Chapter 13 Preliminaries

Hales woke up, then laid in bed for another five hours. It was the morning before the tournament, or had been until she wasted away on her pillow. It was now midday before the tournament. Specters were expected to sign in at the lobby before eight at night, when the first matches would begin.

She checked her phone and saw dozens of unread messages. The group she had been with for the last few days was already meeting and grabbing lunch together. Everyone except Abajem and herself. Her siblings were in school, it was easier for her dad to just send them to summer school than pay a babysitter to watch them.

Hales hung around the living room watching TV, waiting for the sun to go down. She found a cooking show and decided it was mundane enough to pass the time with. She was only half watching anyways, Dartan had made a group chat and it was blowing up with information on other Specters and commentary on the tournament in general. Hales just skimmed through it without contributing or paying too much attention. She really didn’t want to concern herself with memorizing a hundred or more kids with powers and how to best fight them. In her mind that was a sure way to get trapped in your head and freeze during a fight.

Hales trusted her ability to handle any situation that came her way. It’s what she was trained to do.

Hales kept contact with Abajem and the two girls were going to meet up and go to the mansion together.

With only a couple hours before she was supposed to meet Abajem at a bus stop, the location being too far to walk to, Hales spent the time with her Aspect, enjoying the priceless view of planets and stars twinkling before her very eyes.

Hales was wearing comfortable clothing, a long sleeve athletic shirt with a collar and black sports joggers. Hales for once didn’t feel languid, lounging around all day had allowed her to rest and save her energy. Nerves of excitement and anxiety flashed along her synapses. Hales locked the door and took in a deep breath of the city air.

There was no fear of dying in the tournament, even though the potential existed, Hales was going to take the number one spot she decided.  

She found a seat on the benches at a nearby bus stop, it was equal distance between her house and Abajem’s. Hales waited a good half hour before Abajem showed up, she was dressed in pajamas.

“Sorry I’m late, I had to look for a different mantis.” Offering no further explanation.

“All good, we should still make it in time.” Hales couldn’t help commenting on her strange friends attire.

“Abajem why are you in pajamas?” She tried to sound as nonchalant as possible.

“Oh, these aren’t. They’re the newest style in clothing.” 

They definitely were pajamas.

Hales was saved from responding when the bus arrived. The pair stepped into the bus and paid their coins. The buses had specific routes they went through and the mansion was still out of the way from the nearest bus stop, but it was close enough. Hales and Abajem found a seat together. Abajem rolled up one of her sleeves to reveal a brown colored praying mantis. Its head was adorned with a leaf-like crown that protruded from its head. Its front legs were jagged and serrated.

“I’ve never seen that kind of mantis before, what is it?” Hales asked curiously.

“It’s a ghost mantis, her name is Nira.” Abajem was playing with the mantis on her fingers.

“She’s beautiful, like an alien queen.” Nira was shorter than a fingers length.

“Me and Nira are going to win the tournament, she’s old and about to die,” Abajem spoke matter-of-factly, “She agreed to morphing with me so she could hunt one last time.”

Hales just nodded, then had an idea. She whispered her Aspect and drew out a hand-sized planet. She grabbed it in mid orbit, stopping its rotation and leaving the planet as just another rock. Hales held the planet up to the mantis. It crawled on it, claiming the planet as its own.

“Now she is an alien queen.”

Abajem giggled and pulled out a small vial from her pocket, inside was a tiny beetle. She uncorked the vial and allowed the beetle to scurry onto the planet. Nira watched the beetle wander around the planet. It was unaware of the mantis with its dried-leaf camouflage.

In a lightning fast strike the beetle was caught in the deadly front legs of the ghost mantis, and was promptly devoured by the scissor-like jaws of Nira.

“Scary.” Hales commented as the two girls watched the beetle become a meal.

Their bus reached its furthest destination, Hales and Abajem dismounted and oriented themselves in the direction of the mansion. They had to walk the rest of the way. Hales felt awkward when she left the bus holding a planet-looking object. Abajem simply snuck her mantis in the loose sleeve of her pajamas. The planet would eventually crumble to dirt so she just set it on a plot of grass.

The sun had set, the sky darkening and the city lights turning on.

“We’re almost there.” Hales reassured herself. It was almost eight.

