I sat up in bed, thankful that I’d been able to sleep without being invade by any ‘special’ dreams. But at the same time, that also worried me a little bit. If there had been any time that Maelyne could have gotten away with contacting me, it would have been after what had happened at that contest.
When I glanced at the clock to see what time it was, I was surprised to realize how long I’d been asleep, though I probably shouldn’t have been. The last few days had taken an incredible toll on me. The kidnapping, torture, escape, and then the contest, had all left me physically and emotionally drained, so once I’d returned home and the adrenaline had faded, I’d crashed hard.
As I climbed out of bed, I absently brushed my hair out of my face. For a brief moment, I considered getting it cut down to a more reasonable length. After all, long hair was a real pain in the butt and kept getting in the way. But at the same time, I knew that I wouldn’t do that. As hard as it was to admit, having long hair had kind of grown on me.
“Time for a shower,” I muttered with a smile. “Or better yet, a bath… A long, hot, and well-deserved bath…” And since my last shower had been a couple days ago, before I’d been kidnapped, I had no doubt that I was in desperate need of this.
A short time later, I settled down into a bathtub full of hot water, letting out a long sigh as I did so. That felt great, though the water
was starting to cloud up from the dried-on blood and grime. I made a mental not to change my sheets.
In spite of how good the bath felt, I didn’t stay in there for too long. I had other things to do, so once I was cleaned, I climbed out and began to dry off. Then almost as if on que, the door opened and Cassandra stepped in, pausing to say, “Ooops…”
“Ooops?” I asked wryly. “Really? As you keep reminding me, you have really high awareness, so don’t even pretend that you didn’t notice the bathroom was occupied…”
Cassandra just smirked at that. “I guess you caught me.”
Even though I was self-conscious and wanted to cover up, I decided to tease Cassandra instead. I dropped the towel and stood there completely naked, acting as though I didn’t even notice. Her eyes wandered over my body with a look of definite interest.
“This feels a LOT better,” I said, stretching out and watching Cassandra’s eyes bulge out a bit, though she tried hard to hide it. She wasn’t the only one with a bit of awareness.
As I walked past Cassandra, strutting just a little bit, I couldn’t resist smirking to myself. Who says that ‘flirting’ only works guys?
I enjoyed teasing Cassandra, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it for too long. Heavens knows, I’ve had girls drag it out with me, just to amuse themselves at my expense. Once I gave her a long kiss and let her cop a feel or two, she was happy to forgive me.
Once I was dried and dressed, I went to the kitchen to find something to eat. After everything I’d been through, I was starving.
“Where’s Lauren?” I asked, realizing that I hadn’t seen her around since waking up.
“She’s at class,” Cassandra reminded me.
“Oh, yeah,” I responded. It was easy to forget that some people still had normal lives, with things like classes and work to worry about rather than fights to the death. “I kind of envy her.”
Cassandra nodded her agreement. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Ever since I accepted Armestia’s offer to be her champion, everything has been so fucked up.”
“The whole game is screwed up,” I admitted. “But, I guess it’s over now. At least, the Cleaner said there weren’t going to be any more competitions, so we probably won’t have to worry about that until the gods get all their own crap settled down.”
“And how long that will be?” Cassandra asked with a snort. “But what worries me is that those lunatics are still running loose, and I’ve got the feeling that they’re still going to come after us.”
“Me too,” I said with a sigh. “Which reminds me…”
I ran to my room, then came back a minute later with the bag that the Cleaner had given me. Once I’d returned home from that disastrous contest, I’d stuffed the bag under my bed. I hadn’t wanted to open it immediately, not in front of Matt and Teri. That would have been like opening Christmas presents in front of them, when they didn’t have any of their own to open.
“The Cleaner gave this to me because I was the last champion there,” I said, emptying the contents onto the table in front of us. “Of course, it might have helped that I’d also just healed him…”
“Holy fuck,” Cassandra blurted out in surprise.
I nodded agreement at the sentiment. “Yeah. Apparently, these were the prizes and drops from that last contest.”
Spread out on the table in front of me was a skill box, a large crystal sphere, three smaller crystal spheres, and a gold metal sphere. This was a treasure worth its weight in gold, especially when it came to helping survive our enemies.
“The Cleaner just gave you this?” Cassandra asked, as though she couldn’t quite believe it.
“Yeah,” I said, still hardly believing it myself. “He said the contest was cancelled, and that he couldn’t use any of it.”
Cassandra gave me a curious look. “Are you just showing this off, or are you going to share some of it?”
“Share,” I said.
