tagMind ControlTristan's Tale Pt. 06

Tristan's Tale Pt. 06


Here's the next installment of Tristan's Tale. New to the story? Check my profile!

Thanks to all who have written to me, and especially thank you to my wonderful editors.


Dust rose behind us like an omen: the humans were coming to the Arena.

And they weren't alone.

"I still can't believe it's true," I said. "That we're about to actually see other peoples. Other races."

"Wind Jhinns and Ifrits and Droll, oh my!" shouted Sailor, earning him a few stares from the crowd of people around us. He threw his head back in laughter. "I can't wait!"

The day had started like any other, but with an added anticipation I couldn't shake. After all the fighting and all the sweat, it was unreal to know that it would all be over before I went to sleep tonight.

The Tournament. It was happening.

Today was the day I'd walk into the Arena and leave either a hero or the laughingstock of Caer'Aton. I'd been training for what felt like forever, and I hadn't slept in days. It was all just a blur of swordplay in my mind. I could barely remember how long I'd been awake. Four days? Five? My muscles were sore in places that I hadn't even known about.

I was disappointed but not surprised when they announced at breakfast to meet in the courtyard at first period. It meant I missed Kiara's stretching class, something my body desperately needed. I swear my disappointment had nothing to do with the fact that Kiara was the Master Seductress of Moleh.

I joke, but. . .

I glanced to my right where Jade was walking, speaking with Emmit. My hand was in hers, and it felt so natural I'd forgotten it was even there. I had this feeling I didn't have a name for, a constant state of surprise that things were going so well between me and her.

So Master Seductress or not, I was only sad to miss Kiara's class because even the orange potions Alice had stolen for me hadn't totally taken the edge off my body's pain. I mean, I'd trained nonstop for a week. Literally. I'd even skipped meals for a couple days to cram in some more training time. By all accounts, the very fact that I was walking meant I was doing fantastic. But even with the healing brew, that bizarre liquid that took away your aches and pains, I was tight in places that needed to be flexible, and my mind was far from relaxed.

Manifesting my Chi would go a ways to calm myself down. You get crazy lucid when your Chi snaps into your hand. But, unfortunately, I was hiding something. When I'd first manifested it, I was on a power high. I'd decimated the rankings, and even dueled with Jet. That power had faded significantly over time. I was stronger than most, but I had yet to train with much of the top tier. Who knew if I was better than them?

Part of hiding my loss of power meant not pushing myself to the edge, so people always thought I was holding back. They'd assumed I was stronger than I was. One thing I'd learned here was your reputation was a weapon if you used it properly. Here, I was using it to hide the fact that, despite all my training, I didn't know how I'd do in the Tournament. Could I handle a Zero? Sure. No question. Someone with Set? That's where I grew more uncertain. Having never faced the other races, I couldn't even estimate my chances accurately. I just wanted it to be over already, so I could stop feeling so anxious.

In the courtyard after breakfast, we'd squinted our eyes against the morning sun as Jet gave a short briefing on the walk to the Arena. He emphasized the importance of staying on the path. How they couldn't guarantee our protection if we strayed. We rolled our eyes.

As if there was anything to worry about. It was grasslands for miles and miles around Moleh, the part of Caer'Aton for humans, and those plains were always empty. The hot sun alone in a cloudless sky made for perfect visibility. You couldn't sneak up on Caer'Aton even if the day suddenly flipped to night, as the stars were thick here, and the moon was big and bright even at a sliver.

So what were we supposed to be afraid of? There were hundreds of us. And though it was too easy to forget, we were, essentially, a regiment of assassins. I didn't know how we compared to the rest of this strange world, but I had a hard time imagining anything more powerful than hundreds of people with the ability to control minds.

So I didn't know why they needed all the ceremony. Maybe Shae was trying to give the Arena meaning somehow, make it seem important. Or maybe she was trying to make the rest of the world seem more dangerous, but I didn't buy it. Caer'Aton was safe. We were in an oasis crafted by Shae.

That being said, I'd heard a few stories of the other species, and fighting leathery humanoids twice my size didn't strike me as particularly safe. I didn't understand these things. Ifrits? Little dancing demons? And the Wind Jhinn—those I understood the least of all.

Jade squeezed my hand. "Are you nervous?"

