Alliance ch 8: Revenge is not Becoming
In a moment of brilliance, Izeko had suggested the hrausq leaders pose as they were lifted into the arena. Twi thought it a great idea when riding next to him on the tram through Mumir’s tunnels, but here alone, standing in a circle delineated by a luminous line, she drew a blank.
Perhaps something flirty?
She stood on her toes and leaned forward, behind accentuated. Her scarlet suit and black bolero stretched with her, embracing her curves a little too much.
Her back twitched, and she flowed into another stance, booted feet planted and hands facing one another in front of her collarbone.
Maybe it should be an inside joke with my hrausq. I’ll copy Entrycii when he’s trying to keep a wetsphere round.
She felt ridiculous holding the pose for more than three seconds.
A cylinder dropped, bordering a slender space around her, and her platform rose.
This wasn’t a good idea after all, not just Izeko’s stunt, but this whole situation. Distorted light rippled through the gelatinous window above, and her heart mimicked that wavering illumination, flickering and uneven. Her ankle throbbed a warning that standing was hard enough. Don’t ask for too much more. Her lower back echoed the sentiment.
Why did I think I could do this?
She bent her knees, one shin crossing over the other to relieve her still-healing ankle. The pose was a warm-up stretch, but it would have to suffice. Her head and shoulders pushed at the clear portion of ceiling, and it gave, resembling melted slush as her platform met the arena’s floor seamlessly.
Forcing a smile, she waved at the crowd ten stories above, barely visible beyond the curved sheet of light that drew the arena’s edges. Per Aberrant tradition, this game would be played within a spherical field.
This isn’t the Aberrant version of shymgo, though, she reminded herself.
In this iteration, one Controller could not order his team to kill another, for instance. Same as in their version, however, white dominated the scene. “So you can see the blood easier,” a professional had told her.
We are not Aberrant. We are different in the best possible ways.
Seven stories above her head, four Controller thrones waited on the goal platform. Discs formed the path there, variously sized and orbiting at diverse heights and speeds. Six other hrausq leaders stood on the blindingly bright floor, waving to their teammates in pie-slice boxes around the sphere’s equator.
Sorry, foot. Standing around isn’t an option. Please don’t make me disappoint my team.
Izeko approached, wonder hovering within his narrow features. “Seems larger than life.”
Twi’s smile blossomed. “See you at the top?”
“Of course.” His icy, lavender eyes remained glued to the clockwork above as he zipped up his jacket over his lean frame. He only did that when he was serious.
I can do this. I will win this.
A blend of chime and gong sounded. The seven racers dashed for the lowest disc, and its elliptical orbit carried all of them three stories above the floor. Despite her limp, Twi kept up. Confidence surged, a warm tingle from her chest to her toes. She could do this.
She sighted her next target, feet spread wide for balance, ready to leap the instant it came within range.
As soon as her toes were in the air, an elbow slammed into her gut and threw her back.
She would not land on a disc. Breathless, she reached for anything, and Izeko caught her hands, pulling her back to the first saucer.
He fixed a glare on the hrausq leader who had so rudely displaced her. “I suggest staying away from Ezu.”
With a palm on her bruised stomach, Twi silently agreed.
Gaze locked on a disc about to pass above, she announced, “I have an idea. Forgive me.”
She placed her hands on either side of his collar, slipped her foot into the crook of his elbow, and catapulted into a handstand on his shoulders. Her toes barely reached the edge of the passing disc, but her ’netics locked on to the brushed metal.
Izeko steadied her forearms, sprinting to stay under her as she slid one foot higher and wrapped a knee over the circle’s edge. With a twist, she planted a hand next to her thigh, but Izeko ran out of lower disc. His grasp locked around her arm, and he swung, a painful strain on her shoulders.
The disc’s repulsers buzzed to her ’netic senses, changing pitch as Izeko curled, grip flipping upside-down. They hissed as his heel fell into the bend of her elbow and took his weight. She tightened her call on the metal, willing her grip to last long enough for him to finish whatever he planned.
With a final ’netic shove, he bounded to the disc’s surface, towing her with him. She landed on one knee, fingers splayed on either side of her foot. Her back was a bed of coals, her ankle a vein of magma.
Breathe, Twi. I can do this. Just stand up like Izeko.
His cerulean birthmarks glistened, adding to the radiance of his smirk as he searched for their next disc. “Teamwork for the win.”
Shymgo wasn’t supposed to be about teamwork. It was a cruel game invented by a Tala of the same name when the seventeenth Aberrant high boss had requested this potential teammate first prove his power.
