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Chapter 4 Entry Fee

  I had a hard time getting to sleep that night. To be fair, that was actually pretty normal for me, but instead of my parents and cars slamming into one another, my mind was filled with starlight and spacecraft, while Rana—dressed in Norad Kelso's admiral outfit—nearly lost a vicious bloody duel with the Clawing Hunger. I woke up in sweats at one point, panting and clutching a pillow to my chest.

  All in all, one of my better nights.

  The next day, I spent my breakfast going through the Riposte decks. Lloyd was nowhere to be found. Carolyn came in while I was still munching down my cereal, though, and made a passing comment about the cards. She didn't sound familiar with it at all, to my relief. If everybody I met knew about it some way or another, I think I might have crawled out of my skin.

  I was still way too unsettled by the whole idea of the League to come up with an answer for Rana yet. Sure, there was the obvious temptation of the reward, but Rana had been uncomfortably casual about the whole affair. I just couldn't believe it'd be so easy. There was a game with a crazy light-show, offering the one thing I could possibly want in the whole world, without any real catch?

  Okay, I could die inside one of the dueling grounds. That's a catch. But what if I were to just strike the Dangerous grounds every single time? Thanks to the rules, we were guaranteed to always have enough other types that I could keep them out—I assumed so, anyway. In retrospect, those had been the rules Kyla gave me; I had no guarantee the League used the same.

  If we got a really unlucky draw… As I looked through the grounds deck, I noticed that the Deathbot Factory—from the TV series The Nightblade, according to the card—wasn't listed as Dangerous. Instead, it was simply Indoor. Except… that was where Rana had gotten the burn on her arm. Every single ground could be risky.

  The duelists could affect us too, though not directly I presumed. Norad's blood had come back with us on Rana's face. If there was a truly terrifying duelist, who was to say I couldn't get seriously hurt in the crossfire? Or the combos and support cards—the strafing run hadn't injured me, but I'd certainly felt it.

  I needed more details. I doubted I'd get them from Rana. As forthcoming as she'd been the day before, something still felt off. Even if it were as casual as she implied, why would she give me so much freely? I'd be her competition, wouldn't I? Riposte wasn't a team game. If I joined, and I happened to be better than her, that'd put her even further away from her wish.

  I wondered what Rana's wish was. Mine was obvious, probably to her as well. There wasn't a doubt in my mind what I'd use it for. I only had to hope it qualified as 'self-centered'. Before I could stop myself, my imagination began to run wild—what would happen if they came back? Would the world react with shock, or would it be as if they'd never actually left? The world didn't seem to have noticed the League yet, so I guessed the latter, but… what if?

  How would I handle it? What would happen to Lloyd and Carolyn? If my parents never left, I'd never have been adopted by Lloyd, moved here, met Kyla and Rana, joined the League, and won my wish. How did that work? Would I still be me?

  This was like time travel without the actual time part, or the nostalgia obsession. Ugh.

  The alarm on my phone buzzed. I wolfed down the rest of my cereal and cleaned up. We had somebody to take care of the dishes, I think, but I'd always done it myself anyway. It was a habit instilled by my parents, one I never intended to lose.

  Carolyn was waiting on the drive with the blue car, since I hadn't mentioned wanting to take the bus. Lloyd was nowhere to be found, as usual. If I looked into the windows on the front of the house, I thought I spotted the glow of a monitor, but I couldn't be sure. It didn't matter anyway—Carolyn was there, and she was the one that mattered.

  Lloyd pays for everything. He's doing this out of the kindness of his heart with no expectation of a return. Not even an inkling of anything untoward. You could be a little more appreciative…

  I value effort over money, thanks.

  School was a little easier the second day. Since our classes followed an A/B schedule, I had a different set today, and another round of introductions, whispers, rumors, and teachers getting my name wrong. I found it a lot easier to endure, especially when I spotted both Rana and Kyla in my computer science class.

  I hadn't really wanted to take CS—the computer classes in elementary and middle school had been enough for me—but Carolyn had suggested it as an elective. A mix of begrudging respect for her recommendations and a genuine desire to understand more about how Lloyd made his money pushed me to sign up. It looked like the class was a mix of sophomores and juniors, so I ended up with both my new acquaintances together despite the age difference.

  Kyla gave me a wink and a wave as soon as I walked in the room. She nodded immediately toward the blue headscarf in the corner, twitching her eyebrow suggestively. I rolled my eyes, just in time for Rana to turn around and spot me. To my surprise, she acted like she didn't know me, just brushed right past with the cold shoulder.

