Phantom Arms

Episode II - The Hunter's Tournament

ONE

“Qualifications?” Cage was confused. “The advertisement said anyone was welcome!” “That’s right sir. Anyone is welcome to face the qualification trial. We can’t allow combat amateurs on the field, you understand. If we matched talented fighters with,” the man eyed him, “low calibur fighters… there could be injuries on the field. And there will be some rather important corperate representatives at this event.” “Cage, calm down.” Aja said to him calmly. “Don’t have a cow until we know what the qualifiers are.” “Fine. What are these qualification rounds?” “It’s rather simple sir. There are two classes of combatant. Each contestant will be required to clear a simple obstacle course, striking each of the five targets on the course with an attack. If the timer hasn’t run out by the time the course is complete, the qualifying rounds are deemed to have been passed.” “What’s the time limit?” Aja asked. “Ten minutes.” “Ten? Are you serious? That’s plenty of time!” “There’s a little more to it sir.” “Yeah?” “You see, five contestants enter at once, with the goal of keeping the others from completing the course.” Aja couldn’t help but smile. “Sounds interesting.” “I thought so too.” She turnned quickly to see a girl standing a few feet behind her. “Only two minutes before the next round. Would you care to enter with me?” “Why not?” Aja’s smile couldn’t be hidden now, nor could the flare behind her glare. “I’m not one to back down from a challenge.” “I could tell. And your name is?” “Aja. Lady Aja Hillistine.” “A noble name. It’s nice to meet you. I am Charlene Scorpius.” “We only have two minutes. While it is nice to meet you, we may want to stop wasting time on pleasantries and sign up.” “Agreed.” The registration desk was only a few feet from the information desk. The three hopped across the pathway, Aja and Charlie just ahead of Cage. “You signiture please miss.” Aja signed. “And your miss?” Charlie signed. Cage stepped up. “I’m sorry sir, but we seem to already have our five contestants for this section.” Cage rolled his eyes. “This way ladies.” The man nodded to them and led them through a door just behind the desk.

Aja followed him into what appeared to be a waiting room of some kind. She seemed to have gotten in at just the right time. “Will each contestant please follow one of our attendant. The starting points will be located at various points throughout the course. No two of you will begin in the same place. These attendants will outfit you with weapons aswell.” Aja shook her head. “I have my own weapon.” “No miss, I’m affraid we don’t allow ‘lethal’ weapons on the course. We have made less dangerous versions of many weapon types. Paintballs or wooden swords and the like. You will be outfitted with one such weapon.” “Oh.” It made sense. These were the qualifying rounds for the purpose of keeping people from getting too badly hurt. It would have been a moot point if they’d allowed real weapons in the course. “Cameras inside and onlooking judges will determine whether or not you have scored a hit on the targets. But they aren’t picky. A hit is a hit. You will wear these watches. There are five lights on them. When you score a hit, a light should turn on within a few moments. You have completed the course when all the lights have turnned on. The watch also displays your remaining time. Any questions?” Nobody spoke. “An additional note, the top time in the obstacle course will automatically be admitted as a hunter without being put through the tournament. Alright? Well it’s almost time. Let’s get started.”

