*Magnify*
SPONSORED LINKS
Creative fun in
the palm of your hand.
Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/campfires/item_id/1330731-RAZI-Ninjutsu-Academy
Rated: 18+ · Campfire Creative · Fiction · Action/Adventure · #1330731
Herein lurk the ninja ... If you see them, then it's already too late!
[Introduction]  

This is the Land of Welt. This is a land similar to our own, a mirror land and alternate reality, a land where magic and not science has shaped the people and the cultures.

There is less than a quarter of Earth's population on Welt and countries are formed with a feudal system where espionage and assassination techniques and the strength of your ninja keep your country and people safe from harm.

Every country/kingdom/republic has its own Ninjutsu School. Students must pass a stringent entrance exam at a very young age to be accepted. School is tough; of the 200 new students every year, maybe 50 will become Ninja. But those that survive all the way through to graduation will become one of their homeland's most elite and valuable assets.

R.A.Z.I. Academy is the Ninjutsu School for the Republic of Greater North-East Asia, to include the countries of China, Japan, and Korea. Of course, students may be of any race or any country of origin, but graduates will work for the Republic. If they are not citizens of the Republic, they will be by graduation.

This campfire will involve students in their final year at the Academy two months before graduation, two weeks before the Inter-Ninjutsu School Challenge, and one week before the R.A.Z.I. Academy's Top Ten Competition and the revealing of the students' combat style.

If you would like to be a member of this school, you must apply through the "R.A.Z.I. Academy Entrance Exam. Invite requests via the campfire will be ignored. You may not choose a sect already in use in the campfire. As several may apply for the same one at the same time, I will choose one and ask everyone else to pick another.

I run a tight ship and I recommend either reading one of my other campfires or talking to someone who has written with me before, or both. If you can handle me, then press on!


~ R.A.Z.I. Academy ~


The quest to become ninja is not an easy one. Training takes 10 years and students are admitted at age 10 or 11. No one graduates early; however, if a student does not pass the final exam, he/she is allowed to repeat their final year, spending a total of 11 years at the academy. Failures and drop-outs are re-acclimated to 'normal' life. Magic is very common, and ninja training is very valuable, so even drop-outs and failures stand a high chance of leading very successful lives. Ninja training is very expensive. Training is free, provided you graduate, otherwise the tuition must be repaid.

R.A.Z.I. is located on a (fictional) island off the coast of Japan. The Academy occupies the entirety of the island. The main campus consists of dormitories for each of the sects, the teachers, and the staff, a cafeteria, library, hospital, halls/buildings/etc for lectures and classes, a general gym, track and field, etc, all the normal things you would expect to see in a boarding school.

Transportation to the island takes place via float-plane or boat and there are facilities for that purpose. There are no telephones, t.v.s radios or the like, no movie theatres or computers. It's the nose to the grindstone 6 days a week, with the 7th being a rest-day.

There is one special building/training dojo for each sect which you may design as you see fit, and that goes for the dormitories as well. You are free to describe your sect classmates and masters and may either be a 'typical' student of your sect or otherwise describe how you are different.

Being 60 days from graduation, there are many pressures being placed upon the potential graduates. The best students in each sect will be gearing up for the competition in which the #1 student of each sect will be sent to represent their school in the inter-Ninjutsu School Tournament.

Class information and character bios will be in the forum, found here: "Student Center

Let's get this party started!
 

         Sundays at Razi were always peaceful, especially in May. Birds once more flocked to the lakes and streams on their way to their Northern habitats for the summer. Ren lay on his back staring up into the the branches of some prickly bushes, and sighed quietly. He waited for the full cover of dark before he made his move, padding along stealthily and steadily towards the infirmary. The nurse at the desk would never let him in, but he had to see Hammer, to see for himself if he was okay. He circled around the building, set apart from the rest of campus and surveyed all the means of entry. There! An open window on the third floor. Hmm, tricky, with the bushes there.

         He backed up under the cover of the deepening twilight, then ran straight at the wall. He leapt, let his feet come into a quick, silent contact with the wall before pushing off, leaping for the next windowsill up. He almost missed, the tender skin of his back pulling painfully, breaking his concentration. He hung onto the ledge, feet scrambling, and then, with just the strength in his arms, pulled his face up so that he could see inside. Ah! He was in luck, the room was empty. In a trice he was inside.

         From there it was a simple matter to glide past the staff and find Hammer. He was in a bed in the critical ward and Ren had been there before. He had just reached the door when the rumble of voices made him halt.

         His master, Master Aikido, was there: "How is he?"

         "Still unconscious. It's better that way, to help with the pain." That was Master Physica, one of the doctors and of the Heart Sect.

         Next Ren recognized Hammer's mentor, Master Cosmo. "How badly is he hurt? Will he wake up?"

         Master Physica replied, "I don't know. He's suffered severe internal damage, and that's not including the broken bones or external lacerations."

         "I can't believe you kept that boy in this school," growled Master Cosmo.

         "We can't expell him, he's too dangerous," that was a new voice, one Ren had only heard on occassion, that of Master Maestro, the headmaster of all Razi.

         "What about those monks who dumped him on us?" growled Master Cosmo.

         There was a pause, perhaps someone shaking their head, then Master Aikido answered, "They won't have him back. He's our problem now."

         "If he leaves here," added Master Physica, her voice sharp, "he does it drugged and in a straitjacket. There's only a few places would have him now."

         Ren clapped a hand over his mouth to keep quiet, his eyes round with shock.

         "It hasn't yet come to that, Physica," said Master Maestro soothingly. "Apparently placing Pandaren with his peers was a mistake, but we had figured the older students would be able to handle him."

         "They shun him," said Master Aikido.

         "Yes, unfortunate --"

         "Well, just look at Hammer!" Master Cosmo interrupted. "He's not the first!"

         A loud sigh from Master Maestro. "I am aware of that, Cosmo."

         "Eavesdropping is more trouble than it's worth," said a quiet voice in Ren's ear. He jumped, banged his knee on the floor, and whirled around. An aged man with a cane stood there, watching him calmly.

         "W-who are you?" stammered Ren. He didn't remember ever seeing this man before, and he thought he'd met all the masters.

         "Stay here, then," said the old man, "and find out." He pushed past Ren and entered the bay.

         Ren pressed his ear to the crack in the doors.

         "Ah!" said Master Maestro, "Yoshi, it is good to see you, my old master."

         There were some soft remarks that Ren couldn't make out, and then Master Yoshi asked, "I hear you have something of interest to me?"

         "Here, Master," said Master Physica. "We don't know how this student was injured."

         "A student did this?" Master Yoshi asked a minute later.

         "Yes, one of my students."

         "Yours, Aikido? Indeed ... Most interesting." There was the scrape of a chair. "Tell me more."

         Ren listened as the masters spoke of the day he'd arrived at the school. He shivered involuntarily as he listened. The curse had come upon him when he was fourteen and by the time he'd turned sixteen he could not control himself even for simple things, like shaking hands or eating a simple meal. The monks had done the only thing they could think of, they'd drugged him into a stupor and brought him here.

         "We couldn't direct whatever this is into magic," continued Master Maestro. "He has no affinity with it, nothing strong enough to direct it."

         "But those priests were training him to be Shaolin," Master Aikido said, "almost a master himself in their ways. The boy can fight, that is true enough, so I took him on."

         "He did well for a while," Master Maestro went on, "He seemed to get on just fine, and then, in a sparring exercise, he broke a boy's leg."

         "Not just broke," Master Physica snorted. "Completely shattered. It had to be totally replaced."

         "We thought it was just a fluke, but these things keep happening, and now Hammer here," said Master Aikido sadly. "He'll do well for a time and then ... well, as you can see."

         "Anything significant happen just before any of these episodes?" asked Master Yoshi.

         "Not that I can determine, Master," said Master Aikido. "The boy will not speak, and his instructors can shed no insight, either."

         "Well, seems like a hopeless case," said Master Yoshi. "What do you expect me to do about it?"

         "Master," said Master Maestro, "please, we do not want to send this boy to live inside padded walls for the rest of his life. Many times the young come here when their families can no longer deal with them. Seldom one so old, but then, the troublemakers were always your specialty. I should know, eh?"

         There was an answering chuckle. "Very well, my student, I shall observe the boy and see what might be done. By the way, he's listening outside."

         Ren bolted, but hadn't taken more than two steps when Master Aikido caught him by the neck in his vise-like grip. He stopped struggling at once, knowing he'd only end up with a massive bruise and headache if he didn't go just where Master Aikido pushed him. Now he was propelled right into the room where he'd wanted to go only minutes before, thrown to the floor encircled by the masters. He curled his feet under him in a half-kneeling, half-sitting position and bowed his head, his face red with embarassment.

         "Was that really necessary?" asked Master Yoshi. Ren almost broke discipline and looked up, no one had ever questioned his master before!

         "He is my student, Master," said Master Akido in a low voice.

         "Aikido!" said Master Maestro in warning. He continued in his normal voice, "Pandaren, why are you here?"

         "I -- I wanted ... t-to see Hammer, Master."

         "Here to finish the job!" snapped Master Cosmo.

         Ren bit his lip, hands curling to fists where they rested on his thighs. He stared down at the floor in silence.

         "Leave us!" Master Yoshi requested unexpectedly. "I wish to speak to the boy alone."

         "But -- " started Master Physica, but Master Maestro stopped her and Ren watched four pairs of feet walk past him, heard the door close and latch.

         "So, Pandaren," said Master Yoshi. "You care for this student?"

         "He -- he is my friend, Master."

         "Oh do get up, boy! I can't hear you proper when you're muttering into the floor."

         Ren sprang to his feet, turning to face the aged master, sitting on a chair. Ren fell into the warrior's stance, hands clasped behind his back, staring straight ahead. He was not tall, but he felt huge compared to this man.

         "You may have killed your friend, Pandaren."

         "I know."

         "How does that make you feel?"

         "I -- beg pardon, Master?" he dared to glance down. The little old man watched him impassively.

         "How do you feel?"

         "I -- but -- A samurai has no use for emotions, Master."

         "Don't repeat that crap to me!" snapped Master Yoshi.

         Ren took a half-step backwards from the power that buffeted him. Shaking, his gaze dropped again and he shifted, trying to regain some semblance of his equilibrium.

         "You have lost your center," Master Yoshi observed quietly. He rubbed his jaw, eyes half-closed in thought. The boy hid his emotions well, but they roiled there just beneath the surface, plain to see if you only knew what to look for. He did seem well-disciplined, but so much fear, what could be causing that?

         "Tell me what you do in the mornings, Pandaren. And," he added, as the boy opened his mouth, "I don't mean what you're supposed to be doing, I want to know what you really do."

         "I -- I rise before dawn, Master," Ren answered. "I run, for an hour, then meditate, then train. I come back to bathe and then breakfast, and class."

         "You keep the monastery schedule then, that is good. You are my student now, Pandaren. Your mornings belong to me now."

         "But, Master --"

         Master Yoshi raised an eyebrow. The boy dared speak back, a samurai questioning orders?

         "Your masters will know that you are with me, Pandaren."

         Ren bowed. "Yes, Master."

         Master Yoshi rose with a groan and made his way towards the door. "Stay with your friend a minute if you wish, but I suggest you get some sleep."

         "Yes, Master."

         Ren watched the strange old man leave the room out of the corner of his eyes, astonished all over again that someone so decrepit could have sneaked up on him. Then he went to Hammer's side. He shifted from foot to foot, staring at the mass of tubes and wires and gadgets beeping and whirring and dripping at his friend's bedside. He seemed peaceful enough, other than the tube sticking out of his mouth. He touched the fingers where they emerged from the cast on his arm, but quickly drew his hand away again, afraid he'd inadvertently cause him even more pain, despite what the masters said.

         Tears threatened again and he sucked in great lungfuls of air to stem the flood of emotion. He turned and ran from the room, but he didn't return to the small cubicle that served as a bedroom. He climbed to the top of the dormitories and went out onto the roof, perching on the edge.

         How he longed for the peaceful days of the monastery! Everything was peaceful, like every day was a Sunday in May, everything in harmony with everything else. He'd never known any other way of life until he'd come here. The noise and commotion and everyday chaos that everyone else took in stride jangled on Ren's nerves. His only peace was in the early mornings, keeping to the traditions he'd grown up with. The monks there were in some ways far more mystical and magical than the masters here, even if most of them had taken vows of silence. Noise was not tolerated at all, it was the primary reason Ren was so quiet even now, he knew of no other way to be.
A Non-Existent User
Exodeus was silent within the special training dojo. There were several others quietly at work, sparring, training themselves, and meditating. Quiet feet shifted and sprinted along the padded floor. Measured breaths could barely be heard as they practiced forms or did push-ups to maintain physical strength. Exodeus occupied a lone corner within the dojo and others did not draw near. It was one of the few times during the day he did not have others thronging about him chattering away about techniques, new abilities, homework, or what they felt were useless assignments. Also, his summon Vie, deterred many who might have approached him otherwise to join in the silent meditation.

Vie was an anaconda. Most students had never even seen hardly any kind of animals and knew just as little about many. The daunting size of the serpent which was larger than anyone at the school was the one thing about Exodeus that made him less desirable as a friend. If his snake was out, most kept their distance. It was much unlike its master, though it appeared calm on placid on the surface, those who drew near to stroke or caress it were met with a hostile hiss or a warning leap in their direction. Exodeus and Exodeus alone was allowed to touch her.

His meditation was also a method of his physical training. He was standing with arms spread out perfectly horizontal. The snake was wrapped around up around his body and draped its massive form along his arms weighing him down very heavily. He struggled to center his mind as well as keep himself standing without letting his arms drop.

Vie slithered lazily around him coiling most of herself by his feet. She could sense her master's weariness and did not want to burden him too much longer. The snake let go a wide mouthed yawn. Unlike most anaconda's Vie had pronounced fangs that carried within them a paralyzing poison that Exodeus was known for concocting. Even though the poison was not fatal, it was easy to tell the bite itself from a snake so large could very well be.

His first classes would be starting soon. Exodeus opened his eyes, breaking his meditative state. It took him a moment to focus as the trances were normally very deep he became disoriented a few seconds after coming out. Vie was now off of him completely and looked at him with cunning eyes, her tongue flitting in and out. Exodeus smiled with some measured amount of amusement at the anaconda. She was not as spectacular looking as other summons he had encountered from students. Yet she was every bit as powerful and since he had won all his battles...eventually, he would go as far as to say that she was more powerful.

"Come Vie...I think we should not linger too long, training and classes soon start." The snake hissed contently and seemed to vanish into nothing. His crystal glowed a gentle purple light before it went back to being a normal amethyst stone.
 

         A samurai student did the same thing every day. Repetition, repetition, repetition! Until the action was mere reflex and the body moved without the mind having to think. A samurai always did what he was told and a samurai was never late; he was always exactly on time.

         Except, thought Ren, jogging down the path, I always seem to be late!

         The day had progressed as normal, with his morning exercises. He had gotten into the showers without incident and managed a decent breakfast but at that point things had slowly started to go wrong. He'd fallen in as normal before the Samurai training dojo, which unfortunately drew the attention of one of the instructors. Master O had pulled him out of line and started scolding him, in front of everyone and that had drawn Master Aikido's attention.

         Ren sighed and picked up the pace. He had detention at lunchtime and he didn't want to also anger Master Yoshi. He didn't know that master at all and wasn't sure what to expect. Why couldn't the master have told him where to meet him?

         He followed the trail towards the harbor but turned off to climb up to the bluffs overlooking the bay. He found Master Yoshi sitting on a sun-warmed rock facing the ocean. Ren dropped to a similar cross-legged position, panting.

         "You're late," said Master Yoshi evenly, not opening his eyes.

         Ren bowed. "Humble apologies, Master." The master shifted, and Ren braced himself, but no blows came. Just more silence. He dared to look up, saw Master Yoshi watching him, it was so hard to tell what he was thinking from his face!

         "Why are you late?"

         Ren bit his lip, loathe to explain, sure that this master would not like it. "I ... uh, wasn't sure where to meet you, I --"

         Master Yoshi's lips pressed into a thin line. "I see." There is a moment's pause and then he sighed. "Then let us delay no more. Tell me about this friend of yours. Hammer."

         "Hammer's a Geomancer, Master. He can make the earth move, shake, manipulate it into objects, and sometimes he can make it grab the feet of his opponents."

         "Does he have other friends?"

         "Oh, yes, Master. Hammer says that ... that everyone deserves a chance."

         "Wise. Go on."

         "Yes, Master. Hammer calls my forms dancing. He says that if he could move like me, he'd quit this place, go out on the road, and pick up girls."

         Master Yoshi chuckled. "How long have you known him?"

         "I only met him this year. He ...."

         "Yes?"

         Ren stared down into the water. "He made them stop picking on me."

         Master Yoshi surveyed his young pupil covertly. "You did not fight back."

         "No, Master."

         Why am I not surprised? "Because you did not want to or because you were afraid?"

         "I -- I was afraid, Master. I don't know what I do, I never know when --"

         "That is also wise, Pandaren. Restraint is its own kind of courage. Do you have any other friends?"

         "No, Master."

         "Hmmm. Show me what you were doing when Hammer was injured."

         Ren blanched. "B-b-but, Master! I don't know! I swear I don't know!"

         Well, he's certainly not going to be able to do anything in that state, thought Master Yoshi. He waved his hand. "Pandaren, you must calm yourself. Meditate with me now."

         Ren closed his eyes obediantly, relieved not to be continuing that line of questioning, and listened to Master Yoshi's soft instructions. He sent himself to his safe place, in the hills above the monastery, sent his body through the forms, gathered the peace back upon himself. The clouds were calling now and he let himself go, drifting among them.

         Master Yoshi watched Pandaren avidly, continuing in his persuasive tone. Hypnotising the boy had been far easier than he'd expected. Evidently, he was unaware of the technique, possibly due to having been raised in such a sheltered environment. Not magical at all, hypnotism had helped in many instances, and it would again. With his voice, Master Yoshi instructed Pandaren to return to the day before, to the morning, having him experience the day again. The body relaxed more, the fingers twitching in his dreams. He knew when Hammer popped up in Pandaren's mind, for the boy smiled gently, a true smile, such that Master Yoshi had yet to see on his face and his old heart ached a little to see it.

         Now Master Yoshi sent the boy to his feet and watched as the scene unfolded before him. With himself playing the part of the injured Hammer, Master Yoshi prompted Pandaren through the acts of the day before.

         "I'm ready, Hammer," said Ren, stretching.

         Hammer yawned. "How do you stand getting up this early all the time?"

         Ren laughed and bounced a little on his toes. "This isn't early!"

         "I just need to wake up a little." He rubbed his eyes and yawned again. "Go do that thing you do. I'll just watch a bit."

         "Okay. Hurry up."

         Ren started into his nanquan form, a good exercise for limbering up. The form stayed mostly low to the ground, hand movements and postures, mostly, with a few kicks. He jumped, spun around in a circle, and landed on the same foot, dropping the other to leap over in a backflip. As he reached the top of the arc, the ground reached up and smacked him, bowling him over in mid-air. He caught himself and recovered quickly, giving Hammer a wolfish grin.

         "Catch me if you can!"

         Now Ren went back to the changquan form, full of its kicks, at times almost seeming to fly parallel to the ground. He laughed as he dodged one of Hammer's earth-tentacles, spinning around -- and ran straight into something goey, that wrapped itself around him. He shrieked in fear, forgetting form, struggling madly. Pulling his arms and legs in tight, he threw them outwards, shattering the clay cage and spinning out in an immediate counterattack. He landed in a crouch, facing a jagged, body-size hole in the wall directly where Hammer had been standing a moment ago.

         "Hammer!"


         Master Yoshi grunted, blasted over backwards into the grass.

         Dropping out of his trance with a start, Ren stared about, uncertain, confused, seeing both the dojo and the meadow super-imposed upon each other until he wasn't sure what was real. Then he heard the master curse. "Master!" He ran towards him.

         "Drat these old bones," wheezed Master Yoshi. He allowed Pandaren to help him up.

         "I'm sorry, Master, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" babbled Ren.

         Master Yoshi rubbed his chest with a grimace. Pandaren had been halfway across the meadow, no way he could have touched him, and yet, Master Yoshi felt like he'd just been kicked by a draft horse at close range. That was going to leave a mark. What was that? He'd never seen anything like it. And, if Hammer had caught the full force of that, well, it was a wonder he hadn't been killed outright.

         "Pandaren. Pandaren!" He grabbed the boy's wrists, shaking him to get his attention. "Listen to me, Pandaren," he said, staring intently into his tear-streaked face. "This is not your fault, do you understand me?"

         Ren shook his head, unable to stop the horrible flood of tears, or his own trembling. "No, Master!" He saw again Hammer's body lying on the ground, blood trickling from his mouth, eyes wide open in horror. "Oh, Master, I've killed him, I've killed him! I know it!"

         He sank to the ground, sobbing, his wrists still capured in the deceptively strong grasp of old Master Yoshi. He had never just let himself cry like this before, for tears were a sign of weakness, beaten out of his classmates years ago, and something they would never cease tormenting him over if they ever found out. But now that he'd gotten started, he couldn't stop. He didn't know when Master Yoshi released his hands, but he could feel the old man patting him uncertainly on the shoulder. He fully expected the old man to just leave him, to wash his hands of the monster that he was and send him away to someone else, but Master Yoshi continued to speak softly.

         Sitting on his knees, Ren hugged his arms to himself, hunched over, face pressed almost to the ground, gasping for breath and sobbing silent, wracking tears. As he cried, a knot inside of himself seemed to alternately tighten and loosen, generating more tears with all the pent-up fury and despair he'd held bottled up inside of himself for years. He cried for Hammer, but mostly he cried for himself, for the loss of everything he held dear, for the parents he'd never known, for the friends turned to strangers and enemies in the blink of a birthday. He was alone, so alone!

         Master Yoshi patted Pandaren's shoulder awkwardly and frowned in concern. There was so much grief and pain pouring out, far more than he'd expected. Thinking upon what he'd seen, Master Yoshi pursed his lips in consideration. The mock combat had seemed to be going along just fine, just two boys testing their limits, playing, if one considered that one of the boys was a samurai. No sign of trouble at all until that ... thing, had grappled with Pandaren. What had that been? Seeing just Pandaren's actions was only half the puzzle. Hammer, he'd said, controlled earth, so perhaps mud? He grunted. A golem, then. Was Pandaren claustrophobic? It was an absurd notion, a serious handicap for a ninja, but that would explain why he'd gone into a panic.

         When at last the wracking sobs eased, Ren hiccuped a few times, and then that, too, passed. He drew in a couple deep lungfuls of air and sat up, biting his lip in worry as he met the old master's eyes. He expected to see disgust or revulsion reflected there, not the sympathy he saw, and he paused, uncertain.

         "How do you feel?" asked Master Yoshi quietly.

         "Tired, Master," sighed Ren. He ached, mind and body, but he also felt lighter, strangely liberated. "But ... I don't hurt so much any more."

         "Good. Anything else?"

