The Banquet

Chapter Five, The Banquet

The night air was alive, to say the least. People began funneling themselves through the stairs or teleport gates to other floors located all around, all headed upwards to the gardens looming over the city. Up here the tower thinned out and nothing impeded the view to the stars or the waters outside beyond the city limits. The light of the stars reflected off the calm surface and made the entire world seem like it was floating in space. At night the calm wind that usually coasted over the city could be fully felt and made the warm weather all the more enjoyable.

Vendors had gathered near the entrances to the lower levels, trading their wares to people who were less likely to wander between districts. Even during times of conflict there were things to be done for most of the residents. Many from House Green had brought blankets and great drums to celebrate the event, anyone who wished to stand in taking batons or using their fists to hammer out tunes was allowed too as the excitement built up. The entire sight slowly became easy to observe, torches being lit here and there on the soft grass or from the people gathering under the street lights near the tower.

Finally the kings arrived, the most important people of the hour. Exiting the tower at the same time all together, their lieutenants following behind them, they waved to the crowd and the cheers, and soon the noise was pure bedlam. Making their way into the center of the gardens and up higher for the people to view they all faced off, waiting for the masses to get quiet. It was still an impressive sight, Prairie thought, to see twenty five thousand people give or take all gathered in one place just to watch them kick the teeth out of one another. The pastimes in this city made her head spin. Still, it made her feel like a world figure if just for those short moments she stood there to display herself.

“Want to make another wager Solomon? I’m sure we could get you to wear a dress all year round until the next Banquet if you felt like it.” she said, tugging at her “adventure” clothes. Prairie believed in her way of fighting, and the lack of armor made her much quicker. She already had enough strength to handle herself, and she could repair any damages to her body faster than others, making her a terror. Her clothes reflected that. Opting not to wear anything fancy she even switched her usually flowered eye patch with a more humble one. Everything else was business, Gram already resting on one of her shoulders.

Riley and Jessie had joined her. Jessie had made no changes whatsoever. This was all routine, and he’d be damned if he was spotted in anything other than his very best suit for an occasion such as this. Riley had put on a pair of shorts and hiking boots, as well as anything else light she could get a hold of. Most notably however was a gift from Reddle that she wore on her chest. He’d said the material was “Kevlar” and assured that even though it was fabric, it would hold to quite a nasty amount of damage. Prairie had only managed to mock the way it looked and didn’t cover any joints, which got Reddle amusingly angry. Strapped to her back was something a little more appropriate. Riley’s abilities relied on books themselves, so strapped to her back was an elaborate natural backpack, twisted from vines and wood that Nannii had made for Riley just the day before. Adding some leather straps Riley was carrying at least two dozen books on either side of her back, allowing her easy access to grab them down and splitting the weight out to be easier to carry. The pair of them were fully prepared for the day it seemed, waving at one another from across the platform they stood on. It was nice they cooperated even in this, as it was Riley’s first Banquet using such a gift.

“I think we’ll go ahead and let the offer slide this time. I’m already getting hives thinking about the gathering.” Solomon replied, sounding bored of the idea. He was checking the plates on his armor, and the straps to the array of swords strapped to his back. Solomon was not a man to be bargained with. On his back rested no less than twenty four swords. The center was a giant blade that Solomon used both hands to swing. On its sides were two slightly smaller blades. The rest of the twenty two blades were all uniform and equally spread across his back, wrapping his shoulders and head in gleaming brass and steel. Who would think the humblest blade, a mere short sword strapped to his left hip was what the real fuss would be about. Solomon’s Sword of Damocles, a blade with such great weight it must be carried by a true king. Carved into the sides of its hilt was the message “Arul credest nansam derul” which in Solomon’s home dialect meant “The weight of death is the weight of ruling others.” True to its namesake, even crossing the boundaries of worlds, when the sword of Damocles hung in Solomon’s hands, the weight of his rule followed with it. Prairie wasn’t as good a fighter as Solomon was, but she still liked her weapon better.

Renard was carrying a pair of extra javelins along with his shield and lance. Much like Jessie he stayed quiet and stared off to the side, tapping his foot. He was ready and impatient to begin, and even if he wasn’t going to get another crack at Prairie his eyes kept darting over to Riley and Jessie as if considering which one would be more trouble. The other red Lieutenant was a relative unknown. The man wore a suit much like Jessie, but kept his hands folded behind his back, and his head and eyes hidden under a dapper hat and sunglasses. He must have been new, as Prairie didn’t recall having seen him anywhere before. All she recalled was the name Balthazar. Solomon smiled a tad at Prairie’s scrutiny of the man, the waved his hand over to the man in a regal manner. “This is my new associate Balthazar.” The man took a step forwards and swept his hat off, crossing his arms in a very formal bow. He was completely bald. “It is a pleasure. You may refer to me as my nickname, Basilisk Black.” He snapped his hat back over his head and resumed his relaxed posture, hiding his hands behind his back again. “I hope for a rousing affair.” His voice was smooth and silky, low and unbearable. The kinds of words you expect out of a man who’d sooner slit your throat than save you from death. His head tilted though, at the looks Prairie was giving him, her stiff refusal to show anything. “Do I upset you? I imagine it’s natural. As an undertaker by trade I tend to get a lot of looks but rest assured my lady, you have nothing at all to fear from me whatsoever.” Prairie had her doubts though, even as the man swept into another bow. His sentences felt too long for the words he used in them, and even then his speech was drawn out and entirely too placid. It made Prairie feel odd. And his eyes moved back to the second green lieutenant, Trilly, with an odd interest.

