If there was any confidence ready to sprout permanently inside the ego of Hales, that delusion was utterly and entirely shattered alongside the broken pieces of galactic dust. Her life had become cosmic waste, and almost literally.
Hales lay on the sand, every muscle and bone in her body aching as if it had been twisted and pulled into different contours alien to her own original biological structure. In reality she was only partially out of shape. Her body had been so mangled that now it began to relax into painful spasms as they returned to their proper positions.
Hales felt her body lift, although physically unable to turn her head, she knew it was the medics carrying her on a stretcher. She could only hope this wouldn’t eliminate her from the tournament. Apparently no other Savant that versed him had been eliminated after losing to Crnobog. He didn’t kill, but it sure did feel like death.
The one nuance was if she couldn’t walk in time for her next bout, which was a distinct possibility as the number of fighters rapidly diminished.
Hales had cramps all over, excruciating and sharp. With nothing else to do but writhe in pain, Hales started to replay the fight in her head.
Hales had lined up across from Crnobog. Appearance wise he was a tall boy with sharp, angular features. It was a plain face. He had long black hair, an all black cloak with a flared collar and odd red eyes. And that was it, nothing else stood out from the strange man. He seemed quiet and introverted, with perhaps a flare for the dramatic if his attire was any indication.
When the fight began, he didn’t say anything. His Aspect, it appeared, was always at the ready.
Hales drew out stars as normal, spinning and growing them. She had the process down pretty well, only taking a few seconds to have a solar disc primed for attack.
The first disc she launched met its end by being compressed into a small pellet. Hales sent a volley of planets, discs and large stars at Crnobog. Her opponent easily stopped every attempt.
This time Crnobog fused and twisted all her space projectiles into a mass of dirt and fire.
It was likely he had some sort of manipulation over materials. He could bend, twist, compress and disfigure objects by simple movements of his hands. He went through the motions as if he was physically touching them with his hands yet he never did. Nothing even got close enough.
What Hales didn’t realize, was that he could do all that twisting and manipulating on more than objects.
Living creatures such as herself were also subject to his cruel power. Hales never stood a chance. And a moment later she couldn’t stand at all. With a single flourish of his hand, Crnobog dropped Hales. All the muscles in one leg cramping and contorting. Hales fell, as much from pain and shock as from her leg falling.
She should have surrendered at that point, no one could have blamed her if she had. But she was supposed to win, that’s what she wanted.
Hales launched dozens of suns from the ground. The cluster of stars got squeezed from the inside, causing a bright and fiery explosion. Any closer and Hales could have been seriously burnt by the blast radius.
It was after this attack that Crnobog began is torturous work on her. At first her vision became blurry, and then so suddenly an intense pain like no other coursed through every part of her body. In her agony, through gritted teeth, despite the wetness and blurriness of her eyes, she saw something.
A vision she could only describe as being Crnobog’s true form, that is if she could believe her own pain delirious state. Hales saw Crnobog as a tall laughing demonic figure. He had hooves for feet and long slender talons. The whole arena took on a redness and all she could think of was the laughing, sinister face of Crnobog.
Even lying on the stretcher, waiting to recover, that image of the boy crept in her mind, haunting her.
“I’ll ask someone I know if they saw it.” Hales said to herself, out loud without realizing it.
“Saw what?” Veron was sitting in a chair across from the girl. Hales turned red as she didn’t notice anyone in the room with her.
“Veron!” Hales said her name surprised.
“Just came by to see how your holding up.”
“Oh, thanks. You didn’t have to.” It took a lot of effort to speak, though the pain was beginning to subside, she now wanted only to sleep. There was a long and slightly awkward pause.
“So how you holding up?” Hales realized she was asking that for the second time.
“It’s really painful. Like going to a chiropractor that screws up and puts your whole body in the wrong place.”
“Sounds harsh.” Veron agreed. There was another pause.
“So you didn’t join the tournament, huh?” Hales would do anything to take her mind off her body.
“Nah, not a fan of chiropractors.” Hales rolled her eyes. When Hales didn’t say anything Veron continued.
“Hey so I can use a Jinx on you, I have some healing ones.” Veron offered.
“That’s cheating, we’d get kicked out in a heartbeat. I appreciate it though.”
“You’ve got another match in a few rounds.” Hales groaned.
“Against who?” Hales asked.
“Talayia. You both have one loss, and this is probably the last round before the finals.” Veron explained.
“Then I definitely can’t cheat if its against Talayia.” Hales said adamantly.
“Can you even walk?” Veron challenged. Hales tried getting up. Nothing was working yet. She felt like jello.
“I feel like jello.” She said verbatim what she was thinking.
“You know, Talayia of all people isn’t going to go easy on you.” Hales nodded, weighing her options.
“There’s just no way of getting away with it.” Hales argued, trying to stick to principle.
“Right now everyone is a little preoccupied.” Hales gave the girl a quizzical look.
“Abagene made a mess of some poor kid.”
“Really?” Hales exclaimed the question, “Did she kill someone?” Veron nodded seriously and dramatically.
“She tore his throat out.”
“Damn, so she’s out then.”
“Pretty much.” Veron agreed.
“Right now they are busy cleaning up.” Veron was getting back to the point. “This is your only chance. I have a Jinx that can reduce pain and promote healing. I’ll be subtle about it and no one will know.”
“It just feels wrong.”
“Being dead feels more wrong I’m sure.” Veron said.
“Yeah.” Hales couldn’t disagree with that logic.
This is life or death. There’s no such thing as cheating in a fight is there? But against a friend and classmate? I’m not really cheating, I’m in a lot of pain and can’t walk. If anything it’s allowing the fight to be normal. It’s not fair if one of us is injured. But I lost my fight to a stronger opponent, I have to deal with the consequences. That’s what it means to be a warrior.