A training blade. It wasn’t as well ballanced as her own, which irritated her, but Aja kept her mouth shut. She stood calmly at her starting location. The door behind her was shut and locked. The course was outdoor, which surprised her. But she could already see plenty of man made structures. A small tower stood above everything else in what appeared to be the middle. That would be the first stop, to view and survey the locations of the targets. A loud buzzer rang throughout the area, and with that, she was off. She sped down the path, heading straight for the tower. It didn’t take more than what must have been a minute to reach… but that wasn’t the main problem. Along the side of the tower were stairs over a large moat. Each step was hooked to a mechanism that made them turn, move, or drop away at dificult to observe intervals. “Figure out how you’re going to get up there yet?” Aja turnned quickly to see a boy. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. Vesper. Arius Vesper.” He nodded. “Getting up that is going to be quite a trick. And we’ve only got nine minutes left.” “We don’t even know if there is a target up there.” “Oh, there’s one up there. And it’s going to be the first one everyone goes for. I’m just thinking it may be a good idea to partner up for this one.” “Not interested.” Aja said, then quickly leaped out onto the first stair. Then the next. The third one was spinning around the tower on a slow conveyer belt. She landed it, her weight leaving the second stair just as it fell from under her. The fourth was spinning the oposite direction on another conveyer belt. She didn’t see it comming until it was right on top of her, nearly kocking her off into the water, but she grabbed it and pulled herself up. She rested for a moment to the sound of Arius’ applause. “Not bad!” She laughed slightly, then got back up. The fifth was moving up and down, which was difficult to time with the horrizontal movement of the fourth step. But she was fairly certain of her timing when she jumped, landing beautifully on her destination… then looking up just in time to catch plat form number six, another horizontal moving platform, right in her face. She fell backwards, her feet sliding out from under her, and fell, barely snagging the platform by hooking her legs around it and pulling herself back up. She ducked as the sixth platform came around again… then on the third swoop, she leaped again. This one led to a latter on the other side of the tower. With a sigh she reached out to grab it as it came by, but in the corner of her eye she caught some movement… another stair? But why, if there was a latter right here? An idea occured to her. Suspiciously she grabbed the latter as it came around and gave it a hard tug. It detatched and fell from her hand down into the watter below. “Those tricky little…” Her platform kept moving over until it rached the final one. It didn’t appear to be unstable, but just the same, Aja leaped from it up as quickly as she could, fearing it would fall out from under her… which it didn’t. Sure enough, at the top of the tower was a target. She stepped up to it and tapped it with her sword, too exhausted to do anything else. Almost instantly the first light on her watch lit up. Seven minutes left. She looked out across the course. It was smaller than she’d initially thought. The other four targets were easily visible. One was on the wall in each of the cardinal directions. It looked as if following the wall would work easily enough for finding the other four… a piece of information that would have been nice before leaving the wall to begin with. North was a water course. South, a small maze she easily traced a path through from her view above. East, a giant scale, from the looks of it. And West, seemed most treacherous of all… nothing looked unusual. South first, while she had the path in her mind. She glanced around to see if there was an easier way down than the way she’d come up. There was. A rope, securely fastened to the ground, she could toss over the side. She did so quickly, then slid down as fast as she could, repelling from the side of the tower and coming down unfortunately in the middle of the waist-deep moat. “Hey!” It was Arius. “You’re awesome!” She nodded, rather impressed herself, then looked at the rope. “Go on ahead. I’ll climb up the rope and pull it up so the other can’t use it. Coming down those stairs has got to be easier than going up. Mutual benefit.” She didn’t have time to argue. “Whatever.” She sighed, then crawled out of the water. Six and a half minutes to go.

Left, right, left, left, right, straight, right, left, straight, straight, right, right, left, left. Aja timed her footsteps to the pounding of her heart in her head. It was less than a minute since she’d left the tower when she tapped the next target. Her second light flipped on. She turnned back, unable to follow the wall until she got back out of the maze. Right, right, left, left, straight, straight, right, left, straight, right… no left… right, right, left, right. And done. Four minutes to go. And three targets. She had to pick up the pace. Following the wall she made it around to the East… the scales. She’d seen right. A scale was exaclty what it was. “Just who I was waiting for.” Charlie smiled. “I thought you’d get here pretty soon. So I wasted a whole ten seconds waiting. We need to help eachother out on this one. Stand on one scale.” Charlie had been busy. It was apparent from the fact she was almost as short on breath as Aja was. She was also wet. “Come on.” “Oh.” Aja hopped on to one end of the scale, while Charlie hopped on the other. As she did so, the scale lifted Charlie right up to the target, which she proceded to tap with her fist. Aja couldn’t help but notice a couple paint bullets scaring the surface of the target aswell. “Okay, there’s a lever on each of these. I think they’re locks.” Charlie panted. “Really?” “Well they say ‘Lock’ on them, so yes. I think we should both pull them, then I can help pull you up here to get the target. Let’s move. I’ve still got another target to get to.” “I’ve still got two.” “All the more motivation to hurry. Now move.”

Three down, two to go, and three minutes left to get them. Aja raced over to what was apparently the watter course. There were countless beams and narrow moving walkways for running across, but Aja didn’t care. Without missing a beat, she pulled off her top and jeans, wearing nothing but her, luckily fairly conservative, undergarments, and dove in the water, swiming as quickly as she could over to the other end. She didn’t even climb on to the platform on the other end. She just reached up, tapped the target, then turnned, pushing off the wall with her legs to give her a boost back to shore.

