Chapter XXI: The Dueling Games

The next day was not quite what Lucy was expecting.  When Vaan told her that they would be watching the boys spar, she had expected to witness what she had seen the night she snuck into the Clock Tower.  She didn’t realize he meant all-out combat.

There were three teams, each made up of four apprentices with their team colour painted across their forehead.  Even Adrian was participating on the Blue Team.  Sebastian, on the other hand was captain of the Red.  Brandon and Boy were split apart with Boy as the Blue captain and Brandon captain of the Green Team.  Marley was the only one from the bunch who was paired with his best friend.

“Are you prepared?” Vaan asked Lucy as he folded his lengthy leg across his knee.

“Can my answer be ‘no’?” she proposed. “I’m not exactly thrilled with the prospect of my two siblings dueling against each other.”

“They need to learn to fight on a team without relying on the other.”

“Plus, who doesn’t enjoy a good battle between brothers,” the Weasel chuckled as he took a seat next to Vaan.

“The sister,” Lucy replied coldly, folding her arms across her.

“Quite the live wire you have there,” the Weasel commented, though Lucy ignored him.

She looked out at the outdoor arena that was placed along the roof of the Hero’s Hall.  It looked like a field split three ways, round large circle overlapping one another.  While the lines upon the insider were white ash, the outside perimeter was burning a continuous red fire.

A small collection of bleachers were pushed along one end where the Tops Hats and their apprentices could watch.  Admittedly, Lucy was quite nervous about the set up as the field slopped with the ceiling beneath them.

“Remind me again why we aren’t inside?” Lucy asked, wrapping her scarf tighter around her neck.

“It switches every month.  Remember, Top Hats must-”

Always be prepared for the worst.  Even the weather,” Lucy finished and smiled. “And you thought I didn’t listen.”

“Do you ever give that girl a break from her studies?” James asked Vaan, sitting down next to Lucy.  “Just because you are a strict perfectionist, doesn’t mean she needs to be.  I’m James, by the way.”

“Hullo, nice to meet you.  I’m Lucy O’Rourke,” the embarrassed teen bowed her head.

“Oh trust me, we all know who you are,” the Top Hat laughed.

“At least Vaan’s apprentice has a bit of manners on her,” a grey-haired gentleman sat down. “How is your Jackson boy doing with that? Hmm?”

It was James’s turn to flush. “Trust me, I like it no more than you do.  But we can’t all have a winning charisma like your apprentice, can we, Alex?”

More and more Top Hats began to show as debated ran about which apprentices were better fits for the job than others.

Lucy quickly avoided the bickering and leaned over to Vaan to whisper, “Who is on each team?”

Vaan leaned closer as well and began to point out each member as they prepared.

“You know Sebastian and Marley, of course.  Those other two boys on the Red team are Jacob – he’s the lanky brunette – and Lars, the quite built one over there.

“Green is Brandon and the tall young man is Mark.  One of the finest apprentices, though his heart can get ahead of his head sometimes.  Next to him is his cousin Jon.  Smart fellow.  Watch him if you want to learn something about defending yourself properly.  And of course, there is the clumsy boy, Trevor next to him.  He could have done with a bit more work before being entered into this.

“On the Blue team you have Boy, your brother, Adrian, and their group’s wall of muscle is Jackson.  Next to him is Bryan.”

Lucy was still trying to get over the sheer size of Jackson that clearly overtook the others.  “He’s built like a tank!  He’s going to crush my brother!”

Vaan smirked as Lucy caught a glimmer of amusement against his eyes before the light glared off his glasses.  “You still have a lot to learn.”

Before she could say anymore, the crowd grew quiet.  From the corner of each field walked a Top Hat.

Thornton, Kivan, and Lewis met in the middle of the arena.  They looked to one another before holding out two fingers and snapping in unison.  They disappeared in a fit of smoke as the fire around them turn a vivid green.  Only seconds later, they appeared in the reserved seats at the front of the bleachers.  And so the game began.

Sebastian was the first to move.  Fire spun from his wrist and went flying towards Boy, who dodged the blow and slammed his own hands into the ground – sending pillars of smoke to surround the Green Team.  Chaos ensued.

“Do we cheer?” Lucy asked Vaan as she frantically tried to keep track of her brothers.

“And who would you cheer for, little bird?” Weasel smirked as he leaned back, enjoying the scene.

Lucy frowned and pursed her lips.  He had her there.  Who on Earth could she cheer for?!

Brandon emerged shot out from the shadowed area, shouting orders to his team.  Mark grinned before taking off to collide with Marley, fire and steel clashing.  Jon, meanwhile, fell back, using the smoky cover to his advantage.