At last a grand metal and stone gate came into view. Grotesque and gnarly beasts were carved into the stone. Each one larger than a person. There lions, dragons, giant bat-like monsters and various other mythical and real creatures alike. The handiwork was amazing to behold. The mansion itself was far behind the gate, a long cobblestone pavement led to it. Guards were stationed at the gate, along the road, and in front of the mansion. A stream of well over a hundred of people were entering, Hales and Abajem found a spot in line and joined the crowd.

Hales pulled out her phone and wrote out a short text and sent it to Deo.

Wish me luck.

The type of people going to the mansion were far too rich for Hales to know who they were. The cars parked outside the gate and around the area alone was enough to point out the discrepancy of wealth between the average civilian and the super wealthy that were attending the party. On top of that a majority of the people here were older and dressed in very fine suits or dresses. There was no one her age in the crowd entering the mansion.

“I think we are late.” Hales pointed out. The two girls were getting very odd looks.

“It’s fine.” Abajem left it at that. Hales found it was nice to have someone who never got anxious about really anything. It was calming to say the least.

They finally made it through the gate, and the walk over the cobblestone road felt like an eternity. The going was excruciatingly slow, or at least it felt like it.

“Should we cut through the line, tell them we are Specters?” Hales whispered to Abajem.

“Nah.”

Hales’ phone vibrated, it was Dartan. She answered.

“Hales where are you?” Dartan voiced his concern, almost in a panic.

“Walking to the mansion, we passed the gate.”

“Well hurry up the tournament is about to start. Specters have been arriving since five and even before.”

“When did you get there?” Hales asked.

“Like six, all of our class is here except you and Abagene.”

“She’s with me.”

“Yea I figured.”

“Is the bracket set up?”

“Yeah and you’re in the first match, if you don’t make it you’ll be disqualified.”

“I’m on my way, we’re at the entrance so got to go.” Hales hung up the phone.

The guards stood statue still outside the front entrance to the mansion. The building was immaculate. Not a blade of grass was grown too long. Hales didn’t have time to take in the whole scene, she went through the double doors.

Inside was a world completely foreign to her own. Many bodies littered the main foyer and the adjacent rooms. The furniture and art in the building probably cost as much as her house. Everyone was masked, and had either a drink in their hand or some other drug. These were the elite of Garghent, not that she could point out anyone specific people but did they act like it.

Hales and Abajem approached a counter that guarded the main entrance.

“Welcome.” Came the voice of a masked man sitting behind the desk.

“Hales Ailor, Savant.” Dartan had said that was the proper etiquette to officially join the tournament.

“Ah yes, I will need you to sign these papers here.” He took out a stack of papers that offered far too much in the way of reading for the time that she had. She smiled, took the papers and swiftly skimmed through the text, just to be sure. One was the death warrant, another was the seal of silence and the third, most word heavy paper was the tournament rules. She signed them all in a really rushed and sloppy signature.

“Very good. The tournament is held down the hallway, take a left and the stairs will take you directly underground.” Hales forced another smile and started as if to leave.

“Almost forgot, I need to print out your identification card, so the tourney keepers know to let you in.” Hales knew he was being purposefully pedantic. Hales looked around as she waited. There were more than a few masks pointing and whispering about her, making jokes at her expense. At Abajem’s too she realized. She heard words like ‘little girl’ and ‘should have stayed home with mommy’. Hales turned red, partly from embarrassment and partly from anger and frustration.

Abajem seemed not to notice.

“Your card is ready, Ms Ailor. Though I will warn you that this is no place for such delicate and young girls.” His tone was utterly condescending. Whatever.

Hales took the card out of his outstretched hand, forced another smile and started on a run.

“There is no running in the mansion.” The desk clerk reminded her before she could get away. 

Hales switched to a hurried walk.

“Good luck Hales.” Abajem called after her. Hales waved her hand and turned the corner of the hallway. There were dozens and dozens of rooms, some filled with people, and some more private with just a couple or trio. Hales saw plenty of masked woman dressed more than immodestly. It really was a party. She noticed TVs had been set in nearly every room, the program was a feed directly from the tournament arena.

A masked waiter approached her, carrying a tray of mixed drinks with one hand.

“A drink?” He offered. She shook her head and stormed passed him. This place was huge. She still hadn’t reached the entrance to the stairs the clerk had mentioned.

Hales hit a dead end. Two rooms flanked her, both were lounging rooms with TVs. She entered one, the left one. It was dimly lit with a couch and a table in front of it. On the table were drinks, food, and drugs. There was one heavy set man with three girls on the couch with him. All were masked.

