“When’s the last time you saw Daegan?” A tall, blonde woman was looking around the Titan, seemed to spot all the places that were now fixed – as if she saw the difference without her visor on. She looks cold but tries to smile politely. Eysin recognizes her – it’s Imogen.
“I haven’t seen him for a couple of weeks now.”
“What about Denea?”
She has been home a lot more now. And she has changed a bit, again. She’s become cleaner and seems to try to keep sober. They haven’t talked in a while, either, Eysin kept going back to sleep very late in the night – and sometimes she now even slept at the garage.
“She’s been at the dorms… Is he in trouble?”
“Hmm… Let him know we’ve been looking when he’s around, okay?”
* * *
That special two-evening weekend – the air was different, Ceremony was full of people – they had all come to see the matches, make their bets, eat their street food, maybe meet someone new, or someone old, and have a good time on their bit of time off.
Walking towards the entrance to the arena felt like going on stage – the tension was very high – and everyone wanted to make a nice entrance. Over the other entrances, where there were teams who already had experience doing this, they were hyped – ready to jump in and start looking, running, dodging, escaping, attacking…
The corridor towards the entrance Raynar’s team was in had a slightly different mood, though. Eysin was new to this – and she was a little scared. The lightless walls and ceiling became bigger than they were, anxiety snuck in – she started hearing sounds and seeing things she normally wouldn’t pay any attention to. And above all these sounds, these lights in pressure, as seen through the zerks’ visor – a red light was pinging her. Badum, badum, badum – her heartbeat.
They are waiting.
Still a few minutes until the horn blows and the doors opened.
Everyone loved it having the crowds root for their team, gambling on them, wanting to take pictures of them – because the higher the bets – the more people got bought into the games – the bigger the reward. The crowd was lively, and everyone who wasn’t participating that day where there, watching them all from the green room.
The guys start talking about yesterday’s match, and Eysin starts replaying it in her head. Things had gotten pretty messy very early on – two teams decided they will hunt down the scribes before they manage to dig up anything – so, she imagined a similar tactic unleashing as soon as she steps on the eesian soil – she won’t even have a moment to take in the kind of map they have built for this time – because of the possibility of their team getting targeted right from the start – another team dashing at them quickly.
Horn. Doors open – and like water, without any effort on their part – they already run in, and keep running – they look around and assess the environment – some messed up cliff grounds at the edge, and a multi-level forest at the center.
“Stay low… We head to the woods, someone’s going to think last night was funny, bound to happen again.”
And indeed – two teams were trying to pull the same tactic from last night – another team three doors down started coming at them and everyone in between, and then another team that came from the opposite end.
Hearing shouts and hustle from the approximate directions of other teams, in both directions – Raynar’s team all stopped for a few seconds to register what could be happening – and without even needing to give out the order – they started rushing quick towards the Leveled Forest.
And as they got closer to the forest, 2 people from the pursuing teams started tailing them. “Find a place to hide, Eysin, we will take them on ourselves – they are trying to wear you out!”
As if only a few seconds later – the team got scattered in the first level of the southmost forest.
At that brief change of pace Raynar already managed to think it was over, but the team managed to shake off the pursuers – the chase had taken so long the pursuer teams told them to stop chasing rabbits.
“They must have found a patch, they’re gone…” She hears one of her teammates comment on the comms in her skull.
“Eysin, you okay?” Eysin recognizes Raynar.
“Are you hiding?”
“Not really – I think I’m seeing something. Do I go?”
“Go, but slow – it’s unlikely someone is in this patch – it’s leveled… Unless they already got up there, there’s no way they could climb to this section… Only from where we came.”
Separated from the rest, cluelessly walking through an alien-looking forest, Eysin then suddenly stopped, to listen.
Everything had stopped moving – no noise, no movement. No one was after her anymore, and she had gotten away. She finds a booth.
“A booth is here…” She comments.
“Yeah, should be about right… That’s where you take the rings when you get them.”
“We don’t want to keep for decrypting?” Another member asks.
“Let’s first see if we can even find anything…” Eysin answers annoyedly. “Are you close yet?”
