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Chapter 6 For Wendy

  As it turned out, riding in an ambulance was not fun. Not even a little.

  "Sorry!" said Dash over his shoulder to the three of us in the back. "Easy to forget how bad the suspension is back there."

  "This is for carrying hurt people, isn't it?" I asked, nearly bumping my head as we hit a rough patch of road.

  "Yeah, but they're usually on a gurney, and that's actually padded. The rest of us just gotta deal with it," he added apologetically. I forgave him. Dash was a skilled driver, at least—we were mostly just thrown about by how poor the roads were on our route. "Suspension's gotta be super tight since we have to drive fast, and this thing is bulky at the best of times."

  "How long til we get there?" asked Robin cheerfully, seeming not the slightest bit bothered, while Rana and I were both visibly queasy.

  "Just a couple more minutes." Dash frowned. "By the way, since my opponent doesn't have a clue you're all coming…" He trailed off.

  "Don't worry," said Rana. "We'll attend unnoticed."

  "Assuming the ground lets us," I pointed out. "Wasn't exactly anywhere to hide on that spaceship."

  "True." Rana nodded. "Well, once the match starts, there isn't any way out until a victor is determined."

  "...Seriously?" I winced. "What if… like, one of the two people just never takes their turn? What then?"

  "Then you'd starve, I guess," said Dash, way more nonchalant than I would've liked. He shrugged. "Or maybe you could find some food inside the ground. I've never tried going very far from the table. Who knows?"

  "What about if somebody tried to…" I trailed off, not really willing to voice it. Actually killing your opponent… was I even capable of that? Assuming the rules wouldn't prevent it, anyway. Rana, too, looked uncomfortable. She'd followed my train of thought no problem. Robin seemed not to have heard me, still fascinated by everything inside the ambulance.

  "Never happened as far as I know," said Dash finally, as we swerved through a few tight curves. He was slowing down, looking more at the road than before. I figured we must be getting close.

  "I wouldn't worry," said Rana, though not with her usual quiet confidence. "As long as you're prepared, you should be safe."

  "Speaking of which," added Dash.

  The ambulance slid to a halt on the curb. Dash got out, popped around to the back and opened the doors. We clambered out into the bright evening sun, not quite dipping below the mountains just yet. Next to us was an office building that looked seriously deserted—probably one of those that hadn't survived the transition in the work-from-home revolution—and a nice little park just beyond.

  Dash pointed to the park. "Match is in there, one of the chess tables. You all can come in and sit at the benches nearby, if you like. As long as you're watching us and not too far away, should get pulled in like usual."

  "Doesn't somebody need this?" I asked, nudging the ambulance tire with my feet.

  "I'm on my lunch break, or you'd've run into my partner by now. The new healthcare bills paid for a lot more emergency care teams." Dash smiled. "Something good came out of the mess a few years ago, that's for sure."

  The mess where nobody got to your accident in time… A few minutes faster and—

  Don't remind me. Don't bring it up. I can't think about it right now.

  Dash pulled out his commitment as he turned to the park. The faint outline disappeared, replaced with the sheen of the card as it caught a few rays of sunlight. He smiled at the group before setting off. "Wish me luck."

  "Good luck, Dash!" called Robin. Rana and I echoed him, me with less enthusiasm than I meant to. To my relief, nobody seemed to notice. Robin led the way as we circled around the outside of the park, before heading straight back in on the next path we found. In only a minute or two, we'd already taken our places at a bench nearby, with a perfect view of the little marble chess table where Dash was just walking up to face his opponent.

  His opponent… who was the exact same person Rana had just faced last Tuesday.

  "Small world, huh?" I murmured to Rana, seated right next to me.

  She leaned in slightly, brushing against me—and sending a tingle through my skin as she did. God, I was shameless. Her voice dropped to a near-whisper. "Not really. Bradley is… relentless, I suppose you could say. He seeks out as many duels as he can find. I've played him three times."

  "Three?" I raised an eyebrow. "I'm guessing you won all three?"

  "I did." She smiled slightly—not in a boasting way, more in a self-satisfied proud way.

  "Why not just keep playing him then?"

  "I accept his challenges, but… something that the Moderator once said to me. I feel he was trying to tell me that I must take on harder duels if I want my wish."

  I sighed. "Of course."

  "If it were easy, would we ever believe it were true?"

  "Guess not."

  "I wish it was easy," grumbled Robin. He pulled his legs up onto the bench, leaning against Rana's other side. "Are they gonna start or what?"

  "I believe they're still striking grounds," said Rana.