  Confused, and maybe a little hurt, I took the workstation next to Kyla.

  "...Ouch," said Kyla, a little subdued. She'd seen Rana's reaction. "You guys seemed friendly yesterday… what happened?"

  "No idea," I murmured as the teacher came in. "Haven't spoken to her since then."

  "...Dude, you know you're supposed to keep in touch, right? How else are you gonna get her to fall in love with you?"

  I choked on a sip of water I'd just started to down. The teacher glanced over, and I quickly waved him off. He went back to booting up his own machine for the obligatory introductory slideshow presentation. I was grateful, since it left plenty of space—and darkness—to talk with Kyla.

  "You said she was straight."

  Kyla sighed theatrically. "Yeah, but I'm shipping you two anyway… I heard a rumor last year that she'd had a huge crush on another freshman girl. Died out quick though, plus she started going out with Reylon later that year. Pretty sure everybody totally forgot about it."

  "...Really?" I raised my eyebrows. "They didn't seem like a thing to me."

  "It was a huge deal!" said Kyla, a little too excitedly. One of the kids a row away glanced over at us. Kyla dropped her volume again. "Star quarterback going out with the quiet Muslim girl, people made a thing out of it because of course they would. So dumb. Anyway, I never bought them as a couple for a second, and obviously neither did you."

  "So you think she's…"

  "Hardcore lesbian," said Kyla, nodding. "But I've never asked, so without any more evidence she must be straight after all. We're not close or anything, barely spoken more than a couple sentences outside of schoolwork. I'm just a drama addict. One of my rare flaws."

  "Why would she hide it if she were, anyway?" I asked, shrugging. Since the world never stops obsessing over who's what… better to just get it over with, in my mind. "Everybody knows I'm gay, I've never gotten any grief about it."

  "Yeah, but you're the big tragic figure of the city." Kyla rolled her eyes, but immediately looked like she regretted it. "Err…"

  I rolled mine right back, smirking slightly. "If you don't make jokes like that, I'd feel worse."

  "Okay, anyway…" Kyla smiled, a little nervously. To my relief, it went away within moments. "You've got it totally different from Rana, you know? Plus, you just kinda came out—and that was awesome by the way, I love how casually you threw that in the guy's face. Why's a reporter asking if you have a boyfriend when you're twelve anyway?"

  "Because I refused to answer questions about anything to do with my parents or the accident?" I ventured pointedly. "They had to have something for their 'human interest piece'."

  "When you're a kid who's all alone, ugh. Predatory journalism, the worst," Kyla sighed. "So yeah. You're, like, a public figure in some ways, while Rana's somebody totally unknown. Kinda makes it feel for her like coming out is begging for attention or something. Plus, and don't take this the wrong way, but you're forgetting the really obvious cultural thing here."

  "Oh… duh," I mumbled, seriously embarrassed. Of course. Rana was Muslim.

  "Just my twenty cents," said Kyla, turning to her workstation. The presentation was nearly over.

  "Twenty?"

  "Chargin' you extra, rich girl," she said, smirking. "My thoughts are easily worth ten times any random sucker on the street."

  I laughed, too loud. A few looked around the classroom, including the teacher who'd just ended the presentation. He looked about to say something, but then the flicker of recognition crossed his face. A moment later, his mouth shut along with his laptop. Soon enough, he was starting into a lesson, as if I hadn't interrupted.

  "Gotta teach me that trick sometime," Kyla whispered. "Do you know how many times I've been sent out to the hall?"

  "Sure," I shot back, "just get famous for a really bullshit tragic reason."

  "You got it. I'll have my people call your people."

  I bit back another laugh, focusing on the lesson in front of me. It was a simple coding project, something to gauge our ability and knowledge. The presentation had mentioned splitting us up into groups based on our skills, so I assumed that was how the groups would be chosen.

  There was no way I wasn't ending up with Kyla—and to my relief, she seemed to be about the same level from a few peeks at her screen. I finished the test with time to spare, as did she. The only difference between us was how lazy my code ended up. I'd learned a bit from Lloyd a couple years ago, when I had tried to engage with him, and he had all the bad habits.

  If I were actually going into this field, I'd have to lose them, but for class? Gold. I had so many shortcuts up my sleeve.

  As expected, I landed in a group with Kyla. Less expected, Rana landed with us—and still with the cold shoulder. Kyla started to say something about it, but I nudged her with my foot under the table, and she got the message. I didn't want to start anything with other people around, and I still wasn't sure what this was supposed to mean.

