Alicia was sitting in Maggie’s sitting room, where her aunt was enjoying some afternoon tea, sunlight streaming in through the large windows and landing on her shoulder.
“Why didn’t you warn me you were going to try to kill Edward?” Alicia paused for a moment. “Actually why do you want to kill him at all? I thought you wanted the secret of magic.”
Maggie heaved a sigh, gazing out into the brilliant green garden. “The detective was right. The boy – or whatever he is – is too dangerous to let live. Every day he lives, he grows his roots, costing us money. I sent a few boys up to his Red Fern and they came back with broken legs. I lost eighteen professionals last week, and we don’t have the resources to continue playing with him.”
Maggie shrugged, her full breasts shifting in her dress as she did so.
“I decided to cut our losses in the most certain way possible.”
“Well it didn’t work. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but finding our crownkiller in the dirt was a dead giveaway that one of us tried to kill him.
“In the dirt? Kyle said he shot the boy in the heart. Interesting. Maybe that bolt would mean something to a Denton, but to the rest of the world, it means that the Prima Regula tried to kill him. The rebel group won’t bother trying to deny attacking him, they’ll simply finish the job.”
“And you’re sure about that?” Alicia asked.
“I’ve made arrangements.” Maggie said with a smile before shifting in her chair. “On another topic I think we can celebrate: your birthday is approaching! A month from now we’ll take you to the palace and get you your class. Have you decided what role you want to play, dear? Perhaps a demagogue like your aunt Maggie? I know how much trouble you have at public speaking. A class like that would clear things up right away.”
“Benedette is already good enough with her mouth. I was thinking something that would allow me to defend myself. Swiftblade, maybe.”
“Hm. A bit of an uninspired choice.” Maggie shrugged, her mouth pursed in disdain as she reached down and grabbed a folded piece of paper out of her purse.
“Well, in any case, I got you this. Happy birthday.”
Alicia took the paper from her aunt’s hand, frowning.
Is it some kind of deed to a property? Aunt Maggie doesn’t send out well-wishes either…Maybe instructions for a job?
As Alicia opened the paper, the reality turned out to be none of the above. In bright crimson ink with a pebbled texture was the number ‘88’.
“Eighty eight?” Alicia asked, glancing up at her aunt.
Maggie’s expression turned predatory.
“So, how far have you gotten extracting the secret of magic from the boy? He seems to favor you.”
Alicia glanced back down at the odd piece of paper, and noticed on second glance the strange squirming of a small portion of the crimson numbers.
Mana, turning a 33 into an 88. Damnit. It was a simple test to out my Mana Sight. Her aunt must have had it smuggled out of the local church.
Alicia scowled, crumpling the paper up and tossing it aside. She didn’t have anything to gain from continuing to lie to her aunt.
“He showed me how to get Mana Sight, but it’s not something we can reproduce easily. An overdose on unpurified heartstones with high clarity and smooth, spherical shape. My heart stopped twice, apparently.”
“I see.” Maggie said, lacing her fingers together. “And have you learned any magic?”
“He made some mana that was easier for me to manipulate, but I’m still far from using it.” Now because her aunt was dead set on killing Edward, she may never get the opportunity to learn how to cast spells anything like what she’d seen him doing.
What on earth was that strange blue beam coming from his arm, and how in Kolath’s name did he survive that fight? If Alicia could harness a fraction of that power, she’d be the undisputed First Chair, and the Dentons might even marry into Royalty.
Seeing Edward’s maimed body splattered against the standing stone gave her the dread feeling that her aunt had engaged something beyond her ken.
“Is it possible to cancel the plan to kill Edward?” Alicia asked. “If I were left without a teacher, it would take years before I could do the simplest spells.”
“Then take them.” Maggie said, her voice stern. “He’s been far too disruptive to let him live. The sheer attitude of that boy leaves me no choice.”
Alicia glanced down at her aunt’s breasts. “Are you just sore that he pierced your nipples?” Cutting adamantium rings out couldn’t have been comfortable, but I can’t see Maggie tolerating something like that for an instant.
Alicia watched her aunt’s hand flash out with the strength of a noble, and didn’t dodge, turning her cheekbone into the blow. Maggie had great strength, but her class ensured it was barely superhuman.
It barely stang.
“Get everything you can out of him in the next week, Alicia, because he’s not going to live much longer than that.”
You really have a way of pissing people off, Edward.