Lucy could hardly keep up with the massive mess of a ‘game.’  She turned to watch the murmuring Top Hats.  Her teacher sat quietly with his arms folded, his gaze was completely focused.  She leaned over and whispered to him, “Where do I look?”

“Everywhere,” he replied.

“How?” she asked in exasperation.  She could barely keep an eye out if her brothers were tangling in battle with each other.

“You’ll learn,” James smiled. “Just like everything else.”

As the battle raged on, a few boys – Bryan, Trevor and Jacob – got tossed from the ring by fire and brute force.  Lucy couldn’t help but clap in quiet pride when Adrian used some sort of sound-wave to send the latest of them out past the fire.   As soon as they stepped out of place, a drum thundered.  The boys, meanwhile, would mope or kick the dirt in disgust.  One even blasted a hole deep into the outer bounds.

Lucy gasped in horror as a blade of flames came within inches of Sebastian’s face before he was locked arm in arm with Brandon.  She could see pain knitted heavy on each of their brows.

“Do you understand what your brother did wrong?” Vaan questioned her quietly.

“His attention was on Adrian,” she whispered back. “He didn’t even see Brandon had broken from Marley’s bindings.”

“Exactly.  All of you must learn that no matter the fight, you must trust your team and trust the others around you are doing the same,” Vaan turned to catch Lucy in the eye, his yellow iris completely visible. “Trust your brothers and your fellow Top Hats.  You must never get caught up in worry.  It could be your last thought before your soul is ripped from you, while your heart is still beating.” The icy severity of his eyes sunk deep into Lucy’s bones.  And then the glare from his glasses returned and she was left to suffer the lesson alone.

“Boy was surprisingly quick and practically lethal on the field.  Lucy watched in astonishment as he crept silently along –  startling each of his opponents with an assault to their backs.  Mark was the first daring enough to take him on.

Gradually, more got thrown out -Jason, Lars, and eventually Adrian as well.  It was astonishing to most how long the new boy had lasted.  That only made the Weasel smirk even wider as he chuckled to himself.

With the Blue team quickly outnumbered, it was only a matter of time until both Mark and Jon teamed up on the silent assailant.  Yet as the sparring drew closer to the edges of the field, Lucy quickly realized Boy’s plan.

“Is he. . .”she asked Vaan hesitantly as the apprentice inched himself just a pinch closer.

“You are getting quicker,” he grinned to himself as they watched the trap unfold.

Boy took one look at the ensuing battles and looked back to his teacher, Kivan, before twisting his wrist tightly within Jon’s collar and pulling him over the flaming line with him.  Caught in surprise, the fighter grabbed onto Mark, who was in just as much shock.

Sure enough all three tumbled out of bounds.

“Why, well done!” shouted the older gentleman in charge of Mark.  “Clever trick, Kivan,” he laughed as the Scotsman tossed the elder a prideful grin.

“Now it should be clear, little bird, who should win this particular duel,” the Weasel laughed to himself.

Lucy placed a finger softly at her temple as she looked at the predicament.  Marley and Sebastian had managed to throw off Brandon’s attacks and stood prepared for the next move.

Finally, she spoke just as Marley went to charge.

“It will be Brandon, won’t it?” she posed to the Weasel.

The other Top Hats around her looked astonished.  Vaan simply eyed his apprentice curiously before catching sight of Marley being tossed aside like a child’s rag doll.

Sebastian followed closely behind after his own punch backfired against him.

Brandon smiled in elation as he slammed his palms to the ground and the earth popped away like a line of firecrackers. Sebastian managed to roll away just in time but Marley was not so lucky.  He was jettisoned into the air and out of bounds within seconds.  He punched the ground in anger, as he watched Brandon jump on Sebastian.

Sebastian barely had time to block the falling heel before Brandon slammed a fist into his ribs.  Lucy’s brother groaned before sending an array of popping sparks into Brandon’s vision.  Yet before Sebastian could crawl away, his ankle was snatched and he was thrown, tumbling over the field lines.  Cheers and applauds followed as the winning apprentice collapsed to sit and catch his breath.

“Clever, little bird,” the Weasel complimented, grabbing the girl’s wrist quicker than Vaan could stop him.  “Perhaps you shall be just like the Lady before you,” he kissed her hand before rising up and leaving.

“What is he talking about Vaan?” Lucy asked, her back creeping with goose pricks.

“Just as there were Top Hats before us, there was a Lady of Dawn before you,” her teacher explained, glaring at his departing fellow. “It’s a bit more complicated than just simply that.  I was planning on discussing it with you at a more convenient time.”

“Wait, when was the last Lady of Dawn-” she started.

“The last time the 2nd face of the Clock Tower moved,” Vaan finished, as the bells chimed at precisely that moment.

Lucy’s mouth became dry.  That was over one hundred years ago.

©2017 E. M. Vick

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