         "I'm ... angry."

         "Why?"

         "I -- I could have killed you, Master!" He curled his hands into fists in his lap. "And you let me do it!"

         "Yes, I did."

         "Why -- why are you so different?"

         "I am old, Pandaren, I have seen many things, been a teacher of the ninja for more years than you've been alive, at least twice as long." He smiled. "But I have a, you might call it a knack, for drawing out my students' talent. You should be impressed; they called me out of retirement for you."

         "Really?" Ren didn't know if he should be awed or grateful or horrified.

         Master Yoshi chuckled. "That is probably a wise reaction. You see, we train our students in means passed down to us from our teachers going back hundreds of years. They are designed for the majority of our students. When occassionally one comes along that does not fit the standard, there is difficulty, for the masters, and for the student. You are one of those, Pandaren. You are strong, in here," he tapped his heart. "Not like the rest of the Samurai Sect."

         "I don't understand."

         "Don't worry, you will. Tell me something, Pandaren. Why do you stay here? Why do you want to become a ninja?"

         Ren blurted out the first thing that came into his head. "There is nowhere else to go." He paused, thinking hard. "And ... I guess ... I have something to prove."

         "Don't we all?" mused Master Yoshi. "Go now, it is late. Be on time tomorrow."

         "Yes, Master."
A Non-Existent User
Exodeus stood before one of his class partner's. His name was Varamance. The two were rather close, as Varamance had been the first to ever befriend him when he arrived at R.A.Z.I. Varamance was a disciple of Kant, his powers were quite immense as well being that they sect was one of the most powerful.

"To defy laws that all others are bound by is my greatest strength," Varamance said to Exodeus. Exodeus only shook his head with a smile.

"You know Vara...all of life is riddled with regulations and restrictions. I am of the opinion that Kant gives you the notion you can surpass them all." Exodeus walked slowly around the empty dojo. It was very late and no other students were present. Varamance hated drawing attention when he used his powers, but he loved more than anything to battle. He and Exodeus were nearly complete opposites. Varamance prided himself on being highly offensive while Exodeus maintained complete defense in his tactics with limited offensive abilities if he got an opening.

"I may sound arrogant but I am no fool, I do not underestimate others," Varamance smirked slightly, he held two swords in his grip. The air around him seemed to shimmer and shift slightly as if waves of heat were coming up from the dojo floor. He wore white robes that waved in a wind that blew for Varamance alone.

"Yet, you overestimate yourself," Exodeus had no creature out just yet. He was considering trying to summon a new one he had been practicing. Yet if he got it wrong it would be most difficult to battle Varamance and manage to summon another.

"Haha, let us see, go ahead...I will even allow you to summon without attacking you," Varamance halted their prowl for a moment. His eyes glinted a bit in the candlelight. They preferred lighting candles and lanterns as opposed to using the electric lights.

"If you wish it," Exodeus closed his eyes giving over his full concentration to the summoning. His amethyst light flooded the room with its radiance. The light was soft and warming as if the final rays of a sunset were coming through a cracked window and swirling into an otherwise dark place. Exodeus's lips moved swiftly as he recited the words of the summon aloud in words Varamance did not understand. Lines spread out from Exodeus and seemed to etch themselves into the dojo floor. These lines glowed the same soft amethyst that his crystal did. A pattern slowly came to fruition about Exodeus as he started to speak in words Varamance could again understand.

"The Silver Back Gorilla, Mammon, defend the one who summons you," Exodeus finished the summon. A large gorilla with dark fur all over save for its back which was a dazzling silver rose from the pattern out of the dojo floor at Exodeus's side. The pattern vanished instantly and the gorilla looked to Exodeus, then to Varamance whom he could tell was the one planning to battle his master.

"I'm impressed Exodeus, this is a new one, is it not? I expected Vie," Varamance looked the gorilla over, "Mammon is it?"

"No more talk, we finish this now," Exodeus raised his chin a bit and clenched his fists. Varamance felt as though Exodeus looked different, larger, more built. He looked to the gorilla and nodded.

Of course, he takes on aspects of what he has summoned...he must be a bit faster and much considerably stronger than normal, Varamance thought as he brought one sword behind him and the other in front. It will not save him.

Varamance cut loose his first attack, his sword swept before him in a horizontal fashion. The air rippled like a great wave of the ocean was traveling across the room towards Exodeus. It was a 'psychic wave' Varamance's fighting style was based on using solely spiritual energy to crush an opponent.

Mammon charged ahead of Exodeus acting as a shield and barreled headlong into the wave of spiritual force breaking it like so many ocean waves break along the shore harmlessly. The large gorilla charged ahead trying to get within range of Varamance.

Varamance stepped backwards bringing out his second sword from behind him and cutting it upwards in an arc as he executed another attack in a single word, "Backlash." Mammon was smacked in the face with a burst of spiritual energy which caused him to slow but not by much. Then again. Again. Again. Mammon fell skidding along the floor to rest at Varamance's feet. He looked up too late to see Exodeus had been just behind Mammon staying protected from any of the attack. He struck Varamance against the jaw. Varamance was jarred more than he had imagined he'd be. He flew back by Exodeus's newfound strength and slammed against the dojo floor, his swords flying out of his hands.

Exodeus was on top of him pinning Varamance's arms behind him firmly. Varamance looked up into Exodeus's eyes who were fierce, not the same as the eyes he was so accustomed to.

"I don't think you quite have control over this creature yet," Varamance whispered.

"You criticize me and yet I stand here victorious? With no weapon to focus your power through, you won't beat me." Exodeus looked at Varamance wondering if he had more to say or a point to make.

"Let's call it a night hm? You should practice more with that gorilla. You could get pretty strong with it." Varamanace tried to get up but Exodeus held him down.

"Why did you say I can't control it?" Exodeus demanded. Varamance sighed. Exodeus went soaring across the dojo. He had felt like he was uppercut by a huge fist. Exodeus bounced on the padded ground and rolled to a stop. A small bit of blood trickled from his nose and lip.

"As you can see, I could have vary well beat you Exodeus. This creature has more influence over you than you do on it," the gorilla was struggling to get to get up from the hits it took from the Backlash attack Varamance had unleashed. Exodeus sighed knowing he might very well be right. It was a two-way road. The summon was influenced by the Crystal user but the summon changed the user as well giving them a piece of the original master's personality. It was warned against using summons that were stronger than you because they could very well take over your body and in a way possess you.

"Thanks Varamance..." Exodeus muttered. Mammon vanished from sight in a flash of purple and white light.
A Non-Existent User

Black color still dominates the sky. But orange glow can be seen in the far eastern sky although faint. Kagami stands in the middle of the track field facing the freshman. This week is his turn in taking care of the freshmen.

“Okay, you know the drills. Do some warm up and give me 100 laps. Then exercise your chakra for 10 minutes before cooling down. You all better finish at six or you won’t have time to prepare for breakfast.” Kagami gives order to the freshman. He picks one of the freshmen to lead them and went to the side of the track field.

He stands on the wall that bounds the track field. At the place where he is standing he can see the freshmen from the girl’s dormitory. They are led by a female senior. Their senior seems to give some instruction before walking towards Kagami.

“Hi Kagami. Are we late?”said the senior.

“Not at all, it’s just that we arrive earlier than expected.” He sees towards the source of the voice.

Aya, the name of the senior already stands beside him. She is the pride of Chakra. She is an oddity since none of the sect member aside from her is a beauty. Aside from the look, everyone know that she is the brightest female student on the sect. She is also friendly towards everyone. The freshmen are looking up to her and the guy awestruck by her including Kagami.

“Why don’t you accompany them? I didn’t see you in the field this morning.” She asked Kagami. Her eyes catch up with Kagami’s eyes simply since they’re about the same heights.

“Oh, I did my portion at the hill near the backyard. The sight is pretty good in the morning though it’s a bit dark.”replied Kagami. He tries to make the conversation as casual as possible since he can feel his heart flutter when he looks into her eyes.

“Really? Maybe I ought to join you sometimes”.said Aya. “Wait here for a moment” she left in a hurry before Kagami was able to respond as she looks her freshman called up to her.

(i)If you join me, I will die because my heart will beat five times faster than normal. Please have pity on me. But really, a student under the teaching of deception can’t lie to his own feeling? What a bad joke.(/i)

Kagami mumbles to himself. He sees Aya walking towards him once more.

“I’m sorry. What were we talking about?” she speaks to Kagami and realizes something. ”Wow, you even had begun training your chakra.”

Realizing what she mean Kagami responded to her “You mean the bone stretching? It is not training. I had to do this on regular basis, if not I won’t feel accustomed to the feeling since I am taller than most of my disguise.”

He pulls a needle from his back. His body slowly stretches returning into his normal height showing their differences in height since Aya’s head is only as high as his chin. He redoes his clothing since he can only manipulates his bodies, not his attire.

“Shall we exercise our chakra?” Aya asks him. Kagami nodded so both of them turn silent starting to concentrate their energy to their chakra.

The freshmen that are running in the track start paying attention to them. They haven’t received the chakra manipulation training so they’re interested in it.

They saw both Kagami’s and Aya’s skin gradually changes from one color to another. It turn brown chest nut at first, then turn into pale white before turn completely black. After the skin, it’s their hair color that change into red, brown, blond and white.

They keep on doing the exercise until they join the freshmen for meditation and cooling down before they disbanded them.
A Non-Existent User

Morning shadows danced at the edge of Nnena's vision as she jogged down the path, only illuminated by the rising sun. Her hair flew behind her as she picked up the pace, sprinting back to the dormatories. She quickly showered and dressed in a casual fitted robe, tucking her shrukien into her sleeves and preparing for the day ahead.

She skipped breakfast. Nnena's stomache was in knots. Like every night, she had a dream that menacing shadows ripped from her control, attacking her feriously. She shook her head and got to her sect training class.

She was the first one there. No surprise. The soft colors of the dojo relaxed her tense muscles and fed her eyes diverse tones, full of detail. Master Kurokwa was meditating on the floor by the temple of the Wise One.

"Nightmares again, Nnena?" Her soft voice rumble through the empty space between the two.

"Yes, Master." She bowed her head, shuffling over to the aging ninja.

"But you must eat, my dear. You'll never have the stamina you need to get through the day."

"Yes Master, but I'm fine, I assure you. It's just the jitters, I guess." Nnena took her position beside her master.

The silence between them burned through the young ninja's bones. She stood suddenly, turning to pray to the Wise One, kneeling and placing her hands together.

The silence was inturpeted by Nnena's best friend, Saya Kuraboshi. She had burst through the doors, gabbing on about somthing that happened at the breakfast table that morning. Master Kurokwa sent her a glare and returned to her meditation.

"Saya! Be quiet!" Nnena scolded in a hushed tone, sending a sidwards glance at her.

Her deep midnight black hair swung in a low ponytail, shimmering in the low lighs of the dojo.

"Sorry. Do you want to warm up?" Though she had been around many cultures, her Asian accent remained.

Nnena nodded and hopped up from her rather uncomfotable position. Luckily, Saya was in her group of 4, along with two other girls.

The two stood across from each other, hands clasped at their sides, preparing for the first move. The dead air between them was enough to make the asian girl giggle, her dark brown eyes in closed in an act to keep them from watering. Nnena found her chance. She summoned the shadows that rode along the edge of the dojo, sending them flying at the amused girl. She shrieked, thumping hard on the ground as they rippled past her.

"Hey! Not fair!" she squealed as she prepared for a counter attack.

A few other students came in, chatting on about their problems and such.

"Okay, ladies. Let's begin to assemble our groups, shall we?" Master Kurokwa's normally soft voice was rough and demanding.

"Ah, man." Saya muttered as she joined Nnena in a circle.

The class waited in silence as the final heaps of people sauntered through the door. Mady and DeLilah, the rest of the Saya and Nnena's group, joined them, placing their hands behind their backs.

"Okay, everyone. Spar with your groups, working conrtoling multiple shadows at once." The old woman's voice rang out into the air, followed by slight groans and mumbles.

"This is elementary stuff!" Nnena whispered to DeLilah, while preparing to summon the shadows.

Mady, the clever girl from Hungary, was the guinea pig for today. She stood still, her grey eyes closed into cresents, anticipating the blows she was about to receive.

An easy lesson that went by fast, even if time did not. Once the traing ws over, Nnena and DeLilah headed to Stealth. Ah, stealth. Her favorite elective. Her favorite teacher too. Master Ghana. He smiled warmly as the students filled his classroom.

"I'm so ready for a break." DeLilah said, flipping her blonde hair over her shoulder.

"Yeah," Nnena said with a twinkle in her blue eyes,"Me too."
 

         Ren skidded to a halt outside the stadium, out of breath from his long run. He saw right away that he wasn't alone in his tardiness. Exodeus and Varamance were also running late. They all almost collided with each other at the entrance. They separated awkwardly and edged inside, earning a glare from Master Moone, their instructor for Capstone Class.

         "See me after class, boys!" she said as they took their seats.

         The master cast her eyes over the 47 students, mentally counting to make sure they were all there. They clustered on the bottom few bleachers looking out onto the stadium floor. Thick plexiglass formed a wall all the way to the ceiling, and the floor was uncovered dirt. Master Moone stood right in front of one of the doors leading out onto the inner part of the stadium, the combat zone. Master Moone liked having class here, because it helped to remind the students of what they were preparing for, and also to decrease the awe this place generated. All the students had witnessed, many, many times in the past, the battles in this stadium.

         Each year, close to the end of term, Razi Academy hosted its Top Ten Competition. This competition would yield the #1 student in each sect that would then be representing their school at the Inter-School Competition. Not only that, but the top ten would also battle each other to determine Razi's best. That student would have the chance to meet many of the top dignitaries at the competition, including their World Sect-Leader. They also received VIP treatment and a buy if there was an uneven number of competitors. Such rests, few as they were, could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

         "Listen up, class," began Master Moone, drawing everyone's attention and halting any remaining chatter. "There are only a few days left before the competition. There will be no classes on Friday so that all may view the contests.

         "Sages will gather in the Great Hall for the start of your exams. Everyone else will be here for the opening ceremonies. Varamance, the headmaster has decided that Iolani will be your opponent. She may be a year younger, but he is confident that she will give you a good match and he does not want to make this too easy for you."

         She paused to allow the snickers to die away, and then continued, "Today, we will see how much you absorbed from your studies last week of the other sects." She reached down and picked up a small foam ball about ten inches in diameter. "We will be playing dodgeball today. The objective is to strike your opponents with the ball while protecting your teammates. Last team on the field wins. Any part of the stadium is fair game, there are no safe spots, no time-outs, unless you hear my whistle. There is dye in this ball. If you are called out, come back here to the sidelines immediately.

         "Your homework will be an essay. Your topic is the strategy inacted by the winning team. What worked for them and what didn't. Three pages. The winning team, of course, is exempt."

         Master Moone pointed to three of the Sages. "You three are the captains. Pick your teams. You may have the first 30 minutes to discuss strategy. Begin."

         Pandaren sighed and settled back in his seat. As usual, he'd be the last person picked.

         Special abilities were permissible, of course, this was all a part of the learning the strengths and weaknesses of the other sects to help prepare the students for the competition. Being the top student in the school was a very high honor. There were two teams of 16 and one of 15; that team started with possession.

         As they took the field, Ren's team captain stopped him. "You," he said darkly, "are to get out as soon as possible. You'll help us best by sitting on the sidelines. Don't know why she's letting you play anyway."

         Ren could hardly contain his shock and hurt. This game sounded like something he'd be insanely good at, the dodging part, anyway. For one of the sages to be so obtuse was disturbing ... and Ren clenched his jaw against the answering surge of anger. He took his place to the side of his teammates and dropped into a ready stance. He'd show them!

         There were three colors of jerseys on the field, red, green, and yellow; the dye in the ball was blue. Ren's team wore yellow. Red team began with possession. Straightaway, Varamance ran up the side of the wall, catching his teammate's pass, and tagging out a member of the green team. The ball then dodged between one person and another and slowly the teams began to be whittled down.

         Ren stayed off to the side, observing and staying out of the way, but neither was he inclined to be a sacrificial lamb. He easily dodged the few attempts to tag him, once with a sideways backflip and another time just by ducking, and he made no attempt himself to grab the ball or lob it after anyone. Yellow Team was not doing well.

         Umbra disciples used their shadows to mimic the ball's path relatively successfully in the beginning of the game, causing their targets to duck, expecting to be hit, and often dodging right into the path of the ball, thrown from somewhere else. The two other samurai on Yellow Team went out quickly, their strict mind-set not adapting to the ebb and flow of the game as the carefully constructed strategy fell apart. Their one Khu deciple lasted slightly longer, shooting out fireworks from his wand to dazzle the ball-thrower, but was taken out by a combined attack between a summoned bird and its Crystal Sect summoner from Red Team. The two geomancers and the Chakra student on Yellow Team were worked the hardest, pushing up walls to deflect strikes and projecting false images of team members.

         Their team captain was taken out in a triple attack on the remaining heart and sage disciples and suddenly Ren found himself the only Yellow Team member left, facing a field of a Chakra-Umbra-Geomancy trio from Green Team and the Kant-Crystal duo on Red Team. They didn't seem to notice him, though, focusing on each other. The geomancer blocked a throw from the kant student, but the wall was not stable enough and collapsed, the geomancer too tired to continue. The bird dived on the ball, but the chakra student, projecting an image of herself elsewhere, snagged it first, throwing it at the bird, hitting, eliciting cheers from the watching students. The summoner yelled in frustration as he dismissed his summons and this time Varamance could not protect his teammate when the ball came swooping in that direction.

         The chakra and umbra students looked at each other and then at Varamance, suspended on the ceiling. The ball rolled to a stop at Ren's feet and suddenly the eyes of all the seniors were on him. He picked it up, sweating with nervous tension. The chakra student shimmered, Varamance started running along the ceiling towards him, and the shadows gathered at the hands of the umbra student. Ren stood still uncertainly, not sure what he should do.

         But Varamance was almost to him, and so Ren ran, at angles to the advancing kant student, aiming for the wall, jumping into the corner, touching both sides, throwing, and doing a couple flips back to the floor, ducking and rolling.

         Varamance hit the floor with a thump, his thigh coated with blue dye. Ren flattened as the ball flew over his head, jumping to his feet and running in the other direction. He ducked a few more strikes and then the ball was loose once more, rolling free in the center of the stadium. The chakra student was gone, presumably out from exhaustion, and Ren raced for the ball. He wanted to win, wanted, desperately, to do something good, to earn no homework for one night, maybe a little esteem from his classmates.

         But the umbra student wasn't to let it go so easy! She sent a cloud of shadows at Ren, caging him in. He dodged the blow, sliding sideways and instinctively lashing out at his unseen attacker. There was a gasp, a scream, and an odd crinkling sound like broken glass. Ren, crouched on the ground, uncovered his face slowly and looked around. The boistrous stadium was eerily quiet. Master Moone knelt beside the umbra student, the girl cradling her wrist and crying. One of the healers darted out onto the floor and over to them. Shortly after, the girl's sobs quietened.

         Ren finally located the ball, lodged half-through the plexiglass beyond which huddled the rest of the seniors, some having ducked or dodged away from the direction of impact. A large divot in the floor of the stadium marked the bounce point, where the ball, having hit the ground, rebounded and hit the wall.

         His sweat turning frigid cold, Ren stood slowly and approached Master Moone. Having finished with the other student, the master stood, regarding him in an angry stare.

         "Yellow Team wins," she said stiffly, loud enough to carry. "Class dismissed. You," she pointed at Ren, "stay right there."

         A limping Varamance and an exhausted Exodeus approached the master as she answered questions about the homework and let out the other students. After a short conversation, they left and Master Moone came towards Ren. She was shaking with anger, her face flushed, teeth grinding. Ren had drawn her unwelcome attention before, but she'd never been so angry. He bit his lip in worry, unconsciously hunching his shoulders. Wordlessly, he hauled off the jersey and handed it to her. She accepted with equal silence.

         "Report. To. Master. Aikido," she snarled, spun around on her heel, and left.

         Master Aikido! Ren had completely forgotten about his detention. He covered his face in his hands, briefly. He was really in for it now.

         "It's not fair!" he muttered, crossing his arms over his chest and shivering. "I won. I really did ... and now ...?" He shook his head, staring down at the ground and biting his lip against the sudden ache behind his eyes. But he could not delay. He must go to his master at once.
A Non-Existent User
Exodeus had been one of the first out. He had tried to take on two of the people throwing balls using his summons but had fallen for the illusion of the ball and been struck on the head by the actual one. The blue dye wasn't quite ready to come out yet even as he rubbed at it in irritation. Yet, the sour feeling quickly diminished when he witnessed what happened to the poor girl who was left after Varamance was bested by Pandaren.

Everything seemed to move very slowly for him then. He could not take his eyes off of Pandaren, the boy had never caught his attention before, he only knew that most people did not like him. He had never had any reason to approach Pandaren really, he always kept to himself. Exodeus wondered what he would even do if he had made another friend anyway, he had more than he could manage already.

He was not sure how long he was standing beside Varamance and Pandaren as they waited for everyone to leave, but he felt like he had waited another ten years in the school for the instructor to come to them. His heart stilled to almost nothing as she approached, he knew they were in trouble but compounded with Pandaren's bungle and he thought for a moment it wasn't far from the realm of possibility that he'd be sent to Aidido for discipline. As Moone opened her mouth to deliver what would be nothing short of a deathblow, at least Exodeus thought so, he wondered how he could have thrown everything away by simply being late.

"Report. To. Master. Aidido." Exodeus felt a small piece of himself die, until he realized she spoke only to Pandaren. Exodeus and Varamance exchanged partially confused, partially relieved glances that she had all but forgotten them and their tardiness. She turned away without acknowledging them at all.

"It's not fair!" Pandaren said just loud enough for the other two boys to hear but not Moone. Exodeus wanted to say something. Anything. He felt obligated to comfort Pandaren somehow, but nothing came. Varamance was just as silent, yet Exodeus could see he also wanted to voice his support. Pandaren turned to leave then with one more hesitant movement he stalked off swiftly.

"You know..." Exodeus croaked out suddenly, surprising even himself, "It wasn't your fault..." Pandaren stopped a moment, but said nothing. Exodeus wondered what was going on in the disciple's mind, but he would never know. Pandaren resumed his walk which turned into a run carrying Pandaren out of sight. Varamance looked at Exodeus hard before talking.

"Not his fault? Whose fault was it then?" Varamance said accusingly. Exodeus sighed a bit.

"You know what I mean...he did not want to hurt her on purpose," Exodeus said.

"Yeah...guess not, but still. A ninja who is just as dangerous to his allies as he is his enemies is no ninja at all." Varamance's words seemed to strike a cord with Exodeus. He could not very well say no to that.

"I got lucky huh?" Exodeus sighed finally. Varamance tilted his head wondering what his friend meant,"I don't have to go up against you now to get to the top 10." Varamance laughed good and hard over that.

"Yeah, I guess you did get lucky," Varamance smirked,"It makes more sense anyway since it is top 10 of our own disciplines." Exodeus nodded at that.

