Chapters 9 – 11

9 – Mean vs. Kay Kary

 

Lord Ley Tecker stepped out of the elevator and into the cavernous main hall of Ley Ledge. The guards by the doors saluted him, and Tecker lifted his can of Metabolic Shotgun in reply. He made his way through the grid of desks that all faced the front window, where the light haze of fog blurred the cityscape far below. He took his seat next to Lord Ley Vail.

“Did you get my call?” Vail asked.

“I did,” Tecker replied. “I don’t think we have enough time. My term will be up way too soon.”

“It doesn’t look good, does it?” Vail sighed. “Maybe we’ll get lucky? Maybe the guy taking your place will be in astronomy?”

Tecker took a sip from his can. “We were just so close. If that attack hadn’t happened we’d have settlers over there by now, not just military! It’s a waste, such a waste. The people are ready to go over, but it doesn’t matter. ‘There are monsters about.’ They’re powerless, and I can’t do anything to help them.”

He glanced over at Lickwolf, the only other Lord Ley in the room. Lickwolf frowned. Tecker twisted around as the doors at the back of the room opened. A man in a black judge’s robe strode in. He had wavy hair that was swept back to his neck, and over his clothes hung a yellow sash.

“Who’s that judge?” Tecker asked Vail. “I’ve never seen him.”

The judge shook his finger at him as he walked through the aisle. “You’ve never seen me? Are you sure about that?”

“Guards!” Lickwolf barked at the two uniformed men at the door. The judge chuckled, shaking his head; the guards were struggling against a shining liquid encasing their bodies.

“Who are you? Put your hands up!” Tecker said. He pulled his grey coat back with one hand and reached for a holster.

“I know they hold your weapons, Tecker,” the judge said. “And you’d better calm down or you’ll be stuck too.”

Lickwolf stared at them and Vail braced himself in his seat. Tecker sighed, straightened his suit jacket, and settled back at his desk. “I have seen you before,” he stated.

“You’ve done far more than that,” the judge said. “You told me to watch the city while you were gone. You said you needed me.”

“You’re one of those police officers left behind after the evac!” Lickwolf said.

“His name is Mackaba,” Tecker explained. “I did ask you to watch the city; it was after the party; I remember.”

“Of course you remember,” Mackaba said. “It was your idea of a joke: to pretend you were leaving when, really, you were staying behind.”

“He didn’t stay on the planet; he would have died,” Vail said, his eyes on the guards. They were fighting to get at their pistols, but the liquid resisted. Their sleeves were inching up to their elbows as they pushed through the clear gel.

“He found a way to keep himself safe from the disease,” Mackaba went on. He walked toward the massive front window and stepped onto the stage there. “You were always there with that trollop, every time. Wearing that black armor. Mocking me as I”–he paused, clutching his sash–”as I watched my captain abandon me. I was keeping the city safe, just like you told me to! But you were right there the whole time! Burning down buildings! Telling me people were missing when they weren’t!”

Lickwolf scoffed. “This is nonsense. Tecker has never been absent. Unfortunately.”

Mackaba smirked at him. “You have no idea what sort of technology they have over there. I got all the way to the top of this cliff, didn’t I? Going between the two worlds is easy.”

Tecker stood up. “So what do you want? Are you after me? Because you can just let the others go if you are.”

“Oh no no no,” Mackaba hummed. “We’re going to have a little vote, just the three of you here. See?” He gestured to the glass and the tops of the buildings outside. “Since you came and smashed up my city, I think that maybe–hey! Why stop there? Let’s have you smash up another one.”

 

—–

 

Mean ran down the hallway with Dark racing behind; through the windows, Kello’s amplified voice could be heard counting.

“Hurry, hurry!” Mean said, leaping into the hex door room and beckoning Dark in. As soon as he met her they vanished and reappeared on the roof.

“Ten!” Kello finished, booming in their ears. “Parlay wins the match!” There came a chorus of mixed reactions from the spectators.

“No! I missed it!” Mean grumbled, stamping her foot. She walked past the vendors with Dark as the glass arena walls were lowered by Pinada.

“It was really good; you almost got me,” Parlay said, pushing out of the throne. A woman with dark eyeliner and oversized bracelets lay upon a circle of flat leaves at the edge of the ring. She snorted, flipping her red bangs out of her eyes. She looked over at Kello.

“This isn’t right,” she said. “That kind of magic shouldn’t be allowed.”

“Creative use of magic is encouraged;” Kello answered, her translucent parasol casting blue light on her face. “Parlay didn’t break any rules.” She pushed a button, and her voice grew louder again. “Kay Kary will be Me-anne’s opponent in the third latecomer match! It will occur in ten minutes!”

Mean frowned. “Hold on, Dark, I’m gonna go tell her how to pronounce my name.” She marched over as Kay Kary picked up a crescent-shaped object and leapt from the ring.

“‘Creative use?'” Kay Kary repeated, tilting her head and fixing her gaze at Kello. “I think you people need to take a good, hard look at your rules again.”

“Excuse me, Miss Kello?” Mean asked. “I need to talk to you about something.”

Kello wrinkled her nose at the two as Parlay started over as well. She touched the flat leaves as she passed and they responded: curling up at the edges and retracting; shrinking into a compact ball.

“Kay, I’m sorry if anything I did offended you,” Parlay said as she hopped out of the ring. “You did really well–”

“Don’t patronize me!” Kay Kary barked, turning and directing the points of the crescent at the woman’s chest. “You people have an unfair advantage! You, Tenny, that stripper girl–you all have powers the rest of us don’t! We don’t even understand how it works, and yet you’re allowed to compete! How is this fair!?”

“Hey, I think you need to calm down,” Mean said, holding up her palm.

Parlay dipped her head. “No, I think–I think she has a point.”

“No,” Mean corrected, “she doesn’t. She’s being obnoxious because she lost. And ‘stripper girl?’ Her name’s Trisk.”

Kay Kary tilted her head at Mean. “You’re an outsider. You think you can just show up and tell us how to act?”

A slow scraping came from Pinada’s glass cube as he slid toward them. “Is there a problem over here?” he asked, leaning against one of the walls.

Kary lowered her arm and tossed her hair. “Everything’s fine, Pinada. I’m getting something to drink.”

As Kay Kary strode away, Mean looked and saw the crowd peering at them. She set off as well, weaving around Pinada. He touched his glasses, watching her.

“Hey, thanks,” Parlay said, following Mean.

“She was being a jerk,” Mean said. “I only wish I had gotten here in time to see you beat her.”

“I am really sorry about that,” Dark said, joining up as they walked across the foot of the bleachers. “I get terrible hangovers when sit at bars and don’t drink anything; just terrible.”

Mean chuckled and found the stairs leading up. She turned, looking looking over her shoulder: Parlay was hanging back, watching them go.

“Hey, you can come sit next to us, you know,” she said. “You don’t have to stay down here.”

Parlay smiled, nodded, and hurried up with them. Darrow raised his eyebrow as they joined him, Tome, Trisk, and Vornis.

“Why are you guys late?” Darrow asked. “I saw you on the couch before I left, Dark. I told you it was almost time. Oh man, were you not awake?”

“I guess I wasn’t,” Dark sighed, sitting down. “I need to wear a sleep mask over my helmet so you can tell.”

“Or you could just take it off,” Darrow muttered. “Anyway, look at that down there; that’s where all the losers go, I think.”

Dark and Mean looked. Two people were seated at the long table set up beneath King’s pedestal. Caldera was at the very end, still wearing his domed hat. Various square bandages were stuck to his face. Donzel Veinsmith III sat next to him, with his case of swords standing behind his chair. His smiling face had a few scratches and scabs marring it.

