Chapter 8 - Unyielding Flame
Entering through the Court of Fantasy’s colossal stone doors was like stepping into another world. Strobing lights and freshly fried smells churned about a sea of indiscernible chatter, flooding all Faeron’s senses at once. Hulking white trees rose above a jungle of flashy arcade machines. Their trunks were dressed in heavy coats of shimmering sapphire moss and their canopy of luminous leaves bathed the high walls of the colosseum in their mint-turquoise glow.
The ground beneath the mossy carpet rumbled as the walls of the labyrinth downstairs shifted. Meanwhile, screaming teens flew bright pink bumper-petals about the open air. Weaving in and out of the gleaming branches, they fired lasers that slowed the other petals and used the advantage to collide headlong, sending both parties spinning in spectacular fashion.
Faeron, Auri, and Quinn stood in the arcade’s front parlor, where many large groups relaxed in tree stump chairs around flat-capped mushroom tables, chatting gaily and sipping on colorful drinks. Beside the tables, a sizable reward shop exchanged tickets for all sorts of knick knacks. There were limited edition index skins and tasty treats from the Peak, but Faeron and Auri had their eye on a six-foot-tall stuffed mauturtle that had sat on display for months. If they pooled tickets, the pair were just eight-hundred shy of the thirty-two thousand they’d need to claim the plush prize for their balcony.
“Muum ears, one hundred tickets!” called a man at a white and blue striped cart near the reward counter. “Deep fried Muum ears, doughy and delicious. Get em sugared, get em spiced, get em annnyway you want them. Only one hundred tickets a plate!”
The salesman’s words were hardly needed, as the warm doughy smell alone was enough to hook Faeron. As the scent drew Faeron towards the cart, he was caught by Auri’s strong grasp.
“No way you’re spending turtle tickets on food when we’re about to eat for free,” demanded Auri, speaking for the first time since the three of them left the athenaeum.
Faeron’s stomach growled loudly, but he conceded and followed Quinn and Auri down a row of arcade machines. They walked in a loose line, weaving between Coin Slope machines and Gustpuck Tables. “Looser ladders litter lockers…” yelled two dark haired teens into the microphone of a Tonguetwist Booth, shouting louder and faster as they continued to repeat the phrase, “looser ladders litter lockers… lookers lacker lickers… Argh!”
Faeron, Quinn, and Auri worked slowly towards the back of the arcade where the trees were most dense. Nestled beneath the hulking branches and low hanging vines was the Deity Lounge. The lounge was two stories tall, its walls painted with murals of heroes from throughout the Deity saga. There was Sir Preston the Pure, Nautilus Dawngrog, and many others Faeron remembered well from when his mother used to read the stories before bed.
The vibrant chatter cloaking the arcade was even more vibrant near the lounge. The climbing vines that often drew crowds here were now mostly unattended as people flocked together in large pods, exchanging predictions and anticipations for the match to come.
The front door of the deity lounge was a tangle of tightly woven roots, thick and barky, with no handle or knob. At the trio’s approach, the roots began to move, untangling themselves and receding and reshaping into an open archway, plenty wide for Faeron and the others to pass through together.
The spacious lounge had earthy brown floors and walls, and was shrouded in a thin mist, dimly lit by azure mushroom lamps hanging from the tall ceiling. In the very center of the room was an exceptionally long deity table, spanning most of the lounge’s length, though its surface was currently dark in preparation for the upcoming match. A wide lip for food and drink as well as dozens of padded stools ran all the way around the long table and all manner of people filled the seats. There were older patrons and teens alike, some chatting over drinks in groups, others enjoying a piping hot plate of spicy telcurry alone.
Smaller tables with high-sitting chairs dotted the rest of the floor in well-organized rows. Almost every seat in the house was filled, every table cluttered with food and drinks. Patrons gulped back Peak Ales and shot down Korvan Spicebubbles while glancing between their personal screens and the friendly faces surrounding them. Meanwhile, a score of sharp-dressed waiters swept gracefully to and from the kitchen, carrying large trays of steaming hot foot.
“Welcome,” said a man at a small podium just inside the door. He wore a black vest with an emerald button up underneath. Clean shaven and hair parted professionally, he greeted them with a warm and welcoming smile. “Do you have a reservation for a private sitting, or would you like spots at the long table?”
“Actually, I’ve got a room reserved,” said Quinn, stepping up to the podium. “I’m Quinn Veradae, one of the finalists.”
“Of course, just let me… here it is!” exclaimed the greeter, looking down at a screen behind the podium. “Room five is yours. You’ll find it on the second floor. The door is coded to you, Mister Veradae, but I can add your friends as well if you like.”
“Of course,” said Quinn. “Auri Lem and Faeron Lovel.”
The greeter raised a brow at Faeron’s name but continued typing away at his screen. “Right, you’re all in the system now. You can head on up whenever you’re ready, just these steps here,” he pointed down a short hallway behind him. “Complimentary concessions are available for your suite and can be ordered through Serris at any time. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
“That’s about it. Thanks a million,” said Quinn, skipping off toward the stairs. “Come on guys!”
They followed a narrow passage to a winding staircase around what appeared to be the trunk of a narrow tree. Shimmering blue hung over the edges of the wide wooden steps and all along the coarse barky bannister.
