Advertisement
Remove

Chapter 7 Duel

  Now I knew how all those kids in secret-superhero-life shows felt—enduring school when you have this massive, exciting thing hanging over your head about which you can't tell a single person was the worst. My skin crawled non-stop. I just wanted to shout with sheer excitement, but I knew that would be a mistake orders of magnitude worse than anything I'd ever done.

  In a way though, it's also really, really cool. Even with the implied—and explicit—threats of the mysterious Enforcer I had yet to meet, I still found a way to enjoy it. I was used to the reserved attention from every corner, and now I could pretend it was about something other than how I inadvertently ruined the progress of humanity or some other crap. Funny how some people forgot I was a victim. All depended on which side of the bench they fell, really.

  To my relief—and the relief of my paranoia—I didn't see a single other commitment shining out of anybody's bags all day, just as I hadn't the day before. Only mine and Rana's among the whole student body, as far as I could tell.

  I'd debated whether or not I'd want to bring Check onto school grounds. On the one hand, I liked having her close, and I was eager to get started. On the other, Robin's story about Rana getting attacked within a duel… was violence allowed within the League? Finally, at two in the morning, I texted the Moderator. I needed to know if I was safe in my own house. To my surprise, he actually responded within only a few minutes.

 

  Noël: i'm not saying i want to, but… what if a league member attacks another member? like, physically

  The Moderator: I'd never believe you'd want such a thing! No, my dear, direct violence is most certainly not permitted within the rules. Rest assured, such action is frowned upon by the Commissioner.

 

  'Frowned upon' was a hell of a phrase when talking about the potential threats, given what was at stake… At the same time, no one would risk their wish, right? There were no clear guidelines on how and when a wish would be granted. Bradley sure looked like the type to blow up and punch a teenage girl, but he hadn't done a thing to Rana after a humiliating defeat without a single witness in sight.

  I decided I felt safe enough. It was Portland—nothing bad ever really happened here. Worst case, I was a pretty good runner thanks to my morning routine, and I'd make sure never to take a duel somewhere without multiple easy escape routes. I'd much rather never let Check out of my grasp. It was too important now. One tiny piece of cardstock was the key to my parents' lives.

  "Something's up," said Kyla at lunch, as she munched through some of the cafeteria's chicken fries. I'd seen her eyeing them every day, but never going through the line. Carolyn had loaded up my account, even though I brought my own lunch—the exact same one my mom would've made. I didn't want to let that money just… go to waste.

  "Huh?" I asked, looking up from the game. We'd already dived into a round, Check versus Captain Winter as usual.

  "You are way more interested today than you were yesterday."

  "I'm starting to get the hang of it," I shrugged. Which wasn't untrue, as I could now beat Kyla pretty regularly, and I actually knew most of the cards she played. She still held an encyclopedic knowledge of the game I couldn't hope to match, but did that really matter when I was landing hits?

  That said, Kyla was the one who seemed off to me. She might be munching through the fries and playing the game, but her typical personality seemed so… neutered. She was distracted by something, and this was a deflection. Still, I'd let her play into it, if it made her feel better.

  "What were you saying about reading layers?"

  "Oh," said Kyla. She glanced back at the game, her eyes lighting up. I knew giving her something to explain would brighten her mood. "It's like, basic fighting game theory right? Works in video games too. Say you've got a move, we'll call it move A." She put down a Strike card. "You really want to use move A because it's really strong. Except, I have a move, we'll call it move C for counter, and my C move beats your A move every time."

  She laid down a Dodge. "Layer one of reading your opponent is me playing the counter to your move, 'cause I read what you wanted to do and beat it by playing C. But, what if you knew I was gonna play that? Then you might play move X, which is your counter to my counter, instead of playing move A in the first place. That's layer two."

  "Why not just A, B, C?" I asked, scratching my head.

  "'Cause that's boring. Anyway, now I'm sitting here thinking—hm, Noël's a smart cookie, she's not dumb enough to just play A. So if I play C expecting to counter A, and she knows that, she's gonna play X instead." Kyla put down a Charge card on my side, which of course, would beat her dodge. "I gotta go to layer three, predict you're gonna do that, and beat your X move by playing move Q."

