The Game: Chapter 13

Start from the beginning

...Actually, the only difference would be a few more days of waiting for the end; a drop in a bucket which had long ago rusted right through the bottom.

"I'll meet you at 1:45."

"You will? Really? Oh man, so sweet. The Grand Prix for real! Prez, you're the best!"

Casey sounded at least as excited about the tournament as she was about her big-time debut concert later that night. Was it alright for her to waste time playing around? Though if they weren't prepared by now, they probably weren't going to be.

James struggled to care. Concerts and tournaments might as well be on the moon for all their relevance. He should head down to the care facility and print a big expiration date on the door to room 459: best before 01/15/22. A morbid laugh came bubbling wildly into his throat before being barely bottled back up.

Casey was still babbling. "Today's gonna be crazy awesome. Sorry for callin so early ... just really wanna go to the Grand Prix 'n all so ... thanks."

"Sure."

***

James went to the library, perversely motivated by apathy. Numbing his brain with trolleys of books would prevent unnecessary thinking.

Before he knew it, the shift was over. Time was rolling along at a downhill clip, probably because it was running out.

When he next became aware, he was on the couch at home holding a sandwich. The television was playing an episode of an old favorite anime. He ate because he didn't feel like getting up to put the sandwich away, then donned the Shattered Land headset.

The studio in which he appeared was just as it had been, only vacant. The double-paned window reflected his image dimly. A ghost in the mirror.

Black cotton turtleneck, black slacks, matte black leather shoes—every article completely unadorned. Different hair, too. A crew cut had stealthily replaced his usual shag.

"Whoa," Casey said, when James found her at the Colosseum. Her eyes went wide.

"What?"

"Uh ... nothin..."

He looked like a con artist or a murderer, or both. So be it. Casey was just as ever: sneakered feet, gauntleted hands, face haloed in golden locks, tank top and gym shorts affording long limbs the freedom to move. High school track star moonlighting as gladiatorial combatant.

Normally, the contrasts inherent to this world's fashions were amusing. Today, they were tedious. "When do we start?"

Casey's wide-eyed stare was unabated. "Like ... twenty minutes?"

"Where did you get your gauntlets?"

"Um ... a shop by the park...?"

"I'll be back before we start."

***

Three minutes to spare. Casey pulled him at a run to the team room. Jaleet had it reserved, greeting them with a brief nod.

"How many matches today?" James asked.

"Possibly as many as eight," Jaleet said. "The Grand Prix is the largest event of its type in Laurentia." His fatigues were a different color than before, dark gray spotted with lighter gray. On his belt were two combat knives instead of one.

"Meaning there are larger ones in other territories?"

"The top four teams of the Grand Prix will be seeded into the Falgarde Invitational. In terms of spectatorship and prizes, the Invitational has been the most prominent tournament in Shattered Land for consecutive years. Only the strongest teams will attend."

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