How many times had Bastian come to this room? Did it number in the tens, or the hundreds? He didn’t know the answer. Perhaps it did not matter. It seemed, sometimes, that his memories of his life before this time were fading away, replaced by the vivid yet monotonous existence that now encompassed him.
He had fought, at first, for the promise of a return to his old life. He missed his wife, and their children. He worried about what their lives were like without him. He feared that they missed him, as he missed them. He did not wish that pain on them. Yet he had become so accustomed to those worries and fears, so used to that pain, that the feelings had faded into the background. Now, he fought only because he had accepted it as what his life had become.
Bastian wondered if his family even knew he was gone. His time in this place took up so much of his recent memory that it felt eternal. It felt like years had gone by, as though he had lived another whole lifetime confined in this nightmare. Simultaneously, however, no time seemed to have passed at all. Bastian and those trapped with him hadn’t aged or grown. In that regard, it was as though they had only been here a few days.
Ryse and Celia joined him in the room today. That was less than normal, but sometimes the game was run differently. Bastian had learned to stop questioning it. He thought, at this point, that he had seen all of the games possible permutations. He had thought that before, though, and the game had proved him wrong. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he keep moving forward.
It did them no good to question the games. They hadn’t learned anything worthwhile, because there was nobody to answer them. They could only theorize among themselves, in the brief periods they had before games started. Not that any amount of talking about the games bought them anything. Nothing changed, regardless of what they thought about or discussed. All that mattered was that they complete the tasks set before them, so that they could rest.
Rest. He thought of it that way, but he hadn’t truly rested since his time in this place had begun. As soon as one game ended, he found himself in one of these room again, refreshed, but with no memory of having slept or of what had happened in between. Sometimes he felt like he simply stopped existing for a time, only to come back into existence once more for the sake of the game, and whoever or whatever it was that directed it.
The room felt like it belonged inside of an ancient castle. The whole thing was made of stone, from floor to ceiling. Tapestries adorned the walls. Each displayed something wholly different from the others: an idyllic glade, a feast, a gruesome battle scene. A fire burned in the hearth on the wall opposite the door. This time, three chairs sat around it, giving the illusion of comfort to the room. Between them was a small table with the letter on it that would detail the rules of the match for today.
Celia had taken a place in one of the chairs. Bastian could not see her face, for she was covering it with her hands. She had slumped forward, with her elbows supported by her knees. Bastian felt his first pang of worry about how the game would go today. Her hair hung limp, cascading down her back and over her shoulders, which another ill omen.
Celia’s hair was why she had been brought here. At a careless glance, it appeared to be mundane, if prematurely grey for her apparent youth. Further observation revealed it to be more than grey. It would be more apt to say it was colorless; or perhaps depthless. Looking at her hair closely, especially where it grew thick from her head, was like staring into nothingness. It looked like a hole in the air that peered into some formless beyond. What grew from Celia’s head was not truly hair, even though its movements and outline gave the illusion that it was.
Bastian hoped he and Ryse could shake her out of her mood in the brief time they had together to prepare. They all had to be at their peak in order to succeed. That, or hope the other team was not.
Ryse met Bastian’s eyes. He made the first move toward Celia, as Bastian had expected. Ryse naturally assumed the role of leader, most times. When they had first worked together, Bastian had struggled against this. On his home world, he was accustomed to taking command, when he wasn’t working alone. Now, he knew Ryse to be a capable and intelligent leader. Butting heads with him, intentionally or not, was not helpful.
Ryse sat down in the chair next to Celia, paying no heed to whether his armor damaged it or not. He looked like a picture of a prince from a book of fairy tales, and it wasn’t just the armor or the spear. His strong jawline, bright blue eyes, and blond hair gave him a knightly air. Yet Ryse was neither a knight nor a prince. He was a priest.
Bastian had taken Celia’s hair in stride, for such expressions of power were in line with what he was used to, even if its genesis was different. Ryse’s armor was more novel. Ryse claimed it had been created by the priests in service to his god, some sort of deity of artifice whose name Bastian could never remember, but who apparently granted his worshippers the ability to construct powerful magical objects. The two glowing orbs that powered it, which currently floated above Ryse’s shoulders, were the most obvious indicators that it was not mundane.
The very idea of an actual deity left Bastian in doubt. There were no such things on Elal, his homeworld, though people insisted in believing in them. According to Ryse, where he came from, there were a plethora of gods, all of whom actually responded to their faithful and interfered in their lives.
Celia said her own world was similar. Her hair, she said, had been granted to her by some sort of pact she had formed with a powerful entity. However, Celia insisted that the beings on her world were not gods, despite the fact that many pretended to be.
It was all very confusing, at first, to learn that there were other worlds, and that humans lived on them, and that they all functioned so differently. People like Bastian, who on his world were called Powered, didn’t exist in numbers worth remarking upon on other worlds. They were common enough on Elal that Bastian’s home country had strict laws regarding them.