As they climbed, Faeron realized that, in all the times he’d come here, he’d never once seen the upper floor where the VIP rooms were located. The hallway at the top of the stairs was cast in deep blue mushroom light. Tangled roots covered every inch of the wall, and the only order to their winding chaos were the six clearly formed doorways on one side. Beside each door, a glowing mushroom lamp was printed with a number.
Door number three began to shift, the roots crawling aside, as two large and clearly intoxicated men stumbled out into the hallway. Arm in arm, they toppled over into the far wall while trying to support each other. Both still donned button up shirts and straight fit dress pants, and had no doubt come straight to the lounge after work.
“Ayy!” cried one of them, a recent graduate of the academy that Faeron recognized as Dellien Durkwrite. “You’re umm…” he pointed to Quinn, “you’re the… the one that lost the thing… the… you’re the guy..”
“Yeeaaash,” said the other, his brother, Dolmen. “Quinn! He’s Quinn! He loosh, to Barrow ’member!”
“Quinn!” cried Dellian, “Ayy Quinny, Quinn... Quinner Winner! I need you to…” He waved his hand wildly side to side. “ I gotta, facilities… facilitaties… facaltate…”
“Right,” said Quinn, stepping aside.
Faeron followed suit, as did Auri, though she eyed them annoyedly as they passed.
Once the pair had disappeared down the steps, nearly tripping on the way down, Faeron and the others continued down the tunnel of roots to door number five.
“This is it,” gasped Quinn, his face painted in the sapphire lamp light, “the legendary VIP room.”
At their approach, the door of roots unraveled itself, revealing a sizable room. Long draping curtains of moss hung from the ceiling, their emerald chutes tipped with tiny beads that sparkled in the sapphire light of the mushroom lamps.
Ducking through the shimmering moss, Faeron found a standard size deity table with three executive-looking chairs on each of its long ends. The seats each had their own set of displays with a nice black bezel, and as soon as Quinn entered, he ran over to the nearest chair and started tinkering on the screens. Unlike the other walls, the far end of the room was not covered in roots. Instead, it was a painted stone mural, like on the outside of the building. The painting depicted a hilbauk warrior in heavy armor that covered all but her twin beaks.
“That’s Dadandum Preeh!” said Auri excitedly, rushing over to look at the mural in more detail.
“Nice tanky stall unit,” added Quinn, tapping away on his screen. At a button press, the top of the table lit up with an emerald green grid.
Auri shot a cold glare over her shoulder. “You see, that is exactly what kills it for me, simplifying such a deep emotionally rich character into… bang pow fight kill!” She spun around and collapsed into a chair, looking back and forth across the gridded table. “This just makes no sense for Deity. I mean, in all eleven books, there’s only four… maybe five big battles, if you count the Weeping Arbors. Most of the time is spent working to avoid combat.”
“I mean, what’s the armor for if not to fight?” countered Faeron. “And the big battles are the moments everyone remembers. Besides—” Suddenly, a monstrous growl rumbled in Faeron’s gut.
“Wow, those rice rolls really didn’t do much for you, did they?” asked Quinn.
“I guess not,” said Faeron, grabbing the seat beside Quinn. “Let’s get something ordered, then we can discuss Auri’s hate for the game. Hey, Serris!”
“How can I help?” asked the index, popping into the air.
“Are they still serving elmafruit freeze creams?” asked Faeron, knowing the seasonal snack always sold out quickly.
“Indeed,” said Serris. “Would you like me to place an order?”
“Large for me,” said Faeron.
“Ooh,” said Quinn, “I’ll take a cocoa one.”
“And you?” asked the index, zipping over to Auri.
“Nothing,” said Auri, waving the ball of light away.
Once Serris was gone, Quinn pressed another button on his display and a woman’s cheery voice sounded from speakers, deep within the room’s root-covered walls.
“—and that’ll be the toughest thing for Roethwild, won’t it, Vet?”
“Indeed it will, Crystal,” responded the suave tones of Vet Wheeler over the speakers. Pre-plague, he had been a Deity champion himself, but now he was the broadcaster for all major tournaments. “The nomad’s a wildcard. We’ve already seen a number of new units from him in these past couple matches, so Roethwild won’t be able to let her guard down.”
“Well, we’ll see if the nomad’s tricks are enough to topple our four-year champion,” said the first woman. “For those of you just joining us now, I’m Crystal Rayne, co-hosting live with the legendary Vet Wheeler. Tonight, the annual Cropsun Clash concludes with a first of its kind twist. Our four-year champion is facing down a nomad to defend her title. That’s right. You heard me. The Nomad known as Book Peddler stands one match away from toppling the queen!
“Book Peddler,” said Vet, “what a strange name for a strange contender.”
“Indeed, but what isn’t strange about tonight?” said Crystal. “Now, we polled the lounge, and the lounge has answered; eighty-seven percent think it’ll be a Roethwild victory. What do you make of that number Vet? Does the crowd have it right?”
“I expect it’ll come down to last champions on both sides, but I do see Roethwild coming out on top,” boomed Vet. “If I were a gambling man I’d— Now hold on folks… I’ve just been informed that our contestants are readied. If you’re not in your seat, I suggest you get there, because our championship match is about to begin.”
