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The Many Battles

The white light shone hard on the blades, sending flashes into Pyertis's eyes, scattering his thoughts to an inconveniently mellow place in his head. He shook his head irritably.
   His numb head.
   Never thought the long taboo against stargazing in Malcos would ever come to haunt him. He was going to be cautious about swearing by any celestial bodies for now. To him, there was the world, and there was the world. One of people, and one that was just there. Except when it wasn't.
   Softly, he gulped at the memory of the globe. It implied a gaping hole of ignorance on his part. Lack of proper information was intolerable. It led to a short, sticky end. After two weeks of recuperation, it was time to remedy that.  
   Pyertis stood in the middle of his cell, following the protocol of the imprisoned. Holding the Yarn Ball in his outstretched palm, he gazed steadily at the ceiling, which like a dead man's eye stared back at him.  'Come out, Kismet,' he said. 'Test subject's right.'
   The bleakness took in his focus, dispersed it. He was not surprised. She had ignored his calls ever since that first day, Labrys's words or no. He found more to replace his loss.
   'I understand what your Minos is doing. When he says he needs us for testing, he means it. Each additional guinea pig is important to him. They give one more value for his studies, providing a wealth of information on this White Bull II.'
   Actually, the argument was severely flawed. Where were the examiners, for one thing? Failing that, sensors, which Pyertis was certain the technologically advanced Crete possessed. Why hold an elimination process, treating this medical affair like one of prowess? What did ordinary quarantine and containment lack? But he was betting a jailor wouldn't be asking a simple prisoner these questions.
   'How many people can you hold? Not many, if this sickness changes the body. A city can only be so big, and the facilities are hidden from your public. The wise planner would also integrate contingency plans, to deal with escaped prisoners; ergo, less space. I return to my point that each one of us is important. What if you lose one?' he asked, holding his right sword to his throat.
   'I am at your mercy. The truth may be far different from what I think. We may be still be on Malcos, placed under lock and key by none other than the Moil Larad, those conniving plotters. Maybe the whole operation is just a dry run, in preparation for much more dangerous criminals out there, and we provide a decent approximation of their makeup.' Careful, he thought, or she might enthusiastically go with the less salubrious implications of his self-ransom.
   'I ask one thing: Let me talk with the others. My ideas are but guesses, little more than philosophy. They will not listen, while I will be comforted with a far more likely explanation than Minos's.'
   Grey bumps rippled across the ceiling. Growing larger, they sank down around Pyertis, who whirled around, instinctively dropping his sword arm into a defensive position. The Yarn Ball followed suit, falling to the ground. The mass congealed into a wall of dark spheres, the glassy discs on their fronts returning his stare hundredfold.
   'I thought you called me.' Her voice emanating from the hanging spidercams, Kismet emerged from the Yarn Ball. Wreathed in its azure glow, she was regal and scrutinising.
   Stars and suns, she makes me look like a suns-blinded novice, thought Pyertis with a chill. Have I overdone… No, that's not worth asking at this juncture. By coming to him, she showed their interest in him.
   Shifting into his most respectful stance, he said out loud, 'Thank you for responding to a lesser being's requests.'
   'You think yourself a jester. The very clever often relish wordplay. Perhaps I have finally chosen well,' she added, evidently aware of irony and capable of using it.
She paused, letting her words suffuse his ears. Pyertis lowered his back, increasing his stability, despite his care thinking rapidly what to do if things went over the Edge.