“Where is the arena?” She demanded, not hiding the urgency in her voice. The voice responding was slightly muffled but very slurred.

“I know you, you’re supposed to be fighting.” He laughed to himself and the women with him joined in.

“Where is it?” She demanded again.

“Why should I say, I’ve got bets against you in the first round.” He belched at the end of his sentence.

Hales changed tactics.

“What are the rates?”

“Well, your opponent is a college student whose had three years experience with powers. Name’s Darrin I think. Let’s see,” He grabbed a piece of paper and asked one of the girls to read it to him.

“It’s four to one.” Her voice too was estranged by the mask.

“Four to one.” The large man repeated.

“Bet on me.” Hales said sternly, “Bet a lot.”

“Hmm,” The man debated in his head out loud. “Do you even know his power?”

“No. How specific can you make the bet?” The man was intrigued.

“Bonuses from the house on the duration and if it will be a kill match.”

“Less than a minute, no kill. Make the bet.” Hales really was out of time.

“You know what? I like a girl with some fire, I’ll make the bet. One hundred thousand on you winning in less than a minute.”

“Good. Now how do I get there?” 

The big man was laughing, the tiger mask on his head remained still however. 

“You passed it, go back the way you came and it’s on the right, the door looks like a wall and the guards probably went inside already, could be why you missed it.” He said thoughtfully.

“Right.” Hales turned and marched back. His voice followed after her.

“Darrin’s got millions on him winning.” Booming laughter filled the halls.

Hales was disgusted by the whole thing. The tournament, the party, the people. This was how the rich liked to play. She found the wall he was talking about, and slid it open fiercely, sprinting down the stairs.

They want a show, fine by me. I’ll give them something to bet against. Hiding behind masks, cowards all of them. Stupid death warrant, stupid desk clerk. No one was even here to check my card. Damn this whole night already. 

Hales couldn’t decide if she was about to cry or punch something, probably both honestly. She didn’t have the time to do either though.

She flung open the doors at the end of the staircase, stepping into the tournament arena, her vision tunneled. She didn’t care what anyone looked like, or even her surroundings. It was a big stone arena with sand and high ceilings. Big deal.

Hales slapped her ID card on the desk she correctly assumed was the checkpoint and stood with arms folded.

“Just in time,” The man behind this desk wasn’t masked, although he was still dressed in a suit. He examined her card. “Ms. Ailor, your match is arena thirteen there at the end.” He pointed to the right.

“I suggest you run over there, there are about ready to disqualify you.”

“Thanks.” This man was a million times nicer. Hales was already breathing hard from sprinting down flights and flights of stairs. While running across the massive underground arena she noticed no one was fighting, with only one person standing on each section. Everyone in the first round had already fought their match. Except for Hales and Darrin.

The arena was divided into fourteen sections, the prelims would run side by side, with refs and bodyguards and medics standing at the ready of each section. She saw at least two people being taken away on stretchers.

Each round must have a time limit before the next round starts. Hales was stretching the limits of the first round.

At last she reached her section. Darrin was standing, arms at his side waiting.

“Oh the little girl decided to play after all.” All eyes were on Hales. No one else was fighting and it was just her alone versus Darrin. Her face was red from exertion, her breathing hard. She could taste the contempt of the Specters around her, laughing and joking.

If I hear someone say little girl one more time I am going to burn this whole place to the ground.

“The match has technically begun.” The referee pointed out.

Darrin called his Aspect, but Hales couldn’t tell what it was over her own shouted Aspect.

“Solar!” She screamed the word out, all the frustration of the night coming out.

Hales unleashed a salvo that might have looked like an apocalypse to an equally scaled down species of creature. There were hundreds of planets, stars, and asteroids all fired directly at Darrin. Hales couldn’t even see through the sheer density of the attack.

Hales was about to send the next wave of attacks when there came a loud gasp. Darrin was on the ground, the dust and fire clearing slowly from Hales’ solar barrage.

The stretchers arrived on the scene, declaring that he was alive but unconscious.

Hales ended the fight before she could even see what his Aspect was. She’d have to ask Dartan if he knew.

All of Hales’ anger evaperated instantly. She had almost killed her opponent. He clearly had third degree burns and deep bruises all over his body.

Hales was declared winner, with her opponent being too injured to even participate further in the tournament.

“There’s your money you bastard.” Hales muttered to herself and found someplace to sit away from everyone else and watched as the next fourteen Specters prepared for the second round of the preliminaries. 

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