We made a strange pair. Me in all black from my messy, in-my-eyes hair to my pants. Her in her simple clothes of gray and white that left her looking like she'd planned the ease of her beauty for days. "Nervous?" I asked, exaggerating a quiver in my voice. "What have I got to be nervous about?"

"Nothing," said Emmit. "The Arena is a ceremony. The bringing together of people. The fighting component is just a fight, just like any you've done on the mats. There's no real danger." He pointed. "And even if there was, you won't get killed with him around."

I followed his gesture. I could see the long black ponytail walking ahead amid a sea of other people. Jet was a short ways in front of us, and he was the only person walking alone. Everyone walked together in their various groups, divided by Clan, but Jet was an Odieh—above all our petty drama.

Tower walked separate from Talon, where Rodrigo and Vanessa were planning strategies with Thad and Jeff and the others. Stone seemed fairly at ease, content in the far back of the long procession of people. They were the least competitive of the Clans. I periodically heard Thomas's booming laugh carry all the way up the line to me. He'd been kind of cold and distant to me lately.

My Clan, Lotus, was still in its infancy. We barely had fifteen people. At the end of the last training before the Tournament, they had asked what our strategy was. How we'd approach it as a Clan.

I know, right? They thought I had a plan. Hilarious.

If you listened to my friends, all I had was a death wish. Nobody else would have started the pissing contest I'd started with Derrik, or trained for a week non-stop. My relentless training had made me overly callous in my fighting, and I'd apparently bruised a few egos. It had a bit of a polarizing effect on people. Some resented me for what "success" I did have, even though I didn't have anything to show for it. Some thought I was an asshole, and they were probably justified.

But some had liked me well enough to ask me if I could teach them, and we'd formed a clan—Lotus. When they first asked me about our plan for the Tournament, I was so exhausted that I just told them to try hard, have fun, and then I promptly left to go drink Alice's potion before all my sleep caught up to me.

But Emmit and Jade and Sailor had tracked me down and insisted we do something. Some way to bring attention to our Clan at the Arena. The stakes for a new Clan were pretty high. Being crushed by the other Clans, especially Tower, wouldn't make us popular. We'd just be the latest in a long line of new Clans that never got off the ground. There wasn't much more training we could do, however, so we came up with a little something and Jade got to work making it happen.

The net result was that Lotus wasn't hanging out in a big clump. We didn't have strategies to plan. "This isn't Ender's Game," I'd told them all at the courtyard. "Go hang out. And when it comes time, just do your best."

I am a great leader of men and women, obviously. A real source of inspiration.

But what was I supposed to do? All the actual figures of power here kept their distance from the rest of us. I didn't have much in the way of inspiration.

I watched Jet. He always had his Chi out, and he rested his hand calmly on the pommel. His gaze wandered, and he was constantly keeping tabs on the procession and the area around it. When I occasionally caught a glimpse of the side of his face, he didn't look particularly worried, but that didn't mean anything. Big brother is always watching, I thought as he scanned the area. What was he looking for?

"Kiara doesn't look like she's too worried about her fight," said Jade.

"With who? Jet?" I asked.

"I can't see Dante coming down for a sparring session, can you?"

"I guess not." Dante was blind, but I doubted he was any less deadly for it. "Where is she?"

"Up ahead with Alice. Look at that fire, how light it is."

She was dressed, as usual, in a scarlet scarf that wrapped around her body, leaving generous portions of tan, creamy skin exposed. But Jade didn't mean that—for some reason, after being taken by Shae, Jade had begun to see the four elements in everything. I supposed I could see the fire—Kiara's scarf also happened to be her Chi, so it was deadly. I once heard that she'd used it to choke a freshly arrived Zero she was "briefing", and he'd just up and died in the bed. It was probably just a myth—she seemed like such a sunny person, chatting and laughing amiably with Alice. But you never knew with the Odieh.

Jade yawned. "I'm surprised nobody's gotten their nose bloodied yet over who gets to walk behind them."

"Location, location, location," said Sailor.

"It's a true saying. People pay more for real estate with a view," I said.

Sailor hooked his thumbs around his brown vest. "Why do you think I wear this thing all the time?" Sometimes he went shirtless underneath it, but today he wore his vest over a simple blue shirt. Not that there are complicated shirts, so to speak—I don't believe Caer'Aton had been introduced to the graphic tee yet.