Garth took a huge, sticky bite out of his candied apple as they walked down the street. Unfortunately glass wasn’t so common that they could grab some drinks and take them with them to the pits, so they had to settle for whatever was for sale there.
I hope they have good cider.
“So, Tad.” Garth said, rummaging in his Status Band and pulling an adamantium bolt out. “Do you know where these come from?”
Tad glanced over and his eyes widened for a second and he coughed out a chunk of roast hare, before his eyes returned to their usual half lidded state and his voice went flat.
“Put that away.” He said, not looking directly at Garth and taking another bite of his skewer.
“Possessing one is punishable by death.”
“Ah,” Garth put it back in the Status Band. Frigging thing only had two cubic feet of space. Couldn’t store much more than a change of clothes in there, and it barely accommodated the solid lump of adamantium that’d been shot into his chest.
Tad didn’t remember Garth getting shot by it due to a huge dose of rohypnol right around that point scrubbing his long term memory, so now he needed to give the guy a story he might believe.
“Ah, well, someone tried to shot me with it, but missed. I thought I’d keep it, because that’s a lot of money sitting there.”
“Not enough to die for, I’m sure.”
“Eh.” Garth shrugged. “I’ve died for less.”
Tad glanced at him with a raised brow.
“So why’s it illegal to have one?”
“They’re used by the –“ Tad lowered his voice. “Prima Regula, to assassinate royalty.”
“Oh, alright.” Guess I can ask them where it came from, then. I sincerely doubt it was Linda or whoever she is. Ask the baker for the first order of the day, huh?
“Well, forget about it, let’s just focus on having a good time at the Pits.”
“As long as you don’t start waving your adamantium rod around in public like an idiot.” Tad said as they turned the corner, the food vendors around them slowly morphing into souvenirs and wooden action figures.
“Nice one.” Garth chuckled as they approached the massive stone building that had young men and women streaming out of it non-stop.
The entrance was an enormous looming arch holding up the two-story behemoth, looking like poured concrete. It was a squat building painted a reflective ivory. Garth spotted some sunlight leaking in from beyond the entrance, so he guessed it was at least partially open-roofed.
There were signs that read:
The competitors sign was on the left, where the entrance led downward at a gentle slope, and the spectator sign was on the right, where the stone ramp led upward, and a little sunlight from outside spilled through. That’s where most of the young people were coming from.
There was an aging woman in light clothes sitting behind a desk at the entrance who stopped Garth as he approached.
“Are you boys here to fight or spectate?”
“You take amateurs?” Garth asked.
“Sometimes boys want to settle a dispute on the sand, and we get to watch. Usually the winner walks out with the purse. Everyone wins.”
“How much is the purse?” Garth asked.
“For someone like you?” She asked, looking him up and down. “A hundred credits.”
“Huh. Somehow I feel undervalued. We’re not here to blow your minds with our martial prowess though, we’re here to – “ Garth glanced over his shoulder and saw Tad some ten feet away, pale and staring at the gate.
“Be right back.”
The old woman waved Garth off dismissively as he turned away, welcoming the next people in line, who paid her with experienced speed and walked up the ramp to the spectator level.
Garth sidled up next to Tad, who was still staring at the entrance, his jaw hanging open and sweat beading on the side of his temple.
“I just remembered, I’ve still got to do some things at home. I can come back later.” The entire time Tad spoke, his eyes were glued to the entrance. His hands were clenched into fists and the vein on the side of his temple was beating double-time.
It looked like nothing more than an anxiety attack.
Garth followed his gaze to the gate, and didn’t see anything.
“What’s really going on? Maybe I can help.” Garth laced his words with mana, making them more persuasive. Simply asking someone what was going on one time wouldn’t typically cut to the heart of the matter, but Clarion Call forced them to seriously consider his words.
“I…ahh..” Tad finally glanced at him. “I think I might be dead.”
“Care to elaborate?” He took another bite of his candy apple.
“The Gate to the underworld…kinda looks like that. What if when I go through there, I find myself being judged by the gods, or worse yet, face to face with a wiretap’s dead eyes as it sucks out my innards?”
Garth considered Tad for a moment, tapping his candy apple stick with his fingers.
“Tad, you’ve got a little PTSD. And that’s okay.”
“It’s like a wound to the mind that people who risk their lives tend to get.”
“A wound to the mind?”
“Yep,” Garth said, cleaning his fingers and tossing the stick aside. “It usually takes about a year to mostly recover, I had a very mild case when I was in my early twenties after I nearly overdosed at a friend’s party.”
