Chapter 24 Quarterfinals

“Cannon!” Magun’s destroyed arm from his previous fight against Bria still had not healed fully. It struggled to regrow. He would need to stall.

“Salt.” Qortiko on the far side of the arena activated his Aspect. The desert garbed specter pulled out multiple bands from under his sleeves and crushed them down into individual grains. 

Magun remained where he started, meditating to focus his energy on his arm. Qortiko walked at an even pace to close the distance. His Aspect had decent range but wasn’t a projectile in technical terms, an extended melee attack was a more appropriate description. 

Now in range, Qortiko tossed salt into the air and as it fell he punched the cascade in the center. A huge fist molded to his own shot out and remained suspended in a static position above the ground. The sculpture was ten meters long and Magun narrowly dove away from the salt replica. Magun rolled smoothly to his feet and was up sprinting in an instant to the side. 

Qortiko threw more salt in the air, but this time chopped at it with the side of his hand. The attack had less force and therefore the sculpture was smaller than his first attack and didn’t extend as far. The wider surface area from the chop however covered more horizontal ground and smashed into Magun, knocking him from his feet. Magun grunted but got back up and leapt onto the salt sculpture and started to run across. Based on the density of the salt chop he wasn’t surprised to find that it could support his weight as he moved along it.

Qortiko jumped on it as well from his side. Magun fired. The cannon lacked size but had healed enough to allow a lesser shot.

The cannon boomed and the bone-shot sped toward Qortiko. He was prepared for the move and flicked the salt he had already dropped when he climbed the sculpture with his middle finger in a sideways angle. The cannonball smashed through the salt but its course was so altered that it sailed uselessly aside.

The center of the finger sculpture was obliterated but the rest of it stayed intact and pointed away from either specter. The salt Magun and Qortiko stood on still had a clear lane. Qortiko pulled out his dangling earrings, crushing them in his hands and tossing half of the salt. Magun aimed again at the same time.

Qortiko backhanded the salt first, sending out a wall that encompassed the entire sculpture they were on. Magun switched his aim straight below him and fired as he jumped. The weaker shot wasn’t so severe that it destroyed his hand again, but the blast gave his jump enough inertia to fly him over the salt wall. He grabbed the top and hoisted himself over.

Qortiko could simply step up to his side as it started at his hand’s size and increased exponentially outward from there. Qortiko and Magun now stood on a second sculpture of salt meters above the ground. The new backhand sculpture was shorter and the two specters had only a couple meters of room. Magun charged first, thrusting his cannon arm forward. Qortiko countered the cannon with one hand by pushing it to the side and threw salt in the air with his other hand, all while circling Magun to avoid a point blank shot. 

He leaned forward and kicked the falling grains with the heel of his backfoot. Magun blocked the foot with his normal hand and the salt fell to the ground without ever expanding. Qortiko twisted out of Magun’s grip and punched him in the jaw. Magun took the swing in stride and shoulder charged Qortiko. With nowhere to evade Qortiko was shoved off of the sculpture to a far drop.

His reaction, as always, was uncanny. Before his feet ever left the ground he sprinkled salt and palmed it as he dropped. A pillar plunged at the ground smashing into the arena floor. Qortiko rose to his feet on the palm sculpture. 

Magun and Qortiko still stood at relatively the same height, each on a different salt structure. Magun had another shot ready and fired at the sculpture Qortiko stood on. It tore through the crystallized salt and the Qortiko’s base crumbled beneath him. He leapt clear of the topple. 

Again he threw more salt and made another pillar to stand on before he lost any height. This time Qortiko acted first. He took off his necklace and crushed it, then threw the grains in a way that allowed them to trickle down in a line. 

He began chopping at them with his hands, making sure to keep the hits at the same level. He got four chops in before the falling salt depleted. The result was a large plain of sand, still suspended in midair, the edges from each chop smooshing together to form a single plateau.

Magun had ducked under the salt chops but found room to fire his cannon to create a hole he could climb up.

