Pithy gasped, throwing her eye open with a start, and immediately regretted it.
Frozen air burned her lungs, and fire blossomed along her ribs and under her jaw wounds disturbed by the motion.
Yes, she was wounded. Long cuts along the underside of her jawline and along the side of her ribs, blood welling from the openings cut open by a needle-like blade much like her own.
But her enemy was nowhere to be seen. Neither was the mirror-filled room she had been in moments ago, where the contestants had descended to fight each other in the name of their patron deity. There was not much of anything to be seen, truth be told, besides an endless expanse of white.
Snow covered the ground, while a dense mist shrouded her surroundings.
What happened? What is this place?
An image of her standing over a blonde woman, rapier pointed down at her, raced through her mind like a thunderbolt. Blue eyes like hers—they were nothing like hers—glared up at her—she would never have worn that expression—daringly, half-mad, as if looking forward to what came next. The feeling of flesh giving way, of an airway crumpling—what had been the point of that death?—under a metal tip.
“What a ghastly expression.”
Pithy found herself agreeing, until she realized her own lips were stretched into a wide smile.
Stilling her features, she turned slowly, trying not to upset her wounds. A figure had stepped out into view, so silently that she wondered if it had always been there, and she had simply missed it.
It was covered in a white cloak, shrouding it down to its feet. The face peering out from the hood’s opening was also white, featureless save for the large, black pits where its eyes would have been. It was taller than her, and the cast of its shoulders as well as the timbre of its voice brought a man to mind, but those were the only details she could make out regarding its identity.
It did not matter. She knew who she stood before.
“I come to have my wish granted,” she found herself saying.
“Yes. As do all who reach this place.” The voice was deep. The words spoken, steady, slow, but with a sharp clarity that was almost cutting. “Except for those whose wish is the struggle itself.”
“I have struggled for too long already.”
“Too long, yes. Now your time is short. You paid a price once so you could stand here today. Now, you wish to strike another bargain, but in order to gain what you want, it must come at no price to you. The toll must be paid by others.” The mask paused. “Perhaps you are too eager to pay.”
The image of the blonde woman’s last, blood-choked gasp flashed through her mind.
Stung, Pithy scowled towards the white expanse, unable to meet the masked figure’s gaze. “Such a wish should not have come at a price in the first place,” she spat. “Do you judge me, then?”
“The judgement has already been made. Should you emerge victorious from among the other Champions, one of the wishes within you shall be granted.”
Her excitement was short-lived. “What do you mean by ‘one of the wishes’? There is no other wish; I am not of two minds about this.”
“No, not about this. Rather, you are of two minds. The price you paid, after all, was to take something else into yourself. A child of this realm. An open gate.”
Gradually, puzzlement morphed into a trickle of terror. Not here. It could not get in her way now, when she had gone so far.
“...no. No, you cannot mean that. Such a wraith has no ego of its own! And even if it did, a bargain was struck!”
“A trap was set, rather, but that is a matter of semantics. In any case, just as you affected a change in yourself by coming into contact with this being, so did it change in return.”
Pithy closed her eye, taking a slow breath. This was not something she wanted to hear. She had had her suspicions, but now that he had said it, she could not easily dismiss it.
“What...” she began. “What does it want?”
The cloaked figure did not answer. Instead, it changed its posture, masked turning to face something behind her.
Pithy felt a searing heat coming from behind her. Forgetting all about her wounds, she whirled.
A large bonfire raged behind her, rising from within the snow as though fueled by it. And through it, as though standing at the other side of the flame, was a small silhouette.
A word rose over the roar of the flame.
Want blinked, shaking her head. Looking around, she saw she had returned to the tree-house hidden in the blizzard. She was still sitting on the chair before the dying fireplace, the emaciated Spite sitting at her side. She, too, blinked disorientedly, as though just coming out of a daze.
Eventually, Want found her voice. “What was that?”