Lulii Stella knew its lore and bloody history, yet she had supported Mystis’ suggestion to use a modified version for this third phase of the reorder. As she stood, face nearly pressed against the window of her viewing box, regret roiled in her core.
Twi isn’t ready for this.
Myr and Dr. Qcoice had even advocated against using the sport. Stella had been the tiebreaker, siding with Mystis and Terkis. She could kick herself. Had she really not believed her own student would make it this far?
Qcoice sprawled on the pew behind her, twang sharp. “Did Izeko just use Twi as a ladder?”
“After she used him as a stepping stool.” Stella swallowed, gaze flicking to her fellow Adjuvant leaders.
As expected, Mystis had declined to join them. Myr’s absence was surprising, though. Frown etched deep across his red-bearded mien, Terkis sat, arms crossed, on what little remained of the bench alongside Qcoice. The doctor lounged as she did just to irk him, despite how the furniture had been scaled to fit her lengthy Lettaplexal frame. The giant pillows everywhere made Stella feel like a doll.
She tsked. “Should Twi be moving around so much?”
Qcoice threw her a sharp-toothed grin. “You doubt my skill?”
“She could barely even sit up when you let her traipse out of the med-center in search of that Aylata.”
“Only once,” Qcoice tutted. “The Ier damaged her mind as much as her body, and without the mind’s strength, the body is at its weakest. If she did not find him, she would not have healed.”
“So you have said and why we have allowed him to be.” Stella turned back to the window, pulling her wrappings tighter around herself. Her reflection formed a midnight blue blur, face concealed by the shadow of her cowl and the scarf pulled over her nose. “Even if I imagined Twi would walk again, I dared not hope she would hop about with such agility.”
“She’s a determined little one.” Qcoice chuckled. “A bit of a limp persists, though you avoid her so adamantly, I doubt you’ve noticed.”
Shrugging off the jab, Stella backed away from the window. In lieu of an available seat, she dropped onto a pillow larger than she was. “Twi and Izeko work well together.”
Terkis huffed. “Someone needs to remind those two this is a race.”
“Teamwork is never a flaw.” With a heavy sigh, Qcoice spread herself even further, hip pressing into Terkis’ side. “If he performs well here, many expect Mystis to make Izeko her third agent.”
Stella smiled. Izeko had succeeded her as her master’s student, and she felt a strange mix of pride and responsibility for him, especially since…
No, she would not think of those long gone.
With a deep breath, she fixed a challenging stare on Terkis. “Twi and Izeko recognize the subtler purposes of this competition better than others. Perhaps more than even you.”
Ezu seemed wild, an image not disputed by the tattered rips in his long coat, his shock of viridian hair, and his baggy pants messily tucked into spike-sprinkled boots. His fierce strikes at any who attempted to pass him earned a lengthy lead on the others.
Twi peered at him from a higher disc as the gap between them shrank. She kept up with Izeko, but he was holding back, every move conscious of where she was, only choosing jumps they could both make.
Her gaze slid to the sphere’s equator. Had his team noticed?
“We’re still competitors.” He leapt to the next disc.
She followed. “You only wait on competitors if you need to use them, and we’re level with the goal platform now, Izeko. You don’t need me.”
“On principle, I need you to beat Ezu.” He sent a tight grin over his shoulder, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Just hurry.” Another leap, another saucer, another pause to make sure she was right behind him.
With a shake of her head, she lined up the jump, knees bent, feet pushing off.
A forcefield shot at her from behind, a rippling net of blurred, pale blue lightning. Tucking into a backflip, she wrapped herself in her own forcefield to cushion the blow. Ezu slid beneath her, but his momentum carried him past the disc’s edge, and he desperately clung to it. Twi landed on its center, eyes set on the next one. To reach it, she would have to leap over him.
Izeko waved her forward, the hypocrite. He was two discs ahead, but instead of advancing toward the goal, his route was lateral, still waiting for her.
She knelt, hands pressed against the ribbed metal, and the life pulse of her cells called to the molecular movement around her. It was a symphony with infinite parts, and she was the conductor. She was the disc. It was part of her, and it called another, willing it nearer.
Both discs shuddered and slowed, deviating from their orbits. Caught between them, Ezu’s ’netic grip failed. He clawed at the metal but gained no purchase, losing the battle with gravity smidgen by smidgen.
With a snarl, he hurled another forcefield at Twi. She jumped, and as the released disc jerked back into orbit, it scooped him up. She dove for its edge, hands flexing against its warm surface as she dropped into a somersault and rolled to her feet in tandem with Ezu. They faced each other, motionless but vigilant on opposite sides of the rotating disc.