“Now don’t you worry about anything Prairie.” Byron said, then laughing. “We’ll all soon get to see what’s what in this and at the end we’ll let the rest sort their own!” He once again laughed perhaps too loudly for such a grim statement, Solomon shaking his head at his friends poor jokes. Byron could spin a tale like no other but his jokes were always hit and miss. Byron cleared his throat, maybe a bit embarrassed, drawing chuckles from the crowd. He was the first to offer to the sky. He held up his left arm to the people gathered behind him in the garden. “Let’s get this show started. Ready? Hey hey ho!” Byron cheered, pumping his fist into the air several times. The people in the crowd, spurred on by him did the same. On each side of the platform Prairie and Solomon did the same thing in their own ways. Solomon simply held his hand high, the rest of his district gathered in his section of the garden doing the same in unison like an army. Prairie lifted the hands of both Jessie and Riley high on either side of her, and the rest of her district did the same with those around them.

Slowly the arms of the crowd, lifted to the sky, began to glow in a faint white light, slowly building in number until it was much brighter in combination. The kings turned around and looked at one another, nodding as things progressed. Soon the lights coming from the seals on everyone’s arms began to pulsate, and then finally they shot into the air in thin lines, slowly reaching for stars the people were never sure they would reach. The kings then raised their hands as well, pointing them to the tower. Their lights came forth much faster and planted themselves firmly on the tower, aimed at an ornately carved ring high above the crowds head. As tension built the crowd started to get louder and cheer, their light beams dancing in the night sky as the ring began to glow.

Then, with a monumental yank from each king that light coursed outwards, spinning and taking form as a massive magic circle. Details filled themselves in as it expanded, wider and wider, to the size of the city. As the beams of the people began to hit and be absorbed by the light from the circle it became more and more complex, writing appearing in great blazes of fire and shooting along the sides as the magic began to fully take effect appearing in great ripples that coursed over its face and polished it. The circle grew brighter and brighter until finally in a burst of light, a great and clear mirror appeared in the sky. As the lights slowly settled down and showed it in all its glory, a perfect copy of the city appeared in its reflection, then in silence it faded out in the night sky, leaving the copy city hanging in the air as if natural, blending so perfectly with the sky one couldn’t tell if it had been there the entire time!

“Don’t cry if you lose.” Jessie commented to Riley, staring up at the mirror. Riley stuck her tongue out at Jessie, then with a clap and a pop, turned into a ball of light that shot up to the city nestled in the clouds. Prairie smirked at the exchange, then looked at her feet where a similar magic circle was waiting for her commands. “You know what you need to do, so make me proud.” Jessie straightened his cuffs and then nodded, disappearing exactly the same as Riley. Prairie rolled her shoulders, hearing the bones pop and relax. “Suppose that means you and I are going to have a little chat then, old man.” she said, staring at Solomon. But she’d look to Byron, already standing alone and staring upwards at the lights of his two accomplices. “Take care of the place while we’re away Byron.” Prairie called, receiving a wave in reply before both her and Solomon vanished into the mirror at the same time.

Reddle scrambled onto the platform with two others from both districts. Planting a stand into the grass below his feet he tapped it, making it apparent the device was a microphone, he then surveyed the city. Around him one girl from the red district was using her powers to create great big panes of glass, then with the help of the other girl also helping, began coating the glass in images and sound, making them into magic mirrors by the handful facing each section of the garden. Looking out from where they were past the pillars that held the rest of the tower up, each person could see at least two sections of the mirror city themselves, the rest being displayed to the crowds from its covered lower levels by the display glasses.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Reddle declared, turning around where he stood to stare at the crowd as more glass was set up for him. He couldn’t see the mirror himself placed under the tower’s bulk, and his inventive use of magics made it easier for him to observe. “I am glad to announce the start of this year’s Banquet battle royale!” He threw his hands up towards the crowds as they cheered and the drums started up once again. “Two kings have entered this year along with their lieutenants, and with the mirror brought down from on high it promises to be a good show! So throw your hands up and scream your encouragement to your houses or favorite heroes! And let the battle...” he then swung his hand skywards, pointing towards where the action would be. “BEGIN!” Reddle could feel the cheering shaking the foundations of the gardens. It was a feeling he relished.

Prairie came back to awareness standing in the exact spot she had been in when she left the original city. Riley and Jessie had already run off to take their positions in the city, and the others had done so as well. Solomon, having recovered faster than she had with orienting herself, was facing away and staring up at the cheering crowds in the city below them. One really couldn’t see the city, either of them, as doing anything but floating amongst the stairs in the night sky. “Disorienting isn’t really a good word for it.” Solomon commented, turning around to face Prairie, but still looking to the sky. “To think these are the sort of things we take for granted where we are now.”