“A dream,” rasped Spite, sluggishly shifting on her chair. “They originate somewhere else. A deeper place privy to its own hidden insights, ephemerally rising through the folds of consciousness. Easily forgotten.”
“That was my dr—“ Want paused. “Her dream?”
“Yes. Was this dream something that happened to the one outside?”How should I know? she began to answer, but instead, she asserted, “That never happened.”
Another torrent of memories streamed into her mind, prompting a grunt of pain. Arriving into the city of Bren. Streets packed with people of every kind and origin. A room filled with mirrors. A woman with an otherwordly aura and savage blue eyes.
After a moment, Spite prompted, “Can you tell me about it?”
Want glanced at the emaciated woman, the headache slowly fading away. “Don’t you remember?” she asked, annoyed.
“Ever since I found myself here, I have no way to see what happens without. I only know what I can guess at from dreams and what others like you have told me.”
Want paused, her eyes turning towards the few flames still dancing on the fire place. While her gaze still felt like it was drawn to it, unlike before, she did not feel as though she was falling into them. She sifted through thoughts not her own, trying to piece everything together.
“The Elemental Championships,” she said.
“A combat challenge. They are a competition held before the Elemental Lords. The prize was a gift from your patron Lord.” Even as she said it, she could not help but feel it was strange, as though she could not decide whether she was recounting her own experiences or someone else’s.
Though perhaps strangest is the experience itself.
What were the chances that someone would find themselves in a situation like this twice in as many days?
Even Spite seemed skeptical. “Would the Lords truly grant mortals a wish that easily?”
“It would seem that the tournament is held every year, and the winner indeed receives their prize.”
The woman scowled, the gesture making the wrinkles on her face sink even deeper. “How is it structured?”
“Any can sign up to participate. All they need to do is to choose a Lord to represent. The entrants are then sent to different arenas, where they battle in a free-for-all against the other competitors in order to impress their patron.
Once a certain amount of time has elapsed, eight Champions are chosen, one for each Lord. These are restored to fighting conditions and are sent to a final arena to compete against the other Champions. Like before, the battle ends after some time, with one Champion being declared the winner. The means the Lords used to choose them are known only to them.”
“She was chosen to be a Champion?”
Want shook her head. “I—She did not make it past the first round. She... she killed a woman who faced her. That woman came to be Wind’s Champion.”
“The dead woman.”
“The Lords did not seem to consider that an obstacle.”
Spite grimaced. “Leaving us to dwell in dreams on the fact that even a corpse is of more worth to the gods than us.”
Want frowned at the callous remark. After a moment of reflection, she asked, “What about the end of it?”
Spite gazed into the fire. “As I said, I am warden, and gravekeeper.”
“Then the dying girl I carried—“
“No girls are dying in this world. To die one must be alive in the first place.” She began coughing at the end of that pronouncement, seeming to fold into herself.
Want stood from her chair, kneeling at her side and placing a hand at her back.
Spite shook her head, as though the gesture amused her. “Even if the wraith has changed, the nature of its existence has not. The bargain remains. Warmth... we kill ourselves a little every day, at every turn of a thought. Everyone does. Whether this place existed before the bargain was struck or not, I do not know—I was not here before that—but now it serves the specific purpose of holding our end of it.
That is why I asked you that when we met. It is no longer enough to simply feed the flames. The wraith’s wish is to be born, but the mother would not survive the process. We can, however, buy time. Please, Want. I implore you.”
Will you replace me?”
Want was silent for a long moment. Saying yes meant that she would stay in this cabin until the end of time. Slowly withering away in the hopes that one day, the problem would get fixed. Her other option, however, was braving the blizzard outside. It would lead her nowhere in this enclosed world, and she would eventually end up under one of those mounds surrounding the tree house.
Regardless, this was not an option she would be able to pass on to someone else. She could tell Spite was at the end of the rope, and the possibility that another would find this place was not worth considering.
Slowly, she shook her head. “There has to be a better way. What if the wraith has truly gained an ego? What if it’s something more? Staying the course will see it killed.”
