The farther Skai ventured into the arena, the more it came to life around her. The gel that blanketed the earth continued to swell and assemble various obstacles: short cliffsides, tunnels, stalagmites and stalactites. Her teammates entered the arena behind her in small pops and snaps, like the sound of a numai in need of repair.
She ducked into a tunnel overrun with milk-white plant life and wisps, pressed her hand against the wall and read the translucent symbols that appeared in the top right corner of her goggles: thirty ticks, the amount of time left until the barrier to the gold crater opened.
Her heart spasmed. She picked up her pace, making sure to check each corner she came around. On occasion, Alk’ai would send an interceptor down her path to give Aija extra time on the capture point, but today — Skai peered down the tunnel and counted down in her head — everything was silent.
She rushed in the direction of the gold crater, bowing under hanging plant life and scrambling over boulders. The arena’s obstacles were different each match; she could do little but hope that she had chosen the quickest route.
She almost slammed into the transparent barrier marking the entrance to gold. She inhaled a sharp breath, squeezed a fist at her side and begged herself to remain calm. Aija’s probably at her barrier already, she told herself. Our team joined late. My own fault.
Her eyes snapped back open and she backed against the wall, one hand still in contact with the barrier.
I haven’t practiced, she realized. She recited her opening combo, “Link, charge, expulsion, impact—”
The barrier evaporated altogether, lending her access to the enclosed capture point. She stumbled inside, ran around the outer channel and braced herself against the wall. She closed her eyes for a brief moment, convinced that Aija was just on the other side, close enough to hear her breathing.
Her eyes sprang open at the humming that reached her ears: a soft, playful tune she’d heard countless times throughout her life. Intent on ignoring her pleas, her heart tripled its beat.
She glanced over her shoulder. The crater was a dip in the raised earth just above her. By the sound of Aija’s humming, the young woman had already climbed up and taken point; all she had to do was pace around the edge and peer into the surrounding channel to spot Skai.
“Pakka,” Aija called, her voice as low and pleasant as her humming, “I know you’re in here.”
Skai smiled. She thinks Pakka is playing. Her heart raced all over again, this time for a different reason. She stuffed her hair and wrappings further into her hood to ensure her face was masked, located the grooves for her hands and feet and propelled herself upward as silently as her still-wet boots would allow.
Aija whirled to face her, her long hair a fierce blend of dark red and gold. Skai had just enough time to verify Aija had indeed taken her gear before the vibrant young woman was blasting a wave of energy in her direction.
In a single breath, Skai shielded herself with a sphere of rippling blue, sparked her fingers together to establish a link and dove back into the channel.
She sucked in a startled breath. It had been less than a moment, but she’d still been able to catch sight of Aija’s smooth jaw, her mess of braided wristbands and the white flash of her playful smile. She thought back to their last encounter, when Aija had taken a step too close, pinned Skai to the wall and—
Thirty ticks, Skai interrupted her own thoughts, reminding herself of the next time she’d be allowed to shield herself in that manner. Stay focused. She swallowed back the lump in her throat as she turned to survey Aija’s pacing aura through the rock: a black outline of her lithe form, unfazed by Skai’s opening move.
“Mystic?” Aija chuckled. “Kinda popular lately, isn’t it?”
Skai said nothing. She wanted Aija to go on believing she was battling Pakka. Being confused for someone else, being invisible, Skai thought, gave her a strange sense of comfort. She ran her palms together in a circle, building up a crackling ball of energy she decided to store for later use. She had to claim the point. It was a simple matter of rotating her abilities, keeping Aija in the pit and waiting for time to tick by.
“You seen Skai at all?” Aija went on nonchalantly, remaining the definition of relaxed.
Skai blushed and tensed herself for another run. Stay focused, she reminded herself. She exploded onto the ledge in a flurry of sparks and light, charged Aija as though her legs had left the ground, knocked the young woman flat on her back — two ticks — and slammed her fist down on the node in the center of the crater. It flashed to signal Yln’ai occupation, something that was known to call another member from Alk’ai to rush their point. Skai wasn’t worried about another. One sentinel, ravager or sage could easily be held at bay.
Aija was the only one she found difficulty controlling regardless of role.
Skai wheeled around in time to find Aija pushing herself upright, aimed her expulsion perfectly and blasted the young woman off the crater and into the channel below. She hurried to the edge and gazed down at where Aija lay paralyzed — seven ticks — and sent the pre-charged attack her way with another massive blast. It tore a chunk out of the power meter that appeared above Aija’s head, a visual reference for the simulated damage she’d taken. If Skai took the bar all the way down, Aija would be cut from the match.
