Chapter 5: The Keep

With the training she went through in the last few months at the gladiator club – her suit had started to grow, evolve. Rare nuances, as if the suit itself was starting to show some personality – nowhere near close to the elaborate scars and branches that you can see on some of the Exos or older students – but it’s still something. The whole progress with the suit has turned into a pretty spring flower, now peeking out from the snow, at the first sight of the sun.

A harsh winter had passed, the last snow had melted, days grew longer and longer, and there were many fine days with sunshine, and a few with light rain.

But like that peeking spring bell, or other early flowers, now struggling to get out from the mud – so had become her zerk. A growth, similar to the manner of plants and mushrooms. She sits, early morning, awake in her room, and studies it. Looks at it close and try to make sense – am I wearing a plant? What makes mine grow in this particular manner?

Some of the other gladiators had developed curious kinds of elbow-, knee- and shoulder pads – they look exactly like large tree fungi! Yes, you could even see the frills at the underside, where the cap is loose from the skin, giving the gladiator the freedom to move – and offering a bit of buffer when something hits or hits against something.

These kinds of mushroom pads were hard as hell – gladiators who prefer to brawl in close situations made good use of it – knee kicks, punches, elbow slams! And all this made sense – these mushroom-shaped modules grew as if a reaction to the preferred activities of the zerker.

Eysin’s growth was largely tied to the use of her Kaestus – the floral-looking growth sprouts around her head were an indication of a lot of calculating going on. The result of having to solve puzzles at the training games – but it may also have to do something with studying the Titan and sneaking around the insides of other Eesian technological pieces.

With all this – she was perfectly primed to learn control tricks – within the training grounds and outside of it – but during the few months left of base training – absolutely no one had the time to come over and teach her. “You’re bound to have someone teach you all that, just give it time,” had Daegan said around the last few days of training remaining. 

This would not have been the case in old EESO. These days so many zerkers finished the base training without getting any clue about their specializations. Sometimes there was a shortage of specialists in a certain niche – and other times everyone that was there was busy with some other project. 

So, to do everything she can to get ahead, Eysin studied her growth on her own and in her own way. She did figure that she could technically manipulate how the zerk grows. If she were to, say, learn karate, too – she’d have less stuff growing on her head, but more around her joints and limbs. But she knew it – and the suit must have known it, too – she was not the karate kind of girl anyway.

A fascinating, powerful technology. For what other purpose than war? And does anybody even know what we’re preparing for? Surely this all can be here merely to defend ourselves from the Nords – or push back the raiders from the Black Sea – if anything, this technology was the whole reason these regions got so hostile.

Stuck in lands plagued with shortages, unfertile grounds, but swarming with worms… Not fit for a human anymore – not because the worms came – but because deranged humans sucked that part of land dry in all the ways they shouldn’t have. The worms went there as it was good enough for them, and no one bothered them there, much…

An infestation, they call it… The worms might as well have highways and clubs under the earth – living parallel to us – occasionally bringing us gifts – the marbles… And occasionally they build these temples – and these temples are kind to us, and in a good size to us, and offer us the means to get prepared… 

Get prepared against something we have no way of guessing. An intelligence, or a life form – in a form that is completely incomprehensible to us – or maybe it will be someone with four limbs – arms and legs, eyes and ears – and a nose and a mouth – just like us. 

But the worms seem to see such a creature dangerous enough to see fit arming us against it. So, are the worms simply using us – because they are fleeing that creature, perhaps their creator – or are they here to help us – help us survive the incident… An incident they themselves may have been responsible for igniting, perhaps. They either are trying to fix up a mess or prevent one from happening – but what fool would bring such powerful tools to humans to prevent bad shit from happening

I’m sure they know us well, better than we know ourselves… So, they must be here because it is a last resort. Will we be under-prepared? Or is all this random – and absolutely nothing is coming…

Or could this be the attack? I have this zerk – it could potentially be intelligence with its own agenda. And the collective that is EESO, and other Eesian organs on the planet – was just their clever way of taking over… They take over… And are heavily armed… They must know there is something else out there that all this should be effective against. 

