Tristan's Tale Pt. 06

byIncomingPornDuck©

Jade whirled on Jet, but he was already walking away. "Oh, no," she said, letting go of me. "I'm not done with you."

She stalked off after him. I grinned, despite myself. "I know that feeling," I muttered.

"That's like the bread and butter of your life here," said Emmit. "They really made you work for your answers."

"What answers?" I scoffed. "I don't even know how the Tournament works."

"Well, it's changed over the years," said Emmit.

The line resumed its momentum after the momentary disturbance of the wyvern-dragon thing, and its bizarre rider. "How would you know?" I asked. "You haven't even been here for one."

"I was curious like you, once upon a time," he said, smiling. "Before the Chi room kind of took my soul away."

I nodded sagely. "I'm glad you were able to get over that."

He rolled his eyes. "Don't say that like you didn't have a hand in it. I don't need your false modesty."

"In that case, you're very welcome," I said. We shared a laugh about it. For all his serious sides, Emmit had this honesty about him that was so refreshing.

"I can tell you what I do know," he said, bringing the conversation back to the Tournament.

"Please."

"I'm guessing you're only interested in combat?"

I nodded. "Clay shaping is cool and all, but I'm leaving that to Jade." Plus I wasn't sure what else there was for a Zero to do.

"Well you won't be doing any archery. Care for some sprinting? Weight-lifting? Acrobatics?"

I made a face. "What is this, gym class? Pass."

"Yeah," said Emmit, "people don't really care about that one, even though archery is a part of it. There just aren't enough people with bows. So that just leaves the gladiator spot."

The gladiator spot. I rolled my eyes. "They're so dramatic with their naming. First they go all "there are no names" on me, next thing they're naming divisions of fights after the pit fighters of a different world."

He shrugged. "Maybe they're trying to make things seem familiar."

I grunted. "Maybe." I gestured for him to continue.

"Well the initial matches and brackets are random. If you win, you fight the other winners. If you lose, you stay in the stands and cheer with the rest of us. There's no division by rank. The fighting is the last part of the Tournament, so you'll be a spectator for a while."

Good to know. I'd have some time to wake up, maybe even do some practicing before the pressure ramped up. Because when it hit, it would hit like a freight train, and it wouldn't let up until I got eliminated, or I won it all.

"In the meantime there are mat rooms," Emmit continued. "There will probably be people open to training with you if you're looking to practice before the fighting."

"Not any of mine," said a familiar voice.

I put on my most sappy, overjoyed expression and turned around to face him. "Oh my God! Derrik! I'm so happy you came!"

And without a further thought, I launched myself into his arms for a hug.

I wished I could have seen his face. I must have caught him by surprise, because I stayed wrapped around him for a moment, his face squished against me. I was taller. Hah.

I let go of him before he got the chance to push me away from his bare chest, and I took a step back. Next to him stood Tori, his girlfriend, and another girl I vaguely recognized with short brown bangs above a tight suit of black leather. They were both wearing the trademark Tower scowl. It looked better on them than Derrik, but so would literally anything.

"So funny that you'd show up when you did," I said to Derrik, "we were just talking about the customs of inbred communities that fuck their farm animals. Your experience in the matter would be really valuable to our conversation. Tell me, what's it like to fuck a cow when it's-"

"Ignore him," said Emmit, cutting me off decisively. "He's an idiot. What do you want, Derrik?"

As the leader of Tower, and my best enemy for life, there was only one thing he would be doing here. Wagging his dick around in my face.

You know, metaphorically speaking.

He sniffed. "I actually came here to give my boy here some advice," he said. Tori just stood there, looking like Tori. All long legs and tattoos and piercings, I couldn't think of a time where I'd seen her wear actual pants. She wore a g-string in the Course, why would it be any different here? It complimented Derrik's perpetual shirtlessness, though theoretically he kept his shirt off because he had a ridiculously strong field on him that made you see a large black Tower tattooed on his chest.

Next to Tori, Danielle was holding a piece of platinum colored Clay. I'd almost mistaken it for a hunk of polished metal, but then she changed the shape. The sun shone brightly on it as she rapidly altered its form, and it fluttered from thing to thing. I'd never seen anyone shape Clay that fast. It was supposed to look intimidating, and, well, she was succeeding.