“Where’s everyone else?” Trisk asked. “I don’t see Tenny.” Parlay leaned over.

“He’s on our left,” she informed her. “See? Down where that camera guy is.”

“Oh, I see,” Trisk said. “Thanks.”

Parlay nodded. “He’s really a nice guy. You should meet him. Outside the ring, I mean.”

“I did,” Trisk replied, looking sideways. “He came to our room last night. Took me to see the training ground.”

Parlay dipped her head. “Oh. Okay then.” Trisk waved as she caught Tenny’s gaze. Tenny waved back.

“Look who it is,” Charlie said, talking in Tenny’s ear. “What’s Parlay doing sitting with them?”

“I don’t know,” Tenny dismissed. “I’m more worried about that beast character. Look–he’s completely recovered. It’s as if Donzel didn’t do anything.”

“Yeah, it’s gonna be tough,” Smatter said, looking up from where he sat cross-legged on the ground. “What art will you use for him?”

Tenny swept his hand through his short hair, stopping to scratch at the base of his neck. “I think I’ve ruled static out; he just looks too strong. He could probably hold me down with one toe.”

“But he’s got those giant blades,” Smatter said. He took a kernel of popcorn out of the bag in his lap. “He’ll chop you in half if you don’t have static on.”

“That shouldn’t be tough,” Tenny said, shaking his head. “I saw how he moves them; I can dodge. I’ll probably go for your art, Smatter. If he can regenerate from what Donzel did, I’m sure he can recover from the damage tearing will cause.”

“Alright, but you have to say ‘smatterized’ when you hit him,” the boy said, scooping a handful of popcorn into his mouth.

“Uh, okay I’ll do that,” Tenny said, blinking.

Up in the stands, Mean smirked at Trisk.

“Trisk, you didn’t tell me he came to the roooom!” she sang. “What happened? Where did you go?”

“Don’t you have a match to get to?” Trisk asked. Mean stuck her tongue out, got up, and tugged at her shirt.

“Alright, but make sure you fill me in later. By the way, did you see what kind of magic Kay Kary uses?”

“Oh, I can tell you,” Parlay offered. “See those giant bracelets she wears? She sends those rings out and hooks your arms with them. The crescents, too: while you’re caught in the rings, she pins you down to the mat. She uses magic that alters an object’s weight and the effect of gravity on it. It’s a good strategy; you should be careful.”

Mean locked her fingers together and stretched her arms out. “Oh dear, how will I ever handle that,” she said as her knuckles cracked. “Thanks, Parlay, but I think I’ll be fine.”

“You’re really confident!” Parlay cried, clapping her hands. Mean smiled back at her, picking through the people on her way to the stairs. Kay Kary watched her on the way down, holding crescents in each of her hands.

“What are you doing sitting up there with her?” Kary demanded as Mean neared.

“Who, Parlay?” Mean said. “None of your business.” She hopped up onto the mat and walked to her end of the ring.

Kay Kary snorted. She strutted over to the throne, leaning against it with her arm. She tossed a crescent up and caught it. “I’d better not see any of that cheating from you–” she began, “ego or whatever. Your little blond twin up there wouldn’t have won without it.”

“Please get on your side, Kay Kary,” Kello sighed. Kary pushed away from the throne and sauntered to the far edge. Pinada rose his hands to lift the four walls into position. Mean glared across the ring. She removed a remote from her back pocket.

“We shouldn’t even be having this match,” Kary said. “Everyone knows King let you in for publicity; if you weren’t from another planet you’d all be in jail for crashing his fair.”

Gamemaster Kello tapped her parasol on her shoulder. “Alright–begin!”

Kary sneered and flung her arm out; the remote in Mean’s hand popped from her grip and arced over the wall.

“Oh nooooo!” Mean cried. She stretched her arm after the lost device. “My remote just flew away on its own!”

Kay Kary swept the circular bracelets off her wrist. They shot out from her hand: soaring in a row and parting as they hovered near Mean. The petite girl let out a loud gasp as the rings forced themselves past her tiny hands and up to her elbows. She flailed and opened her mouth in exaggerated shock as they tripled in weight and dragged her to the mat with them.

“I can manipulate an object’s motion through gravity,” Kay Kary announced. “I can make things fly, or become so heavy that you could never pick them up.” She jingled the crescents, stalking forward. Mean struggled as the rings held her down.

“Egad! We don’t have such things on my world!” Mean lamented. Kay Kary laughed, running a hand through her streaked hair.

“It’s one of our oldest tricks,” she explained. “Now hold still–wouldn’t want to snap off one of those scrawny arms.”

Kay dove and planted the crescents into the mat: their pointed edges digging in on each side of Mean’s limbs, trapping them. Up in the stands, Parlay wrung her hands.

“I warned her!” she cried. “I told her that would happen!”

She looked over at Vornis, whose suppressed chuckling lined his grey face with countless wrinkles.

“Why are you laughing?” Parlay asked. “She’s lost right away!”

Below, Mean pretended to cry.

“I forgot,” Vornis said, snickering, “you don’t know what she can do.”

Parlay looked over at Dark. He covered the top of his helmet with his hand. “She’s going a little overboard, isn’t she?” he groaned.

“Oh help!” Mean cried out, flat on her back and sniffling. “I’m too stupid to know how to do anything! I’m from Jesice, and I’m really dumb!”

Kay Kary backed away, peering down at Mean with her overshadowed eyes. “I thought Jelk was the only clown we had here. Are you trying to take his place? You’re making a fool out of yourself.”

Mean tugged at her bonds. “Oh! Wait!” she exclaimed. “I’ll just fly out of here!” As she spoke, the crescents wobbled and the rings jiggled at her limbs. She strained, working the points out from the mat as her body lifted inch by inch from the ground. Kay Kart shrieked.

“You little–you’re moving my things! You liar! You can–”

The crescents snapped free, flying off; Mean leapt up and soared straight into the air; the audience uttered gasps as she left the ground. She rose past the tops of the glass walls and hovered just above them, picking the rings from her arms and dropping them down to where Kay Kary stomped.

“Cheater!” she cried, shielding her face as one of the loops whizzed past. “You’re one of them!”

Mean hopped on top of the wall and kicked off with her feet, bounding over to the other side. She buzzed Kello’s umbrella, halting just above her.

“Hey!” Kary called out to the Gamemaster. “It’s ring out! Start counting!”

“I read the rules,” Mean shouted back. “As long as I don’t touch the ground it’s okay.”

Kello gave a nod, tilting her parasol to the side and peeking up past the rim at Mean.

“Bull!” Kary shouted, pacing back to the ring’s center. She reached for the throne. As she approached it the entire thing bounded upward. Kary hissed through her teeth, spinning back again to glare at Mean: she was coaxing the throne over the wall and through the air to her. Their eyes met, and Mean swooped into the chair, grinning.

“This–is this even allowed?” Kary spat, watching Mean soar around the sides of the ring in the throne. Kello began counting in reply.

Kary snapped her fingers and the large bracelets zipped up from the mat through the air to her. She stiffened both arms and the rings looped through, fitting snug to her shoulders. With a hop, she too took to the air, hanging from the bracelets. Mean jerked her head at Kary, swatting her back down.

“So that’s how you wanna play, huh!?” Kary shrieked. She gestured at the throne and it tipped forward into a dive; Mean yelped, tucking her arms, legs, and head in. There was a crack as the throne struck the ground: the armrests and high back making contact while Mean’s tiny body remained curled on the seat, safe.

“Kay Kary if you break the throne you are disqualified,” Pinada said.

Kello counted “Five.”

