vornis said. He grasped one of the blades at his side, following the swords as Donzel headed for one of the hex doors by the pyramid’s edge. Vornis fell behind as he was forced to weave between the various loiterers; as he cleared the vendors he found his chance: springing ahead and landing at Donzel’s side.

“Oh! Goodness!” Donzel cried out. “What is it? What do you want?”

Vornis bared his white teeth. “I’m just making sure you didn’t forget about your match with me.”

“Match with–?” Donzel repeated. “Oh! I forgot to forfeit from that one as well!”

“Now hold on,” Vornis said. “Why are you just giving up? If you’re being payed off, at least put up a bit of a fight before you throw the match.”

Donzel tilted his sword case upright and folded his arms. “I do not take bribes!”

“Then what is it?” Vornis asked. “I know something’s up. I have senses that perceive all sorts of things.”

“Things?” Donzel squeaked. “What sort of things?”

“Things you don’t even have words for,” Vornis said. “Now talk–I know you’re scared. And not just of me. What is it?”

Donzel took his swords again and motioned at the pyramid railing with his head. Vornis followed him over.

“I am scared,” Donzel spat out. “I didn’t know it would be like this. This violent.”

“Vornis frowned. “How come?”

Donzel set his case upright and leaned on the rail. “You aliens don’t know what it’s like here. The countries were isolated for so long–I was in my land, Kello’s people were in their forest–then King comes along and sets up his hex doors. Now you can go anywhere just like that. The cultures are all mixing now. We would never dream of harming a fellow competitor back home, but I see that clearly isn’t the case here!”

“That Jelk guy said you dueled with swords,” Vornis said.

Donzel chuckled, watching one of the roller coasters zip through the valley. “The ones I compete with are blunted and light. The ones I brought with me are real, but I haven’t used them in live combat. The fake swords used to be good enough until the other countries came over. They mocked my dueling when they saw it. Said it was ‘tame.’ They tarnished my pride and my country–so I came here to show them I could play their game too. I was the best back home, so I figured I could be the best here.” He shook his head, looking up at the words in the sky. “But then I saw Caldera and Templetine. They didn’t seem to care for the well-being of their fellows at all. And I couldn’t believe people cheered for that.”

Vornis put an arm on the rail, and the long spike at his side protruded over the edge. “I think those two are probably the most bloodthirsty of the bunch; the rest aren’t giving me a vibe like that. And I can vouch for my friends: they won’t try to kill whoever they face.”

“Well that’s all fine and dandy,” Donzel said, “but what about me? I don’t know where their internal organs are: I could hit something vital without even knowing it!”

Vornis slapped the scales hanging at his chest. “I’m the one you have to face now, and don’t worry; I can’t be hurt. I can regenerate–all sorts of things. You couldn’t even kill me if you tried.”

“You can!?” Donzel gasped. “What about the other Jesians?”

“Nope, just me.” Vornis grinned. “I’m the strongest, so you’d better go all-out. Anything you can do can be healed. I can promise you won’t ever get a chance to give those swords a workout like this again.”

“Ha! Perhaps so!” Donzel laughed. “But what about you? I can’t heal like you can.”

Vornis scratched at the wisps of black hair on his head. “How do you win in that dueling game?” he asked. Donzel pushed away from the rail. He gestured at the crest on his tabard: a sword with a blade branching like a tree was the prominent design.

“When the crest is touched by your opponent’s weapon.”

“Alright,” Vornis said. “You’ll surrender if I can hit you on your crest, then?”

“Donzel Veinsmith has forfeited his match against Tenny,” Kello announced. “He will now face the Beast in the second latecomer match.”

“I suppose I will,” Donzel told Vornis. He nodded, grabbing his display of swords and wheeling them back to the ring. Caldera was seated at the long table set up under King’s pedestal. He was still picking bits of black tar from his reddened face.

Vornis sneered at him as he passed, taking his place at one end of the ring while Donzel carted his swords up to the other.

“Are we ready?” Kello asked. “No one’s going to get naked this time, are they?”

Vornis flexed, grinning out to the crowd. “You wish!” he laughed.

Pinada lifted the four glass walls as the audience applauded the two contestants.