Especially since she was exclusively making things you killed people with. A viciously serrated dagger morphed into a decorated pistol, and then into a thick-handled butcher knife.

An obvious attempt at making us scared. "Listen," I said to Derrik, "I appreciate you wanting to give me advice, but I don't think I have to worry about impregnating my sister. I'm an only child, you see."

He folded his arms and looked around. Inevitably, people were watching our confrontation. They always did. "Look, I'm trying to make peace. I'll admit I've been a dick in the past, but you're no angel. Let's call it quits, alright? In the name of the Tournament."

I eyed him warily. "Yeah. Sure. Quits. I'm down."

"Here's some information that'll be useful for you," he said, "considering you didn't make top twenty." His eyes glittered, and I hated him just a little more. He was partly responsible for why I didn't get to practice with the other races before the Tournament. "Now Ifrits," he continued like we were best friends, "you don't have to worry about them. They're crap at fighting, and worse at the mental stuff. You shouldn't have much of a problem with them, but then again, you're new. You never know, some people choke under pressure."

I'm more likely to choke you under pressure, I thought. "Thanks for the advice," I said through clenched teeth. I've said it fifteen different ways and then some, but I couldn't stand this guy. From his lies to his overaggression, Derrik was a prime example of letting the power go to your head. He was always shirtless because he had a Field—a constant, ongoing emanation of mind control—that projected the tattoo of a tower on his chest.

"The Jhinn," he said as if I hadn't spoken, "Are fuckin' weird. The trick is you've got to attack the clothing. Don't go for the stuff inside it."

"What?"

"You'll see. And last but not least, if a Droll takes a swing at you. . ." he leaned forward, "get out of the way."

I rolled my eyes. "Wow. You give the best advice."

"I thought so too, which is why I bothered to come here and tell you." He extended a hand. "Shake on our friendship?"

I grasped it without a second thought. We both squeezed extraordinarily hard. He was much stronger than me. I did my best not to let it show on my face, but he saw me wince. Damnit. "I look forward to getting to know you better, friend," I said.

He pulled me in for a one armed hug. He didn't let go of his grip on my hand. I half expected it to hear a sickening crunch any second. "Don't let me down, Tristan," he whispered. "I don't want to see you get knocked out in the second round by one of my guys. 'Course, there's a hefty Clay reward to anyone who beats you, so they'll be extra motivated."

He let go. He glanced at Emmit. "Take care of the little guy, will ya?" he said, and tossed out a peace sign before leaving.

Emmit hadn't been paying attention. His eyes had been locked on Tori the whole time. I've got no idea if she had been returning his gaze, but when she turned to melt back into the crowd with Derrik, I swear I caught an extra sway to her hips before he placed his hand firmly on her ass.

Danielle lingered a moment, flashing her teeth in a white smile. She said, "Give Jade my best," and her voice was about as sincere as a panther's. Hard to sound sincere when you wear all leather, though. Like, a onesie? Seriously?

"Will do, friend," I said with a saccharine smile.

I tried not to look embarrassed at the whole interaction. Derrik had won that one. I'd started out too aggressive. I mean, only an idiot would think Derrik actually had kind intentions, but I'd come across too brash, like I was looking for a fight. That's what people would have noticed first, and take it from me, they don't tend to notice anything but what comes first.

There wasn't much I could do to save face, so I held my head high and tried to look indifferent.

It's pretty hard to look indifferent when there's a bounty on your head. Fancy that.

~

I hoped to arrive soon. We'd been walking for ages, and my feet were sore.

"He just says it like it's this amazing thing, and then leaves!" exclaimed Jade, exasperated. She turned to me. "You heard him put the capital 'S' on it too, right?"

I smiled. "'Yup."

"Then what was he talking about? I knew it was a little strange that I could sing to the birds, but it always felt natural. I assumed it was something about this place, or maybe about the Art. But he put a name on it!" She glared at me. "And why, exactly, do you look so smug?" she demanded.

I could barely control my laughter. "It's so refreshing to see this from the outside for once."

"God, this is how everything has been for you, hasn't it?" she said. I nodded. "That sounds infuriating."

"You have no idea," I said.

Apparently, trying to get answers from Jet about being a Singer was like trying to get a rock to speak. I couldn't imagine what the Odieh got out of being so reticent, but my thoughts were elsewhere.