"Glad I don't have to go against him," Exodeus cast a dark look in the direction of the door Pandaren exited. Varamance pursed his lips.

"I do not believe him to be so powerful..." Varamance said.

"You put a lot of stock in your skill, hm? You saw what he did without even trying?" Exodeus scoffed. Varamance shook his head.

"You misunderstand me. That indeed was strong, but like you said...he did it unintentionally. Seems like he holds himself back. Have you ever noticed him keeping to himself always, even during the game I watched him...always evading and avoiding. He hardly even tried to defend himself, only when he had no choice did he go offensive and see what is the result?" Varamance was silent giving Exodeus time to work through what he said.

"So...it's like a dam then? Holding back the flow of the river...but sometimes the dam may break and a torrent of power will flow through?" Exodeus thought the analogy very clever. Varamance nodded his agreement.

"It seems like this. I wonder if he were allowing the river to run its course would it be much of an ability? Besides...since he can't use it so readily, I think in a battle against most would have a large advantage especially if they could avoid his sudden surge of power," Varamance thought aloud. Exodeus watched him a bit with a bemused look in his eye.

"Sounds like you're actually planning to battle him," Exodeus laughed. Varamance shrugged.

"Why not? I am mentally prepared to fight anyone in this school, I watch them and study them so that I know them well." Exodeus could not help but have some admiration for the guy's dedication.

"I never stood a chance..." Exodeus grinned and clapped Varamance on the back, "Let's go to class, I bet we have a minute before we're late, AGAIN!"
A Non-Existent User

Kagami enters the dojo. The dojo is filled with seniors and juniors. Few spars in combat, the others are meditating and training their magic whether by altering their appearance or simply filling the room with projection.

Kagami walks towards the meditation area. He picks a place near the corner and sits in there. He frequently meditates in this place when his mind is occupied by something. As for now, that something is related to the events at capstone. He closes his eyes and let his mind wanders to the past.

The students are playing dodge ball at capstone and they are divided into three teams: red, blue, and yellow. Kagami didn’t hold much role in the game as he was the first person to go to the side of the field. He managed to throws dozen projections and dodges some throws aiming at him. Unfortunately, an Umbra manages to use his shadow magic to lock in Kagami’s movement. Unable to free himself in time, a blue color stained his yellow jersey from the back. Afterward, he watches the flow of the game from the side while cursing himself for falling to such trick.

From the side, he saw Samurais used their pure strength; Crystals and their summons; Umbras with their shadow magic as well as other students of each sect using their special ability. He also saw students from each team left the field one after another. It was the last minutes of the game that really caught his attention when he saw Pandaren bested the Umbra senior.

His mind shifted from the game towards Pandaren. Kagami knew that Pandaren is trained in the way of Samurai and hear from rumors that he is some sort of a troublemaker in his Sect. He never took attention about Pandaren nor his’ sect since Kagami is not really in a good term with everybody from there.

His thought is interrupted by a light smack in his shoulder. He opens his eyes and see Kaito from his class.

“Master Yama calls all the seniors.”said Kaito in a small voice so other who meditated won’t be disturbed.

Without answering, Kagami stood and walks with him leaving the dojo. Kagami’s mind is still full with Pandaren. The moment he take the first step outside the dojo he asks Kaito.

“What do you think about Pandaren?”

“Pandaren? You mean the last man standing in the dodge ball game? Not much. He is a Samurai, an outcast if I should say. A troublemaker. Not to mention powerful. What about you?” Kaito throws the question back at Kagami.

"The same, but somehow, I feel that he is struggling inside."

"Struggling? For power? All samurai hunger for power, it’s nothing new. Here we are." Kaito stopped at the door to the hall.

Not power, it’s more like he is struggling for a home. A place where he belongs.

That was Kagami’s last thought before he entered the hall.
A Non-Existent User
Nnena walked into the dojo, searching for Saya. She was sitting in the corner, holding her healed wrist as though it still hurt. She saw Nnena approching and plastered a smile on her face.

"I'm fine." She said, as if trying to convince herself. She was obviously tramatized by the dodgeball game, shifting her hand nervously every now and then.

Nnena sat down and placed her head against the wall, inhaling sharply and glancing at Saya.

"Did he break it?", her voice was less sympathetic than it should have been.

"Yes." Said the asian girl coldly.

"I'm sorry I'm not being very apathetic, but you need to be stronger."

Saya eyed her and stood, walking swiftly out of the dojo. Nnena watched her go, a frown emerging on her lips.

Mady walked through the door.

"Nnena, Master Kurokwa would like to see you. She's in the hall."

Nnena stood, walking silently through the dojo, hopping over meditating bodies and dodging lost punches of the many students that sparred with eachother.

The harsh light of the afternoon sun beat relentlessly on her, sending trickles of sweat down her cheek. She wiped them away, and sheilded her delicate icey eyes from the harmful UV rays. She entered the hall, looking around for her master.
 

         Ren dashed off to his master's office with Exodeus' words echoing in his head. Wasn't it his fault, though? He may not have directly hurt that girl, but he had caused her to be hurt. Exodeus had looked sincere. The summoner's power fascinated Ren. He would love to be able to summon friends out of thin air. But Exodeus was one of the, if not the, most popular kid in school. What reason would he have to be nice to him? He shook his head. Maybe it was just pity; Ren preferred plain antagonism, it was easier to understand, easier to ignore.

         When he entered the administrative complex, Ren slowed his pace to a more appropriate quick walk, wanting now to get this interview over with as soon as possible. He was sure that the news of what had happened in class had already made its way to the teachers. He fretted wondering if he'd get the rod, the lash, or the switch. He rather hoped it was the latter because his back was still only partly healed from the beating he'd received following -- his mind winced away from facing that again that day. Unbidden, the memory of Hammer lying so helpless in the infirmary crossed his mind and Ren clenced his jaw, breathing deeply through his nose to push through the pain and fear that gnawed at him.

         He arrived at Master Aikido's door, raised his hand to knock, and paused.

         "You're the miracle-worker, you tell me!" snapped the voice of Ren's master. He sounded frustrated and irritated and Ren could picture the crease that formed between his brows when faced with a particularly nasty problem, like when he dealt with Ren.

         Ren leaned in closer to hear Master Yoshi's response: "Stop interfering, Aikido! This morning was an egregious breach of discipline, even for a non-samurai. I won't have you punishing Pandaren for that."

         "Master Yoshi --"

         "He will be ready, I will see to it, but I will brook no further meddling with my methods. No more resistance, Aikido."

         The door slid open abruptly and Ren hastily backpedalled, blushing a dark red to be, once again, caught evesdropping. Master Yoshi scowled. Ren bowed.

         "Your pardon, Master."

         The ancient master sighed. "No detention, Pandaren. Come with me."

         Ren dared a glance past Master Yoshi, but Master Aikido was studiously ignoring them. "But, but Master Moone sent me?"

         "What happened?" Master Yoshi's question did draw Master Aikido's attention now.

         "Uh," Ren shifted nervously. "I, uh, well ...."

         Master Yoshi sighed. He stepped back inside the office, beckoning for Ren to follow. Swallowing, Ren entered, to stand nervously in front of his master's desk, glancing from Master Aikido to Master Yoshi, who closed the door, and then back again.

         "Spit it out!" snapped Master Aikido.

         Ren clasped his hands behind his back to steady their trembling. "M-master Moone sent me, Master. She, uh -- I mean, I, uh -- we played dodgeball and -- and I w -- well, I hit the ball too hard."

         Behind Pandaren and off to the side, Master Yoshi's eyebrows rose on his forehead. Master Aikido closed his eyes momentarily, struggling for his inner calm as he so often had to do when dealing with this particular student.

         "Was anyone hurt?"

         "Y-yes, Master," Ren answered quietly.

         "It can't be that serious, if --" began Master Yoshi.

         Master Aikido interrupted with a raised hand, eyes flashing at the older man, his temper only barely in check. "Master! This is my matter. Pandaren must be punished. You can take him for training after. This is a separate affair."

         He turned the force of his stare on Pandaren. The boy was now biting his lip, a habit he had when nervous, a patent advertisement of his emotional state, and another detail about this one student that tested Master Aikido's own strict discipline.

         "I will be at the stadium, then," said Master Yoshi. "Pandaren, you will come there when you are finished."

         Ren didn't dare look away from Master Aikido. "Yes, M-master," he murmured, wishing he wasn't trembling so hard, that he could display the cool, impenetrable exterior that his classmates had. He locked his knees to keep them from knocking together.

         The sound of the door closing behind Master Yoshi sounded like a clap of thunder on an otherwise quiet day. Ren flinched, his heart jumping into his throat and he tightened his clasping hands, sweating again, his teeth chattering.

         Master Aikido turned around in his chair, putting his back to Pandaren. He was already aggravated by his argument with Master Yoshi. He had to calm down so that the anger did not manifest itself in his punishment of the boy. He could hear Pandaren's rasping breath and only felt more depressed. Pandaren's lack of discipline rankled like an open wound. He wanted the boy graduated and out of his hair, but he also couldn't face the humiliation that would ensue if he let Pandaren graduate when he wasn't ready. Aikido rather doubted that he'd ever be ready.

         Ren chewed his lip ragged, struggling to hold back the panicky desire to simply throw himself down on his knees and beg for forgiveness, to plead for mercy. Such an act, he knew, would only increase Master Aikido's ire, doubling the fierceness of the impending punishment. His heart beat madly, his nose flaring with the force of his breathing, a fight against tears.

         Just do it! he thought in desperation. Why does he torment me so?

         "Pandaren."

         He jumped, blinking as Master Aikido turned around and rose. He picked up a piece of bamboo, as thin and supple as a shoestring, tapping the switch against his leg

         "Hold out your hands."

         Ren extended his hands, palms facing up, clamping his chattering teeth on his lower lip. Ren knew he was tensing up, knew he should be able to distance himself from the pain, but the sting would not be blocked out. He had never been able to do that. His classmates could walk on hot coals and fight with injuries debilitating to normal people, but Ren could not. He bit harder into his lip to keep back the whimpers, averting his gaze from his hands.

         "Pain is nothing to a samurai, Pandaren," said the master, lowering the switch. "You must learn."

         "Yes, Master."

         "Samurai fight to be seen and felt, to strike fear into the hearts of our enemies. We cannot be affected by the agonies of battle, we must let nothing come between us and our mission. If you do not master your own emotions, if you cannot separate yourself from your own weaknesses, you will never become a ninja."

         "Yes, Master."

         "You may go."

         Ren bowed. "Thank you, M-master." He hurried from the office and, when safely outside, dared to glance at his reddened palms. New, thin lines of blood mixed with the old scars, red and white running together against the calloused, tanned skin. Shoving one hand gingerly into his pocket, Ren withdrew a stained handkerchief that he used to blot the blood, speeding up his pace to a jog. He wondered what Master Yoshi had planned for him now.

         Master Yoshi stood within the combat center of the stadium, staring up at the ball still lodged in the plastic. His gaze shifted to Pandaren as he came down the steps and he frowned, exceedingly puzzled. This boy was not an impressive physical specimen like most of his sect, but he did have some kind of a strange, psychic boost. Now if he could only figure it out he could help Pandaren harness the power.

         Ren stopped before the master and bowed, waiting for instructions.

         Master Yoshi pointed with his cane at the ball. "Get it down."

         Ren's mouth dropped open in astonishment. "Get it down?" he echoed, hastily schooling his features. "How?"

         "The same way you got it up there," said Master Yoshi.

         "But I don't -- I don't know how!"

         "So you were acting rashly."

         Ren stiffened, that was a dreadful insult. He shook his head, shedding the anger with effort. "I don't know, Master," he replied, adding, "Maybe." He looked back up. "I -- there were shadows coming at me ... I ... swatted them, I think, or, I guess I meant to ... maybe."

         "Do that now."

         "But, Master --"

         "Do it!" growled Master Yoshi, making Pandaren jump. He smiled to himself and pointed outside, towards the bleachers. "I'll stay in here, you go out there. Hit the ball in to me."

         Ren backed away and went up in the bleachers a few levels to get approximately even with the ball. He felt totally at a loss. Just how was he supposed to do this?

         "Picture what happened before," he heard Master Yoshi call. "Try to recreate the moment."

         Trying to relax, Ren let his hands fall to his sides, trying not to move them too much, but otherwise not letting any of his discomfort show. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, reviewing the class in his head, step by step. As he got to the exact time when he'd struck out at the shadows, Ren realized that he'd put out his arms to block, a block that, when done correctly, could break an attacker's arm, but he'd been in the middle of a 360-jump-kick, and that's what must have happened. He'd blocked the shadows and simultaneously kicked the ball.

         Before he could doubt himself, Ren jumped into action, trying to do both those moves again. He landed off, not pulling off the move quite correctly, tripping on the back of a bench and thumping down onto the bleachers with a bang. He groaned, wheezing for breath, a couple levels down from where he'd started. His head hurt, his back hurt, and he must've knocked his breath out because it hurt just to breathe.

         "Pandaren?"

         Ren struggled upright at Master Yoshi's call, putting a hand to his head when the room spun. He licked his lips, calling back, "I'm okay, Master," and needing only two attempts to make his voice carry.

         "It didn't work," said Master Yoshi. "Try again."

         This time Ren concentrated more on his form, but though he landed correctly that time, there was no answering crash on the plexiglass; the ball remained. Again and again he tried, with Master Yoshi calling up suggestions, until Ren was panting and trembling with exhaustion. The morning had been tiring enough, he hadn't drank enough water for the amount of sweating he'd been doing, and the master's continuing encouragement only made Ren more aware of his failure. He fought the anger building, knowing that he was only tired and hungry and frustrated, but the surge in energy levels was helpful.

         Finally, going up in the spin-kick and not even bothering with the block, Ren pretended that he was jumping at the wall, that his foot would actually connect with the ball, pouring all his anger at that piece of crap-plastic, willing himself to do the impossible. So intent was he on his target that the resulting TWHACK! took him by surprise and again he tumbled onto the bleachers. He lay there on the cement between the seats, feeling bruised all over, momentarily too dazed and too weak to even move. He did, however, hear Master Yoshi whoop in delight, a cheer that was far too young for such an old man.

         The next thing he knew, Master Yoshi was leaning over him, looking very concerned. He pressed on Ren's chest to keep him prone and held up his hand.

         "How many fingers?"

         Ren squinted. "Uh, four?"

         Master Yoshi sighed in relief. "Good. How do you feel?"

         "Like I've been hit by a truck, Master," groaned Ren. "I hurt all over."

         "You took a nasty tumble. No, don't get up, stay there a minute. What did you do different this time?"

         "Besides fall, Master? I messed up --"

         Master Yoshi poked Pandaren in the forehead. "Manners, boy. What you did looked different. What did you do?"

         "I ... well, I imagined that I could actually kick that ball, pictured myself doing it."

         "Why did you do that?"

         "I don't know, Master. I've never done that before, I don't think."

         "Well if you can do it again, we'll call it quits for the night."

         Ren bit back his groan and slowly levered himself to his feet. He followed Master Yoshi down onto the floor of the combat zone and indulged in a quick glare at the horrible little foam ball that was the cause of his misery. It sat, unrepentant, in the dirt three-fourths of the distance across the ground.

         "Do everything the same, as just now," Master Yoshi instructed and Ren heard the quiver of excitement in his voice. He resisted the urge to sigh and did his best.

         Nothing.

         "Are you sure you're doing everything the same?" asked Master Yoshi after about the dozenth attempt.

         Ren nodded silently, swaying a little in fatigue. His legs felt like rubber and he felt almost uncomfortably warm.

         "One more time," said Master Yoshi, "and really try this time."

         "I am!" Ren snapped. "Master," he said quickly when Master Yoshi turned on him. The spurt of anger vanished as he realized he'd just spoken back to one of the masters. His face whitened and he dropped a quick, shallow bow, as much as he could manage without ending up on his face. "I apologize, Master! I should not have spoken in that way."

         "No, you shouldn't have," Master Yoshi agreed quietly, but he did not seem upset. Instead, his gaze seemed more calculating. He rubbed the stubble on his chin and asked. "What were you feeling, back there, when you kicked the ball?"

         "Um ...."

         "Be honest with me, Pandaren," said Master Yoshi, putting as much threat as he could behind those words.

         Ren blushed. "I was -- was angry, Master. I don't -- I mean I didn't -- it seemed so hopeless! I'm hopeless!"

         Master Yoshi ignored him. "Emotion," he mused, staring at the ball again for a moment and then looking abruptly back at Pandaren, who moved a couple steps backward. "What were you feeling during the game?"

         "Um, Master?"

         "Don't play dumb with me, Pandaren."

         "Well, she, she sent shadows at me, I hate those! They ..." he dropped his voice. "They scare me."

         "Fear and then anger," murmured Master Yoshi. He pointed his cane at the ball. "Hit it," he said. "Focus your anger and hit the ball."

         Ren sighed and faced his target again.

         "Concentrate!" barked Master Yoshi.

         Rolling his eyes, safe to do with his back to the old master, Ren dropped into a ready stance, pushing aside muscle fatigue and once again attempting to kick the ball. Yet again, he failed.

         "Do you want to be here all night?" Master Yoshi demanded, shaking his cane. "You are the most ungrateful, disagreeable boy! Maybe your master is right about you, Pandaren! You can't even do what you're told? What kind of a Samurai are you? Do it, Pandaren! Or would you rather be a failure?"

         For an instant, Ren stared at the transformed Master Yoshi, the gentle old man seemingly morphed into a monster, yelling all the things he'd been yelled at ever since coming here. He was a failure, dangerous, he'd never amount to anything, worthless, useless, a disgrace!

         "No!" he shouted back, too tired to examine what he was doing rationally, to censor his words into the correct patterns. "No!"

         "Then prove it!" screamed Master Yoshi.

         Ren whirled around, aiming a kick at the ball, watched it soar across the stadium, hit the plexiglass on the far side, and bounce back to a stop. He sank to the ground, feeling nauseous, with the stadium spinning all around him. Vaguely, he felt someone slapping his cheeks and that small annoyance made him blink his eyes open again. He was suddenly cold and shivered.

         "Stay awake, Pandaren," said Master Yoshi sternly, wondering if maybe he'd pushed the boy too far. He looked gray, he was so exhausted. He shook Pandaren's shoulder. "Come on, now, get up. Get up!"

         "I just want to sleep, Master," groaned Ren, startling awake with more slaps.

         "Not now, you can sleep later. Get up."

         Ren was too tired to argue and staggered first to his knees and then to his feet. He put out a hand to steady himself and lurched, for the wall he'd thought he ws leaning against was only air. Then Master Yoshi had him by the shoulder again and they staggered their way off the floor, up the stairs and outside.

         The cool air revived Ren somewhat and he noticed that the hour was late, almost seven o'clock. He breathed in the night air, hearing Master Yoshi's chuckle when both their stomachs grumbled. He gave the master a tentative smile and followed him back up the main road to the rest of campus. He sat where directed, wearily lifting his spoon with trembling arms. The soup seemed so heavy! So tired was he that the usual noise of the hall and the chatting of students and masters just seemed like a distant, background rumble. He propped his chin on his hand, ignoring proper maners, prodded awake by Master Yoshi at intervals to eat.

         Later on, he awoke in the middle of the night, shocked to find himself in bed, and even more surprised to find a food tray on the table beside his mat. Suddenly famished, he devoured the food quickly, and settled back again to sleep, more contented than he had felt in ages.
A Non-Existent User
Exodeus couldn't sleep. It seemed like everytime he closed his eyes all he could think about was more battle. He had tried to fall asleep while meditating, but that did not help either. His mind would not go blank, in fact, he could see the world it felt like. All was bathed in Amethyst and various hues of red and pink accents. It was a bizarre place his meditation's took him, but things all looked so familiar.

Vie nudged his hand and slid beneath it her large body was entangled across the bed, beneath it, and around its legs. He still marveled at how incredibly large she was. She represented something about him, but what he could not imagine. He was not particularly large or stealthy. He was not even as powerful as Vie seemed to be. Exodeus patted her with a fond expression on his face. He did not understand his own summon, he wondered if it were such a bad thing.

"You know Vie...I never told you," he whispered a bit as to not wake his roommate, "I always said you represented my potential. You know? What I could be. Striking as fast as a serpent, large, powerful, feared...yet, somehow I never really felt that is what you were." The snake hissed gently as if singing some strange lullaby to get him to fall silent and sleep.

He stared into Vie's eyes wondering why he felt so compelled to continue to gaze at her. He could not turn away. His thoughts slipped through his mind like water through his hands. He could not grasp onto anything and before long there was nothing left, only darkness. Exodeus snored softly as he slept a dreamless sleep. His amethyst necklace glinting slightly in the darkness, Vie's eyes also seemed to reflect the light though all other light absorbed into the obsidian pools from which she saw. Her face was close to Exodeus's her tongue flicked in and out rapidly a few times along his cheek, kissing him good night.

Vie placed her head protectively along his chest, despite her weight Exodeus did not stir, he had grown accustomed to her on him, but Vie would make certain nothing disturbed her master's sleep until it was time for his meditations in the morn.
A Non-Existent User
Kagami sits on his bed, staring at the window. He watches the sky and see the cloud dancing around, hiding the sparkle of the star. His hand reaches his pocket. He pulls out a white envelope that is given to him this afternoon.

Master Yama gathers all Chakra seniors during the individual study to gave the envelopes to each of them. He told them that the envelopes contains the name of their future opponents for the Top Ten. He also gave an order to honor the fight and reminding them to play every trick directly on the stage without any precaution.

Kagami lied down on his bed, still grabbing the envelope. He stared into the envelope. It hasn't been opened yet. The light from the windows make the envelope transparent. He could see that the paper inside were folded.

Kagami minds wandering who will be his opponents. Images appears in his mind from Kaito, Aya, and the rest of his class. Then it moves to the other sect, wandering the possibility if he ends up fighting a strong foe such as Varamance.

Minutes later, Kagami fall asleep still grabbing the envelope in his chest. The envelope itself remains unopened.
A Non-Existent User
((Sorry, I can be unaware at times))
_________________________________________________

"Nnena, my dear." Master Kurokwa beckoned her over, patting a seat on the floor for her to sit.

"You asked to see me, Master?"

"Why, yes I did. I must discuss your position in our sect." She looked at the student straight in the eye, forcing Nnena to look away, her gaze too understanding for a soul like her's.

"Okay." A blunt answer came from her, and shifted nervously through the air.

"I believe you are the top of the sect, and I want you to be prepared for what is to come."

"Yes ma'am."

"That is all." She shooed Nnena away.

Nnena walked down the halls, waving to her many friends from different sects. She wasn't sure if they really liked her, or if they were just intimidated by her. She hated the feeling.

She saw DeLilah round the corner and wave slightly.

"Hey, want to go to the bay?" She asked, with a monotone voice.

"Uh...sure. I'm tired of this place anyway."
 

