“A Dream, that is what you are living for. In fact your dream is to live. But are you prepared to die?” The words were clear, the question clinging to the walls of her memory like dried paint.
“What good is a dream that you die for?” She countered with a question of her own.
“Then why do you wish to die?” He asked genuinely.
She evaded the answer. “My dream is to live and I wish to die. A bit of a conundrum.” Her voice ironic.
“A bit.” He agreed.
“So what do I do?”
“Death will arrive on its own accord, be comforted by that. Your wish will be granted one day. In this world of war and pain there are two truths. The first is death.”
“And the second?” She asked eagerly.
“It coincides with your dream,” he prefaced. “The second truth is power. As long as you live the pursuit of power is all you need to occupy your time with until the first truth claims the lie of your life.”
“Is that the story of you, Master Klyle?”
“Aye, it is.” He spoke again after she lapsed into silence. “So what about Hales?”
“Me…” She asked absently. Her gaze was distant, staring into the far away nothing. She blinked and returned to reality.
“I am…” She looked intently at her hands, studying them. The fingers, the calluses, the lines etched into the palm exaggerated by months of training. She saw them as if for the first time, her purpose perhaps had been discovered and now those hands knew what to grasp for. She inhaled a heavy breath, then exhaled.
Hales recalled that conversation more vividly than the rest of the camp combined. Her memories of the last five months already fading into a distant picture book with little context of what the pages represent. Moved by a primal desire to win Hales allowed her mind to strategize.
“How to beat an opponent who has absolute awareness with the athleticism to react to everything?” Hales was thinking out loud.
“Overwhelm him?” Magun offered, not realizing she forgot that he sat next to her. Hales turned and briefly gave a confused look. She tapped her lip in thinking to cover up.
“I’m not sure, other Specters have tried that.”
“But you’re not other Specters.” Magun said.
“Neither is he.” Hales replied grimly. To conquer a better enemy… Just be better? Doesn’t sound right. Break down his characteristics. Faster? Without a doubt. Stronger? By a landslide. Fighting experience? Years at least. Injuries? Hijo landed a single blow. Diversity? Might be the one edge Josua doesn’t have.
“His Zone Aspect is pretty straightforward right?” Hales asked.
“Yeah as far as I can tell. Heightened senses and physical attributes.”
Hales nodded. “How old would you say he is?”
“Dartan said he looked no older than sixteen, I think so too.”
“So he’s a couple years younger. Is he smart?”
“Brilliant I’m sure. I bet you he can use his Zone to learn more efficiently. Imagine reading while every cell in your body is focused. Perfect learning conditions and flawless memory? I would count on that.” Magun’s explanation was more than disheartening.
“Has to have a weakness.” Hales demanded.
“I’m not convinced everyone has that qualification. Does Master Klyle have a weakness?” Magun asked rhetorically.
“Klyle’s been alive for almost a century. Josua is sixteen.” Hales pointed out.
“Fair point, but so far he’s proven to be nearly untouchable.”
Hales went silent, visualizing different attacks. None of them offered merit, even the imaginary Josua dodged her stars.
“Maybe I’ll get inspiration from this fight.” Hales gestured to the two Specters readying up on the arena. Genjam, the Chaos Blue Aspect and Qortiko, the Salt Aspect.
An announcer called out the match as being the first semifinal duel. All eyes locked on the sandy arena. Genjam cracked his knuckles. The referee shouted to fight and Qortiko opened his eyes.
“Chaos Blue!” Genjam summoned his mass of blue cloud above his head, raised two fingers and flicked them forward. Two steel spears formed from a portion of the Chaos Blue and sailed through the air.
“Salt.” Qortiko sidestepped the spears and chopped his tossed salt downward, creating a wall of salt to cut off the spears’ return. He was testing his opponents Aspect. Genjam recalled his spears and the blue and black particles simply glided through the wall without any physical interaction.
Genjam launched more spears, in an attack that said ‘let’s assess each others Aspects’. Qortiko complied and made a salt fist to oppose the charging spears. The spears pierced through the salt sculpture and eventually stabbed themselves into the ground a few meters beyond.