  "You can hear them?" asked Robin, eyes widening.

  "I can too," I added, trying to keep a touch of annoyance from my voice. I could hear them when Robin's voice didn't drown everything out. Given how little I knew about the various grounds, though, it wasn't really useful info. I could tell there was some serious strategy going on, as Dash and Bradley made careful selections, but until I had more context on the game, the long pauses were agonizing rather than exciting.

  "They're about to finish," added Rana, as Dash struck Warbeck Theater. Bradley had the final selection between the two remaining, which—if I remembered right—meant he'd lost the previous match. "And they're only playing one game… Hm."

  "Probably to fit it into his lunch," I pointed out. "Why?"

  "I feel one game is too quick. There is a lot of advantage to gain in feeling out your opponent during a safe game one. " Rana peered at the two, squinting. "And I don't believe Dash has played Bradley before."

  "He hasn't?" I frowned. "So why risk it?"

  "I'm not certain. Many favor the quick and definitive nature of the single game—less chance for your opponent to read you, and there's a rumor they're more valuable toward completing your wish, so they're common enough. I wouldn't risk it when I could avoid it, though. I only felt confident with a single game last week since I've beaten Bradley twice before. He's not a very imaginative duelist. I doubted he'd have anything new to bring to the table." Rana shrugged. "Perhaps Dash knows something we don't."

  "How could you tell they were only playing one game?" asked Robin, glancing up at her curiously.

  "He said so," I replied, before Rana had a chance to speak. I winced—I hadn't meant to talk over her. It was wiped clean a moment later though, as the final ground was flipped over, leaving us with only one left. As soon as the card settled on the table, the transition began.

  "Fee amaan Allah," murmured Rana as she closed her eyes, just as the kaleidoscopes filled our vision.



  ***



  Even if I was expecting it, the insane light show still took me off guard. Rushing filled the whole park, incongruous with the unmoving trees scattered throughout. The world began to swirl away again, but instead of a lifting sensation as I'd felt with Rana's, instead I felt like we were being pulled along at breakneck speeds, rushing along an invisible highway to a destination I couldn't see.

  The park dissolved, and as the lights scattered and burst, a city seemed to sprout from nothing. Skyscrapers rushed up all around me, not that dissimilar from the Portland ones we'd just left behind—only these were right next to us, more numerous and much taller. Street lamps and cars burst into being, blooming like flowers in fast-forward.

  As the growth settled, the city came into focus. Our bench had morphed from an elegant wooden park bench into a metal-and-plastic sidewalk seat, complete with a rain cover and a transit fare terminal. It seemed like Manhattan, though without any of the instantly-identifiable skylines I knew from TV. Besides that, there weren't any streetlights, nor any people nearby… but there were people.

   Down the streets in both directions, I saw huge crowds of people. Some were running, some were shouting and screaming, press cameras were everywhere. As I looked up, I saw tiny figures flying about in the sky. Huge concussive blasts sounded in the distance, milliseconds after each of the figures slammed into one another.

  Superheroes. Superheroes fighting in the sky above the city. That makes this…

  Blue City. We were inside a comic book brawl.

  "I wonder if that's Hawkson up there!" said Robin excitedly, staring up into the sky, completely ignoring the actual duel.

  Rana and I exchanged puzzled looks—evidently, neither of us were into comics. She shared a nervous smile, which I gladly returned. In unison, we turned to face the duel, just in time to catch the first bout.

  The Clawing Hunger was back, and looking even more ravenous and deadly than it had the week before. I winced as it leapt for the neck of Dash's duelist. Its claws were caught by the man's arm, clad in a skintight blue suit with lightning bolt patterns all across and a mask wrapping his whole face.

  "Livewire," said Rana, answering my continued puzzled look. She might not know the comic, but she certainly knew Riposte. "A superhero with the power to control lightning and electricity."

  On cue, Livewire blasted the Hunger with lightning from his other hand, the one not dripping with blood. Twitching, the Hunger stumbled back. It leaned down and examined the scorched hole in its cloak, but didn't seem the slightest bit deterred.

  "So they both played Strike," I concluded.

  "Yes," said Rana. "Bradley always opens with a Strike."

  "And you played a dodge to get an easy first shot."

  She smiled, but said nothing more as the duel began to pick up.

  Livewire lived up to his name. Every move, whether offense or defense, was accompanied by a dazzling array of blue-white lightning. Dash picked up on Bradley's offense strategy early on, and began to build up his own resources. Rather than engage, he simply dodged and dodged again—but instead of striking back as Rana had done, he was playing Prepare cards as his free move. With each one, he discarded one and drew three, soon building up a much larger hand than Bradley's unchanging five.

