Bastian spared a glance back at Celia as he moved. Her frustration was clear, not just upon her face, but by the agitated movements of her hair. It buzzed about her head like a nest of swarming bees. He felt glad she hadn’t given up. He was grateful, for once, for that odd drive to succeed that pervaded the atmosphere. With that thought a feeling of disgust for himself as he realized the only reason he felt grateful in the first place was because the drive infested his mind, as well. None of them should care whether they won or lost. They should just sit down in the room in which they appeared and refuse to do anything.
No matter how often it occured to Bastian to do just that, he could never find the strength.
He turned his attention forward. Behind him, he heard the odd sound of Celia forming a weapon from her hair. It reminded him of static, only more solid. He heard the click and hum as Ryse moved one of of spheres. A glance showed Bastian that the one that had provided Ryse’s shield now hovered over his shoulder. There, it would attack autonomously with small lasers; a good defense against Jake’s mobility, if not Gleam’s durability, but Ryse could reattach it easily.
Gleam stood in the center of the pavillion, his left hand resting on the orb, his right hand holding his gigantic blade with ease. “Jake will be above,” Ryse said. Bastian nodded. They had worked with Jake enough that his strategy had become predictable. Bastian would have to talk to him about that when next they fought together.
“I’m on it,” Celia said. Bastian heard a clatter as she cast aside the sword she had created. “You just worry about Gleam, Ryse.” She pulled a javelin from her hair.
Bastian steeled himself. He should go around the pavilion, but if he went through it, it would give his companions a brief advantage. They would need all of the help they could get. He took a breath to calm the gust of anxiety that blew through his chest.
They reached the center of the arena. “Let’s do this!” Bastian shouted. With an act of will, he sped out ahead of his companions. With little effort, he could glide faster than he could run at full speed. Gleam shifted, bringing both hands to his sword. Bastian flew up the stairs and rocketed around the inward edge of the pavilion. A discrete glance upward told him they had guessed accurately where Jake had positioned himself.
Gleam and Jake failed to react in time to Bastian’s actions, because, just as he had predicted what Jake would do, Jake and Gleam had attempted to guess Bastian’s course from the way he normally behaved. Bastian rarely put himself in the center of the action. He preferred to catch his foes by surprise by coming in from an angle. Gleam swung his sword after Bastian, but the blow missed by more than a foot.
Jake remained above. He would be waiting for Celia, anyway. Bastian shot out of the other side of the pavilion. His path now filled a good portion of it. If Ryse and Celia could fight mostly upon it, they would have a much better chance. It did little to hinder Jake’s movement, as practiced as he was at maintaining his balance on his slick paint, but Gleam would find it more difficult to maneuver.
Bastian turned so that he was moving backward, anxious to watch Ryse and Celia enter. He couldn’t pursue Vesara until she revealed her position. Ryse entered the pavilion seconds after. Gleam turned to meet him. Ryse brought his spear before him.
Celia ran in just behind Ryse. She paused. Her hair formed a disk-shaped cloud around her head, obscuring the view of her, and the javelin in her hands, from above. As they had predicted, Jake dropped down right on top of her. Celia’s hair swept back. In one motion, she thrust the javelin upward and stepped backward, bringing herself intentionally to her knees as the tip of the javelin met Jake’s stomach. Celia braced the butt of the javelin against the path. Jake cried out. He hand reached out, painting upon the air itself using his gray paint, mixed with green in an attempt to find a grip on nothing. He turned, but not enough. The javelin pierced him, in through his stomach, out through his side.
Bastian let out a whoop and pumped his fist in the air. Celia looked grim. She didn’t like hurting people. She only did it out of necessity.
A bolt of light split the air. It was the color of a bright summer’s day, a sort of golden yellow-white that evoked a sense of joy purified and distilled into something tangible. Vesara, attempting to heal Jake. Bastian turned his attention away from his companions. They would have to handle themselves until he could get back to them.
Another bolt split the air. With the javelin still piercing his flesh, Vesara’s healing would sustain his life, but it might also do more harm than good. Bastian followed the path of the bolt to a window set into the wall. A line of of Jake’s green paint, marbled with faint traces of blue so that Vesara wouldn’t be bound to the wall completely, led from the ramp up to the window.
Bastian took a deep breath to prepare himself. Pulling his path away from the ground took a great effort, when traveling against gravity, but he could do it for brief periods. He shifted his will and, in an arc, travelled upward through the air. The path formed a glowing bridge behind him.
He reached the edge of a window with his hand held before him, ready. Vesara backed away, though she had little place to go. Her braids swung as she looked down behind her at the long drop to the ground.
A pinprick of light formed in the air near her head. One of the biggest disadvantages to her ability was the time it took to implement. As she described it, she had to conceptualize and form a gate to the well of energy she commanded, forging it into a specific shape to properly channel the energy from the proper well.