They fought ever higher. At this point in the fight only the top row seats of the arena could actually observe the fight, everyone else was stuck out of the know.

There had been very little exchange of damage, a blow here and a punch there. Both fighters were fit in the extreme, neither had trouble catching their breath. Magun fought with a cooler head than ever before, all of his duels this night had taught him as much, if not more, than he learned at the Camp of Awakening. The more authentic battle experience rounding out his weaker edges.

At last his cannon really began to regrow, finally reaching normalcy. It bloated and stretched as if arising from a deep slumber, the cannon attained full power. He could load it properly now. This marked a turning point in the duel between Magun and Qortiko.

Magun stayed his hand, enjoying too much the feeling of power his cannon arm felt as it swelled again and the bone grew all the way to his chest and back, covering him in a thick layer of defensive calcification.

The texture of the salt sculptures felt somewhere along the lines of a smooth crystal and rough sand. There was enough friction to allow steady movement but it was oddly soft and didn’t shift like sand. It did however crunch under the boot. A strange texture, and to simply say it’s akin to tightly packed sand didn’t do justice to the marvelous pure white salt crystalline sculptures that mimicked hands and knuckles and fingers and fists and palms, all frozen in place like a fossilized recording the moves of an ancient battle between gods.

Qortiko made the very move he had been saving for. As he crouched over the starting point of the sculpture he gently tapped on it, causing the entire salt plateau to collapse and degenerate. Even as he fell Qortiko dropped salt and his foot collided with the grains before he hit the ground. With his fall broken halfway to the floor he turned to Magun, who landed on the backhand sculpture a few meters away and above. Qortiko slipped off a few rings and crushed them in his palm. He smashed a fist aimed directly at Magun, the sculpture was massive and dwarfed all of his other sculptures.

Magun fired off an equally devastating cannonball that crashed halfway through the salt before stopping. Considering how much salt Qortiko used for that attack it was impressive that Magun had almost destroyed it with just a normal shot.

Magun had only meant to destroy enough salt to save him from being demolished. He was saving his heaviest cannonball for a clearer shot.

Qortiko pulled out more piercings as he ran up the diagonal fist structure. Magun stayed hidden near the hole he created and waited until Qortiko got closer, loading a powerful shot in the meanwhile.

It was only a second or two later that Qortiko crested the top of the fist when Magun took a step away from it to aim a blast. Qortiko dropped sand and Magun fired the largest cannonball he had ever shot. Qortiko expected that very move and never stopped running. Magun had aimed to obliterate any pillar of salt and crush Qortiko to end the fight. It would have been powerful enough without a doubt. At its strongest, Magun’s cannon packed more firepower than Qortiko’s salt, yet it had drawbacks. One being that it reduced his cannon to a thin skeleton which took time to regrow. The other drawback was the possibility of a miss.

Magun realized too late his mistake. Qortiko dropped sand not salt this time. He bluffed and Magun fell for it.

Qortiko in a fluid motion released salt from his other hand and smashed it downward at an angle to the ground. The sculpture expanded at once and took Magun with it to the ground. Magun was pulverized on the arena floor and struggled to get up. The bone that had calcified over his chest and back prevented mortal wounds, yet it came at a price. It shattered on impact and he lost the rest of his reserve ammunition.

Qortiko slid down his sculpture to stand above Magun, ready to attack. Magun had no choice but to surrender, his cannon depleted and dazed by the salt punch proved to be sufficient evidence of his loss. His only damage that he dealt came from a shoulder charge. 

Qortiko went around tapping his salt sculptures, reducing them back to the tiny grains. He caught them in his hands and they reformed back into his jewelry. Magun was slow to get up but declined offers for medical attention. 

He decided the stairs were too difficult and flopped unceremoniously down next to Hales. 

*****

“That guy is something else.” Magun’s voice was full of disbelief. Hales couldn’t disagree.