“We come slow, need to make sure no one is sneaking up on this part. You stay alert, just in case… If you can keep looking – find the artifacts, there ought to be some around.”
Changing the view and looking around, she now saw there were plenty of spots where the artifacts faintly gave off their signals.
But she followed the one that shone most familiarly to her – and it was quite close, too. The familiarity made her guess it must have been one of her own bracelets.
She found a hot location – soft ground, patted her foot on it, “do they bury them here?”
“Yeah, they can bury or place it on a tree or whatever. They can be anywhere.”
She sunk her hand into the ground and pulled it out – but the bracelet was connected to a thin, unbreakable chain – the artifact was stuck in a math trap that she had to solve. Getting lost in the puzzle for a moment, she surprised herself with how fast she got it open. Right after unlocking it she sensed someone around, and duck to the bushes to make sure she’s still safe.
She lost guard in the bush, though – trying to quickly decode the bracelet to understand what it is – and then needed to proceed to find another artifact – and pretend she never found the first one. Whatever is on it – it came from my family – I should never have put it here. She started solving the encryption, then took another look around to see if she sees any other familiar signatures – and then… BING! It unlocks – her first bracelet is a blueprint.
A pole? It’s a weapon, a pole… But, incomplete… She is a little disappointed, what’s the other half? A mop? Great.
She kept it anyway – to study it further on her own time – to see if there might be anything on it relating to why her mother would have had it. “Was it one of you guys near me?”
“Depends where you are.”
“Yeah I think it was you,” she responded to the team-mate. “I can see at least a dozen of those glowing around this area. I’ll start cracking them off the ground.”
When she had cleared the area, and everyone had regrouped, they were ready to catch up with what else was going on, on the field.
“I think we have enough, and this place is silent, we should stay safe and hold out until the end.”
“It’s not safe to stay here – if there was no one but us here so far – someone successful on the field is sure to come to look here, too. And best if he doesn’t find us here…” The member looked in a north direction, “there was a staircase… We can move up, to the next level. Get some more.”
“Someone might be waiting for us there… Ready to take it all away from us.” Eysin complained.
“Well, I don’t think 12 artifacts are going to do…”
Raynar suggests, “we could hand them in at that booth and keep going – this way they can’t take them away from us. And we can get more… If they didn’t dig it all up already.”
“Some of these seem very promising, though – I tried cracking them, but they are tense, complicated… I can do it if you give me more time… And a cozy place to sit at…”
Raynar thinks, “okay, so, keep the ones you want to crack, turn in the ones you don’t.”
They did that and headed towards the next level – a steep climb of stairs. The temperature and humidity change. As do the sounds… Signature movements… “Someone is here…” Eysin comms.
And as soon as they took another step on the new level, they got under attack by another team – 3 defenders got knocked over, another one knocked all the way back down from the stairs, one of them started pursuing Eysin – Eysin deliberately dropped her rings, hoping he would stop chasing her and stop to pick them up – and as he did so, indeed – Raynar rushed him over, they fought – and the enemy escaped.
Eysin returns to where she dropped the rings – and found that two were missing.
“Fuck, can anyone check the time? How many do we actually need?”
With the deposits, the time was shortened from 40 minutes to 30 – which was never reliable information on what the score could be.
The level they were at was now just at their mercy – but they could only find 4 more rings.
For the last 10 minutes every team must have been rotating – the land was empty – no more flickering flames giving signals, come dig me up, come pluck me down. The only way to get more rings at this stage was to raid another party – and Raynar really didn’t feel like he could handle it. Besides, his best fighter had a limp from the fall.
Indeed, later that match was remembered as “the carousel” – one team moving faster than all the others, taking out the remaining teams’ artifacts one by one – Raynar simply got lucky that this hell of the team never caught up to them – the time ran out before it could happen.
* * *
Eysin spent the whole next day hanging in the cozy hotel room, relaxing in the bath or on the couch while trying to decrypt some of the rings they kept, hoping to cash it in for extra points.