“It’s killing us now,” Spite pressured. “We must make sacrifices. You leaving will doom us all. Please!” Spite’s hoarse voice devolved into a coughing fit at that point.
Want stood, shaking her head. She turned towards the door and started walking. At the doorstep, she turned around, chancing a glance at the emaciated woman.
She recoiled at the look of utter despair she saw in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured.
And then she was outside. She walked past the graves she had passed on the way there, stopping only when she reached the last row. The one dug-out mound, was now full.
She rocked back as if struck, and something jingled at her feet. Desperate for something else to focus her attention on, she glared downwards, eyes falling on the bell she had found at the tree-house’s entrance.
Remembering what had happened the last time she had seen the small item, Want knelt and grabbed it, slowly as to avoid jostling it.
When she looked up again, the scenery had changed.
The multitude of mounds had disappeared, as had the tree-house. In its stead was the white expanse she had become intimately familiar with as of late. Turning around, she saw a familiar figure curled over the snow, before a multi-colored flame, larger than she recalled even from her higher perspective.
She glanced at the bell in her hand and instantly understood its purpose.
Did you do this, Spite? What a roundabout way of living up to your name.
She set forth, steeling herself for what she might find. The small girl did not stir at her approach, dead to the world as she had been when she had last seen her. But not dead. She could tell by the slow rising and falling of her chest. Further, the bluish tint of frostbite had receded from some of her skin, the fingertips on her right hand showing some color, now.
This really was a losing battle, wasn’t it? It still feels as though it’s happening to someone else.
Want knelt at her side, cradling the girl in her arms. She was dimly amused by how easy it was to hold the small figure in her arms when she had had to drape the girl over herself to drag her out from the snow before.
Taking a steadying breath, she held the bell higher, and gently shook it. The crystalline pangs seemed to bounce over the landscape, echoing in her ears for long after she stilled the bell.
As she expected, the girl in her arms stirred. After all this time, piercing blue eyes stared up at her.
If the girl was what she thought, there was no telling what would happen. At this proximity, she had placed herself at its mercy.
She did not care. If the girl turned on her then as the monster she had come from would have, there would have been no hope in the first place.
Yet, she could not help but be surprised when those eyes welled with tears. The girl buried her head in Want’s chest, shoulders shaking as she weeped. Dumbly, Want wrapped her arms around her. With one hand, she slowly began to stroke the back of the small girl’s head.
They stayed like that for a time, a small girl sobbing in a woman’s arms.
Finally, the girl extricated herself from Want’s embrace, sniffing all the while. She looked up at her, face a mess of freezing tear-tracks and snot. Her mouth opened and closed, as though trying to remember how to speak.
Want brought her cloak up, delicately wiping the girl’s face. Once she finished, she asked, in a tone softer than she had thought herself capable of. “How long have you been out here, lil’ girl?”
“I-I d-don-d...” The thin, sweet voice faltered and trailed off. She shut her eyes, new tears trailing down as her features twisted with effort. Haltingly, she started once again. “I don’t... remember.”
“Have you seen anyone else out here?”
The girl shook her head, long black hair swaying with the motion. “No. I couldn’t find anyone, even though I walked for so long.” She sniffed. “Are you going to take me home, miss?”
Want gave the girl a rueful look. “I can’t.”
Panic gripped her features. “Why not?”
“Because I’m lost too.”
“Oh.” There was a pause, the girl looking down, as if embarrassed. “Sorry.”
Want smiled in spite of herself. “Me too. But are you okay with that?”
The girl nodded, and Want could feel her grip on her cloak tightening. “I missed others.”
“Do you have someone waiting for you?”
The girl nodded. “My parents. My sister.” Timidly, she added. “You look like her.”
Want stiffened. “Your sister?”
“My mom. You’re pretty, like her. Your skin is strange. though.”
“Yeah.” An ironic smile played on Want’s lips, while a nostalgia not all her own tugged at her heart. “Could you tell me about them? Ah, but before that...