  Something about the League? A strategy of hers? I had even more questions for her now than I had that morning.



  ***



  Kyla and I went straight to lunch out of computer science. This was great for me, as I really needed to start venting all the confusion in my brain out on somebody. Kyla, again showing that surprising amount of empathy, seemed more than happy to listen to me rant for a few minutes as she munched through her bag lunch. Occasionally, she threw an envious look at my fancy self-heating disposable food, but I was too preoccupied to give it much thought.

  "Did I do something?" I asked, not really directing it at Kyla, but she shrugged anyway. "I thought we were good. She even asked me to call her. And not like that," I added, as Kyla opened her mouth, smirk already in place. "There was… something we were going to do," I finished lamely, remembering not to mention the League at the last second.

  "Ooh, a mystery," said Kyla, her eyes lighting up. She leaned forward, hands folded under her chin and elbows on the table. "Talk to me, grasshopper. Let us delve into the imponderable mind of Rana el-Yassin and mine her deepest secrets together."

  "...No?" I said, raising an eyebrow.

  "Fair enough," said Kyla with a shrug and another bite of her sandwich. "But seriously, if you want help, or just want to vent a bit, I'm not doing anything. No class for me next."

  "...You're sure there's no kind of organized Riposte thing?" I asked, before I could stop myself. I couldn't help it—Kyla was the only one willing to talk to me, apparently, and even if she didn't know about the League, she might have some idea what was going on. "Even unofficial?"

  "I mean, it's all unofficial," said Kyla.

  "You're the expert, tell me about the game. Where's it from?"

  Kyla started in on her crackers as she spoke, crumbs spilling onto the napkin she'd carefully laid across her lap. Captain Winter watched us the whole time, standing vigil carefully mounted atop Kyla's bag on the table. I wondered what she'd be like in reality—or whatever the dueling grounds were in the League.

  "The guys who make the game are down in California. One of the founders is a big Hollywood type, that's how they got all the different shows and series and whatnot in one single product. Otherwise they'd be ritually murdered by copyright." Kyla shrugged. "But they also had a thing against making it a gambling product, so there's no booster packs, no organized tournaments with prizes, basically nothing. They actively block anybody from organizing big ones too, so all you get is local stuff like when Drizzle does a 'promo event'."

  Just the one tournament then… with the biggest prize anybody could dream of—literally, if I was taking the whole wish concept seriously. I'd cooled on it since that morning, but still… it lurked in my head, the possibility.

  "And what about like…" I cut off. I'd nearly said 'wishes', but the word enforcer suddenly wandered through my brain, as Rana's warning slid back into place. I definitely didn't want to find out what happened if I broke the rules.

  Not yet, anyway.

  "Abou' wha'?" asked Kyla, mouth full of crackers. She cleared her mouth before continuing, to my relief. "Sorry. If you're really wanting to play Riposte, we could always just play now, you know. Or I can ask Joey about when's the next tournament he's running. Happy to."

  I shrugged. Might as well get some practice in. I needed to see how well I could play this game, if I was potentially putting my life on the line to win it.

  After glancing through the duelists I had that morning, I ended up sticking with Check. She had good all-around stats and abilities I figured I could work with. Nobody else had really jumped out at me, and besides, Kyla had given her to me. I felt like that was as good a reason as any for now.

  According to Kyla, all the duelists were reasonably balanced. One might be better against another in a particular matchup, but there were enough variables to throw things off in any given game. They were all based off the same basic framework, so everybody was viable at least a bit. Check hadn't been around enough to show up on any matchup charts I found online. Then again, there weren't a whole lot anyway since the game didn't have a real competitive scene.

  Most of the analysis from the few obsessives to follow Riposte was speculation and circumstance. I'd have to work with whatever came my way. I only wished I could switch if needed—the 'commitment' part of joining the League was intimidating for sure. What if I chose wrong…?

  At least you have a choice. Rana wasn't informed, and likely many other players weren't as well. You'll go in knowing your partner.

  My partner? Am I marrying the piece of paper? I mean, if she were flesh and blood… damn. Good looking without ridiculous assets and unrealistic proportions. And that smile. So confident and self-assured. I'd let her take me in a heartbeat—but she wasn't real, of course.

  "Captain Winter versus Check, round two!" said Kyla excitedly, already throwing down her first card.

  "We never finished round one," I pointed out. "And don't we need to pick the ground first? I'll strike Wandorn Woods."

  "Conceding means we finished and I won," Kyla grinned. "But yeah, yeah, we'll follow the rules. I ban, uhh… the Olympic Forest."