“Koi just turned in Black Rain rings… 768 points…”
“Fuck, we’re nowhere close to that!” Raynar is keeping this chat off Eysin – no need to stress her at this moment. “I hope we get something really good.”
“Anyone else counted yet?”
“No… But I found out Dorpa is 0, Reso had only 5 artifacts and they are trying to decrypt them all. Koi raided them all…”
“Well, we have 60 points for sure… And what, scriptie has 8 on her?”
“Which means… The minimum we can get is 2 points from each… 16… So, we actually have 76 for sure.”
“How did Kalev do?”
“No information… They were pretty aggressive, too… They were the fuckers who pinched us!”
Meanwhile, Eysin has managed to decrypt 2 so far, and they seem quite valuable in her eyes – but she has no idea how many points they would bring. The deadline to turn them in is Sunday midnight… And she also gets curious – how are the others doing.
“I need a break, am I allowed to take a break?” She comms Raynar. Of course, he allows it and she uses it to go take a walk outside, stretch the leg, get something to eat, and casually walk into Bartel, and they walk one lap of the town together.
“How is it looking for your brother person?” She asks him.
“Kalev?” Bartel indeed understands – the scores are the most interesting topic for her. “They haven’t turned anything in yet, but what they kept from Koi… And stole from you – they are holding 12 pieces. No idea what’s on them. They are very protective about it.”
“Damn… There’s no way RESO or Dorpa can get ahead of us, but 12…”
“Well, RESO can actually get lucky and get a jackpot from their 5… What have you got?”
Eysin squints her eyes and smiles, “not sure if I should say!”
“It was hilarious how you threw him off with the bait, though!”
“I was praying hard that Raynar would come after him!”
“The crowd loved it! They love funny.”
Eysin now thinks back to that moment – and it may have been a funny sight to see, indeed. She wasn’t running off like an elegant lady or a swift assassin, as she had imagined herself in the role – she was more like a drunk monkey dressed in a clown suit, confused, running about, making noises that resembled yodling, jumped like an hallucinating gazelle and “weee”, made it rain rings. “Oh man, wish I knew how to handle it with class.”
“No, it was great! It was sincere!” He chuckles at it. “No need for class and sass. You do you. Genuine – just seems to work here.”
They finish the walk and part ways with small niceties, Eysin returns to the house they are staying at, and sees the boys are getting a little nervous.
“Are we getting anything?” One of them asks impatiently.
“I’ve decrypted 2… 6 more to go… But they are tricky… No one is easier than the other…”
“Just focus on trying even one more – just pick one and go at it – we won’t bother you again before 11. Then we go turn in whatever we have.”
And the boys kept their word, Eysin managed to crack that one open in that time, but 5 remained a mystery. They meet at the front of the house and head towards the Pits area together, going to the Cauldron – where many other people have gathered, too.
The Cauldron looked straight out like from a sorcerers’ story – but it wasn’t black. It was platinum, like most Eesian things. It was big – bigger than the orb, smaller than the Titan. And it had a small opening – small enough to put a fist into it, and drop the rings…
Next to the cauldron stood an EESO scriptie – possibly one of the senior ones, wearing a very nice robe with a large hood. Next to her, there is a large blackboard with yesterday’s participants on one side, and Friday’s on the other.
The score on the blackboard announces:
Koi Jr – 768 – complete.
Damien – 56 – complete.
Kalev – 40 – *counting.
Dorpa – 0 – complete.
Raynar – 60 – *counting.
Kalev’s and Raynar’s teams were the only ones who hadn’t turned all they got, in yet. “He has 12 on him… 24 points if he got nothing counted…”
“But he probably did… Just go turn them all in, we’ve done our best.”
As Eysin starts walking towards the cauldron – a scriptie from the Brotherhood team makes it there, first. Eysin stops to see how it’s done – and more importantly – what will the score end up being.
The scriptie steps up, the senior scriptie nods to him and he puts his left hand into the cauldron. Clonk… Clonk… Clonk… The rings fall.
