When Jake revived, he noticed two things: First, he stood in a completely different part of town. Second, he held another note in his hand.
Staff of Asrai: 0
A score. Well, that meant Jake and the golden man weren’t the only ones who had fallen prey to Telline. The list also provided Jake with a list of his competitors. He recognized all but one, “Staff of Asrai,” which had to mean that was the name for the golden man. Jake frowned. That had to mean that the staff, with its odd blue eyeball, was in fact the competitor, not the man wielding it. He wondered what that meant for the man.
Telline was dangerous, if he didn’t see her coming or figure out it was her aura messing with his senses. That’s how she’d gotten the drop on him before. She was fast, incredibly agile, and she could breath gouts of flame like some mythical dragon. He had made that comparison to her face once. He wouldn’t do that again.
All of the competitors were dangerous, actually. Ryse’s armor meant that Jake’s paints had little effect on him. Bastian’s path negated any paints Jake laid as a trap on the floor. Ora could kill him swiftly and easily from the greatest range. Naleya could seek him out, and the more time she was given, the more dangerous she would become. Mikael, who came from Elal like Jake and Bastian, was a Powered with an extra set of arms capable of some dangerous tricks. The Staff of Asrai was a difficult foe.
Celia, though. In the past, Jake would have labelled her as one of his easier opponents. Her healing was quick and focused, and her ability to produce weapons could be useful, but in one-on-one combat he had never seen her as much of a threat. Now that she had apparently discovered a new use for her power, though, the thought of facing her again made him sick.
Jake took a deep breath. If he was going to put his all into this — and he had resolved to do so — he would need to be smart about it. He would try to seek out Naleya as much as possible to keep her shut down. If he kept taking her out, she wouldn’t be able to produce her servants. Now he just had to locate her.
Rather than skate on his paint, Jake began to jog. Skating allowed him to move faster, but it also made tracking him very easy. He glanced down the street to orient himself. He was much closer to the clock tower now, on the other side of the river. He could see the place where Telline had killed him on top of the hill. If his mental map of the arena could be trusted, he had appeared close to where he had seen Naleya’s flying servant rise into the air.
Something tapped his elbow. Jake’s body locked up. A fuzzy, tingling sensation washed over his skin as he froze in place, utterly immobile. Ora. This was the effect of one of her arrows. He could only hope she would miss with her follow-up. He couldn’t even move his eyes to scan the rooftops for her.
But Ora never missed, did she? Not somebody who was standing still. He felt the arrow pierce his head. For a horrifying moment, he could see the arrowhead protruding from between his eyes. Then everything faded to black.
He came back again in another part of the town. In his hand he held another paper, with the updated score upon it. No change, except the extra point Ora had gained for getting him. He discarded it.
Shit. He was full of mistake after mistake today. He should have been using his orange paint against the golden man from the start. He should have realized that one of Ora’s points had come from killing Naleya. He had watched her pursue Naleya across the rooftop. Why hadn’t he thought that through?
He stood closer to his previous location than last time. He now stood in the middle of a street on the other side of the main street, away from the shops, in a convincing imitation of a residential neighborhood. Tall, old trees shaded the the road and the houses from the sun.
Jake moved out of the road to where he could press himself up against a hedge row. At least from one side he wouldn’t be visible. He began moving along the street, back toward town. There was no point in hiding. The score sheet told him he hadn’t lost any points for dying. His eyes scanned his exposed sides constantly.
It was his ears, though, that brought something to his attention. Across the street, from behind a house, he heard the signs of scuffle, of metal striking metal, and of female voices, though he couldn’t make out what they were saying from here.
Jake skated across the street and up the wide driveway. He climbed nimbly up the side of the house. Two stories. He peeked in a window as he passed. It looked like a kid’s room on his home world, complete with stuffed animals and posters. It looked like it had never been slept in. The sheets were perfectly arranged, flat and straight, like a perfectionist’s illustration.
The roof of the house came to a peak. Jake pressed himself flat against the shingles to peer over it at the people below. Naleya stood with her back to him, breathing hard. Her left hand held her right bicep in a tight grip, though blood still seeped from the wound hidden by her fingers. She still held her sword in hand, but barely. Its tip brushed the grass. One of her servants clung to her back, a fluffy, furred creature with a prehensile tail that wrapped around Naleya’s waist. Two others, grey-furred, bipedal canines the size of human toddlers, lay on the ground, dead.
Celia faced her. Jake swallowed at the sight of her. Her hair writhed about her head like a storm cloud whipped by the wind. Its odd, flat blankness made it difficult to focus on her head. She held a sword and a shield, each made out of large, single pieces of material, which told Jake she had produced them from her hair. Celia had no visible wounds.
“We don’t have to do this,” Naleya said. “We don’t have to be who they force us to be.” Jake studied her. She had only the one visible wound. Perhaps her leather armor, which covered her torso and draped down over her legs as a skirt, had protected her from other blow. The creature on her back, though, was more likely protector. It could produce bright shields of rippling light, which deflected both physical and magical blows.
