Jake came into awareness. He blinked. As with every other time, it felt as though he had been asleep for months; or, no, more like he just hadn’t existed for a while. He didn’t feel groggy or physically or mentally fatigued. He did feel tired and worn down, though, and full of a longing for his home and his husband.
Jake took a breath. Now was not the time to think about home — but then, when was the time, here? He only ever had time to think about what was in front of him, about whatever task this forsaken place set before him to accomplish. The way it manipulated his mind made him care about it, too.
This time was different. He knew it right away, because he hadn’t appeared in a room. He stood outside, in a narrow alleyway between two buildings. Smooth, white cement paved the ground beneath his feet. The buildings rose up on either side of him, one painted a bold green, the other a rich, dark red. At the end of the alleyway, he could see a slice of a cobbled street. A flowering tree with a decorative cage around its base had been planted alongside the road.
For a brief moment, Jake allowed himself to hope that he had been freed. That perhaps, he had been deposited back somewhere on Elal, even if he didn’t recognize this location precisely. Then he noticed that, in addition to the spear-brush he held in his right hand, his left hand held a piece of paper. A note.
“Fight,” it said. “Defeat the most enemies and you will win.” As always, it was written in a language he did not recognize, yet which he somehow found himself able to read and understand.
Win what? There was always a promise of winning, in these twisted games in which he found himself. Always a suggestion of a reward, of something beyond completing the game only to find himself in another an instantaneous eternity later. Yet, as far as he knew, he had never been given anything of merit for winning.
Jake crumpled the paper and tossed it to the ground. In his real life, he would never consider littering. Here it felt good to be spiteful to whatever person or people or forces had trapped him here.
Jake slung his spear over his shoulder, where it snapped into the holster he wore slung across his back. A sheen of paint appeared on his hands, appearing on the outside of the leather gloves that protected his skin when he used his paint to climb. The paint, a bold green marbled with faint lines of blue to prevent him from sticking, would be difficult to see on the green wall of the building next to him.
He began to climb. With his first step onto the wall, he called paint to the bottom of his shoes, as well. When he’d been younger, he had only been able to produce the paint directly from his flesh. It had taken years of time and practice to realize he could manifest it on the outside of tight clothing items, as well as on the end of anything he held that sufficiently resembled a brush.
From the roof of the building, Jake would be able to get an idea of the arena. He ascended quickly. The roof was flat, with short walls all around it. Perfect. If he so chose, he could hide here. In fact… In fact, he was going to do that. He was going to try to fight the compulsion to attempt to win.
With his body flat to the roof, he arched his back to peek over the side of the low wall. This was one of the taller buildings in the area, and it seemed Jake had been deposited atop a low hill. Only a clock tower, down toward the base of the hill, stretched further toward the sky. The place resembled a small, peaceful village. Interesting. There was another arena like that, thought it didn’t look nearly so pleasant and cheerful.
The village was roughly circular, with what looked like shops along the street that ran down its center and houses toward the outside edge. A river split the town halfway, running perpendicular to the main street and crossed by several bridges. Past the borders of the town, rolling, grass-covered hills extended into the visible distance, shattering with their monotonous perfection the illusion that this place was real.
The desire to seek out his opponents appeared like an itch. He felt a strong need to scratch it. He told himself he was gathering information and planning for his route of attack. That satisfied the itch just enough to allow him to continue as he was. He knew that, eventually, it would grow too strong.
He peered over the edge of the roof, looking for hints about his opposition. The letter made it clear that there would be others here, if his past experiences didn’t already make that obvious. The only question was who it would be.
Perhaps a block away, down the hill toward the river, he spotted something rising into the air. A small something: not one of his opponents, but a product of one of them. It moved through the air like a bird, on flapping wings rather than as the effect of a Talent, though it had been produced by something like one.
Naleya came from a world that didn’t have nearly as many Powered beings as Elal. As Jake had learned from his time here, it seemed that most worlds did not. Naleya’s world sounded vastly different from Jake’s own. For one thing, she had been awed by the presence of the sky; or, as she put it, the lack of the ceiling. Naleya claimed she had been granted her ability by an insane wizard, though her entire story seemed far-fetched to Jake.
Regardless, her abilities were not in question. She could create, out of thin, a small variety of animals with minor Talents of their own, which she called her Servants. Individually, they were not all that dangerous, but she could create as many of them as she had time for, and she was aware of everything they perceived. Even if nobody else was here, Jake wouldn’t be able to hide from her forever, and every moment he spent not engaging her would make the fight more difficult in the long run.