“12 rings…” The senior announces, “thank you, that’s 78 points – 10 encrypted yielding 20, one decrypted yielding 24, another decrypted yielding 34. Your score,” the senior scriptie hovers towards the blackboard and changes Kalev’s score, and before she wipes off the old number, she turns to him and asks, “will this be all? Or have you more rings to turn in?”
“No, this was all.”
“In this case, you stand at… 138.”
The score looks good for them – their team and some of their supporters get excited about it. But none of them dare to pop the champagne just yet.
“Raynar’s team around?” The senior now shout, “we’re about to close up and assume you wanted to keep the rings instead, seeing you can’t win!” She taunts!
Eysin steps up and thinks about it… “I don’t have to turn them all in?”
“You don’t have to turn any of them in. You guys have earned it.” A smile flinches from under her hood.
“Okay, let’s see how this turns out.” Eysin puts her hand in the cauldron and drops… Clonk, clonk… And takes her hand out again.
The senior walks over to read the score… She chuckles. “I’ll be damned… 48… 31…”
Eysin steps down from the cauldron’s stand, and asks, a little demonstratively, “can I turn in the rest at the next round?”
The elder chuckles, walks over to the board, “no, you cannot – you want to keep them, keep them.” She turns around and announces the scores, “of the two decrypted rings, Raynar yields – 48 from one, 31 from the other. Placing them one point ahead of the current second.”
Raynar and the guys jump to the sky, throwing fists and shouting oh yeah!
Kalev and his friends play the close-win gestures, but don’t frown about it a lot. “They paycheck is still good,” he says when he walks over to Raynar and hands him the champagne bottle he had been waiting to pop. “Good luck to you guys in the next round,” he wishes.
* * *
“Keep, the semi-finals are coming and some of my team members don’t feel very confident in my ability to keep up.”
“But you got them through the first round. You did. Even when you snuck one bracelet to the side… Can you tell what was on it, by the way?”
“A stick… Maybe a part of a weapon. I haven’t had so much time to try it out yet. I’ll spend some time with it tomorrow… What else do you think I can do to not let the team down?”
“A stimulant might help.”
“The yellow paint?”
The barkeep shrugs, “many use it, it’s allowed.”
“So why isn’t everyone using it?”
“It’s a show of pride, you know. I don’t need it. I can do without. But no one will really mind if anyone does want to use them. It boosts you in some ways… But will take from some other department… For some people it doesn’t work out at all – it simply makes them feel drunk…”
“They let me keep the other 6 rings, you know… It’s kinda exciting. I didn’t manage to crack any open yet… But I wonder – what can be on there! Of course, they did ask to share the buck when I get something expensive…”
“I’m sure these will help you learn a lot.”
Still a half an hour until the match starts, Eysin is sitting by herself in a resting room, and a familiar face shows up. The blond woman who was looking for Daegan, “hey,” she says over the door. “Where are the guys?”
“Here in 10 minutes or so. Said they’ll be a little late.”
“Right… They invited me to come and give you some feedback on last Saturday…”
“Why aren’t you participating?”
“We made a deal among the Exos – we don’t participate. Neither do any seniors from Brotherhood or Black Rain… You lot would never get a chance at winning if you went up against…” She smiles and then reminds herself to not get carried away, “Mostly we stopped going because some of us were bored to support our end – especially the Black Rain guys – so, the runs became very… Unfair. Some Exos would be happy to participate, I guess…”
“Any news about Daegan?”
“Listen, I have an idea for you… People out there – they like you. But your suit is forgettable… People did like you last week and remember you – you could be a real darling here – at least in our part of the crowd – play it more out, make yourself memorable – they’ll cheer harder.”
“I’m feeling more like I’m getting in the way here…”
“People don’t care about your skill level when they watch this shit. The most “successful” contenders are the most boring ones – they win matches, but fail the people’s hearts – they are not interesting or theatrical – they don’t let themselves be seen as if what they do is in any way difficult… And that’s boring. I get you must be here to earn the buck – so have more people place money on you. Faster, cleaner matches bring in less money.”
“So, you’re here to teach us branding?”
“No, the branding lesson is just for you,” she winks, “the boys have their techniques messed up and they start chasing idiots, like true idiots.”