As Vet spoke, the far wall of the room began to shift. The mural faded, the stone smoothened out, and the whole surface turned sleek and black. It took Faeron a second to realize that the wall was now a window, looking down on a dark room.
“Woah,” said Faeron and Quinn in union, racing over to the glass.
The room below was long but narrow. The whole floor was a deity grid, its emerald lasers piercing the darkness of the chamber. At either end was a raised glass box where each of the finalists were now constructing their maps on a wide assortment of displays. In the box to the left was the familiar face of Roethwild, the best Deity player in Eredith by a long shot. For four years straight, she’d never lost a single game. Roethwild was a slender middle-aged woman with crimson streaks in her otherwise silver-grey hair. She always wore the same brown leather jacket, studded at the shoulders, and a wide assortment of rings on her fingers. Meanwhile, in the right-side box, Book Peddler wore a hooded poncho that covered all but his arms. From what Faeron could see, the nomad’s muscular arms were blanketed in heavy patches of fine silver hair, and, if Faeron squinted, he could just make out a crimson tattoo on Book Peddler’s shoulder.
“Book Peddler! Of course!” Faeron shouted. “Auri, it’s Caidus!”
“What?” said Auri, jumping from her seat to see. Running over, Auri cupped her face to the glass and her jaw dropped. “By Glavius, you’re right,” she gasped, stepping back from the window. “Book Peddler is Caidus Proud!”
“Who?” asked Quinn, a lost look on his face.
“We met him at Mathas’,'' explained Auri, suddenly seeming to forget her mood, “he works with Mathas to bring books we print here in Eredith to the other settlements. I had no idea he played Deity as well.”
As the finalists worked away at their screens, their domains began to form across the gridded floor. Caidus seemed to have a plan already in place, as his domain quickly took shape. A full row of barren flatlands appeared along his backline, taking form on both the massive grid below, and the smaller table in their private room. The ground was pale and cracked all over, and there wasn’t a sign of life anywhere. Caidu’s frontline had two more barrens, making the only notable feature in his whole domain a single patch of forested glades at the very front and center.
“Now this is interesting,” boomed Vet.
“Five barrens?” scoffed Crystal. “I’ve never seen a barren played outside of teaching someone the rules.”
“Barrens saw some play pre-plague,” said Vet. “But there were thousands of different units then. With those we have today, I don’t see any sense in it. It’s just… baffling. Roethwild has a free path out of Book Peddler’s domain, and if the nomad wants power from a dungeon, the only one in his whole domain is the single glade. If Roethwild robs him of it on her way out…”
“Then Book Peddler will be entirely dependent on her domain for power,” concluded Crystal. “It’s almost like Book Peddler wants to fight on Roethwild’s side... but that makes no sense. He’ll be unable to cast miracles. I think we should take this one to the lounge, get all of your opinions.”
“What do you think folks?” boomed Vet. “Is the nomad making light of the game, or does Book Peddler know something about barrens that the rest of us don’t? Vote now!”
“What do you say?” asked Quinn, turning to Faeron.
“No way he hasn’t got a plan,” said Faeron. “I mean, he made it this far… and he definitely had something going on upstairs. Bright dude.”
“Alright, Serris,” said Quinn. “Tell them two votes on Caidus having a plan.”
“Three,” called Auri, to Faeron’s surprise.
Roethwild, meanwhile, had constructed a safe two-line approach, creating a frontline of mountains and a backline of desert. Now, the entire floor of the chamber was covered in lifelike landscapes, although Caidus’ end did look quite plain.
“What in Inya is he planning?” asked Faeron, walking back his chair for a closer look on their private table.
“Maybe he’s going for a timeout play,” said Quinn.
“A timeout?” asked Auri, earning a look of shock from Faeron. That’s twice now she’d cared about Deity.
Quinn also raised a brow. “You really want to know?” he asked.
“What?” said Auri defensively. “If Caidus is going up against some four-year champ, I want to know what’s going on.”
“Oookay!” said Quinn, sounding like he’d been waiting all his life for this moment. “As I’m sure you know, in Deity, regardless of where your fighters are, the player can only cast miracles on their own domain. Because of this, you’ll usually want to get your team back on your half of the map as soon as possible. Sometimes you’ll want to pillage your opponent’s dungeons first, but usually it's better to do that stuff in your own domain. Anyway, once you’re home, there’s not a lot of incentive to push back into enemy territory. To stop players from just sitting around forever, the map eventually begins to fall apart.”
“Is that when the zones turn red?” asked Auri.
“Exactly,” said Quinn. “Once both players have reached their home domain, natural disasters will start to pop up all across the map. If Caidus has a team that fights incredibly well on flat terrain, he could be betting on the disasters to force Roethwild into his barrens. Maybe Centurium as leader, or some new unit we haven’t seen before.”
“But then what’s with the glade?” asked Faeron. “Why not just max out his chances with six barrens?”
“Hey, that’s the Elemental Glade from book three,” said Auri, leaning over the table for a closer look.
“Spot on,” said Quinn. “There’s a super tough dungeon there.”
“The Halls of Mephinnia?” gasped Auri.