“Celia,” Ryse said. He placed his gauntleted hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head. Her hair rippled, stirring as she did, though the flat grey made it impossible to see its motions except at its borders. Celia’s powers were useful. She had the physical capacity to be here. Emotionally, she did not belong.
“We don’t have a lot of time before the doors open,” Ryse said. “I know you hate this place, Celia, but we have to push forward anyway.”
“Can you just stop?” she said. “Just give me a minute.” Her hair shifted on her shoulder, pushing at his hand. It had no strength to actually force Ryse’s hand away, but he relented anyway.
Bastian approached them. He did not take a seat. Instead, he reached into the pocket of his jacket. There he found two copper bracelets, each set with a piece of glowing green crystal. It wasn’t obvious from their exterior construction, but their insides were filled with complex circuitry that had been crafted by the engineers at the International League to interact with Bastian’s powers. In his real life, only one existed: a prototype. Here, he found himself with as many as were necessary for the team he was working with at the time.
The objects those trapped here possessed were interesting. They all seemed to be pulled from the combatants’ real lives, though sometimes, like the bracelets, their existence didn’t exactly mirror reality. Bastian’s garments were another example of that. They were his own world’s version of armor, made of complex polymers that were meant to provide at least some layer of protection to the IL’s agents. Bastian hardly ever wore them, in his real life, though he did have access to them.
Bastian handed a bracelet to each of his companions. Ryse took his immediately and began to remove his gauntlet so that he could put it on. Celia peeked out at Bastian from between her fingers. He forced a smile for her benefit. She sighed and snatched the bracelet from his hand.
“I just came from another loss,” Celia xplained. Her hair shifted back away from her face, so that it draped over her back alone. “It’s so frustrating. They try to balance the sides, but it never works out perfectly. It feels best when things are close, win or lose, but it wasn’t this time. We got destroyed.”
“We all lose, Celia,” Ryse said. “When someone wins, someone loses.”
“I know,” she said. “It still feels bad. You don’t know what it’s like, trying to run around keeping five other people alive. I can only do so much. I can only fix one wound at a time. And when people die…” She looked to the ceiling. Her hair stirred, twisting around like smoke hit by a breeze. “It doesn’t matter how many times I see it. It’s still hard.”
“We get it,” Bastian said. “We’re trying to keep each other alive, too, you know.”
“I do, but it’s different,” Celia said. She shuddered. “Killing is worse, though. I don’t know how you do it so easily.”
“It’s not easy,” Ryse said firmly. “We do it because we have to.”
“You just have to get used to the fact that you’re not really killing them,” Bastian said. “They’re fine. You’ve been on both sides of it. You know that they just come right back to the room, like nothing happened.”
“I have been on both sides of it,” Celia said. She shuddered again. This time, she closed her eyes, wrapping her arms and her hair around herself. “We are dying. Every time. I feel it. I feel the pain, and the cold. I don’t know how you can say it’s not real.”
Ryse shook his head. “It feels real, but it’s not. It can’t be. It’s all some sort of illusion. We’re alive now, right? We’re not dead, anyway.”
“Maybe we are,” Celia said. “You don’t know.”
Bastian walked away. They didn’t know, that was true, but there was no point in arguing about it, just as there was no point in fighting against the nature of this place. He went to look out of the door. The windows upon it seemed out of place; anachronistic, at the very least, considering the decor of the rest of the room. The view outside was familiar. It was one of the smaller arenas, which made sense, considering that their team was half the size of what was normal.
“We have to start soon, Celia,” Ryse said. “I know that you’re having a rough time right now, but it’s only going to get worse if you let yourself feel defeated before we even start.”
“We don’t have to try to win,” Celia said. “We could just give in, and let the other team take the match.” Bastian raised his eyebrows. He could tell by the tone of her voice that she wasn’t serious. She couldn’t be, because something about this place compelled all of them to try, even if it wasn’t their will. Once he let his power free, she would feel slightly better, but he couldn’t alleviate all of her reticence.
“Celia,” Bastian said. “We’re going to be relying on you out there. You’re going to be relying on us. There’s nobody else here who can heal today and pick up your slack if you don’t try. I know that you feel like it’s pointless, but please, you have to at least try.”
“I will,” Celia said, though she sounded exhausted. “Trust me, I will. I need to feel the things I’m feeling, you know? It’s not like we get any real time to ourselves.”
Bastian understood her sentiment all too well. He hadn’t had time to be alone since this had started. His body became rested and recovered in between matches, and he never felt physically or mentally fatigued at the start, but they were give no time to think or process. It was exhausting in a way that whatever sustained this place couldn’t cure.