Kary pointed at the chair as it rose up again. Mean uncurled and grasped the armrests tight. The throne trembled as the two glared at each other; tipping one way, then the other. With a sharp spin it jerked off toward the crowds. Those below yelped and reached up as Mean passed by: she clung to the chair as it bucked and swung. The bottom swirled up for a moment and Mean remained fastened to the seat upside-down. She bared her teeth with a wide smile as Kello made it to eight. The people below her cheered her on.

“Stop!” Kary demanded, running over and kicking the wall. “Stop cheering for that skinny cheat!”

Mean righted the chair and slammed it down at the side of the ring, close to where Pinada stood.

“You can stop with that,” Mean shouted over the wall. “If Mrs. Rules over there thinks it’s fine then it’s fine. You could learn how to fly too, you know. It’s a lot like moving an object, and you know how to do that.”

“Shut up!” Kary shot back. “You’re an alien; you don’t know how it is here! I can’t just ‘learn’ it!”

“Ten,” Kello announced. “Me-anne wins the match. She will move on to battle Parlay.”

The crowd whistled and clapped as Mean stood up. “I love you, Me-anne!” a guy called from somewhere. Kay Kary pulled at her hair and swore.

“Well done,” Pinada said, gliding his box closer to her. “You could both move the chair, but your ability to modify your own weight kept you held fast.”

“Oh, come on guys, it wasn’t that tough,” Mean laughed, taking a backward glance at the stands. Dark saluted her, and Vornis, Jelk, Darrow, and Trisk cheered.

 

—–

 

“That smaller girl won,” Cots expressed, squinting over the bar at a wall-side monitor. “She came in here once, you know. She didn’t have any money but she was here. Right in that seat.”

“Yeah, Cots, we were here when that happened,” the woman sitting in the end stool laughed. She tapped out a cigarette from a box in her hand. “You know, that armored fellow is going to fight next. I hope he does as well as the others.”

A man in plain clothes on the next stool over chuckled, staring at the wine bottles behind Cots. “Those aliens were really in here?”

“They came in just the other night: the two of them, alone,” the smoking woman replied. The man, with his elbows on the bar, turned and smiled. He had a white grin and a well-trimmed beard fashioned into points.

“Sounds like you and the barkeep are pulling my leg,” he said. A tap came on his shoulder.

“I saw them,” a smaller man said, jabbing at the air with his finger. “They came in and sat at that table. For a long time.”

The bearded man looked at where the short man was pointing: it was a table by a window that displayed black hills against the setting sun.

“I sat behind them,” the shorter man went on. “They played that game with the animals.”

The bartender Cots slapped a worn, wrinkled hand on the counter. “I watched them play that! First time here, and they were blazing through levels like they were in here every night! I should know: I got the high score back in–when was that?”

And as the bar patrons went on, the man stroked his pointed beard, listened, and smiled.

10 – Villain’s Legacy

 

Mean scampered up the stairs to meet Dark and the others near the top of the bleachers. Several people sitting near the aisle extended their hands for high-fives as she passed. Others scowled at her. Below, Kay Kary joined Caldera and Donzel Veinsmith at the long table.

“You did it!” Parlay squealed, greeting Mean with wide, bright eyes. “I’m glad you won; I really didn’t want to see Kary again.”

“Thanks!” Mean said as she settled in between Dark and Parlay. “And that’s right–I’m up against you next.”

“I think you’ll beat me,” Parlay admitted. “Oh look–Eon is coming up!” Parlay turned to look past King’s pedestal; as she did so, Mean spied three lockets on gold chains dangling from her neck.

“I heard he traveled here without using the hex doors,” Parlay said. At the far end of the roof a hulking man was ascending from a flight of stairs that was hooded by a half-dome. Some onlookers had noticed his arrival and went to booing. Eon gave no reaction, his dour face crowned with a helmet carved from wood. A wooden breast plate spanned his thick chest, with the many rings of a fallen tree radiating across the width.

“That guy’s almost as big as Vornis,” Darrow said as Eon plodded past Kello. “Why doesn’t he use the doors? Can’t he fit?”

Parlay leaned across Mean’s lap to reply down the row. “I don’t think anyone in Sing’s cult uses magic at all.” Tome frowned, staring down at Eon as he bypassed the ring’s stairs with an effortless bound. He looked up; the arena was darkening. After a few moments the imperial pyramid roof dimmed to black.

“YOU NEED IT, BABY,” a voice boomed from the dark. With a magnificent flare, the rectangular screen on King’s pedestal flickered on. A burst of color erupted from every corner of the stage, and an image of Jelk’s smiling face appeared on the monitor. His image nodded out to the crowd, stroking the tuft of hair below his lip. Another flash, and harpsichord began playing from somewhere. Scenes of Jelk dressed in various costumes began to play out on the screen: one had him running with a leafy headdress; another had him wearing a long, woolen coat while he urged an overhead comet to fall. In another he was clad in a dress, and each scenario ended with him being bound, trapped, or unconscious as another person laughed at him from the ring’s throne.

The screen winked off, and two bright columns of light appeared at opposite sides of the ring. The spotlights swung across the crowds and merged at one point: a hex door where four slumping, human-sized mannequins were waiting. As the harpsichord faded a new, harsher rhythm emerged. The mannequins sprang to life, bouncing in time to a primal drum beat. The features in the dolls’ faces were shallow, and their expressions were all carved to mimic anguish. Along their arms and legs were painted bruises and wounds.

“UNBELIEVABLE!” a pre-recorded woman’s voice shrieked, and the four puppets knelt down, facing the hex door as Jelk appeared in the center.

“The dead will dance!” he called out to the roaring crowd, and the puppets leapt up as flame shot out from the door: tossing white sparks in twin rows past the vendor booths to the ring.

Jelk’s face was smeared with white and red paint, with the red streaking down from his eyes and his mouth: past the tuft at his chin, down his neck, and dripping into the mouth of an inverted, black skull painted on his belly.

“He’s dressed as Blood Hill,” Tome said to Darrow and Dark as they watched Jelk and the puppets step in time to the beat. “He lived ages ago–he’s part of the reason that people are so scared of magic that alters the body.”

A woman behind them shook her head as the daylight returned. “I can’t believe they’d allow this,” she said aloud. Darrow leaned closer to Tome.

“I think you told me about this guy, right? Didn’t he make zombies?”

Tome kept his eyes on Parlay; she sat with her arms drawn in and her eyes cast down. “You can say that,” he answered. “The people he controlled were alive, though. The stories say he was able to force muscular movement, but their bodies would be covered with bruises as they fought against him. It would fatigue them so much that they would appear as corpses.”

“Holy crap,” Mean muttered to Dark.

“Yeah,” he whispered back, “no wonder Parlay’s had it so rough.”

Jelk reached the stage and the puppets followed him up the stairs, jerking their arms and legs with each step. He and his entourage halted. He pointed out to the crowds.

“I’m counting on you guys, too!” he cried, “Let’s show these Jesians how hard this planet rocks!”

A greater cheer answered him this time, and Jelk reached into the open jacket he wore. He pulled out a tiny skull from a pocket, tossing it into the ring. White sparks fizzled out of its eye sockets as it came to rest at the foot of the throne.

“You’re wasting your energy with this little show,” Kello said from ringside. Jelk grinned.

“It isn’t against the rules, now is it?” he quipped, bowing down at her. Pinada touched his forefingers and thumbs together, raising the four glass walls to surround the ring. Jelk grasped the hem of his jacket and shook: fifteen more tiny, sparking skulls tumbled out. He kicked a few over to Eon’s side.