“Indeed,” said Quinn. “Maybe Caidus is hoping to nab the power while he waits for timeout? Seems like Roethwild could shut that down hard if she loots it on her way home.”
Suddenly, a pair of beacons appeared on the map. The twin pillars of light shone opposite each other, one in the barrens behind Caidus’ glade, the other in the center of Roethwild’s desert.
“The lands are laid, and the teams are in place!” cried Vet, his voice filling the room once more. “Can you feel it folks? The tension is electric!”
“Indeed it is, Vet,” said Crystal. “Now, let’s see what the lounge has to say about these barrens… Forty percent say the nomad is throwing the game, thirty-two percent think he’s got an ace up his sleeve, and twenty-eight say he just started playing yesterday.”
“A split crowd” Roared Vet. “While our finalists give orders, let’s see if their team compositions can shed any light on the situation.” The twin monitors facing Faeron’s seat flickered, each now showing a different lineup of fighters.
“From the looks of her team, Roethwild is gunning for the Halls of Mephinnia,” reported Crystal. “To those unfamiliar, that’s a tier-five dungeon.” On the left monitor, Roethwild’s roster sported a lineup of dungeoning-focused champions. Her leader was Capwise Strike, the legendary human archaeologist. All four of her companions were gnogland researchers, reptilians with snubby rootbeam blasters tucked beneath their lab coats.
“Now, I’ve certainly seen stronger teams for an all-out fight,” said Vet, “but the puzzle-minded perk on those researchers is bound to have her breezing through the dungeon. Looks like Roethwild is hoping to crush Book Peddler’s team with a miracle before he can get out of her mountains.”
“Speaking of Book Peddler,” said Crystal, “would you look at that lineup?”
On the right-side monitor was an eclectic gathering of characters.
“Grok, Treasure Sniffer,” whistled Vet. “That’s not a commander you see every day.” The goliath leader had pale tattooed skin and a massive club. Though few could best him in a fight, his unmatched strength was balanced by his incredibly dim wits. “Maybe Book Peddler’s hoping that ol’ Grok’s nose’ll lead him back to that glade dungeon.”
“Now there’s a nose that knows home,” quipped Crystal.
“But just as likely to find any other dungeon,” added Vet. “I gotta say, Book Peddler’s putting a lot of faith in those deduction skills of Grok’s.”
“What deduction skills of Grok’s?”
“My point exactly.”
The rest of Caidus’ roster consisted of two diggers, man-sized rodents with massive front paws perfect for burrowing, and a pair of sea-green spirits that Faeron had never seen before. Barely bigger than Grok’s mighty fists, the spirits hung in the air, shifting shapes like tiny turquoise clouds.
“Woah, check em out!” said Quinn excitedly. “Caidus has new units!”
“Diggers are a strong pick to help Grok,” reported Crystal of the speakers, “but I haven’t a clue what those orbs of light could be… perhaps a spirit of some kind? Ever see ’em pre-plague, Vet?”
“Spirits indeed,” boomed Vet. “We had hundreds of ’em pre-plague. You see, in the books, spirits are the magic of deities made conscious… living spells, so to speak. They each have very specific effects, usually aiding a teammate in the right condition, or weakening a certain type of enemy. As for this particular pair… a strange night grows stranger, because I’m stumped! All I can tell you is what I see, their names, Isthiswee and Isthitweira”
“Isthiswee and Isthitweira?” said Auri, sitting back in her seat. “They’re glade spirits, duh.”
Faeron and Quinn both looked to her excitedly. Maybe her knowledge of the books could give them some idea what these new units were capable of.
“Now hold on to your seats, folks,” said Vet. “Looks like both teams have their orders. This match is officially underway, and Roethwild isn’t wasting a second!”
Faeron’s monitors shifted again, each now following one of the two teams. On the left, he saw Roethwild’s team in a dead sprint across the barrens toward the glade, while Caidus’ troops began their trek across Roethwild’s backline of desert.
“I wonder… since we have a private table...,” said Faeron. “Hey Prophet, can you put Caidus’ crew up on the table?”
“Caidus?” came a familiar voice from the table, cracked with age. “I have no entry under this name.”
“Book Peddler,” added Quinn.
“Consider it done,” said the prophet, and the top of the table changed. No longer did they see a map of both domains. Instead, the surface of the table was one long slice of desert. Near the center was a dungeon, a swirling vortex of sands known as the Lands Below.
“Fancy,” swooned Quinn.
“So, the glade spirits,” said Fearon, watching Caidus’ troops trek single file up and down the sand dunes. “What’s their deal? I don’t even remember them from the books.”
“Funny you ask,” said Auri, “because I’ve got issues with this. It makes zero sense pairing the glade spirits with the rest of his team. They’re the proudest most pretentious entities you’ll find almost anywhere. No way they take orders from Grok, Treasure Sniffer.”
“You mean like that?” asked Quinn, pointing to where Caidus’ troops were marching. The glade spirits bobbed and swirled angrily about Grok’s face as he seemingly took no notice, single minded in his march toward the swirling sand whirlpool.
“That didn’t take long, did it, folks?” boomed Vet over the speakers. “Look to the desert ’cause it seems those spirits are considering a change in management.”