Honestly, I had been tempted to keep it all for myself, and to not even tell Cassandra about it. I wasn’t proud of that, but it was what it was. In the end though, I couldn’t bring myself to leave her out of this. I owed her too much to pull something crappy like that on her.
“I’ll take this,” I said, picking up the large crystal. It was a golden one.
“Do you mind if I take this then?” Cassandra asked, pointing to the gold metal sphere.
“Go ahead,” I told her. I definitely could have used an upgrade to my armor, but I knew that she could use some improvements in her gear as well. And since I was the one who had the last upgrade, it only seemed fair for her to take this one.
Cassandra immediately summoned her bow and placed the gold metal sphere onto the side of it. Suddenly, the sphere melted and liquid metal flowed up and around the bow, changing it a little and leaving swirls of gold tracing all over the weapon.
“Oh, very nice,” Cassandra said with a grin. “Increased range and damage.”
“Awesome,” I said, crushing the crystal sphere I’d picked out.
YOU HAVE CLAIMED A BONUS PRIZE: +50 MANA POOL, +50 MANA RECOVERY, +50 HEALTH, AND +50 REGENERATION.
“Wow,” I gasped when I saw the numbers. “That is a nice bonus…”
“Yeah,” Cassandra grinned at me. “These things are fucking awesome.”
I picked up the skill box and stared at the thing for a couple seconds, wondering what it might have. From what I’d seen, these things could contain useful skills, or ones that wouldn’t do much at all. Still, I was curious and hopeful as I opened it.
YOU HAVE RECEIVED A NEW SKILL:
LOCKPICKING- RANK 1
-YOU KNOW HOW TO PICK LOCKS. HIGHER LEVELS OF DEXTERITY AND AWARENESS INCREASE THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THIS SKILL.
I let out a snort of annoyance. “Well, that sure would have been useful a bit earlier."
Cassandra hesitated a moment and then picked out one of the smaller crystal spheres, the golden one. “This is it for me,” she said, crushing the sphere in her hand. “Fifty-three points for mana recovery. Sometimes, I think they put completely random numbers into these things, just to mess with people.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” I commented with a snort. “They probably have some kind of bet going on with it too…or at least, they probably used to…”
We were both silent for several seconds after that, since neither of us really needed the reminder that the contests were over, but something much worse may have taken their place. For the moment, neither of us wanted to think about that.
I picked up the two remaining spheres and crushed them both at the same time.
YOU HAVE CLAIMED A BONUS PRIZE: +1 STRENGTH.
YOU HAVE CLAIMED A BONUS PRIZE: +1 DEXTERITY.
“YES!” I exclaimed with a grin. “I got some strength…”
“Congratulations,” Cassandra told me with an amused look.
“I can’t wait to hit the gym again,” I said, eager to see just how much that came out to. However, after everything that had happened, I knew that I needed to take another day or two off just to make sure my head was on straight.
“You know,” Cassandra mused. “I wonder what that last contest would have been like, if they hadn’t cancelled the damn thing…”
“Zombies,” I answered flatly. At Cassandra’s look of surprised, I admitted, “We were a little curious, so we took a quick look around before we left, and there were zombies. But since we already had the prizes, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t give any more prizes for finishing a cancelled competition, we just took a peek, then left.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t have wanted to stick around either,” Cassandra admitted. “I just wish I’d been given a fucking choice about it. Or at least some warning.”
I chuckled at that. “Yeah, that was quite a surprise, the way the Cleaned booted everyone. But he probably saved a few lives doing that too…”
“Probably,” Cassandra admitted. “I don’t know how I could have beat those three… I mean, gods…” She shuddered at that. “Fucking impossible.”
“Yeah,” I agreed with a shudder.
“And what they did do the Coordinator and the Referee,” Cassandra added with a shudder. “Maybe their patrons can bring them back…”
“Not likely,” I told her grimly. “That thing Arakthiel did to the Coordinator was his soul killer…the same thing his champion did to Heather.”
Cassandra shuddered. “Fuck.”
I nodded agreement. “And you saw whatever it was he did to the Referee. I’m not sure what he did, but I’ve got a feeling she isn’t coming back either.”
“Good point,” Cassandra said with a sigh. “When gods are involved, all the normal rules go out the window.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, thinking about Maelyne and everything she’d told me. It might have been silly since she was a goddess, but I was actually worried about her.
After this, Cassandra and I were silent for a good minute before she quietly admitted, “I’m scared. Going up against other champions is one things, but gods…”
“Me too,” I admitted, putting my arms around her in a hug. “Me too…”
This was the first time that I’d seen Don outside of his armor. He was still huge, and I could see his solid muscles through his shirt, but without the armor and weapons, he was nowhere near as intimidating. In fact, he came off more as a ‘gentle giant’.