Shortly, the boys appear. Imogen talks to them for a bit and then leaves. And after she’s gone, one of the guys comes over to Eysin and shows her the yellow paste she’s soon to have on her silver skin.
“You said we can use some other colors, too?”
“Just cosmetically – the effect won’t change. I have some paints that you can use to cover it after you have applied the yellow. What do you have in mind? It’s not viewed well if you try to hide that you’re using stimulants, though – if I were you, I wouldn’t cover it. Where do you want me to put it?”
“Can I apply it myself? Just see that I am not putting too much.”
She puts some of the yellow paint on the chest and sides, and while the teammate takes a minute to paint something on himself, she takes his cosmetic red color and wipes the topside of her mask all red. “We’ll get more bets on us if we’re more memorable, right?” She says this as if she’s asking that question from the teammate, then comments, “I’m sure at least some of them would remember Jolie Rouge.”
– “I thought you left Jolie Rouge because you were against exploiting that name?”
“What?” Eysin turns around and wonders how he would know about Jolie Rouge?
“What?” He asks, puzzled.
“What did you just say?” She repeats.
“I haven’t said anything.” Looks like the guy is done applying his paint, stands up, sees that Eysin is done with her art, too, and puts it back together.
“Ohh…” She felt the effect of the paint coming on and realized just now where that voice had come from. “It’s… I can hear my thoughts so loud, wow.”
“Oh, then you’ve had enough… You’re a little sensitive I guess… But I promise, if you find something to focus on – it’ll stop. I was the same the first time. It’ll be alright.”
Now, instead of being nervous, Eysin couldn’t wait to see what happens when they go outside – how the land is shaped, where the first obvious Artifacts will be, where people will clash with other teams – where they need to be extra defensive not to get wiped out right from the start…
Back at that good old door. “We gotta watch out for Koi’s guys… No use becoming the 2nd best here!” Raynar reminds, sort of awkwardly.
“You have any hope of beating them?”
“Well, it’s either today or loser-rounds – we aim for the finals, right?”
The doors open and then flow into the stadium as if they were water, flowing down a drain.
Right into a forest… “It’s leveled,” the scout looks ahead, noticing how the terrain must be dropping a couple of hundred meters below their current level, near the center. “What’s the plan, boss.”
“We kiss the wall, move counter-clock, away from Rain pals.”
That match is different on a whole other level – and they are now going against a little more skilled and organized teams.
Bartel was around – and putting pressure on Koi – he managed to actually help Raynar get away without losing any rings to them. “Don’t think of him as a friend – he’s protecting us to make sure Koi can’t get ahead of them too much… We’re just fodder at this stage. It’s either going to be Bartel and Koi or Bartel or Hela – we can only dream.”
And they came across that other Black Rain team – led by a tall woman named Hela – and this was the one instance where Eysin’s stimulant use actually saved her – she had enough energy to keep evading them, and captured a few rings on the way.
Surprisingly, nearing the end of the match – Hela handed over all her rings to Koi – and Koi turned them all in right away – cutting the match short enough to end it there.
Without even going to see the scores – everybody knew – the finalists were Bartel and Koi.
Still, hopeful at the next day’s score counting, the senior scribe advised Eysin to keep all the rings, as they have no chance to pass any scores – unless she had managed to unlock something very rare, worth 200 points or more.
She had not – the stimulants had made her thinking difficult. She was useless in solving the puzzles, she was useless in thinking about the encryptions…
But the boys had almost as if expected this would happen – and they were not in any way in a bad mood over this.
“No-no, don’t worry, we all expected that this would happen. There will be second wind rounds the next week – all loser teams get re-matched. Then there will be a semi again, and another one team will win access to the final round.”
Jelena already was set to participate in the finals – their playmate Cassius had reached the top already as well. Bartel had also made it, as well as Koi Jr.
This means – my budget is at a point where I should be able to afford one blue marble.