  Kyla put down a Block, which would indeed beat my Charge. I nodded. "Okay, so it just keeps going, layer four, layer five, so on. Layers all the way down."

  "Nope!" She grinned. "That's the trick, grasshopper. There is no layer four. Layer four's just going back to the beginning again! See, now that I'm playing Q, you can just go back to playing A again." Kyla pointed at the original Strike I'd 'played'. "You still get to do damage with a Strike against a Block and I don't get an easy bout win, when Charge would've been useless. That's the whole game, layers of reading."

  I smiled. "You know, I've never heard it put like that."

  "Stick with your sensei, grasshopper, and you'll learn the ways of the mind-reader," said Kyla in a deadly serious tone. She sighed. "'Course, I suck at it. You're already way better than me."

  "Yeah, but I can't put it into words," I pointed out. "That was really cool."

  "Thanks…" Kyla was still clearly off though, gazing at the cards with a forlorn expression.

  Okay, yeah, by now it was pretty obvious that Kyla was depressed. Between being desperately lonely—anyone who hung out with just me couldn't be doing well in the friend department—and the way she trailed off all the time, I wasn't that oblivious. I'd been there before. I still was there, I'd just… gotten accustomed. Learned to live with it.

  Found an escape hatch and thrown myself wholeheartedly at it.

  Could I give that same option to Kyla? What would she wish for? I had no doubt she must have something which could change her life, some desperate need buried deep in her heart. She had that look, same as me.

  We finished by the end of lunch. Kyla got a few good licks in, but I held strong. A couple well-timed dodges led into a combo, which let Check disable her extra attacks. I was on the verge of dying for a long time, but eventually eked out another win. The rush of victory swirled through me… but I knew I needed more. There was no huge announcement, no roar of the world or chime of the bell.

  Just Kyla packing up her cards.

  I carefully laid Check into the pouch on my bag. Of course I couldn't bring Kyla into this. What was I going to do, just tell her? That was against the rules. I wasn't eager to meet the Enforcer, I knew that much. Kyla wasn't likely to luck her way in, unless she followed me to a duel like I had with Rana.

  Even if she did… did I want her joining me? She'd be more competition, another obstacle as I fought for my parents. There were lives on the line, both mine and theirs, and I didn't even know if Kyla had a wish worth fighting for. Bradley's desperate words echoed in my head. He was scared when he was about to lose. Was he out?

  If I lost, would I be out?

  "Grasshopper!"

  I snapped to attention. Kyla was staring at me. I must have zoned out completely.

  "Sorry," I mumbled.

  She shook her head. "Dude, you've got nothing to apologize for."

  "But—"

  "You've got a life to deal with, same as the rest of us." Kyla gave a weak smile. "Okay, maybe a way more complicated life than most. Don't beat yourself up about it. If something's going on you can't talk about, you're good. We can just play cards, or stare at the damn clouds if you want."

  "...Thanks," I replied, a bit taken aback.

  "Jeez, sounding kinda like you've never had a friend before," said Kyla. She winced. "Err…"

  I sat back down on the bench—I didn't even remember standing up in the first place, but apparently I had. "I had friends. But after… you know."

  "After your great and terrible origin story," she prompted.

  A tiny smile crept onto my face. "Yeah. You'd think something like that would make people treat you nicer? If they weren't trying to suck up to me for being the suddenly-rich girl, they blamed me for their parents losing jobs, for their things being taken away, for the protests and riots. I was a…"

  "Catalyst?"

  "Yeah, close enough." Sighing, I shook my head. "I tried to stick it out, but eventually Lloyd realized what was going on. He pulled me out, moved me here."

  "Lloyd," said Kyla, glancing out in the vague direction of his mansion. "Didn't see that coming. And I gotta say, you don't really sound like you… y'know, like him. Isn't he the big hero here?"

  "I guess… I should be grateful, right?" I shrugged. "He's just Lloyd. I don't think about it much."