Prairie agreed with the sentiment, adjusting her neck and lifting Gram to her shoulder again. “You’re not getting sentimental in old age are you? Two more seals and you’re looking to kick the bucket.” Solomon laughed boisterously. “Every year I aged at home was another year I added more to my kingdom. Coming here I feel younger than I ever have, and even without land to conquer I know I died in my old age back home.” Solomon took a deep breath and seemed satisfied. “Here the air is real, the flesh feels real, and the battle is more stimulating than destroying whole armies. You might not think much of me as a man, but as a warrior I truly thrive. It was this strength that made me lift a crown, and carry my people towards our dream of a unified world.” His hand came forwards with his short sword, placing the tip almost against the ground and letting it hang in his hands. The twenty two blades adorning his back slowly lifted out of their sheaths all on their own and began spinning idly in the air behind his head. “You’re strong, but are you strong enough to carry such weight with you I wonder?” He asked, the blades behind his head stopping and remaining steady. “I suppose we shall discover that.” Prairie gave Gram a few easy swings then crouched down a little, resting the blade on her shoulder and leaning the opposite one in towards Solomon. Both king’s were starting to gather energy, and facing off in respect of one another, the smile on both their faces was sincerely looking forwards to the next few minutes.

“The kings are getting revved up and ready, just look at those lights!” Reddle declared. “That will take a few moments, so what are our other contestants up to?”

Riley landed herself in the lowest sections of the city, and double checking her books she then looked left and right. Maybe she hadn’t landed in the correct area? Jogging off into rural countryside created on the foundations of the city and the tower she was at her leisure until she discovered her target, only when she had spotted him, Nannii, she ran over right next to him and stared down at the plants he was prodding at. “Something funny?” she asked, leaning over his shoulder.

Nannii stood up and chuckled. “The p-p-plants here are like they’re made of glass. Only the g-g-grass is real.” he said with another laugh, moving back towards the grass in the yard. Riley poked at the stiff vegetation and ended up giggling to herself as well. Then turning around she realized Nannii had gained distance rather quickly, only now he was staring at her intently, walking backwards. He was too polite to attack without warning, and too polite to press the issue. Riley smiled brightly. “Do you need time to prepare?” she asked, tugging down three books from her racks by reaching around her sides. Nannii simply chuckled, and then great trees burst from the ground all around him. One of his roots gripped one of the growing plants and he disappeared into the branches as they grew far enough to crash into the districts above, shaking the stones and causing debris to fall and crash quite dramatically down into the soil and water below. They must have been somewhere under the gray district because the next thing to come down was the giant stone snake statue that adorned the front of the gray house.

Riley saw it falling first and snapped her books in front of her. Her lips began moving, whispering to herself. She had these books memorized, and then as they were thrown in front of her they flipped open and hovered in mid air, magic coursing in and out of them, lighting words on the pages and evoking their power. Riley’s abilities relied on description and imagery, so her weapons were the obvious choice, the more sentences, and the better those sentences were, the more power she could evoke. In flashes of light much similar to how the players had arrived on the scene, the books shot out orbs that took root in the ground, then with a snap and a pop, three lights turned into three large dire wolves. No time to hesitate they ran and turned a great circle to gain speed then bolted past Riley snatching her up by biting down on her backpack and bolting as the great stone snake crashed through the trees and then shook the ground with its impact, sending dust everywhere.

“Don’t... ruin... my... books!” Riley declared, bobbing up and down in the wolf’s mouth before she could grip its head with her arms and stay more or less steady. “If you eat them you’ll disappear too!” The wolf and its two companions split ways, the pair running back towards the center of the created forest. The one carrying Riley yanked its head back and tossed Riley skywards, causing her to squeal and struggle to grab onto the fur on the wolves back, starting to ride after a moment and straightening her curls out. “That works!” she said, still a little dizzy from the experience, but now riding the wolf properly she dug out more books as the first ones flew themselves back into storage. “Now how to win this?” she asked herself, flipping through a few pages. It was only when she heard her wolf bark and looked up did she realize all too late what was happening. The wolf dove low to avoid coursing vines that shot out from amongst the trees, but left Riley helpless to being netted in them and tossed around in mid air, sending her backwards.

After she’d caught her breath and struggled to correct herself on the ground she got up to see Nannii hanging upside down inches from her face, placid and smiling as always, with the abrupt word “Boo.” added in just for comedic effect. It was actually largely more surprising to be a young woman who reads entirely too much to stare up at a man currently surrounded in undulating and writhing vines.

Reddle laughed at Nannii’s trick along with the rest of the crowd as Riley shrieked in surprise and turned to run from him. “I think two of our competitors will get along like two peas in a pod.” He waved around the crowds booing from his bad pun. “But we still haven’t spotted any movements from two of our grumpier members! Can anyone spot them?”

Jessie smoked on the stairs leading to the tower from the gray district, enjoying the night view. He only smoked when he was angry, or when he had literally nothing to do. As the only one really sitting still so far he could feel the rumbling moving the air from above, and the trees growing and receding as they ran the course of chasing Riley and tearing the gray district up. He wondered if she knew? It’s not as if Nannii had planted entire trees and caused them to grow, they were his roots themselves plumbing the depths of the earth and springing up like wild. A forest that followed the forest keeper. It was a funny thought.

Soon enough Renard’s boots were heard coming out of the tower followed by his grumbling voice. When he spotted Jessie he made a “Ha!” sound and his feet could be heard rushing closer. Against the odds, Jessie and Renard got along as well. Both as professional fighters and attendants they realized they suited each other. “Let me have one of those.” Renard said holding his hand down. Jessie handed him the one he was already smoking before lighting another for himself. Renard looked at the object and scoffed, but didn’t refuse, taking it into his mouth. “Forgot my pipe.” Renard commented.