   'Let us clear a minor matter. In this place, I am Athene. Kismet is not known here. Now to the main issue: why reveal your guesses?' Her helmet, the golden camera, fixated on him with the ruby lenses.
   'Lord Minos sounds like a good ruler of people, both of his own and his enemies, since we are by definition wronged by him, but,' he added that important explainer, 'enmity need not be mutual.  On Malcos, and hopefully elsewhere, the good ruler appreciates constructive criticism of his actions, to better their faults and improve their strengths. I offer this, in exchange for conversation with my peers.'
   He kept his face neutral, fighting not to let it turn to a rictus. May the moons fall on Athene, but it was hard for Pyertis to suppress his raging emotions in the close proximity of her.
   She captured him like a dog to spill blood.
   'A jester,' she reiterated, 'with his careful wordplay.' She lapsed into silence again, bringing on the uneasiness of the lamb before the doubtful slaughterer. It had a redeeming quality of triggering a revelation in Pyertis's head. Quiet, quiet, quiet people, all around, it appeared. Abstaining from sapient contact would have its own disadvantages, to Pyertis's inappropriate dismay.
   No. He must fight his own urges before he could even think of escaping this place. This was a prison, but what it lacked were the noises, the howls of denial, anger, disbelief, the atmosphere of vented grief. They selected the outcasts. Or more accurately, those who cut themselves off from society.
   'I have convened with Minos. He needs time to consider your proposition. An admirable move for a lesser being, Pyertis Pendum,' said Athene chidingly. 'You deserve explanation for my failure to appear at your calls.' Her words confident, she shifted her body, leant to the right of her seat.
   'My role in the Labyrinth is to observe the activities of all Labyrinth citizens and report any offences to Minos. By extension, that includes the prisoners, who are offenders by default. I am his eyes; his sword is Artemis, Head of Security. The very safety of the Labyrinth rests on us, so we are especially careful in picking our charges.'
   She looked at him, dust motes twinkling in her eyes. 'We wait for them to show their mettle. Those who prove competent arrive at your position. The rest are culled to preserve our secrecy. Congratulations, if you would accept the praise.'
   Lowering his sword, Pyertis realised he should. Or carry out the motions of doing so. Someone as subtle as Athene might pass a death sentence while proclaiming love. Likely from the inmate's own mouth, undoubtedly the fate met by many of the eliminated.
   'Thank you, Athene. I am honoured by your high opinion of myself.'
   She nodded, another action solely for the other party's comfort. 'My opinion is worth dust in the event you are defeated. Remember your place, Pyertis. Your, guess, that we need you is not incorrect. But the nature of our need is your physical condition, not your mental one. I will not hesitate pluck every pearl of information I can from your disease-ridden body if you fail.'
   'And now,' she said, continuing her sardonic tone, 'Minos gives his reply.'
   'He will let you win your gamble. He grants you your request, and his personal challenge. From this time, his gauntlet is to find the like-minded, and bring them to him. Succeed, and he might bend the rules for release this once. Fail, or decline now, and we lose one trial.'
   Carrot and stick, Pyertis said to himself. Better than just the stick, or a wooden-looking carrot. Control yourself in victory, he reproved.
   Captured, then throat slit, those people.
   'I accept,' he said.
   'You have a quote of three cells to visit. Your battle starts next morning. Go,' she added quietly. The last word, drowning in the louder order and the hiss of the dissolving spidercam wall, tugged at Pyertis's elven ears with intensity. Information and a battle. Very lucky. He would seize the opportunity, regardless of ennui.
   And he would walk out alive, whether he won in Minos's bloody combat or not.

