I stared at Phenic while clutching my bow. Nervousness ate at me as our silence stretched. The drumbeat started. Each time the stick tapped the rim my pulse jumped. Then the gong crashed.
I flew down and grabbed every piece of ore I came to.
As soon as I saw the badger cage, I touched my left thumb to my ring finger.
I was cold, I was death. There was nothing to fear or empathize with, only the course I’d set and had to follow.
I passed through the cage, ignoring the badger. As it fell after me I did not fear it. Three boulders of aluminum appeared in front of a nozzle. I grabbed each and traveled down just before the ice would have hit me. The badger froze in my place.
I passed a spider and collected another piece of ore. I missed one but kept going. I passed Phenic by several blocks. The first time I'd ever had a real lead on him and no feelings of excitement raced through me.
Four badger cages were lined up near the finish line. I barreled through each one. The badgers barely registered my presence before I passed them. The yellow finish line appeared in front of me. As I crossed, it shattered into gold dust. Phenic used his armor’s teleport ability and completed the race a half-second later.
We stared at each other and suddenly we were back at the top.
I hadn’t won because I’d missed that aluminum boulder, but I didn’t die because I was first.
“What did you do?” He asked.
I didn’t feel the need to answer him.
“How did you get rid of your fear?”
The drumbeat sounded, then the gong.
I mechanically repeated everything I’d done. The race didn’t last very long at all. I still missed an ore and I still came in first.
When Phenic crossed the finish line again he glared at me. “Answer the question, Miss Knight!”
Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t.
I burned through 20 of my tries in that state until I became stuck in a honey trap for the second time. Honey covered my mouth and nose. Air no longer reached my lungs. I felt no fear, only the burning in my chest, but that did not upset me. Nothing could upset the dead.
When I entered the gray I stared at my open left hand. It ached. My head had filled with cotton balls and I shook it to rid myself of them.
Mr. Black crossed his arms and glared down at me.
One brow rose on his disappointed face.
With a jolt of fear, I realized that if I didn’t explain myself he would take the technique away from me.
Holding out my hands in a calming gesture I said, “Okay. I overused it, but I’m still figuring things out.”
“Were you planning on wasting 20 of your tries like that?”
“No, but when I actually won that first time, I just kept going.” I frowned. “I think Phenic is scared of me now. Or super angry.”
“He’s both. But as far as I’m concerned the fairy deserves whatever comes to him.”
“He told you to rid yourself of fear.”
“He was right.”
“Plenty of children make it past his floor.”
That startled me. “How? He’s so fast.”
“Only because he doesn’t care enough to try that hard with them. He also doesn’t have anything wagered against them.”
I covered my eyes and grimaced. “So I made this floor way harder than it should have been.”
“They have the advantage of your realm’s internet, as well.”
Right. The kids could go online and see how other people defeated this challenge while I had to figure it out from scratch. I relaxed. “It doesn’t matter. If I can’t defeat Phenic at his best then I’ll never defeat Nenvari.”
“The reason I brought up the Tasker is to warn you. He loves to use strategies that affect his opponent’s psyche, like telling you that fear is the reason you can’t win. He wants to make you waste your chances to defeat him until it’s too late.”
“And it worked until you taught me that technique. What should I call it anyways?”
I shivered. “Accurate. I kind of hate it, but I’m willing to use it.”
He leaned towards me. “Miss Knight. You’d be faster without it on all the time.”
“How is that possible? I slow when I’m scared.”
“But you have the will to win, and it's that will that drives you forward.”
“Then I need to find some kind of balance. I need to practice turning it on and off.”
“I’d rather you didn’t use it at all, but if you’re going to anyways then I’ll help.”
He sat down cross-legged and somehow managed to set up his scythe so it stood behind him. After he opened his arm in a welcoming gesture towards a spot in front of him, I joined.
“I want you to activate it then deactivate it.”
With the touch of my fingertips, I became infused with death’s avatar. I had one task. I had one purpose. Deactivate the Death Mind technique. But I did not want to deactivate it.
Mr. Black rubbed the tip of his nose and stared at me for a long time. I did not comprehend what he saw but when I couldn’t stop it myself he opened my fingers.
With a smirk, I said, “Careful there or I might start calling you, 'Sifu.'”
He rolled his eyes. “Now, Miss Knight.”
We must have trained for days in the space between life and death, though I couldn't feel how many since my stomach had long ago stopped growling relative time at me. Eventually, when I was able to regularly force myself out of the Death Mind technique, Mr. Black pursed his lips and said, “Good enough.”
I re-appeared in the blue-tinted room.
Phenic rose both brows.
“Are you able to speak now?” He asked in his usual derisive tone, except it had an undercurrent of fear.
“How did you do it?”
Drums started their counting down again and I smiled.
“I can’t talk about it.”
The gong crashed and I waved goodbye.
It must have surprised him because he gave me a one block head start.
This was my chance.
I pushed myself to collect ore after ore until a room with a spider appeared at the edge of my mind map. Fear crept up my spine but I had a plan. I pressed thumb to ring finger long enough to pass the monster, collect a piece of aluminum and create an avalanche that destroyed the spider and a nozzle.
By the time I'd released the technique Phenic used his cheat-armor, leaving me behind by a block.
I pushed myself faster, planning two or three challenges ahead. My plans succeeded and I soon caught up to him. He passed an ore and didn't go back for it. I flew ahead, seeing the goal with hope in my eyes.
When I was 4 from the end, Phenic caused an avalanche and crushed himself. Instead of dying, he appeared a block ahead of me.
He crossed the finish line and I followed after with anger like a structure fire burning within me.
He had a second armor charge!