This presented a host of information. Genjam’s spears had a set speed and momentum. Unlike a thrown spear that has a peak velocity that gradually diminishes as it travels, Genjam’s Chaos Blue spears fly at an even pace until they either meet an object they can’t penetrate or their flight runs out and they fall to the ground. An all or nothing projectile.
The reason this conclusion can be logically reached is because in Magun’s fight against Qortiko the cannonballs would lose momentum as they pushed through the salt crystals, mostly because the geometry of a ball shaped object has far less piercing capability than a triangular point such as in a spear but added to that the cannonballs launch by combustion and percussion, meaning the trajectory takes on a beginning, middle and end. It is small details in functionality that separates an Augur or Mancer from a Color. Color Aspects tend not to obey standard physics.
Even a spear shaped projectile should lose force after any collision on its flight path, Genjam’s did not and that was a valuable piece of information for Qortiko.
Genjam learned what he needed to as well. His Aspect had the offense over Qortiko’s. At best salt could be used to block line of sight. Only the most experienced and analytical Specters and observers could deduce that much from a single attack. The skill level of Qortiko and Genjam validated their placement in the semifinals.
However, in the end, only one can win.
Genjam began his operation. He threw out twos and threes with his hands at different directions and made angles with the fingers. Some spears would fly straight and others would alter course midway and attack from an askew path. He took into account various heights and spreads of spears in order to avoid an easy dodge.
Qortiko’s reaction to Genjam’s onslaught caught everyone off guard, including and most importantly, Genjam.
Qortiko started at a jog, meeting the most direct spears first and dodging them casually. He dropped salt slightly behind himself and kicked it in tune with the cadence of his jog which allowed him to land his other foot on the expanding sculpture. It finished expanding in an instant, placing him a meters in front of Genjam. It happened so fast that Genjam reacted instinctively, sending more spears directly at Qortiko, but because the floating mass of Chaos Blue hovered above Genjam he needed to send the spears downward not forward.
Genjam didn’t take into account the force of the momentum that a near-instantly expanding object with a man on the front of it would have.
Qortiko was launched forward at the end of the expansion. He leapt at the same time and the spears narrowly passed over. He covered the rest of the distance between himself and Genjam. Rolling to his feet Qortiko sent an uppercut that crashed into Genjam’s jaw.
Reeling from the blow but recovering from the sudden turn of events Genjam first called back his spears and then went into a fighting stance. Genjam had no shortage of muscle and being taken down by the smaller Qortiko in hand to hand combat would prove to be a difficult task for the Salt Specter. Genjam was first and foremost, a tough and skilled fighter, his Aspect was more of a complementary ability than a primary one.
Genjam made a rectangle with his fingers and thumbs, summoning a large fully body tower shield.
Qortiko punched his salt and the resulting massive fist shattered itself on Genjam’s shield. Genjam stood his ground, only sliding two meters. His center of gravity and stocky build kept him from losing the collision. He advanced on Qortiko and thrust his shield. The size and weight of the shield required him to use both hands on it for any sort of maneuver. Qortiko dodged to the side and punched another sand sculpture into existence. Genjam swiveled and planted the shield firmly on the ground. The fist shattered once again but Qortiko kept the pressure on, pounding salt fist after salt fist into the reinforced tower shield.
Genjam gunted and dared to remove one hand from his tight grip, he pointed his hand downward at Qortiko and spears materialized from the Chaos Blue above him and shot at Qortiko.
The spread was just wide enough for Qortiko to jump, rotating his body sideways, minimizing his target and dodging the spears while scattered a handful of salt. One spear on each side of him glided at a harrowing distance to his body, they cut clean through his loose robes and stabbed into the ground. He was horizontal in the air, feet first with knees drawn in. With a falling drop kick, his feet smashed into the grains sending a massive two legged salt sculpture at point blank range at Genjam.