Eysin took a detour and went to the market – to look for the vendor that would have any of those blue marbles for sale. The vendor did, and she could buy one – the rest of the money she kept for rent and food. I’ll get more after the next round…
She returns to the bar the guys had gone to, and their extremely good mood infects her again and joins them in the celebration by drinking so much absinthe that… Well, she may never have drunk so much absinthe before.
And that led to another strange situation in the morning. A hotel room that she did not recognize, uncomfortably naked, blatantly hungover… Next to a deeply asleep Raynar… Who was not equally naked, but who knows what that is supposed to mean anyway?
She’d never experienced that one before. She had never drunk so much that she’d forget. Absinthe – never again. A super quiet mission ahead – she got up, got dressed, made sure she still had all her things and escaped the room to go to her own.
She washed herself and tried to remember the evening… But the hangover had her so sick that she couldn’t even think. How can a drink be so bad?
The plan for the end of the week was for Raynar to drive her back to Oeselia, so she still had her chance to ask if he had any better take on what had occurred on that night.
And once she got in the car and saw that none of the other guys weren’t ready to go with them, yet, she brought it up.
“I have gaps…”
“What do you mean?”
“I must have gotten really drunk, I don’t remember…”
“Are you wondering what business you had in my room…”
He seemed to recall to himself and he chuckled. “You didn’t drink much. You didn’t seem drunk at all… I think it’s because you used the stim and then drank that stuff… They don’t mix well – it might come back to you when you feel better.”
“I mean I need to ask it straight if I want to know, right, did we fuck?”
He chuckles, “we did not!”
“Then why was I…”
He shrugs like it wasn’t a big deal, “we made out a bit, that’s all, what about it…”
“Was that my idea?”
“Uuh… I would say it was mutual effort…”
She remembered later – indeed they had made out, and that’s about it – but it had been fun. And when she remembered and thought back to it a few times, she started enjoying it more. How an insignificant, maybe even an accidental physical brush can start cascading – from a handshake, a hug, or an arm-wrestling – into a dance that lasts an hour or more – and then into privacy – without much effort at all.
Recovering from the hangover, she wondered if she liked Raynar enough to make things ever head in that general direction again… Thinking about it made her skin only hungrier.
Recovering, a slow evening, dreaming, she had a hope Raynar had not asked her to join the team because she can be replaced easy should the need arise – she entertained the thought that he indeed might just like her.
Tuesday. When she steps into her room back at the EESO dorms, she sees Denea is home, and someone is there with her. Denea is having a conversation with another woman, and they don’t seem to pay any attention to Eysin, at all. Soon they both stand up and get out – so they wouldn’t disturb her if Eysin wants to get some sleep.
When leaving, Eysin recognizes the woman, but nobody says a word – she was Asya – the one who taught her the healing tricks.
* * *
Come Thursday, Eysin returns to the temple to keep working on the Titan – but now, also she can start testing out some things with the blue marble. Try to call down one drone – she had read somewhere it has been done before. Just to study it closer.
And when she entered the garage – the lights were fixed and all on, and someone was making noise in the back. A girl grunting and throwing a tool that would be the equivalent to an Eesian crowbar.
Eysin carefully called out before she could see her.
And another woman’s voice called bad. “No, no. No Daegans here.” The mystery woman steps out to show herself to Eysin, “Oh, hi, you must be Eysin.” She comes over and they shake hands, “I’m Seals.”
“Well, you must be wondering – who is Seals and what is she doing here, huh? I’m officially your guildmate… I got left some lame tasks to do, so I won’t get in your way… But… If you want – I know a bit of this encrypting stuff… And I’ve been playing around with the titans for a bit – if you need a second brain – let me know.”
“So, what’s your plan for today?” Seals asks, injecting a cheerful mood.
“Well, I need to get to one of the few remaining Titans here on Osel… Do you drive?”
“I-mighty-do! Which ones do you need to go to?”
She shows her on the map. “Give me another 20 minutes so I can finish up the door – and we can go, okay?”
Eysin looked at her, returning to the door – about her own height, great energy and she smelled nice. Wonderful hair – long and dark, with a fashionable purple stripe in it. Her lips were also painted purple… And her beady brown eyes were heavily stained with Silver.
She’s been around for a while.