"In some cases," said Jade, looking pointedly at Sailor's chest, "locations are desirable for what they conceal, not what they show." Then, switching to an overly innocent tone, she said, "I like your shirt, by the way."

Sailor mocked an affronted look. "Why, Jade. Color me offended. I guess I'll just have to take my real estate elsewhere."

"Somewhere with a view, I imagine," said Emmit.

"Yeah, now that you mention it, why am I walking with you again?" Sailor winked, and pushed his way forward through the crowd. "Outta my way, I'm a busy man, let's go, come on."

"Does he ever let up?" I asked, smiling.

"Rarely," said Emmit.

Jade agreed. "That boy has more air than anybody I know. But how about you, Emmit?" asked Jade. "Your ban is finally off."

"Yeah, have you spent any time in the private rooms recently?" I asked. Jade and I shared a look.

"Of course not," said Emmit. "They aren't really for me."

"Then who is?" prompted Jade with an overly innocent smile.

Emmit gave her a wry look. "It sounds like you're assuming I'm interested in someone."

"Aren't you?" I asked. Jade and I had been speculating about him and Tori. There might be sparks between the two of them. He'd had to stay away from sex until he got his Chi, but now that he had it. . .

"If I was, I'd want you not to make any drama about it," he said. "Not all of us like the feel of all the eyes in Caer'Aton watching us."

"Sounds like you're assuming I'm interested in that," I said.

"Aren't you?"

"It's not like I want everyone's attention on me," I said. "Things just kind of turn out out that way." I sighed, looking around at the long line of us trecking through the dust. "I don't know."

"What he means to say," said Jade, "Is that he loves the attention but doesn't want people to think that's the only reason he does what he does."

"What exactly do I do?"

Emmit raised an eyebrow. "Do you seriously want a list?"

"Remind me, when was the last time you went to sleep?" asked Jade.

"I wish I knew," I said. I tried to wipe away the residual tiredness from my face. "You're spot on, of course," I said to Jade. "I guess if we're doing the honesty thing, I like being noticed but I just wish I didn't have to deal with any of the consequences."

"It's not all bad," said Jade. "Though it may not have been the best idea to get the most powerful clan in Moleh on your bad side. You probably wouldn't have been able to start your own without that notch on the bedpost of your reputation."

"Speaking of which," I said, trying to change the subject, "are we still clear on the plan?"

"Yes, yes," she grumbled. "I swear, Emmit, he's asked me a thousand times since yesterday."

"I wish we'd had more time to practice. I know you weren't intent on winning the Clay shaping segment, but-"

She waved a dismissive hand. "Don't worry about it. Hopefully, Welding will give me enough of an edge."

"And before you ask," said Emmit, "Sailor and I are also clear on our part. We handed everything out already with Alice. And I'll do my best, though it's unlikely I'll do very well in archery. Most of the top competitors have been around long enough to have received some instruction from Italo before he left." He scratched his head, and shook out his mop of brown hair. "Though I hear he's about as cryptic with his teaching as you'd expect from an Odieh."

"I wonder if they're going to show up," mused Jade. "I'd love to watch the Five use their Art together."

I remembered my fight with Jet. The spectators had manifested their Chi just to hone their senses enough to be able to follow our fight. I remembered how it had felt to just be in the same room as his Chi when mine was out. It radiated sheer power. It was incredible.

Five times that, all fighting each other? Yeesh.

A shadow suddenly crossed over us. I blinked—hadn't the sky been empty of clouds?

"What was th—no way!" shouted a woman in front of us.

It was Dante, of course, flying in on his dragon. We all stopped walking as he made a slow spiraling descent toward the front of the line. The people there stumbled out of the way, screaming as he cut a close landing.

You can't blame them. Leyla was huge, all dusty-green scales that made it look like she had accidentally fallen out of a thousand years ago, with claws thick enough to rip stone like it was paper and a tail that was long and barbed. Leyla was also huge. The size of ten trucks. She was the most intimidating creature I'd ever seen.

And by all accounts, she was asleep. Her leathery eyes were shut, and she was snoring.

Dante raised a hand in greeting. "Ho there, humans! What's the occasion for this exodus?" His voice boomed out. He'd once told me he took voice lessons from his dragon, and to hear him speak, he might not have been lying. Dante was a burly man with black hair combed neatly to the side and chest hair that cows could graze on. He was wearing the same bathrobe I'd seen him in before, made of thick cloth striped red and black. And from the fact that he was raising his hand in a direction about ninety degrees from us, I remembered that he was blind.