The Ier scar on her back was a raging inferno now, but she would be a proper Knalcal and ignore it. She forced herself to breathe calmly, to watch this pain-in-the-rear hrausq leader and be alert for her way out.
Get out of there!
Here in the hrausq waiting area, Xlack could do nothing useful. He paced in front of the clear shield that marked the edge of the arena. What would it take to make that barrier go away right now? He needed to be out there. Twi needed him, needed her team.
If she were allowed to have them out on the field, then the other teams would be running loose, too, but that didn’t matter, and if it was hrausq against hrausq…
His gaze cut to an adjacent waiting area. They must have been the other guy’s, all crowded close to the edge of the field, hollering for Ezu to knock her off or out.
With a scowl, Xlack stomped across the stretchy net that served as the floor. Said net made stomping difficult, but he didn’t care.
Before he reached the much thinner shield stretched between teams, Rifo stepped in his way.
“No fighting, or ya will get us kicked out of here. Just ignore them.”
Xlack traced his pointed look at the leaders’ viewing box and nodded. The leaders weren’t fond of him.
He stepped back, but his eyes swept the other hrausq again, committing their faces to memory.
As Twi glanced at a disc approaching from behind, Ezu charged. She leapt, evading the forearm aimed at her throat, but they both flew off the edge of their disc. Her boots hit his shoulder, and she jumped again, but he grabbed her left ankle, hand a vice—as if the fire door from Napix was back, shattering it again and again.
She choked on her cry, tumbling into a dive as her other foot scraped at his hand. He barely hooked an arm over a disc’s edge, and her fall stopped.
Pain poured in, no longer fire. It was ice. It formed a thin sheet over her body, crackling with every movement. It was a reminder that she could walk only because of the transplanted Lettaplexal cartilage framing her ankle bones. She was not invincible. Her broken parts would re-shatter if she asked too much of them.
Ezu was slipping. He threw her aside.
Flipping head over heels, she tried to shove pain from her mind.
A proper Knalcal.
Her eyes closed, but her ’netic senses painted a too-detailed picture of the world rushing past. She stretched out her arms to shape her fall.
Down was in front of her. She kicked out and flipped upright, arms thrown over her head, palms swiveled back. Her hands caught the edge of another disc. There she hung, her back to its repulsing current.
A buzz filled the waiting area, signaling the hrausq members to don their blindfolds. As others complied, Xlack stood motionless and wide-eyed in front of the border shield.
She didn’t answer. She looked like one hung out for execution. The pockets that diagonally striped her thighs and torso suddenly resembled claw marks.
“Yer blindfold, Ekymé.” Rifo dropped the thick black cloth over Xlack’s face.
He ducked, keeping his eyes on Twi. “No.”
“Ya have to.” With a hand on his shoulder, Rifo pulled him back a step.
Xlack shoved away, and Rifo stumbled into the shield. It hissed at his touch, and he flinched, cradling his arm, grimace unhidden. Pain and frustration wafted from him like smoke.
A burnt odor accosted Xlack’s nose, and he turned to him, an apology on the tip of his tongue, but Rifo spoke first. “Have a little faith in her, will ya?”
Xlack nodded, taking the blindfold from his amaraq. With one last look at Twi, he draped the cloth over his eyes and let it snap itself tight around his head.
Twi threw a leg over the edge of the disc and rolled onto the safety of its surface. There, she stole a moment to hold her screaming ankle. Her back echoed its pain, pulsing with each beat of her heart, and she breathed deep and deliberately.
Four other Hrausq Leaders were still below her. Izeko had reached the goal platform and commandeered a seat, a sys clipped to his ear. Ezu was nearly there as well. No sense desperately chasing after him. Twi could come in third. There was no shame in that.
Gathering her determination, she raced on.
Antsy behind his blindfold, Xlack shifted from one foot to the other as he searched his surroundings. The border shields dominated what his Kinetics could sense, but as he attempted to feel further, he got an idea.
He darted toward Ezu’s hrausq and jumped at the shield separating them. It threw him back, his feet stinging, but the shock didn’t steal his focus. He twisted, toes meeting the border between him and the playing field at a sprint.
The shields were not unlike a forcefield created by Kinetics. His Talent pushed against it, and it allowed him to run up its nearly vertical surface. Each step earned an unpleasant shock, but repetition stole the punishment’s effectiveness, fading it into an ignorable tingle.
Once released, hrausqs were expected to hop out onto mid-height discs level with the goal platform or slide down to the sphere’s floor. They would search for tracers, working their way up. Yet, in all the rules Rifo had dutifully recited for him, Xlack hadn’t heard any that forbade starting at the top.