One to go… and the timer read a minute and a half as her penultimate light came to life. She grabbed her clothes, tucked them under her arm, and ran. West. Nothing appeared to be in her way… until the target came in to sight. “No obstacles. An easy finish, right?” The man standing in front of the target wore a watch with all five lights shining. He smiled fiendishly. He was tired. But still outweighted Aja by a good fifty pounds.” “Excuse me.” Aja panted. He shook his head. Aja’s eyes trailed over to Charlie, who was badly wounded a few feet away, apparently beaten in to submission. Her watch was one light short. “Please.” “No way. I ain’t letting you finish this race. Either of you.” “That’s too bad.” a third voice chimed in. Aja dodged impulsively as a rope flew through the air, striking the target while the man wasn’t looking. The girl that had come up struck a momentary pose in happiness at her success, then watched as her final light clicked on. Then she fell to the ground, exhausted.” Aja shook her head. Fifty second left. “Catch.” She yelled, throwing her clothes in his face. He stumbled backwards. Aja drew her ‘sword’, and lashed out, striking the man in the shin. He growled in rage, and swiftly reached out. His arm was longer than Aja had thought. He grabbed her wrist and threw her across the clearing, her weapon falling from her hand as he did so. She slid across the ground, barely managing to keep on her feet. He smiled. Fourty seconds left. She had no choice. She made a break for it. He was there, quickly stepping in the way. There was no way past… but she had to try. She came close. He raised his fist… And then…

Suddenly his face exploded into the most brilliant shade of blue, followed imediately by a neon green. He screamed in pain momentarily, but Aja saw her chance. She ducked his poorly aimed swing, and with a forcefull punch, she struck her target. The adrenaline pulsed through her for another moment as her mind registered what she had done, then with a sigh of relief, she fell to the ground.

The man wiped the paint off his face, then turnned to face Arius, who stood smiling, holding his aimed pistol in plain view. “You son of a bitch! I won’t let you get out of this!” Airus leveled his gun again, smiling. His very presence was powerful, but that smile and those cold blue eyes made him almost eerie. “Big words, let’s see what you can do.” Twenty seconds. The man stood, ready. A momentary pause as tension hung in the air. Then… A shot rang, throwing another ball of paint right at the man’s face agian, but in a swift motion, he pulled to the side with a dodge. “You missed, he laughed.” “So it would seem.” Arius smiled, then raised his left arm into view. There was less than a second before the last light flickered on. The man’s eyes widened, then turnned to see the bullet he’d dodged streaking the target with a brilliant yellow. “Checkmate… Let’s play again sometime.” Arius’ smile seemed to grow even wider, if that were possible, as he walked over to the man. “Not having to climb that tower proved to be quite a help. I’m not fatigued in the least…” “You bastard!” The man stepped forward, throwing a heavy punch, which Arius easily dodged, then dealt a swift kick to the mans neck where he found an opening. With a cry of anguish, the man fell to his knees and began a fit of coughing. Ten seconds. Arius stepped a few feet away, grabing the barely concious Charlie’s hand, and dragged her over to the target, then, with two seconds to go, placed her hand on it. “Tag.” Arius smiled. “It doesn’t seem working against the group served you very well at all… We all seem to have made it in to the tournament.” With that, Arius set Charlie’s hand gently back at her side, then turnned and walked noblely away. Aja laughed quietly to herself, then decided to find her clothes.

TWO

“Next set of contestants!” Cage frowned. “Did the others even come out?” “Yes, they’re out in the hall.” Cage sighed. “I guess I’ll ask Aja about it once I’m done… how hard can it possibly be?”

Cage glanced down at his watch. “Maybe I shouldn’t have walked all the way from the starting point.” He sighed, then looked up at the tower, which a couple people were already attempting to ascend. “Time to get busy.” He stepped forward, and took hold of a nearby tree branch, and with the wave of his conductor’s stick, it grew, lifting him high into the air and to the top of the tower. From his new vantage point he looked around, spying each of the other targets, and with a dismissive wave of his hand four times, he sent metorite fragments to demolish each of the four targets. “Child’s play.”

“You mean I’m disqualified?” “No, not exactly. You easily made the best time of anyone that did the course… but your methods were… well… the judges didn’t deem it a fair contest, so you will not be permitted to forgo the tournament. However, they are adding an extra judge to the tournament and have put good words to this judge about you.” “What the hell do I care about a judge? I’m supposed to skip the tournament all together!” “Well, you don’t understand. There were supposed to be four judges to choose four of the contestants in the contest as hunters… but now there are five judges determining five slots.” “You lost me.” “Look, this derastically increases your chances. But you aren’t being automatically admitted.” Cage rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”

Aja slowly opened her eyes to see Cage standing over her. “Hey.” “Yo. How’d you do?” “How long have I been asleep?” “A while. Couple hours.” “On this bench? Damn! No wonder my back hurts.” “How’d you do?” “Qualified. You?” Cage nodded. “Without breaking a sweat. Got the best time too.” “You’re a jerk. Seriously, did you qualify?” “I’m not joking. But they’re making me be in the tournament anyway. Postings should be up here in about …” At that moment, a voice clicked on over the intercom. “The tournament bracket is now posted. The first round will begin tomorrow morning at ten o’ clock. Lodgings will be provided for all qualifiers if needed. Thank you to all contestants and good luck to those in the tournament.” “I’ll go check it out.” Cage smiled, then turnned and ran off. Aja tried to get up, but the pain in her back forced her to reconsider. “Let me know who I’m up against!” she called after him. With that she fell back down.