  Next, off went Warbeck Theater, followed by the Castle of the Sky Giants. We were left with Blue City and the Battle of the Belt. I stared at the card, which showed precisely the view out the window I'd witnessed so vividly the day before. A chill ran down my spine as I reached for it and carefully tossed it out of the row.

  No thanks. Definitely not going there again.

  "We went over the basics," I started, glancing down at my cards, "and the grounds, plus combos. So all that's left is…"

  "Support cards," said Kyla, tapping the other deck next to her. We both had two decks, one for basic cards and one for supports, plus the third deck of grounds. "Oh, and Blitzes. Support cards you can pick up by playing Prepare, or you can draw more basic moves instead if you like. Go check… Check, ha-ha, to see how many cards you get when you Prepare. The prep value in the corner."

  Rolling my eyes, I looked for the number. Check had 2/2C, and from a quick glance over the reference card, that meant I could use it to draw two basics or two supports. The C meant the supports were cycled, so I had to discard two cards first to get them. Useful, but I couldn't just get them for free. Captain Winter, meanwhile, had 2C1/1C—two basics for one discard, or one support for one discard—so she was worse at getting cards than Check. However, I was more interested in the other word Kyla mentioned.

  "...Blitzes?" I asked. Every duelist card mentioned a blitz, but I'd skimmed those since I had no clue about the mechanic yet. Rereading it, most Blitzes seemed like an extra-powerful attack, but with a significant drawback. Kyla confirmed this herself moments later.

  "...so you only want to use it in a real pinch, right?" She pointed down at Captain Winter. "The Captain gets to call in an artillery barrage. It's danger close though, so there's a risk I'll get hit in the process, plus an evade card can reduce that damage. Everybody's got a unique Blitz they can pull out, but you gotta be careful or you get burned hard. They can only be used once per game, too, unless your card says otherwise of course."

  Check's Blitz was to overload her smart pistol, which dealt a ton of unavoidable damage but lost her ranged attack bonus for a few bouts due to overheating, plus a chance for the pistol to just explode. It could be useful in a pinch, like Kyla said, but I wasn't going to use it early on. The ranged attack bonus was too useful, especially since I got it on Urban grounds as well when most didn't.

  "What's Norad's Blitz?"

  "Norad Kelso?" asked Kyla, raising an eyebrow. I could have just looked it up myself, but I didn't have Norad—he wasn't in the collection that came with the starter box, and pulling my phone out felt rude. Besides, I knew Kyla would have memorized them all off-hand. She didn't disappoint. "Orbital cannon strike, undodgeable damage. Norad's super boring though, his combo and his special are both just damage. I've heard he's one of the worst characters."

  Worst, yet Rana is undefeated…? You're right to be suspicious.

  Or she's just that good. Kyla did say they were all pretty balanced.

  Knowing Kyla, and remembering how our game began the day before, I opened with a Block. Sure enough, Kylä had played Charge. I couldn't resist throwing a smirk right back in her falling face as I drew my free basic, only costing me two health in the trade. Captain Winter still dealt damage even on a successful block, so I couldn't rely on it completely.

  Our trades went back and forth. Kyla certainly wasn't making it easy on me, even on my second game. I lost as many bouts as I won, but in the meantime, I'd used a few Prepares to build up a nice cache of cards. Soon enough, I was starting to trade those basics out for Supports, and thanks to Check, I could get a fair number quickly.

  I picked up the Personal Teleporter I'd seen Rana use yesterday, along with a Portable Hole Trap, a Health Kit, and Mo'Gar's Brew. A few tools in my belt, things I could throw at an unsuspecting—and frequently reckless—Kyla.

  After a few more rounds, I was starting to pick up on her habits and tells. She had a few visible tics, especially when she was trying to play a Charge or another risky move. Kyla wasn't that bad a player—she won plenty of bouts over me—but she didn't have my experience learning to hide emotions from people watching my every move, or learning how to read somebody's face and know what they wanted. I'd picked the latter up just to get people to leave me alone, but now, I'd found a new way to apply that same skill.

  She was going to play a Charge next round. I knew it, as sure as I knew my own name wasn't Sullivan. I put down the Portable Hole Trap instead of a basic, waiting with bated breath.

  We flipped. She'd played Charge.

  "Oof…" Kyla shook her head. "How'd you know?"

  I shrugged, letting the hint of a smile into my expression. Kyla might be able to get me laughing normally, but when I was in the zone? My face wasn't budging a single muscle more than I wanted it to. Kyla shook her head, frustrated, and put the trap over her duelist card. She'd have to waste a turn climbing out of it, giving me even more space to build up my combos.