The pair sat and simply enjoyed the sounds going on around them despite the fact Reddle and the crowd were goading them on. Part of refusing to made both of the men happy on a baser level, and they wouldn’t disappoint when they finally started, regardless. Jessie could hear faintly what was happening below past all the crashing, and faintly picked up on Riley squealing wildly as she avoided Nannii’s advances. Up above the rocks crashing down were making more noise as they collided with the ground than the noises the two kings we’re making. Apparently they weren’t serious yet, but were trading blows. “Do we really have to fight? These gloves are new.” Jessie commented, discarding his cigarette and watching it fall skywards back towards the crowd gathered in the city above.

“Wouldn’t be much of a show. Don’t you have a handful of brats waiting to see the mother superior in action?” Renard commented, discarding his own smoke and watching it fly upwards as well with some interest. He’d never seen that, and assuming it had happened during his normal life the person responsible was likely to get stoned for witchcraft. Renard had a lot of things to grow accustomed to here. Jessie sighed at his point and nodded his head. “Let’s hold back for now. Once Prairie gets serious I might as well.” Checking his pocket watch Jessie polished the front then closed the cover. “I give this battle eleven minutes.”

Renard stood and crossed his arms, watching Jessie mess around and put his watch away. Starting down the steps Renard laughed at Jessie’s back. “You really think too little of me Jessie. You think I’ll drop in just over ten minutes?” Jessie glanced back with a handsome smile. “No I give the kings over ten. You’ll be done in... Oh relatively less time.” he teased, waving his hand as he started back down the stairs. His answer was one of the javelins flying over his shoulder and into his hand as he reacted to catch the poor shot.

Jessie spun around to view Renard readying the second javelin as well. Leaping backwards Jessie touched the chain to his watch, then swung his hand outwards snapping his fingers. The face of his watch appeared below his feet, clicking loudly as it counted time and slowed itself, hovering inches below Jessie’s feet. He slowed the timing of gravity’s effects, causing him to glide over the gray commerce district as the javelin was thrown. Again he touched the chain of his watch and snapped his fingers, bringing his hand open in front of him. The same clock face appeared in front of the javelin and its speed, or more precisely its time, slowed. The second Jessie placed his hand over the object it regained it speed, but already in his grip his arm was yanked back with its force. Then he expertly spun the item in his fingers and tossed it behind him, freezing the item in the air before he dropped his powers and began falling towards the ground. He instead landed on the second javelin like a rod frozen in mid air. Renard was already charging down the stairs, lance in his hands and a grin on his face. Jessie reared his hand back and snapped the first javelin forwards, sending it flying twice as fast to bounce off Renards shield.

Just then the sky lit itself in bright red, and the entire mirror city shook from top to bottom. Jessie caught sight of flames and laughed. “I guess Solomon’s really started.” Jessie looked back forwards, Renard leading with his lance coated in destructive energy. Jessie could laugh, but thinking more carefully with his time, he began to run himself, speeding the javelin under his feet through the air on the same course he’d thrown it, along with the aide of time itself on his side sticking him to it like glue.

“Whoa! What’s this we’re seeing? Has Solomon really opened himself up for the fight? You hear him rumbling up there reds, fill his ears! House Gray get to cheering! A fight between kings is about to really start!” The crowd’s cheer rose into the ears of all the competitors as easily as the earthquake above got their attention.

After the first exchange of blows between Solomon and Prairie she’d managed to shatter a good handful of his blades as they darted around in the air. Solomon hadn’t even moved. With his many swords actively flying and attempting to tear her to pieces, as well as darting in to levy defenses against her, Solomon wasn’t even breaking a sweat. Well, neither was Prairie, but the pair were trying to enjoy themselves. “How many do you think I can break?” Prairie asked, though looking at the ones on the ground told her they were slowly mending themselves as well.

Solomon shrugged and rolled his shoulders. “Not nearly enough I’m afraid.” he replied. He had a dozen left and more tricks up his sleeve. He hadn’t even used his three primary weapons yet, floating behind his back. When faced with a creature of Prairie’s might, you used a weapon of equal might. The remaining blades were slowly surrounding Prairie, and now she felt the need to talk. It was giving him plenty of time to repair his weapons and set something else up. She had guts to spare and more than enough wit to carry her through, but when it came down to a careful strategy she was hopeless.

Prairie took a deep breath to gather her wits. Spinning Gram a few times in her hand she took the handle in both hands, an equal three feet apart, and crouched low again. It only took a blink of the eye, Prairie rocketing towards Solomon carried by black ether swirling at her feet. Solomon had no choice but to raise his defenses as one blow then another came down. But in the gap that was left afterwards he brought his sword high to meet Prairie coming down at him again. Then it hit him. She was coming down again. She brought Gram down twice slapping blades out of the way as she flew, spinning. When she came down, she came down hard, turning her entire body into her swing at Solomon. Two blades shot in from the sides and crossed holding Prairie’s blow off to the side. The notion hit Solomon again and now he was grinning. As she retreated a few paces, ready to lunge again, she took a few more swings, left and right, then thrust forwards. Each time Gram was met with an intercepting blade, even when she held the swing back to let the dimensional blade do the work it bounced off uselessly from the pair working in unison to cross over Solomon’s chest. His laughing was getting annoying. But what happened next told Prairie he was finally done toying with her.

