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Gibalter’s last hit stings, but the pain fades as I walk it off. The hit to my self esteem will take a little longer to work out. As I head to the private box Oliver is in, I catch a glimpse of both Yuna and Yalinda walking into the concession area. I haven’t checked out the snacks they offer, so I follow.

They pass by the concession stands and keep going. The crowd thins out as we exit the main arena building. They follow the tall wall that backs the arena stands. Where are they going?

“Anessa,” a man’s voice calls.

I turn and see a man I guess in his late forties. A glance toward my friends shows they’ve already turned off somewhere. Damn. Guess I can ask what they were up to when I see them later.

“Yes?” I ask the stranger and get a better look at him. He has thick eyebrows, and jet black hair. Pure white robes and a large rope is tied around his waist that seems impractical. A shiver runs down my spine as our eyes meet. It’s there again: The feeling of hearing your parents have died. I should be cautious of him.

“Oh! It is you,” he replies. “I’ve been watching your matches, you’re not half bad.”

He holds out a small piece of paper and a quill, “Could I get your autograph?”

The quill looks normal enough, but the paper gives me pause. “My future and soul belong to the owner of this contract,” shines in blue text.

“Sure,” I say, and a grin breaks out on my face. Nice try, creep. With the same level of intent as is on the page, I cross it out and write my name below it. The moment I finish my name and the quill lifts from the page the damn thing pricks me somehow, and a drop of blood hits the page.

“What’s the big idea?” I ask the man.

He pinches his fingers together toward me and my body seizes up. It feels as though a truck’s weight is bearing down on me. What the hell’s happening? I kick Dancer of Death into max and the pressure lessens but I’m unable to move.

He looks at the page and the, now invalid, hidden clause of the contract appears. Blood sealed contracts have power over the user when taken with their name and of their own will.

The contracts I signed in the past were much the same, and as Gaylan explained, anything crossed out has no effect. The intent of the contract he had me sign is akin to the contract I share with Yuna, Yalinda and Jonathan.

He starts to laugh quietly, and he burns contract, which goes up in smoke. His face scrunches as the intensity increases. His face gains an animal quality to it and his laugh descends into madness. As abruptly as he started, he stops.

Why didn’t I run the second I saw the contract? Fear crawls through me and surrounds my heart, I know who he is: Vincent Farland, the Sovereign of Light. How did I become complacent over the past five years?

My mind is still my own, so losing control of my body must be by his pressure alone and the difference between realms. He’s three full realms ahead of me. I know the contract is invalid because no connection was made to him.

If only I had trained harder… No, that won’t do, Anessa. People often spend over a decade in the Mortal Realm, decades in the Cultivator realm, and over a century in the Sky Realm. I can’t imagine how old this Otherworldly Realm monster is.

“Of course,” Vincent says. He runs his hands through his black hair. “That child didn’t open the ruins with her weak body, it was you,” he informs. His tone deepens and the blood drains from my face, “How delightful.”

Jonathan’s contract severs and painful tears fall down my face. Contracts sever for one of two reasons: I sever the contract myself, or the person has… I stop the thought in its tracks. Jonathan.

Vincent’s tone lightens, “Oh, felt that did you? Good. Master tells me it’s foolish to torture my cultivation resources, but I can taste a difference between souls I burn and those I torment, then burn.”

I look around for someone, anyone, to help me.

Vincent grabs my face and squeezes my cheeks tight. “Looking for help?” He asks. He forces me to turn my head to the sides, “Look around you,

“There’s no one here who can stop me or who would even try,” he enlightens. “I’m using my area of dominance, so they know their place.”

The few people around us that manage to glance our way turn their heads away and continue walking.

With one hand Vincent picks me up by my neck and slams me against the arena wall hard enough to make it hurt. My chest piece is cut away as though it were paper by a finger he pulls down through it. He tears the two halves off and bares my chest, the tattered remnants of cloth leaves me some modesty.

