The examination hall was long and narrow, marble walls glowing warm in the afternoon light. The hall was clearly divided into twelve areas, each dominated by a large magic circle made of deep-carved runes and swirling geometric patterns, although only eight were in use; only eight teams had succeeded in capturing a monster, and most were not currently present—having arrived they then had to wait for the other teams to succeed or fail or otherwise finish, and for an official to inspect and confirm their monster, and so they'd left the hall in search of sustenance or adulation. The monster hunt itself hadn't been broadcast, and all that had been announced so far were the names of those who had succeeded or failed in the test. In prior years this had been a mere formality, treated mostly as something of academic interest to tournament analysts. This year, however, each small announcement was greeted with cheers and booing and the exchanging-of-merits. Already there were favourites among the tournament teams, and betting was increasingly common.
All in all the sudden popularity of the tournament had come as something of a surprise to those in charge. Of course it was always popular with the higher tiers of society, but the Bright Battle Tournament had never before held much appeal for the common people. This year, though ... this year was different.
And if there was one thing that Those Above hated, it was difference...
Amanda returned to herself slowly, dragging consciousness back into her cold stiff corpse inch by hard-fought inch. There wasn't pain, not as such, but she was uncomfortably aware that things were not as they should be. Worse than that, though, was that every small step she took towards control and sensation and freedom was due to him.
Worse than anything, Amanda thought, as thought returned to her, is that I am not alone.
Gradually she became aware of an intrusion upon her personal space, small but persistent, and eventually she recognised it as the now familiar—now almost comfortable, and how horrifying was that—sensation of a needle being pushed through her dead flesh, of dark-auraed threads knitting her wounds and binding her spirit.
Binding, she thought. Yes, that's exactly it. I am bound.
In order to avoid awareness of the one doing the sewing, Amanda attempted to focus on her surroundings. It was a large place, a wide place, surprisingly bright. Surprising? She had expected darkness, gloominess, but didn't know why. There were noises, people talking but also other things, growling and rattling and a kind of audible sparkle that held Amanda's attention for a while, before a pleasantly rhythmic humming invaded her consciousness. Some kind of magic, she thought. Some kind of barrier. Now how do I know that?
"There now. You're looking better already. The colour's come back into your cheeks!"
Unable to put it off any longer, Amanda fixed her dull eyes upon the one who had reattached her leg. Praetorian gazed back, his expression smugly superior, perhaps even pitying. She tried to say something sarcastic and biting, but all that came out was:
Which was honestly just embarrassing.
"Hm. Well. You'll be able to talk again soon enough. Perhaps too soon, but let's not get snippy. You're very lucky, did you know that?"
Again, Amanda would have liked to be so very sarcastic in response to that, so very very sarcastic, but once more her body let her down and all she managed was:
Not even 'lucky'. 'So luck'. In the Big Bumper Book Of Best Zombie Comebacks that wouldn't even warrant a footnote.
"Now then, let's move on to your abdomen. Not in especially good condition but there you have it, hazards of the profession I suppose. Your chest I did while you were away, I thought it better to get that done before you could slap me—"
Amanda jerked her arm up to slap Praetorian, but he just shook his head sadly.
"No luck there, I'm afraid. Next time you may want to consider using a limb you still have attached."
With a low groan of recollection, Amanda lolled her head to the side. Where her left arm should have been there was just a sad trail of bandaging.
"Yes, careless of you, losing your arm like that. Limbs don't just teleport back with you, not if they're unattached."
Amanda let her eyes close. As if things weren't bad enough already, as if being dead wasn't enough of a crutch. What use was a one-armed dead girl? What kind of use was a thing like that? She was aware that Praetorian was still talking, still babbling on in that incessant irritating way of his, but everything was getting distant again—Amanda didn't sleep, not exactly, but for a time each night she was able to withdraw far enough inside that the effect was almost the same ... or so she assumed. It seemed the same. There was a memory, or the shade of a memory, or the recollection of something that wasn't there—
"Ouch," Amanda said, everything rushing to a single point just below her left shoulder. She blinked, slowly, then again, a little less sluggishly this time, and then she raised her head and stared down at something that looked suspiciously like an arm.
Amanda trailed off, swallowed, tried again:
"Is that ... my arm? I really hope that's my arm."
Praetorian said nothing. He seemed intent on his task, and perhaps a little annoyed. Amanda decided to deal with this by not caring even one little jot.
"Answer me, Darkcede. Whose arm is that?"
"Mine as in 'it's attached to your shoulder so technically it's yours' or mine as in 'yes this is your real arm so hurray'?"
"It's your arm, Amanda. The same wayward limb that was swiped off by a rampaging behemoth. The same limb that fell amidst a veritable swarm of xylomids. The very same limb, in fact, that I earned another of these darkly pretty little things retrieving." Praetorian paused in his stitching to hold up his hand, three dark butterflies flittering above his BrightCircle. "And may I just say, the inside of a xylomid's mouth is every bit as unpleasant as you'd expect. I suppose I should count myself fortunate that my safehold shard activated before the dreadful beast swallowed. I suppose Nala was correct on that point, at least. 'No significant digestion'."
