Hales entered the cafe, it was early in the morning, the smell of dew lingering on the city air. She found her classmates sitting at a table, coffee mugs and a plate of bagels had been consolidated to the center to make room for a folder in front of each chair. Her seat was the only vacant one.
“Hey guys.” Hales greeted the table, she was late apparently, and still very tired. Seven in the morning should never be considered late in any circumstances, Hales thought to herself.
The table returned her greeting. Seated around the table was Talayia, Magun, Dartan, Abajem, Veron, and to her surprise, Xander and Bria.
“Everyone ready?” Dartan asked as Hales grabbed her seat, the group was pushing the capacity limits of the table.
“Let’s get this started.” Xander agreed.
“Alright, so I’ve gathered as much information on the tournament as possible. I’ve also printed out copies of different Specters from the Registry. We can see who we might be up against.” Dartan pulled out papers from his folder.
“Start with the tournament. We all know the basics about the setting but what are the brackets going to be like?” Bria asked. Dartan closed the folder.
“Okay, we’ll start with that.” Dartan took a sip of coffee and licked his lips. Hales grabbed a bagel and starting nibbling and picking at it.
Dartan continued, “There’s projected to be over a hundred Specters, possibly more. If our whole class goes than that’s twenty-five already.” Dartan looked around making sure no one else in the cafe could hear. They were in the clear.
“It’s a double elimination, with random opponents. The arena is a massive underground facility, its ancient from what I’ve read. We’re talking thousands of years old.” Dartan was about to go into more history when Magun cut him off.
“Stay on topic,” He berated.
“Yeah sorry. So anyways, it’s really big and a lot of the prelim rounds have multiple duels running at the same time.”
“Prelim?” Veron asked for clarification.
“Preliminaries, before the main tournament starts. It’s when the double eliminations take place. Depending on how many Specters show up, the prelims will go on until either sixty-four or thirty-two Specters remain.”
“So the prelims are random duels with Specters and you can’t lose twice or you get eliminated.” Xander summed it up.
“Exactly! Once that’s over, we get to the main tournament, single elimination but the brackets are slightly different. Any Specter that didn’t lose in the prelims gets a bracket spot that’s guaranteed to be against someone that did lose once, until there’s none left. Other than that your actual opponent is random.” Dartan took a minute to eat and drink. The discussion continued.
“All during this there will be people watching and scouting us out.” Talayia added.
“Yes and important people at that.” Magun nodded. Dartan swallowed and took over.
“Another tournament rule is no killing. Not that you can’t kill, but if you do you are disqualified. For some ‘benefactors’ attending the tournament, they actually look for the deadliest.”
“It’s going to be dangerous so we need to be careful.” Talayia concluded.
“Is there any preparation time?” Veron questioned Dartan.
“Ah, good point. No there’s none, the only time you can activate your Aspect is once a duel has begun.” Veron looked concerned. She took a bite of a bagel and stayed quiet lost in thought for a minute. She spoke up again.
“I’ll go to watch everyone, but I’m not participating.” Veron looked around at her classmates for support.
Magun was the first to respond. “You’re worried it takes too long to set your Aspect up?” Veron nodded and sipped her coffee.
“What if you draw your Jinx’s before the tournament?” Xander offered.
“I was thinking about that but if I use them up in the first couple rounds then I’ll run into the same problem.”
“You wouldn’t get away with that in the first place. Your Aspect is on the Registry.” Dartan pointed out.
“True, whoever’s running this thing would crack down on that.” Xander admitted.
“Speaking of which, who does run the tournament?” Talayia asked the group.
“The mansion is owned by some billionaire, it was hard to find any information on the family but it looks like they are big business owners.” Dartan had to reference a paper he had printed out.
“Sounds like they work behind the scenes.” Magun said.
“Not only that but the owners of the mansion aren’t even who runs it, they just host it.” Dartan was scanning through the sheet.
“So it’s going to be sketchy and fun! Let’s talk about the other Specters.” Abajem chipped in for the first time, other than the side conversation she had been making with Hales.
“Right, so I’ve printed out folders for everyone with Dossier files from the Registry of Specters that could potentially be at the tournament next week.” Dartan started to explore his folder. Hales skimmed through her folder.
“I suggest reading through this individually and if anyone has any comments or strategies let’s hear them. We can assume everyone will be fighting with their lives on the line.” Xander said and began reading it thoroughly.
The group remained silent for a short while, eating, sipping and reading. Hales didn’t really pay too much attention to the paper, she was still half asleep and took this quiet reading time as a way to rest her eyes.
“Look at this guy, Vare, Archon Aspect. He’s an augur enhanced by energy, it says a noticeable feature is his face is always blurred with some sort of static electricity. He’s from Garghent and he’s a year older. Listed as very powerful.” Xander said, summarizing the paper.
