Some of the arenas gave the illusion that they had once served other purposes. One was designed to look like an abandoned village, complete with houses full of items that made it seem as though someone had once lived there. One arena appeared to be the inside of an improbably large castle. The one Bastian and the others fought in today didn’t pretend to be something other than what it was.
A straight path of white brick extended from the door, leading downhill, directly toward their objective. Walls, formed of dark stone blocks, hemmed them in on either side. Moss and other plants grew up the walls and from between the bricks of the path, giving the sense that this place had been here for a long time, with little care given to it.
Side paths extended from the obvious main path. They bent around the interior of the arena, giving it a maze-like quality. To the left and right, a second main path ran all the way round the arena’s border. Since the center of the arena, which had come to be called the pavillion, was lower than the borders, the arena resembled an oblong bowl in overall shape.
In places, small rooms and tunnels were cut into the walls, giving even more ways for combatants to travel around or hide from their foes. It gave a multitude options for movement and positioning, though overall, it was one of the smaller arenas.
Bastian slid forward, leaning into the motion out of habit, though it was not necessary. With his power active, he didn’t need to walk. Instead, as easily as walking, he willed the disk of energy beneath his feel to travel forward. Behind him, it solidified, leaving a path of illuminated green crystal on the stone like a line left by a wide marker. After a short time, the path would begin to dissolve, leaving no trace.
Bastian made sure to travel at a pace that Ryse and Celia could match. Though he could travel swiftly, the path granted them no additional speed. It just improved their balance and their energy level. His two companions jogged behind him as he lead them straight toward the pavilion.
In the center of the pavilion, attached to the top of a golden pedestal, there would be an orb of clear glass. Once one of the combatants laid a hand on the glass, it would begin to fill with light of his or her team’s color. The glass would continue to fill with the color of whichever team had last touched it, but it filled faster when more people touched it. It didn’t fill at all if members of opposing teams touched it simultaneously. Whichever team added more light to that sphere won the match once it was full.
The entire scenario was pointless and arbitrary. Their actions were completely devoid of meaning, and yet Bastian continued forth, determined to capture the sphere before whomever they would meet today in opposition. He wanted to win, even though he knew he didn’t care. He felt something inside him pushing him forward, driving him to take his team to victory, even though he felt like the victory gained him nothing. There was something about this place that insinuated itself into his mind as surely as it had taken his body.
Bastian moved in near silence. Celia’s only sounds were the noise of her breath as she jogged and the faint tap of her feet against the path. Ryse’s armor, however, clanked with footfall. It was well-made and well-maintained, but steel could not be silenced. Their foes would hear his approach and could guess at least one of the people they would be fighting today.
Bastian could hear heavy, crunching footsteps approaching from the other side, which meant one of three people were on the enemy team. He dreaded all of them.
They were halfway down the ramp when the first of their foes reached the pavilion. He had his hand on the orb in seconds. Bastian swore.
“They have Jake,” he said. “Watch your footing.”
Jake, as it turned out, came from Bastian’s own homeworld, albeit from another country. The rich variety of Powered individuals there had apparently inspired whatever had brought the combatants here to take more than one from Elal. Jake’s Talents weren’t impressive on paper, but he used them well and skillfully. He could emit a variety of what he called “paints” from his hands, feet, and the spearlike brush he carried with him. Each paint had a different effect which lasted until it dried. The blue paint Jake had used to arrive so swiftly at the pavilion was slicker than smooth ice.
“Understood,” Ryse said. With one hand on the crystal, Jake was using his brush to paint the surface around him. There was no telling what color he was using from their distance. Luckily, Bastian’s path would not only cover it up, it would repel any paint Jake tried to smear across it.
Ryse raised his spear as the approached. “Sorry, Jake,” he said, though too low for Jake to hear him. He fired a yellow bolt of light from the end of his spear. The glow surrounding the blade dimmed. Jake twisted to one side, keeping his hand on the orb. The bolt flew past him into the distance. Ryse followed up with two more bolts, furthing dimming the light of his spear with each shot. The third bolt caught Jake in the upper arm.
Jake slid around behind the pedestal, giving himself some cover. Bastian’s team reached the stairs that led up to the pavilion. His path took him directly up it, smoothing out the stairs behind them and temporarily turning them into a ramp. Fine specks of green light travelled up from his path in an arc as he channeled it into his hand. He solidified the energy into a spike of crystal, which shot forward. It clipped Jake’s ear.
“Shit,” Jake swore. “Sorry about this.” He jumped backward.
Bastian looked down. Red. Jake had spread red paint in a large patch in front of the pedestal. “Stop!” Bastian shouted to his team. He gestured with both hands, pulled upward, and a wall of green leap from the front border of his path, shielding him. The red paint burst into flame. Bastian felt the heat as it swept past the borders of his shield.
He spared a glance to check on Celia and Ryse — they were fine, too far back to be burned, though Celia had covered her eyes at the sudden light — then he swung around his own shield as it dissolved and pulled energy up into his hand once more. He unleashed it as he spun, aiming for where Jake had been just moments before.
The energy sprayed forward in a mist of crystalline shards. It would have torn Jake to shreds, had he still been there. Bastian swore. Jake, leaving prints of green paint behind him, had climbed up one of the pavilion’s stone columns. In his place was one of the foes Bastian had dreaded: Gleam.