“What’s your name, lil’ girl?”
A rattling sound drifted into the bedroom from the adjoining room, disturbing the sleeping figure’s rest. With some effort, a single blue eye fluttered open, drifting towards the window.
The cold, artificial lights coming from below rose to illuminate the gloom, and a purplish hue on the horizon told of how close to dawn the night was. Yet for all that, it was still night.
Pithy drew herself up on the bed, raising her right hand up to part the stream of black hair that had fallen in front of her to rub at her temple.
She winced as fingers clumsily thumped against her brow and groggily looked at the offending hand. Thin, pale, lady-like digits stared back, as they always did. However, they did not respond when she tried to move them. In fact, she felt nothing from her wrist up.
“Woah there, butterfingers,“ Dew’s voice echoed in her ears.
Her breath caught in her throat as the dread lurking in the back of her mind rose to the forefront, and she clutched the hand close to her chest tightly, as though a crushing grip might restore the sensibility in her nerves.
It did not.
A knocking at her door startled her, and she looked up just as Dew slid it open. “Pithy, we got a problem. Come see this.”
She was secretly glad for his interruption. Even as his uncharacteristically serious tone caused its own kind of disquiet, focusing on something other than her own condition gave her a chance to compose herself.
Dew did not wait for her, quickly retreating back into the dark living room.
She threw the sheets out of the way and swung her legs off to the side of the bed. She went to put on her boots, but hesitated as she began to reach out to them with her bad hand. Reconsidering, she stood and headed out, pausing only to snag a knife from the belt on the nightstand.
The sight of the plant snake silhouetted against the window greeted her. What passed for its snout was pressed tightly against the grass, while the rest of its body shivered, occasionally shifting and roiling with nervous energy atop the paraphernalia-filled cabinet right below it. One of these shifts sent a leather-bound suitcase tumbling down to the floor, joining a growing jumble of detritus and revealing to Pithy the source of the noise that had woken her.
“Dammit man, did no one train you not to climb over the furniture?” Dew clicked his tongue as he approached the window.
The creature gave a plaintive whine in response.
Curiosity overwhelmed her, and Pithy too walked closer to peer down to the streets below. She tensed as she saw the figures moving about. When she recognized what she was seeing, she cursed under her breath. “When did they appear?”
“Not sure,” he answered. “I woke up when the plant thing over there started knocking stuff off the table. That’s when I saw them.”
That must not have been too long ago, yet you seem wide awake. Has this rattled you, too? As far as they knew, these things could have been there since dark fell. They did not seem to be illusions either, or at least, she could not see nor sense anything that would indicate as much. She might have barely missed them the previous day.
Dew shivered. “This is creeping me out. I’m not the only one that recognizes some of those things, am I? For better or worse, that dragon girl is seared into my mind, for one, and I don’t need to tell you what has the snake all riled up.”
Indeed, he did not. She had already picked out the slim figure of a skeleton standing at the street corner, with various lumps growing on its figure. She had little doubt that those were fungi. Pithy saw multiple of these creatures, in fact, leading her to believe that the only thing keeping Bonesword’s snake from crashing through the window and leaping off the building to meet its ‘master’ was sheer confusion.
“It’s like someone took a pick of mobs and spawned a bunch of identical ones on the map. Boss mobs at that.”
“What do you make of it?” she asked.
Dew shrugged, grimacing. “I don’t know. I don’t like them. Everyone we saw when we got to the college felt like… people, you know? These guys, though? They give me a bad feeling. I kind of want to shoot them.”
“I only said I wanted to, no that I was going to. I’m not stupid, okay?” He scratched at his chin. “You have any idea what’s happening?”
“Ideas?” she repeated dryly. “Dozens. Each scares me more than the last.” Pithy glared at the figures milling about below. “I left wards in this building to detect intruders, but as far as I can tell none has been tripped. They seem to respect dwellings, at least.”
“So… what do we do about them? Who knows what’ll happen if we walk outside while they’re all out there. Are we just gonna sit tight until they leave?”