“He sounds like a tough opponent, I saw his bio too.” Magun agreed. He didn’t really add anything to the conversation though.
Hales thought the whole thing was slightly awkward but she knew her classmates were nervous, anxious and excited altogether. It was a way to feel more comfortable and mentally prepare for the coming tournament. Hales wasn’t worried at all, confident in her ability. Truth be told, she was too tired to really care right now. It might hit her in a few days but for now the tournament could have been a year way.
“Here take a look at Zeul. His Aspect is Molten. ‘Zeul creates living magma blobs’ he’s obviously a mancer. Is that the kind of fun you were looking for Abagene?” Veron said jokingly but with real concern as lava is very deadly. Abajem raised an eyebrow, her comment had been fifteen minutes ago. A little late for a joke, Hales thought, and based off of Abajem’s expression, so did she.
“Oh look at Rhenai. She’s from Bast and her Aspect is Blinds. She’s a mancer that manipulates light and shadow to flash and well, blind people.” Bria inputting her find this time. Bast was a nearby city-state, the closest one to Garghent.
Hales had an idea suddenly, she got up from her seat and declared she had to make a phone call. The group continued without her, not that she contributed anyways.
Hales stepped outside and found Deo’s contact in her phone and rang his number.
It rang to the end but he finally answered the call.
“Hello?” Deo asked first.
“Yo, where are you?” Hales was really bad at talking on the phone.
“Oh, I’ve never been there, you’ll have to tell me about it.” Hales said with more than a touch of sarcasm in her voice.
“What’s up.” Deo gave in.
“So have you ever heard of, The Tournament?” She emphasized the name.
“Me and some classmates are discussing it and potential Specters that will be there, and then we are going to train.”
“Thanks for sharing.” He said spitefully. Hales rolled her eyes.
“Want to come?” Hales was about ready to hang up on Deo, which he would prefer, but because that’s what he wanted, now she couldn’t. She was determined not to ‘lose’ this conversation.
“No thanks, joining the tournament will give me a nice and hot seat in the Registry.” Deo explained.
“I still don’t get what’s so bad about being Registered, everyone with an Aspect goes on it eventually.”
“I don’t want to get into it, let’s just say that I don’t trust the city with that… information.” Hales caught the hesitation as he found the least divulging words he could come up with.
Hales paced around outside as she was talking. The streets were as busy as always while the morning rush went in full force.
“What is your power, Deo?” Hales remembered reading an article that claimed using someone’s name had a psychological effect on a person that lowered their defenses and walls around you.
“Not happening.” Needless to say it didn’t work. Hales bit the inside of her cheek thinking.
“You should at least come to the tournament next week and watch, that way you don’t have to register.” Hales offered the idea. Deo remained silent considering her offer.
“Hmm, no I’ll watch it online.” There was no budge in him.
“How, it’s underground and underground!” Hales hated herself for saying that. She could almost see Deo raise an eyebrow through the phone.
“I own a shovel.” Deo’s sarcasm was the driest Hales had ever heard, she almost thought he was serious. Maybe he was.
Good thing I’m friends with Dartan and Magun, I know how to detect this stuff.
Hales was about to say more but she stammered as Talayia joined her outside.
“Hales we need you back in here!” Hales panicked and said the first thing that came to her head.
“Okay, bye mom, talk to you later.” Hales was about ready to leave the city forever. She hung up the phone immediately and slid it in her pocket.
“Hales.” Talayia stated.
“Yeah what did you guys need?”
“Your mom is dead, remember?”
“Umm.” Hales’ brain stopped working.
“Were you talking to a boy?” Talayia said shrewdly.
“No!” Hales turned red despite herself.
“It’s okay, I’m happy you are finally talking to someone other than yourself.” Talayia had control of the situation and punched Hales playfully in the arm.
Why does she always do that!
Hales rubbed her shoulder and the two girls rejoined the table back in the cafe.
“Everything good?” Dartan asked, genuinely concerned.
“Yeah, all good. What did you need to tell me?” Hales said before downing the rest of her coffee, which had cooled considerably.
“We found someone you should hear about.” Xander explained, his voice serious and his expression set.
“His name is Josua, he’s the leader.” Magun explained further.
“Uh. Leader of what?” Hales pressed.
“That’s the problem, we don’t know.” Magun said.
“Well I don’t know either.” Hales said spreading her hands.
“He’s the leader of that vigilante group Antho joined last year.” Dartan put in.
“Oh, yea the *%^$&(&.” The word seemed to bleep out. She realized she had no idea what it was.
“What?” Bria asked.
“I remember Antho saying something awhile ago but I don’t remember.” Hales said, her mind going fuzzy on the subject.
Dartan chimed in. “That’s the problem. It’s not that you don’t remember, you can’t remember. For some reason there’s a block of some sort.”
