A man wearing an all black suit approached Hales, who was sitting in one of the stadium benches. Hales hadn’t noticed just how vast the underground arena was, until now.
Now that she had a moment to take in the whole scene. The shape of the arena was square, with a raised stadium for hundreds, maybe even thousands of seats. The actual fighting grounds were covered in sand, a relatively neutral terrain type. It was traditional if nothing else. The stadium seats were filled up about half way, mostly consisting of Specters and the wealthy spectators, as well as trainers and medics and armed guards to keep the peace in case any fights broke out, outside of the fighting that was supposed to take place of course.
“The gentleman Rabio would like to congratulate you on your successful bout.” The suit had a formal voice and looked exactly like he sounded. He continued, “He also congratulates himself on a well placed bet, and he would like to continue his relationship with you.” Hales cringed at the word ‘relationship’. When Hales remained silent the suit spoke on.
“Rabio is asking how he should bet on your next match.” Hales sighed and wiped her forehead of sweat.
“I don’t even know who my next opponent is.” Which was true, Hales didn’t really care either.
“I have a copy of the preliminary bracket, I can look it up for you.” He pulled out his phone and interacted with it.
“Sure.” Hales gave in, knowing he would leave faster this way.
“Lets see, you are facing a Kaden Faily. He is a Mancer with the Firebird Aspect.” Hales nodded and thought for a second.
A pyromancer with a ranged ability. Distance fighting is my specialty, and now that people have seen me in action they are going to play more carefully. Besides, I use stars which are the sources of fire, any other ability is just a cheap offshoot of mine.
“Three minutes.” Hales declared.
“Very good, no kill?”
“I want to win the tournament, so no kill.”
“I will relate this to the gentleman, he will be most pleased.” The suit forced a smile and turned to leave.
“Wait, what is your name?” Hales asked genuinely.
“Call me Mathis.” He turned to leave again.
“Wait, Mathis.” He stopped once more.
“Yes, Ms. Ailor?”
“Thank you.” This time Mathis smiled for real.
“Of course, can I get anything for you.” Hales moved her lips to one side in thought.
“Water would be divine.”
“Water it is, Ms. Ailor.” Mathis left after that, going up the stairs to the top of the stadium. Hales was in the middle section, not many people around her. Which was a good thing, she wanted to be alone to focus and watch the duels.
She noticed Winnow in a fight, her smoke a dead giveaway. It was too dense to really see any of the fighting but after a minute she emerged as the victor. There was a digital board on the far end of the arena that listed the brackets as well as the wins and losses of each Specter, updating regularly as fights ended and began. The board was too far for Hales to see clearly and it was crowded, mostly by non-Specters she noted. Suits making phone calls and arguing made up the majority of the board gallery.
The first set of matches were almost over, the second round starting soon. Hales hadn’t seen a giant praying mantis yet so Abajem would be in a bout soon. There was well over a hundred Specters here, from all over the Sister Continent. So many Savants at such young ages, the world was evolving fast. Hales realized that any number of Specters here could very well be enemies in the future, likely trained for the same purpose she had been, to battle in war as a soldier.
There were numerous other private citizens and characters who practically raised and nurtured their own Specters. In a way Aspects were becoming a new form of currency, influence, and power.
It was Talis Ranis, a philosopher, prophet and Fable that said humanity was entering the era of Aspects. Hales could believe it now more than ever. Perhaps the one in a million rate was changing to be more common.
Hales watched as Abajem stepped into the arena, her small frame dwarfed by her opponent. He was a brute of a man, who was both balding on the head and bearded in the face. How he was in his early twenties was anyone’s guess.
The fight started and Abajem saying her Aspect, Metamorphose, suddenly was woven into a yellow-brown cocoon. Her opponent grumbled out his Aspect.
“Shellshock!” There were no noticeable changes in him, but he started by clapping his thick hands together. A wave of tremors shot out in a cone forward. Even though the tremor was limited to the cone, it was clearly visible, the air and light distorting enough to be able to see.
The shockwave crashed into Abajem’s cocoon. The attack was loud but did little to shake its target.
Baldy took steps forward, clapping his hands with each heavy step, sending wave after wave. No effect. Reaching the cocoon he sent a powerful hook directly into the middle of it. The cocoon trembled but stayed firm and unbreakable. Baldy sent blow after blow, the hits never penetrating. His frustration was apparent. He backed off, catching his breath.
The rounds don’t last forever, and Hales was worried Abajem wouldn’t complete her transformation in the time limit.
The minutes ticked by, Baldy standing with arms crossed, waiting. The other matches already ending.
Finally a leg tore through the cocoon. Then another. A second later Abajem emerged, the cocoon deflating useless to the ground. Abajem was mixed with her ghost mantis. It resembled a brown dried up leaf. Her feet only dangled a quarter of a meter off the ground, overall it was a smaller build than when she used green mantids. A result of a rushed transformation or a smaller merging mantis? Both probably, decided Hales.