“As long as they do not threaten us…” Pithy frowned, glancing away from the window look at her companion. “Yes.”
“Oh.” Dew paused, features gathering in a pensive frown. “Guess it’s mornin’ as usual, then. Time to use the restroom.” Having proclaimed that, the man made a beeline for the bedroom.
Pithy ignored his frivolous tone, giving him a wide berth. The snake writhed besides her, letting out another sibilant whine. She grimaced at the piteous tone.
“Bonesword is gone. We all saw it happen. These things are… something else.”
The creature let out another complaint at that. To Pithy’s relief, however, it threw one last longing look out of the glass before retreating from the window, dejectedly coiling into itself in a corner of the room.
That left her free to focus on what was in front of her. Though what that was, she was not entirely sure. As she looked out the window, she brought the knife she still held close to her free-hand, beginning to absent-mindedly clean the dirt from under her nails with it.
What she saw was a troupe of mysterious figures taking the shapes of the Crucible’s competitors. Those who had been defeated, she assumed, given that she could see no copies of herself from her vantage point. Or perhaps, those who died she amended. Neither could she spy another Dew from where she stood, but there was no telling if there were other kinds hiding somewhere else.
The reason for their appearance was less simple to discern. As she had told Dew, a number of possibilities had occurred to her. The first was that their opponent had mobilized the night before, and had used some mysterious power to bring about what she was seeing now. She did not think that was the case, however. Had her opponent been searching for her, the building would have been breached long before Dew had roused her. Moreover, she expected to see one of Nero’s automatons flying around, had that been the case. Given that she had yet to see one of those enter a building, she had long come to the conclusion that the drones Nero had assigned to them performed poorly in enclosed spaces, and if her enemy had done as she had and hid the drone somewhere to hide their presence, they would have no way to track her.
The second, more worrying thought, was that this had been brought about by the powers of the College’s renegades. However, the same issues as before stood. If she was being hunted, the building being untouched when the doppelgangers may well have been milling about since night had fallen was highly unlikely.
If she abandoned the idea that she herself was being hunted, however the presence of the figures below took on an even more sinister cast. Taking a step back from her present circumstances, Pithy entertained the notion that this was not something localized to her area of the city, but rather that these things had manifested themselves throughout the entire City of Echoes. Was it possible, then, that these creatures were not only the means to an end, but an end in an of itself? Is it possible that the purpose of our battles was to gather information on our abilities? Could the gathering of souls be a pretext for getting the materials necessary to create these things? It would finally explain why the College had gone to such lengths to recruit beings from other realms.
Was the Inquisitional College attempting to build an army?
She shook her head. The idea did not line up with what she had heard from Nero regarding the College’s activities. If the rebellious scholars truly wished to stop the Crucible, they could not be linked to what she was seeing. Perhaps Dr. Barnaby had an inkling regarding the true workings of this Crucible, but even as he pursued his own plans, he had seemed as clueless to its proceedings as the rest of the College’s staff to her.
However, if she was to believe Nero, the College was not alone in its machinations. Someone had given the College the competitors’ names. Something had ensured they would reach them across worlds. She could no longer ignore the possibility that the College itself had been manipulated into hosting this ritual.
But then the question remains, why us? There are much greater powers than I in my own realm, so if whatever rests below this city has the power to peer into other worlds, to amass all this information about their inhabitants, why not another?
An answer she was far from fond of was quick to come to her, and that was that they were chosen because they would willingly play along for as long as was needed while the promise of a wish remained.
She smiled ruefully, painfully aware of the way doubt had insidiously crept up upon her. She had paused at every step of the way to try and work out the angle those who had set her on this path were working towards, and what had it availed her? See, Pithy? You have thought yourself into a nightmare. And still you would carry on because what other option is left to you aside from—
“What the hell are you doing!?”