         Tuesday was more of the same torture for Ren. Master Yoshi had him trying to strike leaves off of trees and knocking stones off of walls or fences, or pushing that damnable foam ball around. Master Moone organized a set of challenges at Capstone and had all the students in small groups to try and solve them. Then it was back with Master Yoshi for more of the same. Wednesday morning Ren felt achy tired all over. He overslept, so he didn't get his workout, which made him grumpy, he got knocked about in the showers and lost his soap, and then was late to breakfast which meant that all the choice tidbits were gone by the time he got there. He trudged to an empty table and sat down, rubbing at dry, itchy, tired eyes, still feeling groggy. He wasn't really hungry, but he forced himself to eat anyway, drinking all four glasses of water in quick succession.

         A tray thumped down on the table and Ren looked up, fork, forgotten, held in mid-air. Exodeus sat down with a small smile.

         "You look like crap," he said.

         Ren's eyes darted around the hall, sure that this had to be some kind of joke or prank, but nobody seemed to be watching. He glanced back at the summoner. "What do you want?"

         Exodeus cocked an eyebrow at the harsh tone, digging into his food. "Just thought you might like some company. You fell asleep in class yesterday, I was wondering what was going on. Everything okay?"

         Ren stared, then looked around again, saw Varamance coming towards them and sank a little lower in his seat. Here it comes, he thought. But the kant student sat down beside Exodeus with a cheery good morning, gave Ren a wary smile and started to eat. Ren was dumbfounded. He dropped his stiff hands into his lap and stared down at his plate, uncertain and suddenly feeling lost.

         "Hey." They all three looked up as another student, Kagami, slid into the seat next to Ren. He set a muffin on the table, pushing it towards the silent samurai. "Saved you one. Want it?"

         Ren looked from the muffin to the chakra student and back again. Hesitantly, he reached out and took the proffered muffin, slowly at first, sure that any one of them would drag it back out of his reach any minute, pulling it down into his lap, fumbling with the paper, and darting glances at the other three. Varamance ignored him, Exodeus and Kagami got into a discussion about one of the challenges of the day before. No one was watching Ren.

         "Th-thank you," he said quietly, breaking off a piece of muffin and shoving it in his mouth. He rather wished he hadn't drank all his water now.

         "Here, take mine," said Varamance suddenly, splashing a little as he plopped a glass next to Ren's tray.

         Ren tried a smile, the expression being so foreign he didn't know what one felt like anymore, but Master Yoshi was so insistent that he re-learn how to focus his emotions. He saw the surprise on the others' faces and dropped his gaze quickly, taking a quick sip in case Varamance changed his mind. He didn't want them to see how these little kindnesses unnerved him, and so quickly. He kept sliding glances to the busy room around them, but there was no whispering, no pointing in their direction and Ren was confused. Was this for real?

         "So, Ren --"

         He jumped, looking up guiltily at Exodeus.

         "No one's seen you all week. What's up?"

         "Yeah," said Varamance, "who's that old master you been sitting with at dinner?"

         "Oh, w-well, I ...."

         "Master Moone'll blow a gasket," said Exodeus, "you fall asleep in class again."

         Ren winced. She wasn't the only one.

         "So what gives?"

         "It -- I didn't mean to!" blurted Ren. "M-master Yoshi, he ... he ... uh, well..." He dropped his gaze again, picking at the muffin in his lap. "I have so much to learn," he said quietly. "And not much time."

         Exodeus grimaced. "Extra tutoring, hmm?" Ren nodded a little. "That sucks."

         "N-no," protested Ren, "It's really, um, good -- for me. I -I'm learning so much. Look."

         Focusing on one of the empty glasses, Ren flicked at it with a couple of fingers. The full glass on Varamance's tray spun and tipped over, as if knocked by an invisible hand. Varamance jumped back, the water sloshing over his thankfully-empty plate and spilling over onto the floor. Hastily, Ren tried to reach over and grab things, in his embarassment and haste knocking over more.

         "No, stop!" snapped Varamance, scowling and brushing at the water on his clothes.

         "Sorry," Ren murmured, staring down at the table again.

         Exodeus laughed, helping Varamance mop up.

         Kagami gave Ren an intense look which the other was unaware of. "That looks like something only kant students can do, move things without touching them, isn't that Iolani's specialty?"

         Varamance nodded, also giving Ren a quizzical look. "Yeah."

         All three were staring at Ren again. He flushed, not looking up. "W-well, I -- I don't know. I just -- it's --"

         The bells rang, signaling the end of breakfast and the sounds of raised voices, chairs scraping on the floor, and the clattering of dishes drowned out any further conversation. Still carrying the remains of his muffin, Ren fled, down the path to the cliff where he worked with Master Yoshi in the mornings. He was concerned and more than a little surprised that he'd talked so much, that he'd even attempted that little trick and he was also worried about what the others might have thought.

         He hastily finger-combed his still-damp hair and dropped into a seated position before Master Yoshi, cramming the last of the muffin in his mouth. Chewing hastily, he bowed in greetings.

         "Good morning, Master."

         "We are going to meditate," said the master, opening his eyes to smile at Pandaren. "Tell me what anger is."

         "An emotion, Master."

         "What does anger feel like?"

         "Um ... Hot? And fast, like -- like something out of control."

         "Not bad," said Master Yoshi. "Meditate now, focus on a time when you felt anger. Capture that feeling, get to know it. Be comfortable with it ...."

         The morning sped by for Ren. When released for lunch, he had the most pounding headache he'd ever had in his life. Master Yoshi picked his brain through all the main emotions, like anger and fear and joy, and many of the harder to define emotions, like contentment and peace, and finally some of the physical ones, like pain and hunger and fatigue.

         Now Ren trudged along the path to the main hall, head pounding, arms and legs feeling like lead weights. He appreciated being allowed to drop the strict discipline of the samurai, more than he knew how to express, but it was very hard, harder than he would have anticipated. He wondered if he dared talk to Master O about how to reconcile the two, how to be samurai but also have his emotions. Master O normally was as unreadable as any other samurai, but in pyro class, his childish delight was plain to see. he was the only other samurai that Ren knew of who smiled and, occassionally, laughed. He was Ren's favorite teacher and he only wished he had more skill so he could have taken pyro as one of his electives this term. Not that he'd be there right now anyway, but still.

         He sighed and paused on the edge of the trees, watching the other students filing into the hall for lunch. He suddenly felt reluctant to go in there. He didn't know how to take Exodeus and Varamance and Kagami's behavior that morning, half-hoping they'd include him again, terrified that they wouldn't. That little taste of companionship made him only miss Hammer all the more. His gaze slid over to the hospital. Hammer would know what to do ....
A Non-Existent User
Exodeus was already sitting down with Varamance at the lunch table, several other students whom they were friends with had already joined them and everyone chatted away with many interruptions of laughter and little shows of techniques. It was a light-hearted moment between students of various disciplines who broke down their barriers and enjoyed all the personalities. Even a few Samurai students were with them, though they did not laugh or seem as excitedly engaged as the others, they did give the rare smile or piece of advice which was to the others a huge show of their emotion. Mostly the samurai were content to sit on the sidelines and stay silent and observant.

"It's Pandaren," Exodeus voiced quietly to Varamance shifting his gaze to the entrance of the lunchroom. Varamance turned to look and as he did all others joined in wondering what could draw the attention of their favorite kant disciple away from them.

"Ew," a girl sneered a bit turning back. The other samurai seemed to grow even stonier than normal, the air all around had a tension that was not present seconds before. Kagami was not particularly close with Exodeus or Varamance but he knew of them and a few of those they were with, he came over to join in one of the last few spots available.

"Don't look now, but a disaster on legs is coming towards us," an arrogant sounding geomancer warned Kagami. He threw a glance towards Pandaren who had spotted them and seemed to slowly be making his way over, aware of the others who were also sitting at the table.

Varamance and Exodeus locked gazes, both knowing this wouldn't go anywhere good. The geomancer had known Hammer quite well, they had to endure many talks about the troublemaker Pandaren was in his eyes, with much headnodding from the samurai who sat with them as well.

"We shouldn't be so unkind, he's pitiful, look at him..." said a younger heart disciple. Exodeus was surprised at how heart students always had a double-edged sword when they spoke. They gave a compliment that was meant to cut you down at the same time, or in this case defending someone because they were not worth the time to scorn. Often heart was misconceived to be more kind, peaceful, and diplomatic. Their words were far more deadly and sinister than Exodeus had ever seen in any other discipline. He thought their greatest feat was lulling people of other schools and disciplines within their own to believe this was a "harmless" discipline of healing. Though healing was what they focused on, Exodeus would not want to ever face one of their best who could spin a web of doubt around some of the best fighters and break them mentally.

"Are you paying attention to this Exodeus?" Varamance hissed breaking his train of thought. Exodeus looked up to see Ren being faced off by the geomancer who had spoken before.

"They're gonna fight!" Exodeus exclaimed, there had never been a fight before outside of simple training. Certainly many had wanted to fight and settled on covering it up as training to settle disputes, but this was no such time. Varamance and he once again looked at each other.

"Pandaren will be expelled," Varamance stated in definite tones.

"Not if we stop it," Kagami objected. Varamance shook his head, he wasn't going to risk expulsion as well.

"Varamance is right you know. Whether we had good intentions or not, stepping into a fight like this will land us in only one place," Exodeus admittedly decidedly.

"We can still stop them before anything happens," Nnena was the one speaking this time, none had noticed her appearance, so rapt they were with their own problems and thoughts. The ground beneath them gave an angry lurch.

"Too late," Varamance sipped at some hot tea now fully disengaged from the ordeal. It was clear he felt it out of their control now. The geomancer facing Pandaren was Dux Mann, a Russian who had come to the school from a wealthy family and who was also the strongest in his class when it came to Geomancy.

"He could bring down the school if he wanted to..." Exodeus sucked on his teeth a bit, Dux's voice rose in anger as he got more in Pandaren's face who stared down at the floor as best he could avoiding the angry look.

"If Pandaren explodes, I'm not sure what will be more dangerous, him or Dux," Kagami seemed to analyze them as an interesting experiment where the outcome would be wondrous either way.

"The Master's will not be here soon enough..." Nnena seemed terrified this was even happening. Varamance put his tea down.

"Then are you ready to accept the consequences?" Varamance questioned. Kagami, Exodeus, and Nnena looked at him and then at each other in turn.

"Meaning?" Exodeus said first.

"We can stop Dux if we all work together, he's a skilled geomancer, he'd probably try to kill Pandaren in one move. If he has to split his attention to us, it'll give him a chance to come to his senses," Varamance's plan was simple and the others could see nothing wrong.

"Yeah...he wouldn't want to hurt us being his friends Varamance..." Exodeus agreed.

"Plus, he'd think twice about taking on the best student from Kant," Kagami mused over the thought.

"If it stops this from going any further, let's fight to keep Pandaren alive and not having him land anyone else in the medical ward," Nnena agreed.
A Non-Existent User
“Well, I agree to stop the fight, but …”Kagami cut off his sentence as he sees the three students already left, rushed towards Dux and Pandaren.

But, it doesn’t mean that I will help you fight him. Aww… crap. Why won’t they listen first? Kagami immediately follow Varamance, Exodeus, and Nnena and finally arrive behind the latest. All of them surround Dux and Pandaren with Varamance and Kagami being the closest to Dux and the rest behind Pandaren.

Apparently, all the eyes in the cafeteria watching the six students as they questioned what could interests the best Kant students at school. Pandaren and Dux notice the commotion. Pandaren returns his gaze to the floor unable to face all the eyes that were looking at them. On the other hand, Dux stopped whatever he was doing at the moment upon seeing Varamance and finally turn his back on Pandaren.

Nobody actually understands what happens next, as it happens too fast. Dux turns his back all of a sudden to unleash his move but stopped by Varamance and Kagami who are the closest to him. Varamance catches one of Dux’s arms from the side while Kagami hold the other one and shut his mouth from the back. Exodeus is holding one of his crystals. Nnena trembles and looks terrified seeing what just happened while Pandaren slowly lifts his head unaware that his life could be gone seconds ago.

“Stop what you’re doing; this is not the time or place to fight!” Varamance scolded.

I don’t think he listens to you. Kagami sees the dirt on the floor swirling around while its controller still struggling trying to break free from his captors. Let’s try a different approach.

Kagami moves his mouth closer to Dux’s ear and speak quietly in a rather sinister tone “Calm down. He is right. Now is not the time to fight him and the odds are against you. Wait within two weeks, there will be a chance when you can challenge him to fight you without the disturbance of the master. I guarantee that.” Then Kagami release both of his hand from Dux.

Dux shakes of Varamance head and look at Pandaren, Kagami, and Varamance respectively. He points at Kagami “Fine, I’ll wait. If you break your words, I will hunt you first.” Dux leaves in disgust.

Kagami only responds smiling wryly. Crap. I just make a powerful enemy. How troublesome. At least he’s gone. For now.

The crowds look disappointed and they gradually returns to their tables continuing their lunch. Nnena joins her classmates while Kagami, Exodeus, and Varamance back to their own seat. Pandaren joined them and took the vacant seat beside Kagami.

“With such attitude, that Dux will surely return to challenge you within a week. You better prepared to face him.” Kagami talked to Pandaren who seemingly looks down “Cheer up. You can win (probably). You are strong but weak in here.” He touch his fist to Pandaren chest. “To make it strong, you have to be confident and face your fear. That way, you can defeat him with your own power.”

Kagami stands up from his chair “C’mon, we’ll be late for capstone if we don’t hurry”
A Non-Existent User
Nnena returned to her table, scooting her plate of oatmeal-looking slop away from her and infront of Lou, who was busy scarffing down the rest of the Umbra sect's lunches. Everyone stared in her in awe, wondering how a girl her size could eat so much.

"What happened?" asked Saya, staring at Lou, although the question was directed at Nnena, shaking her head in utter disgust.

"Nothing. It's not important." Nnena replied, gazing at nothing in particular.

"Do you want my--" Lewis was cut off from his offer as Lou grabbed the grub from his hands and busily started to inhale it.

DeLilah covered her mouth and faked a gag.

"Uh...Lou," said Nnena,"you should hurry or we'll all be late for Capstone class."

The lunch table was filled with students of various sects, every one of them chatting: some of them laughing, others lamenting over something unimportant and third just listening and observing. Osore was not like any of them. He was sitting next to Garett and a few other students who were laughing about something. He was not paying any attention to what they were talking. He was thinking deeply, about Hammer. Two nights ago he had visited him. He had entered the hospital, patiently waited for the right moment and when the nurse had her back at him, he had put in the soporific in her cup. Not long after she had fallen asleep on her desk. It would leave him no more than an hour before she wakes up. He had been at the room lying exactly as Tommy had told him. He was asleep, covered to suffocation with the plastic tentacles of the massive machinery by Hammer’s bedside. He did not look in pain. He was asleep for a long time. Too much in Osore’s opinion. He had sat down beside him and taken hold of the clothes on his right. They were put close to Hammer, as if someone had expected him to just awake, take out the tubes out of his mouth, stand up and put the clothes on like nothing had happened. On the top of the folded clothes was a piece of black clothing with edelweiss sprouting from the ground. The edelweiss was one of the symbols of the Geomancy sect. It was Hammer’s favorite headband. If Osore was not afraid of harming his friend, he would have put the headband back on his forehead. Osore had taken it and wrapped it around his right hand. Then he had taken out his violin out and played it as he had never played it before. After thirty minutes he had stopped, because by then the Masters’ meeting had ended and Master Physica was supposedly on his way to the hospital. He had to leave soon. The simple rhythm of the machine had changed, but Osore did not know if it had been for the better or worse. Then he had left.

“Do you Khu really use the coseis for that?” someone asked behind him. Osore turned around. Lucracia Marthe-a ninth year Kant, was standing next to him looking at his plate. Beside her was Tommy Mimocron- a sixth year Chakra student with a note pad in his hands that never left his sight. He was one of the greatest rumors’ collector and if someone needed to know something he would be the person for the job. Osore had learned about his chance to meet Hammer through Tommy. Osore looked at his plate and realized that in his absent-mindedness he had picked up his coseis instead of the fork, and was now stirring his Mou-du soup with his coseis. Lucracia gave a loud snicker, pushing away the two students that were sitting beside him. Lucracia sat on his right and Tommy on his left, surrounding him as if they were about to interrogate him.

“So, you saw Varamance, Exodeus and Kagami back this morning?” asked Tommy.

“No.” said Osore with a dull voice.

“Well, Varamance…” said Tommy, but Osore lifted his hand to tell him to be silent. Pandaren had entered and was nearing a table, when all of a sudden a student rose against him. Dux Mann was that student. “Oh, this is officially a fight!” said Tommy with his hands writing on the note pad. Osore was not that sure. He would have called it slaughter more likely, but was not able to say who would be the slaughtered one. The tension between the two of them grew as Dux drew his face closer to Pandaren’s. Then Varamance, Exodeus, Kagami and Nnena came to stop the fight. “Let’s go help Dux!” said Tommy rising up. He was not that much of a friend of Hammer, as he was a fan. He really hated Pandaren for what he had done to Hammer, but could not do anything, because he was not powerful enough to beat him. Osore took him by the shoulder and pulled him back to the table.

“Sit down! That does not concern us.” Osore said with a firm voice. At first Dux had turned around as if he had given up on the whole thing. Then he had tried to start it, but was stopped by Varamance and Kagami. Osore was trained to see in situations that were happening too fast for most students to even understand what had happened. Dux turned around and left. On his way out he passed Osore, stopped beside him and said:”What kind of a friend are you? You did not even have the guts to face that low-life weakling.”

“Oh, I have guts alright, but I don’t let my feelings guide me. I also don’t hide behind friendship to justify my basic barbarian whims.” Osore said keeping his back on Dux.

“Why you arrogant…” Dux said raising his hand to hit him.

“I also don’t stab people from behind, like some coward.” Osore said, still not turning. Dux stopped, his hand still in the air, shaking in uncontrollable hatred. “Pandaren is suffering even without you picking on him. He is trying to redeem himself, by trying to take control over his powers. If I were you I would train even harder this week for the upcoming challenge, because you will need all the strength you can get.” Osore continued. Dux’s hand fell, hanging freely on his shoulder; he turned around and started walking towards the door. “Oh, and what kind of a friend are YOU to have not even once visited Hammer?” Osore said raising his right hand and showing Hammer’s headband. Dux swore in Russian and left.

After a minute Osore saw Pandarena leave with the others and rose from his seat. While they were passing by, Osore got in the way of Pandaren.

“Hey, Samurai!” Osore said with an ominous voice. Pandaren’s eyes buried their gaze in the floor the second he saw Osore’s red eye. Varamance, Kagami and Exodeus surrounded Osore, Exodeus taking a step towards him, but he turned around facing them. “Don’t worry, gentlemen, if I wanted him dead, he would be incinerated by now.” They stopped at their places, understanding that he did not meant any harm. “I have a few things I to tell you:” said Osore, facing Pandaren to such extent that his half mask almost touched Pandaren’s face. The Samurai’s gaze was still on the ground. Osore forcefully pulled his head up so their eyes would meet. “To defeate your fear, you must face it.”

“I…” Pandaren started, but he could not even continue.

“You see, your fear is a bit like me. You face it and shiver even when it had hidden its true power under a mask. You must learn to not be afraid of its power. You must learn not to fear your power. Unleash it, and don’t let it devour you. You…must…devour it!” Osore said, taking off the half mask. Pandaren looked more surprised than horrified. He took a step back, but Osore took a step forward to him. “You must learn to take a step forward, rather than back! That’s all!” Osore said, turned around, putting his half mask on, and left.
 

         Ren had a headache and he was hungry and thirsty. He sat in his accustomed seat in Capstone, in the very back row behind everyone else. He thought about the disaster at lunch. Getting beat up was certainly nothing new; having it happen in front of the whole school ... well ... he ran his fingers through his hair. It would have been humiliating -- still was -- but who was to say he didn't deserve it? He almost wished Dux had struck him ...

         "Pandaren!"

         He jerked, looking up. Some of the other students snickered.

         "Where's your homework?"

         More snickering and Ren blushed. "I'm sorry, Master, but I don't --"

         "See me after class. Now," she continued, ignoring his murmered acknowledgement and tucking the stack of papers she had into a bag. "Break up, you lot, pop quiz today!"

         There was an almost universal groan from the class as they obediantly spaced out. Master Moone handed out sheafs of paper and pencils and then there was silence, but for the hasty scratching of pencil on paper.

         Ren curled his aching hand around his pencil and looked at the first question: "List the Ninjutsu Sects by order of inception, include dates." He scowled. What was this? History class?

         His stomach growled again and Ren shifted in his seat, looking up, staring at the still un-mended hole in the stadium wall. One more day. He squirmed uncomfortably. You must learn not to fear your power, Osore had said. Ren shuddered. But he did! This curse had brought him nothing but trouble, ripped him away from everything he knew and treasured and sent him down a path that would only lead to death. He didn't want to kill anyone, and he didn't want to die!

         Of a sudden, he stood up and ran out, dropping pencil and paper and just fleeing, heedless of the stares and whispers of his classmates or of Master Moone's shout. He ran outside, blind to where he was going, just desperate to get away. There was a wall. He crouched down beside it, resting his back against the stone and brick, shaking. He could have been killed today! He put his head on his knees and shivered, rocking a little, Osore's words going round and around in his head until he just wanted to scream in frustration.

         His muscles were all a-quiver, his head throbbed, and his stomach felt empty and hollow. Physically, he was having trouble catching his breath and he ached all over, worn out from the near-constant training, in a way he never had been before. His thoughts went round and round in circles, nerves telling him he wasn't ready, his heart wishing he didn't have to fight, his tired mind struggling to sort out anything that made any sense, and when he closed his eyes he saw again that horror-stricken look on Hammer's face, heard Dux's low voice in his ears.

         "Pandaren?"

         Seeing the mass of friendly wrinkles that was Master Yoshi, Ren uncurled with a sob and threw his arms around the old master. He could have been ten years old the way he was acting, but he was beyond caring.

         Master Yoshi was too stunned at first to react, he had not expected Pandaren to fall apart like this. There were no tears, but Pandaren pressed his head into Yoshi's shoulder, hands curled into fists, shaking as if he were fit to come apart, and Yoshi cursed inwardly. Why hadn't Maestro summoned him years ago? When he'd first realized Pandaren was different? So much grief could have been avoided. For everyone.

         He shifted his old bones uncomfortably, Pandaren curled up in his lap like someone much younger, and Yoshi patted the boy's back soothingly. For Pandaren's sake, Yoshi hoped that the boy would pull himself together soon. He was pretty sure this was brought about by stress and the last thing he needed right now was more gossip and teasing.

         But the shaking did not abate with the passing minutes, if anything, growing stronger, and Yoshi began seriously to grow worried. He saw his chance and took it when the large shadow of O walked by. Yoshi hailed the younger master, disentangling himself from Pandaren with effort. O's eyebrows bunched together in concern, but he silently lifted Pandaren and followed Yoshi towards the hospital.