“If I meet him in finals, I’ll avenge you.” Hales was far passed the point of dissociation, passed the stages of sleeplessness and exhaustion, her mind set and determined in a relaxed trance. Not relaxed in the sense of lethargy but relaxed in the savage desire to win. Hales had her goal and nothing, not even her pained body would stop her. Become one with the Aspect, with yourself, with the universe. She felt strangely immortal. Hales also knew it was probably because her brain was squeezing out the last of her dopamine and far too much of her adrenaline and that cocktail of chemicals was leading her already fantastical mind further astray into a crazed but delightful attitude.

“Fight!” The referee called. Hales forgot she already stepped into the dueling grounds. 

“That keeps happening.” Hales pointed out to herself. She saw that Bregan was waiting for her to use her Solar Aspect so he could draw from her elements.

What if I go without powers this round…

Nah too boring.

“Solar.” Her galaxy eyes peered into Bregan’s core as she drew out a host of miniature celestial bodies. Two solar systems spinning over her index fingers, one for each hand. They whirred to a blur and stepping into each throw she launched the discs. Behind herself, with gravities transfixed on Bregan. His eyes narrowed, recognizing she wouldn’t give him powers that easily.

Hales drew out another disc and rotated it to the same blinding speed. This one she set to stay in a tight orbit right in front of her. The disc spun in place almost perfectly still. 

Taking a deep breath she drew out one more disc and set it like the previous one only to the left of it so that she had two discs spinning side by side with a small gap in between.

Finally get to test-drive this move.

Her first two discs made their rounds and whizzed towards Bregan’s outstretched hands, ready to absorb the elements.

“Synthesis.” Bregan attempted to use rock and fire from the discs but since they weren’t a single object, distinctly a star and a dozen planets, the discs smashed into his hands before he could finish his Synthesis and he cried out in pain. Along his arms were bruises and burns. His plan failed utterly and he let his frustration drive him on.

Bregan had no choice but to advance. Before he could he was pelted by asteroids.

Hales was launching small asteroids through the gap of the discs spinning in front of her which acted like slingshots. Her idea worked but only somewhat. Bregan dodged to the side out of direct fire and Hales had trouble setting the asteroids to a correct gravitational center to allow for accurate shots. Asteroids flew wildly all over the arena.

She decided to just launch the asteroids normally at Bregan. He wasn’t agile enough to dodge the asteroids as they rushed him and he took more and more hits. He had been betting on using fire but had been effectively countered.

He screamed and ripped out hair from his own head. With his teeth he bit into his palm, holding back no savagery.

Blood and hair were his elements, not something he ever tried before. He didn’t even know if it would work.

“Synthesis!” He shouted the word and clapped the elements together. A writhing ball of blood and hair floated in front of him and he snatched it with a grim smile. It worked.

Bregan slammed his palm to the ground and moments later a tentacle-vine of bloodied hair erupted from the dirt next to Hales. It was meters high and had a primitive instinct of its own. Attack Bregan’s opponent.

Did not see that coming.

It whipped at Hales, cut her cheek, whipped back and knocked her hard in the side. Hales fell and it descended on her.

A burning sun flew from Hales’ finger, gravity set all the way to Bregan, and batted the blood vine back. It didn’t burn however, as the soaked hair wasn’t flammable enough to catch fire from a quick touch. The vine suffered some damage but merely swiped the star out of the way.

Another vine erupted from the ground behind her and attacked. Hales drew out as many planets as she could and threw them in the most immediate direction away from both vines, setting their gravity to herself. They helped drag her away but the vines stretched and one wrapped around her leg and yanked on her, tripping her and dragging her backwards. Hales drew out another star and swiftly increased it to the size of her fist and keeping it under her control, drove it down on the vine. The concentrated heat was too much and it severed the vine, freeing her.

She had only a moment before the other vine reached her and the severed vine already started to stretch back to its length.

Also Bregan had his palm facing her and yet another vine under his direct control sped towards her. Three bloody, hairy vines charging at her from three separate angles.

Okay, assess the situation. There’s three different vines. One in the ground behind me to the left, one in the ground severed and to the right and one from Bregan. The one to the left will reach me first.