Entrycii followed him.
Their headsets crackled as Twi took her seat. A few moments later, the fourth hrausq leader arrived, and a high-pitched ring echoed through the waiting area.
The forcefield beneath Xlack disappeared, and he landed with a metallic clang on one of the highest discs. Entrycii’s panic slammed into him, and he leaned over the edge to shove at his plummeting teammate.
Entrycii landed on his back, all breath knocked out of him. Motionless moments passed before his chest rose. His gasp turned into a cough, then gave way to complaint. “You couldn’t have tried to slow me down?”
“You didn’t die.”
Xlack sat on his feet, Kinetics scanning the scene. The blindfold was inconvenient, but similar exercises had been a staple throughout his schooling, limiting his other senses to hone what he perceived via his Talents, and these drew a more detailed view than his eyes could have.
A new shield had snapped into place, vertically bisecting the sphere. The discs’ orbit had stilled.
According to the rules, six tracers were scattered across this half of the field, each sending out a signal. Not all signals were tangible to Kinetics, though, and those that were often felt vague. Wherever the tracers waited, they were well hidden in the chaos of false signals, floating discs, strong shields, and the life-signatures of fourteen people running around blind.
Xlack wrapped a hand over the scanner strapped to his wrist. It would pick up the tracer signals and relay its information to Twi. In turn, she would direct her blindfolded teammates via their headsets.
He pressed a finger to the sys on his ear. “Anything up here on radar?”
She didn’t answer—a side effect of trying to instruct seven people at once, he supposed. Impatience slipped him another idea.
‘Send me a memory flash. Let me see what you see.’
‘That would be cheating.’
‘If that jerk was allowed to whack you with a forcefield, why can’t we use our Mind Talents?’
Reluctantly, Twi agreed, and Xlack smiled as he analyzed what she sent. With the scene in color, the floating discs shone bronze. The crimson of Rifo’s hair and the jade of his jacket popped against the sphere’s white wall as he slid to the floor.
Xlack wouldn’t admit it aloud, but it did look better this way.
Comparing what she saw with what he felt, he gained a sense of exactly where he was but not where he needed to be.
He scowled. Ezu sat next to Twi, and his sniveling minions roamed the field, trapped in this vertical hemisphere with Hrausq Seven-One-Nine.
Twi’s warning wafted into Xlack’s mind. ‘Revenge is not becoming, especially when one must give up an advantage to pursue it.’
‘That whole team is made of jerks.’
‘They are nowhere near you. Collect the tracers.’
Oh sure, that would be easy, but she still offered no hints as to where exactly he would find them.
He grunted and got to his feet. Was there any way he could wreak havoc on Ezu and his hrausq from up here without letting Twi know who had done it?
Entrycii finally stood and slowly swung his arm in a horizontal arc.
“What are you doing?”
Spine facing Xlack, Entrycii paused, then leapt to a further disc, fist outstretched before him like a tether. “I’m following my scanner.”
“It only talks to Twi.”
Entrycii shrugged. “I speak computer.”
“Of course you do,” Xlack muttered, rubbing his scanner again. Throughout the past few months, Twi had helped him with direct device communication, but it was complicated. The language was basically ‘on/off,’ and if it were just that, it would be easy. Unfortunately, most codes he encountered were long combinations of ‘on/off’ strung together way beyond his reading level.
Twi had also warned that despite training, most never mastered it. Entrycii followed his scanner easily enough, though. On the middle of a disc adjacent to Xlack’s, he picked up a coin-like object.
“I got one, Twi!”
“Stay put. You’re so far up there, it’ll be hard for them to reach you. Actually, scratch that. I don’t want to waste your ability to track tracers on your own. Aarex is on her way. Once she has it, go find another one. And good job.”
Xlack smiled, proud of their team. Down on the sphere’s floor, Rifo, too, collected a tracer and evaded pursuers. Each individual was only allowed to hold one at a time, so now that Rifo had his, he just had to hang onto it.
“Sitting that close to Entrycii, you’ll only pick up the tracer he holds. Go find your own.”
Xlack would love to, but still she gave him no instruction as to how to find it. Maybe she tested him, seeing if he could find it on his own?
He searched the field again.
One of Ezu’s hrausq grabbed a tracer, but Stevalok jumped on him, wrested it away, and retreated. Placing it firmly in Lanox’s grasp, he turned toward their opponents and defended her.
Xlack wanted a clash with them like that, to pay them back while still accomplishing the objective of this game. His legs shook, ready to get moving already, but as far as he could tell, none of them had any tracers yet.
