The Game: Chapter 14.1

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*** Author's Note: So that it's easier for you all to find a stopping place in large chapters, I'll start dividing them into parts. Hopefully that will make the story easier to read on a busy schedule. ***

Chapter 14.1

Casey wanted to withdraw, but James refuted every protestation.

"We've come this far. I won't ruin it for you."

Casey bit her lip. "But if you're not happy..."

"Don't worry about that. It wasn't really related." James sat on the floor of their tiny cubicle and hooked his arms under his knees.

Jaleet had taken off somewhere, whether from tact or awkwardness. Casey sat next to James with her back against the wall.

"I still think ... we should stop..."

Anger was burning James inside out. But to slough it off on a girl this innocent would be a greater unfairness than any he had known, because it was entirely within his power to prevent. If he wanted to take some measure of control over life, it had to begin here.

"No buts," he said, clumsily patting her on the knee. "Just have fun."

Casey was silent for a long time, staring at the opposite wall, seeing something far beyond it. A hundred things flickered across her face, a font of emotion even sitting in an empty stone cubicle.

"Is there somethin I can do...?" Casey asked, eyes lowering to the ground. "To help...?"

James looked down at his knuckles, still puffy and red from the punch he had thrown, trying and failing to feel something. "There is one thing."

"Anything," Casey said.

"Show me how to turn my injury modifiers off."

***

The Grand Prix final was nothing like the piddly affair of the satellite qualifier.

Both teams were brought out to the arena floor. Its layout had changed again between matches, the mountainous terrain abandoned in favor of a forest dusted lightly with snow.

The tournament manager introduced the combatants, every face writ large on mid-air projection screens.

"From team Thunder and Spite," he boomed, somehow projecting to the entirety of the Colosseum, "our defending regional champions. Allow me to introduce Alicia, a close-combat specialist, called the Reaper." The announcer gestured to a tall woman with cropped brown hair. Her hardened leather armor left her limbs free to move and revealed a web of scars on her arms. Alicia stepped forward and nodded to her opponents, then raised a shortsword not much larger than Jaleet's knife, shaking it for the crowd. She was attractive for all her tomboyishness, but her eyes were hard and dark as granite. James couldn't shake the feeling that he had seen her somewhere before.

"Next we have Arundel," the announcer proclaimed, and the man—if it was a man—who stepped forth was completely cloaked and robed in dark gray wool. Even his face was hidden by fabric that left only slits for the eyes and no opening for the mouth. "Also called the Unseen. A tri-discipline mage of wide repute." Arundel neither waved to the crowd nor acknowledged the opponent.

"And last, the captain. Many of you will recognize him for leading his team to a top-ten finish at last year's Falgarde Invitational." The man who came forward was enormous and armored to the teeth. His helm was in the shape of a dragon's wings, great sweeping crests that would probably bring most men to their knees from the wearing. Two huge longswords were strapped crosswise on his back. James wasn't a short man, but this giant towered over him, as if Donald had climbed on a grizzly bear before suiting up his plate. "Patrick Kerrigan, swordmaster and heavy knight," the announcer said. "Called the Dragonsteel."

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