++++++++++

Back in the hub of the Labyrinth, Athene fingered her golden helmet, letting the adjutancy programs handle the routine work of assessing the constant inflow of data from the spidercams. For her, she was occupied with the pressing matter of the briefing she gave.
   It was undeniable she was drawn to her charges, or else none of them would have been chosen. Pyertis was no exception. The true illustration of her judgement lay in how they handled their predicament. She was not much disappointed.
   The few – so few – proved themselves rightly capable. Their reward was battle with one another. Athene had said all that was needed to steer Pendum and Aquila in the right directions. Much truth, conformation to the lies they had constructed in the scarcity of the information needed and omission of greater truths.    Assuming they eventually sensed it, they would certainly fail to solve it.
They were heading for each other. Whichever won, depended on his plan.
   After all, she only pointed them in the right general direction. The combat was up to them, until they returned to her.

++++++++++

Walking down the corridors, flanked by an army of spidercams, Pyertis was intensely aware of his own good fortune. There were many who were shackled to their cells, their mutations subdued only with the help of their captors. Others were confined to the claustrophobic rooms, waiting for the battle to come.
   Speaking of that, Pyertis was determined not to fight if Minos wanted that. At best he was killing potential allies. The worst case scenario was that he was a pawn in some infinitely larger scheme, paving the way for his final spectacular demise as a scapegoat.
   Blood always demanded blood. Minos took that to heart, so Pyertis was not eager to expect any different views from the people of the Labyrinth.
   He entered a random cell with this thought, and almost died for it.
   Its occupants, two piscean humanoids, were tussling in the centre of the room. Their parting of ways didn't end there. White-hot lightning crackled from blue veins on the arms of one, earthing on the walls. The latest hit a foot above Pyertis's head. The other swiped lobes of bone across the former's face. The spidercams scurried around Pyertis, observing but not intervening. He tossed the Yarn Ball at them, watching grimly as they swarmed to buoy it above the
   'Who's there?' they hissed as one, disentangling themselves to face the common threat. Their arms were held out ominously far in their low stances, where reaching for and electrocuting opponents was made easy.
   Pyertis soon buttered them down to a halfway non-violent mood; they only whacked their fists with their bone knives to make a point as they talked. Hhynd and Zeyk were in fact eels, though they resembled trolls. Pyertis was cautious about drawing the comparison. His reward came when he said that trolls were valiant fighters and valuable allies. The pair hissed happily at those words.
   Best not to say trolls were handled like siege engines; turned to face one direction and then released from a safe distance.
   The talking wore down Pyertis. Couldn't they see what he was doing to them? It was frightening to think that these people too were unaware of his tactics. On the other hand, he didn't want Minos to know his plans. This was the isolation all over again, where Pyertis refused to speak for the sake of holding to his creed: I have not manipulated another sapient for my own selfish needs.
   That ended in class, where he learned needs didn't have to be selfish, and could be aligned to the team's goal. It was a priceless lesson, and remembering it gave Pyertis the strength to try it on Hhynd and Zeyk, who admittedly had trouble seeing danger when it was living in the same cell as them.
   'What do you say to surviving against this disease?' he offered.
   'Of course. No sickness allowed to fell us,' said Hhynd, flapping his lips.
   'Screw White Bull II,' said Zeyk, less eloquently. 'Screw you too.'
   'We need to- What?' Pyertis asked in disbelief.
   'You walk in here, talk pretty and want us to swim in dangerous waters with you,' the bulkier eel growled. 'What you want with us, stab our backs and feed us to Minos?'
   'Zeyk, shut up,' said Hhynd, not helping the situation.
   'No, you stupid. We can take him now. He's in our cell. There's two of us, with these.' He was back in that initial threatening stance, veins pulsating. 'Fight less people later on.' His partner looked tired enough to relent, if as unwillingly as before.
   Empty vessels rang loudest. But the loudest in speech were the loudest in action, neither wise. Stars, that doesn't tell me anything, thought Pyertis. Just something out of Farbent's mouth as he rattled the days away. That doesn't apply here. Does it?
