Some crowds can roar. This one howled. I cowered behind the gate, listening to the thousand-mouthed hydra bellow and snarl, a thousand spectators thirstier for blood than the competitors themselves. So far I still hadn’t gotten up the guts to peak around the wrought iron bars and peek at the beast.
Truth to tell, I’d barely had the courage to drag on my clothes and sneak out the door this morning. Even re-braiding my hair had felt like a terrifying quest that could result in treacherous tangles and nefarious knots. It was not a good morning.
Walking through the academy to get to the arena grounds had not been much better. I’d left the Grave dorm at the butt-crack of dawn. Partly because I didn’t want to be around when Sitka woke up in case he tried to stop me. And partly because I didn’t want me to fully wake up and realize what an idiotic thing I was about to do.
Most of my friends would be up there by now. Dia would, in her fashionable clothes and perfect hair. She might even be wearing the shoes we’d bought last weekend as term-end presents to ourselves. The banshee always looked stunning in green. If I died here, I hoped she went to my funeral in forest green and wore those gorgeous Dulce Cabana boots we (okay, mostly me)
spent hours drooling over last Saturday. Hopefully she’d be a good best friend and lie copiously about what a wonderful, fantastic, saint like creature I had been.
The stupid fake-angel and his club-that-is-actually-a-cult said they’d stake out a spot near the arena for general support. Some of those in the self proclaimed “Romance Novel Lover’s Club” apparently also partakes in bloodthirsty school events. Go figure. I think a few know my opponent, so they won’t really be cheering for either of us. Norrie is in their group too, amazingly, but I don’t think she’ll be with them. She has a black winged friend or something… The other members seem decent enough people, but if they’re
hanging out with Gabe they’ve probably got a couple screws loose. That or he’s managed to trick them into thinking he’s a decent guy- who looks like a Christian angel but couldn’t possibly actually be one.
Of course, I knew exactly where Sitka was. We’d decided before the match where to meet up afterwards...assuming there’d BE an
afterwards, but we didn’t talk about that. There are tons of red flags strewn around the arched entries to the pit, but one has a distinctive tatter- that’s where he’ll be. Technically I guess that’s where Norrie will be. My friends back home would be pretty weirded out that my 2000 year old boyfriend sometimes turns into an immortal spirit with a tinkerbell-blonde bun...but it’s just another day in the life at Otherworlde Academy. The three of us -me, Sitka, and the spirit that supposedly created him (as a born and raised Baptist I have a bit of trouble with that one)- all decided it would be best if Sitka stayed in Norrie’s head for the round. Not that he’s a crazy, impulsive idiot, just...protective.
They and others were all there supporting us, in that terrifying creature that overflowed the arena stands. Yet as I listened to it
from my hiding spot, all I could feel was fear. They knew what kind of competition this was. What happened here. Who had been maimed, crippled and slaughtered here. A lot only came to watch over their friends. But some of them loved it for the sheer violence.
The thought horrified me.
Under the arena’s surrounding arches the shade was uncomfortably cold. I clutched my arms close to my chest and for the millionth time wished I’d brought a sweater. I’d spent hours assembling my tournament outfit. It’s stylish, streamlined and sexy. Warm, it is not. Out on the sand it would be better. The summer sun beat down on the academy as if it had been saving up over the freezing winter. I’d bet in the stands it was positively sweltering. I was glad not to be in that mass of hot, sweaty bodies. The only time that is ever okay is in a dance club or at the doors of Macy’s before a huge sale. Yet down here the shade cooled and darkened everything. Like a crypt.
I blinked. Right. Thinking like that would definitely not help me survive this thing. I needed some positivity. Normally when I feel
as terrified as this, I grab Dia or Ly and flee to Moonseed lane where I can proceed to spend all my allowance on shoes and baking soda. I’m terrified a lot so my allowance disappears really fast. Since that wasn’t really an option, I’d have to settle for deluding myself into thinking I’d be fine. Self delusion is a long established battle tactic and should not be discounted.
I didn’t know my opponent, but some of my friend’s did. He’d lived next to Sitka for a while. No one painted him as a bloodthirsty monster, bent on destroying every dumb red-head that dares stumble into his path. Then again, they didn’t call him a flower-scented saint that saves puppies and volunteers at a homeless shelter over the weekends… All I knew from my
stalking research was that he had a lot of “pets” that should by all rights still be resting in their cute pet cemetery, and an eccentric personality. And that he was a third year that did well in all of his classes.
Including shadowmancy. This meant I couldn’t rely on my shadow-stalking to sneak around him. Which had been half of my strategy, but whatever. Sitka and I spent hours training hand to hand combat over the past weeks. I’m anything but a natural, but I have decent reflexes and endurance from playing varsity basketball back in high school. I’d just knock him out
with one punch and we’d be done. Nice and tidy. Right…
As if that would ever happen.
Fortunately, it didn’t matter if I won or not. They hadn’t said anything about winning. I just needed to sign up. I’d survive the
tournament, go back to Louisiana, get the cure, and continue my old life... I could talk to my old friends like I did before I believed in the monster under the bed. I could play basketball without the fear that a misplaced elbow might make me lose my sanity for a few minutes. I could bug my older brothers and steal their adult magazines, thus fulfilling the duty of the bratty youngest
I could introduce Sitka to my mom...And then Norrie at a separate date.
All I had to do was survive.
“...OKAY DIPSHITS, SHUT UP!”
I flinched away from the gate, holding my hands up like I expected it to jump off its hinges and bite me. I didn’t know that voice. That horrible, condescending voice. But I knew who it had to be. The all powerful tournament MC. Of course, I was reasonably sure he couldn’t sway the matches either way, no matter how he yelled at us. But with just a few words he could set students against each other. With just as many, he could end it. That’s a lot of power for a green skinned, pointy eared, red-eyed...thing. I think
Norrie said he teaches potions. He’s MC’d for the tournament in past years without any incident...as far as I know.