  To my relief, the lightning snaps weren't quite as loud as real lightning would have been up-close. We barely ever got lightning in Portland, but I'd still been right in the middle of one when a lightning bolt hit less than a couple hundred feet away. That makes you jump like nothing else.

  Instead, like I'd seen in Rana's duel with the explosions, it was more like TV lightning crackles—still loud, but muted enough to not kill the ears.

  This was obviously designed by someone. Why else would they be so considerate? Someone's running the show too, I just doubt they're human. Or if they are, they've got magic or something. Who the hell knows what? All I need to know is if it works.

  With a growl, obviously frustrated that he couldn't land a single hit, Bradley threw down another card. Had to be a Charge, given his face. I was rewarded soon enough as the Hunger threw itself forward at Livewire, claws flashing and the unsettling clicking sound it made filling the whole street block. Robin quivered next to us. Rana took his hand and squeezed it gently.

  The superhero simply stood still as the monster charged forward. Suddenly, a shield formed from pure electricity appeared—Livewire was blocking. To my surprise, the Hunger still seemed to get a strike in, as one claw snaked around the edge and caught a blue-clad arm.

  "The Clawing Hunger still deals some damage when Blocked," said Rana, answering my confused expression. "It's one of the reasons Bradley loves to go offense—if someone tries to defend, he still achieves something."

  Dash didn't look concerned, though. If anything, satisfied. We soon found out exactly why, as he played two more cards—both Strikes.

  With a buzzing, crackling sound that seemed like a half-dozen lightning bolts stacked atop each other, a massive cage of bolts surrounded the Hunger. It hissed and roared, striking out at random and receiving a shock in return.

  "Livewire's special, the Lightning Cage!" said Robin excitedly, leaning forward. "Has to use a Charge or an Evade to get out, and he'll take a bunch of damage if he tries."

  "Or he can wait it out," said Rana, far more calm.

  "But then he can't attack!"

  "The Hunger has a ranged attack, its own special."

  Which, I bet, Bradley was about to try and use, and Dash would see right through it in a second. Bradley couldn't play his special if he couldn't land the first card in it, and Dash could easily prevent that for three turns. Even better, since Dash had built up a huge hand in the early bouts, he could probably keep that cage up a long time.

  To my surprise, Bradley actually took a turn off, playing his own Prepare to try and build up cards, and then another to Recover. Dash, meanwhile, took free shots into the cage, landing bolt after bolt straight into the Hunger's tattered cloak.

  A loud bang sounded in the distance. We all turned in unison, looking up to the sky where two of the superheroes were colliding. I didn't have a clue who they were, but anybody could recognize the typical signs of flying comic book mayhem. Glass shattered off nearby skyscrapers, a glittering cascade down to the street amid scrambling civilians. One of the superheroes bodily threw the other into the building, and chunks of rubble went flying.

  One of them was coming our way.

  Rana hauled Robin up and scrambled forward. I was only a split-second behind. Just in the nick of time, as I heard the bus stop crumple and shatter behind us.

  Chunks of concrete splintered and tumbled across the asphalt. We stumbled out onto the pavement, dazed. Blood was pumping hard through my every limb, coupled with the faint taste of adrenaline on my tongue.

  As I looked up, Bradley was staring right at us.

  "You invited an audience?" he snapped, shooting a glare at Dash.

  "Yeah," said Dash with a shrug. "So?"

  "You know what. I didn't agree to that." His glare switched to Rana in particular. "And the bitch who beat me last week? What, you here to rub it in or something?"

  Rana winced and shrank a little, clutching Robin's hand tighter. The boy was already recovered from our near-death experience, back to watching the superhero fight from a distance.

  "Nah, just here to watch you lose again," I shot back. "We didn't know who he was dueling. Kind of disappointed, to be honest."

  "Who are you supposed to be?" said Bradley, raising an eyebrow.

  I shrugged. Dash, meanwhile, had already put a card down, supreme confidence filling his expression. I'd noticed that since the duel started, he'd switched from the easygoing, friendly personality to a far more focused, determined drive. He wanted to win—needed to win, same as me.

  "Your move," he murmured, just barely loud for us to hear now that we were closer.

  Bradley shot one last glare at me before turning back and throwing down a card, barely even paying attention to what he was doing. He paid for it, too—a dodge out of the cage, with the Hunger making a strange squealing sound from the pain as it passed through the buzzing bars. Even as it dodged out, Livewire threw out his hands.