  Another couple of bouts later, and Kyla was rocking in her seat. I'd just used Check's lockdown combo on her, placing her even more in a bind. Since I'd built up enough cards, I could play the lockdown again, and probably again after that, preventing her from preparing or using any specials of her own. Meanwhile, I'd be laying more damage into Captain Winter every round—and the Captain only started with 80 in the first place.

  "Blitz!" Kyla shouted.

  I jumped, despite myself. Of course, Kyla would shout it when she used it. Still, I was surprised she had. I wasn't low enough that it could kill… this seemed too risky for not enough reward. Probably, she was playing it because we were only doing one round, so there was no reason to save it. Dutifully, I dropped my damage counter while Kyla got out some dice. There weren't many dice-based mechanics in Riposte—I probably wouldn't ever need to pull dice out myself—but Captain Winter had one of 'em.

  Kyla rolled the dice, and to my dismay, got almost the highest she could possibly get. I dropped my HP even lower—dangerously so, but still peaking just above hers. She'd also avoided all damage to herself. I needed to end this fast, or start recovering and building up my long game again. The latter seemed safer at first glance, but I didn't like it. Captain Winter could do too much damage in a single go.

  "Scaaaaaaared?" asked Kyla, smug as a satisfied kitten. She wobbled back and forth on her side of the table uneasily, undercutting her expression a bit.

  Time to pull a page out of Rana's book…

  Kyla was likely to go for the kill, end this just as fast as I wanted to. Worse, her combo meant that Blocking was useless, even against the Strike that started it. So if I blocked and she played her combo, I was dead. If I evaded, I might be okay… unless she actually just played a normal Charge. Playing a Strike or a Charge meant we'd both take damage, but I'd survive… except for the combo.

  I had an out though. I'd drawn the Teleporter, the very same Rana'd used to win against the Hunger. A perfect Evade, with a free basic after it including combos. My combo wasn't exactly worth spending the Teleporter on, but it didn't matter—I could still deal enough damage to win with a Charge.

  The teleporter went down on the table. Kyla had her own card already there, fiddling with the corner impatiently. She smirked again, the image of confidence.

  We flipped.

  "Well done," said a voice from behind me.

  I jumped. Kyla nearly fell out of her chair.

  Rana had come up behind us and watched the last play from over my shoulder. Kyla sighed with relief and flipped her duelist over, which I now recognized was the signal to concede, just as Rana's opponent had done.

  "You win," Kyla said begrudgingly. "And can you give us some warning next time?" she added, glaring at Rana.

  "I didn't want to interrupt." Rana leaned in over my shoulder, peering at my duelist. I got a sudden whiff of whatever hair product she used… it smelled really nice.

  Get it together, Noël. You are not allowed to have a crush on this girl. She's your opponent, she's probably straight, and something is definitely up with her.

  We don't know any of those things for sure, thanks. I'm not making my mind up any which way yet.

  There was something I definitely wanted to straighten out though. I didn't appreciate getting iced out, even if there might be a good reason behind it. My life was full of enough layers of deception and confusion with the media and the accident.

  "You're talking to me now, then?" I asked, my tone exactly as icy as I intended.

  Kyla's eyes widened. Rana took a step back almost immediately, moving away from my side and all the way over to the trees. She cleared her throat, obviously uncomfortable. Good, that was the point.

  "I'm sorry… I didn't mean to be rude."

  "Yeah, well…" I shook my head. "Look, if there's stuff you want to hide—" I trusted Kyla would go for the obvious conclusion while Rana would know what I actually meant, "—I get it. But can't we still be friends in public?"

  Her eyebrows went up high. "I assumed you wouldn't want to be associated with me," said Rana quietly. "I tried to do awful at the computer science test so we wouldn't be placed together."

  "Ouch," muttered Kyla. "Way to rub it in that we're dumb."

  "No! That's not—"

  Kyla laughed, gathering up her well-worn Riposte decks. "Just messin' with you. I'm gonna split, you two obviously need some alone time. I'll be at Drizzle if you wanna meet up later, grasshopper."

  Before I could say anything, Kyla was already bolting out of the little clearing, throwing me a wink as she left. Moments later, I was left alone with Rana and my own decks, still scattered across the table. Slowly, I began to clean up, checking my phone to see how much time was left in our lunch period.

  "I really am sorry," added Rana quietly. She took Kyla's vacated seat. "I didn't know if I should approach you, since we can't discuss the League around her."