Vincent leans in and whispers in my ear, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to call your girls over here, and we’ll play a little game.

“I’ll rip the soul from your body, cast the Art of He on them, and you can guess what happens next. Once that’s done, your body will switch roles.

“You’ll love this next part. Then your body will bleed both of them like the sows they are.” Vincent gets closer and his breath on my ear makes me squirm, “The best part is when the life fades from their eyes.”

With a wisp of essence from the seal, I kick the Dancer of Death into overdrive. Vincent’s influence loses out for the briefest of moments and my fist connects with his smug ass face. I don’t care if he’s able to kill me with a flick of his wrist, at least then he won’t achieve his goal.

I scream as the pressure on me triples. This must be what being crushed alive is like.

Vincent takes his white-gloved hand and places his finger in his mouth. He wiggles it around where my fist hit his cheek. A frown spreads across his face as he looks at his finger.

“That won’t do,” he remarks. White hot pain flashes through my abdomen and Vincent digs his fingers into my stomach and pulls out the seal within me. My natural dantian is contained within.

Vincent’s eyes widen in a flash as he looks at the cracked seal. “I take that back, your friends will die after your body plays with them. I’ll breed you myself.” The seal spins on top of his finger. Both the seal and my dantian shatter and a metallic taste enters my mouth as I try, but fail, to vomit a mouthful of blood. Since I’m not dead, I know my life source is still intact.

A cage of light appears behind Vincent and I scream. Through tunnel vision the last sight I have is a second image of me as my soul is ripped away. Once I land in the cage it closes.

Vincent stands next to the cage and I watch myself fall to the ground and twitch. Seconds pass and I start to rise. My once hazel eyes stare back at me in a deep purple hue.

Tell me this isn’t happening. I feel sick when I lock eyes with … my eyes. It makes sense now, the nausea from the puppet’s eyes is due to the link between it and the puppet master.

Yuna and Yalinda walk into view, their eyes tell the same story. The puppet master has them in his grip. Why didn’t Vincent control me all those years ago? He pushed his art into my soulless body, but not before. Am I immune?

A horde of other puppets form a circle around us. Each an unfortunate passerby I saw moments ago.

Yuna starts to disrobe as I hammer my hands on the bars of my prison. This is not how I had dreamed such a situation would arise and it’s not something I shall allow. The harder I hit the bars the brighter they flare in protest. The palms of my hands now appear wispy, the stress of my struggle is tearing them apart.

Upon the last hit, the bars scatter in motes of light.

Vincent turns toward me and time stops. Yuna’s top hangs midair as she cast it to the ground. The only one that appears to have movement is me.

My throat and chest erupt into a mountain of pain as they enlarge. Something is wriggling its way out of me. A crisp pop sounds out as my soul’s jaw dislocates and my mouth opens. I close my eyes and expel whatever the thing is.

Once I open my eyes the cat, that I’ve seen faint images of over the years, stands in front of me. My thoughts start to run rampant and sorrow, rage and chaos rages inside me.

Why would it show up in such a violent way? Were the other sightings fake and this is the real thing? What was it doing inside of my soul?

Stupid girl, if you chose to focus on growing stronger, I wouldn’t be necessary here,” A voice speaks into my mind. A sense of where the sound should be tells me: it’s the cat. It snaps its tail toward me. Another cage of light appears around me.

I hit the new cage and the bars shock me for my efforts, this one is much more robust. My jaw aches as a blue flash of light catches my attention, and I look up at my body. The eyes have shifted from a deep purple to a brilliant blue, and it’s moving again.

A woman’s voice not my own nor Vincent’s speaks out, “The beast is correct. You have failed yourself and your friends.

“How many more will die before you see the truth?”

My tremulous voice replies, “Who are you,” anger flares as I continue, “to judge me? In a world where I started with no support and no clue?”

“I expected you to advance!” The woman shouts. “You, who has been given so many gifts of heaven. You chose to line your pockets, then rely on others to protect you when you knew well they could not.”