Solomon let the tip of Damocles touch the stone under his feet. A small ring of fire appeared, turning at his feet and slowly spreading to surround him overtaking the entire garden district and painting it into a vision of hell. He then tapped the stone with the blade again and the ring shot outwards, lining the ground in crimson as veins of fire infected the rock and grass, slowly spreading out and making everything smolder, sunder, and start to push flames from the ground. The strongest of fighters in Cie could summon their home environments, which was both empowering and detrimental to your foes. The fire slowly spread until the entire upper tier of the city was covered in smoke and sand. Solomon raised Damocles and sheathed it. Rubbing his hands together he reached over his shoulders and gripped both of the great blades adorning his shoulders. A chime like ring turned Prairie’s head to watch as the swords shattered on the ground lifted up and coated themselves in fire, straightening out and holding rigid even with the shattered gaps that had separated the steel. It was too late to counter them however.

Prairie could feel it on her other side first. She had to make the decision to look, but she faltered. One of the blades flew past her and cut a deep line into her back. Shoved forwards after reacting Prairie tried to charge until her boot caught and she fell forwards onto her hands, feeling another blade catch her right heel and light it on fire. Another coursed from the air and was smashed to pieces by Gram as she rolled onto her back and launched the pinning blade free, but with her arms open after the swing another buried itself directly into her stomach and pinned her down to the ground. The wounds hurt, even if she was still struggling against them. The flames hurt even worse, and as she struggled under the mercy of Solomon’s ploy her hands grabbed down over the burning blade in her gut and began to lift it out of her against the forces pushing it down.

Solomon swung both his blades together then held them handle to handle, one in each hand. With a guttural roar he swept them back and forth, agitating the flames with a great wind. After the right amount of strength and power was put into it, he spun the blades in a wide arc and a tornado formed with the strike, followed by a hearty laugh. Prairie began to hyperventilate, gritting her teeth and staring at the incoming storm. The tornado picked up the flames and speed as it got larger. She could only imagine how this was going to feel, tensing her muscles and her nerves. She couldn’t remove the blade fast enough, it’s force resisting her pulls. “This’ll be lovely.” Solomon commented, the moment he caught his breath and the flames kicked higher into the air, and the world shook.

Riley sprinted from tree to tree, leaping back and forth as her wolves ran interference against the vines rivaling her every action. As she ran she gathered books down from her back and got them spinning around her, leaping, diving, screaming as Nannii’s vines got more and more aggressive. Soon even the trees were swinging back and forth unnaturally, like a forest being pushed by nonexistent wind. The creaking and groaning of the wood mixed with the explosions from above threw off her sense of direction. But she wouldn’t be deterred.

In fact she spotted one of the homes that sat in this part of the city as she came running over a hill and ended running across its shingles. Jumping down from the front and immediately backing through the doorway she tossed her backpack off and began sorting through her books, opening several. Now that she didn’t need to fuss with levitating them she took what time she had to get her thoughts together. Her lips never stopped moving. “Its hallowed grounds were surrounded by a wall ten men thick and ten men tall, wreathed in flame and and one thousand archers.” Her hands never stopped moving either. “The beasts that howl behind the gates gnaw and gnash, waiting for their fight and their meal.” The wolves, intelligent and under her control, also found their way into the empty household, and for the moment things went quiet, one of them nosing the door closed and gathering. “Of beast and man, of tool and savagery the feeling fills their blood with anticipation of havoc, and standing behind, the forces of the great kingdom of Serrethia, stalwart and ready, focused ahead.”

Riley looked up to check her handiwork. Small lights were starting to appear from the book in the hundreds, filling the floor with various items, like they were toy sets. As she described them they gathered, tiny soldiers and archers, baying beasts being barely held back by the soldiers yanking back their chains. The wolves in the room next to her were changing. First they stood, and their muscles took on new form, bones soundlessly shaping themselves into humanoid form. Their fur puffed out, then smoothed and hardened into leather armor. In their hands appeared clubs and axes and shields. All was going according to plan. The more she gathered up the better. Then she heard a knock at the door and looked up. Part of her face was flabbergasted, and she couldn’t help but smile.

“As the enemy’s ram battered the gates, thundering into the ears of the waiting soldiers only vigor filled their every inch.” She could hear Nannii laughing at the comment outside. If she didn’t know any better he might have been going at the door with an axe. “I d-d-don’t believe I am hammering...” he said, amused clearly and his voice muffled by the door. “May I c-c-come in?” he asked, laughing after the request. Riley was still gathering forces as she whispered. She could hear the vines wrapping their way around the house and slowly piercing their way through. If she didn’t act soon she wouldn’t have a hiding hole any more. She was literally exploiting the fact Nannii was polite!

“I d-d-don’t want to break the door down. W-w-wasteful of the wood.” he commented again, content not to rush ahead as it was. He had Riley trapped for the moment and he’d been chasing her around quite a bit. He could feel his wood cracking from the exertion and letting it mend now was as good as it got for him. Riley only laughed. “It’s only a copy Nannii!” she said, chortling at the door. “I know. It’s j-j-just that someone still put effort into it.” Both of them were grinning at the thoughts the other had. Tea time conversation for mortal combat sounded like a good read to Riley, at least maybe as a comedy. The vines were starting to crack the mortar on the inside of the small house she was in, and they were starting to crawl through the cracks in the doorway. She knew the moment was coming, and the second she saw them sit still and hold onto the sides of the door, she began whispering to her books again.