  "Well, no wonder you ended up all the way back here in my hideout," said Kyla, right as the school bell rang. She started heading out while I started toward class. Kyla shouted across the lawn right as I went inside. "Guess you're stuck with me, Súileabhán!"

  I smiled to myself. Wouldn't have it any other way.



  ***



  Under normal circumstances, English was actually kinda interesting to me. Nowhere near the bottom of my personal class ranking, anyway. Today though, I couldn't focus—couldn't even sit still. As soon as school ended, I was out the door like a rocket. I bolted down the main stairs, dodged the football kids who dominated the hallways, passed Reylon and Rana on their way who-knew-where (and a momentary pang of jealousy), and I was out to the street. I wasn't wasting a minute.

  To my relief, Carolyn was already parked at the curb, engine running. I shouldn't have been surprised, of course. Carolyn was never late. On top of that, she sensed my urgency. Without even a second glance, we were already on our way by the time the door closed.

  "Something awry, Miss Súileabhán?" she asked, the picture of calm as we merged into traffic. Several autocars awkwardly made room for us. I had some serious vindictive satisfaction in seeing them struggle to recalculate around her driving.

  "No." I hesitated. I couldn't tell her what I was in a rush for, but I didn't want to lie to Carolyn either. She was one of the few steadfast allies I had. "I'm meeting up with a friend."

  "Do we have a different destination?"

  "No, just the house, thanks. I'm meeting them in the park."

  "Very good, miss."

  Our car sped through the streets, splashing through puddles spreading out from the gutters. Every few minutes, I glanced at my bag again. Of course Check hadn't gone anywhere, but seeing that tiny glowing rectangle through the solid material of my bag calmed me a bit.

  This was the day. My first step toward bringing them back.

  As soon as Carolyn pulled into the drive, I texted Robin. He'd meet me out in the park behind the mansion—he actually lived right on the other side, something I hadn't realized the night we dropped him off. When Robin texted his address over, the internet's suggested route was a walk straight through the park, ignoring roads entirely.

  Worked for me. Easier than asking Carolyn to drive, and it wasn't like I was scared of Robin.

  ...Or…

  You don't have a clue what might happen. Robin's part of this. He's got something he's fighting for too.

  He's a kid. It'll be fine.

  You're exploiting a kid for an easy win. You know that, right?

  Decks in hand and jacket-clad, I headed out into the woods. It was the exact same path that I'd run when I met the Moderator would take me to Robin. In fact, I'd suggested that very same clearing for our dueling ground. If it was quiet enough for one of the people running this show, it'd be good for Robin and me.

  I was getting jittery, standing out in the chill. September wasn't usually this cold, especially with how screwed up the climate still was. Today was practically icy, in weeks we usually saw eighty-plus temperatures. It felt like an omen. My nerves weren't improved in the slightest by omens. To my relief, I heard Robin's distant voice down the path. I glanced up and waved him forward.

  "Heya Noël!" Robin was bouncing with energy as usual. I didn't know where he got it all. Not that I was tired, but still.

  "Ready to do this?"

  "Oh yeah!" He glanced at his shirt pocket, where—sure enough—a glowing outline marked his own duelist. Robin patted it affectionately. "We're psyched up."

  I led Robin out to the clearing where I'd met the Moderator. The lantern tree was still gone, of course, but the space felt more welcoming without it. We laid out a small picnic blanket on the grass. Sunlight glinted through the tree branches as I started pulling out my decks, and Robin mirrored me.

  As soon as I pulled out Check, I felt it—a pull, somewhere in my chest. As I laid my commitment down, and Robin did the same, a tiny flash of light swept across both cards.

  "Whoah," I murmured.

  "Cool, right?" Robin grinned.

  "You've done this before, right?"

  "Only a couple times. I won, too!" Robin added, his smile even wider. He nodded to the grounds deck. "Go on, draw six."

  "But you didn't shuffle it yet."

  "Don't have to! It's magic. Makes it so nobody can cheat."

