CHAPTER EIGHTEEN (draft)

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CHAPTER 18

Oh, no! Not Lolu! My own breath catches and I blink, fighting back a strange rush of emotion and a lump rising in the back of my throat.

Lolu stares at the defective fallen drone, the junk lying before her, and her face starts to twitch. She does not cry, but her face fixes into a weird expression that is almost amazed—it's as if she is stunned by the event as much as anyone.

The crowds roar and the Technician judge looks somewhat surprised too. He lifts his brows and shakes his head in obvious regret. Then he raises his circular sign and pronounces Mineb Inei the winner in his Category.

I stare at Lolu in horror, seeing her continue to stand motionless as the Games staff arrive to clean up the materials and remove the tables. Finally, she takes a shuddering breath and turns to walk down the stairs, head lowered. She never looks up as she passes all of us and joins the others who lost, waiting below.

No, no, no! I think. I must do something, anything for her! Aeson can help, surely he can do something, so that her dying mother would get the medical help she needs . . . she cannot be allowed to die, no. . . .

Stop.

I force my spinning, horrible chaos of emotion back down inside me, deep. I cannot fall apart now, not now, not yet.

And so, I pull myself together and stand and listen as the audience chants "Champion! Champion!" while Mineb Inei straightens his bulky frame and raises his eyebrows up really wide in amazement, and starts to laugh, then raises his hands up and waves to the crowds.

The Games choir sings once more, and a swell of triumphant music comes from the hidden orchestra.

As music fades, Miramis Opu turns to the Contenders standing below the dais and says loudly, "Contenders, you who stand below, having struggled bravely but having ultimately lost—you may depart the arena!"

Three Games workers come running, two in Blue, and one in White, and they motion for the losing Contenders to follow them. Sofia Veforoi and Fawzi Boto follow the worker in White, while Chihar and Lolu each follow one dressed in Blue. They walk quickly across the arena, and the crowds roar and clap, awarding them the final accolades and respect of their near-winner status.

When they are gone and silence returns, the Priest of the Grail looks up, raising his hands up to the audience, "I present to you, the Champions of the Games of the Atlantis Grail!"

* * *

It is an indescribable moment. . . .

The audience roar is absolutely deafening and the music swells. At the same time, our uniforms light up. This time, it's final and undeniable. We stand, all ten of us, before our Category judges, and raise our hands and wave.

I perform the same motions that the others are doing, wave and smile automatically. Yet I'm stunned and overwhelmed, and yes, despondent on behalf of my two teammates who have both just lost. I glance to my right and see Brie, grinning and waving to the audience. Our gazes meet, and she too reveals a moment of doubt and darkness, and recognizes the sorrow in me. On her other side is Kokayi, who also meets my eyes with a brief searing look, and beyond him, I see Kateb. The four of us, all members of Team Lark, have done the impossible—all four of us won. And yet I can feel that each of us grieves on behalf of those who didn't.

But the Ceremony is far from over.

"The Games are Forever!" Miramis Opu exclaims, interrupting the roar and thunder. "And now is the time to announce the Top Ten in order and award Rank! We will start with the lowest score, and end with the highest. Presenters, come forth!"

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