  Another cage surrounded the Hunger. The angry hissing redoubled.

  "Thought this wasn't a Dangerous one," I muttered as we took a seat on the ground, much closer to the table than we'd been previously. It sure wasn't comfortable, but I'd happily trade discomfort for not getting crushed by flying rubble.

  "Well, nothing might come near the table, but the surroundings aren't necessarily protected," said Rana. Her breathing was light and quick—she was hopped up on adrenaline, same as me.

  As Bradley, rage sending his teeth grinding, played another Dodge and was punished yet again, I sat back and tried to relax. This clearly wasn't going to take long. I was plenty satisfied already. Seeing Bradley face his comeuppance again and again, seeing him lose, was stirring something in me I hadn't known was there. Sure, I'd felt a bit of a rush winning against Kyla, but that was different. We were friends, and it wasn't the League. There weren't any stakes, just a friendly competition.

  Here, the stakes were all too real, and the competition potentially deadly.

  "How do you start a League match?"

  "It's simple enough," said Rana. "If you prepare a game and both lay down your commitments, it becomes a League game."

  "That's it?" I raised an eyebrow. "Just, put my commitment on the table, and it happens?"

  "Yes. Since you can see all other commitments as a League member, and grounds selection occurs after duelists are picked, one can never be started with you unknowingly."

  I sighed. "That's a relief."

  "You may want to pick up another copy of yours," added Rana, "so you can play practice games without having to commit to a League match."

  "I looked, but I don't know if I can…" I shrugged. "Mine is a promo card or something, I guess."

  "Ooh," said Robin, turning over to look at me, the eager glint never leaving his eyes. "You got a promo? Awesome!"

  Robin sounded like he didn't have a care in the world. I wish I could be as excited about all this. Probably a consequence of being older, and going through as much crap as I had.

  Or you're just being sane… you nearly died a few minutes ago.

  But I didn't, and I'm not going to.

  "Promos don't get reprinted. They usually send out just a few to every local game store," said Rana. "It's to support them over the big retailers."

  "Is it better or something?"

  "Nah," said Robin. "They were always worse—" I winced, and Robin quickly shook his head. "—but then some of the people who owned those games and shows got mad. They didn't like their cards being so bad. Now they're just as balanced as anything else."

  "Cool."

  As soon as I said it, a huge bolt of thunder echoed through the street, shattering the windows near us. I was lucky to be looking away from the table, as the lightning blast was so bright it left spots even with me staring the other direction. The Hunger buckled and fell backward, and the cage around it dissipated.

  Anticipation filled me up, like a quiver just beneath my skin. I knew what was coming next.

  ROUND ONE: LIVEWIRE.

  The voice boomed through my whole body. As the Hunger moved back into position, I sighed aloud without meaning to. Rana looked at me curiously, but didn't say anything. Robin, too, seemed excited by the huge voice. I couldn't tell if he'd felt the same thing as me, or if it was just his usual nature.

  As Bradley and Dash began the second round, the battle down the street began to pick up too. What looked like a spaceship flew by, chased by a huge, monstrous alien creature. Civilians were now running our way, too. As they got closer, they actually appeared to be real people. I considered moving closer, trying to get their attention, but they seemed not to notice us at all. None of them tried to run through us, but it was like we were rocks in the river to be flowed around.

  For once, Bradley didn't open with a Strike. Instead, as Livewire ran forward with a crackling fist of lightning, the Hunger dodged it easily. As it danced away, one of its arms disconnected from its body entirely. Bradley threw down a second card, activating its special.

  The claw flew out and latched onto Livewire's body, digging in deep. A chain of the monsters which made up the Hunger kept the superhero tethered tight. The man winced, tugging at the claw, but it refused to come free. Leaking blood from the deep wound, Livewire grunted it away and stood up straight once more.

  "Livewire can't dodge anymore either, and he was using that to get his free cards," said Robin. "The Clawing Hunger got him good."

  Dash wasn't playing another card yet. Bradley already had his down, but Dash was taking longer, thumbing through his hand, less certain than he had been the whole duel. Suddenly, he smiled. I leaned forward, anticipating the next move. Dash was good. I trusted he had something up his sleeve.

  "I blitz," he said, turning his duelist card sideways.

  Immediately, without any chance for us or the Hunger to react, Livewire lit up like a Christmas tree. Lightning crackled off his body. Random bolts fired in every direction, including one that skipped off the ground toward us.