“How can we know Josua’s name, does it have his Aspect listed?” Hales asked.
“Yeah it says Zone. But that’s a good question.” Magun said thoughtfully but then trailed off.
“Anyways I guess the point is to be careful if you’re up against him.” Xander finished.
The group lapsed into silence, even thinking about the subject seemed impossible.
“I’m going to try to figure it out. Crack the code. I bet my Aspect can do it.” Dartan was speaking out loud to himself more to anyone else. Magun approved.
“Go for it man.” The group had spent a couple more hours at the cafe and it was nearing midday.
“You guys want to train, the school has open facilities for us now that we are Specters?” Magun proposed to the group after they had thoroughly discussed all the Specters in the folders that Dartan had brought.
“Count me in.” Talayia said, always eager to train. Everyone else agreed and the eight Specters left the cafe to train. Hales realized how uncool that actually was. Whatever, they were going to be the elite, and not a single student in the class had nights this week without dreams of winning the tournament.
Deo turned the news back on in his phone. He had earphones plugged in as he walked through the city. It was his usual routine. Wander around, looking for dying flowers while listening to books, the news, talks or anything that sounded interesting. He had looked up Hales’ Dossier file, she was a student at the Garghent Elite Military Cadet High School for the Savant.
Deo found school to be trivial. He never attended school but he would have been a college first year student. School was useless, one could simply learn everything from the palm of the hand and the tip of a finger.
Being able to walk and work while learning about the world and current events kept him in great shape, even if he never lifted weights or went on runs. The human body could gain stamina and strength through a variety of ways he had figured out.
Besides, joining the military was the last thing he would ever do. Garghent was an evil city in his mind, but so was every other city on the planet. Lies and control, those were the true rulers of Garghent. Jealousy being the god who oversaw this race of petty animals who build things that crumble.
Deo found a news channel he considered to be credible. It wasn’t a mainstream news source, more of a freelance independent project. It gave them more validity in his mind, they weren’t forced to filter their information of actual events by large corporations or government agendas.
He tuned in.
“Breaking news on the Brother Continent, the city-state Avalaes has fallen. It had been under siege for the last two months before being conquered and razed to the ground. There are no known survivors and because of that the antagonist party has not been identified. This marks the third city-state to be erased off the face of the world in the last two decades, two of which were in the last six years. The other thirteen city-states have enacted a state of emergency, putting all differences aside to form an alliance called the Pact for Survival. Without any understanding of the nature of their enemy or even if it is a force that can be stopped.”
“Leaders and Specters alike are gathering for a summit to discuss strategy in the coming months.”
Deo cut off the feed. He looked around, disgusted at the humans going about their everyday life. Millions of people had just been killed without any justification or reason and not a single soul cared. Just because thousands of kilometers of ocean separated them from the Brother Continent meant that it wasn’t relevant in their world.
Deo found a science podcast, it was a new one he hadn’t heard before, about medical breakthroughs and other technological advances that were still in the developing and testing stages. It was insightful but a lot of it he had already heard before. Technology that was still another decade from being widespread.
The hour was growing late and Deo hadn’t eaten all day. He found his way home after another two hours of walking and listening to his phone.
He used his house key and entered the door. He wandered to the kitchen where his parents were sitting with a fresh meal prepared on the dining table. They sat without eating.
“We have dinner for you.” His mother said artificially. Deo nodded and found a seat.
There wasn’t much conversation and he ate in relative silence, his parents saying little.
Not that anything new was going on, it was the same day just in a different angle and position to the sun. Deo finished eating and left the table to go to his room. His parents got up to clean the dishes right after, without hesitation. The whole scene felt too mechanical to Deo, something he would work on he decided.
He booted up his laptop and quickly found a link to a streamer who would be recording tournament fights. He joined the watch list and closed the laptop, it was still a week away. He would watch it, not because Hales asked him, but because he watched every tournament since he could remember. Aspects were fascinating to watch and there was money to be made with bets.
Deo had no desire to join the tournament. He wasn’t the type of person to fight for the sake of fighting. He wasn’t a pacifist but violence for the sake of it seemed asinine and senseless. The potential to be hurt was illogical as well.
Deo relaxed and laid in his bed. He grabbed a pen and a notebook and began writing. He had recently taken up poetry and decided he would stick with it. He tapped his pencil on his lips, thinking. It would be an hour before he came up with anything, but finally he wrote it down. It was a short poem but he found it captured his mood well.
The cold ground spins lethargically around a grey sun,
day and night blending into perpetual twilight.
My final breaths shudder from dried lungs.
It is the end of time.
All life has fled the universe,
And the last two words ever uttered by a mortal,
Spoken by me, resound in the empty wastes of the galaxy.
A smile bleeds my cracked lips, the sound doesn’t echo.