  I frowned. Picking up the deck, I looked at the first six cards and memorized them. I set the deck back down, and paused. Nothing seemed to be happening, but… I drew the first card. It should have been Wandorn Woods.

  Instead, I found myself staring at the burning streets of Westhalm, a card decidedly not in the six I'd picked up.

  You've been to space and to a superhero-filled city, but a self-shuffling deck is what throws you off?

  This was in the real world. That made all the difference.

  "Well… saves some time I guess," I said uneasily. I drew the rest of the grounds and laid them out. We struck out stages in short order—I was pretty sure Robin didn't have any particular strategy in mind, he just wanted to pick somewhere that seemed cool. Meanwhile, I knocked out the Dangerous grounds, as I really didn't want to put Robin or myself into that.

  To my relief, we landed on something nice and innocent. Skyldr Tavern, an Indoor ground and a good old fantasy inn. Worst thing there might be a bar fight in the background. I hoped.

  "So what now?" I asked, a little hesitant.

  "We gotta pick how many games we're playing." Robin shrugged. "I think just one 'cause it's your first time."

  "Sounds good to me."

  "You see?" Robin suddenly blurted. He pointed at my chest.

  I rolled my eyes. "Those are my boobs, Robin. Nothing special about 'em, which sure sucks sometimes."

  "Duh! I know that." Robin shook his head. "No, silly. Look!"

  I glanced down again… and there was something, a light. Like the faint glowing outlines of the card, it was colorless but steadily growing in strength. I hadn't seen it as an observer.

  "So once this gets bright enough—"

  "We start!" Robin started drawing his first hand. "You've got until it fills up to change your mind and take your duelist back. Too late now!" he added, as the light began to overwhelm my eyes.

  A rushing sound, the whirlwind of color, and we were off.

  My first duel.



  ***



  We landed with a thump, suddenly seated upright on rickety wooden chairs in a warm, bustling tavern. A thick smell of beer, roasted chicken, and vegetable soup filled my nostrils. Fire crackled waves of comfort over us from a corner, a minstrel next to it playing cheery tunes on her lute. The gnarled wood table in front of me was already laid out with our cards, so recently scattered across a picnic blanket. I glanced around while Robin stared determinedly at his cards, trying to decide his first move.

  The first thing I noticed was his duelist. Winston Echerzcha glared back at me with the silent contempt of a respectful soldier off the battlefield. His leather jacket hung tight to his shoulders, and a clockwork pistol hung in a holster at his belt next to a wickedly sharp cutlass. I could see how he kept his airship in line.

  Next to me stood Check, lithe and cool. My first look at my duelist did not disappoint. Her long coat showed off her curves and her pistol blinked with lights and attachments in a shoulder holster. A long katana hung at her belt. Check gave me a casual glance and a bored raise of the eyebrow. She looked equally ready to take out Winston or take a nap, with her hooded eyes and vaguely bored expression. Still, I had to admit it. She was sexy as hell, and I was seriously into her. If she so much as smiled…

  Except, of course, she wasn't real. I looked away, trying to focus my attention elsewhere and get my mind off my sudden attraction to a fictional character.

  There were people everywhere—and more than people, there were some taller figures with avian features and wings, dining amongst the more typical humans, dwarves and halflings one might see in any fantasy tavern. The only conspicuous absence was anything like a usual elf. If I remembered right from the stories, they weren't well-liked in this part of the world. If I headed east and a little north though, I'd be likely to run into one of their forest villages.

  Wait, what was I thinking? None of this was real. I was no more likely to find an elf than Cascadia was to secede from the States.

  Except…

  "Hey, Robin," I said, laying my cards down. "What if we just… explore?"

  "Huh?"

  I stood up. To my relief, nothing happened. Glancing around the tavern, I spotted a leg of chicken which looked surprisingly appetizing—and I was hungry. "Ever just… looked around a dueling ground?"

  The tavern didn't really react to me. I wandered through the place for a bit, listening in on conversations, staring close at several of the stranger beings. The bird people in particular fascinated me. I wondered if they could really fly, or if those just helped glide and they weighed too much. Doubted I'd get an answer, but I tried to ask anyway. The bird-person reacted by taking another draw of their soup… whatever that was.