“Shut up. Point is, I did some research and homebrewed a few remedies. I assume this is spider related?”
“Alright,” Garth said, rubbing his hands together. “Two easy things that can help are exercise and sharing lots of surface area with someone who likes you. Both of those things help restabilize an overactive amygdala. Assuming we still have them.”
“So…” Tad asked glancing at Garth sideways.
“Plan’s changed. Let’s get in there and get you a girlfriend!”
“How is that plan different?” Tad asked.
“Eh,” Garth shrugged. “Now we’re more focused on you. It’s a nice opportunity to forget about my problems for a day and focus on something easy.”
“Getting me a girlfriend is easy?”
“I’m pretty fucking good at getting other people laid. A guy named Brian did me a solid and I later got photographic evidence of a foursome I was directly responsible for.”
“Oh, how did you do it?”
“Less questions, more going through that door. That’s step one.” Garth pointed at the arch leading into the Pits.
“Alright, I have an idea.” Garth knelt down. “If you ride me in there, maybe it’ll be easier on you mentally. You can steer me with my ears. Whaddya think?”
“I don’t think so, Ed.” Tad said, shaking his head.
Garth picked Tad up and threw him thirty feet, landing him through the entrance and halfway up the ramp leading to the second story.
“Two please,” Garth said, handing the bemused gatekeeper a hundred credit coin. “Keep the change.”
“Agh,” Tad sputtered as he stood up, spitting out ramp-dust. Garth caught him by his shirt and dragged him into the second story of the fighting pits.
“So, feel dead?” Garth asked, glancing up at the blue sky above them.
The Fighting pits were an interesting invention, kind of a cross between an open-air mall and a colosseum. The second floor wound around several smaller pits where one-on one and small group amateur fights happened. Outside the walkways and benches surrounding the pits were vendors selling every manner of refreshment in skimpy outfits.
“No, I feel like you tossed me.” Tad said, brushing the dust off his arms.
“You’re tough. You can take it.”
Tad turned toward a vendor, a large breasted woman in a low cut shirt handing out refreshments in echange for cold hard cash.
“Beer.” Tad said, putting a coin down.
“Lemonade.” Garth said, following suit.
Their money was swiftly replaced with a stein of beer and a cold lemonade.
Garth snatched the beer out of Tad’s hand and shoved the lemonade into it.
“You’ve got PTSD. No beer for you.” Plus you’re a teenager.
Garth could swear he heard Tad growling as he downed the teen’s drink.
The two of them idled through the crowds that were teeming with people their age, drifting along with the rest of the crowd and eventually finding their way to the largest pit, a good two hundred feet across, where two teams of twenty were beating the shit out of each other with dulled swords, trying to push each other into their end zones.
It was kind of like Football crossed with Sumo Wrestling.
“They don’t kill each other?” Garth asked.
“Why would they?” Tad asked, sipping his lemonade. “Why would anyone fight to the death on a daily basis?”
“Don’t they have owners who force them to fight to the death?”
“Sure, rarely, but people aren’t cheap and having a slave die in a single match is kind of a bad investment, don’t you think?” Tad grimaced, looking down at the team battles. “Generally their job is safer than mine.”
“No shit.” Garth watched the red team push the green team into the end zone while the teens around him cheered.
Once the green team was defeated, a whistle sounded, and the two teams limped off the field, some sporting bruises and sprained limbs, but generally alive.
“Alright, let’s get around to getting you a girlfriend. What’s your type? And please don’t say crazy. We’re looking for mental stability here.”
“Brown hair, dark skin. Kind.” Tad said, his voice quiet.
“Alright,” Garth scanned the crowd and spotted a girl with three friends chatting as the cleaners scraped the clumped up blood out of the sand between matches.
She had dark skin and long brown hair. She had a slender frame and wore a red blouse over her modest breasts.
“How about her?” Garth asked, pointing before glancing back at Tad.
Tad was busily avoiding eye contact and shuffling away from him.
“What the hell,” Garth demanded, dragging Tad back. “All right, let’s go talk to that girl. If that doesn’t pan out, we’ll talk to another, and another, until you have a girlfriend.”
“That’s…I…can’t do that.” Tad said, shaking his head.
Garth sighed internally.
“Let’s put it this way: Which is worse, a girl you don’t know laughing at you or getting eaten by giant spiders?”
