I was wary. I watched nervously as champions stepped out of glowing portals and began gathering around, just like they were getting ready for a new competition. Each and every one of them was armed and armored, which added to this similarity and made me concerned that one of them might attack us.
There was one notable difference in the way the champions appeared. In every competition I’d been to, the champions appeared in a burst of sparks and sparkles, but this time, they were stepping out of portals. In other times, the system that the Arbiters had set up was responsible for transporting all the champions, but this time, it seemed the Cleaner was using his own abilities to provide transportation instead.
“You know,” Matt said from beside me. “Since the Referee isn’t here to keep everyone in line, there isn’t anything to keep people from attacking each other.”
“It would be a good opportunity to get more points,” Cassandra agreed. “But at the moment, we’ve all got more important things to worry about.”
I nodded my own agreement, then added, “And we don’t even know if we’d even still get any points, since the game has fallen apart…”
“But this is still kinda dangerous,” Teri said with a nervous look. “If those guys come after us…”
I glanced at Teri, remembering that in spite of her new size and strength, she wasn’t even sixteen yet. “Don’t worry, Teapot,” I assured her. “Right now, we all have the same enemies.”
Once everyone had arrived, I looked around, disappointed by how few champions had shown up. Either the others had decided not to risk coming, or they were no longer around to do so. Either way, I was afraid that we might not have enough people to matter.
Of course, I was there, along with all of my friends and allies. Matt and Teri both stood on one side of me while Cassandra stood on the other. Don was standing only a short distance away, enough to show that he was with us.
Axe Guy and Spear Chick stood next to each other, and I couldn’t help but noticing that Cloak was missing. Of course, that was no surprise since I’d seen him get murdered, but his absence here was a good indication that he hadn’t been brought back. Spear Chick saw me watching and gave me a nod of acknowledgement. I nodded back.
Mary, the ice bitch who’d attacked Cassandra last week, had been glaring at Cassandra ever since arriving a short time ago. However, since she made no moves towards us, I let myself focus on the other champions.
There were two more champions whom I’d seen in the gatherings but had never actually encountered up close. One was a black guy around my own age, who wore a long red overcoat. I had no idea who he was or what he could do, and it suddenly struck me that I should have asked Cassandra for more information on all our competition.
And standing beside him was a dark-haired woman, who was nearly six and a half feet tall, wearing gold and silver armor, and wielding a massive two-handed hammer. The hammer was so large that I would have imagined that even Don might have had problems lifting it, though she seemed to have no problem doing so.
And finally, the last person to arrive was the magical girl. She floated a couple feet in the air and looked around with an expression of excitement, as if this was all some kind of game.
“Thank you for coming,” the Cleaner announced. He wasn’t standing on any invisible platform or looking as formal as he normally did. “To start with, this is not a contest. The usual rules and prizes are gone. In fact, it is quite unlikely that any of you will ever compete in another contest. The gods appear to have abandoned the game as a way of resolving their conflicts, and some of them are now targeting us directly, as a way to indirectly attack our patrons.”
The magical girl held up her hand as if she was in class, but before she could be called on, she asked, “Does this mean the Coordinator and the Referee are gonna help us too?”
The Cleaner hesitated for a moment before admitting, “No. The Coordinator’s very soul has been destroyed. As for the Referee, her body was utterly obliterated, along with the link to her patron. While her soul was able to pass on to wherever souls go after death, her patron no longer has the ability to bring her back. In fact, you should all know that if you die at the hands of these gods, it is extremely unlikely that your patrons will be able to restore you.”
There were gasps of shock, looks of worry, and whispered mutterings at that, but not everyone was surprised. Most of the champions already knew about Robe’s soul killer, though few had actually believed it was real until now. And those who’d seen the Referee being murdered, had seen just how powerful and overwhelming that final attack had been.
“We face gods, occupying the bodies of their own champions,” the Cleaner continued. “They are powerful, far more than any of us alone, but they are still only able to use a fraction of their true power. This gives us a chance.”
“They killed Conrad,” Spear Chick announced. “Gods or no gods, they need to pay for that.”
“REVENGE!” Mary yelled, though I didn’t know if she was actually friends with any of those who’d died.
“This is a matter of survival,” Red Coat said. “They’re coming after all of us.”
Cassandra leaned over and whispered, “That’s Randal. His patron is the goddess of blood and bone.”