  A searing pain shot through my arm. I cried out involuntarily. Wincing, I looked down to see a burning hole in my sleeve, along with an angry burn from the electricity. In an instant, Rana was at my side, pouring cool water over it. She worked on it while the lightning subsided—but only around us.

  Livewire himself was now lit up, still buzzing with energy and power. The claw attached to his torso was blown away. The Hunger retracted its wayward arm, reeling from the shock. Bradley picked up the card he would have used, hesitating. The superhero and Dash both wore the same satisfied smile, while Dash's hand snaked out with his own card.

  "I need this…" Bradley murmured, so quiet we could barely hear over Livewire's show of power.

  Dash paused. "Huh?"

  "I can't lose again… Let me win. Just, just this once."

  That's panic, Noël. That guy is scared. Are you paying attention here?

  He doesn't want to lose again. So what? I wouldn't either. Not with what's on the line. Pushing that back even more?

  "I need this too," said Dash, his own voice dropping low. "She needs it even more. This can't wait."

  "Please…"

  Dash shook his head. Slowly, Bradley put down his next card—a Strike, just as Dash dodged yet again.

  This wasn't gonna take long.



  ***



  The rush of civilians was long gone, and the superhero fight had moved to another part of the city. Livewire, bleeding from several huge cuts and still crackling with lightning, threw one last massive punch into the Hunger's writhing body. Its cloak nearly burned to nothing. The monster squealed once more, then fell to pieces. Each part skittered away, vanishing down sewer grates or into storm drains.

  Bradley let out a long, slow breath.

  LIVEWIRE HAS WON THE DUEL.

  As the voice filled the whole city, a huge, distant bell rang. It was the same exact deep chime I'd heard when I'd spoken with the Moderator. Dash's eyes widened, though Bradley and the others didn't seem to think anything of it. For a moment, I assumed they hadn't heard it, but Robin had definitely winced at the sound. Rana, meanwhile, closed her eyes like she always did before the transition.

  We went back into the kaleidoscope, as the city sucked away and we rushed back along the invisible highway to the park. The three of us were now seated on the brick path, looking up at the chess table where Bradley and Dash had dueled.

  To my surprise, Dash was already out of his seat. He grabbed up his cards in a split-second, and—without a word—sprinted down the road toward his ambulance, parked just around the corner. He didn't even say goodbye.

  ...And he was our ride. What the hell?

  I got to my feet, a little unsteady as if I'd just been on a plane or a boat. Rana opened her eyes and helped me up, while Robin was already darting around, excited as usual. I was starting to think closing my own eyes might be a good idea.

  "Where did Dash go?" asked Rana.

  "He just… left?" I shook my head. "Didn't say a word. Ran off to his ambulance." As we both turned, we saw it driving away. I raised an eyebrow. "...He's not usually that kind of guy, right?"

  "Never." Rana frowned. "I don't believe there's any stations near here, either… and I'm not certain of the bus timings." She pulled out her phone. "And not enough signal… I shouldn't be surprised, many duelists prefer dead zones for the duels."

  "Like that basement in the parking garage."

  "Precisely." Rana sighed. "I guess we'll have to walk." She glanced around, obviously uncomfortable. I couldn't blame her, it was an unfamiliar area of the city to all three of us.

  "My phone's got enough to make a call," I offered. "I can ask Carolyn to give us a ride."

  "Who's Carolyn?" asked Robin, skidding to a halt. He'd actually been gliding around on wheels embedded into his shoes. "Is she your mom?"

  Even now, it was like somebody had just flicked my brain. I didn't answer, just stared straight ahead for a few seconds, trying to wrap my head around being confronted with what I so actively repressed.

  To my relief, Rana spoke up in my stead. "Robin, Noël's parents aren't with us anymore."

  "Oh…" His face fell, and his voice lost all its usual exuberance. "Sorry, Noël."

  "Carolyn takes care of Lloyd, my legal guardian," I answered shortly, trying to change the subject as quickly as possible. It was one thing to make dark jokes with Kyla—much different to get pity from a twelve year old boy. "She was going to give me a ride home from the meeting anyway, so it's not a big deal."

  "Are you sure?" asked Rana, obviously nervous. "I wouldn't want to—"

  "Seriously, it's fine," I interrupted. She'd be happy I was making some friends—and sure, I was making them in a weird way, but they were friends. Might as well start introducing them with the best part of my screwed up life right now, which was definitely Carolyn. "I'll be right back."

  I walked away, leaving Rana and Robin behind as I stepped back into the sunlight from the shaded park. The two of them seemed like good friends already, even if I didn't quite trust Rana yet, but that didn't extend to conversations with Carolyn, the closest thing I had to a parent… and might ever have.