“…Probably the girl laughing at me.” Tad said.
“Are you serious!?” Garth demanded. “Stop, take a deep breath and rethink on my question, or I will end you.”
Tad hesitated. “Probably the spiders.”
“Right, and you face that on a regular basis. This should be easy.”
“These are two different things.”
“I thought you didn’t want to die a virgin?” Garth asked.
“I don’t, it’s just…” Tad held his hands up, gesturing toward the small knot of girls. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Getting a date on a cold open is a numbers game. You just talk to girl after girl until one of them decides to give you a chance. I saw a guy get turned down like twenty times on a streetcorner. He got a date in ten minutes.”
“Is that how you do it?” Tad asked, his eyes wide.
“Hell no. I pick one girl and stick with her.”
“Then why are you trying to make me do something you don’t do!?”
“Cuz it’s fun.” Garth gave him a grin, and Tad buried his face in his hands.
“All right, you are going to go over and talk to that girl, or I will get upset.”
“I don’t even know what to say.”
“Me neither, I’m sure you’ll figure it out after you get laughed at a couple dozen times. Maybe lead with ‘Hi, I’m Tad Williams and I fight giant spiders for a living.’”
“You’re really going to make me do this?” Tad said.
“Nope. You can totally puss out if you want. Give your first time to a wiretap, I guess.”
“Just keep in mind girls are people too, not some strange alien creature. They generally like boys too. She’s not gonna hurt you…physically.”
“Fine.” Tad said before marching stiffly toward the small group of girls.
Once Tad was gone, Garth noticed the crowd around them growing more agitated by the second, staring down into the arena.
“Ladies and gentlemeeen!” Came a loud voice as a fat man walked out of one of the four entrances. The man had some kind of microphone with a gemstone studded in the center. A Mcdonnell invention?
A kernel of an idea was forming in Garth’s mind.
“Welcome to the main event! The fight you’ve all been waiting for!”
“From the north, raised by bears, with no concept of mercy, five hundred pounds of skull crushing muscle! He’s been undefeated in the last five years…The Savage!”
At his gesture, a nearly seven foot tall man strutted out of the entrance, wearing a bear skin over his shoulders.
He stepped into the center of the arena and tore the bear skin off his shoulders, revealing a heavily muscled frame, spinning and holding his hands up.
Once the cheering died down, the announcer introduced the next fighter.
“From the South, a fighter who honed his skills for years chewing up the competition. He lost a close match a year ago to The Savage, and this contender has been itching for payback. It’s Bloodstoooorm!”
The crowd went wild again as another man, slightly smaller, but significantly more well defined, walked into the center of the arena and snatched the microphone out of the announcer’s hand.
“Savage, you got lucky last year, and when I’m done with you this time, you’re going to be nothing but a stain on the sand.”
Garth sighed and put his elbow on the railing. It made sense, fighting and drama? There was a reason why wrestling was so popular despite being so blatantly fake. Although the snatching the mic part gives me an idea.
Garth watched them posture for a moment longer before Tad returned, looking a bit shaken.
“How’d it go?”
“She laughed me off.” Tad said with a shrug.
“How do you feel?”
“Honestly…It wasn’t that bad.” He shrugged. “You were right. It’s nowhere near as bad as going into a live web.”
“I’m glad you think so, because this next part’s gonna be really embarrassing for you.”
Garth grabbed Tad’s wrist and jumped into the arena, snatching the mic from the announcer who had been about to leave the ring.
“And making their first appearance tonight. From the East,” Garth stage shouted into the mic. “Your great, great, granddaddy, the man with the plan, The Ancient Criminal! And with him, spider hunter extraordinaire, death defying hardass, Motherfuckin’ Bigdick Tad Willllliiiiams!”
“Ed, what the fuck!?” Tad shouted as Garth raised his arm.
“He looks pretty spry for getting a bolt to the heart.” Benedette muttered as she watched the show take a turn for the bizarre. Her date didn’t hear her over the screaming. She glanced over at her contact, a third of the way around the edge of the arena, a thin old woman with pure white hair. Something about the scene gave her pause.
Benedette’s contact in the Prima Regula was wholeheartedly grinning as Edward launched into a speech about Tad’s cock and how amazing it was. She’d never seen the woman smile. Ever.
They’d already exchanged status bands and confirmed the contents, so there was no need to hang around any longer, but the woman who’d never cast an eye toward the fights before seemed to be…nostalgic?