And based on the terrifying possibilities with these weapons, what they can do – do we really need all this just to overcome someone… Careless enough to take us out? And would I ever want to meet such a terrible force… I will get killed. And possibly in an embarrassing way. 

Maybe I should go back to the City and find a job programming children’s games.

But instead, she stays and is even a little excited to attend a competition. And this probably isn’t just a tournament. We’re practicing. 

***

There was no shortage of drama on Oeselia. Even before the tournament really began, Eysin started paying more attention to the connections that have formed in the place. Who goes out with who – who are friends, who are rivals… And could there be any group where she is missing from and would happily welcome her?

That was something she had really longed for – human interaction – with mutual interest.

As for those people who she already had met – to Eysin’s mind – Daegan had clearly lost it. He was handsome, undoubtedly intelligent, a magnificent fighter – but in one other regard – a very weird dude. He was a little awkward when talking to her – and even more awkward when talking about these ideas about Eesian technology… And their conversations did remain only a few and equally awkward. 

Daegan had gotten her all the signatures that she had needed for the Titan blueprint building. After their initial talk – and him going all strange about the life form that is Eesian, not a technology – it had been quite a relief for Eysin to find out that he doesn’t hang around the garage at all, and that she won’t be challenged by his insane theory, again. It had made her feel thoroughly uncomfortable, and she couldn’t really say why – something is off here. 

Having been in the journalist domain for a while, and having hung out with all sorts of people who enjoy seeking patterns and busting conspiratorial activities – wacky theories wasn’t anything that would surprise her. Whether the suit is alive as much as her – and has a mind like her – she figured after a bit of contemplation – wasn’t the part that had made her feel uncomfortable.

Was it in the way he spoke about it? Or the timing? There certainly has been some kind of a shift in his vibes… 

Another morning – Daegan passes her in the garage as if ignoring her presence – not even a “good morning” – it got Eysin curious about where he was going, what is he doing during the day. And eventually, she followed and saw that he spent quite some time hanging out with some other people from the Gladiator guilds, at a gladiator club bar that Eysin, to her surprise, was welcome to enter, too.

She was invited in by The Keep, the bartender, at the door, calling it a happy hour – hoping he could offer something to Eysin that would make her a repeat customer. She had enough credit to experiment around a bit, but it would come from the cost of ever achieving a number on the account with what she could afford to buy a blue marble.

Eysin had already decided that she’ll join the tournament with Raynar – so, she reasoned, she has the budget to have a bit of fun with this bar and what it has to offer – and for a couple of weekends she indeed did go there on her own. Sat and The Keep would serve her all kinds of different cocktails. She was trying to determine which is the best – trying to find a cocktail that she would definitely order a second time.

She liked quite a few, and the bartender, of course, always said that this is his favorite, too.

Going to the town like that, even without interacting with any of them directly, she saw the social currents. She noticed who hung with who, who went where, and what sorts of problems or privileges people seemed to have. For many, she made up her own names and elaborate stories. And always kept asking herself – do I find this person promising enough to make me actually stand up and go introduce myself to them? Just like that? 

Eysin saw many people she would have loved to go introduce herself to – but she didn’t really know how. How can I step up out of the blue? A leap, a free fall – I don’t know if I can do something like that. So, outside the preparation training for the Pits and trying to see what can be done with the Titan – she kept to herself and often found herself in the company of someone that was not her friend – the bartender. The Keep.

Daegan often met some people in town – some of them may have been from Gladiators, but many of them didn’t even seem to have zerks on them. Sometimes Denea was hanging with them. Daegan and Denea obviously had had a romantic issue between them, and after Eysin had forwarded Denea’s drunken message to Daegan, their things may have had picked up again.

A part of Eysin did wonder what all this was about, but she had shut all her ways into their ordeals when right after relaying the message to Daegan she added, “I don’t really care about any of this, so I would like you to not use me to send a message back to her. And I won’t be taking any more of her messages to you, either. Sort it out on your own.”

She drinks a slightly bitter, orange drink – one of the cocktails she will not have a second of, and confessed this to the bartender, “it annoyed me… It annoyed me because I have never had a situation like that – and it feels that because I haven’t – I have missed out on something amazing.”

“Do you find emotional problems between people amazing?”