   Hhynd lowered himself in preparation. Pyertis's swords were out of his scabbards almost with the thought of doing so.
   'You don't want to try this, Zeyk.' He checked his blades, compared them to the bone implements. He could wipe wielder and weapon away with a single blow. If they were clumsy on land. They showed no sign of this throughout their talk. Suns, he'd made a mistake somewhere.
   'Talking again, don't want to do stuff, too scared,' taunted his would-be adversary. The silence from his partner spoke otherwise.
Take another point of view. Another perspective, he reiterated, glancing at what the three people held. A rash person is planning to kill an envoy, to the reluctance of his ally. How to save the envoy? Make the killer see that the envoy is worth more alive than dead. Old trick. But will he listen to reason?
   He looked at the Yarn Ball, toiling at its task. No, she wouldn't help him. She hadn't, except in her own and Minos's interest. That's why he was looking for another way around her. Scared? Pyertis was already begrudging the future liaisons to come.
   His hand slipped, sliding the sword forward. The pair leapt back, dashed around to his back and struck.
   Scraping against the goatskin leather, bouncing off the tiles within, they jumped back, flowing in some graceful waving series of movements to maintain the inertia of their attack.
   Crouching under the force of their assault, Pyertis's mind raced. He needed another way around Zeyk. Fill up the vessel, quieten him.
   'I'm just one person, who came out of friendship,' he said, rising up. 'I can change that to fighting if you do.' He gave a long, hard glare at Zeyk, feeling as Zeyk probably did, facing a tough opponent. 'And I'll win, because I'm better equipped. Plain and simple.'
   'Let's try, eh?' He lunged forward, but Pyertis was holding himself in concentration, unfeeling and cold. He caught the blow easily. A second later, and he could have nicked Zeyk as he retreated. Instead, he held his blade back. It was not missed.
   'How many others are likely to spare you?' he asked. Zeyk scowled back. 'In my world, thinking for one's own race is short-sighted. Stupid. We help each other, call each other sapients, able to think, reason and win the struggle to live. There are not many others who think this way. They'll see you as walking fish, fit to die.'
   'You got lucky,' Zeyk said, murder in his eyes.
   'So did you. Thrice. For stabbing my cloak, for not getting wounded and for keeping me alive.'
   'Are you trying to insult me?'
   'No. I'm trying to make you see things my way. We need know how we fare over time with TWBII. Any fever, change in appetite, change in anatomy, all these signs.'
   'I don't need to tell you,' said Zeyk, agreeing though he hated it.
   'Why?' asked Hhynd. 'We got no one else to ask.' Pyertis didn't expect that. Hhynd thought they had something to gain from this.
   'Leader,' spat Zeyk, but the fight had gone out of him. TWBII of course had some meaning to him.
   'Can't leave the cells that easy,' observed Hhynd.
   'That depends on how you ask the landowner.'
   'Go drown. I'm going to sharpen my knife.'
   Damn it. This was sour. He mended what he could, and left a potential ally and a potential enemy, feeling bitter. He'd spent too long at the Academy. He was used to people listening to him with a few choice words. He had to remember that sometimes, people were people, not part of his imagination.
   His mistake here couldn't be repeated. He had to try and win over whoever he could. In the meantime, his other plan appeared to be going smoothly, if no news was good news. Moons.
   The important thing was that Pyertis had something solid to give to his next contacts.
   Though solid looked like the wrong word to use at their first appearance.
Pyertis had heard tell of winged sapients, created before the world to take their place at the LORD's sides. A notable lack of flying people in a world populated by humans, elves, dwarfs, djinn, trolls and stone beings was a rather convincing case against their existence. Honestly, he didn't believe his eyes.
   The second reason for calling them anything but solid was their frailty. Their enormous wings had taken a toll on their musculature. The black-haired man boasted a wingspan longer than Pyertis was tall, which was plenty large. His less-than-proficient balancing revealed his unfamiliarity with the outgrowths, and he moved his limbs with precise concern. The blond had far smaller wings, but they too had sapped him of some strength. They were a weary pair, sharing the experience and pain of some of their tribulations when Pyertis entered.
   Some of that must have shown on Pyertis's face, since the black-haired one said, 'He thinks we're angels.'
   'I wish I could think that too. Then we wouldn't have to wait for God,' chuckled the blond self-deprecatingly.