Cage stepped up to the display, where a few others crowded to look. “You’re going down sissy-boy!” The large man growled gutterally at Arius, who responded only with a smile as he walked away. The girl with the rope now held a whip in her grasp in its place. She sighed, rolled her eyes, and looked over at the bench Charlie was layed out on, then stomped away. A few feet away a girl with short blonde hair and a barret squealed with excitement, and a boy wearing a large set of headphones shrugged indiferently. Cage peered over a few heads to see who he was matched up with…

“So?” “So what?” Cage asked, stepping back up to Aja. “Who’s my opponent?” “Huh?” “I asked you to tell me who I’m up against.” “Ah… well… You’re.” “I’ll beat them up as soon as I can move again.” “Yeah probably.” “Oh, they not that tough?” “No, not too tough.” “How do you know? Where they up there?” “Yeah… um… Aja… It’s me.” “What?” “It’s me. I’m your oponent for round one.” There was a pause. “You know you’re going down right?” “Yeah… I know.”

Aja stood in the hallway outside the barracks that had been given to the contestants. Cage had fallen asleep hours ago, she had always been astounded by his ability to sleep in any type of situation. The only two contestants still up were herself and who she had now begun to call Phones. The kid never took them off, she even wondered if he had ran the first trial with them on. Realizing she was letting her mind wonder she snapped back and focused on the issue at hand, fighting Cage tomorrow. How the hell was she supposed to do that Sure she had known that she’d have to fight her way through this place and she was determined to cut down anyone standing in her way…but Cage? How could she, he was her only friend. It didn’t matter how many times he destroyed her motorcycle or said something stupid or goofy and embarrassed her, he was still her friend! The thought of forfeiting crossed Aja’s mind, then he’d win by default but what if he lost the next round? It would end up being a useless sacrifice, then they’d both be going home empty handed. The same thing could happen if she just half heartedly fought and let him win. No, she would have to fight for all she had because not only would she be hurting herself it would make Cage feel awful. What would he think? That she thought he couldn’t even win by himself with out her help, which she didn’t she just didn’t want to fight him. She slumped against the wall in despair, what could she do… She glanced down the hall to the double doors which the judges resided behind going over that days scores for the bazillionth time. What was their problem, why had they decided to screw them over the way they did “ARRGH!” she pushed herself off the wall and stomped off down the hall toward the man guarding the double doors. “Let me in!” she spat at him. “I’m sorry Miss, but I can’t do that.” BAM! She slammed her fist into the metal door beside his head leaving a ungodly large dent. “Let me in or the next thing my fist hits is your face!” She growled. The man was a full head taller than her but he quickly turned around and fumbling unlocked the door. She walked in and the panel of four judges looked up startled. “What are you doing? You can’t be in here!” “Don’t worry I won’t be looking at any of the scores.” Aja brought her fist down on the wooden table and the metal legs buckled feebly under her assault sending their papers flying. “Why isn’t Cage Argus exempt form the tournament!? He met your rules, he didn’t use a lethal weapon, he got all the targets, and he finished with that fastest time!” “Yes, but he used an instrument not provided by our equipment team, that voids everything.” A fifth man said stepping out from the shadows. “Also, if you think brute force is enough to scare us into letting you bully us around your wrong.” Aja turned toward the man calming herself down and gave her most noble expression. “Then money, everyone has their price. I pay you and you let Cage through.” “You can’t buy everything in this world Miss Hillisine, now I suggest you go get some rest. It’s a very long day tomorrow.” “You can’t be serious! You just came up with some stupid rule so he can’t move on, why can’t you just play fair?!” The man waved his hand and she was escorted through the door that then slammed shut behind her. “Assholes!” she yelled before stalking off to find a cot. She passed Phones on the way back. He was still sitting in the same, but this time he stared at her as she walked past. “What are you looking at!?” She growled before walking into the barracks door. It was settled, even if she didn’t like it. Tomorrow she’d have to fight Cage.