  So I couldn't talk to any of the people, but could I interact with the place?

  "What are you doing?" asked Robin, curious. He hadn't moved off his chair, but was watching me intently.

  "Testing this place out." I picked up an empty chair and moved it—no reaction. One test down. Next, I tried to push one of the people. I got one of the smaller ones to move, but they acted like I was a gust of wind, or some other expected elemental force. Not a rude girl shoving them for an experiment, just the usual hustle and bustle of a popular joint.

  I picked up the leg of chicken… and changed my mind. This was a fantasy world, but apparently a realistic one, and that thing looked disgusting. Who knew where it had been? I wasn't eager to introduce whatever diseases it might carry back to the real world. That'd be a trip… me inducing another pandemic by way of a magical card game.

  "Hmm," I muttered aloud, glancing up. There wasn't much left to try, but… there was a door. I hurried over and pried it open. This finally got Robin out of his seat, as he rushed over to see what I was seeing.

  There was a whole world outside.

  The street was lined with lanterns on either side—a small village, but a comfortable and warm one. Shoppers from the market carried goods down the street on carts or in hand, heading back to their farms and wherever else they might go. Fires danced across the way, a lively-looking inn with faint music wafting through the doors. In the distance, the mountains rose up covered in trees, snowy-peaked and gorgeous. I looked up and gasped aloud.

  I'd never seen so many stars.

  The sky unfurled above me like a blanket of fireworks, colors dotting the endless deep black expanse. Even the field of stars through the windows of the spaceship simply couldn't compare, filtered as they were through forcefields and laser fire. I gazed in awe across vast fields of purple and even pink hues, interspersed between two crescent moons. Rana's starlight eyes flashed through my mind as I drank it all in, the sheer beauty of the new world I'd been plunged into.

  "Wow…" breathed Robin at my side.

  I tried to take a step forward… and couldn't.

  My body simply wouldn't let me. It was like trying to lift my ring finger on its own. It seemed like it should be possible, even easy, but I just couldn't do it. I tried several ways, up to and including throwing myself through, but nothing worked. Finally, I turned to Robin, who'd been watching me with a decreasing expression of hope at each failed attempt.

  "Push me."

  He nodded, and got behind me. Together, I tried my hardest to take a step forward, while Robin leaned forward and pushed with all his might. It was like trying to press me through an impossibly tight space. We made it a few inches further before collapsing with exhaustion.

  "Okay…" I coughed, pulling myself back together. I patted Robin on the shoulder. "It was a good try."

  "So pretty, too," he sighed dramatically, glancing up at the sky through a doorway neither of us could possibly breach.

  As I looked back at him, I noticed Check and Winston watching us, the latter with an impatient expression. We did promise them a duel, after all. I got to my feet, pulling Robin up with me, and led him back to the table. As we both sat down and picked up our hands, the tavern reacted.

  Patrons cheered or booed us in equal measure, raising wooden mugs and spilling beer everywhere. Many began clearing their tables out, forming an arena in the center to give the duelists all the space they needed. Winston checked his pistol with a calm, practiced gaze, while Check stood in casual silence.

  I was suddenly very nervous. This was about to get real, fast. Robin was already picking out his first move and laying it down. I hesitated, glancing between my options.

  Strike, the easy and obvious first move. Lower risk, get some damage in, hope to combo and get something useful? Charge, open aggressive and throw caution to the winds? Prepare and build up resources, take hits in the meantime? Robin was young, he'd probably go for the Strike. I'd play around that. Evade or Block—Evade wasn't useful yet, I didn't have good cards to use as my free strike. I'd go for the Block and build up cards instead.

  I glanced up at Check, and to my surprise, she gave me a simple nod. Even more surprising, it worked. She was on my side, my partner. I could do this.

  Block down, I stared Robin in the eye. He looked eager, but a bit nervous himself.