“I guess this isn’t all bad,” Donzel admitted, waving to the crowd. He reached for his swords in the case: there was a rapier with a blade like a needle and a cutlass with a bluish tint. Donzel passed them both up and reached for a massive broadsword with a feathered hilt. As he took it cloth straps curled out from the pommel and wound tight against his arm. With a tug it slid out: wide, double-edged, and bearing the number 5 above the hilt. He held it in front of him with one hand. With a quick swish he held it aloft–the number became zero–and brought it down again. The number changed to twenty and the blade fell with a swoosh into the mat, cutting it. “Alright,” Donzel said, yanking it out.

“Holy crap,” Mean said, leaning forward in her seat to see. “How can he even carry that thing!?”

“It’s a gravity-enhanced weapon,” Jelk said. “He can make it as light or as heavy as he wants.”

“Blade’s edge is patterned, too,” someone else with a few missing teeth chimed in. “It’s static so it won’t go dull in a fight.”

“Oh, so that’s what static is?” Jelk asked. “I always learn so much at these things!”

Mean’s eyes went wide and she looked over at Dark. Her lips quivered, then curled up.

“You want one,” he said, and she nodded back.

“Begin!” Kello shouted, and Vornis planted his feet on the ground. His arm went to the spike sticking out from his side.

Donzel held the sword in front of him, slashing through the air with no effort at all.

“Okay, let’s try it out!” he announced, and advanced on Vornis’ position. He swung once and the blade bounced off Vornis’ scales. The beast swung back his left spike and the opposite one swiveled forward; Donzel leapt back.

“Ooh, that’s tricky,” Donzel said. “You’ve got nice reach on that thing.” He swung his sword overhead: zero on the way up; on its way down the blade’s number jumped to fifty.

Vornis caught the edge with both of his clawed hands, sending a loud clang through the ring. A bit of blood splattered out from between his forefingers and thumb. He swept his leg out and Donzel’s sword flew upward, taking Donzel with it. He rose above the walls, hanging from the sword with the cloth straps tight on his arm. The number on the hilt read ‘- 450.’

“Aw, you gotta be kidding me,” Vornis grumbled, watching Donzel smile with his feet dangling in the air. “Alright then–fine,” he said. He made a dash for the chair.

“This is fun; this is fun!” Donzel sang, the numerals on his sword blinking and changing as he dipped back to the ground at a light decline. As Vornis neared the chair the number shot to five hundred: slamming the blade into his back and bringing the beast to his knees. Several scales clattered off of the swath carved through Vornis’ shirt as Donzel tugged the blade out.

“It’s fine; he can regenerate!” Donzel reassured the gasping crowd. As he turned to smile at the onlookers, Vornis scooped up the scales from the floor. When Donzel turned back, he tossed every one of them at his face.

“You–! Ow!” Donzel sputtered, closing his eyes as blood ran down his forehead and cheek. The beast pounced, knocking Donzel to the floor. He took the sword’s strap and tore it apart with one jerk of his claws, batting the weapon away and sending it spinning across the floor.

“Good match,” Vornis said. He reached for the ‘branching sword’ crest on his tabard. A wild growl came from Donzel’s throat.

“Not yet!” he cried, and the sword flew back to them. Its tip grazed Vornis’ arm and Donzel latched on to the hilt as it passed by. It pulled Donzel free and continued on to the far wall, dragging him behind it. He bounced to his feet again, swinging the blade back around and directing it at the monster. Blood and droplets of sweat inched down his cheeks.

“The worst I’ve ever gotten were bruises before,” Donzel said, his breath heavy. “You see now, King!? You see now that Donzel Veinsmith can fight and bleed just like anyone else!?” He started toward Vornis again, taking broad leaps as the number at the hilt dipped into negatives.

“I just had to open my beautiful mouth,” Vornis muttered, readying himself. Donzel neared and faked to one side; he struck and the handle flashed 500 this time; the blade’s gleaming edge sank into Vornis’ forearm as he blocked it. In the bleachers many were rising in their seats, calling Donzel’s name.

“You got them to cheer for you,” Vornis said, his limb shaking under the weight of the sword. His other hand snapped up, bracing it. “See? Being a monster isn’t so bad.”