“I know I’m a tough act to follow, Tree-on, but you could at least try to put on a show!” Jelk laughed. Eon’s eyes remained focused beneath the slit in his helmet. The puppets gathered around Jelk as he swaggered over to his starting position, juggling three of the skulls.

“My name is Eon,” the armored man said. “I represent Sing, and those that serve him.”

“I dressed up as the traitor Sing one year,” Jelk said. “Had the comet and everything–had about as much success as he did too!” He winked off into the bleachers.

“You mocked him,” Eon continued. “You made light of his wisdom.”

“Begin!” Kello announced, and Eon strode forward.

Jelk cowered, dropping all three skulls. “Minions, to my aid!” he shrieked. Three of the puppets rushed the armored man, their bruised arms jiggling as they ambled forward.

“You heathen!” Eon bellowed, pummeling the first doll to reach him. It toppled off balance from the blow to its chest; Eon’s massive arm at least as thick.

“Serve your master, you fools!” Jelk commanded, and the other two puppets dove at Eon’s legs. With their arms outstretched, they grasped at his humongous calfs: interlocking their arms. Eon thundered to halt, wobbling. The first doll he had knocked down sprung up from where it had fallen, walked over, and shoved him from behind.

The audience roared as Eon tumbled forward, and the two puppets holding him pulled his legs tighter until his ankles touched. With a snap the dolls rolled away, leaving their gangly arms behind; the limbs continued to clench tighter and they fused into one, solid piece to bind him.

Eon muttered and spat. Crawling forward, he swiped at Jelk with one of his arms.

“Oh!” Jelk cried, leaping behind the puppet still standing near him. He put his hands on its shoulders and peered out, speaking to the crowd. “The villagers are in arms! Is the vile, black magic of Blood Hill not to their tastes?”

Eon took another wild swing; the final puppet homed in and latched onto his arm. As the man fought to remove it, its limbs too interlocked, detached, and fused into a solid band around his wrists. Eon’s wooden armor clattered against the mat as he struggled.

“I did it? I did it!” Jelk cried, pointing down at Eon. Whoops came from the audience as he held the ends of his open coat up and pranced to the chair. He twirled, stuck out his posterior with great flourish, and sat.

“One!” Kello called. Jelk stood up again.

“Hey, Kello! On a scale of one to ten–with one being ‘ultimate hotness’–just how sexy do you think I am?”

She grit her teeth as he plopped down again with a smirk.

“One!” she called out, and Jelk polished his knuckles on his lapel as someone in the audience whistled. Eon remained on the floor, grumbling and writhing near one of the glass walls.

“Regenerate, my minions, regenerate!” Jelk commanded. The puppets that had lost their arms obeyed: new limbs appeared at their sides. They pushed themselves up and stood as Jelk beckoned them, shambling past the sparkling skulls to join him.

“How many kisses do I get on our date?” Jelk asked.

“Four!” Kello counted.

Jelk laughed and the puppets grasped the throne, their legs wobbling as they hoisted the chair upward. “How many kids are we going to have?”

“Five!” Kello said, her grip on the parasol tightening.

“Alright, that’s enough, Jelk,” King said into his microphone. “Don’t let your first win go to your head.”

Jelk smiled as the puppets paraded the throne across the ring. “Forgive me, o King! I got out of character!”

Eon closed his eyes and began to chant.

“Mighty Sing, grant me the power to show this heathen the way; purge his wickedness. Let me be the vessel to bring your light to this place; let me purify those who stand against you.”

He cast his eyes up and a glow sprung from his body; luminous strings extended outward–over the floor, up the walls––streaking through the air toward Jelk on his throne.

“What in the holy–!?” he gasped. The lighted strings curved around him and his puppets, clinging to his body and the throne as they stretched past him. They continued onward to the furthest glass wall, rose up it, and reached past the top edge.

“Pinada!” King cried, leaping up as the strings gravitated toward his pedestal. Pinada stood inside of his cube with his hands in his coat pockets, watching the lights.

The audience gasped as the strings ceased their advance; they retracted: they slid back inside the walls, retreating past Jelk and his puppets, and withdrew into Eon’s chest again. Every sparking skull fizzled out, save the one near the ring’s center. The four mannequins collapsed with a sudden clatter.

“Son of a–!” Jelk spat out as the chair plummeted: crushing the puppets and shaking him loose from the seat. His knees, palms and face hit the mat with a smack. He winced and curled up; blood came out of his mouth and mixed with the red paint smeared there.

“Tome, what happened?” Darrow asked, leaning across Mean as she held her hand to her mouth.

“The patterns were just stripped of all their magic energy,” he replied, clenching his jaw. “I’ve seen this before–when I was a spirt at Stone Rory Refuge.”

They watched as the four walls containing the ring slipped and lowered back into the floor. Jelk was pulling himself up and limping with every step back to the chair. As he eased down into it, he noticed Eon. The armored man was holding his entangled arms over his head. He took in a breath, flexed, and the binding at his wrists snapped.

“Man. Oh no,” Jelk expressed, wiping his lip. As Kello began counting from one, Eon reached for the piece keeping his feet held together. He rent it with a violent twist of his hands, sending fragments and splinters over the floor.

“Hurry up, count!” Jelk shouted, pressing himself against the throne as Eon stood. The skulls bounced and rolled across the mat with each step as the hulking man made his way over. Jelk swallowed as he neared, and a large shadow was cast over him.

“You are powerless without magic,” Eon said. He reached down and took Jelk by the coat: a hand at each side of the collar. “Your reliance on it has weakened your soul.” He tore him from the seat and tossed him aside; Jelk’s body bounced once and came to rest at the brink of the mat. His head and one of his arms dangled over the side as he groaned.

“The prophet Sing knew this!” he announced, claiming the throne. “He fought against the one with the most unholy power: the one whom you put all of your misplaced faith in”–people began booing before he finished–”the ‘hero’ Pinada!”

A man in the bleachers tossed a full soda can at where Eon sat; Pinada pushed his palm at it, sending it twirling off-course.

“We would all be better off if magic never existed,” Eon continued. “Our new friends from Jesice are the truest evidence of that; they were able to cross between worlds without magic–something we have never been able to do.” He shifted, looking up at Trisk through the slit in his helmet. “And yet, even they have felt the touch of our planet’s corruption.”

He sat and the audience stomped and cursed him as Kello counted. “Ten!” she finished. “Eon wins. Jelk will now face Dark Lord in the fourth latecomer match.”

The crowd shouted at Eon as he got up. “Go to their planet if you hate magic so much!” a man yelled.

Eon chuckled, and the lone sparking skull sputtered out at his feet. “Sing will return, and I will be waiting!” he shouted back. “He will purify this rotting world!”

A faint smile crossed Pinada’s lips as he slid over to Jelk. “Are you alright? Should I call a doctor?”

“I don’t think I need any help,” Jelk said, slipping down from the mat and onto the floor. “I’ll just go to the loser’s table. I don’t feel very good right now.” He crawled over to Kello with the hem of his open jacket dragging. “Kello, I’m sorry. I don’t have any energy left at all. I’ll forfeit the latecomer match.”

Kello nodded. “Jelk has withdrawn from the tournament,” she announced. “Dark Lord will now move up to face Eon. This match will occur in ten minutes.”

“Uh oh,” Dark said. Mean slapped his leg.

“Dark, if Eon does that draining thing to you what happens?”

“I won’t be be winning with all the muscles I’m hiding under here, that’s for sure,” Dark replied. “Tome–you said you’ve seen this happen before? One of those skull balls Jelk tossed kept working even after the drain–why do you think that is?”

“I’m not sure,” Tome said. “That technique was used by rories to cool their shells. It hooked any pattern in range and pulled the energy right out.”