I was thinking about the Tournament. My mind was racing over anything it could do to prepare me. I was trying to do the Jet thing, training my balance and my weight distribution with my every movement. Every step was an opportunity to practice. I thought about the people I'd be up against, human and otherwise, and how I could beat them.

"Who was that guy that always wins?" I asked.

"Kohl Crusher?" said Emmit.

"Yeah. One of the big dudes."

"They're called Droll."

I tried to wrap my mind around it, and failed. "Yeah, nope, still not buying that they're real."

"You won't have to for much longer," said Jade. "That's probably them over there."

I followed her gaze and saw a large cloud of thick dust trailing a line of black specks in the distance. They were moving perpendicular to us.

"Holy shit," I muttered.

There they were. I couldn't even begin to process how cool that was. Yeah, I'd seen some supernatural shit here. Stone Giants, a woman made of butterflies. But these other races had always seemed more outlandish, because they were normal. Shae was the last of her kind. The Stone Giants were reclusive, not a part of Caer'Aton proper insofar as they didn't take classes. But the other three species were like humans. Normally, humans like to think of ourselves as on a different tier of existence from the rest of the animal kingdom. But here, humans were just one of four societies. That was mind-boggling.

"Shouldn't we be able to see the Arena by now?" said Emmit. He squinted. "Do you guys see anything?"

"No," I replied. "Grass and dust and dirt for miles."

"It's supposed to look like a glass Colosseum," he muttered. "It'd be hard to miss something that reflective in this sun."

"Maybe someone threw stones at the most recent practice?"

He gave me a blank look.

"You know." I looked between the two of them. "People in glass Colosseums. . ."

"Very funny," said Jade drily. "You won't even have to use your Chi. Just talk and people will die from laughter."

"Your friend dropped by, earlier," said Emmit. "Danielle."

"Oh lord," said Jade. "How bad was it?"

"She shaped some weapons in front of us," said Emmit.

"Shaped them rather quickly," I added.

"Lovely," she murmured.

"Competition?" I asked.

"One of the Shapers that's almost guaranteed a spot in the semifinals."

"She seemed pretty eager to intimidate," I said. "So at least Tower is sticking to form."

"Look at it from her perspective," said Jade. "She's going up against last year's winner, a Clanless girl who walks around like she owns the place and has never really settled on a friend group. Someone who's been getting personal tutelage from Kiara, but what did she do to deserve it? Nothing, she won a contest a year ago, and I've been working so hard because I deserve that very same attention more than someone like her."

"Wow," I said, "that came out easily."

She shrugged. "I think about it often. I know that I carry myself a little differently than other people. It's a holdover from how distant I was when first coming here."

"We all adapt somehow," said Emmit.

Sailor nodded his agreement. "That's the whole reason Tower even exists. Somebody ages ago said, 'You know what? People are scared shitless when they come here. Let's give them something to rally around.' They were the first Clan, you know."

"I didn't know that," I said.

"It's just another philosophy. I know Danielle would prefer if we had a big rivalry, but I'll leave that to you and Derrik. You two have got that more than handled."

"You'd think Shae would have come up with that herself. I could see each of the Odieh leading a small squad of people, sparring off against each other." My eye kept returning to the cloud of dust in the distance. Then, I had a thought. "Do the Droll have their own Odieh?"

"They're not ranked like we are," said Emmit. "There are no divisions. No tiers."

"So when Khol Crusher wins the Tournament, he's beaten all our Odieh? He's stronger than Jet?"

"No, the Five stopped competing with everyone else. Maybe they wanted people to feel like they could actually win."

That was good to know. The Odieh were so removed from the usual flow of life in Caer'Aton that I hadn't actually considered the fact that I might fight one in the Tournament. There would be no way I could win if I had to go up against Jet again. Unless, say, he tied both his hands behind his back and blindfolded himself. I could probably take him if he was blind and swordless. Probably.

And who's to say Kiara wasn't even better than him? It was hard to imagine the scarlet scarf she wore around her body doing anything deadly. Well, maybe taking it off would cause a heart attack or two. But then again, just because you're the Master Seductress of Caer'Aton, doesn't mean you can't also be the best fighter. That's exactly the sort of thing they'd keep from us.

And if Rinzai showed up? Forget about it.