“Monster?” Donzel cried, drawing the sword back. “Ha! Maybe you’re right!” Those in the stands urged him on and he swept at Vornis again: striking at his legs, his chest, his neck. The scales jingled from the blows; his clothing shredding into scraps. His legs buckled and the floor flexed and wobbled beneath his feet from each blow: the number on the blade jumping to six hundred, eight hundred, a thousand.

Vornis panted and his eyes went blank. The clang of the sword and the cry of the crowd faded to nothing. Donzel’s eyes were wild and his his face was flushed as he laughed. He rose the sword. One pattern emerged, and it was all Vornis saw.

The blade fell; all nines flickered at the hilt. Vornis pushed against the ground with all fours. The spike at his side snapped as the blade slashed through the air, missing him; hitting the mat and splitting the ring. The handle dropped from Donzel’s hand from the shock, sinking into the mat and vanishing from sight. All that remained were several tiny, brown feathers from the decorative hilt.

“Oh. Oh whoops,” Donzel sputtered out. He stared at the empty spot on the ring, dazed.

“So–good match?” Vornis repeated. He had the red cutlass from the display in his hand, directing the tip at Donzel’s crest.

“Yes. Yes,” Donzel said, taking hard breaths and falling to the ground. He swiped at the blood and bleached hairs snaking over his face. “Kello”–he took his hands and interlocked his fingers in an ‘X’–”I concede. The beast wins.”

 

8 – Occupied Vacancy

 

Donzel smiled, blinking through sweat as the audience applauded. The four glass walls were down, and Pinada was holding his fingers in front of him. The massive sword emerged from the cleft in the ring, hovering through the air.

“I’ll just put this back for you,” Pinada said. He guided the weapon back into the case, setting it next to the rapier with the needle-like blade.

“Thank you,” Donzel said, sniffling. “And thank you too, Beast. I’ve learned much from this.”

“Oh. Yeah, that’s what I do,” Vornis agreed. “I like to show people that there’s a little beast in everyone. Or something. Heck, I don’t know. Whatever.” He coughed, teetered, and walked to the stairs with heavy, plodding steps. Mean, Dark, Darrow, and Tome met him at the bottom.

“This concludes the matches for today,” Kello announced. “Tomorrow Parlay will face Kay Kary, with latecomer Me-anne challenging the loser. Jelk will face Eon after that, with latecomer Dark Lord challenging whoever that round’s loser might be.” She rolled her eyes as she folded her parasol up.

“Do either of you require medical aid?” King boomed from his pedestal. Donzel rose his hand as he sat in the ring. Vornis screwed up his face.

“I’m fine; I told you I regenerate. I just need a nap.”

“Very well,” King replied. “If Trisk is fine I’ll use a hex door to send her right to your suite. Let the Beast through, people, and let’s hear it one more time for our contestants!”

Vornis’ group made it to the hex door as the crowds parted for them. Mean waved her hexagon key and they were taken to their floor of the pyramid. The cheering could still be heard, muffled through the glass windows.

Vornis shuffled out and down the carpeted hall. His blood ran in streaks down his limbs. Mean, Dark, Tome, and Darrow walked with him, stopping at the twin doors leading to their room.

“Are you really going to be okay?” Darrow asked. A scale fall off and bounced on the carpet.

“Actally, Darrow, no I won’t,” Vornis replied. “Thanks for asking.”

“What?” Mean said. “What was all that about regenerating?”

“Nope,” Vornis coughed. “I made all that up so he’d fight me. But don’t worry–”

A faint pop sounded at the end of the hall; Parlay had appeared and was hurrying over.

“Hey!” she said as she jogged up. “Can I see your friend alone for a minute? Alone?”

“Vornis coughed again. “I’m gonna save us some time–you know, ’cause I’m bleeding to death–these people already know about my relation to you, Parlay. They know you changed me into this.”

Parlay stepped back, covering her mouth with her hand. She leaned behind Vornis.

“They’re not going to tell anyone; don’t worry about that,” Vornis said. “Just change my body’s pattern to how it was an hour ago.”

“And make him less grumpy too, if possible,” Darrow threw in.

Parlay looked at Darrow and then at Mean and Tome’s faces. “So you all know what I did to him? You don’t mind?” She reached up over her head, putting her hand on one of the ‘V’ spikes sticking out of Vornis’ neck.

“Well, he wanted it didn’t he?” Mean asked, peering at the snapped blade on Vornis’ side. “And besides, we aren’t from here; we don’t have all the weird taboos that you guys do.”