“Emotional problems are as good as emotional solutions or whatever – IF,” she stresses, “the alternative is an emotional-nothing at all. I’d rather have uncomfortable conversations than no conversations at all.” And Eysin thought she was pretty good at it. She missed having a person besides her – a friend, a partner – and the friction and the fun that usually comes along with it. “I miss working out the friction to get some more fun.”

“I’m afraid I can’t offer you any friction,” the bartender sighs.

“I recall some 10 drinks that I did not like. And I was honest about it. And you accepted it like a man. We’re having plenty of friction sorted out…” But she knew better – a bartender is not someone you get really personal with. She knew she was nothing special to the bartender – there must have been 17 other zerkers whom he had such degustation sessions with. And even though the bartender was the only person Eysin felt she could talk to about whatever she felt like talking about – this little feature didn’t make him all so special either.

***

Over the two weeks before the pits and some during – Denea and Daegan both started seeming weirder and weirder to her – it looked like they were hanging out together a lot, but not really doing anything… At least not on the surface of things. They were up to something, and with each passing day, Eysin started wondering more about it.

Why would I go there with another person every single day just to sit… And talk about whatever? Are they really that happy to just hang or talk all the time, or are they really doing something else? 

***

The training sessions were a good change of pace and atmosphere. Raynar’s team had booked the Terratorium, and they practiced some serious, very difficult confrontations against another Eesian team that was going to be participating in the Pits, too.

“Here’s what the tournament is about,” the leader of the other team – Cassius – took it upon him to make sure everyone knows what the tournament is about and what their best path forward is. Keeping the EESO flag up high was in the interest of any participating team. “It is very much like our training sessions were here. But we will be five teams of five people – each has a collector to keep safe – in our case the scripties. The goal is to gather and possibly decrypt the artifacts – as many as possible…”

“No,” an unexpected comment from an unexpected direction, a man speaks, “your goal is to keep the scriptie safe,” someone had been listening in on them. The man appears from behind a terratorium block, walks, and stops between the two teams, next to Cassius. “Yes, you pass to the next rounds based on the count of artifact points – but if you fail to take care of your scriptie – you have zero points no matter what. Make sure you don’t fall out of the game even before they lay a hand on their first artifacts…”

“Hi…” Cassius looks at that man with a smile, he seems pleased by his presence.

The man has long hair and a rather tired look. He is smoking some sweet-smelling herbs. Could be one of the Exos, enjoying a day off, hanging around the blocks. “It gets trickier around 20 minutes…” He takes another whiff of his herbs, thinks about phrasing, and continues, “if you have accumulated a lot of rings, your scriptie will become a very delicious target to the other teams – all they need to do is take out her – you will lose all your points – and the lucky enemy has all the artifacts you found…”

Cassius nodded, the delight in his eyes showed that he was excited to have this man talk instead of him. Must have been someone he really admired.

“Once we bullied a RESO team so bad…” The man stretches, locks his hands behind his neck, and seems to think back, “we took away all their rings, but let their scriptie go back to her team. Guess what? They very quickly started gathering and finding more of the rings…” He looks at the people looking at him, listening to the story, and sees that none of them really understood what it means, “we waited a bit and took their rings again.”

Everybody starts laughing. The man chuckles for a bit, too, “yeah, laugh all you like. Just remember – if you let down your scriptie even once – it’s over for you. And some ass will exploit that if you don’t understand that your team doesn’t really have what it takes to get through. An enemy will take advantage of that…”

Everyone gets serious again. The man takes the last puff of smoke, looks all the gladiators in their eyes, commanders their attention for another short moment, and before heading towards the exit where there’s a bin for his blunt, he waves his hand, “alright, see you around, lads!” He walks away as calmly as he had appeared.

“Who was that?”

“One of the best brawlers around. Another Exo, don’t know his name.”

***

Something else Eysin trusted to tell to The Keep – she thought of Raynar as handsome, and he had a nice charm about him – he was a good fighter and very confident about it, too. Her initial impressions during the first preparation matches – it was nice to work with him within a team – he seemed very patient and supportive, and occasionally even barked at the other teammates when they started showing some kind of impatience with her.