Hales spun and sent a star to meet the nearest approaching vine. It spun slowly and the vine at first tried to swipe the sun but extended so far out it lacked power and the sun wasn’t affected.

Should hold it off before it decides to go around. That’s enough time. Next vine is the one that was severed to the right of me.

Hales drew out a planet and spun it fast. She launched it slightly to the right side of the vine with the gravitational force centered meters away to the left of the vine. She held her breath for a second in anticipation but the spinning planet caught the vine and the mass of hair naturally twisted around the planet a dozen times before being uprooted altogether. The planet wrapped with bloody hair orbited harmlessly away.

Wish I thought of that earlier.

A star that had been brushed aside earlier by the first vine found Bregan’s blind side and exploded on impact. Bregan tried to stand but his body gave out and his Aspect deactivated.

Forgot about that star too, fighting is becoming like second nature to me. 

Hales’ subconscious mind was becoming her deadliest asset. All the parts of a fight that she didn’t have to consciously decide what to do. Attuned to her body, working in tandem with her Aspect.

Declared the winner, it was Hales’ turn to unceremoniously flop in her seat next to Magun. 

“Hell of a fight.” Magun pointed out. He had become a lot more somber after his last couple fights. Humility hitting him in the gut.

“Yeah.” Hales admitted and agreed. Going to have nightmares of those hairy blood vines.

“Genjam lucked out getting a free round.” Magun said making conversation he didn’t really want to have.

“We’ll see if luck is the way to describe fighting that Qortiko guy.” Hales said glancing at Magun. “Think Genjam can win?” Hales asked, moving the conversation along.

“No I don’t think so.” He didn’t elaborate.

“Why?”

“Qortiko does better against indirect attacks. Genjam has more diversity in his moveset than me and I lasted longer than any other specter that fought him tonight.” It made sense to Hales, and even if it didn’t, she wasn’t in the mood to ask for further explanation. Magun wasn’t in the mood to offer any.

“Bodes well for me.” Hales said dryly, more to herself than Magun. No response, and none was needed, they both felt the same way. Drained.

Hales had a sudden feeling of foreshadowing, or perhaps metaphor. She didn’t quite understand and the thought disappeared, lost in the void where all loose memories go to fade forever.

The final duel of the quarterfinals kicked off. 

Josua with his headphones versus Luri with his Hijo. The beastman charged and Josua cranked up his music, excitement dilating his pupils. Silva dribbled from Hijo’s wolf mouth, the same kind of thrill. Battle against an unknown opponent.

Josua kept his hands and feet moving, never giving an opening. Hijo was all bloodlust and threw himself recklessly at Josua, trying to claw and bite and stab with antlers. Josua punished each miss with precise jabs and this served mainly to anger Hijo. In a rage Hijo howled and charged, moving faster than Josua. Hijo’s animal enhanced fist connected with Josua’s defensive forearms and the Zone specter slid on the sand two meters back. Josua dialed up his headphones and trickles of blood rolled down his ears.

Josua advanced and ducked under a sweeping claw and delivered a fast punch where Hijo’s kidneys would be. Josua leaned backwards, dodging another attack and springing back to punch Hijo in the throat. Another missed claw and Josua twisted and elbowed Hijo in the sternum. Hijo growled and tried grabbing, but Josua pivoted out of the way and slapped Hijo’s hands together then kicked him hard in the side. Piece by piece Josua took his opponent apart. Never missing a beat. Hijo could do nothing but growl and miss. 

With all major organs and arteries and joints surgically bruised, Hijo eventually found that his body would no longer obey him. With a groan he fell to the arena floor and his Wild Aspect deactivated. His transformations began to dissolve around him as he lay too battered to move.

Josua dispatched Luri in a heartbeat, the battle fury far too strong to allow anything but a total victory against a specter without his power.

Josua advanced to the semifinals where he would face Hales in the second round.

“Got a plan?” Magun asked dismally.

“Of course…” She let it hang for a second, “not.” Plans are overrated anyways.

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