I shook my head. That wasn't a useful line of thinking. Rinzai was gone, two of the Odieh were gone, and regardless, since my power faded, I wasn't sure if I even stood a chance against Derrik. Much less Kohl Crusher. "What the hell kind of name was that, anyway," I muttered. "It's like something out of a cartoon."

Yeah, diminish the scary alien in your head so you don't shit yourself thinking about how he never loses. Great plan, Tristan.

I started to run over some of my last fights and the patterns I'd noticed in people's training. I tried to remember how Derrik fought, and imagined myself dodging punches he'd thrown a week ago. I quickly got so lost in my thoughts that I almost stumbled into the person in front of me.

"Don't think about it too much," said Jade. "You've done all the planning you can do."

"Thanks," I said automatically.

She tried to drop my hand and I didn't realize I was holding on so tight until it didn't fall naturally away. I let go, a little embarrassed, and she tilted my head toward hers. "I mean it, Tristan. Try and relax. I know you've been building up to this for so long, but try walking instead of thinking."

I sighed. "I can't do both?"

"Not very well," she said.

I looked at my feet. They were filthy. Nobody wore shoes, nobody complained. The ground wasn't smooth, but it didn't hurt to walk on it. Your feet toughen surprisingly fast. "They seem to be walking just fine by themselves."

"They'll be happier if you walk with them."

"You guys say the weirdest shit sometimes," I said.

She shrugged, apparently done with giving advice to someone who wasn't listening. She moved the small saffron colored sack she wore on her back in front of her and retrieved a couple things from it. She quickly concealed the first, and. . .

"What happened to your Chi?" I asked. She was holding a knife. It didn't have the abalone flecks of the dagger she'd been using or the sandalwood hilt. It was just a regular knife, small steel blade, black hilt.

"It's more powerful, now," she explained. She'd gotten Set, and promptly gotten her new Chi afterward. She started making deft motions onto the wood in her hands. "I can't fit it back inside the old manifestation."

That sucked. "It must be harder to whittle without the aid of your Chi," I said. "Couldn't you manifest your rapier? Like, sheathed by your hip or something, just for the perceptive increase?"

"Kiara forbade it," she said. "She said my work was good but that it was too reliant on my Chi. My pieces unrealistically detailed." She palmed the piece of wood and waved the dagger airily around. "Things don't have to be ornate and finely crafted to be beautiful, Jade," she said in a fair imitation of Kiara's sultry tone. "Find the beauty in the ordinary."

"She's got a point," said Emmit.

"Of course she's got a point," said Jade irritably. "They always do. It's just frustrating losing all the skill I had. I feel like a complete novice all over again."

"What are you working on now?" I asked.

She smiled. "Just practicing for later."

"You have a design in mind already?" I tried to peer at the piece of wood through her cupped hands. "Can I see?"

She hid it from view. "You can see when everyone else does," she admonished. "Don't think you get special privileges just because you're my boyfriend."

I shivered. "God. I don't know if I'm ever going to get used to that."

"There should be another line," said Emmit thoughtfully.

I glanced at him. "What?"

"Those are pretty clearly the Droll in the distance," he said, referring to the perpendicular line we'd noticed earlier. "You can tell by the size. The Jhinn wouldn't leave a trace if they were flying."

I gulped. Flying?

Hey God. It's me, Tristan. Just checking in to let you know that someone turned off the reality filter of your reality. Maybe it got clogged. You should get that checked out, because my friend just casually mentioned a race of flying people. Not like the birds I'd fought. People.

"But the Ifrits would leave a trace," he said. There was something to his voice that unsettled me. "And we've been walking a while. We should at least be able to see the Arena by now."

"Maybe they're already there," offered Jade.

"Maybe. . ." he trailed off thoughtfully, his eyebrows furrowed into a frown.

"What are you thinking?" I asked.

He was silent a moment. "I don't know," he said finally. "Something just feels a little off. With all the ceremony they loaded us with earlier, you'd think there would be more to the arrival than this."

I looked at Jet ahead of us. His head was turned to the empty plains in the right, where another line of people might be coming from. But there was nothing there.

We kept walking. It became apparent that the line of Droll would meet with ours fairly soon. And yet there was still no sign of the Arena. No towering structure, no stands. No Jhinn.

And then we happened upon it, and it became obvious why we hadn't seen it before. I heard a cheer come from the people up front as they discovered that the walk was suddenly over. They were the first to see that the Arena wasn't a colosseum.

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