“Okay, so they got that right,” said Auri, “but then why would Caidus choose this team? Glade spirits are frail outside the Elemental Glade. If Grok leads them into the Land Below, they’ll die.”
“Did you watch any of his other games?” asked Faeron, turning to Quinn.
“I didn’t,” said Quinn, eyeing the board. “Maybe it really is a fluke? What if Caidus just isn’t any good at Deity? Got all this way, just on dumb luck.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible,” said Faeron. “To reach the finals… that seems—”
“Wait!” shouted Auri, a look of dawning realization painted on her face. “Prophet, go back to the full map.”
The view of the desert on the tabletop shrunk as the rest of the map came into view. Auri looked back and forth, from the glade across the mountains to the desert, smiling knowingly. “I figured it out,” she exclaimed.
“Figured what out?” asked Faeron.
“I know what Caidus is doing,” said Auri smugly. “And… I think it’s quite brilliant.”
“What do you mean you know what he’s doing?” asked Quinn in disbelief. “It looks to me like he’s throwing a tournament match for no good reason at all.”
“Well,” said Auri, “that’s because you’re not a Deity pro like me. Come on experts, don’t you see it?”
“Prophet, zoom back in,” commanded Faeron.
The map closed back in on Caidus’ troops. As Grok and the diggers waded into the swirling edges of the dungeon, the glade spirits seemingly had given up. They were now split off from the rest, making a straight line for the mountain.
“His team’s split!” said Quinn in disbelief. “This couldn’t be any worse for him!”
“Oh really,” said Auri, grinning. “Any real player would know that’s exactly what he wanted them to do.”
“You’re bluffing,” said Quinn, eyes narrowed. “You’re just trying to rile me up. This is nonsense, simple as that.”
Just then a soft tone rang through the room.
“Excuse me,” said Serris, appearing just beside the table. “Your food has arrived.”
“Let ’em in,” said Faeron, going to the door.
Serris disappeared and the roots moved aside, revealing a woman, dressed just like the greeter at the front desk. On her tray were two plates of freeze creams. Each plate had about twenty of the round snacks, and where Faeron’s were bright and colorful, Quinn’s were dark brown and drizzled in melted chocolate.
“Thanks,” said Faeron, taking the plates. As the roots closed, he brought the snacks back to the table.
“So anyway,” said Auri, rising out of her set across the table and coming around to the empty one beside Faeron, “got any guesses yet?” As she asked, she dropped into the chair and swiped one the freeze creams off Faeron’s plate.
“Hey, get your own,” objected Faeron.
“Why? There’s perfectly good ones right here,” said Auri devilishly.
“I’m not falling for it,” sang Quinn, though Faeron could tell from the way Quinn’s eyes darted between his screens and the board that the gears in his head were turning. “Your friend isn’t doing anything at all. I… I don’t think there’s any way he can win at this point.”
Faeron had never seen Auri smile so wide in her life.
While they ate, Quinn didn’t say a word. The boy’s eyes were dead set, focused on the table where the two glade spirits were making swift progress across the desert. On several occasions, Faeron could see the outlines of ferocious borgomantises burrowing beneath the sands, but, whenever the threat was near, the glade spirits would simply drift up much higher into the sky, well out of the creature’s reach.
Their paired monitors continued to follow the teams’ leaders through their respective dungeons. Any time anything exciting happened, Vet and Crystal were sure to speak up and provide their take. While Roethwild’s researchers were making much swifter progress than Caidus’ team, the Halls of Mephinnia were also much longer than the Land Below. The Halls were a maze of dimly lit passages with oddly inscribed runes above hundreds of otherwise indistinguishable doors. Only one door held the way forward, the rest holding all manner of dangerous foes. Meanwhile, the Land Below consisted of a single long passage leading into a massive cavern, large enough to fit half of Eredith. The power trove glowed brightly on the far side of the cave, rife with vicious dinosaurs and primitive traps. Grok rushed forward, unphased by beasts and traps alike. Darts bounced off him, blades cracked upon his skin, and even the dinosaurs were nothing more than a nuisance for the goliath.
“You know,” said Vet, “I admire Grok, really do. He’s a simple man… he knows what he wants, and he’s damn good at getting it. In a less strategic game, he might even be a good unit.”
“On the other side of the spectrum,” said Crystal. “It looks like those brainiacs over in the Halls have cracked the code. Faeron looked over to his screen to find Capwise Strike, confidently turning the knob of a dark doorway. The door shot open, bathing the researchers in holy light.
“Now that’s a one way portal to miracle city,” cheered Vet. “Only one challenge left for the Roethwild and the dungeon’s power is hers.”
“Chances don’t look good for Grok,” said Crystal. “Home doesn’t seem to be in the cards anymore.”
“No it does not,” agreed Vet, “those spirits, however, they seem pretty hell bent on reaching their turf. Those mountains won’t do much to stop our high flying friends.”
“For what little good it’ll do ’em,” said Crystal. “Facing up against a full team of five, even against a research team, even on their own ground, those spirits won’t stand a chance.”
“Agreed,” said Vet. “It’ll take a real-life miracle to save Book Peddler now.
“Bold words,” smiled Auri. “He’s gonna be eating them soon.”