Skai filled the remaining clicks in with lightweight attacks and, just as Aija broke free of her paralysis, turned invisible through the use of her already-established link. A decoy appeared in Skai’s place: a copy of herself that Aija would have to either destroy or wait out in order to see Skai again.
Thirty ticks. Skai backed against the edge of the crater as Aija leaped onto the platform with her usual taunting grace, one arm stirring at her side to charge an attack. Instead of a ball of energy, a golden lance formed in her hand, glistening as beautifully as her skin.
She looked Skai’s decoy up and down before greeting her in a soft, almost endearing way. “Hello, Skai.”
The blood drained from Skai’s face and limbs, leaving them tingling. Her fingers twitched at her side as Aija pivoted around to scour the area for signs of where the real Skai could be hiding. She didn’t seem interested in tearing apart the decoy.
Skai was thankful she couldn’t see Aija’s eyes; there was something in the way the fiery girl often looked at Skai that was disabling. Even without the onslaught of Aija’s probing gaze, she still felt locked in place, breathless, somehow both terrified and enthralled.
Aija made a move toward the center node with a quiet chuckle. “You still mad about last time?”
Skai shot a cone-shaped stun at Aija’s outstretched fingers the moment she closed in on the node — thirteen ticks — and circled her with bated breath. She trained her eyes on the node’s score: Skai’s timer was only just passing Aija’s. She had to remain in control. It was a battle of ticks, who held the capture point the longest and whether or not the remainder of one team arrived in time to finish the fight. If there were no more Yl’nai members, the node went to Alk’ai. One team needed to capture all three nodes at the bronze, silver and gold craters in order to win.
“You know,” Aija began, still frozen with her fingers inches from the node, “as annoying as it is, I missed being perpetually stunned by you.”
Skai tried to focus on the ticks in her head. Don’t listen to her. Was her expulsion ready for reuse? She toggled her overlay to check.
Aija employed a break-out ability to end her stun early and, before Skai could react, swung the lance around to crash Skai’s legs out from under her. A grid similar to the one coating the ground flashed over Skai’s body to absorb the impact; without the orb slotted into her back, getting hit that hard might have left her injured for days.
Her power bar flickered to life above her and dropped by almost half.
Skai tucked her legs underneath her and rolled away before Aija could land another blow, but it was too late: her invisibility wore off from the force of the hit and her decoy erupted into a thousand wisps nearby.
Aija tapped the center node with the end of her lance and smirked at Skai from over her shoulder.
“How did you—” Skai blurted out, baffled that Aija somehow knew where she’d been standing.
Aija waggled her eyebrow, lowered herself into a challenging stance and waved Skai nearer. “Come here, little pan’ylnai,” she teased with a small bite to her lip.
A jolt rolled up Skai’s spine at the endearing term, flushing her already warm cheeks with further embarrassment. “Don’t call me that.”
Aija neared her with a twirl of her lance. “But it’s fitting. You’re so cute and—”
Skai blasted forward through the use of her tunneling ability, a maneuver that had her vanishing and reappearing at Aija’s back in time for another expulsion, but Aija absorbed the hit with a rippling shield of her own and countered with her own expulsion.
Skai flew back into the channel, landed with a sharp gasp and sat there, frantically counting down the ticks until she could be free from the binding effect.
Aija peeked over the edge with a wide grin. “Did you miss me?”
Skai glowered back at her without answering and — five ticks — tensed as Aija pushed her headgear up onto her forehead, fixing Skai with two golden, upturned eyes. Skai squeezed her own eyes shut in an effort to concentrate.
“You’re still mad,” Aija noted, her tone thoughtful.
Not mad, Skai thought. Her heart raced at the memory of Aija pinning her against the wall not far from where she stood. She remembered the curious tilt to Aija’s head, the penetrating look in her amber eyes.
She remembered Aija’s unique, almost otherworldly scent, the way it seemed to wash over her, the way she leaned in to hover her fingers over Skai’s jaw.
She remembered the warm press of their bodies, the faintest brush of their lips, and then the force with which she’d shoved Aija off her.
In a sweeping motion, Skai rotated her arm around and struck Aija full in the face with a beam of light: a rod of wisps that constructed a temporary cage around Aija — forty ticks.