Amanda stared. Then she stared some more. Then she did a bit more staring. Praetorian, meanwhile, had returned to his task, frowning slightly as he worked to make her whole again.
Eventually, Amanda spoke:
"Why? Why? Is that what you ask? Is that the very word you use?" Praetorian did not stop stitching as he spoke, didn't so much as glance up. "How many times must I say this? How many times will you force me to repeat myself? Whether I like it or not, whether you appreciate it or not, you are my responsibility."
Amanda had turned her head away and closed her eyes, and she did not move or speak again as Praetorian repaired her body.
Nearby, in the holding area, Mist was dividing her worry between Nala, who was sitting with her hood covering her face, Sly, who nobody had seen since the plan had gone all wrong, Amanda, who was lying on a bench exuding misery, and the blue slime, which was slumped in the corner of a magical cell. In the caverns the slime had been a teardrop shape but now it more resembled a puddle, flattened and spread out and somewhat forlorn. Mist wondered if this was due to the other monsters around—eight of the twelve teams had been successful in the test, and though the examination hall was long and high and airy and bright the presence of the larger monsters made for a somewhat close environment.
"It's okay," Mist said, and the blue slime quivered in response. "They're all in these magic circle things, they can't get out and hurt you. I know they're scary, but ... um ... well..."
Mist trailed off, unable to think of anything to say.
"It's scared of the succubus."
Nala still sat in the same position, hands crossed in her lap, head bowed, face covered by the hood of her cloak. Mist waited for her to continue, but apparently that was all the dwarf had to say. With a sigh, and after her hundredth worried glance at the slime, Mist looked around the hall. Each magical cell was formed of a circle of pale light, stretching from floor to ceiling, large enough to hold any monster. The closest circle to the left contained a large skeletal snake-like creature that rattled with every movement, while in the circle to the right, pacing around with arms crossed and expression petulant, was a girl. She was delicately featured and attractively proportioned, eyes large and deep purple-brown. Her hair was pure black, split into two long ponytails by silver bands, and her dark skin was covered in sharply curving tattoos. She wore a kind of leather vest with a diamond-shaped slit up the middle to show off her midriff, nothing but four thin strips covering her back. Below this she had on an attractively torn leather skirt.
"Like what you see? Want a little taste?"
Mist gasped and looked away, her cheeks hot as the succubus walked to the edge of the circle—the blue slime shrank back then fled to the other side of its prison.
"As if I'd lower myself to blue," the succubus purred. She flicked her attention to Mist. "Purity purity, I haven't seen a valkyrie in years. So tempting to tempt, so delicious to delight. Come closer, shining one. Let me see your pretty eyes."
Mist blushed deeper as she shrank into her armour. The succubus clucked her tongue.
"Prissy little pizzlequim. Don't look unless you're going to touch."
With that the succubus turned and flounced away, just as the team who'd captured her came back, loaded down with steamed buns and meat-on-the-bone. The leader—Mist recognised him as Arbie, one of the fighters who'd talked to her at the pre-test party—raised a slightly greasy hand in greeting. Mist smiled weakly back, and he took that as an invitation to come over.
"Hey," he said. "Was Jade bothering you? Kind of looked like something was happening."
"Oh. Um. No, it's fine. She's just ... like that. Right?"
"Yeah, guess it's a succubus thing, being kind of a bitch or whatever. Felt like a good idea at the time, y'know? We were all like 'yeah, succubus, sex demon chick, woo!' but now that we've got her ... yeah, dunno, kind of weird that she's like our pet or whatever, like we've got her all captured and stuff so, uh, yeah. Didn't really think that one through. Plus now we're gonna be called 'The Succubuses' or whatever so ... yeah. You, uh, you want some food? We went a bit crazy on it, got way too much."
Mist accepted a steamed bun with a small 'thank you', while Nala remained silent and still.
"Hey, where's your friend? Tall blue girl, what was her name?"
"Amanda?" Mist mumbled through a mouthful of hot bun and sweet pork. She hastily swallowed before continuing: "She got ... hurt. Praetorian's still fixing her up, I think."
"Praetorian, that's the necromancer dude? Cool ... you guys got a bunch of, like, different classes, yeah? Kind of cool ... guess we should learn about that kind of stuff, now that this is all, y'know, real and that. Still can't believe we're all official and stuff, we're gonna be in the Bright Battle Tournament, that's crazy, man! Oh, uh, guess that means we could go up against you guys sometime."
"Oh." Mist nodded at her half-eaten bun. "I guess it does."
"Yeah, well ... guess that's the game, though. Whatever, right?" Arbie glanced over at his group, who appeared to be staging a mock battle using meat-on-the-bones as weapons. "Man, those guys ... hey, if Jade gives you any trouble or whatever just, like, tell me or something, okay?"