The compulsion forced him to his knees as a desire to stand filled his consciousness. No. He took a deep breath. He didn’t allow himself to rise any further. He watched the bird closely. He tried to tell himself he needed to find out about his other foes. It wasn’t working. His hand gripped the edge of the wall. Unbidden, he realized orange paint was pouring from his palm. The wall dissolved, bit by bit, under its touch. Jake made a fist. The orange paint ceased, but that which he had already produce still melted the wall.
He looked back at the bird just in time to see it tumble from the air. He blinked. From here, he couldn’t see what had struck it, which meant that the attack wouldn’t have been Ryse, Vesara, or another combatant with flashy ranged attacks. It could have been Bastian, though his little crystal bolts did glow. However, it was most likely to be Ora.
Jake frowned. He could fight Naleya one-on-one, if she didn’t have an overwhelming number of servants. She herself was not a strong combatant. Ora, though, put him at a disadvantage. The bow she carried fired an unlimited number of arrows, some of which had truly nasty effects, and Ora had incredible aim. Jake would have to sneak up on her if he were to take her on, as he had no ability to attack at range with the equipment he had been given here.
He scanned the rooftops. Like himself, Ora would have endeavored to take the high ground, where she could use her bow with relative impunity. Ah. Yes, it was her. He recognized her silhouette, with her multitude of braids gathered up into a bun atop her head. She crouched on a slanted rooftop, bow held ready in her hands, scanning, Jake guessed, for Naleya. Unless Naleya had sent her bird away from her before allowing it to rise up, its appearance would have given away her position.
Jake watched as Ora drew back her bow and fired toward another rooftop. A black line extended out from it, perfectly straight. Not an arrow, not really, though she treated it like one when she fired. It hovered there in mid-air. He couldn’t see from here, but his past experience told him that it had widened at the top, become a narrow, flat bridge. Ora stepped onto it and ran across it between the two buildings. As always, Jake marveled at her balance. Moments later, the line faded away.
Without even realizing what he had done, Jake found himself standing. He had one leg over the edge of the roof before he caught himself. He whipped his leg back over the side and threw himself to the flat surface of the roof. He and Ora weren’t the only ones who could reach a rooftop, after all.
With his heart racing, Jake swore to himself. What was he doing? He wasn’t a coward. With his husband and their team by his side, he would face anything. Yet here, he found himself cowering on a rooftop, attempting to hide from a fight that he knew had no consequences. Even if he died, he would just reawaken here all over again, with only the memory of the event to tell him it had even happened.
No. No, that was dirty. That was a low move on the part of whoever made him feel things that weren’t true to his own mind. He knew he wasn’t a coward, because he wasn’t hiding here out of fear. This place drove him mad. He didn’t get to think his own thoughts. He didn’t have time to sort out all of the horrible things he had seen happen, all of the awful things he had done to people that he never wanted to do to people in real life… not to mention all of the things that had been done to him. He could never look at Celia again the same way, after… after…
He barely had time to think about home and how much he missed it. His longing for the comfort of his husband’s arms ached like a wound. Just the idea of feeling something good, even if it was just his husband’s hand on his arm, brought tears to Jake’s eyes. He slammed both hands onto the rooftop.
What if David could be here? Jake could hold him in his arms, tell him how much he loved him, how much he missed him and how he didn’t want to be away. He knew David must be afraid, knew that he must wonder why Jake had disappeared and where he had gone. If David were here… If he were here…
Well, then he would have to die over and over again, too. He would have to fight and kill and destroy. David was Powered, and his Talents worked well with Jakes. He would do well here, especially on Jake’s team. But he would have to hurt people, and be hurt in return. Like Jake, he would never be the same. Jake couldn’t put him through that.
And what about those times when they were placed on opposing sides? What if they had to fight against each other, and hurt each other, and, forced by the drive that wove itself through the fiber of every person that had been transplanted here, kill each other? Jake shuddered at the thought. It terrified him.
Now, he felt afraid. Not afraid of acting, of going out and doing what this place wanted him to do — no, he felt a deep, chilling fear that if he didn’t do that, if he didn’t perform as expected, David would be brought here. David would have to go through this same suffering. David would have to die, again and again, and each time, know that he was dying, feeling his life slip away into nothingness, knowing he had used it for something utterly purposeless —
— only to come back into life, mere moments later, disoriented and yet still driven to continue, to win, to triumph over foes who were, at other times, the only friends Jake had, the only people he could look to for comfort and solace.
Jake stood. He would not allow David to suffer the fate he was now suffering. If it meant that David would never have to see this place, Jake would fight to the end. He would kill anyone this place made him kill. He knew that the fear that David would be brought here was irrational, but that didn’t matter, because he suspected the thought was not entirely his own.
“You got me!” He shouted to the sky, arms held wide. “You fucking got me!” He didn’t care who heard. He would beat them. He would beat all of them, for David.