Tristan's Tale Pt. 06

byIncomingPornDuck©

It was a pit.

~

A network of stairs cut a path down the stadium that had been hewn from dirt, the surface hard like sun-baked clay. They'd gone to a lot of trouble digging the earth out like this. I wondered if Shae had used stone giants for the excavation.

The seats ringed a central stage in a three-quarters circle much like the shape of Moleh, with the stage at the bottom. The whole thing was tapered like the image of a teardrop with the stage at the narrow tip. If you fought, you could conceivably get your back pressed against the part where there were no stands, only the sheer wall of the pit.

"Gee, no pressure," I muttered, looking at the stage. I didn't know what I was expecting. But as I faced the reality, that literally everyone was going to be watching the fights, I wondered if the stakes weren't actually higher than I thought. On the one hand, the Tournament meant absolutely nothing. It was a meaningless contest meant to give a sense of purpose to Shae's knights-in-training.

On the other, Jade had received personal training from Kiara because she'd won last year. And if I won, I'd probably get more people in Lotus. More people meant more practice, more honing of our Art. And that was priority number one.

It was a question of survival. You didn't get out of Caer'Aton unless you left, which was an event nobody seemed to understand the mechanics of, or you got powerful enough to be sent on missions. Right now, I was a slave. Mind-controlled by Shae. We all were.

So in a way, the Tournament represented much more than social status.

If I wanted freedom, if I wanted my life back, I needed to be able to beat Shae. To learn what she was teaching us and use it to escape.

Yeah. Easy. No problem.

I sighed, and realized Jade had been silent for a while as we walked down the steps. "What are you thinking?" I asked.

"Last year, it wasn't a pit," she said.

I looked around. "So this is new? I wonder why she changed it."

The stairs took us into doors that had been cut into the earth. I was absolutely heartbroken to find that the inside was like a locker room.

Seriously. For all I knew, I was on a totally different planet, and I was in a locker room.

A long hallway stretched left and right, its walls ringed with lockers of dark wood illuminated by the glow of familiar flickering torches that cast constant, unmoving orange light. The room smelled like absolutely nothing at all, which was very strange. Given how polished everything looked, I'd expected to at least smell sanitized. The ground was cool beneath my bare feet, though, which I welcomed after the heat of the dirt we'd been walking on, and there were tables of food and drink spaced out every so often. Apparently we were going to be here awhile.

Jet was standing opposite the entrance talking to the newcomers in front of a large hanging cloth with the day's schedule written on it. A bastion of order amid the excitement and chaos pouring into the room. People were excited, exploring the new place.

"You all have a locker to deposit any possessions you may have brought with you. Your locker will only open for you. Clay Shaping in thirty minutes." I snorted. Possessions? It was Caer'Aton. We didn't have, you know, stuff. I was pretty sure our necklaces didn't count as possessions.

Then I saw people were taking out bits of colored Clay, and it hit me. There was probably time between fights, or events. With nothing else to do, pitting your will against another through Clay was probably the next best thing to a Gameboy. And it wasn't bad practice for anybody in the Clay Shaping Tournament. Some people felt confident enough to let go of their pieces of Clay, letting them wobble in the air as they shaped them. Risky—it was a lot easier to steal when you weren't touching it.

Looking around, the lockers were all identical. "To find your locker, open up, and find yourself among them," said Jet. "You all have a locker to deposit any possessions. . ." He started repeating himself for the people still trickling through the door.

I rolled my eyes. "A test. Of course." It was like the door opposite the men's sleeping rooms. One of the first tests I'd faced in Caer'Aton. By all accounts, it was an unopenable door. That is, until you realized it wasn't a door, and walked straight through it. I still wasn't sure about the lesson on that one. Maybe something to do with intent? That's how I'd opened it, in the end. I'd effectively just wanted it bad enough.

I had a piece of wood in my pocket I didn't want to lose, so I looked around at everyone to gauge how they were finding their locker. Everyone seemed to have a different method. A few people were running their hands across the wood surface. A middle-aged woman with rich olive skin was standing in the middle of the hallway, eyes closed, whispering her name over and over until her eyes snapped open and she began walking away with purpose.

"You guys have any idea what's going on?" I asked.