Genjam’s grip with his offhand had not reaffirmed itself completely when the salt drop kick blew up in his shield. This time Genjam lost his footing and was launched a dozen meters back, his shield flying dangerously in the air. Genjam closed a fist and called back all his creations before the shield landed on him. He easily could have severed or broken a limb if it had hit him. A close call.
Genjam, still lying on the ground, shot out a spread of ten spears. Qortiko tossed a crushed bracelet over his head and slapped down in front of him. The sculpture expanded as the spears raced toward Qortiko. His timing was perfect and the salt met the spears from above smashing them to the ground and stopping their momentum just centimeters from himself. It was an effective counter to Genjam’s spears which could slide through Qortiko’s salt but only if they flew in directly at it. He broke down correctly the physics of such an interaction of powers and acted accordingly.
Qortiko was clever and experienced, the precision required to pull that off only reaffirmed his skill.
Genjam stood up and called back his spears. He was still out of Qortiko’s range and so prepared another volley, mindful that his opponent was more than capable of closing the distance. Qortiko grabbed more salt, tossed it in the air in front of him and before those grains fell to the ground, tossed even more salt in front of the first set. He delivered a punch to the salt and it expanded into a fist sculpture which hit the second set of falling salt and created another sculpture. Qortiko successfully chained two salt pillars together and in a blink of an eye Genjam was punched by a massive structure without the opportunity to ever react. Genjam knocked out as he ragdolled to the ground, tumbling and sliding on the sandy arena floor.
The referee called the end of the match, naming Qortiko as the victor who nodded, as if there could have been no other result, and maybe he was right.
Genjam groaned awake as the medic team rushed to check on him. He limped back into the arena stands, replaying the fight over and over in his head, reaching no conclusion as to how he could have won. Qortiko moved on to the finals, awaiting his last opponent.
The caretakers began sweeping the arena, evening out the sand to ensure an equal battleground.
Hales mulled over strategy after strategy in the few minutes she had left to prepare. Magun stayed quiet because he knew Hales needed to focus. Hales didn’t stay quiet because she failed to focus. Her finger tapping the metal seat and her leg bouncing uncontrollably in anxiety.
“What’s that phrase Garriot is always saying?” Hales asked randomly to Magun. He furrowed his eyebrows and responded.
“Uh, bastard heffers.” Magun said hesitantly.
“Bastard heffers.” Hales said in a mixed tone of relief and utter dread as she got up and walked out into the last semifinal round.
Josua walked passed Hales to the far side of the arena, he turned around and waited, glaring at Hales with dilated eyes.
Hales’ mind finally calmed and her expression darkened. She could feel Josua’s bloodlust and it stirred in her a thrill like nothing she had experienced before. Her hands trembled and her breathing quickened. Her own bloodlust threatened to overwhelm her. Here she stood with an insane power and the greenlight to go all out against an opponent that would do the same. During the tournament Hales had held back, if not purposefully than subconsciously, a sort of limiter that stopped her from killing anyone, but now after seeing Josua’s glossy pupils she could sense that limiter melt away like a spring sun that thaws the winter ice.
To win is to be deadly, to be deadly is to enjoy the fight.
“Ready Specters?” The referee turned to Josua and Hales alike, both nodded and Hales couldn’t hold back a slight smile.
It’s not that Hales was a sadist, she was simply enthralled by the rush of combat and the flurry of impossible powers clashing together in a test of cleverness and skill, honed to a sharp edge by natural talent and unending training.
“Fight!” The referee shouted.
“Zone.” Josua muffled his ears with his headphones and broke into a sprint, wasting no time at all. Hales thought it less of a tactical move to rush his opponent but more of an eagerness to start fighting. Hales obliged his impatience.
“Solar.” Hales’ eyes turned galaxy and she pulled out a cluster of gas giants which she grew and set to gravitate toward Josua. She didn’t throw them as the momentum would carry them far passed the charging Josua and she was confident in his ability to evade the planets.
Josua weaved through the planets as they orbited slowly around him, not even brushing against them in the slightest. Hales backpedaled as she drew out more and more planets leaving them to crowd the space, some she nudged lower to the ground and some she bumped above eye level.