“WHAT. DO. YOU. KNOW?” gasped Quinn.
“Oh, you’ll see.”
The glade spirits soon reached the edge of the desert and the table shifted to show a long stretch of sheer cliffs and mountainous hills. They made just as swift progress across the mountains, flying well above the valleys where deadly skorprolls hunted. Before long, the spirits were nearing the edge of Roethwild’s domain. As the spirits descended the final stretch of the mountainside, the map suddenly zoomed out.
“Apologies,” came the prophet’s voice, “but you’ll certainly want to see this.”
The desert zone where Grok and the diggers were dungeoning erupted in white light. Faeron looked down to the monitor on his left where Roethwild’s team was filing out of a bedazzled treasure room.
“Is this the end for Book Peddler?” boomed Vet Wheeler’s signature voice over the speaker. “Roethwild’s team is the first to clear their dungeon, and our champion’s not planning on letting Book Peddler finish his.”
On the right monitor, the cave began to shake. Huge slabs of stone were raining down from the cavern’s ceiling, falling all around Grok and his diggers. The single minded commander led his team in an all-out sprint for the treasure, but at this rate it wouldn’t be fast enough. A massive chunk of the ceiling came crashing down onto one of the diggers, but not before Grok threw himself on top, the huge stone breaking on his back. Faeron could tell the blow had taken its toll as the goliath struggled to stand back up. No sooner had he reached his feet, than three even larger slabs struck him. The goliath fell again, one of the diggers trapped beneath him.
“Grok, Treasure Sniffer is down!” roared Vet.
“And it looks like that last digger ain’t long for this game either,” added crystal as the rest of the lost land collapsed. Faeron’s right monitor was now entirely dark.
“Okay, maybe I bought it a little,” said Quinn, squinting at Auri, “but I’m one-hundred percent calling your bluff now. Caidus has no strats here, and you are just trying to get me riled up. Nice try.”
“Yeah...” said Faeron. “As cool as Caidus was, I’m starting to lean towards Quinn’s side here.”
“Wanna bet?” asked Auri.
“Nah, I’m good,” said Faeron. “You clearly think you know something, and that’s enough for me.”
“Absolutely, I’ll bet,” said Quinn. “You’ve toyed with my mind long enough. What’s your price?”
“If Caidus loses…” said Auri, thinking a moment, “I’ll go to the Unity Fest with you this year. Maybe, maybe, I’ll even let you take me on the tunnel ride.”
Quinn’s face instantly flushed red. “I uh— and… um,” he said, trying to compose himself, “and if Caidus does win?”
“Lots of other girls in Eredith,” teased Auri. “You lose your right to ask me.”
“You told her?!” cried Quinn, giving Faeron a hurt glare.
“Nah, he didn’t need to,” said Auri. “I swear, you boys think you’re so subtle.”
“Well...” said the freckled boy, swallowing hard. “I suppose it’s a deal then.”
The glade spirits were now back in their own land, and Roethwild’s troops had resurfaced from the dungeon. As the table switched to a view of the Elemental Glade, Faeron could now see the outlines of both teams through the crimson-leaved canopy. It seemed almost as though the glades spirits could sense the presence of Roethwild’s researchers, as they made a straight line for the team.
“I have to admit it folks,” Vet’s voice returned to the room. “I saw this fight coming down to last champions, and it seems I was wrong.”
“The end is here for those spirits,” said Crystal, as the two teams closed in on each other, “and you’ve got to feel a bit bad for them. Never had a chance with a leader like Grok.”
“No, they did not,” concurred Vet. “These strategies might have worked against nomads, but Book Peddler was simply no match for a proper Eredithian cha— Hold on now, what’s this?”
The whole of the glade was suddenly flooded with brilliant white light.
“Impossible,” said Faeron, looking down to his monitors. Sure enough, the right display was no longer entirely dark. He could see the exquisite treasure coffer of the Lost Land, its top pried open by a bloodied digger, light bursting out.
“He dug through,” gasped Quinn.
“A miracle in the glade!” shouted Crystal. “But will it be enough?”
“Don’t get your hopes up, Book Peddler fans,” said Vet. “We’re seeing a tier two miracle, a wildfire by the looks of it. Maybe he’ll take a unit or two with him, but this is a done match.”
“And here it comes,” said Auri triumphantly.
As the flames sprang up throughout the Elemental Glade, licking the leaves and crawling along the branches, the pair of glade spirits began to grow. Their sea-green bodies turned a fiery orange, and they expanded quickly until their shimmering bodies were tall as the trees.
“What in Inya am I looking at?” asked Crystal in awe.
“A win condition,” said Vet, sounding just as shocked.
The flames racing through the trees pushed Roethwild’s team straight into the pair of elementals, and as the first reptilian researcher breached the clearing where the colossal spirits were hovering, it was met by a beam of fire. Tendrils of flame lashed out from the elementals, wrapping around the wide-eyed researchers who struggled feebly to free themselves. In seconds, Roethwild’s team was nothing but ashes.
“Unbelievable! Unimaginable! Unfathomably impossible, yet there it is!” roared Vet over the speakers. “This, folks, is the kind of Deity I live to see. For the first time in history, a nomad topples Roethwild’s four-year sweep and claims the Cropsun Cup. Congratulations, Book Peddler!”