THREE

10:00 PM “You called me out here?” Arius asked. “Yeah, I did. I wanted to give you a piece of my mind.” “This couldn’t wait for our fight tomorrow? Or do you think your hangover will inhibit your ability to intimidate with such an early morning match?” “You need to shut the fuck up! I’ll kick your ass you stupid kid!” “Will you? Then you will be needing your sleep. I request you not wake me again.” “You think you’re all that just because you’re a noble, huh?” Arius shook his head. “It is not my title that makes me noble, but my actions. Just as it is not your lack of a title that makes you garbage. Now if you’ll please.” “Say that to my face!” “I’m sorry, I was under the impression I just did. But I would be glad to reiterate.” “That’s it! We’re settling this!” “That’s right. Tomorrow morning.” “No! Now!” “I’m not interested in being disqualified over so trivial a matter. And I intend to get my sleep for the match. You won’t be the only one I’m fighting tomorrow… unless you can get rid of that hang over AND pull some fancier tricks from your sleeve than you pulled earlier today.” “You think you can get away with talking down to me like that?!” “I would talk to you as an equal were it deserved, but I see no use for you as a friend, and you seem unable to do significant damage as a foe.” The man continued to scream, but Arius didn’t care. He merely turned and left.

10:25 PM Sleep. That would be nice. Too bad it hates me. This isn’t the song I feel like listening to right now. Skip. Alright what about this one. Ah, good one. Ryuu yawned, glancing up from the track listing on his media player, his eyes catching a deep black blur in the shadows in front of him. Hmm, I think I saw him looking at the tournament postings… so he’s another contestant? What’s he doing laying on the hallway floor? Ryuu shrugged, then looked back down at the track listings.

10:45 PM Nina skipped quickly down the hallway, and turned, heading up the stairs to her room. She was too excited to sleep. She looked in the mirror that ran the entire length of the room, but saw something lying in her bed… A small note. She turned and walked over to it. “From father?” She ruffled her brow, then opened it. Its words were simple: “Good luck tomorrow… don’t let your guard down. Eamon.” She frowned. Why did he always sign cards ‘Eamon’ and not ‘Dad’? It irritated her. But then again, there’d always been some strange division between her and her father she didn’t understand. She sighed, then turned and fell on her back on the bed, kicking off her shoes as she did so. Flop, one fell to the ground, and… the second didn’t reach the edge of the long king sized bed, instead bouncing back towards her. She sighed, sat up, and grabbed it… Huh? She dropped it, feeling something on her hand. She pushed it to the floor, then got to her feet and ran to the bathroom, using her free hand to turn on the light and look at what she now felt running between her fingers. Her eyes widened… “What is… oh my god!”

11:00 PM “Lord Arius.” He opened his eyes, wincing at the light that had been flipped on. “Yes Flora? What is it?” They’d gotten a two bedroom sweet at the Hunter corporation’s expense. “There, there are some gentlemen here to speak with you.”

11:05 PM “What’s going on?” Charlie asked indignantly stepping out of her room into a hallway now full of people. “We’ve got an important day tomorrow.” Aja whined. She didn’t appreciate being woken up. The hotel manager sighed heavily. “We’ve gotten some distressing news. Um… I’m, not used to saying things like this.” “Then let me.” A man in a long trench coat stepped into the hall from the stairwell, followed by several other men in uniform. “My name is Logan Renolds. I’m a homicide detective. It seems I will have to detain each of you to ask a few… questions. At approximately 10:00 this evening, a man was found dead.” There was a disbelieving silence. “D…do you have any idea who did it?” “Screw that!” Aja cut in. “Who died?” “A man by the name of Ted Stone. He was one of the contestants in the tournament to be held tomorrow. Which is why you have all been woken up to be questioned. So I’ll start bluntly. Did any of you see anything?” “Do you have any idea who did it?” “We do have a suspect in custody.” “Who?” Charlie asked, curiously. “I’m afraid I can’t share that information at this time. Now, if a Ms. Hillstine would come with me please?” “Hillistine,” she grumbled.

12:00 MIDNIGHT Flora sat on the bed, quaking as she felt the tears roll down her cheeks. A knock tapped lightly at the door, so softly she almost thought it was her imagination. She wiped her eyes and got to her feet, then walked over to the door and opened it quietly. “You work for that guy who got taken away by the police, right?” She nodded. “Yes, I’m Flora, his servant.” “Good, I’ll need your help. Come on.” “Wait! What are you doing? Who are you?” “Returning a favor. And the name is Charlie.”

12:05 AM Ryuu shook his head. “I didn’t look. No.” “So you see some guy passed out on the floor and you just leave him?” “I thought he was drunk. Didn’t figure it was any of my business. Besides, when I went to the restroom and came back, he was gone.” “About what time was this?” “I don’t know. Ten-thirty?” “You sure on that time?” “No.” “Hmmm…” ”...” “Anything else?” “Not really.”