Hales had her makeshift planetarium and Josua’s eyes darted to each and every planet and back to Hales and back to the planets. Hales sensed that Josua knew she was using gas planets and he was waiting for the moment a star was drawn out.
Josua found his way to Hales with dozens of planets rotating around him. He made to punch but Hales drew out a star and he adjusted by pulling back his hand. Hales kept the star above her finger and continuously increased its size. She had to leave herself exposed by turning away from a planet that was about to orbit straight into the star which would cause a chain reaction of combustion, possibly killing both specters.
Josua sent a numbing punch to Hales’ exposed arm before backing up from the star, taking the planets with him out of harm’s way. Hales received the blow knowing Josua would sneak in as many hits as he could.
Hales remained with her star and refused to launch it, electing instead to play mind games with Josua. By setting up all the ingredients of a bomb and holding the detonator she could force Josua to play safe. Hales hoped he would experience a sensory overload by constantly checking his surroundings against an imminent attack. Hales and Josua both knew that he was fast enough to dodge out of an explosion if she launched it from a distance. Close range, however, posed a much more difficult scenario for Josua. He couldn’t get rid of the gas planets surrounding him. Destroying them would only release their flammable gases and knocking them away would only serve to build up their momentum when they orbited back, creating a much more dangerous environment in either scenario.
Hales had all the cards in play at her mercy… and she didn’t know what to do next. Sit on the advantage or go on the offensive? Josua read the hesitation in Hales and decided for her. He charged despite the looming explosions that could trigger from one wrong step.
He would either call her bluff or force her to detonate her planets. Hales hadn’t decided if she was actually bluffing or not. She’d find out soon enough since Josua was moving around, searching for an opening to strike.
Hales drew out an asteroid and increased its mass, larger and larger until its diameter was roughly two meters across. This was the biggest size Hales could make for an asteroid and its weight became too unbearable to keep in her possession. She heaved and threw the asteroid directly up into the air with its gravity tethered to the ground, to the planet they all lived on.
The giant rock yanked to the ground as if pulled an invisible cable. It slammed the ground and shook the whole arena.
So there was a giant space rock plopped in the middle of the arena. Josua merely stayed out of the asteroid’s radius. Hales bought herself a few more seconds. Valuable seconds.
Josua went for it. He waited for a planet to make its orbit and approached the star over Hales’ finger. The planet sunk into the star and melted out of existence. Another planet followed a second later and did the same. There was no explosion, only a flare from the star where a sunspot flickered.
Josua for a split moment, a first for him in the tournament, took on a baffled expression.
Hales fooled everyone. She used planets that only resembled gas giants, not the actual ones and tried stalling to fake like she wanted to avoid using the explosions at all costs. Only Hales with her extensive knowledge and first hand experience of space could have made out the difference. Planets came in all sorts of varieties, colors and sizes. By drawing out the closest looking planets Hales could fool someone who possessed a general knowledge of space. She assumed Josua would guess her strategy to fight him, a Specter that lacked ranged but had the agility to dodge any projectile. Explosions were the obvious route to go. Hales used gas giants in many of her previous fights so he would know what the gas giants looked like. Hales counted on his observational and deductive skills to figure out her strategy, mixed with her reckless fighting style Josua could enter the fight ready for anything. That was the edge his Aspect gave and it was this perfection of senses that Hales exploited. A moment’s hesitation, that’s what Hales had been playing for.
With Josua in close proximity, Hales launched the star she had been bluffing with right at Josua. Nowhere to run and his momentum stalled, Josua took the entire star on his shoulder, turning to reduce his frame. The star produced a satisfying eruption and Josua’s streak of flawless victories was finally ended by a miniature supernova. The medical team had to block the rest of the planets that chased after the limp and burnt Josua laying defeated and wounded on the ground meters from the original blast. They placed him on a stretcher and took him to the emergency room, alive but injured. The referee announced Hales as victor and she let out a sigh of relief.
It would be Salt versus Solar in the final round of the tournament.