Bastian was much faster. A cloud of shards blew from his hand, enveloping Vesara’s face and upper body. The light winked out. He didn’t look back at what he had done to her. She was too young for this, younger than Celia by several years. She didn’t belong here. He left before her body faded away.
Moving downward through the air required much less effort. The path he had formed going upward had not yet faded, but he took a new path regardless. In a swooping arc, he travelled downward toward the pavilion.
Bastian’s path had faded from the pavilion’s floor. Jake writhed on the floor at Celia’s feet. Bastian blinked. Jake’s right arm, bared by his sleeveless shirt, was held at an awkward angle. It… He didn’t have much time to observe. For some reason, Jake seemed to be struggling to move his wrist from his shoulder. His spear lay on the ground next to him.
Ryse stood between Celia and Gleam. Celia could do even less against Gleam than Bastian could. She had to stay back out of harm’s way. Gleam swung. Ryse had moved his floating orb back to his arm, where it had once again formed the glowing shield. He ducked and brought his shield arm upward. He didn’t attempt to stop the blow. Even with his armor, he didn’t have the strength. Instead, he moved with it, sending it wide and throwing Gleam off balance.
Bastian came up behind Gleam, bringing the edge of his path up against Gleam’s ankles. Bastian gestured upward with both hands. A wall of crystallized energy grew up between Gleam’s legs, slamming into his groin. It shattered where it met the marble of Gleam’s body, but it did what Bastian had intended. As Gleam turned to assess the new threat, his legs twisted around the wall. The wall shattered and faded away. Bastian slid swiftly under Gleam’s falling body and back. Gleam fell upon Bastian’s path, hard. The crystal cracked under his weight.
“Curses unto both of you,” Gleam said. His voice echoed from the general direction of his body, not from his faceless head. It unsettled Bastian. Bastian drew power up from his path and sent a stream of shards at Gleam.
“Keep him from getting back up,” Ryse said, as though the thought hadn’t already occurred to Bastian. With the cloud of crystals still flowing from one hand, eroding Gleam’s head and shoulders, Bastian moved his disc of energy close to Gleam’s sword. He brought up another quick wall underneath Gleam’s hand as Gleam attempted to bring the sword around. The sword from away from the golem.
Ryse struck at Gleam’s chest with his spear. The marble chipped away. Gleam reached up with his empty hand, nealy catching the shaft of Ryse’s spear. The golem shift his body, moving his other hand under him in an attempt to get up. It slid on the slick surface of Bastian’s path. His body hit the ground once more, this time with his chest to the earth.
Celia moved in, suprising Bastian. “Celia, what are you doing?” he asked, in spite of himself. Normally he tried not to question his allies when his foes could hear.
“I want to try something,” she said. “Just let me.” She bent forward. Her hair reached out. It wrapped around Gleam’s ankle. Bastian frowned. Her hair could move of its own accord, but it had no strength. He didn’t know what she sought to accomplish.
When her hair pulled away, an arc of stone had formed around Gleam’s joint. Somehow she had attached it to the stone of the pavilion’s floor. In fact, it appeared to be the same type of stone.
“Celia, what did you do?” Bastian said, though he didn’t know what more she could tell him beyond what he saw. “Did you know you could do that?”
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” she said. “I sort of tested it on him.” She gestured to where Jake writhed on the ground. She moved to Gleam other ankle, where her hair pushed outward to repeat the process.
“Don’t kill them,” Ryse said, stepping back from Gleam, who was still fighting to get up.
“What?” Bastian said. He ceased his stream of shards. “Why not?”
“I’ve just had an idea,” Ryse said. He looked excited. “Vesara can’t fight all three of us on her own.”
“No, so why should we leave these two alive?” Bastian asked.
“Celia, bind his legs further. Make sure he can’t resist,” Ryse said. Energy filled his voice beyond what Bastian had heard from him before. “Bastian, go look at what Celia did to Jake.” Ryse began hacking away at Gleam’s shoulder joint with his spear. Chips of marble flew through the air. Gleam tried to stand, but he didn’t have the leverage to break Celia’s bonds on his legs. Ryse struck at his hand whenever it found anything resembling purchase.
Bastian glided over closer to where Jake lay on the ground. The first thing he noticed, though it was perhaps the smallest detail, was that Jake was crying. Then Bastian realized why Jake couldn’t move his arm properly. The flesh of his forearm and his bicep had grown together, forming a bridge. His arm looked more like a fin than a human appendage.
“Bastian,” Jake said. His tear-filled eyes turned upward to meet Bastians. “Help me.”