  We flipped. A rustle of leather as Winston drew his cutlass and threw himself forward. He swung low, a measured attack that didn't commit too hard or too far. Check drew her katana off her belt clip, metal flashing in the firelight. A clang resounded through my bones as blade clashed against blade. The crowd roared. Our duel had begun in earnest.

  Well done.

  I'd won the first bout. My block defeated Robin's strike, as expected. Check took a tiny hit, as Winston didn't do much chip damage, and I drew my free card. This was a start I could work with.

  The next few bouts went to me as well. Robin tried to strike again, and this time I dodged and struck back. Check's pistol boomed, almost painful so close to my ears, but thrilling at the same time. Winston took a bullet, then another, but growled through the pain. He seemed frustrated, as the agile Check dodged away or blocked his every strike.

  I hadn't taken any real damage yet. Check was healthy, and my hand was building up to a healthy pile. I decided to go for it, and laid down a Charge.

  The cards flipped. Check rushed Winston down. Her katana flashed through the air.

  It dug into his shoulder. Blood, hot and crimson, spilled out onto the wood floor. Tavern patrons behind me roared with approval. They sure loved a blood sport, and I'd given them a show.

  Robin laughed aloud. I guess he was enjoying himself too. He dropped another card with barely a thought, and I mirrored him.

  Another clash, another round of Check dancing away from Winston's furious cutlass swipes while landing another swift blow with her katana. The captain of the Resplendent Canary was sweating now, between the open wounds from the katana and the bullet through his shoulder. Check was panting a little, but didn't seem any worse for wear.

  Every round that followed, I felt like I had Robin's number. He tried to Strike, I dodged away. I played a Charge and was nearly always rewarded with a dodge or prepare attempt on his part. Even his own dodge, I managed to tease out—I'd noticed his sudden cautious expression and made a bet.

  Finally, as Winston was down to the wire, I drew the killer. A Support card, granting a powered up attack to any Ranged character that couldn't be blocked. Combine that with Check's smart pistol bonus to beat dodges in the right circumstances…

  I played my cards. Check dodged yet another swipe of Winston's cutlass, and I swear she was smirking as she did. Drawing her pistol, the lights lit up and started blinking like the thing was about to explode. Blue-green light glowed from the muzzle, brighter every millisecond.

  My hair stood on end. A huge burst of energy roared out, deafening us both—a bullet engulfed by teal flames. It slammed into Winston, knocking him to the floor. As my side of the tavern cheered, the voice came. I'd been expecting it, hoping for it, yearning for it… and it delivered.

  ROUND ONE: CHECK.

  The voice filled every bone, every iota of my body and mind. It was a thousand times more satisfying speaking her name and my victory. Chills rushed up and down my skin. I practically shivered in my seat. The rush of success swelled in my veins, blocking out thought, a surge of excitement and joy. I'd earned my win, and I was reaping the benefits.

  I knew more than ever, just as the first time I heard it: I needed more.



  ***



  The tavern quieted down again as we began the second round. Winston clambered to his feet, and wasn't bleeding anymore, though the holes remained in his clothes and cape. I drew my new hand, eager to continue my streak. Robin, meanwhile, was frowning at his own cards. He seemed to be thinking more this time around.

  I guessed he'd go for a Block then, try to be more strategic this time. I'd play Prepare, try to get my hand moving even more quickly than last time. My card down, I glanced at Check again for reassurance. She tilted her head, the picture of easy confidence. The cyber-warrior or street samurai or whatever the hell she was—she had my back. I liked that.

  Robin and I flipped our cards.

  "Yes!" he shouted, and his side of the tavern raised their mugs to toast. He'd played a Strike, to my dismay. Even worse, he was playing another card, activating Winston's special.

  The pistol came out, gears whirring and cracking. As Check stood still, meditating from the order I'd given, Winston's clockwork flintlock cracked once—twice—three times. Smoke billowed out as each bullet flew across the room, striking Check hard. She winced, and on the third bullet nearly fell over. The last one had pierced her bulletproof vest, and blood was leaking out.