12:05 AM (in another room) “I think there’s something you’re not telling us Mr. Argus.” “Excuse me?” “If we go back and check the cameras, will we find you told the whole truth?” “Um, yeah.” “Did you get up for anything in the night? Anything at all?” The other officer asked. Son of a bitch, they’re trying to good cop bad cop me. “Look, I don’t know anything okay. I was asleep.”

12:15 AM “Can I get to sleep now?” Ryuu grumbled. “Sure.” Renolds sighed. “Whether you know anything or not, I won’t get it out of you tonight. Go on, scram.” Ryuu got to his feet and stepped towards the door, but just as he reached for the knob, it flew open and another officer raced in. “Sir! We’ve got trouble! He’s gone!” “What?” “The Suspect! Vesper! He vanished!” “Son of a bitch!” With that Renolds was up and out the door, racing down the hall, but as he got to the end, he was met with a tall man with Blond hair. “Logan Renolds I presume.” “That’s right, I’m in a bit of a hurry at the moment.” “You can stop for me.” “Can I now?” “My name is Eamon Gelford. Elite class hunter at the ARMS Hunter organization. I have come to understand you have detained my daughter for questioning.” “Yes sir. We have a bit of a situation here, and her testi…” Renolds felt a swift and painful hand snap across his face, throwing his head to the right. He popped his jaw from side to side quickly, then turned his head back and glared at Lord Gelford. “You lower classes must learn to know your place. Release her. Immediately.” Renolds’ glare intensified as he ran his tongue against his bottom row of teeth a few times, then, begrudgingly, he nodded. “Fine.” “Glad you’re agreeable. Though I will have to go ahead and make a further demand.” “And that is?” “That you leave. We have a rather important event tomorrow that we can’t afford to delay. So I must request that you postpone your investigation for the next twenty-four hours.” “That is entirely too unreasonable sir.” “I’m afraid you have no choice… The police office is on thin ice right now. Your budget is gone and you will be discontinued if you continue to loose money. How do you think it would reflect on your office to also pick a public fight with the esteemed Gelford family?” Renolds growled deep in his throat, but didn’t allow it to escape. “Fine. We’re gone. But twenty-four hours is all. Alright?” Eamon said nothing, but merely turned and walked away. “Nobles are bastards.” Renolds growled, shaking his head.

3:23 AM Arius looked around the bloodstained carpet. Three bullet holes in the walls. He must have been killed here. But the witness didn’t hear over his headphones. A silencer? He looked closer at the carpet a few feet away. “What’s this?” On the floor was a small coin with a crest on it. Only the bearers of noble titles could hold these coins. And each family had its own crest on it. “There’s no way the police would have missed evidence like this… so was it left after they swept the scene?” The emblem… the house of Scorpius?

3:25 AM Logan Renolds set his empty glass on the bar. “No way am I leaving this alone…” “What was that Logan?” “I said I’m heading back.” “But… but that noble!” “I don’t care. I’m going to fine out what’s going on. With or without my badge…”