He peered around, rising and falling with the slow inhales and exhales of the beast below. "I don't remember anything about an excursion. Are we mobilizing already? Bit early for that, I think."

Jet had already cut to the front of the line. Dante swiveled his gaze from where we obviously weren't, directly to Jet, but I couldn't hear what Jet was saying. Then, Dante let out a laugh. "Wait, that's today? Good grief."

He straightened his back and his sleeping dragon walked slowly down the side of the line. Its snores were like a horse's whinny that had been hooked up to a stereo with the bass turned to eleven. "So you think you've got what it takes?" he asked, casting his gaze up and down the line, or, at least pretty close to it.

Nobody felt much like talking. We were all staring slack-jawed at the giant freaking dragon.

"Nobody?" he called again.

"To do what?" I asked before I could stop myself.

His head swiveled. "Tristan! You bugger. Leyla is very offended you missed us for tea." He walked the beast over to us. Jet had continued walking, and a few people followed, but most stayed frozen watching the, did I mention, giant freaking dragon?

Jade paled as he approached. "I'm sorry for offending your dragon," I said.

"Wyvern!" He exclaimed. "Are you daft? How many times do I have to correct you?"

"I don't know," I said, "Not that I know anything, but, that. . .that's a dragon."

"No she isn't," he huffed. He leaned over and whispered into Leyla's tent-flap ear. "He didn't mean it. Shh. It's okay, don't you have any bad dreams on his account. What?" He cocked his head. "No, we can't eat him. Not now. Be polite."

"What's the difference between a dragon and a wyvern, then?" I asked, trying to keep my voice as amiable and non-threatening as possible. I was pretty confident that it wouldn't eat me. But I doubted Leyla was a vegetarian. Maybe I could be a nice snack for whatever the hell it took to keep a thing that big fed.

"The scales," said Dante offhandedly, inspecting his fingernails.

"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Jade.

Dante's eyes shot wide open at the sound of her voice. "A Singer? What what what?" He slid down his wyvern with surprising grace. The guy looked like he was in his late fifties, but he showed no sign of it as he landed nimbly and withdrew a white cane from Leyla's claws. Beside me, Emmit's face was showing a little more emotion than usual. There was excitement, and some fear on his face. Good. I was glad to see him opening up a little.

Dante walked over to Jade, who was standing very, very still. The wyvern let out a snort and the resultant gust of wind was enough to make us stagger just a little. It smelled vaguely like smoke.

"Where did you acquire your voice?" he asked.

She steadied herself and parted a lock of her bright orange hair out of her eyes. "I. . .don't know?" she replied. "Back home? Like everybody else?"

"No, no," said Dante dismissively. "Not your voice. Your voice!"

The crowd parted, and Jet walked forward, looking fabulously overdressed in his white suit. "Dante. Please show some respect for the schedule."

"Bah," sniffed Dante. "Butterflies have gone to your head, boy."

Boy? I looked at Jet for any sign of anger at the insult. But of course there was none. Instead, I saw what Dante meant. I felt such respect and fear for Jet that I often forgot that he couldn't have been older than thirty-five. Dante kept in shape, but he could easily have twenty years on Jet.

Nonetheless, he hobbled back to Leyla, grumbling. He put his cane in a curled claw, and then scampered up her side like a squirrel. I looked at Jade. She looked about as confused as I did for once.

"Wait, what did you mean?" she demanded.

"Ask Jet," said Dante. "He's the one who runs the show around here, apparently."

I braced myself as I recognized the signs. I grabbed Emmit with my free hand, and tightened my fingers around Jade. "Hold tight."

Leyla flapped her wings once, and took to the sky. The wind nearly knocked us over. A few others weren't so lucky, tripping over one another. Her lift-off looked profoundly strange, both unnatural and natural at the same time, because the wing flap shouldn't have been enough to lift that kind of weight. I had no idea how many tons she weighed. But I'll tell you one thing, wings do not lift something that big. I don't care how big the wings are. Not that kind of vertical ascent.

But at the same time, it couldn't have looked more natural. More effortless. It should have been clunky, her flight should have been stuttered and slow, but it was not. High above, she banked left, wings spread, turning graceful as any bird. How strange.

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