  I winced in unison with her. Check was my partner. I hated seeing her in pain. It was almost enough to keep me back from playing another card—I had barely taken damage in the previous round, and the few times Robin had landed a hit, Check had just seemed a bit winded. This was blood, and Check was genuinely hurt now.

  She looked back at me and nodded, pistol gripped tight. She was still in this. I needed to focus, too.

  I tried to strike back, but Robin seemed to have me down now. He dodged when I struck, struck back when I tried to build up any kind of combo myself. The damnable clockwork pistol kept firing—and each time Robin played it, the pistol fired an extra bullet. The damage was building up fast, and I hadn't found an escape.

  Desperate, I tried to pull a support card, taking a free hit in exchange… but picked up nothing useful. A single teleport dodge wasn't going to get me far. I played it anyway.

  As Winston fired his pistol again, Check was nowhere to be found. She vanished in a flash of blue light, reappearing behind the airship captain. A swift strike of her katana drew blood, but it wasn't enough. I knew it wasn't. Check was down for the count, and I was panicking.

  You know how to beat him.

  I can't read him anymore. Robin's in my head and he's winning.

  He's a kid. You're really going to get outsmarted by a nine year old?

  First, he's twelve, almost thirteen. Second, he's been playing this longer than me. And third, shouldn't you know all that, if you're in my head all the time?

  Arguing with my subconscious wouldn't get me anywhere. I took the loss, as my last attempt to fight my way out got me nowhere. The voice returned, but this time it wasn't for me. The chills on my skin were fear now—fear of disappointment, fear of failure. I might lose. I hated to lose. I'd already lost so much.

  ROUND TWO: WINSTON ECHERZCHA.

  Check was panting from exhaustion. Heat radiated off her, mixed with sweat and heavy breathing, a battle fatigue building up. We were still in this, and it wouldn't actually make her any weaker, but I felt weaker. The damage dealt to her added a mental toll on myself. I wondered if that was all in my head, or an actual part of the game. Rana, Robin, Dash and Bradley—none of them seemed so affected. Why was I?

  Forget it. I couldn't get into metaphysics or the nature of a magical card game right now. I needed to win first. I played a Strike to open, and Robin did the same.

  Winston launched forward, drawing his cutlass in the same instant as Check and her katana. As blades clanged, both landed minor hits on one another, neither coming out quite on top. Still, a draw was better than a straight loss for me. I tried to read Robin, bouncing eagerly in his seat as he laid his next card, but I didn't get anything. He might be going anywhere on the next bout.

  Caution to the winds. I went for my special—a block into a prepare. If I could land it, I could lock down that awful clockwork pistol, stop Robin from building up such a massive combo. It wouldn't guarantee the game, but it would give me a fighting chance at least.

  Robin flipped his card—a Prepare. He'd get free cards, but I still managed to pull off my special.

  As Winston stayed put, Check tapped a few buttons on the side of her pistol. It reconfigured into a different mode, parts shifting and molding into place. A much wider barrel spat out a cloud of black static, enveloping both Winston and Robin on the opposite end of the table.

  My eyes went wide. "Robin?"

  "This is weeeeeird!" he called out. Robin scooted his chair over out of the cloud, which stayed anchored to Winston. "That was like I was inside an old TV or something. Everything went black and white and there was a bunch of noise."

  "You okay?"

  "All good!" Robin threw down his next card. "I'm gonna win, just you watch!"

  With his special locked out, I didn't expect him to play a Strike. I'd catch him out, play even more aggressively than he usually did, and lock down any attempt to get back into his usual rhythm.

  It failed. Robin played a Strike anyway. Winston sliced into Check's leg with his cutlass, sending her down on one knee. She swiped with her own blade, catching him on the retreat, but it hadn't done nearly as much damage. She just wasn't built for close-in combat like the captain.

  I wasn't going to win this one. I knew it already. Robin wasn't exactly better than me, but today he had me down. Another bout passed, and Winston landed another solid hit. I managed to keep my special going, locking down his ranged attack, but it wasn't enough. Maybe I was nervous, because it was my first duel. Maybe I didn't want to beat up on a little kid. Maybe there was some unique metaphysical link between me and my partner, a connection that caused me to feel Check's pain and stress.