  No, stop it. Not thinking like that. There's a chance now.

  "Miss Súileabhán?"

  "Hi, Carolyn." To my relief, she was audible, but the bad signal was definitely hitting hard. I could barely make it out. "We got a bit sidetracked. Could you come pick me and a couple friends up at…" I glanced around and read off the nearest street corner. "Our ride… kinda ditched us."

  "Not a problem. Is there anything you need?"

  "Just some water," I said, remembering that Rana had poured all hers out to treat my electrical burn. "Thank you, Carolyn."

  "Anytime, Miss Súileabhán."

  The phone clicked off. I went back to join Rana and Robin, who'd taken one of the shaded benches near the roadside. Within minutes, Carolyn's car rolled around the corner, coming to a stop right in front of the three of us. She popped out and immediately opened the doors for us.

  "Carolyn, this is Robin and Rana," I said, gesturing.

  "Aadab arz hai," said Rana, making a quick gesture with her hand. She seemed more nervous than ever, despite my reassurance.

  To my surprise—or perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised in the slightest, given Carolyn the consummate professional—she was answered in kind, as Carolyn made a similar gesture. "Tasleem."

  Immediately, Rana's tension eased. I had no idea what they'd said, as I didn't speak a word of Arabic, but it wasn't hard to parse out a simple greeting. I gave the briefest nod to Carolyn as Rana climbed into the back seat, and she returned it in kind with a faint smile.

  A moment later, she continued her mind-reading powers. "Robin, would you like to sit in the front?"

  "Can I?" His eyes lit up, and he darted in. A moment later, he was already messing with the entertainment console. Carolyn had driven one of the nicest cars in Lloyd's fleet, and given his occupation, it was decked out with all the latest cutting-edge tech—except self-driving features. He always removed those, manually if he had to.

  Lloyd put a lot more thought into it than I gave him credit for, to be honest. I appreciated it more now that I was actually thinking about it. Some of those came standard, and he'd had to go in and either hack the system or straight-up cut the wires to take it out again.

  I joined Rana in the back seat. As soon as the doors popped closed, we were off.

  "Where are we headed, Miss Súileabhán?" asked Carolyn, with a quick glance over her shoulder. I could barely see her—this car was intended as a chauffeuring vehicle, and had a privacy screen for the back seat. I dearly hoped Rana wouldn't read anything into it.

  "Just dropping everybody off, I think," I said, glancing over for confirmation.

  Rana nodded. "Please just take me to any blue line station. That would be best."

  "Are you sure? We can just drive you all the wa—"

  "The nearest is only about ten minutes away," said Carolyn, cutting me off. I had a brief moment of indignation, before I realized why Rana was asking. I fell silent, embarrassed. She wanted her privacy, same as the rest of us.

  "Thank you..." said Rana. She trailed off.

  "Just Carolyn is fine."

  "Thank you, Carolyn."

  "What's this button do?" asked Robin, finally breaking the awkward tension. He pressed it, and the outlines of obstructed cars were projected onto the glass, creating an effect not that dissimilar from our ability to see duelist cards through surfaces. "Whoah."

  Carolyn smiled. Robin pressed another button, and suddenly the privacy screen turned on. The two of them were instantly muffled, and the window between the front and rear seats tinted dark. I just managed to hear Carolyn ask him to stop pressing random buttons… but she left the privacy screen on.

  "...That was pretty crazy," I said, finally breaking the silence. "The whole superhero fight."

  "Yes," she replied, watching the road spin by outside.

  "Are all the grounds dangerous, then?"

  "No… I hadn't realized that one could be dangerous, actually. Blue City never did anything like that to me before." She frowned. "Some are far less exciting. The Outskirts of Candir is just an empty field outside a city gate, for example."

  "Bradley seemed kind of… scared," I said. "When he was going to lose."

  Rana nodded. "There's rumors that you can lose your place in the League. I don't know anyone who has, but… eventually, if you just keep losing… There aren't that many of us, and people who lose right away… don't stick around. I don't know why, but they're giving up a lot."

  "Losing his wish, too," I concluded.

  "I'd be scared," she said softly. "Wouldn't you?"

  "Yes," I said, surprising myself. I didn't like to admit that kind of thing. "I don't want to lose them again."

  Rana hesitated, then moved one seat over to sit next to me. She leaned against me and set her head on my shoulder. The purple linings of her headscarf brushed against my hair, pressing closer on every bump and turn in the road. "You won't. I'm sure of it."