It was no less intimidating, however. The crown-like appendage was far more extravagant than what the ghost mantis alone sported now that she was combined with Abajem. It was a three pronged crown of leaf, the center one extending the farthest. She really was a queen.
Baldy clapped, but Abajem evaded to the side, her wings flashing. Baldy stayed on the offensive, keeping his position. Abajem dodged each shockwave expertly, her instincts and awareness heightened to a level only seen in the insect world.
She moved in for the kill. Her front legs slashed, just before Baldy could clap his hands for a devastating close ranged attack. Abajem spared no mercy, cutting deep into the tendons and muscles of both his arms, right above the elbows. Baldy’s arms hung uselessly at his sides.
Baldy wasn’t deterred, though his face was alight with pain. Blood sprayed into the air. He stomped a leg. As the foot came down Abajem stabbed it, pinning it to the ground. The shockwave that was produced by his stomp was many times more powerful, the whole arena shaking.
Abajem had avoided it by jumping. Baldy made to stomp with his only good limb left but Abajem grabbed him with her own human arms and flew upwards. She was surprisingly strong. Airborne, she dropped Baldy from a few meters high. He thudded to the ground, out cold.
Stretcher-bearers rushed to the scene and carried him off.
Abajem won her bout, which marked the end of the first cycle of the prelims. The board updated, adjusting matchups for Specters too injured to fight.
Hales overheard a group of Specters talking. Apparently her class had ended most of their fights in brutal fashion. Hales felt a mixture of pride and horror. People were noticing their skill, but that skill was an excessively deadly one. The matches were surely going to be more and more violent as only the best moved on. If nothing it made Hales realize just how serious of a world she had gotten herself into. It was too late to back out, not that she wanted to kill anyone but life would be hell for the losers. So losing wasn’t an option.
Hales stepped down from the stadium benches, into the arena. She was first again in the second cycle. Kaden squared up opposite her. They eyed each other with time to spare before the duel started.
Kaden was a redhead, with long curly hair. His eyes were fiery orange and his whole body was dotted with red freckles. Some Specters displayed physical changes the more they used their Aspects, Kaden definitely fell into that category. He looked around the same age, his expression set and his stance ready.
The referee declared that the match was on.
Kaden reacted first, his voice lighter than what Hales would have guessed.
“Firebird.” Hales responded with her own.
“Solar.” Hales drew out only stars, seven to be exact, lining them up in a row above her head. She increased their size to a full meter around. Hales wanted elevation to be a distraction for Kaden. It was easier to anticipate attacks at eye level than above.
At the same time Kaden cupped his hands together, the tips of each hand touching while leaving an open space inside the palms. He breathed in them.
A flame grew inside, and then shaped itself into a bird. He opened one hand, the flaming bird perched on his palm.
Kaden made the first attack. He held his palm up to his face and blew the bird, sending it flying more like an arrow as the wings remained motionless. A trail of fire lingered in the air in the path it took.
Hales ran to the side, her volley of suns following above her. The firebird flew past and circled around, landing back on the shoulder of Kaden. During its flight Kaden created another firebird.
He blew this one to flight as well. Hales reached up with her index finger, taking control of one of her stars directly. She launched it at the oncoming firebird, the star itself tethered to Kaden. She fired her sun at a slow pace. The two flaming objects met, only to pass through each other without damage to either the star or the firebird.
Hales had not expected that result and barely dove out of the way in time as the bird whooshed by her. Kaden easily evaded the sun, launching his first firebird again as he sidestepped to safety.
Hales was still on the ground as the bird rushed her. She tethered five suns to herself, but propelled them to Kaden, her arms throwing hard. She exerted a shout as she did this, increasing her force. The suns jolted her upright with the initial force, the firebird narrowly missing. Hales was dragged another meter before she found her bearings and the stars lost momentum. Kaden easily sidestepped the stars and they circled back toward Hales.
The arena was beginning to fill up with fire, as each pass of the firebirds left their lingering trail of fire. Hales had one star orbiting Kaden and five orbiting herself with two more above her head still under her control. She was rapidly approaching her own set limit of three minutes.
“Time to finish this.” Hales muttered to herself. She took her two remaining stars and began to spin them. The pressure from the flaming birds swooping in made the process slower, but she was able to dodge them for the most part. There were four birds in total, producing singing noises as the fire from the birds cut the air. Hales wasn’t completely unscathed, she had multiple burns and cuts on her arms and legs, all of them superficial though.
When her two stars were spinning as fast as she could make them, she tethered them to each other and sent them to the center of the arena, between herself and Kaden, and lowered them to the ground.
They started spewing molten plasma at once. Hales finally had a chance to try her star shower attack out in combat.
Kaden had nowhere to hide, his firebirds doing too little damage too slowly. He knew he needed a direct hit. With all four of his firebirds ready he sent them to Hales each at a different angle. Two from each flank, one from above and one directly at her. Even as made his last desperate attack he was receiving serious burns, using his arms to shield his head and standing sideways to reduce his target.