Nannii, outside, was trying to peek through the cracks on either side of the door. He could see the glow of the ether Riley was amassing but he couldn’t quite make out what her plan was. Then with a snap and a grunt out of him, he tore the door off only to be met by three tall gnoll soldiers charging out of the door. The last one through the door tore it from his receding grip and put it back into place while Riley continued to plan. Nannii would make quick work of those three, now made to be tough rather than agile, but they would serve their purpose. Nannii hadn’t stopped tunneling through the walls yet however. She could still hear the crackling as they began to peek into the room. The sounds outside the door, the growling and bashing, the sound of vine entering flesh, all of it reminded Riley of precisely what her fate was if she over prepared. Standing up and brushing herself off, she smiled.

“And then the hero appeared, clad in shining gold and carrying with her the codex of power, the book that held the worlds secrets. With its light held high above the heads of the waiting soldiers, blade clapping on shield, roars of blood lust shaking the very gates of the kingdom, the soldiers rushed forth onto the field. None fell this wall! All who oppose our king shall fall!”

Outside Nannii was finishing dealing with the second gnoll just as the last was recovering from being whipped through the air like a sack of potatoes. He was about ready when the doorway to the house suddenly got much larger and more elaborate. It opened on both sides and out rushed what could only be described as an army of grinning ghosts. Taking the last gnoll and launching him into the charging crowd Nannii laughed and beat a hasty retreat being chased by sword and bow wielding masses, and beasts twice their size and ferocity. The soldiers lit fire to the trees, so Nannii was forced to release them from his body, letting them stand and slowly turn into great pillars of flame. This tactic was no longer going to work for much longer, but he needed to eliminate Riley as competition if he was going to have even the slightest chance now. He’d given her enough time to hide.

Nannii launched himself into the trees and began leaping between them, extending his tendrils and swinging back and forth. He leaped and lunged from branch to branch, tree to tree as arrows and thrown blades flew past him, amongst the fire and the smoke, careful to avoid it where possible and to put himself out after if he needed it. Slowly he closed in on the house again amongst the shouting of gibberish the soldiers below were using to guide one another, scrambling back and forth after their target tirelessly.

When Nannii got close enough he launched from the trees, his foot vines waving wildly in the air as he careened head first down towards the doorway Riley was hiding in. As his body barreled through the door and the men in the way, he hit the ground and rolled snapping back to his roots. As he came up his arms came up as well. Riley, clearly surprised by the offensive only had time enough to back against the wall when Nannii’s rather long and pointy center digits came to rest on her neck the very same moment Riley’s soldiers surrounded him and placed the tips of their weapons at every conceivably lethal point they could on his body. One of the grinning soldiers turned to another and babbled in gibberish before they all began arguing with one another over what they should do. Riley laughed. Nannii, starting to grin again as well relaxed only a bit. “What did he say?”

Riley looked him in the eyes. “Wait, how do we stab wood dead?” After a moment or two the pair started laughing to one another, it eventually becoming hysterical as the soldiers and extra vines disappeared. Riley hung off Nannii’s shoulders, the pair sharing their mirth. “You almost got me there!” Riley exclaimed, slapping his shoulder. Nannii, his hardened bark starting to calm and return to complacent and calm, was also beaming. “It was a g-g-grand chase, Riley.”

“A tie!” Reddle cry vibrated over the crowd, causing a mass of boos and cheers alike, disappointed in a tie, but amazed at how fast Nannii had managed to move. Reddle knew to give Nannii credit, and now the town knew he was a slowpoke by choice and patience, not anything else. “I really thought the soldiers had it in the bag there! Our first bout ends in a tie! Who will be next! The gray king is in a tight spot! And our normal pair is still going at it! I’ve never seen so many broken buildings!” Reddle screamed over the crowd. “The beautiful brainy bookworm Riley and the gentle wicked wooden warrior Nannii gave us a great show, but it’s not over yet!. But what’s this? Balthazar has also defeated his opponent! Did anyone even see what he managed to do? The entire battlefield in the red district is coated in darkness! I don’t envy the gray district either!”

Jessie bent over and held onto his knees, catching his breath. In the back room of the dark and empty bar Alvise usually tended, boxes were stacked high enough to keep him hidden for just long enough to catch his breath. Not that he’d have a lot of time. Whole sections of the fake city were being brought down. His head came up however, thinking he heard something, and listening carefully he waited. He waited too long however as one of the side walls blew open with magnificent force and Renard came through, catching sight of the man and darting after him as he cut out a back door and into an alleyway.

“All you’re doing is running!” Renard yelled, keeping pace with the unburdened Jessie as if it were routine, but still starting to breathe heavily. To be honest Jessie wasn’t in better shape. “All you’re technically doing is running too!” he declared, turning a corner and disappearing behind it. He skidded to a short stop and inched back to the edge again. As Renard rounded the corner Jessie leaped out and arm barred him, knocking him from his feet as he darted the other direction with a laugh. Renard, cursing and getting to his feet peeled after him. “Fight seriously dammit!”

Jessie stopped in the middle of the road and began catching his breath again. Renard, not one to argue against him, did the same ten feet or so away. When he stood up he swayed backwards and held his hands at his waist, panting for breath. Jessie turned sideways to look at him. “We both know when I fight seriously you don’t stand much of a chance... I’m trying to make it fun for you.” He finally stood, still catching his breath, but facing Renard fully. “And I already told you, these are new...” He looked at his gloves, dirtied from their romp around the city. Jessie simply grumbled and pulled his gloves off, stuffing them into his jacket pocket. “Oh whatever...”