         "He's overworked and over-stressed," Master Physica told Yoshi and O as the nurses settled Pandaren into a bed. She frowned at Yoshi, wondering, as they all did, what the old master had been putting this student through. "He needs rest, a lot of it."

         "He doesn't have that kind of time," rumbled Master O, surprising them both. But then he shrugged and walked away.

         "At least until the morning, Master," pleaded Physica, pressing his arm. Yoshi nodded solemnly in acceptance, and she relaxed suddenly, as if she'd expected more resistance. "Thank you."

         Drawing a syringe out of the pocket of her coat, she squeezed the tube into the IV hanging beside the bed. Within seconds Pandaren's muscles relaxed, though he stayed curled up on his side. Physica adjusted the sheet and pushed a lock of hair out of his face. She sighed and turned away.

         "He'll sleep a while, Master, we should go."

         Yoshi nodded unhappily and let himself be escorted from the room, glad at least that he'd managed to talk Physica into letting Pandaren have the empty bed beside Hammer. When the boy woke up, perhaps that would be a comfort to him.

         Ren came to himself with a start, moisture on his cheeks, his heart pounding. For a few, heart-pounding seconds, he wasn't sure where he was. He rubbed his eyes and the IV in his hand pulled. Rolling over onto his back, he sat up, pulling out the tiny needles and staring around. There was a steady beeping nearby, loud in the silent hush of the bay. Moonlight strayed in through the window, and a welcome breeze raised goosebumps on his skin. He was tired, so tired! But he felt wide awake.

         Hesitantly, he swung his legs over the side of his bed and stood. He meant only to walk out of the hall and to his own room, but he stopped as he saw who was on the other side of that curtain. Hammer! There was a wheeled stool beside the bed and Ren settled on it, his fingers curling around his friend's. He laid his head down, just for a minute ....

         Ren blinked, waking up again as he realized there was answering pressure around his fingers. He looked up. His eyes cloudy from either drugs or pain or both, the geomancer smiled crookedly around the tube in his mouth, squeezing Ren's fingers lightly, as much pressure as he could make.

         "Hammer," whispered Ren, tears springing to his eyes. Hands curled around the geomancer's fingers, Ren set his head back down, face averted, and silently wept.

         He woke for the third time to the morning bells and sat up, rubbing an aching neck. Hammer still slept and Ren had to wonder if he'd only dreamed that he'd woken up. He disentangled his hands and rubbed at his achy eyes before rising. He stared down at Hammer a while longer, wanting to do something, but what? He thought for a moment, then moved to the clipboard hanging from the foot of the bed and tore off a small piece of paper from the bottom, scrawling a quick note that he pressed into Hammer's hand, hoping and wishing that he really had seen Hammer wake up, and that he would read his note and be able to understand just how sorry he was.

         A quick shower and a change of clothes later, Ren sidled into the hall for breakfast, his stomach loudly declaring that it had been far too long since his last meal. He ate alone, and quickly, glancing up several times to look for Master Moone among the teachers' tables. She wasn't there, so when he was finished, Ren trotted out to her office and knocked.

         "Enter."

         Ren slid open the door and went in, bowed to the master and stood before her desk. She looked at him and set her pen down, heaps of papers on all sides. She did not look particularly pleased, but she didn't look angry, either.

         "Yes?"

         Ren bowed again, deeper. "I ... I want to apologize, Master," he said, letting his air out in a rush.

         She picked up her pencil again, tapping the edge mindlessly as she considered him. After a minute or so, she nodded shortly. "Apology accepted. Pandaren," she paused to lean towards him, elbows on her desk, shaking her pencil at him, "You are dangerously close to failing this class."

         He stared at the floor. "I know, Master."

         She sighed and Ren looked back up. "You may take the test during lunch."

         Ren tried to smile; he was very, very relieved, but then she said, "You still owe me an essay."

         "Yes, Master."

         "There will be no homework today. Turn your paper in first thing tomorrow, before the competition. Understand?"

         "Yes, Master."

         "I will penalize you for being late, so make sure you do a good job."

         He bowed again, recognizing her dismissal, and left, heading back to the cliffs to meet with Master Yoshi. He still felt kind of tired, but lighter somehow. Things were looking up.

         Later that day, trudging back up the hill at lunchtime, Ren wasn't so sure. Master Yoshi wanted him to bring back a sparring partner for the afternoon's session in the stadium. He wanted to ask Varamance, he admired the other student, he was likely poised as the best student of the year, but he was too intimidating to talk to. Getting a student who was competent in unarmed combat would be best, but there wasn't anyone left in the senior class, besides himself. He wished, oh how he wished! that Hammer could take part in this, he'd be so excited for him. There was no way that Ren would approach another geomancer ... maybe an occamist? Certainly not a samurai, but occamists were skilled with their weapons, that might be good, but who, then? Who could he trust to not just laugh in his face? Three of them used only ranged weapons, then there was Masazane, but Ren discarded him quickly, maybe Rune?

         "Hey! Watch where you're going!"

         Ren halted abruptly and backpedalled quickly from Zelda's imperious stare. Towering over them, Sierra scowled, and Ren hastily muttered an apology before speeding his steps elsewhere. He darted into Master Moone's office with something resembling relief, dropping into a desk in the corner and starting on the exam she had set out. He scribbled away madly, wanting to finish in time to grab something to eat before class. There were questions on each of the other sects, their abilities and famous ninja, and questions regarding several real-time situations where he had to write a few paragraphs about what he would do, singly, and as a member of a team. A couple of ethics questions followed those, and then, at the bottom of the last page, the final question was about his signature move and combat style.

         Ren chewed at his pencil and stared up at the clock. Only a few minutes left. What was he going to write? 'I hit things from a distance?' What could he call that? There had been Kant Ninjas in the past who could move things by thought alone, but they didn't physically have to be doing anything to make that happen. There was even one, long ago, that could throw up some kind of invisible shield like a bubble to block attacks, and another that could levitate, but the names of their styles didn't seem appropriate. Master Yoshi hadn't said anything, so what, then? He thought for a minute or so longer, and then scrawled an answer. Standing up and stretching, he handed his papers to Master Moone and skedaddled for the hall.

         He got there in time to wolf down some salad and fruit and then it was off to Capstone. Where was this day going? The more he seemed to dread Friday, the quicker it seemed to arrive!

         "Class," said Master Moone after they were all seated. "Today we have a visitor. I think most of you remember him. He's our Top Ten student from '02, of the Occamy Sect, Master Hokkaido."

         The man who moved to Master Moone's side was tall and slim, with short black hair and a ragged moustache. His black eyes glittered with good humor and he smiled at them. This was the student who had broken Khu's three-year winning streak as the top Razi student in the Top Ten five years ago. He was now one of the Prince's personal bodyguards.

         He bowed to them in greetings. "Hello, class. Master Moone has graciously allowed me to address you this year regarding the school competition. I shall be the head judge and evaluator. Also joining me are Master Issaru for the Crystal Sect, Master Blackbird for the Umbra Sect, and Master Lotis, proctoring the exams for the Sage Sect.

         "The competition will begin with the opening ceremonies at ten o'clock. Samurai will face off first, then Crystal, then Chakra, then Umbra, then Khu, then the rest of the sects, with Sage last, giving them time to rest following their exams. There will be no breaks, but there will be food and water for you in the waiting area by the locker rooms. You may leave or come up here to watch, but you must be ready when your turn is called, else you will forfeit."

         He brandished a set of papers. "This is the tentative schedule. Matches will last until one of the combatants cannot continue, or until the max time of 30 minutes is reached. These matches will not be to the death. The other masters and I will step in if either combatant looks to break this rule." He frowned at them. "I advise you not to try. Now, before we get into the details of the rules, does anyone have any questions for me?"

         A number of hands shot up, one of the occamy students asking, "Will you show us Jaffa?" being the first question.

         Master Hokkaido laughed and pulled what looked to be metal tube out of his pocket, whipping it slightly. The weapon telescoped out to its full length, equaling the master in height, and just wide enough to be comfortable in his grip. He twirled it in a whirlwind of motion, tossed it up in the air, caught it, and bowed. The students, especially the other occamy students, all cheered.

         "Show us something else!"

         He shook his head and collapsed the staff. "Your instructor and I have arranged a little exhibition for you following class, so let's get back on the subject. Are there any questions regarding the competition?"

         Hokkaido answered all their questions, explaining that the combatants would start in the center of the arena, giving a formal bow when they and their combat style were introduced. They would then bow to their partners and the masters would tell them they could begin. Any part of the stadium (within the inner walls) were permissible to use, and students should not be afraid of hitting any of the judges, they should concentrate on their opponent and let the judges fend for themselves.

         "Of course," said Master Hokkaido, with a sly grin, "if you purposely target me, I will retaliate, as will the other masters."

         Moves would be graded by the judges, with points assigned for how well the move was carried out, accuracy, speed, relevance, and style. In the event of a draw, the time limit being reached, the combatant with the highest score would be declared winner. Winning the match would advance the student to the next round, the points would be tallied overall to match up the best 10 for the final round. The first round combatants have all been selected randomly, with the winners moving on to battle each other in the subsequent rounds based on points. The one with the highest points would get the buy, if there was one.

         For example, there were six umbra students, which meant 3 matches in the first round and two in the second. The student with the highest points from the first round would sit out the second round and advance straight to the finals.

         Students were allowed to incapacitate their opponents, but were not allowed to kill. If a student won but was too injured to continue, then their opponent would instead take their place in the next round. Healers would, of course, be standing by, and, where possible, would allow for other matches to take place while injuries were tended.

         "You have trained long and hard to become Ninja," Hokkaido said. "Do not throw away your future by acting rashly during the competition. You've still a ways to go until your final exams and graduation. Stay focused on what the goal is. Some of our best and most famous Ninjas never made it into the Top 10. Now, are there any other questions?"
A Non-Existent User
Exodeus was beside himself with excitement, he had heard so much of Master Issaru. His summon was one of the best there was. Everything was going by in a daze. Yet, suddenly he came to his senses with a jolt. He was not looking forward to the Top 10.

I don't have what it takes... Exodeus thought mournfully to himself. He was not anywhere near the best of the Crystal students, he was terribly mediocre in fact. He was a fast learner and loved to study his opponents moves, but when it came to blatant power or raw talent, he lacked the resources to draw upon that other students had. His summon was a formidable one yes, but Vie did not posses the magical abilities that other summons had, she was just a big snake.

Exodeus could not help himself but glance at Varamance who looked confident as ever. His face unreadable, only a cool and collected surface shown. Exodeus knew he would be in the top 10, he lamented for his opponent. Exodeus's eyes roved to Dux, who wore a haughty expression, his well-muscled arms were crossed as he bore holes into none other than Pandaren who stood across the way. Exodeus glanced again suddenly unsure as to just who Dux was glaring at, Kagami also stood pretty much beside Pandaren, not acknowledging the existence of Dux or Pandaren. He wondered briefly if Pandaren stood a chance at all, he seemed to lack so much control, but he did have that explosion of power if he lost what little hold he had over himself. Exodeus figured if anything, he would get pinned in a corner and blast his partner to bits. Exodeus quickly turned away when his imaginings placed him on the receiving end of one of Pandaren's episodes.

"Are you even paying attention? I swear..." Nnena whispered a bit to him. He blinked surprised, she never really spoke much to him. In fact he had hardly noticed her all the years he had been here, she didn't have much of a personality in Exodeus's opinion. Perhaps that was because he was used to people trying to get his attention and hanging out with Varamance didn't help him any with noticing people who didn't stick out like a celebrity.

"Yeah..." he mumbled half-heartedly in response. He then noticed the boy who had spoken to Pandaren and the rest of them the other day. He wasn't certain what his name was still...Isore...Usore...Ashore...the list went on. He decided that whoever the boy was, he did not like him much...

If he wanted him dead he could have incinerated Pandaren? Exodeus snorted quietly, but not quietly enough. Nnena gave him a none too gentle shove in the ribs with her elbow. Who does he think he is? Exodeus finished his thoughts.

Exodeus pursed his lips impatiently. The fights would be starting soon, Samurai first. He wondered if Pandaren would be one of the ones to start or not. Exodeus cracked his neck a bit wondering how he would deal with humiliation of defeat should it come. He wondered if Vie was big enough to eat him, it would be less painful than losing.
A Non-Existent User

J… Jaffa? What so special about that thing? Kagami looks at the so called weapon. He didn’t think that such weapon is special. He always believed that the ability of the weapon relies on the person who used it. He shakes his thought and continues listening since the Master has moved on explaining.

After the Master explains about rules for the competition, Kagami then looks around the hall.

He enjoys watching the different expression in the students’ face. Some looks excited, some looks happy. He saw Exodeus standing far from him looks worried though he is not the only one. Then Kagami saw Nnena gives an elbow to Exodeus. Different from Exodeus, Nnena seems confident just like Exodeus best friends Varamance who is standing not far from them though Varamance keeps his cool attitude.

Finish looking the students’ expression, Kagami feels excited himself. Top ten competition, eh? Looking forward to it. Kagami intends to fully enjoy the competition whether as a contestant or a spectators since he know he won’t do very well at combat.

At the very least, don’t lose in the first match.
A Non-Existent User
"Are you even paying attention? I swear..."

Nnena nudged Exodeus, as he was gazing off into space, his eyes first held joy, then, they held sorrow.

He mumbled a response, returning to his thoughts. Nnena sighed and gazed off into her own oblivion, holding her hands neatly in her lap and twiddling her thumbs. She eyed the Geomancy student Coast, knowing she would go up against her. Her mind doubted herself, playing out the endless ways she could fail, leaving the Umbra sect with shame, not pride.

Geomancy,huh?
 

         The seniors were abuzz with excitement, even while Master Hokkaido talked. There was the obligatory lecture on the history and importance of the competition, guidelines for dress and behavior, a list of visiting dignitaries, and a few stories of past, famous matches. He also told them the rules and what to expect and then he and Master Moone faced off for their exhibition match. The students clustered around the bottom row and Ren climbed up on a bench to see over the heads of everyone else.

         Master Hokkaido extended his staff, Jaffa, and settled in a ready position. Across the stadium stood Master Moone, her bow, Luciana, held ready, more arrows at her back. They bowed to each other. Then both attacked at the same time.

         Hokkaido twirled his staff into a spinning shield and flung Jaffa at Moone, who had launched an arrow towards him. Hokkaido ran behind his staff, obviously trying to close the distance while Moone backed away and pulled another arrow from her quiver.

         When the first arrow hit the staff, there was a SLAM of light and sound, spreading around Hokkaido like a rock parts a stream. The master had his arms up guarding his face and eyes, still pressing behind the staff, but both moving slower now. Moone used the time to dance around sideways out of their direct line of sight and fired another arrow. Hokkaido must have seen it coming, for he leaped at Jaffa, grabbed the staff and tumbled forward ahead of the arrow, rolling to a stop and holding the staff level at Moone.

         The loose arrow hit the dirt in another burst of light and lightning erupted from the end of Jaffa, shooting in a jagged arc for Master Moone. She ducked and the energy shot up against the plexiglass walls, making the students back away in surprised excitement. They cheered their favorite master, about evenly distributed, as the battle went back and forth, first one and then the other seemingly having the upper hand.

         Ren figured that if Master Hokkaido could just last until Master Moone ran out of arrows, then he should win. He fought mainly defensively, using Jaffa as a shield against Luciana's attacks, but he just could not seem to get into close combat. If he could, then Jaffa would easily overpower Master Moone's distance weapon; this she obviously knew, for she fought to keep him off balance and as far away as possible. Then Master Hokkaido unleashed his signature move. The occamy students whispered excitedly at each other as he prepared, extending the staff even further into a long pole.

         "Look, look!" they cried.

         Master Moone had one arrow left in her hand. Hokkaido ran towards her. Moone took her arrow and shot straight up in the air. The arrow exploded into ... darkness. The stadium was suddenly inky black. The students pressed up against the glass, striving to see. They heard a soft thud, the pole hitting the ground, and then a sound that made them all wince in sympathy: a body collided with the stadium wall.

         The unnatural darkness faded back under the lights. Hokkaido lay sprawled half on his side by the wall, but it was obvious from the shaking of his shoulders that he was laughing. Master Moone stood, hands on hips, in the center of the stadium, also laughing. The masters approached each other and bowed, turning those grins on the students and bowing once more to them.

         Master Hokkaido had Jaffa back in hand as he went towards the students. His imperial uniform was wet with sweat, but he was smiling.

         "So, students," he said, "I see that the master has not lost her touch!"

         There was some laughing and good-natured ribbing amongst the occamy students.

         "I hope you have learned something today. I wish you all good fortune on the morrow." He bowed.

         "Class dismissed," added Master Moone. She bowed to them, the class bowed back politely, and then she took her own exit.

         Most of the students clustered around Master Hokkaido, asking questions and chattering excitedly. Spirits were high, the excitement of the next day's competion spreading like wildfire now that the time was almost at hand.

         Ren lost Rune in the crowd of students milling around him and he felt a surge of anxiety. He had no wish to disappoint --

         "Master Yoshi!" cried Hokkaido, grinning and bowing to the older ninja who had (However does he do that? thought Ren crossly) somehow made his way to the floor of the stadium unnoticed by anyone.

         Master Yoshi bowed, and then hugged the taller man. "It is good to see you, Hokkaido."

         "It's been a long time, Master. Are you here for the competition?"

         Master Yoshi nodded an affirmative. Ren looked up as Exodeus and Varamance stepped up beside him.

         "That's the guy you been doing all that extra training with, isn't it?" asked Exodeus.

         Ren nodded.

         "Introduce us!" hissed Varamance.

         Exodeus shrugged. "Class is out early, we've got time. Look, everyone else's leaving."

         Ren jumped up on a bench, but he didn't see Rune. The two masters had drawn off to the side, talking, and the rest of the class had taken that as the signal it was and left, chattering excitedly about the next day and the competition and rehashing parts of the exhibition match.

         "Who you looking for?" asked Exodeus, glancing at Ren curiously.

         "Oh, well I --"

         "Pandaren!" called Master Yoshi, beckoning. "Come here."

         Ren hopped down from the bench and trotted down the last few steps to the stadium, flanked by the other two students. He bowed to Master Yoshi, shooting a nervous side-long glance at the other master.

         Master Yoshi set a hand on Pandaren's shoulder, making the boy jump slightly, blushing, and half-turned, half-pushed him at Hokkaido. "This is my current student, Pandaren, of Samurai."

         "I see," said Master Hokkaido, bowing formally. "Good day to you."

         Flustered, Ren bowed, glancing at Master Yoshi.

         Master Hokkaido smiled kindly. "Master Yoshi was my master for a time, young Pandaren. That must be, what, twelve years ago? I was one of your last students, wasn't I, Master?"

         "Yes," said Master Yoshi, "I retired shortly after that. You were more of a trial than I had anticipated."

         Master Hokkaido laughed at that jab. "You mean I was stubborn, Master, and with no good sense! Now, who're your friends, here?"

         "Um," gulped Ren.

         "I'm Exodeus, of Crystal, and my friend Varamance, of Kant," said Exodeus quickly. They bowed. "It's an honor to meet you, Master Hokkaido."

         "Are these your sparring partners, Pandaren?" asked Master Yoshi.

         "W-well, I don't -- I mean, I ..." Ren swallowed, staring at the ground.

         "Yes, Master," answered Varamance, with a slight bow. "That is, I am, Exodeus is just waiting for me."

         Master Yoshi smiled at them and patted Pandaren on the back. "Good choice. Now, Hokkaido, I would like for you to watch this ...." He drew the other master to the side, talking to him quietly.

         "What, are you crazy!" hissed Exodeus to Varamance. "Aren't you taking a big risk?"

         "Do you want to meet Master Isaaru or not?" countered Varamance.

         Exodeus glowered.

         "Besides, I only have the one match tomorrow, I need this chance to impress him. And this Master Yoshi seems to know a lot of people himself. Calm down, I'll be fine."

         "Pandaren," said Master Yoshi coming back to them, "go warm up. Hold on a minute, Varamance."

         Master Hokkaido wiped his forehead with a rag from his pocket, looking intrigued, if a little concerned. "Come, Exodeus, we'll wait outside. Why don't you tell me about your summons?"

         Master Yoshi drew Varamance aside. "Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked quietly.

         Varamance nodded, giving the master a quizzical look. "Yes, Master. Is there some reason you think I shouldn't?"

         The master shook his head. "No, but this is risky. I have to determine from this if Pandaren will be allowed into the competition tomorrow."

         "Oh." Varamance spared a glance for the solitary Ren, working his way through one of his lesser forms to loosen tight muscles. "Is it that undetermined, Master?"

         "Yes." Master Yoshi looked cross. "That is why Master Hokkaido is here, to judge. I want you to push Pandaren hard, as hard as you can. Will you do that?"

         "Yes, Master, but ... well, I don't think that's really fair to him."

         Master Yoshi smiled a little, amused. "Don't be too confident, Varamance, you are not Valedictorian yet."

         "What if he ... does that ... whatever it is?"

         "I can cushion the blow, if it should happen," replied the master, though he looked not a little worried at the prospect. "I don't know how much, mind, I can't always judge, and my reflexes are not what they used to be."

         "I understand, Master."

         Master Yoshi patted him on the arm. "Very well. Go ahead and warm up. Let me know when you're ready."

         Varamance unsheathed his swords and quickly pulled off belt and outer robe, tossing them to the benches outside. Then he walked towards the center and started running through a few exercises himself to warm up. He noticed Ren look at him a time or two and smiled to himself. Ren's fears and uncertainty would work against him.

         At the completion of his warm-up, Ren walked into the center. Varamance was not far behind. Already the air hummed with the kant student's power, the heat billowing around him and rustling his white robes. The blades of his swords glowed slightly and Ren swallowed. He was not looking forward to this. Ren only came up to Varamance's chin and he was smaller in breadth of shoulder and arm reach. He would have to somehow make his way inside Varamance's reach, passing through the area sure to be guarded by the swords, in order to get in any attacks. As the exhibition match had shown, that was not likely to be easy, but it was either that or trust to the strange power he'd been struggling with all week.

         But, then again, if Varamance chose to use his distance attacks primarily, then he'd have no choice. Ren could dodge, he was confident of that, but one didn't win with defense, and Ren wanted to win, to wipe that smug and condescending look off of Varamance's face.

         "Are you ready?" called Master Yoshi.

         With another glance at each other, both students nodded. They bowed to each other and, without warning, Varamance lashed out with one of his swords, battering Ren with a blast of heated air. Ren tumbled backwards, caught off guard, managing to recover into a roll and regain his feet. When he looked again, Varamance was gone. He tensed and looked up. Varamance had run to the wall and darted up, running now back toward Ren, but along the ceiling. This time, Ren didn't have a ball to knock him down with. He readied himself for the attack he felt sure was coming.

         Sure enough, Varamance unleashed another wind-burst, quickly followed by a handful more, and Ren dodged them all, some easier than others. But Varamance stayed out of his reach and Ren felt frustration swelling up in him. He pushed it back, but Varamance saw him scowl, and laughed, battering him with an even swifter series of attacks. Ren fell back, letting Varamance herd him into a corner. When he judged they were close enough, Ren rolled through another dodge, jumped to his feet, and made a flying leap up and into the corner, touching off both walls and launching himself at Varamance.