FOUR

Arius knocked on the door to the room issued to Charlene Scorpius. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation. The door swung open, revealing Flora… not who Arius had most expected to see. “Lord Arius! Are you alright?” “I’m fine.” “I’m curious as to how you escaped.” Charlie’s voice sounded from the other end of the room, but even as she spoke, she never looked away from her computer screen…s. “A little overkill there, don’t you think?” Arius asked, smiling weakly. “What, the laptop? Not really. I custom designed it for five screen multi-tasking. I can’t really just use one at a time anymore. Just can’t get enough done. Besides, don’t poke fun at me. I’m doing you a favor.” Arius raised his eyebrow. “And what might that favor be?” Charlie smiled, but never looked away. “Finding the real culprit… that is, presuming it isn’t you.” Arius nodded. “I asure you it isn’t. How are you going to prove it though?” “I’m digging up the security camera recordings of last night… or trying to anyway.” “Why can’t the police do that?” Flora asked. Arius answered. “The police don’t have any real power anymore. All that’s left is those who decided to stick around after the fall of the last government. The only power right now is the families of those with their hands in the right cookie jars. At least until a new enforcment system is set up. Even that detective that is working to put me away right now… Renolds. He’s working for free right now. No payment system has been allocated to local law enforcment yet. Right now they’re just working, not for profit, off the ghostly shell of the fallen system.” Charlie nodded. “So when the hotel… or more specifically the Gelford family… said they didn’t have the athority to take the security footage…” “They didn’t have the backing to fight it.” Arius finished. “So I’m hacking them to get it… but I’m affraid I don’t have much good news.” “Fire away.” “It’s gone.” “What?” Flora was crushed. “It’s gone. Looks like someone with access to the encrypted files deleted them. No holes in the system, so unless it was someone as good or better than me, the files weren’t hacked. They were deleted by the administrator.” Arius sighed. “That is a problem.” “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more of a help… find anything at the scene? Oh, and could I have my crest back please?” Arius smiled slightly, pulled the crest from his pocket, and gave it to Charlie, who only then looked away from her screen. “Well, I can tell you right now, the bullets in the wall aren’t from a gun even barely resembling mine… but then again, that doesn’t prove I didn’t do it. Just that if I did it wasn’t with the gun I normally use. And if this comes to trial, they’ll pull out all their tricks on me.” Charlie nodded. “Vesper, right?” “Right. My parents suported the last political system with everything they had, until the day they died two years ago. Being such advocates of it, there’s no way this new government will pass up the oporitunity of making an example of me. Burning me at the stake as a supporter of the old ways, making way for the new.” “That’s terrible!” Flora said trembling. “That’s politics.” Arius countered. Charlie shrugged. “I’ll keep looking.” Arius smiled and nodded. “Thank you. Flora? Let’s go.” He turnned to leave. “It’ll be safer in here. Why don’t you two take the beds, I’ll call my father and get a ride back to the house until my first match tomorrow… well, today. It’ll be easier for you to dodge the cops here. Right under thier noses and all that.” Arius nodded. “Again, thank you.” “It’s the least I can do. After all, if not for you, I wouldn’t have qualified, right?”

The phone rang, and Eamon Gelford picked it up. There was a moment of silence, then. “Yes. Of course I did… I’m not stupid… it’s not the first man I’ve killed… The gun? I sent you a vase of flowers, they should be ariving soon. The gun is in the bottom of the vase… Don’t thank me, it’s not like I wanted to send you flowers… of course… no I haven’t told anyone… Do you know what country sent him yet?... If I had to guess I’d say someone to the North, his false ID was an altered northern passport, but if they were clever it could be a set up to make us think he was from the north… Trying to infiltrate our ranks while we’re in a state of political chaos, not entirely unpredictable… Anyway, I’m done for the night, or morning, as it were… don’t give me that… Bye.” The phone slammed down…

“I would like to appeal to the pannel of judges, if I may.” Renolds stood before them. “Regardless of the situation, you are one competetor short for this tournament. I would like to offer myself to take his place.” “You didn’t pass the qualifying round… how fair is that to the others?” Mialaria Gelford smirked, pulling a flower from her fresh vase. “But the purpose of the qualifiers, as I heard it, was to prove weapon prowess and ability to handle one’s self on the field. I have a license, albiet from our former government, but one saying I am proficient with my firearm and may use it as needed on the field. If the judges find it valiad, I would like to provide it as evidence of my qualifications to participate.” “Interesting!” Valencia leaned back in her chair and spun around as it rolled in a full 360 degree turn. “I think we should let him in! We hadn’t thought of what to do about that bracket problem anyway.” Lady Mialaria smiled. “Casting your vote already Mrs. Mallory?” “No no no! Not in the least. But I like his frankness and personality. The worst that will happen is he’ll get knocked out in the first round.” “The worst that will happen is that he dies in the first round.” Eamon Gelford cut in. “With all due respect.” Renolds cut in. “That is a chance that I’m willing to take…”

“Lord Arius.” Flora smiled weakly, forcing herself to look past the sleep in her eyes. He rolled over and opened his eyes. “Yes Flora?” “It’s time to get up. We’ve got a half hour to report downstairs for the tournament.” He nodded grogily, then forced himself to his feet, yawned, then steped over to the bathroom to prepare.