Renard readied his lance, but dropped it to the ground, still tired from all the things he’d been breaking chasing Jessie down. “I know that but after that run in with Prairie I haven’t taken a real shot at anything in a while. And this is boring!” His shield felt heavy, his lance doubly so, so he chose to drop them. Flexing his elbows he could feel the strain leave them with the weight. “Fair and square? At least then I don’t have to bother.” he asked, glancing up at Jessie who simply shrugged and shook his head, then put his arms up like a boxer.

The pair closed in on one another. Jessie’s martial abilities had to be keen since he didn’t believe gentlemen fought with weapons. Renard, now on equal ground was less of a refined fighter, but nothing to sneeze at. They both came in swinging, their arms working in concert to try and beat the other down. Jessie simply had longer arms, Renard was more steady where he walked. Jessie’s feet weren’t nearly glued to the ground however. The metal plates on his heels lunged for Renard’s face, keeping him ducking back and to the side. Jessie threw three more punches, dropped back, then lunged forwards to plant his foot into Renard’s stomach. Side stepping and locking the foot to his waist Renard shoved forwards and threw Jessie from his feet with a strong punch directly into Jessie’s mouth.

Once he was on the ground Jessie rolled aside of a falling boot, grabbed it, and tossed Renard back while trying to get back to his feet. Renard, not deterred much, came back forwards to plant his hands on Jessie’s shoulders and brought a knee towards his stomach. Jessie planted both his hands forwards to stop it, then swung left and right, planting two crushing punches into Renard’s ribs before shoving him away. Renard stumbled backwards, coughing before Jessie launched in a tackle and smashed him through a store window, knocking over mannequins wearing odd clothing for women. They stayed on the floor punching and rolling, trying to gain advantage. Renard socked Jessie right in the mouth again, causing him to lie on the floor and grip his face. He then took a shawl from the floor and wrapped it hastily around Jessie’s neck, mouth, and head, using his elbows and bulk to keep Jessie from fighting back, even headbutting to keep him down.

Jessie’s knees came up and tumbled Renard over his head and onto the floor. Both of them quickly recovered, Jessie tearing most of the shawl off of one eye at least as they both panted and stared at each other.

Reddle watched the action carefully on the glass monitors, then started chuckling, turning to the girl making those mirrors display things. “Isn’t that your shop they just crashed into?” he asked her, then looking back as the pair were grappling. The girl smiled helplessly and laughed. “Lucky it’s not the real thing. Maybe they can bring it back with them and I can double my stock.” she mused, then looking back over the crowd. Reddle shook his head. “I’d have a giant store of parts that way too now that you mention it.” The third girl interrupted. “Reddle, the announcing!” to which he pointed at her, then scrambled back to the microphone.

“Jessie and Renard aren’t giving each other any breaks! Blow after blow is raining in, and they’re even fighting dirty, this is better than a prize fight!” he went on.

The tornado hit Prairie like it was meant to. Torn into the air with sharp shards of metal and coated entirely in fire she closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. The fire was stealing the air from the area and tearing it from her lungs if she so much as opened her mouth. But that wasn’t the end of it either. Solomon tapped his sword on the ground again. The blades, having more than enough energy to hold them rigid flew into the bottom of the storm, shot upwards and past Prairie, then circled back down again and again continuing the barrage as Prairie was held limp and helpless, being torn one direction and the next. Eventually she could no longer hold it in. It started as a growl, then it got louder and louder, until finally she burst out screaming in agony. Solomon let out a hefty breath and the entire thing burst, falling apart in a rain of fire. It might have even been considered majestic in Solomon’s eyes, the flaming mass that was Prairie falling to the ground slowly in the leftover air currents to settle with a loud thump in the ashes that once made up the grass in the area, putting her out in the cloud for the most part.

Solomon returned his swords to their sheaths, the others flying back as well, settling one by one into their appropriate places. “Aren’t you the one that likes naming the things you do?” He asked, merely as an afterthought, he suspected. “Maybe I’ll keep that one. What’s a catchy name?” Solomon turned his eyes towards the lower parts of the city, craning his head around slightly to see if he could catch anything else going on. The rumbling had settled a little while ago so he wasn’t even sure people were still fighting. “Damocles Rise?” he spoke the name out loud. “Damocles Rise!” he repeated, trying to see if putting verve behind it made it sound better. He chuckled, thinking he liked it. Prairie coughed where she was and planted one of her hands down, slowly getting to her knees. “Oh? Awake? What do you think?” Solomon was laughing, crossing his arms and watching as she struggled to get up. Maybe their fight wasn’t over.

Prairie’s hand wrapped around the hilt of Gram once more as she shakily got to her feet, still coughing. Wordlessly, her feet dragged along the ground and gradually veered in Solomon’s direction, yanking the last blade out of her gut, letting it return smeared in her blood back to its sheathe. Steam rising off of Prairie’s face indicated her one good eye had been burned pretty badly, and the rest of her person was smoldering like a used fireplace log. Her arms were shaking, and she was guiding herself by the sound of his voice and armor moving. Finally close enough, panting and beleaguered by her pain, she raised Gram upwards in both hands, shaking and swaying back and forth. But then one hand didn’t have the strength, and the other fell as well, her strike turning into simply smacking the rod on top of Solomon’s head. He refrained from moving in this case, staring at Prairie and her currently pathetic attempt. His eyes were a bit wider, surprised she’d managed even that much. After the action was completed Prairie collapsed, caught up by Solomon’s arm. He craned his head in towards her as she managed to barely whisper, though even he was having a hard time of it. “Speak up girl.”