Emmit's eyes were closed. He gave no sign that he'd heard me at all. Jade shrugged, and walked over to some lockers at random. I followed her. "You just have to feel for it," she said. And then, without looking, she placed her hand on the knob of a locker and pulled.

It opened.

I stared openly, mouth agape, as she calmly unshouldered her bag and stuffed it inside.

"How did you do that?" I sputtered. I looked around. "There are hundreds of lockers!"

She turned her face to look at me and curled a lock of ember-orange hair behind her ear. "I listened," she said calmly as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

But her eyes were dancing. "You sure you didn't just luck out completely?" I asked a little suspiciously.

"Try one," she said.

I appraised the options in front of me, and then reached my hand out.

"No, not that one," she said.

I paused. "What?"

"That one isn't yours."

". . .What?"

"How could it be? Look at it." She shook her head emphatically. "That one is nothing like you."

I had yet to wrap my mind around Jade's sensitivities. "Okay. What do I do, then? Just cast my awareness out?"

"Sure."

It had been ages since I'd done anything related to the mental form of the Art. Though the necklace I wore stopped me from controlling or being controlled by others, Shae had included various other subtle ways of clueing into the Art by interacting with the environment. The Classrooms, for instance, were in one of three hallways that changed randomly every day. At the three-way intersection, you had to reach out and figure which hallway was the Mind one, the Body one, or the Spirit one.

I took a breath, and settled into myself. I relaxed a little, which came easily despite the crowded noise of the locker rooms. I was tired. Letting go of tension came easy.

I let my awareness drift. It passed over the lockers like a shawl in a gentle breeze.

"No. . ." I murmured. Nothing felt familiar. It was hard to discern the difference between the lockers and the people. I couldn't get much of a feel for either, it was like trying to make out similar letters in a foreign script. To someone fluent in the language, the difference was obvious. But it was all a jumble to me.

Remembering something Hwan had told me when we were in a Shaping contest, I mimicked a few of the other people and put my hand on a locker.

Immediately it surged with. . .something. Energy? Presence? It had a flavor to it—no, a color, or wait. . .a texture? What was that?

Whatever it was, it wasn't me. I moved along the lockers, my hand drifting across the wood.

"Aw, baby Tristan still needs his hand held."

Derrik's voice snapped me out of my concentration. I glared at him snickering with his friends. Colin blinked noncommittally while Kelechi's smirk was a bit more obvious. Tori was as frosty as ever.

Whatever. I kept looking for my locker. Jade was silent beside me, but how she held her body told me she was deliberately keeping herself composed. God knows she had reason enough to hate that group.

"We've got time to kill," said Derrik. "André!"

A man turned around in the crowd ahead of me. "What?"

"Find us an empty room to practice in."

André sighed. "Okay." He didn't seem very eager to take orders. André was the Gatekeeper, the bottom of the top twenty. Responsible for not letting anybody past him. But Tower was an absolute monarchy, and Derrik had held control for longer than any other leader of the Clan. André opened a door between two lockers and peered inside. It was probably full, because he closed it and went to a new one.

I found my locker a few moments later. I don't know how I hadn't sensed it earlier. It was practically like a lighthouse beacon, a deep sense of familiarity. I felt tugged toward it.

"Got it," I said to Jade with a smile. I opened my locker and placed the piece of wood in it.

She looked like she was about to respond, and then her eyes widened. All the color drained from her face and she looked like she was going to be sick. Her hand flew to her mouth, and tears welled in the corner of her eyes.

"What-" I began, but then I saw a similar reaction happening to more people in the hallway. A few people cried out in anguish and clutched at their hearts, doubling over in pain. More were sobbing. Jade was fighting back tears.

I put my arms around her. "What's happening?" I asked as gently as I could.

She drew in a couple stuttered breaths. "I-I think I just felt somebody die."

~

Her head turned toward a door in the wall a few feet away, and the tears poured down her face. "Oh my God," she whispered, burying her face in my shoulder.

I was very still, unsure what to think. Death? Here?

Nobody was doing anything. It was the people who had Set, I realized. Everyone without a necklace was experiencing incredible grief. Even Derrik's face had turned red and his teeth were clenched. He punched a locker, shouting, as tears streamed down his cheeks.

But then I realized it was the Empaths, too. Emmit had his head in his hands, weeping uncontrollably.

As gently as I could, I let go of Jade. With slow steps I went to the door. Cautiously, I reached for the brass doorknob. Death in Caer'Aton? Had that ever happened before?