“That sounds pleasant,” I commented wryly.
“Gross,” Teri said with a look of disgust.
Hammer Woman, the chick with the massive hammer, stepped forward and announced, “If we all stand together, we can crush even the gods.”
“That’s Alejandra,” Cassandra whispered to me. “Her patron is the god of strength and courage. She might not look it, but I think her bonuses max out her strength.”
“Wow,” Teri said, staring at Hammer Woman with a look of interest. This wasn’t the kind of interest that she’d give someone she was attracted to, but more the kind that she’d give someone she admired. I just silently groaned, suspecting that my friend and companion had just found a new role model.
“You all know each other,” the Cleaner said. “You have competed against each other. Fought against each other. And in some cases, you have even killed each other.” He paused to look around the group and admitted, “I have watched many contests and have cleaned up after many of your battles, but until now, I have never fought.”
“So, the Cleaner is a rookie,” Axe Guy said with a chuckle. “I shouldn’t be surprised. Those guys never fought…”
“I don’t know,” Spear Chick said. “Did you see what the Referee did when Caldwell tried jumping her?” She shuddered at that.
“Well, she’s not here,” someone else pointed out. “How the hell are we supposed to fight against GODS?”
“We’re dead,” Spear Chick said. “They’re gonna kill us all…”
I could see the mood in the room turning dark, and I knew that this wasn’t good. Things were bad enough as it was, and if everyone was convinced that there was no point in fighting, then we really would be done for. Our whole alliance was about to fall apart before it had even begun. I couldn’t let that happen.
“Listen,” I started to say, but when nobody even looked my way, I raised my voice and tried again. “Listen…” This time, about half the champions looked towards me, which was probably the best I was going to get at the moment.
“What’s up, Sievers?” Magical Girl asked impatiently.
“We’re scared,” I announced loudly. “We’re all scared, and we have damn good reason to be. We’re facing gods who’ve tossed the rules and are coming at us directly. They’re picking us off one at a time, just so they can get to our patrons… Our patrons probably won’t be able to help us much, because they’re in the middle of fighting their own war…”
“Great motivational speech,” Matt said in a tone that just MIGHT have been a little sarcastic.
“We’re outmatched,” I continued with a scowl. “At least one on one. But remember, we don’t have to face them one on one. If we stick together, we can watch each other’s backs. Remember the way the Cleaner pulled all our butts out of the fire back at the last contest? Imagine what we can do if we all work together. Hell, we might even be able to beat those bastards…”
“That’s true,” Axe Guy grudgingly admitted. “But still, those guys are pretty damn strong…”
“But they’re also fighting a war on two fronts,” Spear Chick exclaimed. “Here…and back at home.”
Hammer Woman nodded at that. “I have no doubt that Vr’iel is fighting them tooth and nail…”
“If we’re able to keep them occupied here,” I pointed out. “Our patrons have a better chance of dealing with them there…”
“And we have a better chance of surviving,” Cassandra added.
There were more mutterings now, but the tone had changed. Now, it was hopeful and almost optimistic.
“Most of my abilities will be useless against gods,” the Cleaner said with a faint smile. “But my ability to open gates gives us the advantage of mobility.”
“And we have numbers on our side as well,” Don said.
“I’m in,” Spear Chick announced.
“Me too,” the magical girl quickly added.
Over the next minute, everyone confirmed that they were in. Of course, they probably wouldn’t have come unless they were already thinking about working together and fighting back.
Cassandra put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Good speech. I think you just helped us build a resistance.”
I was facing off against Spear Chick…again. I watched her carefully, waiting for her to make a move. I was ready to react as soon as she did. As I expected, it didn’t take long before she lost patience and lunged at me, though I blocked her attack and dodged to the side. This was followed up with an attack of my own.
The two of us went into a long series of attacks and blocks. Stab. Block. Slash. Dodge and stab. Spin and kick. Block. Block. Slash. Lunge. Sidestep. This continued for about ten minutes, with both of us getting quite a few bruises and small cuts, but no serious injuries.
Once we finally stopped, Spear Chick said, “You’re getting better…”
“Thanks,” I responded with a faint smile.
Over the last day, I’d spent quite a bit of time sparring with Spear Chick, or Marissa since that was her real name. In that time, my staff fight and spear fighting skills had each gone up a rank. I was pretty sure that my spear fighting rank was close to going up yet again from all this sparring.