“That skull was the first one he threw,” Darrow offered. “Was it different somehow?”

“Dark, maybe you shouldn’t do this,” Mean said. “Three of us are going forward already; we don’t need to risk you on this guy.”

Dark sat up straight, peering down at Jelk as he limped to the long table next to Kay Kary. He winced as he sat, taking heavy breaths. On the pedestal, King waved his hands and shimmering arrays appeared in various spots above the square ring. In a flash the skulls and broken mannequins were removed and the throne was back in the center. Eon grumbled over by one of the vendor booths. He was taking bites out of a pastry.

“Jelk was helping us,” Dark said. “And he may be a rude showoff, but he seems to be the most tolerant person here. I’m not going to let him down by running from Eon. I think I know what I need to do.”

Mean’s eyes were wide. “What?” she asked.

Dark stood up. “I’ll have to put on a show in Jelk’s place.”

Mean chuckled. “Excuse me?”

“That’s right!” Dark shouted, swirling around and tossing the hem of his cape out. It flapped away from his body, revealing two holsters strapped to his sides. “Are you people ready!?” he called out to the crowd, whipping out a large pistol and waving it over his head. He squeezed the trigger and a long jet of flame burst from the nozzle; people gasped and looked up from their seats.

“I’m the Darklord and I’m gonna light this place up! Baby!” he exclaimed, whirling the fiery stream in a circle above him. Eon looked up from below, licking frosting from his fingers with a quizzical stare. Mean glanced around.

“Dark, what are you doing?” she asked between her teeth.

“I’m asking ‘ARE YOU PEOPLE READY!?'” he repeated. He started down the stairs to the ring, flourishing his cape as he went.

“We’re ready!” the crowd answered back, laughing.

Dark held his glove to the side of his helmet, cupping it. “Sounds like you guys are ready to party with the Darklord!”

Mean covered her face with her hands as Dark encouraged more cheers. He reached the ring, keeping the flamethrower on the entire time. A black trail of smoke rose above the arena.

“What is he thinking!?” Tome asked out loud. The people around him, Vornis, Trisk, Parlay, and Darrow began chanting Dark’s name.

“Acting like an idiot,” Trisk said. “Darrow, you’ve finally corrupted him.”

Down in the ring, Dark’s flamethrower began to sputter. He switched it off and tossed the weapon aside.

“Jelk, I’m gonna need you too,” Dark said, pointing. Jelk looked up from his place at the table, silent as the crowds urged Dark on. Eon vaulted into the ring. Dark removed the other pistol from his holster and held it over his head. When he pulled this one’s trigger it sparked: an electric arc flashed down to his shoulders, squirming and dancing across his black armor as it branched down to the mat. The crowd applauded.

“Okay, what the hell!” Jelk laughed through his smeared makeup. He hopped to his feet and leapt onto the table. “Let’s hear it for Dark! The most electrifying man in the ring!”

Pinada looked over at Kello. “I can’t raise the walls; you can begin when you’re ready.”

Dark faced the throne as the flashing arcs from the gun barrel swirled across his arms and traveled down his legs. Eon stood at his place at the other end.

“Begin the match!” Kello announced.

“I was hoping you’d be different from the rest,” Eon said. He flexed his arms backward, and the leather straps on his wooden breastplate creaked. “But you’ve succumbed to the temptation of magic: indulging yourself in its folly like the others. Tragic.”

Dark released the trigger and the current ceased. He placed the gun back into its holster. “Maybe I did succumb–or at least I thought so. I’ve seen things from different sides lately, so it’s hard to tell.”

He walked toward the chair and Eon matched his stride: his massive legs causing the ring’s surface to wobble.

“So you’re being serious now?” Eon asked, meeting him at the side of the throne. “Before we begin, tell me: you’ve seen a world without magic and one tainted by it. Which do you think is better off?”

Dark looked up at the dissipating smoke. A faint blue planet could be seen in the sky, past the clouds. “Can’t I just say both worlds have their good and bad points?” he said, turning back. “If you think a world without magic is a perfect paradise, think again–people are capable of evil even if they have nothing. Even if they have everything.”

“True,” Eon agreed. “But surely the capability for wickedness is greater when more power exists. Can men on your world draw comets out of the sky? Force others to act as their slaves? There are so many ways to kill people here. Can your world without magic do such things?”

“You may have those destructive means,” Dark replied, “but you also have the means to prevent it. For every comet there is a Pinada to hold it back. For every person harmed there is a Parlay to heal them.”

“Blasphemers!” Eon roared. “They are the worst! They are the ones with the most power–if Parlay were to turn out like Blood Hill who could stop her?”

Dark snorted, chuckling. “Someone would stand up to Parlay, I bet!” he said, looking over at where Mean stood. “There’s balance in everything, I’ve found. From the most unlikely of places, it always comes from somewhere.”

“Then let it come from me!” Eon shouted, slamming his wide palm into Dark’s chest. “Let it come from Sing, almighty!”

Dark bounced backward and landed on his rear; Eon bowed his head and began to chant.

“Mighty Sing, grant me the power to show this heathen the way; purge his wickedness. Let me be the vessel to bring your light to this place; let me purify those who stand against you.”

As he spoke the lighted rays extended from his chest.

“Well here we go,” Dark said, shielding his face. The strands of light curved around his armor’s sleek surface as they met his arm: wrapping around it, reaching out to his face, following the contours in his helmet, and moving on.

The lines radiating out from Eon halted at the ring’s edges. With a snap they contracted into his body; Dark stumbled to one knee. He labored to stand, supporting himself with his gloved hand on his leg.

“So your armor was powered by magic,” Eon stated. He frowned with a tilt of his head, clomping over. “It takes strength to wear a full suit–it’s obvious that you don’t have the physique.”

Dark wobbled and lunged; Eon’s fist struck his helmet. There was a crack and Dark twisted backward. Shining, black pieces bounced over the mat.

“Dark!” Mean called out, her eyes on him as he fell. Dark pushed himself up as the thudding footsteps closed in. A small hole revealed half his jaw, and he smiled: the lips framed by jagged cracks in the helmet. Eon planted his boot in his stomach and flipped him onto his back.

“You make another good lesson,” he said, staring down at Dark. “Your reliance on magic has made you even weaker than my first opponent.”

Dark chuckled through the gap in his helmet. “Weakness is handy sometimes–sometimes it’s the best thing to bring down the strong. Or those that perceive themselves to be strong.”

Eon scowled, kneeling over him. “I am strong,” he said, thumping a palm on Dark’s chest and pressing him down. “You can do nothing but lay there and squirm when your magic is taken!”

“You didn’t take it all,” Dark replied, panting. His hand brushed the holster and he pulled the gun out. “I noticed it by watching those sparking skulls that Jelk tossed in the ring when you fought. One of them kept going, even after your trick. It was the skull he threw down first–the one that had used up most of its magical energy.”

He rose the barrel to the Eon’s head, his arm trembling.

“So I figured your attack needed a strong pattern in order to strip it away; a weak one would get passed over. I emptied my guns until just a little magic was remaining in both. I think I have one good shot left in each.” Eon remained still. He did not say anything. Dark smiled again. “So, am I right? Get off me or I shoot.”

Eon eyed the pistol’s barrel. His massive arm jerked at it and Dark squeezed the trigger; an arc flashed from the nozzle and sizzled across Eon’s head. He seized up with a loud gasp and his arms locked in place, toppling sideways as wisps of black smoke swirled away from his wooden helm. Dark struggled to his feet and made for the throne.