As Hales wrestled with her conscience Veron was drawing a Jinx in the palm of her hand.
“It’s ready. Final offer.” Hales snapped back to reality.
“Just tell me this, why are you helping me?” Hales asked.
“Because your my friend. I like you and I want to see how far you can go in this tournament. Since I didn’t join I can vicariously fight through you.” Veron approached. It was an honest enough answer for Hales.
“Do it.” The image of Crnobog laughing was imprinted in her mind’s eye. She had a goal, and she wanted a rematch. This is was the most plausible path to that goal.
Veron placed her hand on Hales’ leg, acting like she was checking and massaging the sore muscles.
“Bloom.” She whispered the words. Hales felt relief immediately from Veron’s Jinx. She let out an involuntary sigh of relief.
“Wow, I feel renewed.”
Veron smiled, “Good! You should be able to fight now.”
“All you did was help the healing process right?” Hales checked.
“Thanks Veron, I owe you one.”
“Don’t sweat it.” The two girls left the medical room together. Hales could still feel the lingering effects of Crnobog’s attack. She could work with this.
“Hey Veron, I don’t know if you were watching, but when I was fighting Crnobog did anything seem strange about him?” Hales asked.
“Nothing out of the ordinary, why?”
“When he was using his power on me, the whole place turned red and he was laughing.” She didn’t need to give any more details than that, in case she really was just imagining it.
“I don’t know how painful it was, but he wasn’t laughing or anything.” Veron sounded a little concerned.
“Yeah it must have just been a trick of the eye.” Strange.
Hales and Veron found a seat on the bleachers. There was no sign of the carnage that Abajene had apparently enacted.
“They clean up good.” Veron observed.
“Yeah, too good maybe.” Hales added. Abajem herself was nowhere to be seen.
“You ready?” Asked Veron. The last rounds were finishing up for the fourth cycle, with only one more group of fourteen. There would have to be a few rounds in the fifth cycle just to bring down the number of Savants to thirty-two for the finals. Hales hoped this would be her last preliminary duel. The next group was called to step up.
“Well, got to go. Thanks again.” Hales said as she rose to her feet. The cramping was almost gone, but she didn’t want to push it. She’d fight defensively.
“Good luck.” Veron remained in her seat.
Hales got to the dueling ground first. The sand was perfectly neat, no sign of any of the dozens of Savants who fought here in the past few hours.
Talayia arrived on the other side of the sand. The two Specters eyed each other. No sign of friendship. Talayia looked worse for wear than Hales. They were both beat up, but both set with the fiery determination to win.
Hales didn’t have anything to say, and neither did Talayia.
The referee signaled the duel. “Fight!”
“Stiletto!” Talayia opened fire only a split second after activating her Aspect. The long and thin blades whizzed through the air. There was at least half a dozen knives, though Hales didn’t waste time counting.
“Solar!” She pulled out a planet and grew its size into a boulder she could use as a wall. She was just in time, the knives thudded into the rock. As the planet rotated she saw seven knives sticking in it. They were in a cluster at eye level.
Talayia is not holding back!
This made Hales angry. She could easily have been blinded or killed if the attack had landed.
Hales created several more planets and grouped them together in front of her. She set her planets in a makeshift wall around her. There was the occasional thud of knife eating into rock. Hales was confident her planetary defense would keep her safe from Stiletto.
Time for offense.
Hales started to spew out stars from the only opening available. Above her. Ten stars the size of small cars hung above her head. She tethered their gravity to herself and allowed them to orbit around her, outside of the planet wall. For the planets she also set them to herself, but in a tighter orbit.
Hales had a two layered defense. Planets on the inside orbit, and stars on the outside. She advanced at a slow walk.
Talayia was helpless, a strong defense was a nightmare for the kind of Aspect she had. She simply didn’t have the firepower to pierce through the planets. One day she might, but not tonight.
“You win Hales.”
Despite the size of the planets and stars she produced, Hales felt oddly okay. Usually after such massive use of her Aspect she would be winded.
Hales let her planets and stars crash into each other, destroying them.
The referee officially declared Hales the winner of this bout.
“You better beat this tournament.” Talayia demanded of Hales.
“I’ll try.” Hales felt guilty for winning after receiving help from Veron, but not enough to really affect her conscience.
Hales walked gingerly to the board displaying the bracket. There were at least twenty other Savants standing there, as well as a host of men and women in suits. Everyone was waiting for the board to update. With just a couple more fights to go before the thirty-two finalists would see their standings.
Magun, Dartan and a few others from her class approached Hales.
“Yo space chick!” Magun greeted first.
“You have to find a better nickname.” Hales retorted.
“Be nice, you know Magun’s brain doesn’t work as well as the rest of ours.” Dartan teased. It was the usual banter Hales had grown to know from them. Magun grinned and put Dartan in a headlock.
“Are you guys ever serious?” Hales asked honestly.
“Unfortunately not.” Jid added exasperated.
“So whose all moving on to the finals?” Hales asked the group.
“Magun and myself.” Jid answered as Magun and Dartan finally calmed down.
“I know you are.” Magun told Hales.
“It looks like our class did pretty well, I know at least a dozen are moving on.” Dartan said, rubbing his neck.
“We’ll find out soon.” Remarked Jid.
The classmates chatted for a few more minutes before it was announced that the preliminaries were over.
The board went blank, and then updated the new display. It was a traditional bracket style tournament set-up. Hales studied it, the buzzing of conversation turning frantic and excited.
The real tournament was just beginning. Hales checked the time, it was eleven o’clock. She didn’t know the Specter she would fight in the first round, and the road to victory borderline impossible. Nothing is certain, not when fighting Savants. The one fact she did know; it was going to be a long night.