Bastian turned to the side and vomited. The fingertips of Jake’s other hand had fused with the flesh where his shirt had been opened by the javelin. Hands on his knees, Bastian stared at the ground, refusing to turn around. He didn’t want to look at Jake, nor could he bring himself to face Celia. Behind him, the sound of Ryse’s spear separating Gleam from his limbs rang through pavilion.
“Please,” Jake sobbed. “Please, Bastian. Just send me back to the room.”
“You are cold,” Gleam said. Bastian turned his head just enough so that he could see Gleam at the edge of his vision. The Golem’s inhumanity made his suffering easier to bear. “Master Evran would approve.”
Bastian shifted so that he could put his hand on the orb. He shook his head. He could kill the people he fought, because he knew that they wouldn’t truly die. They just popped back into the room as though nothing had happened. But this, this was cruel. He could never have done what Celia and Ryse were doing.
“If we don’t kill them, they don’t reset,” Ryse explained. He sounded less excited, now, and closer to fatigued. Bastian said nothing. He had figured out their plan. “Vesara can’t approach and take us on by herself. She can’t heal either of them from this.”
“She could kill them,” Bastian said. He turned his gaze to the ramp leading to where their foes had begun the game. By now, Vesara would have reawakened there. She must be wondering where her companions were. Perhaps she hoped they had persevered. “It would be kinder.”
“We won’t let her,” Celia said. “We have to win.”
Despite himself, Bastian looked behind him. Ryse was now working to remove Gleam’s legs. Soon, the golem would be completely useless. Bastian still couldn’t look at Jake, who had given up on pleading.
“I hate this,” Jake said, between sobs. “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.”
“I do, too,” Bastian whispered.
Celia came up beside him. She placed her hand on the orb, so that her fingers met with his. He shifted so that they weren’t in contact. He couldn’t look at her. The orb began to fill faster with the green light that represented their team. Gleam and Jake had filled it roughly one third of the way with violet light. Once the light of Bastian’s team filled it by more than half, they would win.
“I’m finally going to win,” Celia said, her voice quiet. It lacked for the joy Bastian might have expected, given her earlier frustrations.
“You’ve always been able to win,” Bastian said. “Did you know you could do that?”
“No,” Celia said. “I’m not like you.” She brushed her free hand through her hair. “This was new to me, before I came here. I’m still learning about it. There isn’t much time to think in this place. There’s only time to do.”
Bastian didn’t reply. His mind was stuck fearing the next time he saw Celia on the other team. The sound of Jake weeping sent a shudder through Bastian’s body.
Ryse, his task finished, joined them at the orb. The light began to fill the orb faster. “I wonder what Vesara is doing.”
“She already lacks confidence,” Bastian said. “She might fear approaching without her teammates.”
“Maybe,” Ryse said.
Silence followed. Bastian didn’t want to speak to them right now. He felt awful, despite the fact that they would likely win. This seemed far worse than anything he had done before. Silence. Wait, he thought. Why has Jake stopped crying?
He turned. Red paint had pooled beneath Jake’s body, seeping out from his hands and feet alike. A reaction born of Bastian’s time in this place drove him forth. He pulled Celia behind him and cast up a shield just as Jake set the paint aflame. A gout of flame enveloped Jake’s body, immolating him.
“Shit,” Ryse said. “We should have been watching him closer.”
“Jake is smart,” Bastian said. When the flames cleared, Jake’s body and spear were gone. “He must have been feigning at least some of his… discomfort.” Bastian returned his hand to the orb. He felt grateful that Jake had ended his own suffering. He glanced at Gleam, whose torso and limbs lay on the ground like a toppled mannequin.
A flash of violet lit the pavilion. Bastian turned at what felt like a snail’s pace. Celia. Her hand left the orb as her body lost its strength. Her hair writhed through the air, whipping in a frenzy. It groped at the hole that pierced her head: a cylindrical maw, crackling at the edges with a violent glow from which her hair withdrew. She toppled.
Bastian turned. With his free hand, he cast up a shield as Vesara sent another attack their way. She had snuck around the side. Smart. Smarter than Bastian had expected, especially with her on her own. She wasn’t much of a strategist. Still, even with Celia down, she was too late.
Bastian’s shield dissolved. A pulse rippled through the air from the crystal, a physical jolt that Bastian felt down to his bones. Time slowed. He nodded to Vesara, who stopped running toward them. They had filled the crystal far enough. As time ground to a halt, Vesara’s hand rose into the air. She waved at them. A half smile graced her lips.
Bastian turned to Ryse. He held out his hand. Their palms met for a congratulatory shake just as time froze and Bastian felt his consciousness begin to fade. They had won. He didn’t like the method. He was glad Celia was not there. He did not want to congratulate her on her methods.
Soon, the process would begin anew. Bastian’s vision faded. For now, whatever brief instants of nonexistence he had would be his only respite.