My hand was shaking. I almost didn't want to open the door. The dark wood faced me impassively.

Jet pushed me aside with an arm. "Move."

I staggered backwards from the strength of it, and barely avoided falling down.

He swung the door open briskly. He hadn't even bothered to take his sword out of its sheathe. Jet stood in the doorway, and I walked behind him, peering over his shoulder.

I gagged and shut my eyes, trying to erase the image of what I'd seen. Everything in my mind told me to run. Jet walked inside. I swallowed, and pressed down my nausea. I looked inside. It was just a regular room with a couple tables, a few chairs. A sofa.

And André's dead body slumped on the floor. His neck was slumped at an angle that was just wrong. His chest was a bloody mess. Bits of bone protruded from where his heart should have been. It had been ripped out, and discarded below the wall next to him. Below the writing.

"GIVE ME RINZAI OR MORE WILL DIE," was smeared on the wood paneling in André's blood.

Oh my god.

This time, I didn't gag. I threw up.

Jet glanced back at me, and before I heaved over again, I saw, plastered on his face, a look of a pure terror. On Jet.

Oh my god.

~

When the Odieh finally reunited, Jade and I were holding each other and watching Jet stand guard outside the closed door, his sword drawn, his face blank.

Kiara had been farther down the hall and arrived at the room right as we got out, dressed in a revealing scarlet cloth, her Chi. Dante walked in and easily navigated the maze of distraught people in the hallway, looking fresh out of the shower with his cane and bathrobe. The three of them looked at each other, but said nothing. Why speak aloud when you could just hear each other?

And then Italo and Tala entered the room, and it was enough of a shock to snap us out of our fear for a moment.

How did I know it was them? I don't know. I'd like to think that it was the fact that I hadn't met anybody new in weeks, and newcomers would stand out like the moon among the stars. But really, it was the way they walked.

Nobody carries themselves like the Odieh do. I guess knowing you're practically a deity among regular humans will do that to you.

Tala was a rail-thin woman dressed top to bottom in an elegant gown of black velvet. She walked like how I imagine a sword would walk. Italo, on the other hand, was a large man in a billowing white silk shirt who managed to make a waddle look confident. We watched them wordlessly as they cut a direct path to where the other Odieh waited outside the room.

It was almost enough to keep my mind off what I'd seen.

Almost.

I held Jade close to me. I wasn't sure who was comforting who at this point. "I have no idea how to process this," said Jade. She looked up at me. "God, and you look like hell."

"Thanks," I said weakly. She smiled. "What did you See?" I asked.

"Nothing," she said. "Nothing seen. But it was an ending. I felt. . ." she shivered. "I don't know how to describe it. It was like something had been there the whole time and I hadn't noticed it, but when it was taken away, there was just a vacuum. But it wasn't emptiness. It was like someone had stopped the music before it came to an end but it wasn't silence in its wake. It was worse. It was. . ." she trailed off when the Odieh walked into the room and shut the door behind them.

"You saw him. What happened?"

The memory rose up again and I flinched noticeably. She stroked my arm. "Hey," she said. "You don't have to tell me if you can't."

I shut my eyes as tight as I could. "His heart was ripped out of his chest. It was like someone dropped a mortar in his torso." I suppressed a gag. "And, on the wall, someone had written in his blood."

"What did they write?" she asked.

I told her.

"Rinzai?" she exclaimed. "Why on earth would someone want Rinzai? He hasn't been here for ages."

"Someone," I said, "Or something."

"What?"

"Can you think of anybody that could slip past Shae? Not to mention, those rooms were empty. There was nobody inside. They couldn't have controlled me, and besides, Jet was right there. Nobody could slip past Jet. Much less Shae."

"You're right," said Jade, thinking. "Do you know what that means?"

"What?"

She leveled a flat stare at me. "Shae let it happen."

I stared at her.

"She knew what would happen, and she did nothing." Jade shut her eyes. "Lord protect us."

Jade was right. Shae maintained control of thousands of minds. I knew next to nothing about this world, but I couldn't picture anything getting by her. What kind of game was she playing?