Skai almost smiled at Aija’s shocked expression, leaped over the edge and back into the crater with no need to rush. “You really should’ve saved your stun break,” she said before tagging the node for Yln’ai. The match would be over in less than forty ticks and stun breaks were only good once per match — Skai had won.
“I can’t believe you carry that ability!” Aija shouted from inside the encasement. “Don’t you have to trade a bunch of power just to access it?”
Skai slid to a more relaxed position. “Half of it.”
“I know.” Skai offered a small shrug. “Now give my gear back.”
Aija stuck an arm through one of the encasement’s holes and waved it in a circle. “Would if I could.”
Aija raised an eyebrow and offered a tantalizing smile. “You sure? I’m not wearing anything under.”
Skai’s heart leaped into her throat. Before she could push to her feet, scramble the immediate visual that invaded her mind or react in any way at all, another player blasted in through the Alk’ai entrance, and it wasn’t one of Skai’s.
A rod of energy flew in her direction, slammed into her chest and pulverized her power bar. She landed on her back with a hard gasp, headgear askew.
Aija burst out laughing as Skai stared up at the underside, unwilling to believe how quickly her victory had been taken from her. Always the same, she remembered. Doesn’t matter what I do.
The rod-wielding sentinel, a dark-haired girl named Cole, whooped in glee. “I got her!”
Aija, released from her bindings, appeared in Skai’s line of sight to offer an upturned palm. “You sure you’re not still mad about last time?”
Skai carefully accepted her hand and told herself to breathe through the panic that ensued. Not mad, she thought as she was tugged to her feet. Something else.
She tore her hand from Aija’s the moment she was able and pretended to notice something of interest near her boot. Aija had many gifts, one of which was reading Skai. Avoiding eye contact was Skai’s last form of defense.
“Your hands are sweaty.”
Skai didn’t have to look to know Aija was wearing her characteristic grin. She remained focused on the ground as a pulse declaring the match’s end thrummed below their feet and the arena’s obstacles receded to form their usual slopes and rocks. Cole went on announcing her win to their surroundings without restraint, much to Skai’s displeasure.
“Very sweaty.” Aija moved in to whisper in her ear, “Nervous or something?”
Skai toyed with Pakka’s headgear in an effort to appear unmoved, convinced that Aija could hear her heart slamming against her ribcage. “Annoyed,” she lied, but she knew the strain in her voice gave her away.
Aija closed a terrifying amount of space between them. “Or something.”
Against Skai’s better judgment, she finally met her companion’s gaze. Their proximity gave Skai a clear view of the tiny particles that made up her irises, like millions of microscopic wisps orbiting in a slow circle.
Something, she realized as her eyes roamed the golden hue of Aija’s skin, the dust of freckles across the bridge of her nose, the flurry of layered hair that slid over her eyes, down her shoulders and back. Not nothing. She moved her lips to speak, but only managed a blank stare as Cole spun around behind them, arms wide.
Aija uttered a quiet chuckle and stood upright. “You remember that big hole in the ground? The dark one?”
The abyss. Skai slowly nodded, confused as to why Aija would ask. Skai often spent her time there alone, fascinated by its depths. When they were younger, she and Aija had shared the place until the numai chased them out, declaring it unsafe.
“Meet me there. I’ll bring your gear.”
“When?” Skai couldn’t fathom why she was so quick to agree. It felt like a lifetime had passed since she and Aija last spent time there.
“At fifth pulse?” Aija shrugged. “Whenever you like. I’ll be there.”
Skai blinked at her curious smile. “Why?”
Cole popped her head between the two of them and blurted out, “To get you all alone, little pan’ylnai—” Aija cut her off with a swift punch to the midsection, only for Cole’s grid to flash across her body and cushion the blow. The boisterous girl staggered away in a fit of howling laughter, “—adorable little pan’ylnai!”
Aija glared over her shoulder. “Get outta here, Cole!” She launched a ball of energy after her, much to Cole’s apparent amusement; in her sentinel role, it took a lot to damage her grid.
Skai might’ve laughed if the sudden lump in her throat allowed it.
Aija lowered her eyes, her usual confidence replaced with something Skai could identify with. “Fifth pulse. Promise you’ll be there.”
Skai’s heart raced at the mere thought, but she found herself nodding regardless. “Okay.”
Her answer must not have been very convincing because Aija gave her a skeptical look before following Cole out of the arena. As soon as Skai was left alone, an emptiness settled back in where, moments ago, there had been something warm, something alive. Something.