“So you know about that, huh?” Parlay said. Vornis closed his eyes.

“I can’t believe Caldera brushed you off,” Darrow said. “Did you guys see that? She tried to help him after he got burned and he was just like, ‘no way man, I like being burned.'”

Parlay chuckled. “It’s not quite like that; they have their reasons. There–!”

The spike Mean was watching reappeared, whole; every cut on Vornis’ body closed. The scales that were missing clattered back into place, falling into a fresh, neat curtain around his chest and waist. The beast reached up and cracked his neck.

“Thanks,” he uttered. Parlay let go of him and nodded, smiling.

“You’re welcome!” she said. “I still can’t believe that you just showed up like that. You’ve been gone for a couple years–how did you all meet?”

“They found me–” Vornis began, “they found me in an unpopulated area. I figured I could use the opportunity to get out among people again without raising too many questions. Well, not any questions about you, anyway.”

“Right, just questions about aliens,” Parlay said. She looked over at Dark. “So, do you all look like we do?”

Dark cleared his throat. “I don’t wear this suit to hide my hideous visage, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Parlay bowed her head. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m just curious.”

“I’m surprised more people aren’t,” Mean said, putting her hands on her hips. “I mean, real aliens right here, people! Where are the reporters?”

Parlay brushed some blond hair from her face. “No one’s getting near the Imperial Pyramid without King’s permission. I was watching the news, and a lot of people think that it’s just a hoax–like a publicity stunt for the fair.”

“But you did the scan thing to Trisk–” Mean said, “you confirmed it!”

“People don’t believe what I say,” Parlay chuckled. “Just a few like King and Vornis here.”

Darrow snapped his fingers. “Dang, I thought I was going to be famous.”

“Well, you guys can always try going somewhere else if you want attention,” Parlay offered. “The matches are done for today; you have plenty of free time to explore where you want.”

“I guess we could,” Mean said. Dark leaned in.

“I need to go find something to use for my match tomorrow,” he said. “But first we need some cash.”

Parlay opened her eyes wide. “Oh, I can give you some aurons!” she offered. She dug around in her loose vest until she had a handful of coins. She gave them all to Mean.

Mean rose her eyebrow. “For free? Well, alright then–Parlay, thanks for fixing up Vornis. we’ll see you guys later, alright?”

Parlay nodded and the two walked past her toward the hex door at the end of the hall. Tome called after them.

“Don’t go anywhere with crowds! Just pick up something and come right back!”

“I just need a few things; we’ll be careful,” Dark replied. As they neared the hex door he whispered to Mean.

“But before we do that, we can check out all the places that are empty in the future–we can see what they were like with people!”

Mean gasped, grabbed his arm, and hurried faster. “Like the stone rory place! And Hilo’s!”

“Remember what you said that night at the refuge? You wondered what all those places would be like. Well now we can find out!”

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of it,” Mean said. “Oh, Dark, the bar! Let’s go there first!”

“Alright,” Dark said, stepping into the hex door room with Mean. “We might even see the guy that got the high score in that video game. I never did beat that one.”

Mean hopped onto the platform, shaking her arms, grinning, and motioning for Dark to get on.

“Alright, take us to Cots’!” she asked.

“THE TOLL IS SIX AURONS,” a monotone voice replied. Mean held up her tiny fistful of coins. As she did so, the plush, spotless walls gave way to the wooden planks of a narrower space. The clean air that came with them was soon overpowered by a layer of smoke.

“I’m not sure how this money works,” Mean coughed. “And oh wow, there’s smoking here now.” She tugged at Dark’s cape, placing the money into one of his pockets, and moved with him into a larger room that was packed with noise and people. Almost every chair was taken: customers ate, drank, and played at glowing monitors among the many tables.

“And they didn’t reserve our usual seats!” Dark said. “So inconsiderate.”

“There’s a couple of places up by the bar,” Mean said. Dark nodded and followed. As they weaved through the clusters of people several looked up from their plates to stare. Dark pulled his cape close, squeezing past and onto the second stool at the bar. Mean took the third, and an aged man squinted at them from behind the counter.

“What’ll you have?” he asked, tapping the polished wood.

Mean rubbed her hands together and opened her mouth.