Derrik's voice was loud over the din. "Listen to me," he said. I looked over and saw that he was standing on a bench. He looked composed and in control, but his face was serious. "Listen. We all knew André. He was one of us. And I don't just mean one of Tower." He slowly looked around at everyone. "He was one of us. Another guy yanked out of his life, just like all of you. He deserves justice."

There was silence, and Derrik let it settle onto the room like a blanket. Then, he spoke again. "We can't let it stand that people can take the Tournament this far. Or whatever the reason was somebody killed him. I say we need to take responsibility. Otherwise, what the fuck are we doing here? We do all this training, I think it's about damn time we use some of it. Fuck the Tournament," he said. "We need to find whoever did that to André, and we need to make sure they never do it again."

There was a murmur of assent from the crowd. Even I had to agree with him, though I had no love for André. He'd kept me from the top twenty, from becoming familiar with the other peoples before the Tournament, and he'd been kind of a dick about it. He was as Tower as they come.

And he absolutely did not deserve to die.

"We should split into teams," continued Derrik. "At least two Set apiece. Maybe we can even get the Odieh in on this. We'll search this fuckin' place high and low, and we'll find the piece of shit that did this."

I squeezed Jade's hand and made to stand up. "Keep your fires down," she whispered. "Don't do anything stupid."

"No promises," I replied.

Standing, I said, "It wasn't a person."

Derrik looked at me. "What?" he asked.

"A person couldn't have killed him."

"Of course it was a person," said Derrik. "It was a Suggestion. Had to be. He killed himself in an empty room."

"Did any of you see the body?" I asked. I knew that other people had only gotten a glimpse at best. Jet had promptly pushed me out and shut the door. I waited for a response and got a lot of blank stares and head shaking. "Well, I did. And I don't think you could use the Art to make somebody's heart explode out of their chest, and then write on the wall in their own blood."

There was a stunned silence. "Jesus Christ," muttered Tori.

"Look," said Derrik, "I'm not trying to be a dick here, but you're still a Zero. You don't know anything about the Art. Whatever happened in there, it was probably someone getting revenge on André. Lot of people get pissed at the Gatekeeper. André did his job well. He knew how to keep out riff raff." He gave me a significant look. "Maybe someone didn't take it so well. Maybe someone took it personal."

My mouth almost dropped in shock. "You're joking. You think I did it?" I looked at the crowd. Everyone's eyes were on me at this point. You'd think I would have learned by now.

"That," I said, "Has got to be the dumbest accusation I've ever heard." I hooked a thumb through the fine chain around my neck and pulled out my necklace. The jade pendant inscribed with a vaguely Asian-looking black character hung for all to see. "How could I do anything as a Zero?"

"Didn't have to be you," said Derrik. "Who's to say any of Set idiots that joined you weren't trying to kiss ass? Do you a favor?"

I did have a few people that had taken their necklaces off in Lotus. People who hadn't been affiliated with a Clan or whom I'd fought and beaten so handily they'd wanted to train under me. But did he seriously think anybody would do that for me?

Thad stepped forward, Jeff following shortly after. The twins were the heads of Talon, a pair of level headed badasses that I'd yet to truly fight. "Derrik," said Thad, "your head's in the right place, but you're being an idiot. We need to find the killer, yes, but it wasn't Tristan. Who's to say it was even a human?"

"You seem awful certain," said Derrik. He took a few steps toward Thad. "Maybe it was you."

Thad didn't back down. "You seem awful eager with your accusations," he replied evenly. "Maybe it was you."

I was going to say something but Jade beat me to it. She took a few steps forward in between Thad and Derrik. "This is idiotic. We can throw out accusations and they'll only be as believable as the rhetoric the speaker uses."

Derrik's eyes flashed with anger, but Thad relented easily. "Alright, Jade," he said. "What do you propose?"

The door opened, and she glanced at it. "I propose we let the Odieh guide us."

Jet walked through first, setting a brisk pace, followed by the rest of the Five. Derrik called out to him, "How can we help catch this guy? What can we do?"

"The Tournament will continue as scheduled," said Jet, and when he spoke his voice had the iron weight of finality. "Shaping. Athletics. Gladiators."

Derrik's jaw dropped. "You're shitting me."

"Yeah," I said, "Not to echo Derrik, but are you out of your mind? What happened to André?"

"We'll handle the death, honey," said Kiara smoothly. "You all don't have anything to worry about. We'll get it all sorted. Stay focused on your matches."

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