Pithy looked up, startled by the exclamation. Dew closed in on her from the bedroom door, roughly grabbing onto her arm. Shock turning into anger, Pithy forcefully pulled away. “Get your hands off…” she began, but at that moment she felt something humid slide down her limb.
Her temper cooling, she looked down to her right hand. A red hue covered it, glimmering under the weak light drifting up from the streets below. Blood welled from deep gashes on her fingers, cuts she had performed mechanically, unconsciously, as though mindlessly scratching an itch. Drops of the viscous liquid dripped from the knife on her other hand, but for all of that, she had not—still did not—feel a thing from the mangled hand.
Dew grabbed onto her again, leading her to the kitchen counter with a serious expression, and this time, she did not resist.
They sat down on a pair of stools, with Dew bringing her arm close to examine her wounds. The first-aid kit they had pilfered earlier that day was already on the table.
The man’s attention shocked her. His eyes roamed over the cuts before glancing to her left, expression hardening into a scowl. “Of all things, the ice queen has to start cutting herself. Put that shit away already.” Blinking, she realized she was still holding tightly onto the dagger. The man grunted. “I can’t see anything like this. I’m turning on the lights.”
Pithy stirred. “No.”
Dew halted mid-way through standing up. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
Pithy let out a slow breath, placing the knife on the table, and held her good hand up, palm facing upwards. A weak, cold globe of light appeared over it, floating over the counter.
Grimacing, Dew sat back down. “Damn, how the hell am I supposed to bandage that…”
His expression took on a confused cast as he looked at the wounds, occasionally glancing back up to her as though to confirm something. She knew what he must have been thinking.
Cuts such as these should have been exceedingly painful, yet no such thing registered in her expression. Her arm was steady, not trembling in the slightest. Strangest still, the flow of blood was already stopping, and what had come out had a viscous, half-coagulated appearance. As though it had been left out for a night.
“I can’t feel it, Dew,” she confirmed. “But I need to see something. Can you clean off some of the blood, and hold one of the deeper cuts open?”
Dew wrinkled up his nose. “Are we supposed to be playing ‘Operation’, or something? I don’t think this is how it goes.” Nonetheless, he pulled out some cloth, and began wiping away at the red fluid. Once enough was wiped away that they could make out the wounds clearly, he began to do as he was told. “Is that… is that ice?”
Pithy nodded. She could also see the crystal that protruded from deeper in the scarred flesh, only slightly shallower than where bone would have been. “Good. It could have been worse.”
The man gave her an incredulous look. “’Could have been worse?’ Are you nuts? How aren’t you freaking out right now!?”
“And where is the point in that?” she hissed, before catching herself. She looked down at the mangled hand, tone growing somber. “Do you remember what I told Nero up in his tower?”
“Yeah,” Dew nodded. “You said you were sick, and you found a cure for it. For a while, at least. Now it looks like your cure was a new disease, and that’s how the College ropes you in. So, is that what’s gonna happen to you? You’re slowly turning into an ice sculpture?”
“In a manner of speaking. However, if I had time until the whole of my body was turned to crystal, I would not be in such a hurry.” Pithy sighed, glancing at the human besides her. He almost seemed concerned for her, which served only to make her more conflicted. She supposed it would not hurt to humor him now, however.
“It is unclear how magic contamination of this kind works, or interacts with the body, Dew. One would think having entire body-parts replaced with crystal would leave on in a state of constant agony. Or at least, that the cold would have an adverse effect on the rest of the body, but truth be told, I can hardly feel the crystal.” She frowned, then brought her good hand up, parting her hair so the mask of jagged crystal encasing part of her face was clearly visible. “No, let me correct that, I can feel the cold when I place my hand close or near to it, but I cannot feel the connecting tissue. It just feels like there is nothing there. In that regard, I suppose I must be fortunate.