She points at Vincent, “This man is but a speck of dust in the wind. You not only let him harm you and kill your friends,” she looks me up and down, “but look at you now. A weak pitiable soul to be a snack to a feeble predator.”

The cat adds, “I was foolish, to protect a girl like you. I had high hopes, but you have shown that you are not worthy.

His words grate on my already shot nerves. I counter, “Protect? How have you done anything for me?”

Since I separated from you, do you not feel the madness that gnaws at your mind?” The cat informs,

Each of your losses I softened since I was afraid you’d walk a vile path, and turn into a problem instead of a solution.

A flash of a memory I don’t recall hits me like a train. Trish’s face with a contorted grin as she digs a knife into my face and starts to pull away the skin. What the hell? Another memory pummels me of more torment, and I look at the cat. Its ears seem to curl and a smile crosses its face.

New terror takes hold as I cradle my head, and begin to back away, “What are you going to do to me?”

She will kill you, and I will rip away the gifts heaven has bestowed you.” The cat flicks its tail side to side. “A new plan will be laid out. The next time you will earn your gifts, or die many times trying. When you manage to earn them all on your own, you'll be ready to fall into the role I have crafted for you.

No! A role? Who does he think he is? I’m not some puppet. The woman is right, that cat is a beast no better than Vincent. He doesn’t have the right.

The woman in my body’s eyes are furrowed and arms crossed.

Is she conflicted?

She sighs and plucks a finger full of hair from my body’s head and it reforms into a short sword. She rests her hand with the sword at her side. This simple motion creates a gash in the ground.

She holds the sword out and toward her/my abdomen.

So this is it? I’ll die as a puppet in their ploy and repeat the process over again. I fall to my knees and close my eyes. The faces of my friends flash through my mind and stop on Vivi’s. The cycle I’m about to enter will ensure I’ll never see her again. This is my biggest regret.

No sooner than this thought finishes does a suction force overcome me. I’m pulled off my feet and shoot toward my body. I seem to phase through the bars that hold me.

My eyes open and I stand in my own body again. A diagram that appears to be darker than black inches out from my feet. I am rooted to the spot and can’t seem to move my feet. The sword in my hands vanishes as I store it away.

A doorway opens next to the cat and a redheaded woman with brilliant emerald eyes totters through. She holds her hand against her head.

“She shoved me out, beast,” the woman says with an incredulous tone. Her voice is the same that came from my body seconds ago.

The cat’s yellow eyes flash and a vortex of smoke surrounds it, a deep bellow echos in my head as a much larger cat steps forward, “That she did, and that’s not all. She’s initiated a planar shift.

No,” The cat shakes his head, “she didn’t initiate it, an art she’s using did.

I can’t stay in this form long or the planar lady will take notice.” The cat’s eyes vanish and his hollow eyed glare bores into me. He says, “but let’s put an end to your charade, girl.

Seconds pass and the diagram spreads to encompass Yuna. Both the beast and the woman step back as it nears them. Are they afraid of it?

After a minute another diagram draws itself from beneath the large cat. The two touch and the diagram beneath me wins out, I suspect, as the second is eaten away. The diagram beneath me is now ten foot in diameter and stops growing.

I don’t know what a planar shift means, but the cat wants to stop it. It must be a means to escape their grasp. Yalinda is a few steps away from Yuna. Try as I might I am unable to reach her.

The cat’s hairs stand on end and its tail shoots up behind it. “Change of plans,” He declares. “The destination is a plane where I am a weakling.” His eyes return, and his irises and eyelids narrow, “Enjoy hell, girl.

The woman looks at Yuna. Her expression and voice soften, “Protect her, and be strong.”

Why does it seem she is concerned for me? Moments ago her aim was to kill me, now she wants me to be strong?

A wall of black rises up from the diagram and surrounds Yuna and I. Like a wave the circular wall crashes down on us.

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Allen Clark Copeland, Jr.

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