“That was a ride and a half,” said Crystal. “Let’s go now to the lounge and get your thoughts on this incredible turn of events.”
“Holy Glavius, that was amazing,” said Faeron, running over to the window.
He could see Caidus, stretching in his booth, cool as if nothing of note had just occurred. Roethwild, meanwhile, hung her head in silent defeat.
“You… you knew…” Quin said softly.
Faeron turned to see his friend, pale in the face, looking just as defeated as Roethwild.
Auri, meanwhile, seemed to be having the time of her life. “You know,” she said. “I think I’ve been a bit hard on this game. I’ve got a real talent for it.”
“So… about that bet,” said Quinn, uneasily.
“Ah, don’t fret it,” said Auri. “I’ll tell you what. If you show me how to put a team together, maybe I’ll help you find a date. I hear Lucy Leighton is single these days.”
Leaving the Lounge, it was Quinn who walked in somber silence. The arcade outside had died down to a low roar, and most of the machines were switched off for the night. No bumper petals flew above, and the maze in the basement had long since closed down. They exited through massive stone doors onto a set of steps looking down on Loem park.
Where the far end of the park was bathed in golden glow from the clearwater cinema sign, here, the trees were washed in the crimson light of the great Forgeworks Hammer next door. Forgeworks was the sole source of repaired tech and manufactured goods in Eredith. Its glass-encased showroom, perched beside the colosseum on the edge of the park, was peaked by a great flaming hammer, rising and falling upon a massive anvil.
“You walking home, Quinn?” asked Faeron, as the three of them descended the steps onto the wide Parkside Lane.
“Yeah, trams stop running by perimeter housing this late,” he said.
“We’ll walk with you,” offered Faeron, “at least as far as the next station.”
“That’s alright,” said Quinn, “it’s the opposite way from you.”
“No point arguing,” said Auri bluntly, pulling Quinn’s arm. “Come on, let’s get moving. I am in serious need of some slumber.”
“Fine, fine,” said Quinn, and Auri released her grasp.
As the three of them passed beneath the flaming hammer of Forgeworks, an odd sound from the park caught Faeron’s attention. There was shouting, and voices that he could only just make out.
“Filthy cheat nomad,” came a voice just beyond the trees.
“Why don’t… show that face…” said the second voice. “Coward… like how you play.”
Faeron turned suddenly to Auri, who returned his look of concern. There was only one person the voices could be talking about.
“Come on,” said Auri sternly, veering off into the park.
“Right behind you,” added Faeron.
“Wait! Guys!” said Quinn sheepishly. “What are you doing?”
“Helping a friend,” said Auri.
Just beyond the trees, Faeron could make out three figures. Caidus was easy to make out in his hooded poncho, while it wasn’t until Faeron got closer that he recognized the other two as the drunk Durkwrite twins from room number three in the lounge.
“Hey you!” shouted Auri, rushing toward them.
Caidus turned, his face shrouded by his hood.
“Well lookie here,” said Caidus casually. “I know these ones.”
“Sush… you… in the preshence of Quinn” said Derrian loudly, his black blazer thrown over one shoulder. “Quinn sh’ere, sho he’ll tell you what’sh what.”
“Quinn!” yelled his brother, Dolmen, “tell this… pillow sharft pile that he cheated. I know you saw him!” The slur for capillum fell off his tongue so naturally, Faeron was too shocked to speak.
“Excuse me,” said Caidus, seemingly unphased, “it’s half-pillow sharft pile, actually. At least get your insults right.”
“Oh, um...” said Quinn, looking to Faeron and Auri for help.
“Come on Quinn,” said Derrien. “Tell thish nomad what we do to cheaters. Tell it right to ish ugly pillow face!” As he spoke, Derrien ripped off the hood of Caidus’ poncho, revealing the man’s patchy fur covered face.
Caidus’s eyes were human in slant but cartoonishly large. His nose and ears were as long as Mathas’ though his head as a whole was smaller. Fast as a bullet, Caidus caught Darrien’s arm. “Okay, that’s it,” growled Caidus, “patience has reached its limits.”
“Help! Seriish!” cried Derrien through slurred speech, “filthy pillow liars’ got me! Help! Sherrish, shecurty!”
“Cease hostilities,” came Serris’ voice, sterner than Faeron had ever heard before. Serris materialized into the air, flashing aggressively between Caidus and the twins.
“What in the world…” hissed Caidus, releasing Derrien’s arm.
“Get him Serrish,” screamed Dolmen. “Criminal… cheat… wants to take our game, just like his people took our sharftin world.”
“That’s right, sharft pile,” yelled Darrien, backing up his brother. “We know your lot did the plague. And we aren’t… never gonna let you get away with it. We’re gonna -hic- make you pay big!”
“Try me,” smiled Caidus, raising his fists.
“No, don’t!” yelled Auri, jumping between the twins and Caidus. “They’ll get you kicked out for good. What you do is too important.”
“Hey Quinn,” snapped Dolmen, “tell yer toy to move, or she might accidentally get hurt.”
“Excuse me,” growled Auri, “did you call me his toy?”