The nearby spectators and the other duels going on had to take cover as fire spewed all over the place. Kaden had no place to hide, and dodging was impossible. He knew surrendering was his only option at this point, but if he could hold out long enough for his attack to land he could win the fight.
All the fire and light made seeing difficult, so Kaden huddled down, squatting so his knees and arms could protect him.
What he didn’t see was the large planets surrounding Hales, creating a barrier from the firebirds and the star shower alike.
It had only lasted a handful of seconds at the rate they were going, but the suns depleted themselves until nothing remained. The firebirds had destroyed themselves crashing into planets.
Kaden surrendered nearly, passing out, bleeding and burning all over. The medic team rushed to his side.
Hales won her second bout, and looking at the time saw she had won only three seconds before three minutes.
Rabio should be pleased.
Hales found her seat back on the benches. She wanted to talk to Abajem but knew the girl had to be in a special waiting room, since Specters weren’t typically allowed to have their Aspects on during the tournament unless in a fight. Besides, Abajem couldn’t talk in her Metamorphose state anyways.
Hales remembered her injuries, as the adrenaline from the fight wore off. There was some light bleeding and minor burns, but her clothes blocked the worst of the damage.
She went to where a group of medics were attending more than a few Specters. There were two stations for injuries, one was for Specters that could still fight, and the other was a separate emergency room for Specters too injured to fight.
She stood in line and looked at the wounds of a Specter in front of her. He was a tall kid with blonde hair, and sported a half dozen small knives sticking out of him, blood dripping to the sand below him. That would be Talayia’s doing, thought Hales. The tall kid showed no signs of pain. He carried the expression of someone who had won his match but with a cost.
The next round of fights were beginning. Hales observed a few of her classmates lining up to battle. Hales got her cuts bandaged and returned to the bleachers.
Up in the stands she saw Josua in a fight against Dartan. The headphones and goggles that the swarthy boy wore gave him away. A quick glance at the board confirmed his identity. No one else looked like him. He had short spiky black hair and eyebrows that seemed to be stuck at a downward angle, giving him a fierce complexion. His headphones wrapped over his head and didn’t seem connected to anything, although on his chest he wore what looked like speakers. Hales realized they were bass speakers, directly placed on his chest, shaped to fit the contours of his body. Hales wouldn’t have doubted if they were bullet proof as well.
Josua had a long sleeve shirt that was far too big for him, the sleeves extending passed his hands by a good deal of length. It had the appearance of a robe or a cloak. The collar of the shirt was loose and doubled as a mask he could pull over his nose like a buff. His pants were a size too large, the cuffs stuffed into his boots. She knew his Aspect was Zone, but she didn’t know what it did. The information on his Aspect was scarce and Antho ignored any questions pertaining to Josua or his mysterious group.
Josua stood out, it wasn’t even his attire or the headphones and goggles that expressed it. There was a certain atmosphere around him, it was the way he carried himself. Josua had a noticeable apartness to him, as if he had a purpose or goal beyond what anyone else in the whole mansion could even comprehend.
The referee signaled the start of the match. Josua turned the earpiece on his headphones up. Music blaring that only he could hear. His eyes lit up, as if in total ecstasy. He charged, sprinting at Dartan.
Dartan was using his Rule, writing in the air with his finger in a mathematical code only he knew, though the equation remained visible in mid air where he wrote. During the previous week Dartan had planned how he would face each opponent, going through the list of Specters as if each one had a solution. It was the way his analytical mind worked. He explained how he would face Josua if he ever was matched with him. With his Rule Aspect, Dartan could use an equation to enhance his own physical abilities tenfold. Faster reflexes, more strength, stamina and flexibility, all traits he could upgrade for a short time. Coders really had the most versatility.
Dartan and Josua engaged in hand to hand combat. With Dartan’s new strength he could easily punch through walls or withstand gunshots.
It was with this insight into Dartan’s powers that made his instant defeat so surprising. The fight ended so fast Hales had to replay it in her mind.
Josua dodged every single punch Dartan launched. He either slapped Dartan’s hands out of the way or just evaded altogether. A number of jabs aimed expertly at vital pressure points had caused Dartan to fall to the ground breathless. Josua used a combination of blows, switching between palm strikes, fingertips and knuckles.
After the fight Josua simply rejoined his group, a look of disappointment in his eyes. He had been unsatisfied by the fight, Hales guessed.
She leaned back in her chair, her head facing straight up. She let out a long sigh.
I want to try something in my next fight. Along with my solar disc I’m going to shoot out tiny asteroids like a machine gun. I can use the already high speed discs to propel the asteroids even faster by tethering the asteroids to the disc itself, and launching them at my target. The discs can be set up anywhere, and by taking advantage of the rotation I can slingshot the asteroids. The drawback is that I’ll only be able to launch them along one side of the disc, which would be whatever direction it spins in. Or better yet, I’ll use two discs and funnel the asteroids in between, gaining maximum velocity.
It could work, certainly something I should practice before hand. But hey, the middle of a fight is as good a time to test out a new attack as any.