  All of those were crap excuses. Robin beat me, fair and square. I could struggle through another few futile bouts, or take it like a woman.

  With great reluctance, I flipped Check's card over. "I concede."

  WINSTON ECHERZCHA HAS WON THE DUEL.

  "Yay!" Robin cheered. He leaped up from his chair so exuberantly, I half-expected him to start dancing. I knelt down next to Check, who'd fallen to her knees. Winston stared down at the two of us. I half-expected him to attack, but he simply saluted us with his cutlass before sheathing it and starting off to the bar.

  "You okay?" I murmured to Check, forgetting all sense of reason as I worried for the safety of a fictional character in a card game.

  She nodded slightly, and managed a faint smile just before the world faded away into the kaleidoscope of colors. The duel was over, and that world was gone. I was thrown back to the clearing in the forest, facing Robin, and Check was just a card on the blanket once more.

  I had lost.



  ***



  "That was really fun!" said Robin, packing up his cards.

  I couldn't quite bring myself to agree, but I forced a smile on my face anyway. I hated what I was feeling. Nothing had happened, thankfully—I was still intact, no injuries, and Robin sure seemed happy. Still, I'd lost.

  "Thanks, Noël," he added. He threw a hug around me. After a beat, I hugged him back.

  "You too." I ruffled his hair, and I was feeling better already. Robin just had that kind of attitude. "I'm glad that was my first duel, and not somebody awful."

  "Like Bradley, or like Jack or someone else, yeah." Robin nodded. "They're all jerks."

  "Lotta those in the world," I agreed.

  "Oh!" Robin glanced at his watch. "I gotta get going. Mom will be wondering where I am… That took longer than I thought." He quickly threw all his cards into his backpack and sprinted off. "See you around, Noël!"

  I packed up as well, but stayed to enjoy the sun a bit more. Check was the only card still out, a faint glow mixing with the shine of light from far above. I closed my eyes and remembered the stars outside the tavern, the roar of the crowd when I did well… the rush of victory.

  I'd get back to that again someday.

  The path back to Lloyd's mansion was quiet. I liked that right now, replaying the match in my head, trying to really narrow down where I'd gone wrong. There were some obvious moments, like losing my cool, and some tells in retrospect from Robin which I hadn't picked up on. If we dueled again, I was confident I'd fare far better.

  I could beat him, I just needed another shot. Check and I would win.

  The fog was coming back.

  Chills down my spine—not the pleasant ones, but the serious-creeps chills. I slowed to a halt, glancing around. The lantern bobbed in the distance, another clearing in the woods I hadn't noticed. Fear driving every nervous step forward, I walked through the thick woods to find the strange tree once more, lantern hanging above it, and the Moderator himself awaiting me.

  "Good afternoon, my dearest Noël," he called, and I could tell immediately something was wrong. While his pudgy face was smiling, it was more reserved and sad than before. I stopped walking, far from him, afraid to approach.

  "Hello," I said, after a long pause.

  "I've just learned of your recent defeat." He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed at his eyes. "Tragic… just tragic. It's always a terrible sight to see, someone losing their very first duel."

  I realized something quite suddenly: except for Bradley, I didn't know anyone who had ever lost. A creeping horror filled the pit of my stomach. What if…

  "Does that mean…" I gulped. The Moderator watched me expectantly, waiting for me to continue. He wanted me to spell it out. I forced air through my lungs, and finally choked it out. "Does that mean I'm out?"

  The Moderator's eyes widened. He frantically shook his head, and I could not have been more relieved. "Heavens no! You haven't been eliminated, Noël, fear not. The wish you confided remains within reach, so long as your commitment is true."

  I had just started to breathe the biggest sigh of my life when his eyes softened once more. The pit re-emerged in my stomach. All the world seemed cold and distant as the Moderator spoke again, grave as death.

  "However, you have earned a… penalty."

Advertisement

Support "Riposte"

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.

Achievements
Comments(5)
Log in to comment
Log In

Log in to comment
Log In