He often liked to paraphrase the man who had talked to them on the first day, “the scriptie cannot carry us, we must carry her, basically, so instead of whining about her, adjust!”

She had thought for a moment that he would stand up for her like this was kinda sweet. So, Eysin wondered what that could mean. He wasn’t really white-knighting to impress her, neither could it have anything to do with her decency – it was something else. “It seems to me that Raynar wants nothing else but to partake in that tournament and make some good money – but what is a real big mystery to me – why was I the only one he wanted to ask?”

“Maybe he likes you?” The bartender suggested, but of course, just to flatter his visitor.

“Doubt it. Maybe he senses I won’t protest too much when he wants to replace me for some other scriptie for the finals.”

“Why would he do that?” The bartender looked puzzled – and for that time – genuinely so.

“There’s nothing special about me, Keep. I’m new here, and that may leave the impression that I don’t know how things work. I AM,” she stresses, “new here – but I’m not new, period. But… I don’t belong to a circle – so when he wrongs me… No one will be there to hold it against him in any way – because I’m not really connected to anyone here… I’m like a disposable tissue…”

“Are you talking about his worth or yourself, lady…”

That’s right. She didn’t think too much of herself. She believed that there was something good and promising about herself – especially if she was to compare her health and strength to how she was a half a year ago – but her faith and physical progress did little to show any satisfactory results in real life. “Something tells me I wasn’t invited there to potentially become one of their group. I was invited there because… Temporarily – I will not cause any fuss in their otherwise… Complete group.”

“Do you know some person you think he would want to replace you with?”

“Haven’t seen her, yet.” But I feel that there is someone. A rival.

***

“Listen, I’m going to take that loan to get in from someone else, Ray.”

“Whatever you like. Who will give it to you?”

The Keep had made a suggestion to Eysin once he had heard she doesn’t feel Raynar is very trustworthy, “heard I could convince Bratka to give me a loan with no interest and cover a large part of the entry cost… If I chip in some of my own rings to the game.”

“Your own… You have rings?” Raynar stretched out the arms as if to say – why didn’t you start there? 

“Yes, I have 3.” Eysin takes from her bag three thin silver-white rings. Raynar takes a closer look, just trying to convince himself that yes, these are the real deal. And her idea seems promising. He always preferred to not have anyone owe him, so, for a little bit – that was a relief.

But what are those arm rings or bracelets, anyway? In this part of the world, they are called Artifacts. Some of them are blueprints, some of them are objects or sensitive ancient records – which absolutely no one on the planet can read or comprehend – most of them are difficult to crack. The bartender had seen Eysin carry them on her arm and knew what they were – and as she was telling him how the thought of taking a loan from Raynar made her uncomfortable, he laid out that idea about going to Bratka.

Bratka. “Go meet Bratka – he is the host of the event. He is basically the Vinu Laos for the Brotherhood. As warm and friendly as our own man. Three bracelets should cover you a minimum of three rounds – but there will be 10 events held altogether… If you fall out in the first week – you’ll get a good refund for the potential 4 other rounds that you missed. Hells, you could make a lot of money just by selling them and not participating at all…”

Raynar agreed to take her to Bratka. And they crossed the channel with a rented amphicar, went to his large, dark house on Ceremony, and met him at his office room – large, dark, filled with old books – he was sitting behind the desk like a don. Dressed well, a little serious – but visibly in a very good mood. He smiled broadly when they entered. Before them, there had been two other people who went to him to get a loan for another scriptie. And possibly – after them, there would be people with the same idea on their minds.

“I can offer three bracelets to the game.”

“Have you tried cracking them?” The Bratka-don asks. 

“Cracking? No… I have no idea what’s on them.”

“Where did you get them from? Have you or someone you know participated before?”

“I got from home, I have absolutely no information about this.”

Bratka rubs his stubble and seems to think. “You don’t seem to know enough about those things, so, I am afraid that after a while you will regret that you gave them to me – and the only way for you to get them back is if you somehow manage to collect them during the game – and you keep them, giving up the points you could gather with them… But if you fall out sooner and you will never have a chance to see what’s on them, again – you will accuse me of cheating you out of your personal treasure.”