         They grappled for a moment on the ceiling and then, hands on his wrists, Ren felt Varamance slip and let go, falling gracefully back to the ground. Varamance did not look happy when he picked himself up, and Ren quickly went on the offensive, darting in to block swords between cupped palms, duck ferocious wind attacks, and -- finally! -- get in a blow, knocking Varamance backwards. Ren tripped him, kicking again to knock one of the swords out of his hands. The blade went spinning across the stadium.

         Varamance gave Ren a horrible look, and they closed once more. Ren jumped and rolled and dodged aside from that sweeping blade, feeling the heat prickle against his sweaty skin, letting Varamance wear himself out with his anger.

         Then Varamance slashed and Ren turned to deflect the blow and instead caught a second one he hadn't anticipated. Varamance had tricked him! He'd gotten Ren to back up right where he'd wanted, had used the wind to sweep his lost blade back into his grip and sliced with it, biting deep into Ren's arm.

         He cried out and stumbled, falling, landing heavily and gasping. His instinctual flip to bring himself back to his feet failed with the weakness and pain in his arm. The blood made his grip slippery and he fell a second time, barely rolling away in time to avoid the follow-through strike. Tears of pain blinded him and he backed up as quickly as he could, trying for distance that Varamance was not letting him have.

         Ren was tired and he was scared and growing light-headed. Varamance kept advancing. What to do? What to do? He didn't dare get up close again, one hand against two swords was vastly out-matched, which only left one option. Varamance must have seen something in his face of that decision, for he stopped suddenly and swept both blades before him, either trying to end things quickly to head off that attack, or trying to block it.

         For his part, Ren threw himself forward, rolling and tumbling directly into Varamance's path, gasping in pain as he ground his injured arm into the dirt. He came back up in a jumping spin, kicking at Varamance. He missed, but it was just a feint, and Ren pushed out with his good hand, picturing his palm against Varamance's chest, struggling against his power, against the unrelenting agony in his arm to push, but not crush, willing what he wanted to happen and no more, oblivious to his own motion.

         Varamance flew backward, spinning, and landed hard, his swords flying from nerveless fingers. He shook his head, dazed, blinking against a pounding head and double-vision.

         Master Yoshi, quickly followed by Master Hokkaido and Exodeus, raced towards them across the stadium. "Hold!" he shouted. "Pandaren! Varamance! Hold!"

         He reached Varamance first, the kant student struggling up on an elbow to look around, dizzy. There was a reddened impression of a hand smack in the middle of his chest, but he didn't otherwise seem hurt. He blinked, squinting at Master Yoshi, then at the other master.

         "I lost my sword," he muttered.

         "I got 'em," called Exodeus, hurrying over. "Are you okay?"

         "Dizzy," replied Varamance. He touched his chest gingerly and hissed. "That's going to bruise."

         "It's certainly going to be colorful," agreed Master Hokkaido. "Don't try to get up just yet, let your head clear. Master," he said, nodding at the other still figure across the way.

         Master Yoshi trotted over to Pandaren, lying still on the hard-packed dirt. The shoulder wound was a deep slice and he would need a healer, but overall it wasn't bad. The worst of it came from the shock of losing so much blood. Master Yoshi wrapped a length of his robe tightly around the wound, pressing hard to stem the bleeding. Pandaren stirred at that, moaning.

         Ren's eyes fluttered open and he struggled weakly. "Master! Master ... Varamance! Where is he? Is he ...?"

         "He's fine, Pandaren. He'll be just fine. You did very well, very well." He blinked back sudden tears. "You did it, Pandaren. You guided your power, you made it do what you wanted. I'm very proud of you."

         Ren sighed and smiled and closed his eyes.

         He was back in the infirmary when he woke up next, with one of the healers clucking over his arm. Another leaned over Varamance, his hand glowing white as he touched the darkening bruise. Exodeus looked up from the other side of Varamance and gave Ren an indecipherable look. He turned away, looking up at the tall healer who tended him.

         "Can I fight?" he asked worriedly.

         The healer smiled. "Of course! This isn't serious." He helped Ren sit up. "You did lose a lot of blood, so be sure you get lots of fluids tonight. And be careful. There's no wound now, but the body remembers."

         "Oh. Okay, thanks. Are -- are you new?"

         The healer smiled again. "Yes. Not all of us visitors are here for fun. Some of us are here to work." He sighed and gave Ren's shoulder a squeeze. "I hope I won't be seeing you tomorrow, samurai."

         "Me, too!" Ren agreed.

         "They left," said Exodeus, seeing Ren look around.

         "I'm ... sorry," said Ren next, to Varamance, who was now struggling up to a sitting position. The bruise was entirely gone, though he grimaced as if it still pained him a little.

         Varamance shook his head. "It was a good battle." He frowned. "Why did you not do that earlier? You could have ended that fight much sooner."

         "Well, I, it's not ..." Ren trailed off and looked away, shrugging.

         "Look," said Varamance seriously, throwing his legs over the side of the bed, so close to Ren their knees almost touched. "Pandaren. Ren, listen to me. You keep going on like you are and someone really is going to get killed."

         Ren darted a glance up, but the kant student seemed completely serious. Ren chewed his lip. "What do you mean?"

         Varamance sighed. "I don't know, exactly, but you have magic. And either you use it or it uses you. If you use that whatever-it-is only when you're tired or hurt or weak, then chances are it'll control you rather than the other way around. Didn't any of the masters ever tell you that?"

         Ren shook his head.

         "Then I'm telling you now," said Varamance with a frown. "Your magic is a part of you. You go on like it's not there and eventually it'll break free, and not on your terms. Accept it, learn not to fear it, and," he shrugged, "so much more will open up for you." He stood. "Good luck, Ren."

         "Thanks," Ren replied softly. He watched the two of them leave and considered. Kagami, Osore, and now Varamance had all told him the same thing, not to be afraid of himself or his powers. He ran his fingers through his hair. Just how was he supposed to do that? What he could do, unintentionally, scared the crap out of him. But ... he smiled a little. He had managed to knock Varamance down, even if he didn't win the fight, he'd still managed something he'd never done before, using his powers without -- well, without too much harm. Maybe there was hope for him.

         But for now he had an afternoon free and an essay to write.
A Non-Existent User
"You got hit!" Exodeus teased as he bounced around Varamance. He could not help but poke fun at Varamance whose pride was probably more bruised than his chest was.

"Everyone gets hit!" Varamance sounded sullen, he knew it was true but at the same time he was thinking what Exodeus was about to say...

"But YOU never get, at least not by a student," Exodeus couldn't help but laugh again,"Ren has some potential huh?"

"A Samurai with spiritual capability that's on par with at the very least a mediocre kant student? I'd say it's more than potential." Varamance was getting to be thoughtful again as he often was, but Exodeus was not going to let him slip off into some silence he could not be brought out of.

"Well, this is just great! Ren is getting more control over his abilities...you're damn near perfect, but that was something!" Exodeus was not being completely serious as he did not want Varamance know just how deeply it disturbed him.

"You know Exodeus, you're not so different from Ren," Varamance said as they walked. Exodeus blinked unsure how he meant that.

"I'm not afraid of anything," Exodeus knew it was a lie, but compared to Ren he did feel rather fearless. Varamance shook his head.

"You both don't want to come out of your comfort zones. You each have the potential to be stronger than you are, if you're just willing to work a bit more at it. Maybe now you have a chance before tomorrow's competition to learn where your strength truly lies..." Varamance's words struck a cord with Exodeus. He stood rooted to the spot as Varamance continued to walk onward, not looking back. Exodeus stared after him wondering how someone like Varamance would not be more arrogant.

He really is something. Exodeus felt the all too familiar twinge of jealousy creep into his heart. They had become fast friends, connecting on a deep level, but he was all too aware of the gap in their power and it saddened him. He could not be Varamance's equal in battle, Ren even proved he had a better chance of that than most.

Exodeus sighed realizing he was alone. Varamance knew he had to think about what he was going to do. Exodeus wished he had an idea about what he could possibly achieve. It was up to him now to find a way to make it through the competition.

"Oh I wish I had someone like Ren's new Master showing me what had to be done..." Exodeus leaned against a wall not too far from the Infirmary.

"What if I'm just not good enough? What if Varamance's right and there's more to this summoning stuff? Do I still have time?" Exodeus spoke to himself once more. He got to his feet and slowly trudged off to seek the answers he so desperately needed.
A Non-Existent User

Kagami didn’t waste a time. After capstone session, he rushed to the meditation room. At times like these, none of the students are interested in doing their study; leaving the meditation room at his convenience.

Kagami moves into the middle of the room and sit on the floor. He focused his mind.

Chakra is the path of deception. Its’ magic affects body or mind and driven with spiritual energy to deceive either friends or foes.

Infusing certain chakra at the body makes one able to manipulate physical attributes.
(Which means it’s pretty much useless in combat aside from the capability to immobilize people)


Broadcast spiritual energy to influence the enemy’s chakra such as hypnosis and illusion.
(Useful but occasionally useless against a disciplined mind)



“Well, that’s the basis but it’s not enough. I need to be able to use the third implementation: The Real Illusion.”

It can bring forth what’s on our mind into reality (that’s the theory). But in actuality, such technique will consume a lot of spiritual energy hence it’s only possible to bring a small portion of it in a shape of a clone of its caster. The result is a real moving body projected by mind which is why this technique also called ‘the Projection’.

“The person I know that able to use this is Aya and Master Kai. But it’s really not a good time to get a private lesson from both of them. But it should be possible to achieve this by combining all the techniques that I’ve learnt.”

Kagami empty his mind. He let his energy flow into every chakra point in his body starting from his head to toe. After he feels he has accumulated enough energy, he focused his energy in front of him trying to shape up a body. Few minutes later, he can see a translucent shape in the form of a person.

Creak… The door of the meditation room is being opened.

Its’ sound shattered Kagami’s concentration. He can feel his energy dispersed into thin air and the humanoid object in front of him is disappearing as well. Suddenly, he feels his throat is dry and he can’t breath. He quivers; he can hear his heart rapidly beating. He feels something that he hasn’t feels for the last few years, that is pain.

“Argh…” Kagami screams, but no sounds could be heard. On desperation, he finally rolls down on the floor trying to escape the unbearable pain. Finally, his sight is fading away. He stays conscious but all of his senses are ripped from him.

Kagami doesn’t know how long he is black-out. When his senses return, he can see Kira is sitting besides him, looks uneasy. Kagami immediately wake up in sitting position. “How long has I’ve been unconscious?”

Kira replied “About ten minutes. Are you okay?”

Kagami faintly nodded, he feels weary. “Yeah, thanks for taking care of me. I was sure I’m gonna die. You’re alone? I thought you’d call someone.”

“You’re practicing, right? That’s why you used the meditation room at this time. I thought you don’t want anyone to know so I called no one.” Kira replied. “Should I call someone?”

“No, thanks.” Kagami refused.

I guess practicing it overnight is not possible. Both of them turn silent.

“You’re training projection right? I helped Aya before. If you want, I can help you with your training.” Kira broke the silence.

“No kidding. You’re sure? Let’s get on with it. We don’t have much time.”

The afternoon had turned out to be quite interesting. The former student of this school, Master Hokkaido, had fought his former teacher Master Moone. As Osore had predicted Master Moone had won, but the students’ sparings is not like the real thing. It looked to him like they were performing a synchronized dance, but then he had remembered master Hellfire had told him once: “When two opponents with excellent fighting abilities face each other, they are not struggling, but more like striving to show their best performance, their greatest techniques which in most of the time synchronize to such extent that victory can be achieved only through the simplest mistakes and the slightest sign of weakness”. In addition to this Osore believed that such battles between combatants without the presence of any personal feelings to each other can turn into a game.

After the fight everyone went to greet the Masters. Osore stayed. Beside him was Garett whose face was full of excitement. It was not because of the fight, but because his family was coming for the competition. Although he did not believe he would get in the Top 10, he was overwhelmed by the idea that he will see his family for the first time in ten years. Osore had heard him talk about his parents and his sister for over seven years, when they first became friends. His father, Ronald Gryffith, was a big-time businessman, with mansions in Madrid, New York, and Paris. His mother, Valentine, was a lady- whatever that meant. Truth was that Osore’s father, who was a police inspector, had had the pleasure of meeting with Mr. Gryffith before two years so their families knew each other too. His sister, Margo looked beautiful from the pictures Garett received through the letters that his family sent, and even though she was deaf, she was one of the smartest girls he knew, because she was accepted in a dozen of the most prestigious Academies in Europe.

After Master Moone dismissed all the students and almost everyone left, there was another sparring, but this time between Pandaren and Varamance. What Osore saw surprised him much more than the previous fight did. The sparring session of Pandaren and Varamance had a different outcome. Osore had not anticipated that Pandaren would take control over his power so soon. Surprising Osore was a difficult job for most students. The scene of Pandaren carefully measured attack was the thing that actually got his attention and at that moment a thought ran over Osore’s mind: “I hope we don’t fight in the competition, because if we do… I will loose!” Everyone had left and now he and Garett were alone.

“Let’s go! I can’t wait to introduce you! Especially to Margo! She’s been dying to see the infamous Osore!” he said and started pulling Osore to stand up. The half-masked student stood up and followed him without showing much excitement. Garett did not turn it over in his mind, because Osore was usually lacking in ability to show joy. In truth Osore was not feeling joy, but anger. It had been three days that he had received the letter from his father, stating he could not come for the competition. This had angered him. For nearly seven years he had been studying night and day under the guidance of Master Hellfire, had gone through the limits of both the inner and outer pain, for the one day that he will show his step-father his devotion to him. He had acted so harsh on Mei’Mei in their fight the other day mainly because of that. Although he knew this was wrong, he did not feel bad about it.

Garett was supposed to meet his parents in front of the dorms. They were nearing the dorms, Garett’s walking was quickly turning into running. Apparently, Garett’s excitement was taking control over him. Osore felt annoyed, but even so started running with his friend. When they arrived, there was no one. Apparently, they had come too early. Suddenly, from the front door of the dorms they came: Mr. Gryffith- not very tall, stalwart man, with tanned skin and black beard, Mrs. Gryffith- beautiful, aristocratic-looking and arrogant, and Ms. Gryffith- who was very beautiful, but shy- and nervous-looking. After them followed came another three people. The first one was fairly tall, white, straight haired man- Master Suitengu. The second man was a lot taller than him, thin and very bald- Inspector Alber Dorliaque. Osore’s eye trembled. His face froze in surprise and his mouth fell half way. Alber’s thin arms were put behind his back, his pace was slow, his huge, blue eyes were glued to Osore’s red one and a warm smile was imprinted on his face. Osore took a step back as Alber came down through the steps. He could not believe his father was here. He was supposed to be in Paris, solving some mystery or something. That is what he stated in his letter.

“No hug?” he asked his smile still on his face as he stretched his arms towards Osore. But his son stood by, still bedazzled by the situation.

“But you said that…” Osore started, his voice as calm as he could make it.

“Well, that was Katherina’s idea. If we told you we would come, it would not have been a surprise, would it?” he said. “Mom is here, too?” thought Osore, as he saw a short, black haired woman come from behind Alber and hugging him. “Well, you know that family can come too, so your Mom staying in France was out of the question.” he continued.

Osore was overwhelmed. Before a few seconds he was ready to charm his father for what he had made him go through these last three days, but the emotions that were trying to burst open were too powerful and before he knew it, he had already hugged his father as strong as he could.

“Hey, Garlon, Garlon, I’m not as strong as I look. Let your old man breathe in for a second, OK?” Dorliaque said gasping for breath. “My God, you’re stronger than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m nothing, father, you should see the senior Samurais. They’re the real deal.” Osore said his face as stone cold as ever, but his voice-a little quivery. Osore looked around and saw two of his friends- Tommy Mimocron and Lucracia Marth. They looked as if they had seen a ghost. The half-masked ninja broke the hug with his father. Garett looked charmed as well. He was speaking with his little sister through the finger alphabet.

“Father, Mother. Let me introduce you to a few of my friends here! This is Lucracia Marth!” Osore said. Lucracia extended her hand and shook theirs’.

“Pleased to meet you!” she said.

“Pleased to meet you! I am Alber Dorliaque, and this is my wife, Katherina. We’ve “heard” a lot about you.” Alber said.

“Really, ‘cause we have not heard anything about you! Are you…” started Tommy but Osore continued on.

“And this is Tommy Mimocron. You should excuse him, it’s not his fault. He is Chakra! They usually like to poke their noses in other people’s business.” Osore said grabbing Tommy by the shoulder and squeezing it as hard as he could. A stumpy Asian popped up from nowhere. He looked rugged, as if he had done hard work all his life. There was a very slight smell of fish coming from him. “He must be working with fish sort of speak” thought Osore.

“I just came to tell you that everything was carried to the storage room, Mrs. Dorliaque!” the Asian said on Korean. Katherina nodded and said:
]
“Oh, Garlon, let me introduce you to Mr. Chang Myon! He is from Korea and is here to see his son too.”

“Really, what’s his son’s ninja name?” Osore asked. Katherina asked Mr. Chang the same on Korean.

“Hammer.” Myon said. Osore was surprised for the third time today. Tommy, Lucracia and Garett looked astonished by this casual encounter. Mr. Chang bowed. The four ninjas bowed back.

“Let’s leave Garlon with his friends. We’ll talk tomorrow afternoon after the matches. Besides, I’m sure he has a lot to do. Especially since tomorrow is that Top 10 thing.” she said and took Alber by the hand pulling him towards the path that led to the hospital.
FRIDAY!

         Visitors arrived at Razi throughout all of Thursday and by supper the hall was packed to overflowing. By Friday morning, tables and chairs had to be set up outside the great hall to handle the influx of people. The good part about it was that there was plenty of food for everyone.

         Ren tried to treat the day as no different than any other. He went for his morning run, sat for his meditation, and then a short work-out. Pleased with himself and even beginning to get excited, he returned to his room to grab a change of clothes for the showers. Lost in his thoughts, he didn't see the dark shape sitting on his bed until it moved. Ren yelped a little in surprise and jumped back, at the door, which was now filled with Gunnar, the biggest kid in school. He backed up slowly, turning to face Eitan, who sat like a king and the low bed was his throne.

         "I hear you beat Varamance in some kind of fight yesterday."

         "N-no!" Ren protested. "It was a-a draw, I think, I'm not sure."

         "They're letting you fight today." Not a question, a statement.

         Ren nodded. He recoiled as Eitan leaped to his feet, towering over him.

         "I'm going to tell you what to do, and you're going to do it!" he snarled. "Do you understand me?"

         Back against the wall, Ren bit his lip, clasping his hands together to keep them from shaking. "W-why?" he asked.

         Eitan leaned in closer, until their noses were practically touching. "Because otherwise I'll kill you. I'll kill you, Pandaren, I don't care what that judge said. They can't watch everything. And accidents do happen." He stepped back a little, pleased with the effects of his threats.

         Hands braced behind him, Ren stared up at the older, larger boy, feeling sick inside. He knew he shouldn't let Eitan intimidate him so bad, but, dammit, he remembered too many occassions where he'd gone under those huge fists and he wasn't inclined to do that again any time soon. They were waiting for him to say something.

         "W-what do you w-want me to d-do?"

         "You're going to lose!" Eitan said darkly. "You're going to get out of this competition any way you can."

         That brought a startled protest out of Ren. "No!"

         As quick as a thought, Eitan back-handed his classmate, slamming him backwards, bouncing him off the wall, against the chest, and then onto the floor where he crouched, one hand on his skinned cheek, mouth and eyes opened wide with fright.

         Eitan nodded in satisfaction, turning to go.

         Ren watched them leave, trying to steady his breathing and still his racing heart. His shaking hand probed at his cheek. He'd lost some skin and it would swell, but nothing was broken. He'd knocked elbows and knees, but they were fine. He closed his eyes and steadied his nerves against the adrenaline rush that brought tears to his eyes.

         The strange and wonderful knot of tension and excitement kindled earlier vanished, swallowed into a hard pit of dread, sinking in his stomach, a stomach that roiled and heaved, forgetting it was empty. Ren crouched there in a corner of his room, hand on his cheek and staring at nothing, fighting for some semblance of control, for his discipline back. His arm hurt again, as the healers had said it might, for the body remembered that there should be an injury there, even though the mind said there wasn't.

         "Pandaren?"

         Startled, Ren jumped, coming to his feet to face the person now standing in his doorway. It was the mask-wearing khu student, Osore.

         "W-what?"

         "What happened to you?"

         "Nothing!" he replied, turning sideways to hide both his darkening cheek and the embarassed flush that crept over his face. "What do you want?"

         "Hammer woke up. He wanted me to wish you luck."

         "He did?"

         "Yeah, so good luck."

         Still Ren did not look at him. "Th-thank you." Hammer was going to be okay! Now he fought tears of a different sort, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes.

         "I only saw him briefly," continued Osore quietly, from the doorway. "He wants to see you."

         Ren nodded to show he'd heard, but said nothing. He'd gone by the night before after dropping off his essay, but there'd been so many people milling around he'd been uneasy and had gone away again.

         "His parents are here."

         "O-okay," Ren managed.

         "So, see you later?"

         "Yeah."

         The rest of the morning passed in a fog. He had to fight his way through the throngs of people for breakfast, grabbing only a small muffin to nibble at outside on the grass. There were students and visitors everywhere. Ren watched a family group for some time, envious, before tossing the remains of his muffin and going down to the stadium. He quickened his pace a little when he saw Master Yoshi and Master Hokkaido talking with two other masters just to one side of the entrance and the throngs of people going in and out the large doors.

         One of the masters was a gentle-looking, unassuming man, with black hair braided into numerous strands that hung half-way down his back. He had a sword buckled to his hip. The other was a black woman, taller than the other two and very thin. She had only a cap of hair, but numerous earrings that jingled when she moved her head. She wore a belt of black ninja stars. Those two and Master Hokkaido all wore uniforms of red and gold and Ren came to the conclusion that the two he didn't know were the other two judges.

         Ren walked straight up to the group and bowed. "Good morning, masters."

         They each gave him a small bow in return and, on looking up, Ren saw that the woman's eyes were so light a brown they seemed gold, and she smiled at him, showing dazzlingly white teeth.

         "This is my student Pandaren," said Master Yoshi by way of introduction.

         The three judges exchanged looks.

         "This is Master Issaru," the man with the braids nodded, "and Master Blackbird," the woman smiled again, but there was less friendliness than there'd been before. Master Yoshi leaned closer to Ren, to whisper, "You'd better get some ice on that before it gets any bigger."

         Ren bowed his farewells to the masters and hurried off.