++++++++++

AJ Spraken had been a private investigator in his own world, taking on the dirty services the fringe jobs were expected to. Exactly one of those jobs in shirt and jeans brought him here, unnervingly parallel to Pyertis's experience. The difference was that his contact, Apollo, had him touch the Yarn Ball personally, smoothly completing the theme of letting him trap himself.
   Whereas Kismet's sudden throw lodged in Pyertis's mental eye. On retrospect, he should have held onto the horn.
   Anyway, wearing a plain shirt and pair of pants, Angelo, flexing his grey wings, stretching his red-shoed legs, was nothing but peaceful, elated at reuniting with his half-brother to the point of sitting directly by his side as they spoke. To AJ's credit, he lowered his tough-guy persona for Angelo's sake. Mostly.
   Oh, Wastil, thought Pyertis with a pang of pain, adding onto his initial ones. Still scolding him for his stupidity while he left for the Cobbles that flung him here. Farbent was a sly dwarf, banking on Pyertis's sense of duty.
   Son of a moon, did he know about this? Torask Farbent cared about his class in the unfortunate method of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That was a fine way to live, provided the dichotomy wasn't made too strongly.
   AJ had some sort of virus, in addition to TWBII. His illness attacked the body's defenses, a concept Pyertis understood in battle but failed to apply to biology. He wondered if AJ was then a control for Angelo. Different degrees of infection, he hypothesized. He shared the idea with them. Carefully.
   'It's a new insight,' said Angelo. 'Thanks for allowing us to hear it. Persephone, the one who brought me here, has given me lots of information about the plague. TWBI is apparently a highly virulent pathogen. Crete was successfully isolated from the world only because of the competition between individual TWBI viruses, reaching for any host they could. TWBII does not possess the same capacity for infection. In fact, there are studies showing that a minimum level must be reached to spread the illness.'
   After getting AJ to explain most of the terms, Pyertis, acutely aware of an absence of body-warping changes to his life, asked hurriedly 'What's that level? I mean, are there any figures or estimates?' he added, gentler and more controlled.
   'Similar to the influenza virus, TWBII must be transferred via liquids. Drops the size of about a full stop on this paper-' he tapped his pen on some rough paper at the side of the bed '-are the lowest size that can spread TWBII confirmed so far.'
   'You'd be interested in all this, wouldn't you?' asked Pyertis casually, internally building and razing plans to avoid infection, if he was still normal.
   'When two microscopic species are battling your body to give birth to their children, you find you have a personal stake in the matter,' commented AJ.
'When we fight, it'll spread through our bodily fluids,' pointed out Angelo. 'We may inflict this on the innocent.'
   'I'm not so sure about the innocent. Now the smart… Can we cure it ourselves?' whispered Pyertis.
   Blinking, Angelo turned his sheet of rough paper around. Diagrams, notes and arrows covered the other side. 'We can try.'
   Pyertis gained his next allies.