“Looksh like she can hear fine,” said Darrien. “But sheems she don’t lishen too good. Tell her Quinn, that pillow is hash no place here!”
“I think you two should leave,” said Quinn, politely.
“Shootped as you look” spat Dolmen, sounding disgusted through his slurred speech. “Not jusht a loosher. A pillow loving traitor..”
“THAT’S ENOUGH!” roared Auri, stepping towards the twins. As she spoke, the crimson light in the park flared brighter. Faeron looked behind him to see the Forgeworks Hammer’s flame leaping high above the trees, higher than he’d ever seen it burn before.
Looking to Auri, Faeron’s jaw dropped as he saw fiery bronze light shimmering in her eyes. Auri’s heavy breathing slowed, and suddenly the whole area was doused in darkness. A bitter cold gust swept over the park, as for the first time ever, the flame on the Forgeworks Hammer went out.
“Shorcery,” gasped Dolmen. “Pillow magic!”
“Run!” screamed Darrien.
The two turned tail and stumbled hastily into the darkness of the park.
"Your eyes!" cried Faeron, squinting to see the look of shock on her face, "you just shaped, no echo crystal or anything. And your eyes... they looked like the hosts!"
"M... me? I did?" stammered Auri. "But I don't know how."
"Good to see you lot," said Caidus calmly. "Appreciate you stepping in, really do, but can someone tell me what in Inya just happened?"
"An excellent question," came a new voice, as Faeron could just barely make out six or seven shapes rushing towards them. "Eredithian security, please keep still. Serris, give us light!"
A dozen balls of light appeared around Faeron and the others, and he could now make out the black-vested uniform of the city's security force. They weren't a common sight in Eredith, appearing only when called, and Faeron had only encountered them a handful of times in his whole life. The leader of the pack, the only one of them not wearing a helmet, had short greying hair and a well-groomed goatee. His badge read: Sergeant Lomelle.
"We've got a report of an assault involving two citizens," said the sergeant, "and what in the blazes happened to the Forgeworks Hammer? Was that you as well?"
“There was no assault, officer,” said Auri sternly. “If anything, Caidus here was being verbally assaulted by the Durkwrite twins.”
“It’s no biggie,” said Caidus. “Drunks being drunks. These three chased them off for me.”
“What about you two?” asked the sergeant, turning to Faeron and Quinn. “Can you confirm their story?”
They spent the next few minutes, each detailing the events that had just transpired, all of them leaving out the part where Auri shaped the Forgeworks fire.
“So, what about the hammer then?” asked the sergeant, as Quinn finished giving his version of events.
Auri opened her mouth to speak, but Faeron cut her off. “Completely unrelated,” he reported. “Couldn’t tell you what happened. One second it was burning like normal, the next we were all in the dark.”
“Right…” said the officer, eyeing them suspiciously. “Well, if that’s it, we’ll be sending someone to escort each of you home. Nomad, you have a place to stay?”
“Room in Quilver’s,” said Caidus. “Mathas Grinward is putting me up.”
“Gotcha,” said the sergeant. “Alright then, let’s move everyone.”
Two officers walked with Faeron and Auri back to a corner where they ordered a tram. The moment the doors sealed and they were alone, Faeron spun to face Auri who wore a look of wild excitement.
“I can’t believe you—”
“No clue. I don’t even have an echo crystal!”
“That’s on a whole new level,” said Faeron giddily as he watched the tram near their floor of the violet tower. “You should have seen your eyes, it was just like the dancing girl. I don’t even think my mom’s ever done anything like it!”
“But it doesn’t make any sense,” said Auri, “Mathas told us that the wisest and most practiced of the Old-Scholars were the only ones who could shape without echo crystals, but I can’t even shape with them. No crystal and no calm. It was almost… as if I reached the light through my anger somehow. Just like how I fought against the crimson last night.”
“Interesting... ” said Faeron. What she was saying went against everything Mathas had taught them since their very first lesson. Peace, calm, and surrender, these were the paths to peridom’s light. Emotion had only ever stood in Faeron’s way, but Auri really did seem to be using it to shape. “Tomorrow, we’ll go to Mathas. He’ll get to the bottom of it.”
“Tomorrow,” agreed Auri. “And hey, Faeron. Thanks for helping with my meditations. It really does mean a lot.”
“Forget it,” said Faeron. “We both know you’d do the same.”
When Faeron and Auri finally arrived home, they both made straight for their rooms as if lassoed upon entry.
“Night,” said Faeron as he swung his door closed.
“Night,” Auri called as her door clicked shut.
Despite his exhaustion, Faeron simply couldn’t sleep. For hours, he tossed and turned, playing back the events of his day. He dwelt on his first shaping in the workshop, the feeling he had when he stopped midair, and relived the sheer thrill of watching Caidus conquer Roethwild. Eventually, his thoughts found their way back to Auri and her impossible show in the park. He had a million questions, and any answers he did have only opened up another twenty questions of their own.
The occasional footsteps to and from the kitchen told Faeron that Auri was just as restless, her mind no doubt walking the same trails as his. Eventually, in the early hours of the morning, Faeron’s mind finally found quiet. In the emptiness, the pearlescent light of peridom washed him away.