Ryse stood. He took the letter from the table, then moved to join Bastian at the door. “I feel that our time of preparation is near its end,” he said.
“Agreed,” Bastian said. “It feels almost like we’ve been given more time than normal.”
“I doubt it,” Ryse said. “Though it’s impossible to gauge time in this place.”
“Do you have a plan?” Bastian asked, pointing to the letter.
Ryse glanced at it, though he didn’t really read it. The three-person structure was rare, but they had all been through it before. “Stick together. Keep each other alive.”
Celia left her chair to join them at the door. “He’s right,” she said, giving Bastian a look. “We have to stay together today. I can’t heal you if you go off on your own.”
“I won’t,” he said, frowning. He did have a habit of doing that, but only when there were six of them. With three, there weren’t enough of them to try to flank the enemy. His ability let him easily outpace most of the others, but it was more beneficial to the team if he stayed near them and let them make use of it, as well.
A pulse ran through the room. It felt like a strong wave of sound striking Bastian’s body, though it was silent. He didn’t react. He was accustomed to it, now. It meant that they had less than a minute before the doors opened into the arena.
“I hope we’re ready,” Bastian said. He reached up to his throat, to the copper collar that allowed him to turn his ability off. Without it, he had no control of his powers. They were simply on constantly. He turned the switch.
A field of glowing green spread out beneath Bastian’s feet in a perfect circle, covering the floor and elevating him roughly an inch above the carpet. He felt the energy fill him, washing away all the insecurities a body can feel: weakness, fatigue, joint pain. Some of what it alleviated he hadn’t even been aware he felt. It kept him focused, balanced, and ready. He drifted from side to side, spreading the field wider and giving Ryse and Celia space to stand upon it. Their eyes brightened as, thanks to the bracelets, the energy flowed up into their bodies as well.
“This helps,” Celia said. “It’s been too long. I’d forgotten how good this feels.”
“If I were you, I would never turn it off,” Ryse said. “Whenever I step onto your path, I feel like I wasn’t really alive before I touched it.”
“I think it has a stronger effect on other people,” Bastian said. “Or maybe I’m just used to it. Either way, it’s not the most convenient thing to have active all the time. When you’re not attuned to me, walking on it is unpleasant.”
“Trust me, we know,” Celia said.
They had been on opposite sides enough times for both her and Ryse to have experienced it. The field that formed at Bastian’s feet crystallized as he left it behind, leaving a path of glowing green. Those to whom he took the time to attune, or those who wore the bracelets, experienced the path as he did: Pleasant, energizing, and as the best footing of their lives. Those that didn’t, he was told, experienced a sort of jarring vibration, and found the path slick and untenable.
To Bastian’s left, the glowing yellow orbs that accompanied Ryse snapped into place. One attached itself to the slot on his spear, causing its blade to expand with glowing yellow light. The other moved into the slot on Ryse’s left forearm. A shield of light expanded from it.
To Bastian’s right, Celia reach up into her hair. Her hand disappeared briefly inside the shifting void. When she withdrew it, she held a metal javelin. Celia could will her hair to change into different physical forms, though she said that learning new ones was complex and required a great deal of practice. She hadn’t been able to hold new forms in her mind since their time here began.
He wished she could form a bow and arrows. Their team would be relatively weak at range, with the equipment they had. Celia’s javelins were made for throwing, but her strength lied in her hair’s abilities to fill in wounds with its matter-shifting properties. Ryse could fire bolts of light fthrom his spear, but not very quickly. Bastian could attack at range himself, using needles of power drawn up from his pool, but it was similarly limited. They would be outclassed at range should the other team have an archer or another long-ranged attacker.
Luckily, they had Ryse’s shield, and Bastian could form quick, if temporary, shields of his own. That, coupled with Bastian’s ability to form bridges that could take them to high ground, would hopefully allow them to compensate.
“Okay,” Celia said, flourishing her javelin. “We can do this.” She looked more like she was trying to convince herself to believe her own words than like she actually believe them. Either way, it was an improvement. Bastian was glad to see her change in demeanor, and grateful that he could at least partially influence it.
“Bastian, you’ll lead the way, of course,” Ryse said. “Be ready to drop back behind me when we spot the enemy.”
The enemy. They had to start thinking of them that way now. Not just “the other team,” not just as people they were competing against, and certainly not as their friends. Because, of course, the people they were about to fight, the people they would have to kill, perhaps over and over, were people that they cared about. They were all sharing in this experience. They had all, at this point, fought side-by-side. There was no way to avoid it. If their time here had brought them nothing else positive, it made all of them care for each other, at least on some level.
When the fight began, Bastian, Celia, and Ryse would have to cast all of that aside. They had to become the only people that mattered to each other. Bastian thought briefly of his wife, and his daughters. He cast them aside, as well. For now. He told himself, every time, that he was only casting them aside for now.