The crowd maintained it’s raucous uproar as if it didn’t hear the microphone. I picked out a few choice insults for the MC as well. Apparently he wasn’t universally well liked- imagine that.
“Shut it, or I’ll feed you all to the greenhouse.”
The crowd went dead silent. I breathed a tiny sigh of relief. Otherworlde Academy greenhouses are no joke. There are three, each more deadly than the last. But don’t let the description mislead you, even the most benign requires an entire class to enter without breathing some terrible pollen toxin or getting eaten by a fern. I try to avoid that side of campus as much as possible. Unfortunately, since I avoid a lot of the REST of campus, I end up there sometimes. I’ve heard plenty of suspicious noises from those buildings, including panicked screams, cries for help, and the occasional humming.
Thank goodness the threat had worked. My nerves were shot enough as it was, and the screaming crowd that had once been my classmates didn’t help. The silence felt anticipatory, but also a heck of a lot calmer.
“IN THE WEST CORNER! ...Some weird human chick…”
...As far as introductions go, I suppose it could have been worse. With a last longing glance at my safe little hiding spot, I made my way into the pit. Sand crunched under my boots, sun beat on my shoulders, and one thousand eyes watched my slow progress to the center. I’m not usually shy of people- before my curse I used to love strutting around in front of crowds and showing off my latest fashion ensemble. After I learned about ghosts and goblins and things that eat showy little girls for breakfast? Not so much. I still tried to channel the meanest, toughest game face I could. Fake it till you make it, right? Hopefully no one got a picture of that.
I’m not scared, I’m not scared, I’m not scared, I chanted in my head. It hasn’t worked yet, but you never know with these
self-hypnotizing things. Maybe it’ll kick in later. Self delusion, fail me not!
All too soon the crowd kicked up it’s roaring again. I heard plenty of cheers, which was encouraging. And plenty of insults...which was not. A lot of people have been mistreated by humans here, so we get a bad rap. That and...well...I guess it’s fun to goad the competitors. As far as I know, I don’t really have any enemies. I’m usually too scared to leave Sitka’s room (and, on rare occasions, my own)- so I don’t get into conflicts very often.
The whole scene reminded me of a B-rated Roman gladiator flick I used to adore because it had copious amounts of hot men. Hot, shirtless men wearing miniskirts. Doesn’t really get better than that. But I remembered watching them prepare to battle. There was the sandy pit spreading out before them like some bizarre oval football field, circular grandstands, arches in the balconies, screaming crowd…
All very...arena-ish. I frowned. Too arena-ish. The last set of contestants had fought in a vacuum sealed cell. Fighting for air. They were expert students, sure, but still. A cell for crying out loud! The one before that had poisonous fog and before that there was quicksand! This place was just so...normal…
And VERY suspicious… I grit my teeth. Most societies frown on paranoia, but in Otherworlde it’s a requirement for survival. I’d have to watch my step here- Dying in the first round was not an option! Er- I guess dying at all would not be ideal, but especially in the first round. I may be a weakling but I am NOT a loser.
Once upon a time I think I would have felt pretty competitive about the whole thing. Playing on an all girl’s basketball team is
a lot more cutthroat than most people realize. Throw together a bunch of insecure jocks and tell them the one who makes the most points will be queen bee of the club can be quite the motivation. I was never the best, but I used to hold my own.
I'd hold it now too.
“I SAID SHUT UP!” The MC roared, rivaling even the crowd in sheer ferocity. I considered turning tail and fleeing back to the safety of the gate. But the phantasms that run the school probably already locked it again.
“WHERE THE HELL WAS I!?...oh right...IN THE EAST CORNER- ANOTHER WEIRDO. Oh joy.”
I jerked my mind back into focus and watched intently as my opponent took to the sand. My very large...cloaked...giant scythe wielding opponent… with pitch black eyes and skin that I swear was paler than bone.
Okay, okay, don’t panic, relax! Maybe he’s not a homicidal serial killer! Maybe he knits in his spare time! Big fluffy throw blankets… Maybe this whole self-delusion thing wasn’t the way to go…
Up in the stands, the black winged kid gripped the wooden railing in front of him, as the rest of the spectators crowded close. He
watched the arena anxiously, purple eyes intent on my opponent. I found out later that they’d been roommates once and were good friends. Though I don't know any particulars.
Norrie patted his back, a concerned smile lighting her pretty face.
“Avery,” she said gently, keeping her tiny hand on his shoulder. The boy looked at her, his fear palpable. He would be in the tournament as well, Norrie told me, but he wasn’t scared for himself. Apparently the phoenix worried a lot more about my opponent.
Part of me felt annoyed at this. What- did I have an extra head and fangs and a penchant for bloody murder?! As if someone that wears a long tattered cloak has anything to fear from a college kid like me! Maybe I felt just the slightest bit insecure in my own abilities, but come on! Really!?
"I know you and Sitka are worried," Norrie looked Avery in the eye and assured him solemnly, "but it'll be okay. You won't lose him."
Avery closed his eyes, and some indeterminate emotion flitted over his handsome face. "Yeah," was his only reply.
As my opponent came closer all righteous anger at possible erroneous reputations flew out of my brain. Suddenly, I knew what I was REALLY facing.
A lawyer. A demon lawyer. I’ve seen a lot of things at Otherworlde. I’ve cooked with Japanese snow spirits, played basketball with
zombies, shopped with Banshees...but there are some things even I was convinced were just myth.
A demon lawyer.No way would I survive this...