“Yeah! Dark, you did it!” Mean shouted. Dark halted before reaching the chair, however: looking down at the sharp piece that had been knocked from his black helmet. He knelt, picked it up, and began to clamber back over to where Eon lay.

“Jeez, you don’t have to kill him–just sit in the chair!” Mean shouted back. Dark’s lips curled at her as he dropped to the massive man’s side.

“It’s just a hunch I have,” he said, his breath heavy. “I need to check it out–it’s something Tome said.”

“Something Tome said!?” Mean yelled back as Dark took the sharp edge of the shard to Eon’s side. He sawed at the leather straps holding the wooden breastplate on, snapping one off, then the other. Eon grunted and stirred.

“The chair, Dark, the chair!” Mean screamed, and Dark lifted the plate away from the man’s bare back.

“Maybe you’re right,” Dark agreed, and he scrambled away: racing to the throne and plopping down.

“One,” Kello called out.

The ring wobbled as Eon slammed his huge palms into it, rising up on wavering arms. He stood and his heel slipped. His breastplate hung askew and his eyes wandered.

As Kello shouted “Five,” Eon’s black pupils snapped to the chair. With a growl he flung the lopsided armor from his chest, planted his feet, and barreled forward.

“Great,” Dark said, curling his fingers around the armrests. Eon wedged his hand behind the black cape and swept him off with one stroke. Taking his place on the seat, Kello counted for Eon now.

“Dark, the other gun!” Mean shouted. “Blast him with it!”

Dark’s head bobbed as he took plodding steps over to where the discarded flamethrower was. He scooped it up and Eon rose from the throne.

“Just try it,” Eon dared, circling around to concealing his wide frame behind the back of the chair. “Fire your one shot–then I’ll smash the rest of your face in.”

The spectators were still as Dark leveled the gun’s barrel at Eon’s head. A steady breath came from the half-open mouth behind the shattered hole in his helmet. A clatter sounded at Dark’s feet. He glanced down, seeing the two wooden slabs of armor that Eon had discarded. The breastplate marked with tree rings was wobbling to and fro.

“You didn’t–” Dark said, watching it rock. “It’s in there!? It’s inside!?

“What is?” Eon asked, “Stop stalling and fight!”

Kello cleared her throat. “I must ask you to explain, Eon; I didn’t see any patterns on that armor before. How is it moving?”

“He put a rory inside it,” Dark spat. “It’s what stripped the energy away. He couldn’t do it himself so he took a living creature that could. He trained it and squeezed inside his armor!”

“Alright!” Eon admitted. “So I’m using an animal companion! That’s allowed!”

“Companion?” Dark repeated. “You took it out of its shell and stuffed it in there! You used it!”

Eon kicked the throne. “It’s helping further Sing’s cause–I can’t use magic myself; that would make me a hypocrite! Impure! I had to make a sacrifice.”

The teeth behind Dark’s mask clenched as he hissed. “A sacrifice, really? He’s the one suffering! Do you know how that feels? Always hidden; feeling nothing but the armor that holds you–traps you!”

Mean put her hands to her mouth and the jet from the gun poured out in one violent burst. Eon flinched from the glare as the wooden armor on the mat burned away. Kello called for disqualification and King leapt up in a rage. Out of the smoldering pile a tiny, wet creature was breaking out.

11 – Stone Rory Refuge

 

“Accessory!” Kello announced. “Hidden accessory! That creature was not approved! Eon is disqualified! Dark Lord advances to the semi-finals!”

Darrow and Tome were the first down from the stands, climbing up onto the ring along with Mean. Dark sat beside the smoldering, wooden remains of Eon’s armor. They flat, slimy being lay still.

“Are you okay, man?” Darrow asked.

Dark coughed, holding his glove to gap in his helmet. “Yeah, I’ll be okay. I might need a drink, though.”

“I’ll get one,” Mean said, touching his shoulder as she hurried off.

A wet thump sounded as King’s emperor rory landed next to the creature that had emerged from the breastplate. King swung off the gilded shell, his eyes blazing above his scraggly, black beard. He glared over at Eon. With a jab of his finger a hexagonal array twinkled at the massive man’s feet.

“King, no, don’t use that on me,” Eon pleaded, pulling his arms to his bare chest. “Don’t use a hex door; I’ll leave. Please.”

The hexagon vanished and King swished his hand. “Get out of the ring and sit down at the table,” he commanded. Eon nodded, edging out of the ring. King turned to his rory and the injured creature, kneeling down.

“It is a stone rory,” King confirmed. “Oh–don’t touch it,” he warned as Darrow leaned in.

“Is it alright?” Darrow asked. King’s rory slid closer and bent its eyestalks over the smaller one.

“Well, I know that stone rories aren’t as pliable as other species,” he said. “They need heat–special conditions to fit into their shells. Eon must have molded it into a shape that would fit into that armor. Barbaric. Its eyestalks are pressed flat. I don’t know what to do, though.”

Tome rose his hand. “I know a place,” he offered. “It’s a refuge for this type. I think they can help.”

King looked up. “How would you know about a place like that?” he asked, then waved his hand. “Oh, never mind. Dark–will you carry it? Their slime might be corrosive to flesh, if I recall.”

Dark nodded, reaching over and inching his gloves under the slimy pile. As Dark lifted it up, the little rory crept up his arm. Mean walked over to find him cradling it.

“Wow, it really likes you,” she said. “Here’s your drink. I’ve never seen you drink before so I got you whatever.” She held up a cup with a straw, and Dark leaned over.

“Thanks,” he told her, then took a long gulp through the gap in his helmet. “We’re going to take it to the stone rory refuge.”

“Alright, let them through,” Kello announced to the spectators. “Tomorrow we will have the remaining quarter-final matches: Trisk vs. Templetine; The Beast vs. Tenny; and Me-anne vs. Parlay!”

She closed her parasol and headed off to the vendors as Parlay met up with Dark’s group.

“Do you mind if I come?” she asked. “I want to see if I can help it too.”

Dark’s lips beneath the helmet grinned at her. “I had a feeling you might.”

 

—–

 

The group materialized inside a foyer decorated with stone shells and plush merchandise that resembled smiling slugs. A lone attendant at a counter’s cash register looked up.

“Welcome to the Stone–oh, hey, I know you!” she said. “Aren’t you King?”

“Yes, indeed I am,” King confirmed, rushing over. “And we have a rory that was injured at my fair. Can you help it?”

The receptionist slid off her chair and waved everyone through the lobby without speaking again. Dark strode at his normal pace now, through the sliding door and out into a high-walled, outdoor area. A keeper with a clipboard sat near a large engine attached to a pedestal. Behind him, stairs ascended past multiple tiers. Thin pillars dotted these tiers, each holding aloft a small platform. Rories with stone and pumice shells lay on top of them.

“What do you have there?” the keeper asked Dark. His nose was pointed and the skin around his eyes sagged. “I didn’t hear about getting any new rories today.”

“It was smashed in between two plates of armor for–I don’t know. A few days, at least,” Dark told him. He held the little, slimy thing out along with his arm. The keeper set his clipboard down and donned a visor that hung on the engine from a peg. He took a paper strip from his pocket, touched it to the rory, examined the strip, then frowned.

“It’s not looking good,” the keeper said, placing the paper aside and pushing the visor up onto his brow. “Its internal organs are too compressed. We need to get it out of that flattened shape.”

“I’ll pay for the treatment,” King said, and the keeper looked at him with wide eyes for a moment.

“I just don’t think we can do it right now. Not here,” he replied. “The plants we use–I don’t know if you can see them up there–but those plants aren’t in season. They can put out the proper heat, but only at certain times during the year.”