         Opening Ceremonies began with all the seniors filing into the stadium together. The three judges then followed, with introductions to the rest of the school. There was the National Song of the Republic, followed by a few speeches and an overview of the rules, and then the competitors were dismissed, except for the opening match, between Gunnar and Sierra of Samurai. Most of the seniors went up into the stands to watch, the rest went back towards the locker rooms. The samurai students all went to the rooms reserved for the competitors, to warm up and finish preparing themselves for their matches, except Ren. He waited with the rest of the seniors, watching, knowing that his turn would not be for a while and wanting to know who he would be facing.

         Both Gunnar and Sierra chose pole arms, which was unusual for them, and they battered away at each other unmercifully throughout the entire match. When time was called, Sierra was named the winner. Eitan and Zelda went next, a quick battle, and then it was to Konotori and Cleon. Skill against skill, they were evenly matched, but Cleon chose weapons to maximize Konotori's weaknesses and soon revealed himself the winner. In the second round, Eitan easily bested Sierra and soon Pandaren found himself in the ring beside Cleon.

         "For this Match," said Master Moone, serving as the announcer, "we have Cleon with his Swift River Fighting Style against Pandaren with his Qi Fighting Style."

         They bowed to the judges and then to each other. Ren waited. Cleon had chosen a staff for his weapon for this match, evidently wanting to keep Ren at a distance. He waited also and, after a few tense seconds, laughter rippled around the stands. Ren blushed. Cleon was as impassive as ever.

         "Gentlemen," called one of the judges, after another period of tense waiting.

         There were catcalls now and booing and still Cleon waited, while Ren fretted. He shifted weight on his feet, his gaze flicking uneasily from his opponent to the stands, to the judges ... and fell, jumping to avoid the blow to his legs, alerted by some small flicker of motion as Cleon made his lightning fast move. Ren didn't quite jump high enough and the staff clipped one ankle, sending him tumbling.

         Cleon was on him in a flash and Ren took several more blows before he regained his balance and started fighting back. With the impetus lost, Cleon continued to lose ground when faced with this new confidence and strength. He'd expected Ren to fall apart in confusion, and that hadn't happened. Minutes later, Ren grabbed the staff, Cleon threw him back over his head, and Ren kicked him as he went over. Cleon lost his grip and tumbled. He didn't get the chance to rise again.

         Breathless with victory, Ren couldn't help a grin as he bowed to Cleon. The other samurai gave him a nod and strode away. That grin vanished abruptly as Eitan came back into the stadium and fixed Ren with his cold black eyes. Ren shivered. His hand went instinctively to his cheek again and he dropped it hastily when he realized what he'd done. Eitan's lips curved upwards slightly at the corners. He made only the barest of bows for the introductions, going immediately on the offensive.

         Ren fell back beneath Eitan's unrelenting assault, the moves that should have been instinct vanishing in his terror. Eitan was the best at armed combat, the best samurai student of their year. He had long hated Ren and had made his life hell for a very long time. With those knives, Eitan was like a whirlwind of sharp edges, an unstoppable tornado.

         "I'm going to kill you, Pandaren!" he whispered as he drove Ren across the floor.

         His daggers flashed whenever they closed together and Ren bled from a dozen small wounds, fear only emphasizing the pain and making him sloppy. Then Eitan tripped Ren during another up-close, quick scuffle. They fell together and Eitan pinned the smaller samurai down beneath his greater weight. They grappled, one dagger inches from Ren's stomach, the other curving downward towards his shoulder. With Eitan kneeling partially on one thigh, Ren had his other leg free and he kicked, but it was awkward and Eitan scarcely seemed to even feel the blows. Ren couldn't maintain his focus on three fronts and the daggers inched closer. His arms trembled and shook with the effort to hold off the power in Eitan's dual strike.

         Perhaps then the judges realized that there was more going on than they had realized. Never too far away from the samurai duels, they came closer still, their own weapons held easily in their hands.

         Eitan spit, Ren flinched, and Eitan rammed one of the daggers home. Ren screamed in pain and stared up at Eitan through a foggy haze. The other samurai smiled where only Ren could see.

         They grappled still, Ren trying to keep the one dagger from digging any deeper and trying to push Eitan's other hand up and away. Ren thrashed.

         "No," he gasped. Eitan only smiled. When he turned his head, Ren could see the masters' feet.

         No! he thought. He bent his knee as far as he was able and kicked! Pounding his foot into Eitan's hip, Ren heaved and rolled as the heavy weight lifted. He came up on one knee, looking for Eitan, one hand pressed tightly against his bleeding side.

         Staggering, he came to his feet as Eitan did the same. Ren glared, but only for a second, he need the energy, the strength of his anger, to concentrate on what he meant to do. Slowly, he settled into a fighting crouch, watching Eitan approaching. He drew on that fear, too, brought up both hands before him, and jumped into a kick.

         An invisible force knocked Eitan off his feet and backwards across the stadium floor. Ren waited for him to rise and kicked him again but then the pain was overloading his senses and he slumped to his knees, pressing his hand back to his side, blood roaring in his ears over the noise of the spectators. He watched Eitan rise once more. This time, instead of approaching, Eitan hefted one of the daggers in his hand and let fly.

         Hardly thinking what he did, Ren threw up his other arm as if to shield himself, knocking the dagger askew, to bury itself up to the hilt in the ground. He slouched forward, going to hands and knees, drew a deep breath, and found the will to stand. Eitan did not throw his other weapon, but closed rapidly, sensing his opponent's weakness and striving to use that to his advantage.

         Ren came to his feet just in time to meet that new attack and they battled again hand to hand and hand to dagger. A concentrated strike sent the remaining weapon skittering free and Eitan lunged, to wrap his hands around Ren's throat, bearing him once more to the ground. This time, Ren brought his knees up as he fell, getting his feet braced against Eitan's chest and pushing with everything he had left.

         Head spinning, he managed to turn over onto his stomach, one hand going to his injury, knowing that he needed to stand, needed to show the judges that he could still fight, but unable at first to do so. He managed only to rise on one shaky arm, to toss sweat-soaked hair from his face, and look about.

         There was one judge standing nearby, watching his struggles impassively. Across from them, Master Blackbird and Master Hokkaido knelt next to the still form of Eitan. After a moment, Master Hokkaido lifted an arm in a gesture.

         "Can you stand?" asked Master Issaru, with his soft voice. "Your opponent is down," he continued, a little louder, as the noise escalated around them with the shouting and cheering and booing of the audience. "If you cannot, this will be a draw."

         Ren drew his legs painfully underneath him, leaning forward. He took a deep breath and lurched to his feet to stand, swaying, beside the master.

         "Ladies and gentleman," announced Master Moone. "We have our first Top Ten Finalist, Pandaren of Samurai!"

         Master Issaru grabbed Ren by the elbow to steady him while healers came out to the floor. Ren leaned against him gratefully, going with the healers with no objections. They half-carried, half-dragged him from the stadium. Ren managed a small smile to Exodeus as they passed, wishing him luck since he had no breath to talk. The healers took him into the showers to hose him off and clean his wounds. He cried out once and then, mercifully, passed out.
A Non-Existent User
Exodeus tried to smile back but Pandaren quickly disappeared as he was carried off the field. He sighed quietly as he realized that he would be the next to fight. It was going to test everything he had. Vie was at his side, hissing softly, her tones reassuring and her great weight anchoring him down so he would not be lost in the torrent of doubt he suddenly felt. He only had one fight he needed to win to make it to the top ten. Only one fight he needed to lose to never have a place amongst them.

Ren did it...he never seems to want to quit, especially now. Exodeus had to smile to himself. He had many friends, many supporters, but he felt alone sometimes apart from Vie. When it came to a battle, you could only fight it alone. This competition made that even more pronounced in his mind. Radacia was already taking to the center of the fighting arena which had seen its first bit of blood shed. He came to the center as well, ready to will himself to fight.

Exodeus's breath was still. To him there was nothing else there. He stood on the edge of an abyss. That abyss had a name to it, Radacia. She could very well swallow him whole. Vie pressed her comforting weight against him once more. It brought him back to his senses. There was Radacia, the only person he would have to beat in his senior class. He tried to smile but failed, turning it to a grimace. Was he truly so insecure? The masters stood about them on the edge of the circle they were to battle in. It was large, plenty of room for movement. The faces of the crowd seemed to be blurred together apart from the Masters. He could not pick out any face from another, friend and foe were indistinguishable. He thought it would be comforting to know someone who supported him was there nearby. Vie seemed to be his only friend now and the only one whom he could depend on as well.

"This match," Master Moone announced, "is for the Top Ten Finalist from Crystal Sect. We have Exodeus with his Assimilation Fighting Style against Radacia and her Sword-Dance Fighting Style."

"Begin." one of the masters' commanded and Exodeus bowed to his adversary. Radacia inclined her head slightly; she bowed to no man, especially one she thought less of. Her sabertooth's tail twitched in agitation as it looked at the large anaconda.

"I'll make this swift," Radacia nodded solemnly. She was not being cocky, she genuinely wanted to not prolong Exodeus's humiliation. Somehow that stung him deeply, that she did view him as so much less than herself when he had given all of himself to the Crystal Techniques. He had striven so hard to be strong. He may not have studied but he deserved to be here just as much as she did. The slight pang in his heart subsided, he was not going to let his ego be torn down by some stuck up princess.

"Please do," Exodeus said to her. Vie hissed warningly at her now that she sensed her master was ready.

"Fighting with Summons and Summons alone?" she questioned. Exodeus nodded his agreement, "Do you know all five of your standard summons?" He felt a fleeting feeling of panic, five?

"Vie is all I depend on," Exodeus which was true enough. He had rarely practiced with his other summons comparatively. Which had its drawbacks if he reached a situation where Vie was more or less useless. It was also the reason he had never learned his fifth summon, he actually only mastered three. The fourth he could produce, but Varamance had smashed that summon up pretty good and now he was slow to call on it again. The fifth summon had been an independent study, to see if the student had the drive and willpower to call on it.

"Pathetic," she pointed at Vie. Her sabertooth sped into action it's fangs bared. Vie coiled tightly waiting to strike. The sabertooth easily closed the distance between them once it was in striking range Vie lashed out, her body slithering beneath the sabertooth and then her maw opening wide to bite deeply into the sabertooth's neck. The large cat gave a ferocious roar that caused several to cover their ears or leap in alarm. The monstrous anaconda wrapped her body with shocking speed around the entire body of the Sabertooth, constricting its movements. The sabertooth gasped for air, panicking tying to claw at Vie or sink its teeth into any part that got too close to its mouth. Yet Vie's hard scales did not get hardly any damage.

"And that is Restrict," Exodeus laughed. He was pleased with the results. The sabertooth had taken a moment to succumb to the paralyzing venom, but it now lie uselessly on its side. Vie did not relax her grip until the Radacia's summon exploded into a thousand bits of sparkling and wispy blue lights as if a mini-firework had been set off. She placed her hands together.

"That was just my first summon, you will deal with my second summon...Trist," she her crystal around her neck glowed a vibrant blue, it was sapphire. A similar silver back gorilla appeared like the one that Exodeus had summoned while fighting Varamance. Vie leaped forward this time taking the offensive. The gorilla pounded its chest, bits of light pulsating with each punch to its well-muscled frame. It then charged at Vie too, as she reached the gorilla she rose to her full height pushing her head upwards so that she can strike the unprotected eyes of the gorilla. The gorilla did not give Vie the chance however, grabbing hold of her like a piece of rope he gripped the snake painfully and slammed the snake to the ground. Vie's head crunched audibly from the force of the slam. Exodeus shivered filling the pain briefly that she must have. The gorilla loosened its grip and ran up to the head of the anaconda ready to deliver the final blow that would make it return to Exodeus's crystal. Vie twisted without warning, springing to life, she clamped down furiously with all her might upon the neck of the gorilla. Her body was writhing and rolling around trying to bring down the hulking beast to its knees. The gorilla could not even cry out as its windpipe was already crushed and the paralyzing venom taking hold.

"Damnable snake..." Radacia swore. She waved her hand in dismissal of the gorilla so it would not suffer anymore, "I think I will resort to my final summon then. It seems I've underestimated the snake's cunning. Good thing she is not as stupid as yourself." Exodeus had a vile retort on the edge of his lips but it died there as his eyes opened in awe at what was happening before him.

A man stood beside Radacia. His eyes burned with the fire of war. Untold numbers of battles had been seen by those eyes, and he had lived through them all. His body was well armored, plates of steel along his shoulders and across his chest would keep glancing blows from swords from hurting his sword arm or piercing his heart and lungs. His rippling abs and biceps were exposed, but Exodeus had the feeling that a sword would break before piercing those. He was larger than any man he saw, he could have very well been over seven feet and he wielded a wickedly curved two-handed sword that was nearly of the same height, forged of obsidian. A deep blue fire seemed to surround the warrior, it was the aura of Radacia's sapphire crystal that imbued him with strength.

"This is the fifth summon we were to learn. No more animals Exodeus, now we may call guardian spirits. Mine is Ochono the War-Bringer," Radacia said calmly. Sweat trickled down the entire length of her body, Exodeus could only imagine the amount of will-power and spiritual energy it was taking to maintain this summon. Animals did not drain spiritual power by being manifested normally, only things with auras did as they had vast amounts more power than summons without them.

"Vie be careful," he whispered to his snake which was only a few yards ahead of him. She did not seem to acknowledge him, but he knew she heard. She was focused solely on the enemy now. Exodeus was thankful he had a few more summons left but if Vie failed he was not sure if they could save him. Vie waited in anticipation for the attack, she would stay defensive this time.

Ochono brought up his sword with both hands into the air. The aura slowly flowed into the obsidian sword. It went from the twisting deep blues to being completely black. With what sounded like a clap of thunder the sword struck the ground and wave of spiritual energy moving faster than Exodeus could follow, streaked directly towards Vie. She barely had time to react before it hit her full on. Exodeus screamed painfully, his chest searing like fire. The crystal around his neck was blazing into his skin, even his school uniform caught ablaze from the sudden flaring heat. Exodeus clawed at his neck trying to rip it off, the amethyst light danced madly as the crystal was pulled out from under its usual resting place in his clothes. Exodeus was dizzy, white lights exploded in his vision, the Masters were rushing in. He couldn't even tell what happened. Many firm hands came around him, pulling off the crystal, and patting out the flames. Exodeus felt immediate relief as the crystal was removed. He swallowed back the vomit that was threatening to come out if given the chance. He could hardly speak, his throat was raw, he was amazed his screams had been powerful enough to do that so quickly.

"The Match is over, Exodeus is declared the winner," Master Hokkaido announced. There was a cry of outrage from those who supported Radacia and saw she clearly rendered her opponent unable to battle, "He is declared winner on the grounds of killing her opponent. We had clearly stated in the beginning that this would not be tolerated and she used a summon to attack on the spiritual level for instant death." Exodeus was confused, he was alive...wasn't he? He won. So he had to be alive.

"Vie?" he suddenly whispered hoarsely. He sat up to see the snake lying there..or part of her. Exodeus looked to Master Issaru for an explanation.

"You must not pay attention in class, hm?" Issaru sighed, "You should know...theoretically, summons are not real creatures....they are manifestations of ourselves and thus cannot die. Yet, they are spiritual entities, intelligent, that feel, and think. So, it is suffice to say that they are indeed alive and all things that live must be able to die. If something attacks not the physical but the spiritual, it is said a summon can be killed. In essence, killing a part of the summoner as well which is why your crystal burned you so in reaction to her death...it nearly killed you as well." Exodeus was silent. He could tell he was going to cry. He didn't bother to stop it. He looked to Master Physica trying to voice the question but being unable to. Thankfully, she seemed to understand.

"Yes, Vie is dead. She cannot be summoned again." Master Physica dabbed at his head and eyes a bit with a wet cloth.

"You'll be fine," she told him, "Just a bit of trauma. I think he can handle sitting with the rest of the students for the duration if he wishes." Exodeus wiped a bit more at the tears but they would not stop coming. He smiled a bit at her and nodded, he wasn't going to break down into sobs, but the tears screamed his anguish well enough.

"At least I won..." Exodeus tried to laugh and instead coughed a bit. Someone handed him his crystal, but he could not tell who as the tears blinded him momentarily. All was silent in the arena, but he knew he could not sit there long, others needed to fight. He felt a terrible pang of shame however, he was certainly the weaker of the two combatants and Master Issaru had seen it all. He was nothing.

Exodeus took his place amongst the spectators and a few patted him comfortingly and a few whispered congratulations. Exodeus looked up involuntarily when he felt a particularly firm hand clap his shoulder. Varamance was going to the arena now, he smiled.

"I see you practiced after all," Varamance said. Exodeus wondered if he was just being nice, but it didn't matter.

"Maybe I'll see you in the top ten then?" Exodeus said feeling a bit better. He would rather not be sad now. Vie he had known all his years at Razi and one thing she had always wanted was to make him happy, as much as a snake could anyway. He was not going to lament her doing her best, he had to do his best now.

"Oh, I'll be there." Varamance walked away, full of confidence as usual. Exodeus just shook his head as he watched, even after the fight with Ren not going as Varamance would have wished, he was not shaken. He had his goal, to be the best. Exodeus was suddenly excited about this battle. Kant was one of the most powerful sects, arguably nearly as disciplined as samurai but not as emotionally detached unless by choice. Even a student who was not a senior would be a formidable opponent.

"Lolani, isn't that her name?" Exodeus heard someone whispered, some were standing on tip toes to get a look at the raven haired beauty who took to the center along with Varamance. Exodeus licked his lips. If the headmaster had placed her in to fight Varamance, she must be remarkable. The other students were also murmuring about the battle, she was the youngest person to ever be able to compete for a position on the Top 10 and a chance at being the Valedictorian of the school, more so than that, it would be of a class ahead of herself! She would very well hold the position twice if she was able to beat Varamance. Now all was still as the masters allowed the battle to commence.

Varamance stood before Lolani, each looking at one another and knowing what was to come. Exodeus looked from the girl and then to the boy. She was stony, he could see the fear behind the mask of determination, but she would not crack under pressure. He could tell that too. She did not get here by being sloppy. Varamance was calm, cool, collected as always. Victory was within his reach but two people blocked the way. One was Lolani, and the other he could not yet see. Exodeus could see they were looking at each other, waiting for the other to make the first move. Exodeus blinked.

The crowd was bunching up trying to get a better view, gasps and rapid talking began. Exodeus was bewildered as to what he had missed in that second. He craned his neck until he was sure he'd pull something and was able to see Lolani cradling her left arm with her right hand. Varamance was now in the air, both swords drawn. He had suspended the laws of gravity, that familiar wind that blew for him and him alone stirred at his clothes and hair. The fabric of her long sleeves had been ripped on her left arm that she was holding, whatever attack had been made by Varamance had ripped the clothes to shreds and bruised her arm badly. It must have been a glancing blow Exodeus figured, if he knew anything about Varamance he knew each strike made was to bring the opponent down in one move.

Varamance pointed one of his swords at Lolani. Movement caught Exodeus's eye but he could not follow it. Varamance was even faster than he remembered from his duel earlier in the week. A mini-crater had formed where Lolani once stood. She had dodged the attack. Yet, that was all she could do, in the air Varamance had a huge advantage. Lolani swept her good arm in a wide arc above her head towards Varamance. Apparently Varamance had not expected her to go offensive and was caught completely off-guard by the attack. He dodged the attack and went into a set of flips landing easily on the ground. His advantage was lost, Varamance did not seem bothered much by the change however. Lolani seemed to be less pained by her arm injury now as well.

"Now I've got you," Lolani claimed as she drew out what looked to be six short-swords. Varamance tilted his head and watched for any signs of danger. She thrust the blades forward and they sailed through the air, glinting in the light. Varamance readied an attack that would easily deflect them all in one sweep. Yet the blades each moved of their own accord changing direction and position. Varamance realized too late what she had done.

"A new attack?" Varamance questioned betraying his uncertainty of his opponent. Lolani was quite pleased with herself to have surprised him. The blades were spinning dangerously at six different points. He was surrounded. Varamance dared not to make a movement. One was placed before him, between him and Lolani. One was behind him, and one was at his left and right side. The other two were above in case he tried to take to the air to escape.

"Never seen my signature move before?" Lolani was reveling in her smugness now, "Dance of Blades!" She let loose the blades from the whirling state caught in the wind of her spiritual energy. They now closed in from all directions to pierce Varamance into the arena ground. The attack could not be dodged, there was no escape.

Exodeus held his breath unconsciously as he watched. Several others had now as well, watching with rapt fascination as to how one would get out of such a corner. It was looking like they were indeed going to have the youngest valedictorian ever. Exodeus was not sure what happened next, but later he would explain it as if everything was moving so fast that it actually seemed to come to a near standstill, with seconds seeming to last minutes. Varamance let go of his swords, they hung as if suspended by time slowly falling to the ground as Varamance and the deadly blades moved at speeds Exodeus had not witnessed before. Yet, he was able to keep up as it was all within a short distance. Varamance clapped his hands together firmly, his elbows were down up to the height of his shoulders and were now parallel with the ground.

Exodeus felt himself lean in forward, at first he did not notice but then he caught himself as he nearly fell over. His necklace was being pulled out from beneath his shirt and it now stuck out directly pointing towards Varamance. Exodeus suddenly realized he was not the only one this was happening to, the entire crowd looked as if it was being sucked into a miniature black hole, like all the world now centered its gravity right where Varamance stood.

"He's gathering power..." Exodeus mouthed the words, as now all sound had seemed to no longer exist. Even the singing of the blades as they continued the painful inching towards their target could no longer be heard. Although this all happened within the span of three seconds, Exodeus could have been standing there for an hour and he would have felt it had been the same amount of time. Yet, the moment passed and all hell broke loose.

An explosion of spiritual energy ripped through the fighting arena. Only the masters had managed to hardly budge from their spot, but many of the students in the crowd were sent into the arms of stronger students who only took an involuntary step backwards. Exodeus caught a younger girl who had been on her tip toes hardly keeping balance to see what was happening.

"A sonic boom," Dux Mann said beside Exodeus. He looked to the boy who had been slightly cooler to him since the confrontation with Ren, but now that all seemed forgotten.

"That's what that was?" Exodeus reflected back upon the few seconds. The lost of sound, the pulling in, the explosion, he wasn't certain. He couldn't say yes but he couldn't say no either.

"Whatever it was...I don't think there's another student who could pull off something like that to say the least," it was Osore, whom Exodeus had not noticed until then mentioned. Exodeus only turned to see what was left of the arena. It seemed relatively intact, just many cracks and some missing chunks along the edges. Issaru had summoned a dazzling bird which burned as brightly as the sun and it had moved faster than Exodeus could have seen as it caught every single sword in its beak during the explosion of the Varamance's attack.

"Issaru...he must think I'm such a screw up. I only won by default!" Exodeus whined. The bird, which Exodeus could only describe as a phoenix dropped the weapons at Issaru's feet and vanished into a dazzling set of sparks and flames. Lolani was being carried, visibly shaken by the attack. She was completely pale and didn't speak but seemed unharmed in any way apart from her arm. A few masters were speaking to Varamance on the side, and Exodeus found himself desperately jealous. He got so much attention!