  "Doesn't mean we can't be friends," I shot back, snapping the lid shut on my boxes. I dropped them into my bag, but—copying the habit of both Kyla and Rana—placing Check in my jacket pocket instead. Not entirely sure why I did, but I felt like she needed to be protected.

  There you go personifying a card. You're going to be as bad as her soon.

  "You're right," said Rana. She nodded. "I wasn't thinking straight."

  "Okay." I was warming up already. To be honest, being mean wasn't my thing. I just needed to make it really clear, I didn't like this kind of manipulation. "I'm sorry too. That was really harsh."

  "It was fair." Rana cracked the barest hint of a smile. "Forgive and forget?"

  "What's the catch, Rana?" I asked, turning to face her completely.

  She tilted her head slightly, obviously confused. "What do you mean?"

  "I can't figure out why you're so okay with me joining." I crossed my arms, frowning. "Doesn't that make me competition?"

  "...You deserve it," said Rana quietly. Her cheeks flushed red. She turned away slightly, looking at a spot on the ground away from where I sat. "My wish is selfish. I'm… it's not something I should have, but I'm still in this because I can't resist. As long as I know it's possible, I have to try. But… you'd wish… for your parents, right?"

  I nodded slowly, not really surprised she'd guessed.

  "But you hate people just giving you hand-outs. I thought, if I just told you like you were any other girl from school, you might accept it."

  Well, she wasn't wrong, but probably not for the reasons she assumed. I didn't take hand-outs because Lloyd was more than wealthy enough to get me anything. If I actually needed help, I might take their free stuff. I turned it away now because not a soul had bothered to help me in the month after the accident. Everybody was too busy fighting over the legal implications, the court battles, and the budding auto industry revolution I'd single-handedly driven to a screeching halt.

  Only Lloyd Luther Strauser actually bothered to remember the kid lost in the middle, the girl even reported deceased by an initial few confused stories. A loner tech millionaire lifted me out to safety.

  This League invite wasn't a hand-out though. Rana's impressions were misplaced, borne from the idea that people could meet the real me through the news stories and the media attention I'd gotten. Kyla had figured out who I really was without even the slightest prompt—no wonder I'd attached to her in less than a day.

  I wanted this. I wasn't sure what this was yet, or if I was going to regret it someday, but I was certain. I had to try. My parents' lives were on the line, and beyond that, nothing else mattered. Rana had just confirmed it for me—she thought it was possible I could get them back.

  "I want an introduction."



  ***



  To my dismay, the introduction wasn't immediate. Rana said she'd contact the Moderator, and that was it. I just had to wait for him to come find me, I guess. Rana didn't ask for where I lived or anything, which was a little relieving. I mean, people can probably figure out where I live by tracing Lloyd down, but so far as I'd seen, nobody'd done so yet.

  I wondered if the Moderator would just call me or something. Seemed kind of underwhelming. Rana told me it might be a few days, but as Thursday passed, and then Friday without a word, I was getting impatient. School wasn't exactly exciting yet. The beginning of the year dragged on and on. Kyla brightened my day every lunch, and while Rana didn't come to join us again, we spent most of it playing Riposte.

  Kyla only beat me once.

  Saturday came and went too. I did my morning run, then spent most of the day watching TV, reading, hanging out online. The internet was a tempting source to try and research the League, but I held a certain wariness toward typing it into a search engine. Even if I could get any info given the ultra-generic name, I felt like it might be a bad idea. Search engine traffic was easily tracked… and given that the League appeared to have the power of straight-up magic, I wasn't about to cross anybody running the show in any way just yet.

  Instead, I bided my time as best I could. To my shock, the person who helped most with that was Lloyd, of all people. On Saturday, he swung by the office near my room—I had my own office, with a computer he'd given me and plenty of desk space to do whatever I wanted with. So far, that had amounted to a whole lot of nothing, but I could imagine using the space for Riposte prep or something down the line.

  I was so shocked when he walked in, I nearly fell out of my chair. He took the spare in the corner, working his way up to words.

  "How are you doing?" he asked, finally. Pretty underwhelming, but hey, at least it was something.

  I shrugged. "I'm okay."

  "First week's done…" He paused, eyes drifting to the floor for a minute. "How'd it go?"

  "I made a friend in my comp sci." I didn't feel like saying I met her through a card game, of all things. Better that it was actually through school somehow. I thought he'd like that more, showing I was acclimating and all that. "Her name's Kyla."