Gleam towered above the rest of them. He spoke and behaved like a human, or at least like a living creature, but he was not. He was some sort of magic construct, made of marble and silver rather than flesh. His eyeless face had terrified Bastian the first time he saw it. He reminded Bastian of the advanced AIs of his homeworld. In a way, he was like a magical robot.
He was also very, very hard to kill.
“Get back,” Bastian said. “They’ve got Gleam, too. Stay away, Celia.”
Bastian began to back away. Gleam lunged forward. With a grunt, Bastian brought up another shield. Gleam’s greatsword, made of the same black marble as the golem himself, smashed right through Bastian’s shield, sending shards of green energy spiraling through the air. The tip of the sword slashed across Bastian’s forearms. He bit down, hard, forcing himself not the scream.
“Celia,” he gasped, gliding swiftly backward. “My arms.”
Celia was there, suddenly, just beside him. She stepped directly onto his platform, pressing herself up against him, so that she could move with him as he directed the disc backward. Her hair stretched out and wrapped around his arms. In mere seconds, parts of it solidified, filling in the wounds. When the hair drew away, his arms appeared unharmed.
Ryse stepped between them and Gleam, shield held before him. His armor meant he was the only one who could take any kind of real blow from Gleam without crumpling immediately. He jabbed his spear forward before Gleam could bring his blade around for another swing. The blade of the spear, glowing bright once more, took a chunk out of Gleam’s side.
Bastian sent a spear of crystal at Gleam’s head. He didn’t even know if the golem’s head was a weak spot. Gleam had refused to say. He was one of the least communicative out of all of them, even when he was on Bastian’s side. He spoke a lot about disappointing his master, but said little about his origins or his circumstances outside of this hell.
Bastian’s blow chipped Gleam’s marble, but did little more. He didn’t have time to think about it, because Jake dropped down right on top of him and Celia, knocking her away from him with a swift kick. She cried out as she tumbled down the stairs. She rolled, bringing herself onto Bastian’s path, where she would be better able to fight. She pulled a sword from her hair and turned to face Jake. Then the yellow paint his blow had left on her chest electrified with a sizzling clap. She fell to the ground.
“Celia!” Bastian cried, though he had no time to go to her. Their third foe made herself known as he turned. A crackling bolt of blue-violet light split the air, taking Bastian’s left ear and eye with it. He fell to his knees, only barely maintaining the wherewithal to cast up a shield in the direction from which the bolt had come.
Vesara. Not good. She was probably the strongest healer, not to mention the fastest, and her bolts were deadly at range. They would have to —
Bastian felt Gleam’s sword pierce him, though he barely registered the pain. He remained conscious just long enough to see his own knees as the top of his body fell forward.
When he — awoke? Appeared? Came back into existence? When he became aware that he was in the starting room once more, Bastian shot forward, out of the door, to the top of the ramp. There, he paused. If his team was still fighting, he had to join them as swiftly as possible. If either one had been defeated, it would be better to wait until they were all back together once more.
He saw the remnants of his path fade from beneath Celia’s prone form, which settled onto the stairs before it, too, faded from view. He could not see Ryse. He could only hear the clash of steel on stone. Then it faded as well.
Celia revived first. She followed Bastian’s path this place at the top of the hill. “That was shit,” she said angrily. “Why do I always have to lose?”
“It did not go well,” Bastian agreed. “But we haven’t lost yet. Please don’t give up.”
What he didn’t say aloud was that it did feel almost as though this match had been stacked against them. Gleam was such a powerful combatant that it felt like any team with him on their side had an advantage, despite the fact that he contributed only a martial presence, with no Talents of his own. And Jake’s power was incredibly flexible. Bastian constantly lost track of what all the different colors of his paint could do.
Then there was Vesara. The only blessing that came from having her on the other team was that she had a difficult time using her power. The way she described it did sound complex. She could draw from what she called “wells” of the three essential energies: magic, vital, and mental. She refused to use the well of mental energy, for reasons she wouldn’t explain, but her magic energy could be focused into dangerous long-ranged beams, and her vital energy healed swiftly both up close and at range.
Ryse joined them. “I took out Jake before Gleam got me,” he said. “But it was a close one.” He shook his head. “We have to get Vesara first. We don’t’ stand a chance otherwise.”
“Agreed,” Bastian said. “She was smart, this round. I didn’t even see her.” Vesara’s power was strong and flexible, but it was her only means of defense. She was not good at physical combat at all. “I’ll have to flank, so that I can get her. You’ll have to deal with Gleam, Ryse.”
“I know,” Ryse said. “I’m the only one who can even damage him.” Ryse shook his head. “It’s almost unfair, pitting us against him.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” Celia said. “No matter who I’m with, it feels like they build the other team to counter mine.”
“Let’s go, anyway,” Ryse said. “We’re wasting time. You and me will go down the center and Bastian will have to go off to the right.”
“They’re going to know what we’re doing right away if we do that,” Celia said. “We should all follow the path down, and then Bastian can find Vesara and go after her.”
“She’s right,” Bastian said. “Then you’ll have my path for footing, too. You’ll have to keep Jake and Gleam occupied.”
“Fine, we’ll try that,” Ryse tersely. “But we have to go now or they’re going to win just because we spent too much time talking.”
With a nod, Bastian headed down the hill once more.