  "I wouldn't want to duel you, though," I blurted out. "I mean… I don't want you to lose your wish either."

  "You're assuming you would win," said Rana, a faint smirk creasing her lips.

  "Err…"

  She laughed. I'll never forget the first time I heard Rana's laugh. It filled the space with joy and mirth, making everything seem a little bit lighter, a little bit easier. I was actually happy, for the first time in a very long time.

  Face it, Noël. You are head over heels for this girl already…

  Okay, fine, yeah, I am. I'm a hopeless romantic. Another piece in the tragedy of my damned life.

  Don't forget… you can't trust her. Not yet. There's something that doesn't add up about her.

  Paranoia notwithstanding, I would have loved for that car ride to go on for another few hours—but far too soon, we were pulling up to the station. Rana thanked Carolyn for the ride, but before leaving, she gave me a brief hug. I tried to ignore the butterflies in my stomach, signs of yet another impossible desire.

  To my surprise, Robin clambered into the back seat to take Rana's place. The privacy screen stayed up, and within moments of us driving off, it became obvious why.

  "You wanna duel me sometime?" he asked eagerly. Clearly no hesitation or consideration in the kid's mind about all this. "It's so fun, especially when we go to cool places like Blue City or anything in space. I love space."

  "Have you ever gone to one and just… not dueled for a bit?" I asked. "Explored that world instead?"

  "Ooh!" Robin's eyes lit up. "No, nobody ever said we could do that!"

  "Nobody ever said we couldn't," I shot back, grinning.

  He frowned. "Yeah but… even when they don't, some stuff you still just can't do."

  Huh… there's some maturity in there after all. Thank goodness. This stuff feels too dangerous for a totally naive kid. "Maybe you and I could try that."

  "Sounds fun!" Robin smiled. "I think it's better to do your first match with a friend. It's more fun, and you don't get anybody who might want to, you know… actually hurt you."

  "Has that happened?" I asked, trying to keep the concern from my voice. I didn't want to scare the kid, but this was definitely important information.

  "Only once… Somebody tried to hurt Rana. We don't talk about it." Robin shook his head. "Hey, you want to go duel now?"

  "Err…" I glanced out the window. It was starting to get pretty late, and I'd really had my share of near-death experiences today already. I didn't feel like rolling the dice on another dueling ground. "I think we should wait til another time."

  "Oh… okay." Robin's disappointment only lasted a few moments, before he was back up and moving again. "Hey, I heard you live in a mansion. Is that true?"

  "Yeah."

  "That's so cool. My house is just one story. We don't even have a basement. Somebody told me nobody has basements in Portland."

  "The mansion has one," I said, grinning slightly. "There's even a secret passage."

  "Really?"

  "Two of 'em."

  "Wow…" Robin glanced out the window. "Wish I could go see them."

  I shrugged. "You can come over sometime." Maybe some noise around the place would be nice. I wasn't sure, but so far, hanging around Robin seemed better than being alone. I might get tired eventually, but he wasn't gonna live there.

  "Cooool," said Robin. "Your car's super cool too. I wish I was rich. Not, wish wish, but you know."

  "Yeah," I nodded. "This is your place, right?" I added as the car slid to a halt. As he'd said, the place was pretty underwhelming, all things considered. It wasn't as small as my old apartment, obviously, but it was definitely looking a bit worse-for-wear.

  "Mhm…" Robin hesitated. Without warning, he turned and threw his arms around me, giving me a tight hug. It wasn't anything like the one from Rana, obviously, but… it was nice. That said, it was also setting off an alarm bell or two in my head. "See you 'round, Noël."

  The alarms subsided, as Robin got out and dashed up the walk. His parents were at the door, and his mom gathered him up in a hug. Not a single thing awry.

  You're being too paranoid. Rana having something up her sleeve is one thing. The League's definitely shady. But Robin and his family? You're jumping to conclusions real fast here, Noël.

  ...After a second glance, I realized I probably was going too far. Sure, the place looked shabby, but it did look like a home, and a well-loved one at that. Robin's parents looked plenty nice, and he sure seemed eager to see them. With one last wave to Robin, Carolyn and I drove away—heading back to our good old mansion that still didn't, and might not ever, feel like a home to me.



  ***



  A quick dinner totally alone was the order of the evening. Carolyn left right after dropping me off, and Lloyd was nowhere to be seen. I was exhausted by the time I made it up the flights of stairs, secret and normal, to land in my bed. There was a stack of messages waiting for me on my phone, which I hadn't bothered to check since we got signal again. Most were from Robin and Kyla, plus a couple from Rana.