“I have no attachment to them. I can sign something to commit to it in the future – or anyone in this room – have it be known – I am offering these on my free will – will you grant me the funds to enter and a loan to cover what the rings don’t?”

Bratka, somewhat hesitant, agreed to it, and they worked out some more details about who gets paid when and under what met-conditions. The deals seemed good enough – even if they’d fall out the first round – she’d get so much money for simply having introduced her own three bracelets to the game that she’ll be paying her rent, drinking more cocktails, and eating good food for a long while.

***

The first evening of the tournament came unexpectedly fast. The whole team moved from Oesel to Ceremony on a boat, they spent a lot of their idle time together that Friday afternoon. They figured out where they were to be housed over the weekends – and they made sure they were going to be comfortable, because the plan was to watch all the other matches, too.

Friday at five every participant had to gather at the Pits area and the draws were called. A colorful bunch of over a hundred contestants, clustered, sticking to their groups, eyeballing each other, gauging, assessing their strengths, weaknesses, laughing at posh looks and embarrassing flexes, or hugging old friends. 

Some of the teams looked way bigger than five people. They had some technical support with them, and fans and cheerleaders, girlfriends, and occasionally – even a few kids. “Support off the territory is allowed – we will hopefully get a few Exos to give us tips, too. I have asked Imogen to give us the feedback after our first,” Raynar says. 

Raynar’s name was called and he had to go in front of the big board where all the team progressions would be marked out, and he had to put his hand into the basket and draw a number. That number would tell which bracket they would be placed in.

4

Raynar’s name was added to the board – to the very end of the list. “We’re up next weekend, Saturday,” he says when he returns to the team. “Which means – we can enjoy THIS weekend on Ceremony without stressing too much! I think this is perfect!”

“I would have preferred to get over with it today, to be honest,” one other teammate sighs.

***

“How do we get to the stadium, do we have to buy a ticket to see the show?” Eysin wondered, now kinda short on her budget, afraid of having to pay for anything else for a short while now.

“No, we have free access, and we can observe it from a little cozier spot. The green room. It won’t start until 10, though, so there’s nothing much to do around here until then.”

“What are you going to do until then?”

“I promised to meet someone, I’ll go do it today. See you back here later, okay?”

“Whatever you say, boss,” she sighs. She was a little disappointed – she didn’t know what to do around Ceremony all on her own, and the other team members had already taken off, too. 

“You can go back to the hotel if you like. Or go see the Pit market, they started setting it up already in the morning – go see where they sell the stuff you were hoping to get from here.”

***

So, Eysin had a couple of hours to kill. First, she walked around the stadium backend, saw where the lockers were, saw the green room, saw some other contestants – and when they looked at her, they assumed she was lost (not a contestant) until they saw the participation ribbon.

She felt a little nervous, and now a little hungry, too, so she found one of those machines you put coins in, select a product, and get a pack of dried bacon and a cup of cocoa. Ah, a vending machine. She sat near one and enjoyed the taste of the bacon, and the slightly minty taste of the cocoa… But all that fun didn’t last for so long, so she got up, looked at the time, and decided she’ll kill more time by going to see the market.

The marketplace was filled with tents and what looked to be thousands of people. It was set at a point Eysin had previously seen as a very large, sandy, and dry parking lot (with hardly any cars ever parking in it). Now it was filled, lit up, lively and loud! There was live music, circus games, showcases of strange gimmicky Revalian technologies… A whole booth playing a theatric show – a story about someone’s conspiratorial theory about what’s going on in America…

Because she had the right kind of ribbon on her hand – she could enter most of these places without having to buy any tickets. One place even offered her a free cider – “you’re a competitor. Competitors drink here for free!”

And then she finally found the merchant stands. The ones she was looking for. A long narrow street, shelves, and tables covered in little things – one of such shops was even selling some of the cracked artifacts from last year – this is one other place mine could end up at.

The arm-rings that contained something that resembled music – were considered trash. Alien music – it simply didn’t touch anyone – or they couldn’t really stand listening to it without getting bored and disconnected. There also were some quite classical-looking weapons – something that resembled humans swords and maces, even slingshots and bows – and these kinds of artifacts were super expensive. Even more expensive than the one thing she was hoping to find. So, she’s trying to see if there is anything about their outward appearance which would hint at its value before decrypting it – but they all looked exactly the same. 