Prairie hung in his arms for a moment, panting to catch her breath as her wounds worked hard not to become fatal. “N... No imagination. For names.” Solomon blinked a few times, then burst out laughing. Without hesitation he picked Prairie up and tossed her over his shoulder. “I’ve better things to do than read books. I’m already quite the spectacle without shouting fancy things.” Solomon then looked up at the city and waved, watching the crowd high above do the same, cheering over his victory. “Damocles rise eh?” With a relieved breath, Solomon and Prairie both vanished as balls of light and flew back to the city they called home. He lamented not making another bet.

Renard and Jessie stood opposite each other. Their brawl had managed to traverse several shops, mostly at the behest of Renard smashing down walls, and now they stood in the local grocer down an aisle from one another, both on their knees and trying desperately to catch their breath. Both looked quite the sight, battered, bruised, covered in dust and debris. “Had-- Had enough?” Jessie asked, struggling to push his word out. Renard gave one or two weak laughs, then as he was about to declare something, lifting his finger and pointing at Jessie’s face, he fell over forwards and stopped moving. Jessie, staring at his rival for the moment, rubbed his eyes to make sure he was down. Glancing left and right, he grabbed a bottle of stiff drink off the shelf and slumped against a shelf, uncorking the bottle. “Guess you have.” he said, taking a deep drink out of the bottle before tossing it aside and hearing it smash on the floor. This pair, too, disappeared and returned to the city.

Back on the ground the crowd was in an uproar. Solomon had taken the crown this time around and had barely taken any damage. Holding Prairie up next to him while the crowd cajoled one another he glanced down at her and found himself a little disappointed. Not only had the fight gone a little too smoothly to excite him, but Prairie looked like she hated the world right now. “You know the funny thing? I have all the authority and power I need in order to be a ruler but the one thing I can’t seem to find is that endless inspiration of yours.” Prairie turned her eye upwards at the man, trying to listen to him and focus at the moment. “I figured as a rival you’d make a clever opponent but this time I seem to be wrong. Have any ideas why?”

Prairie, still feeling like a sack of potatoes that been stomped all over, tried to figure out what it was that made her work so hard when it was clear she wasn’t any manner of good leader. “See them? All of them?” she asked, waving her head to the party going on around them. Solomon looked out, then back to her and asked “The people?” Prairie nodded.

“I’ve never seen people this happy. Not once in my life. Not until I came here.” Prairie used Solomon as leverage to stand a bit more steady. “Every time I reach another level, every time I gain that bit of strength necessary all I remember is another face, and name, and place, and how they all betrayed me. My memory is too blacked out to get any hints from it, but there’s one thing I know.” Prairie moved to stand on her own again, still wobbling a little. “But these people? I don’t know any of them.” she said with a chuckle. Solomon watched her as she spoke and refrained from interrupting. “There isn’t a single person here who wants to use my strength, or force me to do anything. They all have their own lives and talents and powers, and here they’ve reason to use them without me being involved at all.” Prairie smiled. “A world of perfectly friendly strangers.” Prairie shook her head. “No one here will betray me the way others have. And they smile, and cheer, and live. It gives me the energy to keep walking until I can’t anymore.”

Prairie looked up at Solomon. “Books always make the hero out to be the leader too, once you think about it.” She looked back to the crowd and her smile got warm again. “But I’m not really the leader type. Just the biggest loudest voice in the room. And if that works for them, I’ll work for them. So you asked the reasons why. I think it’s pretty simple why.” Prairie took a deep breath.

Solomon looked over the crowd and thought about it himself. “Because life here is happy?” Prairie shook her head though. “Of course it isn’t. No one likes being trapped, and sure as hell if I could put myself down and stop fighting for the rest of my life I think I would be okay with that. This isn’t a happy place. It’s sad... It’s lonely. Cut off from everything but its own stones and the people in it.” Prairies face fell. Solomon noted that the look in her eyes was the same as a soldier he’d met day and again in his life. “I’m tired, you know? I want to rest. One life to the next it’s been nothing but conflict. The sooner I’m free of this place the better, but now, viewing all of this again and again, year after year...” Their smiling faces. Every culture and world you could possibly imagine, drinking eating and playing together.

“I know that if I can make life better for them I’m obligated to now. I’m direct, invasive, loud, a poor eater and I can’t say any business of the people isn’t my business, but they accept that in me and even look to me to guide them.” she laughed. “What a joke. But I’ll do everything I can. Because there’s one big difference between this world and the one I came from.” she smiled at Solomon and began to walk away to where Riley and Jessie were waiting together for her, amongst a crowd of grays chatting happily about their equal bouts. Solomon called out to her as she started to walk away. “What is that difference, Prairie?” Prairie paused and looked back at him, confused momentarily. But as her head continued to solve the issue, she smiled and shook her head, surprised Solomon hadn’t made his own conclusion instead.

“It’s hope, Solomon. I can give them hope somehow.” Prairie looked into his eyes as she said it, but then immediately turned away to join Riley helping Jessie walk a little. The next stop on her list was her bed. Solomon simply smiled to himself. “She dodged the question of why she’d been beaten by showing me she couldn’t be beaten. A little cleverer every day then.”

Next Chapter: Bored and Stupid Go Hand in Hand