Unfortunately, it turns out that beating each other in sparring matches doesn’t count as defeating an opposing champion, so we didn’t get any points from it. Of course, I’d noticed that before, back when Cassandra and I had been training. I didn’t know how the system could tell when we were fighting each other for real, as opposed to training, but somehow it could.
“This is a good way to kill the time,” Marissa told me, and I could only agree.
It was a little strange, being on such good terms with Marissa when she’d previously come after me, while out for blood. But apparently, I’d earned a lot of goodwill from her and Axe Guy both, when I’d saved them from Pfath.
“How did you do that move, when you swept my feet from under me?” Marissa asked curiously. “My spear fighting is higher than yours, and I can’t do that one…”
“It’s a staff fighting move,” I explained with a faint smirk. “It turns out, spear fighting and staff fighting complement each other.”
“Really?” Marissa asked in surprise. “I guess I might have to try working with a staff for a bit…”
If Marissa and I had still been opponents in the game, I never would have told her this, since she only would have used it against me. But now that we were working on the same side, it made sense to help her get stronger. The stronger she was, the better she could watch my back.
Since I was done with sparring for the moment, I turned and began wandering around the warehouse where we were all staying. I had absolutely no idea where this place was, but neither did anyone else, besides the Cleaner. He’d been transporting us all here and back, when we needed to leave, but had been keeping the location a secret for security reasons. Basically, if nobody knew where we were, then they couldn’t trade that information to our enemies.
Even though we’d only been here for one day, we’d already set up a nice little camp. There was a kitchen, showers, and lots of parceled areas to give us a bit of privacy. It wasn’t bad for a short term living space, but this definitely wouldn’t work for anything long term. All of us were hoping that we could deal with these gods pretty quickly, so we could go back to our ‘normal’ lives.
It didn’t take long to find Teri, who was ‘sparring’ with Alejandra, though she wasn’t anywhere near strong enough or skilled enough to hold her own. Still, Teri seemed to be having fun.
I found Matt a minute later. He was playing video games with Becky Robinson, the magical girl. So far, he was winning, which was no surprise considering his gaming experience and dexterity, but she wasn’t nearly as far behind as I would have expected.
Since everything was calm at the moment, this would have been a great time to hang out with Cassandra and maybe sneak in a few kisses. Unfortunately, she was on guard duty, patrolling the area and keeping an eye out for any intruders. We might be hidden, but if our enemies did somehow manage to find us, we needed all the warning we could get, and Cassandra was the perfect person for that.
I was considering my options and alternating between taking a shower and doing a little training with my abilities to try leveling them. At the moment, there wasn’t a lot else to do, not until we had a plan to deal with our enemies.
Suddenly, the Cleaner yelled out, “Everyone, please come here…”
“I wonder if he found anything,” Red Coat Randal mused aloud.
“There is one way to find out,” Don pointed out.
Nearly everyone who could hear the Cleaner gathered around him. Cassandra was still missing, along with Mary, but both of them were doing guard duty.
The Cleaner didn’t waste time, and simply announced, “I found someone who knows where our enemies are staying.”
That immediately got everyone’s attention. One of the problems we’ve all had, was that we had no idea how to find the gods. The Cleaner could have located any normal champion, but not those who were possessed by gods. And since we didn’t know where to find them, we didn’t have much opportunity to go on the offensive.
“Where are they?” Axe Guy demanded, though he wasn’t the only one.
The Cleaner gestured to the side where another portal opened beside him. A couple seconds later, a figure stepped out of the portal and stood there, looking nervous.
“Harker,” I exclaimed in surprise as well as a bit of anger. I hadn’t forgotten her part in catching me so that I could be tortured.
Harker was wearing normal clothes, not her armor. She looked worried, and I couldn’t blame her for that. A lot of people here had a grudge with her for her part in what was going on.
“Why did you bring her here?” Marissa demanded. “Her patron knows where she is and will tell their allies…”
“I don’t have a patron anymore,” Harker said in a quiet tone. She looked up and I could see the fear in her eyes. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t us she was afraid of. “I…I’m not a champion anymore. I cut ties with Br’ieze before she could take me over…”
“Harker has agreed to tell us where her former allies are located,” the Cleaner announced. “Now, we can plan our assault.”
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.