I took my eyes from Don and looked around the rest of the table where Cassandra, Matt, and Teri all sat with me. All of us were wearing normal clothes, which made sense since we were in a coffee shop and trying to avoid notice. Well, we were trying to avoid it as much as we could with someone like Don, was who built a bit like the Hulk.
Cassandra’s phone beeped and she looked down at it. “Lauren just texted,” she said. “Everything is clear.”
“Good to know,” I said.
It had been a couple days since the ‘incident’ at the last competition, and we’d decided that it was time to come up with a plan. Cassandra knew how to contact Don, and we’d asked him to meet us here, at a neutral place. He was an ally, and had saved our butts before, but considering the situation, we weren’t ready to trust anyone with the location or our home just yet.
At the moment, Lauren was across the street, keeping watch in case any of our enemies showed up. Of course, Cassandra’s high awareness would have made her an even better lookout, but she had to be in here for the meeting. I was just thankful that Lauren had offered to help like this, because it made me feel a little better to have someone keeping watch.
“So, the Cleaner was responsible for sending us back,” Don said after I’d told him about what happened at the competition, after everyone had left. Of course, I hadn’t mentioned the prizes that the Cleaner had given me. “That does explain a few things.”
“I’m pretty sure the Coordinator is gone for good,” I told Don with a scowl. “Arakthiel used the soul killer on him. And as for the Referee… I don’t expect to ever see her again either.”
“At least the Cleaner survived that,” Don said with a nod. “He probably saved most of us, but unfortunately, our enemies are still hunting us down. Yesterday, one of them got to Mitchell.”
“Damn,” Cassandra said with a sad shake of her head. “I kind of liked him…”
“Who?” Matt asked, saving me the trouble of asking. Heather probably knew who Mitchell was, so asking in front of Don might have revealed more than I wanted to. Then again, there wasn’t any real reason to keep my real identity secret anymore, other than pride and embarrassment. Of course, those reasons were more than enough.
Cassandra quickly answered, “Blue cloak, light armor, and he used a trident.”
I nodded at that since I remembered seeing that guy in the competitions, though I’d never actually run into him. Between his trident and the fact that I’d once seen him fire a blast of water at someone, I’d guessed that his patron was some kind of god or goddess of water or the ocean.
“Yes,” Don agreed with a sad look. “Pfath attacked him in his home and burned the entire place to the ground…”
“Not a good way to go,” I said quietly.
“And Kr’aethar killed Mendoza,” he added. I had absolutely no idea who Mendoza was.
Cassandra snorted. “He was a fucking asshole.”
Don nodded faintly. “I’ve left my home and went into hiding to make it more difficult for them to find me. If you haven’t done that already, I strongly suggest you do.”
“I talked to Armestia last night,” Cassandra said. “She said that she’s hiding my house and keeping anyone from finding it.” Then she smirked, “It pays to have a goddess of secrets for a patron. She’s really good at hiding things when she wants.”
“Any chance she could hide our house too?” Teri asked, looking a little worried.
“You two are welcome to say with us if you want,” Cassandra said to Teri and Matt. “It would probably be best if you two stick close to Jeri anyway…”
“Jeri?” Don asked, giving me a curious look. “I thought your name was Heather…”
“Jerry…as in Tom and Jerry,” I told him with a wry smile. “It’s a nickname and a private joke.”
“Ah,” Don responded, nodding in understanding.
Then before Don could ask about the ‘private joke’, I decided to get us back on topic. “They’re coming after us one at a time, so if we want to survive, we have to stick together and watch each other’s backs.”
Don nodded. “A wise course of action. However, considering the power of those we face, I believe we will need more allies…”
Matt let out a snort. “Considering the fact that we’re facing gods…basically epic bosses, we’re going to need a full raid party.”
Don gave him a blank look. “I don’t understand…”
“What he means,” I quickly explained, “Is that we’re going to need all the champions…”
“Good luck with that,” Cassandra responded. “There is no fucking way that we’ll be able to find everyone.”
A second later, a new voice announced, “Then perhaps I can help with that…”
I snapped around, getting ready to form a shield, when I saw the Cleaner, who was now dressed in a suit and jacket, looking more like some kind of businessman than anything else. Without waiting for an invitation, he pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with us.
“You aren’t the first champions with the idea of working together against these gods,” the Cleaner explained with a grim expression. “But you are the first to begin gathering. I can help with the rest.”
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