“Nothing,” Dark answered. “I’m not exactly sure how much cash we have, to be honest.”

Mean groaned as the bartender smiled. “Not sure?” he repeated. “You don’t got no mouth to drink with, either.”

A man tapped Dark’s shoulder. “Hey. I saw you at King’s Fair. On the broadcast.” He pointed at a monitor at the end of the bar. A replay of Vornis’ match was playing. “You’re the people from that other planet.” Dark turned and nodded. A smoking woman sitting next to Mean looked their way.

“You guys are the aliens?” she asked, exhaling smoke. “You should give them their drinks, Cots; they’ll bring in good business.”

“Don’t care who they are,” the bartender Cots said, still squinting at Dark’s helmet. “I had a guy try to pay with that weird money they use over there–what’s it called–with all the trees. Tree money. Can’t use that here. What am I going to do with that?”

The woman laughed, tapping her cigarette ashes into a tray. “Cots, I’ll pay for whatever these two order. No ‘tree money.'”

Mean grasped the bar. “Really?” she said. “Anything?”

The woman dipped her head in a graceful nod. “I would have bought that armored man a drink anyway–but since he’s taken I’ll do my good deed for the night.”

Mean smiled at her, and Dark swiveled in his stool. “Looks like a table opened up. Wanna sit down? “Oh–yeah, we’d better grab it quick,” Mean said, sliding off her stool to her feet. “Thanks for the drinks, miss–?”

The woman shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. Just don’t let her drink too much, handsome.”

Dark chuckled, and he and Mean weaved through the bar to the empty seats. A long, black window stretched beside them, reflecting the many lights and glowing screens at each table. Mean settled in, pushing a near-empty plate away from her.

“Drinking is all I can do here,” she sighed. “Oh well”–she spun the plate–”what did you think of the fair? Anything weird going on?”

Dark laid out his cape over the back of his chair. “I’m worried about some of those people we have to go up against. That Templetine is obviously playing dirty. And Trisk–”

“Oh, I know!” Mean said. “She told me one of the arts let you teleport, but I didn’t know that she had taken the time to learn it. And right out of your clothes, too!”

“I had my eyes closed, I swear,” Dark promised. “But why did she faint? What was that all about?”

Mean put her elbows on the tablecloth and leaned forward. “It happens when you switch–your magic energy gets drained. She was in static mode, then she changed to whatever mode that was. Teleporting. It worked, but it takes too long to recover.” She paused as someone passed. “Back when I was learning how to fly, she fainted all the time up in that tower. I wish she wouldn’t do it.”

“So you wouldn’t try to learn any more of those arts, then?” Dark asked.

Mean shook her head. “No way. Flying’s good enough.”

“You seem to be keeping it a secret, though,” Dark said.

“Well, I am,” Mean replied. “I can’t let my opponents know what to expect. And Parlay–geez, how am I supposed to fight him again? Her again? I told you how it was.”

“A few times,” Dark hummed. “The female version doesn’t seem quite as crazed; she should be a little less ruthless.”

A busboy stopped by the table, picking up the empty glasses and plates. After giving the surface a few wipes with a cloth, he departed.

“But I’ve been thinking about something,” Dark went on, “why didn’t the Parlay in the future remember any of us? Is it because we hadn’t traveled back in time yet?”

Mean tipped her head. “That’s a good question: Will events change when we’re done here? If we do save everyone, that would affect everything we went through in the future, wouldn’t it? We all met on the empty world–would that mean we wouldn’t have met if all the people come back?”

She slumped back in her chair, and Dark shook his head. “I have no idea. There are many theories on time travel. Some believe it is unchangeable. No–not unchangeable, I should say. More like: every alteration that will happen has already happened. That what we experience is the end result of any alterations made.”

Mean frowned. “I’m not sure what to think of that theory.”

Dark chuckled under his helmet. “Ready to order that drink now?”

 

—–

 

Tome leaned against the wall of the suite, staring at the opposite side.

“They’re taking too long,” he sighed. Darrow looked up from his beanbag.

“Well they need to find something good for Dark,” he explained. “He’s going up against that Jelk guy, right? Either him or the guy from your cult.”

“It isn’t mine,” Tome said. “Nobody condoned what I did back then. And I can’t imagine what this Eon person could gain by exalting me or whatever it is that he does.”