“Want me to go back and get your flamethrower?” Darrow asked Dark. The keeper shook his head.

“Other heat sources won’t work; it needs to be those plants. I can send out the word to some of the other stations; maybe theirs are in the right stage of growth.”

King held up a finger. “I think we can handle that part. Parlay–?”

The blond-haired woman nodded. “I can try. Plants are pretty easy.”

“What do you mean?” the keeper asked. “What did you say her name was?”

King removed his crown and held it to his chest. “She is the Parlay that no doubt you have heard of. Now, she believes she can get your plant into the right state, so to speak, but she will have to manipulate it herself.”

“I’ve heard what she does,” the keeper said. “Look–I’ll let you try; that rory needs help. Just don’t go telling everyone that you were here, alright?”

King bowed. “Not a word. Shall we, then?”

He set his crown atop his balding head again as the keeper turned to the engine. It had many flat, hexagonal faces overlaid with copper wiring, edges, and hooks. After a few button presses every pillar trembled and lowered into the floor. Several of the rories retreated into their shells and took flight. When every pillar and platform had descended, Parlay pointed at one. Two small plants clung to the top: both a tangle of tiny vines light purple in hue.

“Bring it over there, Dark,” Parlay said, taking the stairs up. Dark followed her. She stepped onto the platform and knelt, taking one of the vine’s tips in her hand.

“Were these all cultivated from the same parent?” she called out, looking back. The keeper nodded. “Stay back from any other vines you see, then! These guys are all share a magical link in their patterns, so when ones goes–they all do. Okay now, Dark, hold it up above the center of the other plant.”

Dark obeyed her, kneeling as well, with the flattened rory still clinging to his arm. The vines rolled inward as he approached: wadding up into a compact, squishy ball.

“Okay. Good,” Parlay stated. She flinched back. “Now I just–”

The plants flickered and a fire bloomed on them both; Parlay winced, holding on with just the tips of her fingers.

“She did it,” the keeper said, slipping on the visor again. Small flames had ignited on a few of the other platforms, scattering the rories still nestled there. They launched upward and hovered around the jets of intensifying heat: some staying back while others dipped themselves into the fires. Dark’s arm was engulfed and he shielded the gap in his helmet with his free hand. Parlay grit her teeth and held her face away.

“We need to get inside,” the keeper told the others. “When the rories are done molding their shells they’ll scrape the magic from every pattern here. It’s how they extinguish the flame, but it will hit everything else inside the walls, too.”

The group retreated inside, watching the columns of rippling air that arose from the flaming platforms. The rories by the fires were heating themselves, smashing their rock shells into different shapes as the surfaces glowed. When each had finished they lay still, their eyestalks alert. Darrow leapt back from the glass door as the shining rays exploded outward from a rory on one of the lowest tiers. The other creatures followed the first one’s lead, releasing the rays and covering the platforms and stairs with bright light. The towering walls contained the emissions, and after a dazzling moment every ray retreated into the rories again. The smattering of fires had gone out. Dark dropped his hand from his mouth and slumped down. Parlay released the vine, wiping sweat from her reddened face.

“It’s amazing–no matter how many times I see it,” the keeper marveled.

“It’s certainly something,” Darrow said.

“I had a son that felt the same way;” the keeper laughed, “he didn’t like the rories much. Thought they were disgusting.”

Mean tapped on the glass door. “They’re done; let’s go see!”

As she stepped out with the others Dark lumbered to his feet again. The rory on his arm lifted its head up from the armor: its body full and round with eyestalks bending in all directions. Parlay had tears running down her face.

“You guys did it!” Mean said, galloping up the stairs to them. “Wow, he looks great! Parlay, you guys saved it!”

“Yeah,” Parlay said, massaging her fingers with the soft folds of her vest. “I’m glad it worked; I like being able to help things, for a change.”

Mean smiled at her as Tome and Darrow rushed up.

“Well, it looks lively,” Tome said. The rory doubled around and slid up to Dark’s chest.

“Yeah, he just kind of inflated,” Dark said. He clamped his mouth shut, holding his jaw away from the rory as it poked its head up to the broken helmet. “I think I need to rest again, though; my armor got drained again.”

As he sat on a nearby bench Mean gave him the cup that she had been holding. He took another long gulp through the straw.

“Well, I don’t think that employee wants me here long,” Parlay said. “Thanks for all your help, Dark.”

“You too,” Dark replied, and Parlay rushed off: joining King and the keeper at the bottom door. Mean sat down on the bench and Darrow and Tome gathered around.

“I can’t believe that guy doesn’t want her here,” Mean said. “After all she just did.”

Tome checked over his shoulder. “It’s not his fault. Not this time.”

“How did you know the little guy was in the armor, anyway?” Darrow broke in, extending his finger and pulling it back as the rory slithered toward it.

“I remembered something Tome said–when we first met him here,” Dark replied.

“Me?” Tome asked. “What did I say?”

“You said that Parlay came here right before everyone died,” Dark went on. “And that there was some commotion about an injured rory. We’ve been around Parlay at the fair the whole time, so I’ve been waiting for it to happen. At first I figured that King’s rory would be the injured one. But then you said that you’d seen Eon’s magic-wiping trick when you were at this refuge. That’s when I figured he had it on him somewhere.”

Tome bolted upright. “Wait! That means I’m here! We shouldn’t be talking about–oh, nevermind”–he relaxed–”the rories wiped the magic; my past self can’t see anything right now.”

Darrow nodded, folding his arms. “I guess we should leave before we change the timeline or something. I mean, more than we’re trying to, anyway.”

“That’s a smart plan,” Tome agreed, and the group took the stairs down to the engine and pedestal. The keeper was coming back out wearing a thick pair of gloves. Dark headed over to him.

“I guess I’ll give this to you,” he said, taking the rory and holding him out. The slimy thing squirmed as the keeper reached for him: popping out of Dark’s grip, slipping back across his arms, and clinging tight to his chest plate.

“Uh oh,” the keeper said, backing off. “Where did you say you found him? Inside–”

“Someone’s armor, yes,” Dark finished. “A piece of chest armor.”

The keeper clicked his tongue. “Hm, this rory might be confused–it might think that it’s supposed to live on a person. It may not even take to normal shells if it’s been conditioned to live inside armor.”

“What?” Dark asked. “What does that mean? I have to keep it on me!?”

“You get to be its dad!” Darrow laughed. “Oh, this is priceless!”

“I can give you the type of food that it eats until we figure something out,” the keeper said. He shrugged.

Dark sighed. “Wonderful.”

 

—–

 

King stood inside the stone rory reception area, looking at plush dolls and display cases lined with educational texts. Pinada appeared at the public hex door. His glass case slid against two of the six pillars as he exited.

“Over here,” King whispered. “I’m just waiting on Conneld now.”

“Oh I’m here,” Conneld said, turning away from one of the toy shelves and looking at King. He wore plain clothes and a stocking cap.

“Goodness!” King bellowed. “Don’t sneak up on people like that!”

“Oh, you’re one to talk!” Conneld said. “Popping right in front of people with your hex doors!”

“This might not be the best place for a secret meeting,” Pinada said as he squeezed his case through the aisles of rory dolls. The receptionist was staring at him from behind the cash register.

“It isn’t secret; I just don’t want to alarm anyone at the fair,” King said.

Pinada leaned up to the glass and lowered his voice. “Where are the Jesians?”

“They all left a few minutes ago with Parlay,” Conneld said.

King swept off his crown and slapped his leg with it. “I knew it! You’re spying on them!”

Conneld tilted his face away from the receptionist. “Of course not. Now what did you want? I need to not spy on them some more.”