++++++++++

L hefted his sword, sizing up the intriguing visitor. His ears belied his elven heritage, which L was at home with, but had deep brown skin and a layer of fat that intimidated rather than welcomed.
   Better than facing the boring, one-dimensional man of shadows. OK, one-dimensional was a negative term. More one-minded, but Hades fulfilled his role as jailor to a fault, leaving no room for small talk.
   Worse was that drama king, Minos. Every gesture calculated to dazzle, every word chosen for its phonetic harmony with the speech, every peak and dip in pitch inviting a reaction. Maybe there was a chance for something normal with this guy.
   'Hello,' the Yarn Ball said with a cautious, well-mannered tone. What the elf said were sharp, hard words unlike the gentle tones of the elves L knew. Wonderfully interesting.
   'Wotcher,' he replied. Informal was the way to go. Too much of L's life was full of suffering to take it seriously 24/7. Hopefully, the visitor would humour him.
He did, giving a weary smile that made L feel like all he went through was worth it for who it shaped him into. That caught his attention. Perhaps better not relax too much.
   'I am Pyertis Pendum of Malcos. Minos has graciously granted me the chance to converse with others as a last privilege before my upcoming battle. Will you accept my possibly final action to make prison a little less cold?'
   'Calm down. We're not going to fight right here, right now,' said L, hoping for that, while readying himself for precisely the opposite. Of course, in some parts of his mind his cognition was flipped around. Other parts were off idly imagining how cool it would be for his sword to slice the ubiquitous shadows.
   'Not physically. But I admit I have many questions.'
   Ah. Flow of information. This guy was looking sharper by the millisecond.
   'Try me, the crazy man.'
   'Are all worlds round?'
   A normal person would have laughed. Actually, L laughed at much nowadays, even more than a normal person would. But in his position, some things weren't funny, just less than a given than thought.
   'No, going by your question. Most are, following the lead of some original Terra in another universe. Acquaintances told me about worlds with unconventional shapes. For now, that's all I know.'
   'Malcos is quite flat,' answered Pyertis. 'It is the Sheet, attended to by five suns and four moons. I suppose that's also strange to you.'
   'The part about the suns, yes. Suns usually make their worlds look like dust specks.'
   Oddly enough, this made the elf wipe his face nervously. He was sweating. Because of his world. What was it back on Malcos? Repressive religion? Decadence? A covered sky? L thought it best to lighten his visitor's load by sitting down. He invited Pyertis to do the same.
   'Thank you. It's just that, back home, we have a story. Our ancestors fled from a land wracked by magic to Malcos, a beautiful world. It was a false hope. Stray magic threw the stars down on that beauty, then drove the suns through the oceans, and the moons punched through the land. Eventually, it subsided, but the scars on Malcos stayed. We detest the sky for that catastrophe.'
   'Don't people look at the sky?'
   'The leylines are more reliable.'
   'That was nice to learn. It's bothered you a lot, hasn't it?'
   'Guesses, mostly, about how others saw the, the sky.' Even saying it in normal conversation was difficult. L filed that away as one of the more curious weaknesses. If Pyertis survived. Did he like him enough to help him? Nah.
   'We fly in the sky. All of humanity, and all the elves.'
   The expression on his face was priceless. 'Not a physical fight,' he muttered, holding his forehead tightly.
   'Righto. But I won't kill you. Our space-faring elves are a bit reclusive, a bit fixated on something called nature, a little open about embarrassing incidents. In other words, they're practically like us. Like you guys.'
   'I think I'll take that as an apology.'
   'Thank you for accepting it. Is that all?' he added as Pyertis stood up.
   'Today, for me, almost. I might as well tell you. Minos would like to hear out some of us, which means getting together so we will not slay each other mistakenly. The criteria, broadly, is mainly good reasoning skills. Though I'm not allowed to consider that myself. I'm certain there are fully-qualified judges elsewhere,' Pyertis said, looking up pointedly. Talking had loosened him magnificently.
   'Well, elf, I'd join you, but I'm a crazy guy,' said L, laughing maniacally this time.
   'That makes you reliably untrustworthy. May we meet jovially again.'
   'Goodbye.'
   L sat back as the door closed, thinking about how he'd been played, strummed and stroked through the whole dialogue. Not something he needed to say right out with listeners around.

++++++++++
Update: A prologue and not an extended version of the PMOCT Round One entry I put up.

Cameos:

AJ & Angelo Spraken: :iconmodesty:
Hhynd & Zeyk Ref: :iconsuperrara:
L: :icondarthvengeance0325:

Prologue of [link]
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:iconmodesty:
modesty Featured By Owner May 11, 2010  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Aww Thanks. :3
Man some of those names are hard to digest. @_@
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:iconeducatedrodent:
EducatedRodent Featured By Owner May 7, 2010  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Thank you for the acknowledgement and interest in this story.

Pyertis will be, if not happy, then especially inclined to help L. Remember, L's turned his world view upside down, incidentally the information on space elves which is provided in L's background.
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:icondarthvengeance0325:
DarthVengeance0325 Featured By Owner Jun 3, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Yes... and I may have plans for Pyertis, if you prove willing. ^^
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:icondarthvengeance0325:
DarthVengeance0325 Featured By Owner May 6, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you for the cameo!

" 'Well, elf, I'd join you, but I'm a crazy guy,' said L, laughing maniacally this time."

Completely epic. Though L tends to be taciturn, you captured one of his mad days very, very well. But how did you know about the spacefaring Elves?

The concept and the battle were also extremely interesting, and Pyertis has more than earned my aid if you want any later.
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