Darrow folded his hands behind his head. “Maybe they don’t like Pinada. I mean, someone did end up killing him in our time, right?”

“I don’t understand that either,” Tome said. “Who is even left? How could they make it past his defenses? He’s a genius when it comes to structure; he can keep the patterns in that glass case stable against any attack; he can target the points of stress and nullify any force. I tried all the time and never even scratched it.”

Trisk stirred from where she lay on the couch, her head peeping out from under a blanket. “What about Tenny’s arts?” she asked. “Did anyone ever try those on him?”

Tome scratched the blond stubble under his chin. “Don’t know. They weren’t around back in my day.”

A knock came at the door, and Trisk swung up.

“That might be him now,” she said, tossing off the blanket and rushing over. She grabbed a key on her way and opened the doors. Tenny stood on the other side, his sweater hanging off one shoulder.

“Oh, good, this is the right room,” he said.

“It is,” Trisk replied. “I figured you’d be around to tell me you’re impressed. Or worried. Or mad.”

“Impressed? Maybe,” Tenny said. “I’m more worried than mad, though. No one should know any more than one of the arts. It’s too dangerous.”

Trisk shook her head. “But isn’t that what you teach? We all have different emotions in us–hate, love, guilt–they all conflict. But like the different arts, they can all exist in us. We just have to know when to bring them out. That’s what I did.”

Tenny’s mouth opened and he stared at her. “What are you talking about!? I don’t teach that! ‘Bring them out!?’ Where did you hear this!?”

Trisk tipped her head and her long hair brushed over her shoulders. “Your tower. Where you have to experience certain emotions to unlock the next floor. I figured it out on my own.”

“My tower? My tower!?” Tenny exclaimed. He stepped to the side and paced back. “I abandoned that place–that’s my old training ground.”

Trisk stepped into the hall, closing the door behind her. “Old? You mean there’s another one?”

Tenny looked her over. “No wonder you were able to learn all my secrets. I knew it–I should have dismantled that place. I thought the floors were too far out into wilderness for anyone to find. And know look: you put your faith in all that ‘power of the individual’ garbage I used to believe in.”

“It isn’t–” Trisk started, looking into Tenny’s eyes. He scoffed back at her.

“It will get you killed, thinking like that. I was so arrogant; I thought I could learn every art myself. Come on, let me show you my real dojo.”

He lead her to the hex door at the end of the hall. He brandished a coin and stepped through with her.  They reappeared at a bright yellow hex door marked with poles, set up outside a brick building with a playground nearby.

“This looks like a school,” Trisk said.

Tenny walked along the side of the wall, out of sight of the few kids playing on plastic tunnels and colorful rory shells. “It is,” he said. “It’s where I went when I was little. We still have one more door to go through; I can’t risk going straight from the pyramid; King could track us.”

“Did you like it here?” Trisk asked, walking with him into the grass.

“Not really; it just seemed like a good place to hide a door. Why?”

“It looks a lot better than the schools back on Jesice,” Trisk said, pushing a strand of hair behind her ear. “There were too many kids. It was so crowded. Everything is.”

“Why is that?” Tenny asked. “Oh, wait–you’re all on those tiny islands, aren’t you? I forgot; I see your planet in the sky every night.”

Trisk nodded. “You really can’t know what it’s like, living there. There’s never an opportunity to be alone. That’s why I came here; this place feels more like my home than Jesice.”

The two walked in silence as they stepped onto a trail leading into a sparse forest. Tenny picked through the brush until they reached a flat stone sitting on a tree stump. Tenny fished around in his pocket, pulled out a tiny, gold chain, and dragged it over the rock. The air rippled and the two appeared inside of a large, circular room.

“Well look what Tenny brought back!” the thin, bony teen from the fair shouted. He tossed aside the comic book he was reading and hopped to his feet.

“This place looks exactly like each floor in your tower,” Trisk pointed out, noting a mat in the center. It had a maze-like mandala painted across it, and a girl sat there performing sit-ups. She stopped mid-lift and looked over.

“Well, the basic design worked,” Tenny said. “Anyway, this is Smatter. Smatter, this is Trisk.”

“Yeah, I held her sweater at the fair,” the boy said. “Nice work with Caldera! No one’s going to forget that one!”

The girl on the mat bounced to her feet and walked over.