“When I first lost my eye, there was no ice to speak of. One day, I simply could not see from it. It took some time for the crystal to spread like you see now, but when I first saw it, I realized that even if there was no pain, I was still losing parts of my body to it. And it has only continued to grow. You can live without one eye, but tell me, what would happen if this ice spread down just a little further? What if it covered my jaw, locking it in place? I would die of starvation, and that is merely one of the more merciful ends I envision. Imagine now, that this rot spreads to the brain—it is already very close, is it not? When I woke and could not feel my hand, my first fear was that the worst had come to pass, and I was only seeing the first, most innocuous effects.”
“So when you said it could have been worse, you meant—”
“Sensory deprivation is nothing. Partial paralysis? One can live with it. Physical distortion of the psyche and memory? Insanity? Or worse…” Pithy added in a low voice, before snorting bitterly. “Outright death would be better. Seeing ice in these wounds means I still have a chance.”
She could sense Dew’s regard for a silent moment, before the man sighed. “Pithy, I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve been thinking.”
“A truly shocking turn of events,” she drawled.
“Hardy-har-har. Seriously, though. I’ve been thinking that I don’t really need to be following you around. I probably could’ve bailed at any point where we split up yesterday.”
Pithy found herself tensing. Admittedly, she had hoped that the man would be too oblivious to notice it. However, the fact that the man had not only put it together, but confronted her about it left her confused and unbalanced.
She might have needed all the allies she could find, but Dew had made it patently clear that he wanted nothing to do with her. Why was he still with her, then?
Her disconcerted expression must have been visible even in the poor lighting, as he added, “Yeah, figured you were just bluffing.”
“It occurred to me as well, after a time.” Pithy replied, at length. “There is no doubt there is some compulsion at work, but no matter what I said, you remained too uppity for a proper thrall.” She glared at him suspiciously. “If you realized, why are you telling me? Is this where you attempt to extort me?”
“Uh… no.” Dew gave her an incredulous grimace, shaking his head. “Geez, lady, you just expect the worst out of everybody.”
The comment, coming from the buffoon that had been trailing after her for the previous day. He who had disrespected her at every turn, and almost ruined their best chance to find Nero again. If it had not been for him, she may never had had to play the guinea pig for Kno One’s wielder.
She had to throttle the urge to reach for the knife again.
Pithy spoke through gritted teeth. “Feel free to prove me wrong,”
“Look, when I joined this tournament really, I was just looking to be the best quickscoper out there. ‘Be,’ not ‘become’, and that’s important, because getting there’s not really something I want taken from me. For the most part I just thought that getting in on this and cleaning floor is what the greatest quickscoper would be doing.” He paused. “Well, there was also the bit about stopping all hackers forever, but you sort of screwed me out of that… you know, pretend I never said anything.”
“I have had ample practice,” she drawled.
“Get to the point, Dew.”
“Well, it’s just that at this point I’m not really against someone else getting their wish granted. Besides, I’m starting to think that the College people have a point when it comes to stopping some omnicidal maniac from getting his wish. I mean, you don’t know what sort of people are in the running.”
Pithy eyed him dubiously. “If I recall correctly, you were of a mind that I was such a person.”
“Yeah, well.” The man glanced away. “After the whole weed debacle I got to thinking that, maybe, juuuust maybe… I was too quick to judge. Who knows, maybe getting cured will finally make you less of a bitch.”
At her continued silence, the man began scratching the back of his head. “Well, it also occurred to me that if you lose I’ve no idea what’ll happen to my soul or whatever you sucked out of the heart-thingy. I really don’t want to have a repeat of the end of our fight.”
Pithy blinked. It had not occurred to her until then that Dew might suffer in any form from her defeat.
Which is telling, in many ways. Pithy looked at her hands over the counter, noting the contrast between the two. One deft and delicate, the other mangled and inert. Is there to supposed to be some symbolism at play here?
“I see. Since you claim this is for your own sake, I sincerely hope you do not expect gratitude,” she said somberly.
Dew snorted. “From you? Hah, never in my wildest dreams!”
"Good." Her lips turned in a wry smile as she turned her face to look at him. “I have a feeling that today, this will all come to a close. Let us get ready.”