  "Kyla… that's Gaelic too," said Lloyd, his eyes lighting up a little. "What are the odds?"

  "Really?" Now I was actually slightly interested. Any time anything with my name came up, I got a little more interested. It was one of the only connections I had left to my family, after all, with no extended family whatsoever. Just me and my dead parents… or, soon-to-be-not-dead parents, if I had anything to say about it.

  "Is she cool?" Sometimes I forgot Lloyd wasn't actually that old. He was barely thirty, if I remembered right.

  "Yeah, actually. Cooler than me, for sure." And crazier, too, but sometimes that's good. Right now I could use a little crazy. Better than misery and loneliness, for sure. "I might invite her over, like you said."

  "That's fine," said Lloyd, then winced. I think he realized what it sounded like—parental. He wasn't my dad, and any time he started to sound like a parent, we both got a little more distant. I don't think he could ever be a parent to me. Guardian was a good term for it. Maybe a friend someday.

  Never dad.

  Still, there were some dad-like things he could do for me. Most importantly, he had plenty to teach me, especially in fields I didn't know so well yet.

  "Hey, while you're here," I added, glancing at my computer. "It's been doing this weird thing lately. If I ever turn on the wireless card adapter, the entire computer freezes up every couple minutes. Like, it stutters a bit, then goes back to normal. Totally stops if I disable the driver though."

  Lloyd almost immediately lit up. Suddenly, he was energetic. I'd engaged him on his turf, and he was excited about it.

  "May I?" he asked politely. I closed a few windows I had open—mostly searches about Riposte, but also a few more… sensual things I'd been looking at. Lloyd waited til my nod before he got up. Always respecting my privacy… I appreciated a lot of things about Lloyd, in retrospect. "Did you already try swapping the card?" he asked, coming around the desk to look at the tower next to my monitor.

  "Yeah. Swapped the card, rerouted the cables away to avoid EMI, checked for any bad grounding problems."

  "So probably not a hardware issue…" He frowned. "Software, then?"

  I rolled my chair back. He hooked his own around the desk and sat down, mumbling to himself as he began to troubleshoot. I poked him in the side before he could really get going, startling him.

  "Mind narrating aloud?" I asked, wincing myself as I realized I could have been way more polite about it. Still, he nodded.

  "Happy to."

  So began our entire afternoon of troubleshooting the bizarre wireless connection problem on my machine. It wasn't a huge deal, since I never watched anything on it or played any games, but since we hadn't run a wire to that room yet, the machine had no alternatives. Lloyd dug deep, but neither of us could find a cause. We even swapped the entire case for a spare, still nothing.

  Even so, I actually enjoyed myself. Lloyd never talked down to me, or acted like I was any less intelligent than himself. Right from the first sentence, he trusted I knew what I was doing and I'd done my own troubleshooting correctly. Instead, he spoke like an equal, and I learned a lot of tricks and tools to use in the future.

  Finally, Lloyd wiped the sweat from his brow and got up, totally stumped. It was nearly dinner, and Mr. Hauk was already preparing our meal. If we were late, he'd send the wolves after us for sure. We shared a joke at his expense before heading down to eat. Sadly, only a few bites in, he was back to his quiet, lonely, melancholy self—but for an afternoon, I'd gotten close to Lloyd for once.

  Take that, doubts in my head.

  Sleeping more easily for the first time in forever, I woke Sunday morning and headed out for my run only a few minutes later. I was feeling calm, motivated, and ready for anything. The light fog surrounding my running path felt like a friendly mist to cool me off, rather than the foreboding opaque wall it always seemed before.

  Except… that wall was getting thicker, wasn't it? Unnaturally so.

  I slowed my run to a jog, then to a walk. The fog was brutal in three directions, almost impenetrable. I couldn't keep running on the path, forward or back. Instead, I was being corralled off into the forest nearby, through a small grassy field.

  Noël… are you sure about this?

  Not even a little bit, but I had to try. Mom and Dad needed me.

  I stepped off the path and headed straight into the trees, head held high and eyes straight forward. I didn't hesitate for a moment, even as the fog swirled around and parted, leaving a wide circle around a single clearing. A lantern hung from the small tree in the center, and in front of that tree stood a man.

  He was an older guy, a little short and pudgy, clad in an impeccable old-fashioned suit with the puffy white thing on the chest, plus a velvety black top hat. No cane, though—this man held himself with perfect balance. I had some rough basics in martial arts and self-defense, mostly after Carolyn expressed some concerns about me running alone. Even with my limited knowledge, I knew the man was a master.