“What choice do we have?” Celia asked, sound cold. Colder than Jake remembered her. “Don’t you feel it, Naleya? The drive to win?”
“I do,” Naleya said. Her voice shook. “But I hate this, Celia. I don’t like hurting people.”
“I thought the same,” Celia said. “Before this. Before my last match. Now I think I’ve realized something.”
“Do I even want to know?” Naleya asked.
Celia’s hair writhed angrily. “I’ve realized that, as much as I hate hurting people, I hate losing even more.
Naleya shook her head. “This placed has really messed you up, Celia.” She knelt, placing her sword on the ground. She held her hands out before her. A reddish light blossomed between her arms.
An odd move, Jake thought. She was trying to form another servant. It left her wide open to Celia’s possible attacks. Perhaps she was counting on her shield servant to protect her, but it couldn’t maintain its shields indefinitely — it could only provide them in short bursts.
“Come on, Naleya,” Celia said, stalking forward. She brought her sword up. “Do you really think I’m going to let you get away with that?”
Then Jake saw Naleya’s design. The grass behind Celia rippled and twisted as another of Naleya’s servants wound its way toward Celia from behind. Like a snake, it struck. It threw its body forward and tangled around Celia’s leg. It moved like a snake, and from a distance, it looked like one, but Jake had seen one of them up close. It had no proper head, only a mouth of sharp teeth and beady eyes stuck on the end of a long, agile body which had sides as sharp as blades.
The servant, with its upper body tangling Celia’s legs, whipped its lower body forward. It wrapped around Celia’s torso, pinning her arms to her sides. The sharp scales along its sides cut into her flesh. Celia screamed. Her hair scrabbled ineffectually at the servant, but it lacked any real strength to dislodge the creature.
Jake’s chance had come. As Telline had done to him, he would do to them. He jumped over the peak of the roof and slid down the other side, then down the back wall of the house. Celia’s eyes flashed toward him, achingly wide. He ignored her.
Naleya didn’t noticed her warning. Jake slapped both hands onto the sides of her head, leaving a thick splatter of yellow paint. He ran a hand down the shield servant’s back, too, for good measure. He pulled away. With a thought, he electrified the paint.
Naleya’s body convulsed as the paint burned itself away. It poured a powerful electric current through her body and that of her servant. Naleya fell backward, stunned, at least, but probably dead.
Her serpentine servant still worked the restrain Celia, following the last commands Naleya had given it.
“Jake,” Celia said, her voice strangled by the pain of the cuts the servant was opening all across her body. “Jake, I’m sorry for what I did to you before.”
“No you’re not,” he said. He had a hard time meeting her eyes when he thought about it: his flesh fused together, his arm bent at an awkward angle because a sheet of skin had formed between his bicep and his forearm. He had pled for Bastian to help him, by killing him. In the end he had killed himself. “I heard what you just said. That you realized you like winning more than you hate killing.”
“Well,” Celia said. “I don’t know if that’s true or if I’m just trying to find a way to survive this place.”
“You can’t die,” Jake spat. He knew what he wanted to do to her. He wanted to pour red paint down her throat and ignite it for what she had done to him. No. He shook his head, disgusted at the violence of his own thoughts.
“You know what I mean,” she snapped. Her sword hand shifted. She tried to work the blade between her flesh and the binding coils of Naleya’s servant. Her hair, moving of its own accord, grew longer, wrapping around the servant. “Mentally. None of us are going to come out of here like we came it.”
Jake grunted. “You still have hope that we will get out?” He knew he had to draw closer to her in order to finish her off, to score a point. To get some kind of vengeance, maybe. But the thought of her hair reaching out to touch him again made the sick pit in his stomach twist painfully.
“Don’t you?” she asked. “Don’t you have a husband to go back to? I don’t have anyone, but I know I don’t want to be here.”
Something about her mentioning David broke Jake out of his stillness. He whipped his spear brush off of his back and brought it down across her face. Her hair reached out, moving as quickly as it could, but Jake’s weapon tore right through it. He had considered painting her orange, but Celia had to be finished in one blow, or her hair would just repair what damage had been done to her. He a red line from her forehead to her knee.
Then he ignited it.
He turned away from her as she burned. It helped him ignore the screams. He planned to check Naleya’s body, to make sure she was dead, but it had vanished. He felt no joy in having killed her, but at least he had a point. He walked to the edge of the house, where he paused, listening to Celia’s screams quiet and then, blessedly, cease.
He glanced back. Her body had vanished, leaving a small patch of burning grass and charred bits of Naleya’s servant. Two points.
For the first time in his life, Jake hated his Talent. He had always reveled in it before. At home, he was part of a team, but they rarely had to hurt people. He loved skating around on his paint, or using his green and blue paints to enhance his parkour. The were his favorites. He rarely used any of the more volatile paints at home, where his goal was more often to incapacitate than to destroy.
This place made him think about how violent his power could be. He felt no pride in that. He felt disgust. He wanted to never have to use his red or orange paints again, but he knew that without them, he would never do well here. And, despite everything, despite his disgust and fear and loathing of this place, he still felt the drive to win.