FIVE

“So we’re here at the start of what is sure to become the next phenomenon in television history!” Shit shit shit shit! Do I look alright? Hair? Check. Damn! I can’t believe I’m on television. “Keep going Grant, you’re doing fine.” Valencia’s voice floated melodically through his radio headset. “Phantom Arms! This news broadcast will be the kick off for the new show advertized so much on all stations in the continant. Of these eight contestants, Five will be chosen based on combat prowess into the newly established game show starting on this channel next week! This may be the first you’ve seen of it, but these contestants have already passed the grueling preliminary screening to even get this shot!” “Alright Grant, good job. Move on to the interviews now.” “And without further adieu, our brave fighters!” Where the hell are they? to my right? oh shit, left. Okay, I can’t look over my shoulder without taking my eyes off the camera, can I? “Easy now Grant, back and to your left.” Right, I knew it was left. Okay okay, here. “And this is our first contestant! Mr…” “Ryuu Nakano.” “Ryuu Nakano! Hello Mr. Nakano! May I ask, how do you feel being one of only eight contestants in this final process before initiation into what may well be television’s greatest advancement into the modern era?” He shrugged. “Next question Grant.” “What was it that made you try out to begin with Mr. Nakano?” He ruffled his brow and removed his headphones. “What?” “I asked, what is it that made you want to be a hunter?” He shrugged, then replaced his headphones. “Bad onscreen personality. Move on, quick.” Grant unconciously nodded, then moved on. “Next we have…” “That’s Aja Hillistine.” “Ms.” “Lady!” “Lady Aja Hillistine! Ms. Hillistine, how do you feel being in this competition?” “Alright, I guess.” “Are you nervous before your big fight to reach the top?” “I… guess…” “Well that’s to be expected! Any words you’d like to say to our viewers?” “Ummm… Hi.” ”... Anything you’d like to add.” “Not really.” “Keep moving Grant.” “Well you heard it audience! And channel seventeen would like to extend its best of luck to you Ms. Hillistine.” ”... thanks…” “Next we have…” “Lady Charlene Scorpius…” “Lady Charlene Scorpius! My you’re looking lovely today!” “Thank you. And you are?” “Grant Allen from channel seventeen news. I’d like to ask you a couple questions if I may.” “Sure!” “What was it that made you want to join the hunter organization?” “I wanted to give my fans something to watch!” “Wow, alright. And how about your father? Is he alright with this?” “That geezer? It was his idea! Of course he’s fine with it.” “Really! Well anything to say to our viewers?” “Just you watch! All you Charlie fans out there! I’m going to give you something to write about on your blogs!” “Wow! Isn’t she cute folks! Almost makes me want to ask you out on a date right here!” “Uh, sorry, I’m not interested in men.” ”...” “Alright Grant, move on. And put your eyes back in their sockets, you’re white as a sheet.” “Right… well, um, moving on, to…” “Argus. Cage Argus.” “Our next… contestant….” “Cage Argus.” “Argus, that is… um, Cage Argus. Mr. Argus? Got anything to say to our viewers?” “Huh? Oh, no, not really.” “Okay… um, well thank you very much. Channel seventeen gives you its best of luck. Next we have…” “That’s Nina Gelford. Lady.” “Lady Nina Gelford. Hello there.” “Hello sir.” “My you sure look pretty today. Are you sure you’re ready for a day of fighting?” ”... how else would I dress for a day of fighting?” “Well a fine black dress certainly is your style! um… So why are you here?” “My parents wanted me to enter the tournament.” “Oh, well do you have anything to say to our viewers?” “Sure! I hope you have fun watching! And I’ll see you in next week’s premier!” “Wow, such confidence! Okay, next we have…” “That’s Arius Vesper. Lord.” “Lord Arius Vesper! What made you decide to be a hunter Lord Vesper?” “My family has always done its best to be of service to the people, Mr…” “Um Grant, Grant Allen from channel seventeen.” “Grant, it’s a pleasure.” “The pleasure is all mine.” “Well, in any case, my family has always done what it thought best, and because of some of the alliances they’ve made over the years, their name and memory have been cast in to question. I am merely trying to do my part to serve the people the way they did. And I would like to do so by lending a hand to the hunters in keeping our territories safe from phantoms. And to keep such wars as happened a hundred years ago from occuring again.” “Well thank you Mr. Vesper. We all certainly look forward to having you out there to protect us. Well next up is…” “Aphrodite Merle.” “Aphrodite Merle!” “Call me ‘Phro’ thanks.” “Right! Well Phro, ready to give ‘em hell out there?” “Better believe I’m ready.” “Great! Well we’re looking forward to seeing you in action out there!” “You won’t be able to miss me if you try.” “Ha! Well before we go, would you like to say anything to our viewers?” “Just that they’re going to be in for quite a show.” “I’ll bet!... Oh, and this just in folks! The first round has had a bit of a change. The origional contestant is unable to attend, and so filling in is this man! Mr. Logan Renolds, um, sir, what made you decide to join the tournament at the last minute like this?” “I’ve got some unfinished business, that’s all.” “Oooh, that sounds a little cryptic. How do you think you’ll do?” “Well I guess we’ll see, now won’t we.” “Yeah, I guess so!” “Wrap it up Grant.” “Well that’s about all the time we’ve got. Stay tuned, the first round is about to begin just after we hear a word from our sponsors!”

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