"Better get back to mah boys before Skull tries to put a whole meat-on-the-bone in his mouth. See ya, yeah?"
"Yes. Um, yes, see you!"
Mist waved as Arbie went back to his team, then looked at Nala.
"You could say hello, you know," she said, feeling emboldened by Arbie's friendliness. "Just sitting there seems really rude."
"He is our enemy," came Nala's voice, although she didn't move in the slightest.
"But ... but it's like Summer said, that's no reason to be impolite. And isn't that something we should be doing? Making friends who can help us? Arbie and his team are really nice and they're strong too, I'm sure they wouldn't attack us or anything even if they met us in the, um, in the main academy, out of a safe zone I mean ... and isn't it just ... you know ... nice? To be nice to people?"
Nala didn't reply to that. Mist let out a small sigh, then stood up.
"Well, I'm going to go see if Summer's here, anyway," she said. "And James and Night, because I like them and I hope they did well. Um, succeeded, I mean."
Mist waited to see if Nala would react at all. When she didn't, Mist turned with a huff and stomped away, pausing beside the magic circle.
"I'm just going to see if my, my friends are around," she said to the blue slime. "I'll be back, okay? Don't let that succubus scare you, she can't get out of her prison thing and I think she said she doesn't like blue slimes anyway." Mist stopped, quietly hopeful that the slime might respond, but all it did was slowly stretch out. "Oh. Well, okay, bye for now."
Resisting the urge to look back at Nala, Mist walked away. She slowed near where Praetorian was tending to Amanda, but he was entirely focused on his work and Amanda had her eyes closed and her head turned away, so Mist felt it was probably best not to disturb them.
The hall's relative emptiness suited Mist perfectly; it gave her a good opportunity to look at the monsters other teams had captured. There was the giant skeletal snake she'd already seen, and down the hall Mist could hear the growling of the behemoth, and there was a metallic star-shaped thing that floated in the air, spiralling gently and scattering rainbow sparkles as it drifted around its prison.
"It's a silverstar," came a voice to Mist's right, and she turned to bow her head a little and give a small smile to Summer, who smiled and bowed back before continuing: "Pretty, isn't it? I saw that your team returned with a blue slime, was that intentional? Does Nala know something the rest of us don't?"
"I, um." Mist bit her lip. She did like Summer, but the girl was clever—and what Nala had said was at least a little true, the other teams were kind of like enemies now. Saying too much could get them in trouble. "Um, appearances can be deceiving?"
"Hm." Summer smiled at the silverstar, which was doing little twirls up into the air. "Raid Fearson's team captured a behemoth. Did they get to one first?"
"I, um, I guess they must've. Um, where's James? And Night, are they around here?"
Summer made a face. "Don't ask. What about your team? I don't see Tzugakk or Slythaneile around."
"They, um ... actually I am kind of worried about Sly..."
"Was he defeated during the test? He should have teleported to this building's infirmary, did you check there?"
"That's where Praetorian was ... but he hadn't seen Sly."
"Hm. That's ... odd. I hope nothing went wrong."
Mist nodded, her eyes on the spiralling, sparkling silverstar. "Me too..."
Not so far away, on her bench, Nala did not look up as someone neared. Not even when they spoke did she so much as shift in position, did not raise her head, did not react in the slightest as Raid Fearson said:
"No hard feelings, yeah?"
He clunked himself down beside Nala and jabbed a finger at the blue slime.
"That what you came up with? Hahahaha! Oh man, I almost feel sorry for you guys. At least you're still in the fight, hope we get matched up against you. Not just for the easy win, neither."
Nala remained silent and still. Raid shifted in his seat and looked at her, a superior frown on his face.
"You sulking or something? Come on, you can't be hurting that bad about it. Last hit gets the capture, that's how it goes. Not my fault I'm so smart."
Still Nala did not respond.
"No fun at all, are ya." Raid stood and stretched. "Better get back to my team, figure they're gonna start doing the whole judging thing soon." He turned and fixed Nala with a hard stare. "One thing, just so you know, you don't gotta worry about us taking you guys out. I'm done with that small time crap. It's gonna be in an arena that we do you guys, and it's gonna be good. Heh, those stuck-up vampires, those psycho elves, they think it's just between them but I'm taking out the number one spot this year, you can believe that. Might even throw you a bone once we're at the top, how's that sound? Got something you want, stumpy? Wanna buy out of this dump? We're gonna have merits to burn, might as well give something back to the little guys."
Nala remained silent.
"Yeah, well, whatever."
It was as Raid turned to go that Nala raised her head, her face shadowed beneath her hood but her flat expression clear to see. Raid stopped and looked back at her, smirking.
"Oh, you do got something to say? This should be good."
Nala gazed at him, narrow grey eyes unreadable, and then she spoke:
"I will never lose to you again."
"Keep telling yourself that, bug."
With that he walked away, chuckling.