King rubbed at a bald spot on his shaggy head. “I’m worried about the threats Eon made. ‘Purifying wickedness’ or whatever he said. I want you to spectate the remaining matches with me. Keep a watch on him.”

Conneld snorted. “Eon won’t even use magic. If you were so worried you shouldn’t have let him come in the first place.”

“I won’t exclude anyone from my fair,” King said. “Even so, I’m not going to sit back when someone makes a threat.”

“I think King might be right,” Pinada said. He fingered the turquoise scarf that hung at his coat’s collar. “Eon could be planning a conventional attack, maybe? And if his cult is backing him he could still pull off something big.”

“Gracious,” King uttered. “You don’t think the fair is in danger, do you?”

Pinada pushed up his glasses. “I’m used to dealing with Sing, remember? You’d be surprised at the damage one person can do. And here at the fair there are many, many, people. Conneld should help; something could slip past me. That is, to say, some tiny detail. It would be a shame if some preventable disaster wasn’t stopped–just because one of us wasn’t paying attention.”

“I’m not sure you’d need my help, Pinada,” Conneld said. He toyed with one of the points on his beard. “But it couldn’t hurt.”

“Good,” King uttered. He set his crown on his head again. “I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

Pinada nodded and twirled to face the other side of his cube. He lead the way out, glancing over at the pointed-nosed rory keeper as he departed.

 

—–

 

Mean, Darrow, Trisk, Tome, and Vornis appeared at a hex door carved in a paved lot. Dark stood with half of his cape drawn over his chest: the head of the rory peeking out. People in bathing suits and scant clothes wandered out of other doors nearby, heading toward a large complex ahead. Two large, wooden towers cast shadows onto the ground, and many colorful slides twisted and curled down from the upper floors. “HILO” was spelled out with giant blobs of water that were suspended between the structures.

“What happened?” Darrow asked. “What are we doing out here? This is still Hilo’s right?”

“Uh, I’m pretty sure,” Tome said, shielding his yellow eyes from the overhead sun. “The door never used to put us outside, though.”

“Maybe our usual suite is full,” Mean suggested. “Crowds, having to pay–we get the full experience this time!”

“Yay,” Vornis said, and they all began walking toward the shouts and splashes sounding from the distant towers. They followed a group of teenagers–meeting their backward glances with smiles–all the way up to an arched entryway. A line of people extended out from the gate.

“Maybe this could be fun after all,” Vornis said, winking at one of the girls and flexing his scale-covered chest. She shrieked, pressing into the people ahead of her.

“You can’t even fit in the slides with those giant spikes,” Darrow grumbled.

“I don’t think any of us will have to worry,” Trisk said, pointing. “Looks like they’re already calling security on us.”

Ahead, at the gate, a young man was speaking into a device: his eyes shifting between Dark and Vornis.

“Well, I did forget to bring sunscreen for the tiny bit of my face showing,” Dark lamented.

“I guess we do stand out,” Tome said. “I wanted to talk to everyone away from King’s prying eyes, but this clearly isn’t going to work.”

As the group of people ahead murmured and stared, a massive jet of water burst from the side of the building. The liquid rushed out and filled a small basin; a person shot out along with the water and plopped into the growing pool. He planted his feet and stood: sweeping his arms out and flinging water on everyone nearby.

“Hilo! It’s Hilo!” a little boy said, blinking through the spray.

“Welcome, guests!” the man cried. He bounded out of the water in a suit jacket and shorts, keeping a hat pressed to his head. It was woven from straw and water dripped from its edges: splattering down and rolling over and off his slick suit. “Come over here–yes, that group with the armored fellow–you’re not in trouble; don’t worry; don’t worry.”

Darrow and Tome were the first ones over, and Hilo shook their hands, moving from one to the next as they gathered.

“My name is Hilo and I run this park,” he said, bowing as he met Mean. “I know who most of you are; me and my staff have been watching you play at the fair.”

He doffed his hat as he edged over to Trisk, and liquid continued to dribble from its brim.

“I’m quite glad you all decided to visit us here–you will have to wear a swimsuit, miss–here at my fabulous park that’s just oozing with my miraculous invention: the astounding odd water!”

He swirled his hat around on his finger, and an onlooking child giggled as he was sprinkled. Hilo smiled sideways at him.

“It’s a unique pattern: You can breathe while submerged! It retains all of the buoyancy of water! And it can be molded and formed into any shape possible!”

Mean yelped as a small tendril of water swirled and engulf her foot from behind. She bounded into the air, looking down at where the water had snaked away from the basin.

Don’t sneak that stuff up on me,” she warned.

“Goodness,” Hilo said. He placed the ever-dripping hat on his head. “I was just having some fun. Let me assure you that it is perfectly safe and the flow is monitored by us at all times.” Mean glared back as she landed and her heels touched down away from the water.

“How about I let you try it out on your own?” Hilo offered. “I’ll give you guys a free pass!” He twisted around and shouted at the young person manning the gate. “Marco, get suite A ready! And the rest of you”–he gestured to the people that were gawking nearby–”you all get in free! Tell your friends! This is where the Jesians are spending the day!”

The crowds gave their thanks and wandered back to the gates; Hilo spun on his heel to lead Mean and her group back across the wide lot.

“You don’t mind if I tell people you were here, do you?” Hilo asked, walking along. “Don’t worry; the suite has private slides–even catering! Oh, you don’t eat, though. I’ll have it deactivated. How do you feel about doing commercials?”

“Oh man, are you serious!?” Darrow asked. “That would be wild!”

“Mm, yes,” Hilo said, eyeing him. “Your shirt works. Colorful–festive! Let’s put one on ‘the Beast’ too. Soften him up for the kids. And”–he pointed at Dark–”what was that you said in the ring? ‘Party with the Darklord?’ Yes, I like it. Let’s use it.”

Dark chuckled as Hilo paused to catch his breath. “No, I don’t really do things like that.”

“Oh, of course,” Hilo replied. “I’m sure you’re different outside the suit. ‘Persona’ is what you and Jelk call it, right? Here we are.”

An elderly couple wearing sun hats was exiting the hex door, and Hilo bowed at them as they stared at the group. Darrow bounded in but Hilo called him back.

“No, not yet,” he said, bending over at a toll kiosk. “Just stand around it and keep your eyes on one of the hex door spires.”

“What’s it doing?” Mean asked, looking up with a raised brow.

“Oh, right, sorry,” Hilo said, tapping some buttons. “It’s scanning your faces: the patterns that light makes when it’s reflected off them, that is. Now the receiving hex doors at my park will take you directly to a private suite! For a limited time, of course. I’ll decide how long later. Okay–it’s ready! Please step inside.”

The six did so and Hilo cheered them on. “Alright! Enjoy your stay! And remember to tell all of your friends back on your world about my park! Open for most of the year!”

He gave one final salute, spinning the rim of his hat and sprinkling off a ring of odd water. As he did so, the sky vanished and walls lined with lockers appeared. As the group stepped out of the six pillars, water lapped at their ankles and the current flowed into another sunlit room with a long table. A jaunty tune played from somewhere nearby.

“We’re in our room,” Mean said. “I mean, this is where we usually show up when we come here, right?”

“It is,” Vornis affirmed, looking up at a yellow banner. “I don’t remember that being there, but everything else matches.”

“So is that the reason the hex door sends us here in the future?” Darrow pondered. “Because Hilo decided to give us free rides in the past? That’s awesome.”

“It would seem so,” Dark said. The rory moved from his chest and slipped down his right leg, testing the water. “I discussed this with Mean the other night. That would mean that the effects of our trip here have already altered our future. That we have already seen the changes before we even knew we could change it.”

 

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