He tried to come up with an excuse to go whack Ezu with a couple of unfriendly forcefields, but no matter what he said, Twi wouldn’t buy it. She would give him that stern, over-patient, disapproving look she always affected when he did something stupid.
Relieved by the small and nimble Aarex, Entrycii tracked down a second tracer. Close to the floor, Zeln had retrieved another and was circled by two opponents. Xlack decided to go help him, but as he raced to the rescue, his scanner’s signal changed.
Now on a mid-level disc, he stopped, arm swinging in a slow arc as Entrycii’s had. The scanner’s reading adjusted as he moved, strongest directly to his right. He took a few steps in that direction, then stopped again.
“You’re correct,” Twi said. “There are two tracers over there: the one Lanox has and…” She trailed off as sharp fear permeated the field.
Dr. Qcoice’s hand flew over her mouth in an aghast gesture. “We’ve got a Blamooka trapped in an enclosed space with Knalcals? How idiotic.”
Stella’s back was to the view, a glare on her associate. “It’s disturbing how you can say that with such amusement, Qcoice.”
“What I find intriguing is how someone decided to put that little Blamooka in the same hrausq as a true-talent Knalcal. In a doctorly way, I see them more often than I should. You silly Knalcals.”
“Sona tusa cannot be overcome,” Stella growled.
Few languages had a translation for the ancient Magni phrase, “gift take.” For everything that was gained, there was a price to be paid. Everything had a weakness. Knalcals feared fire, and the power that came with Magni heritage turned that fear against them. That was sona tusa, what the gift took.
Safely in the observation box and protected by a shield, Stella could turn away and pretend to forget the Blamooka’s terrifying flames. Twi, Ezu, and his two Knalcal hrausq members had no such luxury.
At least Entrycii, high up at the far edge of the field, hadn’t noticed.
Hrausq Seven-One-Nine held five tracers: Aarex and Entrycii each guarded one up high. Rifo played keep away down on the arena floor, and without their leader’s shouted instructions, the opponents who had chased him stumbled about, blind and lost.
Not too far away from him, Zeln also held a tracer, fists ablaze. The two opponents who had cornered him were as stiff as stone artwork at the center of a fountain. Instead of water, they gushed terror.
Near the field’s equator, Lanox remained just as still, tracer clenched in a two-handed grip in front of her chest. Stevalok stood before her, alert as Xlack passed them, headed for a disc partially in both hemispheres. There the last tracer waited.
‘What’s wrong, Twi?’
Several seconds passed, and by the time she did supply an unsatisfactory, ‘Sorry, Knalcal thing,’ he already knelt on his target disc. According to the scanner, the tracer should have been just under his feet, but it wasn’t. He swept his hands across the brushed metal, but there was nothing.
‘Under the disc,’ Twi said.
Lying flat, he slithered over the side and pushed his fist into the repulsing currents of the disc’s belly.
Another chime sounded, proclaiming one team held all six tracers in the other hemisphere. The hrausq that held none there was out, and as soon as a team on this side achieved the same, the dividing shield would drop.
Xlack’s scanner had gone silent, overwhelmed by the current. It felt like sticking his hand in boiling water. What idiot decided to place a tracer here? If he didn’t have Kinetics, this probably wouldn’t hurt, but without that Talent, he would have fallen already.
He slid further, groping closer to the disc’s center. His finger brushed a coin-like shape, but he couldn’t grab it, not while keeping his face out of the current. He should have told Stevalok where the prize was and switched places with him, guarding Lanox. That would make him the only team member who hadn’t acquired a tracer, though.
He jumped for it, cringing as the current seared his face, neck, and chest, but his fingers locked around the coin.
He was falling. Then he wasn’t, Stevalok’s grip around his ankles. A swift tug swung him toward another disc. As he flew, the dividing shield disappeared.
A spicy Zalerit scent hit him first. The air cackled, a shield spreading across knuckles. They punched his face.
Though Rifo had finally convinced Zeln to squelch his flames, Twi still couldn’t breathe. She watched Ekymé reel. The tracer soared out of his hands.
Stevalok caught it, dropkicking the one who had punched him. In true Zalerit fashion, Sažka changed color with the impact, from lavender to light orange. She plunged toward the floor so far below.
Another of her team caught her ankles and redirected her toward Lanox.
Twi and Izeko were on their feet as their amaraqs tumbled across the disc’s wide surface, coming dangerously close to its edge. One stood, held the tracer above her head, and returned to her usual lavender.
Sažka ripped her blindfold away, four, black-orb eyes finding her hrausq leader with a celebratory smile.
Hrausq Five-One-Four had won.
Continued in Chapter 9: Dumbest Mission Ever
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