Pakka jumped out at Skai the moment she came outside, startling her so much that she stumbled back into the veil. “Pakka, tek’ka ao’set!” she cussed as water sprayed down her back and into her boots. She fumed at the bright expression that answered her: large, round eyes and a toothy grin Skai felt like putting her fist through.
“I know you said to find someone else,” Pakka belted out as Skai pushed past her and into the expanse, wishing she could toss the younger girl through the veil by the back of her neck, “but we need you! You’re the only one that can beat Aija, and we—”
Skai skidded to a halt at the mention of Aija’s name, whirled around and slammed her hands in her pockets to avoid carrying out the aggressive scenarios reeling through her head. “I’m not going.” The low tone of her voice and what Skai hoped looked like an unamused scowl did nothing to deflect Pakka’s onslaught.
The girl wrapped her arms around Skai’s waist and sank to her knees. “Please!”
Skai was used to being the shortest person in the vicinity; having to look down at anyone, especially someone groveling at her feet, was more than awkward. She shoved Pakka away. “Would you stop? I’m not going.” She stomped off a second time, her boots squelching with each step.
Pakka chased after her. “She’s asked where you’ve been.”
Skai pulled uncomfortably at the back of her jacket. It wasn’t difficult to remember why she’d closed herself off from everyone she knew. She did her best to ignore Pakka as the girl prattled on behind her. She has to lose energy at some point.
“Her entire team keeps joking that you got tired of losing.”
Not convincing me, Skai thought as she clambered up a steep hill. She didn’t care what anyone thought. She hadn’t been tired of losing, she’d been tired of the game’s repetitive nature. The same role, the same demand that she hold a specific point only to be confronted by Aija — she swallowed hard and turned her eyes down — again and again. The same scenario, the same battle, the same standstill. The same impish grin and bright, amber eyes, the same teasing banter that resulted in Skai losing all that remained of her already-pitiful concentration.
“She’s been wearing your gear.”
Skai lost her footing and slid back a few paces before rounding on Pakka. “She’s what?”
“Yeah, like it’s her trophy or something.”
A burst of heat flooded Skai’s cheeks as a strange mix of emotions overcame her: anger, embarrassment, and something else she couldn’t quite label. She found herself stumbling back down the hill past Pakka with a cold hand pressed to her forehead.
Pakka seemed to perk up at Skai’s change in direction. “She’s been training herself as a mystic, too.”
Skai bit her lip and upped her pace. She never thought to take her gear home, and while she hadn’t seen the items as trophies in the past, they were, simply put, hers. She didn’t say another word as she and Pakka trekked across the expanse, past overhanging slabs of rock, smooth streams and flocks of wisps. Her own wisp wouldn’t leave her side; it chased after her with an insistence that rivaled Pakka’s.
“So you’re going to play with us?”
Skai didn’t answer.
Skai grunted, pushed her wet hood back and shook her hair out. She didn’t know what she was going to do. She couldn’t even sort out the rage and anxiety that curled her fist one moment and slicked her palms the next, only half listening while Pakka detailed their opponents’ changed roles and techniques.
The game wasn’t Skai’s concern. Aija was.
It didn’t take long before the two of them reached the arena, a sprawling section of land broken up by all forms of obstacles, linear sets of craters and posts marked with various symbols. Each end had a raised platform buzzing with groups of players: two competing factions sporting black on one side and white on the other.
Alk’ai and Yln’ai — darkness and light.
As backward as she always felt it was, Skai was part of Yln’ai, and there was no way to change sides. Ever.
She regretted her impulsive decision to go after Aija the instant she was near enough to garner attention; dozens of heads turned her way at Pakka’s announcement: “I got Skai!”
Skai nearly froze at the unwanted stares; one of her legs wobbled out from under her and she slipped forward only to be hugged around the midsection by a too-excited Pakka. She exhaled an aggravated sigh and shoved the girl from her personal space.
What are you doing? she demanded of herself, of her legs that kept moving numbly forward and of her hands, which had been clasped by a few of her teammates. Someone had the gall to ruffle her hair, which was tangled enough without their contribution.
She scowled up at the offender: an armor-clad girl named Silke, the very same that’d been responsible for siccing Skai on Aija every match.
“Six people—” Silke directed, gesturing toward teammates with self-appointed importance, “—two sentinels, two ravagers, a sage and—” she gave the top of Skai’s head another pat, “—a mystic.”
Mystic. Skai rolled her eyes, remembering when Silke would debate whether or not Skai’s role was even necessary. It barely does any damage, she used to say. It only took Skai a few one-on-one duels with her skeptics before earning her place as one of six: the party that faced Alk’ai in the arena.
“Where’ve you been?” one of her teammates asked.
“Aija took your gear,” another blurted out.
Skai said nothing. She’d trained her eyes on her own boots, hoping if she didn’t meet anyone’s gaze that she’d lose their interest. All she could imagine was that soon, she’d be face-to-face with Aija. She was pretty sure her blood halted all circulation at the thought.
“You can use mine!”
Skai remained numb to her surroundings as Pakka disappeared into a nearby construct and emerged with a handful of items, as the team slapped Skai on the back to coax some sort of reaction from her, as she was outfitted with Pakka’s gear.
“She’s in shock!” someone laughed. “What’s wrong with her?”
Two firm bracers were belted over her wrists, each of them equipped with a whirring contraption. The light that emanated from them rivaled that of Tempus’ eyes.
Her jacket was peeled away and replaced with a long coat designed without short people in mind.
“She’s sweating. Is she sick?”
Skai went on staring at her own boots as someone strapped padding over her knees. “I’m fine,” she murmured. But she wasn’t. Her arms had gone limp at her sides, her mouth went dry and her eyes glassed over. “I’m fine.”
“You look sick.”
Skai shook her head and accepted the headgear passed her way: a pair of mechanical goggles she fastened into place out of habit. She dragged Pakka’s hood on, donned the veil meant to conceal the bottom half of her face and toggled the controls that lit up her headgear. It cast the world in a cyan hue, and when she raised a hand to spark her fingers together, an aura burst to life around the teammate she’d focused on.
“Don’t link me!” The girl scrambled out of view, but the aura followed her into the construct, bright even through the black wall.
Skai shrugged and disconnected from her. “Just making sure it works.” Another barrage of hands slapped her back, propelling her forward into the arena below. She snagged a blue-green orb from the nearby post on the way and slotted it where it belonged at the base of her hood. Labeling her as a mystic, the sphere enabled her the use of any mystic abilities while on the field.
The ground itself seemed to swell at her approach. It was dressed in a white grid: a firm gel that absorbed the imprints of her boots.
Silke tossed an arm over her shoulders and dragged her in. “All you have to do is hold Aija off until the rest of us get there.”
“Three to bronze, two to silver, one—” she pushed Skai forward by the small of her back, “—to gold.”
Skai didn’t visualize the golden emblem hovering above the third crater. Instead, she imagined the smooth rings of amber that made up Aija’s eyes, their magnetic pull and the knowing chuckle that escaped the young woman whenever she caught Skai gawking.
To gold, Skai told herself as she trudged into the sloping entrance, heart pounding. As soon as the fog of war blanketed her surroundings, her instincts took over. She took in a long breath of air, readjusted her goggles and followed one of the many trails toward the gold crater. Follow your companion.