  One from the Moderator.

  A chill down my spine, much like the one he'd given me in person. Did I dare even open that message? My brain was so scrambled, I barely remembered what I'd sent. I walked out to my balcony and sat down, letting my legs dangle off the side. It didn't make a huge difference, but it made me feel a little better. After a few deep breaths, watching a butterfly dancing around the flowers near the fountain, I finally worked up the courage to open the text.

 

  Noël: what's next?

  The Moderator: Your first duel, of course! There are no restrictions or requirements as to whom. Feel free to duel whenever and wherever your heart desires. I'm terribly sorry I wasn't able to respond sooner. I trust Rana dear has explained the basics already. If you have any further questions, don't hesitate to reach out!

 

  Well, he was definitely long-winded. I don't think I'd ever received a single text that long in my whole life. Maybe when my best friend got broken up with the first time… but that was a silly sixth grade crush, nothing serious. I wondered how she was doing. Maybe she'd found a new boy to cry about.

  Maybe she'd stabbed another best friend in the back in the worst moment of her life.

  I shook the memories away. That was all in the past. I wasn't in that part of town, or at that school, or anywhere near any of those people anymore. If my wish brought them all back though, I was definitely cutting her out of my life the second time around. She was a time bomb waiting to go off and ruin my life again, for sure.

  The Moderator's text hadn't really told me much, just what I already knew. It was time to start dueling, one way or another. I knew a few people I could match up with, but Rana wasn't an option. Definitely not. Until I knew more about how this all worked, I wouldn't want to duel her. She deserved whatever wish lay in her heart, no matter how much she might think otherwise.

  For the rest of the night, though, I was done. I'd figure out dueling another day. Right now, it was time to wind down for sleep. I thumbed through headlines idly, getting my one-time dose of news before I headed off to sleep.

  News wasn't really my thing, but these days, I felt like I had to pay at least a modicum of attention. There was too much a risk that something relevant to me might slip by. Every time a story related to AI and cars popped up, my name would find its way in. I'd rather know the reporters were coming than get blindsided, so I dutifully skimmed the headlines every day.

  Nothing, nothing, extra-nothing, just the usual clickbait trying to play on my fears. I hated that it worked even when I was actively aware of what it was doing. Filtering helped a bit, but only so much. I was about to give up when I saw a story about a local girl in the hospital—more importantly, the picture attached to the headline.

  Dashiell was in the photo, leaning over the girl's bed in the hospital with a huge smile on his face.

 

  GIRL LEFT FOR DEAD MAKES MIRACULOUS RECOVERY

  Wendy Birdinger (10) with Emergency Medical Technician Dashiell Wingham

  Miracles may indeed be real, as Wendy Birdinger looks poised to make a full recovery. A nurse at St. Vincent's noticed a sudden change in Wendy's vital signs this morning. Her doctors believe she will not only recover the ability to move her arms, but in fact may make a full recovery to normal health.

  Nine months ago, Wendy was left for dead—a girl, struck by a sudden seizure, collapsed onto the MAX line and was struck by an oncoming train. Spine crushed, she would have expired at the scene if not for the heroic efforts of Dashiell Wingham, an EMT who happened to pass by. Thanks to his rapid response, Wendy managed to survive long enough to reach the trauma center at OHSU. Doctors pronounced her likely never to regain feeling below her neck.

  As the months passed, their fears proved true. Wendy entered physical therapy with very little hope of success. Feeling was restored to her upper limbs, but very little beyond that. At the absolute best, her care team hoped to give her the ability to grasp objects, but even that seemed beyond their reach. After many months, Wendy could twitch her arms, but little else.

  This morning, everything changed. Wendy not only managed to move her arm, but even got it far enough to press the normal nurse call button, rather than the special apparatus built for her mouth. As her care team examined more closely, it seemed her spine had healed dramatically. Experts are still investigating, but it seems that the healing may have taken place without their notice over several months, as hope was lost and diagnostic efforts ceased.

  Wendy will be redoubling her physical therapy efforts and hopes to be out of the hospital before her eleventh birthday next May. Dash, her hero and best friend these last nine months, has sworn to be with her every step of the way.

 

  I let out a deep breath. The bell sound marked his wish being granted. I knew it. Not only that, but this was something miraculous, healing beyond science or understanding. Even more… it was retroactive. He'd only won the duel a couple hours ago, yet the story said she'd been healed this morning.

  This was big. Really big. I didn't have to doubt anything anymore.

  Wishes could come true.

 

  Noël: hey robin. i'm in. let's duel tomorrow.

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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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