  "Hello, my dear!" he called, sweeping his hat wide and bowing.

  To my surprise, the man was balding, only a few wisps of grayish-white hair left on either side of his shiny head. The fog seemed to ripple outward from him with his bow, and rush back to where it began as soon as he straightened.

  "I believe you were looking for an introduction?"

  Now I was nervous. This wasn't what I'd expected. Still… with everything I'd seen so far, I wasn't turning back.

  "Yes," I answered, only the barest shake quivering my voice.

  The man smiled. "Now, now, Noël. No need to be nervous. I'm the Moderator, and I swear to you now that I shall never harm a hair on your head, nor if it is within my power, allow you to come to harm in my presence."

  Chills down my spine immediately. I had absolutely zero doubt it would be within his power, and even less doubt that he'd take any loophole he needed to get out of that promise. I walked forward, joining him under the flickering lantern light. I felt seriously underdressed in my leggings and t-shirt, but then again, I wasn't exactly expecting to run into anybody out here.

  Definitely not a guy who looked dressed for a Victorian ballroom.

  "...Even if you have skirted the rules a tad," he added with a knowing chuckle.

  The chills became a straight-up waterfall of ice cubes tumbling down my back. I froze in place, staring at him like he'd just spoken my death warrant. "I— I didn't mean—"

  "Oh, my dear," said the Moderator, looking genuinely upset. He pulled out a fine silk handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes. "I meant no distress! Your indiscretion with Kyla Wick was most understandable, and of no significant consequence. Please put any fear from your mind."

  "So I won't be meeting the Enforcer?" I asked nervously, as a little bit of ice ebbed away.

  "Heavens no," said the Moderator, shaking his head with exuberance. "She's a stick in the mud, to be certain, but even she wouldn't go that far. You've made no such violations, Noël. Now then!" He clapped his hands together in a burst of excitement, drawing me out of the terrified stupor I'd started to fall into. "I understand you're looking for an introduction. Do you know what that requires?"

  "...An invitation, a commitment, and a wish," I recited, remembering what Rana had said on Wednesday.

  "Oh? An expert, are you?" His eyes twinkled.

  I smiled. Honestly, I was feeling comfortable around him, which paradoxically made me more uncomfortable. The Moderator was friendly, but not unsettlingly so. He seemed so easy to approach, like the best kind of old grandpa. Certainly not harmless, but I didn't feel any threat from him at all… which only made me feel more threatened. Not by him, but by something invisible which accompanied him, lurking just outside my vision.

  "Well, that saves us a great deal of time and confusion. Your invitation I know, of course—lovely Rana dear, always nice to hear from her. You didn't happen to bring your commitment with you?" he asked, glancing sidelong at me.

  "No…" I glanced down at my clothes. I had almost nothing on me, except for the phone I kept strapped tight around my arm, which I could tap to get in the back door of the mansion if I didn't have my keys and got locked out. "I wasn't really expecting anybody right now."

  "Oh, I am so dreadfully sorry," said the Moderator, and he sounded sincere. "I'm afraid with my schedule, it's so very difficult to make appointments in advance. It's no trouble though, we needn't have its token on-hand to proceed. The name of your commitment?"

  "Check," I said, without hesitation. I was happy with her, even after looking through many of the others. No need to change.

  "I see, I see." His tone gave me no hints whatsoever as to his opinion on my selection. I wondered if he thought it was good. I hoped he did, anyway. "Very good. And last, but most certainly the opposite of least if ever I heard it, your wish?"

  I cleared my throat.

  "My parents to be alive again and home with me. Conor and Saoirse Súileabhán."

  The Moderator raised an eyebrow. He chuckled again, much like before. I wasn't sure what to make of his reaction, but it didn't matter. The Moderator clapped his hands together again, but this time, the sound was like a thunderclap, combined with the deep chime of a huge bell. It echoed across the hills and off the skyscrapers in the distance, filling my entire world.

  I winced at the deafening blast, stumbling backward a step or two.

  "Your entry fee is accepted," said the Moderator with a smile. "The best of luck to you, Noël Súileabhán. May you find what you seek at the bell's last toll, when the duel is complete. Farewell!"

  A flash of bright white light accompanied a fierce rush of wind. I shielded my eyes, and a moment later, the fog was gone. The Moderator was gone. The lantern was gone. Even the tree it had hung from was gone. I was standing in an empty clearing, wearing just a t-shirt and leggings, and there wasn't a single strange thing around.

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About the author

Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Professional Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, IT girl, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of good stories.

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