You can only know what’s in it when you break the lock and have a Kaestus to read it.  

The Blue Marble. There they lay, in the middle of the table, manned by a thin old bearded guy. She snuck just close enough to see the price tags and made some quick calculations – how much can she buy when they drop out after the next Saturday… How much, after 2 matches, after 3… And potentially how many if she were to even get through the finals. She had seen nothing yet that would discourage her from entertaining such an outcome. 

But having paid attention to the people earlier – when the posh people were posing – even though their flexing was rather ridiculous – these groups looked strong – and they looked like they belonged together. When she really started to compare how her team looked with the rest – she forgot about the finals rather quickly. 

***

During the first game when she found her team’s designated spot in the green room, she saw another familiar face – the young-ish man she had seen back in Reval, that was hanging around with Vinu. A Brotherhood member – Bartel. And Bartel noticed her, too – and he walked over to her, seeing she was at her team’s spot, still alone, and they made some small talk.

Bartel was surprised Eysin had joined the Pits and impressed how much she had changed, outwardly. When Raynar and other members arrived, one by one, Bartel politely introduced himself to all of them and made polite small-talk to each.

The boys were cheering, “Denea, Denea,” but her team was one of the first ones to be taken out.

“In this round, you gotta keep your eyes on Jelena. She’s a treasure hunter from Novigrad, crazy good – and she is sure to make it to the finals,” he tips to the team and parts by saying that it was a pleasure to meet them all, and hopefully they’ll meet again – inside and outside the tournament.

Of the five teams, Jelena’s is indeed one that stands out the most – they found one RESO team to bully the treasure out from, and they smacked out two other teams – Denea’s and the one in the round by the Brotherhood. The one other they left alone was a rather weak team – they were slow enough to collect to not make themselves seem like a threat – but finding out that Stephen’s team from Black Rain was the first-year students – they were impressive, all things considered, too.

“They are not going to be a problem in the next round, either,” Jelena would later confess.

Raynar and the team went to the after-party when the match was over. They actually got a chance to talk to Jelena.

Raynar is curious about her impressions of the competition, and that’s where she explained that “but there is no way for me to know what the other matches will be like.”

“You’re a treasure hunter – you hunt the rings?” Time for Eysin’s question. That woman looked amazing to her. She even thought the idea on herself, would treasure hunting be something that interests me? 

“Today I hunt the rings. I have a client who wants one particular ring – and it appeared in the list of the finals this year.”

“Oh, there was a list?”

“Yes, the collectibles are part of what pulls people from outside your cute islands to join these matches. Now, my client participated on her own many years ago, but she is no longer able to, so she had me come for it. She sponsored my entry, I earn good money and get some fun out of it, too. Great deal, I say.”

“What’s the ring she’s after?”

“One that she put in the game here many years ago. A family thing. She now regrets having given it up and wants it back.”

Eysin mumbles, “I put mine in the game, too…”

Jelena laughs, “You’re going to want it back. Not knowing what was on them – if it was anything related to your heritage – will most likely pain you like it pains my customer. Best get them back while you still can, good luck.”

***

The first afterparty of the event had always been known as the wildest and hardest. And then everyone learned from the headaches and hangovers to take it easier on the rest of the event evenings. Most participants sweetly slept through the Saturday and only got up later – to see what’s moving on the marketplace or start getting ready to participate in or watch the next match.

The match was exciting even without being in it – from the side-lines – the close calls, the jumps, the steals, the finds, the chases, the pressure, the strange techniques, and weapons people were using to try and give themselves advantages – the minor injuries, and the spectacle of Eesian nurses softly running around the field, tending to anyone who may have gotten a dangerous hit, to make sure no one dies on that stage.

***

It’s Tuesday. Eysin visits the Keep, again.

“So, how does it feel after looking at those matches,” the bartender asked.

“There were more flex and fashion than actual skill – I think we can hold up pretty well.”

“What about your arm-rings?”

“One of them was added to the finals list… So, I guess I have to make it to the finals, somehow.”

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