“You got him good, though,” she said. “I know we’re not to supposed to revel in other’s pain, but man, I enjoyed watching him squirm. I’m Charlie.”

“I’m Trisk,” Trisk said. Charlie shook her hand, then reached for a towel hanging on a peg in the wall. She dabbed at her face and the neckline of her mandala-print leotard.

“So is she gonna join up?” Smatter asked. “Please, please, please, say she is!”

Tenny coughed. “Possibly. I wanted to show her how we work first. She’s been to the tower that I used to train in, alone, before we set up things here.”

Smatter bounced on his heels. “You did? Did you see the paintings? My brother did those. That Hellzoo one is wicked, right?”

Trisk’s eyes followed him as he hopped. “Mm-hm. Your brother is pretty good. It’s thanks to those pictures that I was able to figure out how make it to the top.”

“Ah, so you made it all the way,” Charlie stated. Her hair was pulled tight in a bun, and she reached back to adjust the pins holding it together. “All of Tenny’s notes are up there; you must have seen some pretty private stuff.”

Trisk looked at the ceiling, where windows let sunlight in. “I did. Tenny left notes there. I thought he might be dead. I wanted to make sure his memory didn’t go to waste.”

Tenny recoiled. “Dead? The place isn’t that old.”

“She probably saw Gatrie in the painting and thought it was you,” Smatter offered. “Face it–you used to be pretty bleak.”

Tenny smiled, and tossed his sweater to the floor. “Well, let’s show her what we’re all about now. You all ready?”

“Yeah! Oh, yeah!” Smatter shouted, and Charlie nodded. She ran around the edge of the circular wall, and Tenny did the same, in the other direction. Smatter stayed with Trisk, watching the center mat.

“Activate training model!” Tenny called out. He stopped where he was, and a large brick of copper materialized over the painted mandala. It fell onto the mat, bounced, and remained hanging in the air. Twin arms unfolded from underneath: tubular, segmented, and sporting dulled blades at the ends. The machine launched forward in a glide at where Trisk and Smatter stood.

“All right; let’s do this!” Smatter said. The model slashed wide with its arm; the boy ducked. He popped up, hooked his bony fingers, and swung at the thin, bladed arm. The metal separated as his hand passed through; the severed blade clanged onto the floor.

“Smatterized!” Smatter laughed, swiping again. The model buzzed backward. As the boy gave chase the remaining arm glimmered: the blade at the end vanished.

“Down, Smatt!” Tenny barked, and Smatter hit the floor. The model pointed its tubular arm forward and several hollow shots resounded from the end. Trisk stepped to the side as purple paint splatters splashed onto the wall. Tenny dashed forward as it continued to fire, leaping in between Smatter and the gun barrel.

“Charlie, get it!” Tenny ordered as purple blobs of paint exploded onto his chest. Charlie, kneeling near the wall, pushed off the ground and shot up into the air. Rocketing higher, she twirled, planted her bare feet on the ceiling, and pushed off again: dropping toward the model. She flipped again and slapped her feet against the flat top: the machine shuddered and slammed to the mat with a hollow clang. Charlie dropped to her knees, holding the model in place.

“Smatter!” Tenny called, and the boy hopped to his feet again. The model’s arm swiped through the air, catching Charlie in the head. She ducked the second swipe and Tenny ran up. He slid down on one leg, catching the metallic arm in a hold and squeezing it still.

“I got it, I got it!” Smatter cried. He dove at the copper body and thrust his hand at it: punching a clean hole in the surface with his bony knuckles.

“I GIVE UP,” a monotone voice stated. Tenny let go and the machine’s arm flopped to the mat.

“Nice work guys,” Tenny said, pushing himself to his feet. “You okay, Charlie?”

“It missed my eye,” she panted. “I’m good.”

Tenny nodded, giving Smatter a pat on the head as he turned back to Trisk. “You see? We work as a team, and we tackle our problems together. That tower is the old me: the me that thought I could master all of the arts. But thinking like that left me vulnerable; I almost died like Gatrie did. Like this, though, each of us can concentrate on one ability–static, flight, whatever–and bring it to the group when it’s needed.”

Trisk stared at the floor and the empty sweaters scattered there.

“So how about it?” Tenny asked. “You wanna try things our way?”

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