"You're looking kind of green there," Kagami joked. Exodeus gave him a nasty look, but he had to admit, he probably did seem envious and belligerent right then.

"It's just not fair..." Exodeus voiced deciding he should not take out his anger on someone for being observant, "The master's haven't even declared him winner, they are so busy probably telling him how he's gotten so strong and someone probably will offer advanced training outside the school when this is all over. He'll go off and become some damned legend." Kagami was silent. Exodeus suddenly realized how he sounded. He should be happy for his now best friend, but he was only feeling sorry for himself. Vie was dead. He was going into the next round of the top ten and would probably face off against someone he could not beat as he only had a few summons he had hardly practiced with.

"The winner is Varamance," now the decision came and all clapped loudly in applause. Varamance made his way over to where Exodeus now stood a bit more towards the back. Exodeus had wanted to get away from the others so he could cope with the fact he'll never be the best or close to it.

"I see why you admire Master Issaru so much, he's easily the most intriguing I've met out of the masters. And he offered to introduce me to the right people once I leave the school, they'd have further training for me and maybe even a job with the government who are looking for an elite squad of ninjas!" Varamance told Exodeus excitedly. He looked genuinely elated.

"Never would've guessed," Exodeus said, he knew he sounded sulky and took in a sharp breath before going on,"Sorry. You were just amazing out there...what was that? I've never seen you do that move." Varamance just winked.

"I hope we'll keep in touch Exodeus when this is all over...you're really my favorite person here at school. I know it sounds strange, but I admire you...you know?" Exodeus blinked at Varamance as he spoke, wondering what provoked this.

"Admire...me?" Exodeus was confused.

"I think people like you and Pandaren have so much in store for you in the future. If you just keep pushing, I bet you'll be better than you'd ever know," Varamance assured him. Exodeus gave a bitter smile.

"But not as strong as someone like you?" He knew he was trying to help. Varamance just laughed some, nothing was bringing down the feeling of victory and though it was obviously a private conversation many people were trying to listen waiting for Varamance to be done so they could swarm him.

"Looks like I better go before they crush you too, should only be one casualty here," Varamance went off to join his other friends and those who wanted to hear what he had been thinking during the fight. Yet the next fight would be starting soon. It was all a matter of time before all were silent waiting for the next big thing.
A Non-Existent User
You've got a good friend Exodeus. Kagami leaves the spectators quarter. He has a fight to attend.

Kagami walks towards the lockers. He double checks his weaponry: his all-sized needles hidden under the cloth in his torso, his crossbow inside a pouch hanging on his waist. He then picks a seat waiting to be called. Feeling uneasy, he could swear his heart beats like a tambourine. As soon as he heard his name, he inhales a deep breath, calms his nerves and headed for the arena.

"The first match from Chakra," said the announcer, "we have Kagami with his Void Fighting Style against Satsuki with his Iron Fist Fighting Style."

Kagami smiled wryly listening to the announcement of his style. His fighting style only consists of dodging and attacking only when the enemy shows their blank spot or from a distance. A style that won't favor him in this competition.

"Begin." Both contestants bow to judges and finally to each other. They make a distance between them, staring at each other, waiting for the first move.

Satsuki take the initiative, doesn't want to risk falling into Kagami's ploy. He swiftly takes few steps to be right in front of Kagami and release unrelenting attacks. Kagami responded by showing his reflexes, dodging all of Satsuki's mortal blows. Being cornered, Kagami quickly roll aside, taking a few steps back recreating their distance. Satsuki rushed his legs erasing their distance and repeating their rhythm.

This is getting nowhere. As soon as Kagami able to escape from the merciless assault, he quickly create a distance further than the previous one. Satsuki immediately approach Kagami.

I have to be quick. Kagami is standing with both his palm near each other in front of his chest, concentrating his energy and finally clapping them.

A dazzling light fills the arena in a flash. Kagami managed to create a projection of him behind Satsuki. Not knowing, Satsuki keeps charging at Kagami. Kagami immediately order his projection.

His projection kicks Satsuki from behind. "What the…" Satsuki faced the clone, surprised by the sudden attack. Kagami quickly pulls out three of his needles and both he and his projection seal Satsuki's movement much like when he and Varamance stop Dux. He swiftly put his needles on Satsuki's back on three chakra points along the spine to completely stop him right about the time just before his clone disappear. He let Satsuki's body fell then pulls his longest needles, about as long as knitting needle and slowly moves it to Satsuki's head in a stabbing position as a sign that he is the victor.

"The winner is Kagami of the Void Fighting Style" Master Moone's voice fills the stadium announcing his victory. Kagami grinned, feeling content. He releases Satsuki from his uncomfortable position and both of them bowed to the judges before leaving the arena.

Kagami and Satsuki enjoy the remaining matches. They watch Kaito bested Kira. On the next match, they witness Kaito's second battle. The healer's refreshments revitalize Kaito. Kaito manages to gives trouble for Aya but finally get beaten by her and her projection.

Kagami drag himself back to the arena when his name is called. He faces his next opponents. They both bow to the judges and to each other the moment the sign for beginning the next battle is sounded.

Euw, I never get used to that. Kagami sees Aya struggle. She’s about to split herself into two, initiating her signature moves: the Doppelganger.

Kagami strikes first, trying to cancel Aya’s technique so he can get an upper hand. His fist is only able to hit an empty air. Aya dodge Kagami’s blow and finishing her technique. Now Kagami is surrounded by two Aya. “Crap…”

Both Aya quickly attacks Kagami. They swiped their sword gracefully, much like dancing. Their swift moves and deadly blades give Kagami no chance to concentrate. Even his reflexes couldn’t save his hide, Kagami eventually has to taste the cold blades tearing up his skin.

After a moment, the continuous attacks stopped, Kagami’s attacker seems to need time to catch her breath. Kagami holds his left shoulder, his cloth is torn and blood is dripping from his wound. Knowing he wouldn’t have another chance, Kagami quickly concentrate. He closes his eyes.

Aya took this opportunity to take Kagami down. She and her projection charge forward and slash Kagami. Kagami didn’t budge, he took those attacks. A large wound open up in his chest. Suddenly, his eye lids open and one word could be heard. “Done.”

“Creak, creak, creak.”

A cracking noise echoes in the stadium. Cracking lines come into sight on Kagami’s face appears like a broken mirror. The cracks finally went all over his body, and shattered into pieces. The broken fragments spread into the arena, from each fragments emerges a reflection of Kagami.

Staggered, Aya unconsciously released her projection and starts hacking those reflections that come into surface. Each reflection disappears with each slash, but after a moment they reemerge again. She frantically attacks those reflections and finally lose her breath.

Kagami’s voice echoes in the stadium. “You must be tired. Now, I will let you go to sleep.”

The illusion is fading away. People see Aya’s body fell into the floor, catch by Kagami who looks unwounded before it actually touch the ground. “Our top ten combatants from chakra, Kagami.” The announcer voices his victory.

Mirrors’ fragments. A mass hypnosis that creates a large scale illusion. Flashy, but effective. And tiring. Kagami carries Aya’s body to the healer.

Now, he could only wait for the next fight.
A Non-Existent User
"I'm not nervous, I'm not nervous...I'm...okay, so I'm nervous." Nnena eyed herself in the mirror, arching her brow and rubbing at her pores. She tufted about her hair, awaiting the announcer to begin her battle. Her nerves were welling up inside of her, almost spilling out with every exasperated sigh. She started stretching her muscles, reaching down to her toes, then raising her arms above her head, listening to her joints pop against the strain.

"I'm gonna win. I know it." Nnena said to herself in the mirror, trying to convince herself.

"Uh...who are you talking to?"

She whirled around, facing a snobby-faced DeLilah with her hand on her hip.

Nnena shifted nervously."No-one..uh..obviously."

She smiled to reassure the Scandinavian. She only scoffed and walked away. Nnena sneered at her back, patting her face down with water and sweeping herself out the bathroom.

She shuddered as soon as she entered the holding room.

"-ena with her combat style of Creeping Darkness versus Coast of Geomancy with her Muddy Sea techniques," was all she heard.

A sinking feeling fell into her bowls. She felt as if she were rocking on a boat, the waves seeping into her very consiousness. She loosened her shoulders, stepping out onto the "battlefeild". Coast, her opponent, was standing opposite of her.

"Begin." Nnena must of looked crazy. Her knees started shaking as she bowed to the judges, and then to Coast. They made they're way apart again, a she felt as if she would faint. It's only one battle. At least you're not against Hammer or Dux Mann." She shrugged at her thought and waited for Coast to begin. If only she knew sooner, that she had already begun. The senior's eyes were dialated, as if the power of Earth itself was running through her. Nnena realized this too late. She was up to her ankles in mud. The area around her had been turning into a deep mud puddle, the air creating bubbles as she created more and more.

"Damn!" She squealed as she attempted to raise her leg.

She tried jumping, running, hopping, floating, scooting, stomping, and she even tried flipping, all the time, the mud was rising, higher and higher.

"Okay. If you're gonna submerge me in mud, you're going to have to do it in the dark!"

Nnena summoned as many shadows as she could and blanketed the arena in soft, silky blackness. Coast must've painced, because the mud that was getting squishy between the Italian's toes, lost pressure, only for a split second, but long enough for Nnena to free her foot. Which, coincedentally, led to her stepping in more mud.

"Dammit!" She shouted, the regreted doing so as a foot filed towards her stomache. Adrenaline pumped through her veins and she tore free from her earthy prison.

"Sucess!" Although her smile faded to gray as she could not seem to pick up on Coast's air currents again, a technique learned by many at the Academy. Then she heard it. The tiniest sound possible. It sounded even smaller in the looming darkness. But it was there, a little 'squish' nearby. Nnena concentrated, and suddenly, pushed a shrukien through the shadows. There was a shriek, a high pitched obviously Aisan yelp that echoed off the brimstone walls.

"Dare I lift the veil?" Nnena asked herself with a quiet giggle and a hearty grin, searching through the darkness with curious eyes. As she whispered, a small wall of earth smashed into the side of her head, knocking her into the giant puddle of gooey earth. A sharp noise rang through her brain, the product of such a hit.

"Cheap shot." She muttered as she stood, shooing away the darkness with a cursed wave of her hand.

Coast was right in front of her, and in surprise, Nnena took a key kick right in the stomache. The girl flew across the room, and landed just shy of the wall. The wound in which she had recived a shrukien to her arm was bleeding, and when she didn't stand, Nnena bowed in acceptance for her win.

"Now...I wonder how the others will goif I barely won this one..." She sighed and walked into the holding room.

Osore was out on the arena for the second time. He could not believe how quick the Khu battles were ending. Perhaps it was the great difference in experience and power of the opponents? What ever it was, it was different than the fights until now. The fight of Pandaren with Eitan was something spectacular. Osore had expected Pandaren to be spooked by Eitan. After all he had seen Eitan and his lackey exiting Pandaren’s dorm room. He had decided and went in just to find Pandaren on the ground. It had come as a good idea to tell him about Hammer, and in a way Osore believed now, that this had helped Pandaren quite a lot. The fight of Exodeus against the “fair” princess Radacia had turned out to be a disappointment. He had hoped that Exodeus would put twice the fight he had. Well, it could not be helped. What had really surprised Osore, was Varamance’s signature move. He could not completely read the energy, but he could agree with Dux Mann, when he had said that it was a sonic boom.

Osore’s first fight-with Mei’Mei, was not very interesting. He gave her a kiss and completely enraged her. Her concentration was lost and after that he took her down with a few “damn” spells. Sikko had beaten Orihimaue through his perversion. Garett had lost against Asakira. Asakira had used a “drown” spell, which hurled a stream of water from the tip of the coseis at the opponent’s head. The stream would then surround the head in water, forming a floating bubble and won’t allow the opponent to breathe. It was over the second Garett got hit with that spell. Poor Garett! He had been waiting to show his abilities, but was beaten in minutes. Now three steps in front of Osore, stood Asakira. The center of the arena had already changed its color, as the ground was still wet from the water spells that Asakira used a few minutes ago against Sikko. Osore intended to dry it in a matter of minutes. ”This match is for the Top Ten Finalist from the Khu sect. We have Asakira with his Marids’ lord Style and Osore and his Sorogedius Style!” Master Moone spoke.

The two students turned around to face the judges, bowed, then turned around to face each other, putting their coseis in front of their faces and slashing the air in a perpendicular line. They turned their backs to each other, took five steps forward and turned around, facing each other. Every one had seen the Khu fighting mixed until now- using both Khai and physical combat abilities. Osore had planned to make this one a true battle of Khai might. He took out his sword slowly and then threw it away. Asakira did not wait for any other suggestions. He threw down his sword and started his spell.

“Kaladu- Mei’kiu… Sahtua!” he shouted out. All the Khu students were cheering. Asakira was popular not only amongst his alumni but the lower grades as well. His drown spell (which he had invented himself) was legendary and until now everyone hit from it was defeated. Osore stayed still without casting a spell. He was waiting for the right moment. Most of the people watching started whispering, some wondering whether Osore was mad not to take his chance to attack Asakira when he was still concocting this difficult spell, others were wondering why was Asakira even bothering to cast such a complex spell on such a minor nobody, because most of them had never even bother to ask who he was. Finally the moment came as Asakira was near completing his spell.

Osore held a scorpion’s attack position, with his coseis acting as the sting, and started his spell: “Cannon Fodder!!!” a huge smile formed on Asakira’s face and he shouted: “Drown!!!” The water stream gushed out of the coseis and flew towards Osore’s face. Just as the stream was about to reach his face a basketball-sized fire ball got in the way and stopped the stream completely. This fire ball was the nearly completed “Damn” spell. The stream was cooling the ball. Osore released more Khai inside it, to make sure that the fire did not went out, and soon the fire ball was a little bigger than usual. “DAMN!!!!” shouted out Osore and the ball flew directly at Asakira, dispursing the stream coming from the water Khu student’s coseis. He was not fast enough and at the time that he had jumped off the ball had already exploded hurling him fifteen steps away. He got up, holding his left hand which was slightly burnt.

“Hey, Asakira, what da’ya say we end this thing already? I need to preserve my powers for someone who deserves my attention.” Osore snickered, coming closer and closer to his opponent.

“Why, you arrogant cur!!!” shouted out Asakira. Osore had accomplished his goal. Asakira was getting madder and madder. He was as close to Asakira as could be.

“Just one think I like to know. When she kisses you, does she put her tongue in your mouth too or did she did that now especially for me?” Osore whispered. Asakira shouted out in unprecedented anger lowering his coseis towards the ground.

“Canh…Soduoh….Caney… Mido!!!” he shouted out fearsomely. Osore knew what that spell was. The “Tidal Wave” spell was one of the most powerful water spell ever known. Most outstanding Khu student had to have either created a unique fatal spell or learned such, from their teacher. Most students nowadays usually learned one from their masters, but Master Hellfire had gone through the trouble of teaching him a way to make himself one on his own. Now was the time to show everyone what he had accomplished. He ran as far away from Asakira as he could and turned to face him.

“Sadarih-Hudis… Sedo-kiiiiil!” Osore shouted as he pointed his coseis towards the sky. A fire ball formed on the tip of the ebony stick. It looked just like the one from the “Damn” spell, but soon it started growing and changing colors. From darkly red, it slowly started brightening, until it turned orange, then yellow. The brighter the colors got, brighter the light the gigantic sphere of fire radiated. After five minutes the whole arena was filled with light and the now gigantic amounts of water that were gathering on the ground were illuminating it.

“Great Marid- lord of the oceans, gather your power and strike those who oppose you!!!!” shouted out Asakira raising his coseis. The water on the ground lifted itself, forming a whirlpool over Asakira’s head.

“Oh, you who are imprisoned. Arise and break your chains. Become destruction itself and invite hell to this World!!!” Osore roared. The sphere over his head broke its form as a huge fiery demon head appeared out of it. It opened its mouth and a loud noise echoed in the arena, which did not resemble anything that anyone had heard before. Asakira was shocked, but seconds after that recovered and continued on.

“Tidal… Wave!!!” Asakira shouted and the whirlpool burst out a powerful gigantic whirl stream. The judges who were near both of the students had long gone as far away as possible.

“Ifrit’s… Wrath!” the giant sphere grew no smaller than a basketball ball and flew at the approaching whirl stream. The second it hit the stream a huge explosion sounded off, stopping the stream in its advance towards the masked student. Splashes of water soaker the Plexiglas and cooled it down from the heat that the giant sphere had produced. After a few seconds, the water’s outflow on the Plexiglas stopped and everyone was amazed by the scene. Osore was standing still by his side. Asakira was lying down, facing the ground on the opposite end of the arena, his clothes- half-burned. The judges had gathered around Asakira.
“Amazing! He is only unconscious. The heat blast must have been to powerful for him to endure it.” Said Master Lotis.

“ But the burst should have turned him to dust!” Master Blackbird said. “A lot of concentration and experience is needed to control this burst to the fullest! You are an extraordinary Khu! No wonder Hellfire chose you!”

“Thank you!” Osore said, bowing down. The second he did that, a pain raped around his lungs and he covered his mouth with his hand.

“Are you alright?” two of the judges surrounded him. He coughed a few times and removed his hand. From his mouth ran a thin line of blood. The palm of his hand was painted in crimson.

“An after effect from the last spell. Nothing irregular.” said Osore and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Steam was coming out of his head. Probably the only reason he had not burned to ashes was the Khai he had used to cover his whole body. It protected him, but was in so huge amounts that led to him vomiting blood. The vomiting had stopped, but he needed time to rest.

“Alright, now go get some rest. You’re gonna need it.” Master Lotis said. Osore bowed to the judges, thanking them again and left.
(Friday - Part 2: Final Battles & PARTY!)


         Ren woke after only a few minutes as the pain in his side receded to nothing. A familiar face stopped him when he struggled upright.

         "Hey now, not so fast." It was Master Enzyme, the healer who had helped him the previous day. He smiled. "So, we see each other again after all."

         "Guess so," murmured Ren. "Oh, you're hurt!"

         Enzyme was bare to the chest, with a red-stained bandage over his ribs and several colorful bruises in various places. He laughed. "Ah, it is of no matter, better me than you. Nasty. You should be good to go in a little while, just rest now."

         "Eitan, Master? Where is he?"

         There were few folks in the make-shift clinic. The master gestured vaguely outside. "Not here. You only knocked him out, no real damage."

         "Oh."

         "There, see," said the master, misinterpreting Ren's concern. "Nothing to worry about." He pressed a glass of orange-colored liquid into Ren's hand. "Here, drink."

         Ren grimaced at the gritty taste but, under Enzyme's watchful eye, downed the entire contents. "Ye-uck, what is that stuff?"

         "Special concoction just to make you ask silly questions," laughed the healer. "Stay put. I'll let you know when you can go."

         In truth, Ren was in no hurry to leave the clinic. He knew that Eitan was out there somewhere, and he could not be happy at all with the outcome of their match. He delayed for another couple of hours, then quickly darted out and into the stands, to sit with the rest of the seniors where Eitan couldn't touch him. He knew he was being watched; the hateful glares at his back quite took away any enjoyment he otherwise might have taken in the competition.

         Eventually, though, he had to go back down and get ready for the final part of the competition, where the Top Ten finalists faced off against each other to determine Razi's best student. The judges called for an hour-long break to discuss and arrange the final matches. Ren was not alone in crowding around when the first round names were posted. He gaped. Varamance! He had to fight the kant student? He'd missed that battle, but everyone continued to talk about the sonic boom. The only other battle getting as much attention was the Khu battle, where a demon appeared and blasted the water khu into steam with its fire.

         "Tough luck," said someone. Ren nodded and returned to the locker room, dazed. He and Varamance had the first match. He went to the sink to splash his face with water, gathering his thoughts, thinking about their previous match, their attacks, his mistakes, and what Varamance had told him after. When he turned around, he ran right into a fist, swinging at him from the other direction. The punch spun him around and he fell, cracking his chin open on the edge of the sink. He blinked blearily up at a crowd of faces from his half-prone position between the sinks. Alarm quickly cleared his head.

         Eitan stood at the front of a pack of other students, some seniors, some 8th and 9th years. Ren recognized some. There was Gunnar to Eitan's left as always, Zelda, Dux the geomancer, and several more. Perched on one of the lockers was the little gossip-mongering chakra student, Tommy. Over the speakers could be heard Master Moone announcing the start of the face-off in only a few minutes, telling the finalists to report to their places. Her voice went on to describe the importance of such an event and to give a short intro regarding the Inter-School Competition, to be held in America this year.

         Ren shook his head and tried to get to his feet. Eitan kicked him, sliding Ren back under the row of sinks. He dabbed at the blood still dripping from his jaw and stared up at the other samurai, understanding now what he meant to do. If Ren didn't show, he would forfeit. Eitan had threatened to kill him. If Ren tried to force his way free, he would end up too physically beat to fight and it was possible that Eitan would be named his replacement. He could also get expelled, what with all these other students to bear witness against him. Or Eitan might actually carry through with his threat. Whatever he chose to do, Ren knew he would not win, and from the gloating look on Eitan's face, he knew it, had calculated precisely for just such circumstances.

         He trembled, scared to death, but luckily he still lay mostly concealed and in shadows. His mouth seemed to move of its own accord, "What, you didn't get enough of a beating earlier?"

         Before Ren could mentally castigate himself or even be shocked that he'd said that, Eitan struck. He moved fast! Grabbing an ankle, the larger boy threw Ren hard against a row of lockers, the others darting aside. Their excited chatter masked Ren's sharp cry. He stared up at Eitan and crawled backwards away from him, one hand slippery in blood from a gash along his forearm. Eitan paced slowly after. There was no disguising his fear now, no getting away from this fight or the others watching. Over the loudspeakers, Master Moone was calling for him to report to the stadium. Ren's gaze flicked upwards in desperation.

         The cold tile of a wall halted his slow progress. To his right was the empty space of the showers, to his left, more lockers and a corner around which was the exit. A mass of people stood between him and that dubious safety. He turned his gaze to Eitan, staring down at him, his face hard and still like a rock, his mouth the barest show of a thin line.

         "D-don't do this, Eitan!" Ren said.

         Others in the room took up that cry, mimicking the words, adding and taking away empahsis so that it became mockery. Tears sprang up in Ren's eyes and he resolutely blinked them away.

         "Get up," said Eitan. "At least try to act like a samurai."

         More laughter, especially now as Ren's tears were plain to see to those in front and they spread the word to the rest. Ren bit his lip and pressed a bloody streak into the wall as he stood, legs shaking, to face Eitan. The samurai held up his hands.

         "I d-don't want to hurt you!" Ren cried.

         Eitan answered by punching him in the stomach. Ren crumpled, but was held up, to take several more punches before Eitan threw him again. Dazed, Ren landed on his back over the lip of the showers and cracked his head on the floor. He could only gasp, the pain was so great, staring through his tears as Eitan approached once more. He really did mean to kill him!

         Master Moone paged him again.

         Ren took in several shuddering breaths and swung his leg in a kick. Eitan lurched sideways; his fellows pushed him back upright. Ren backed up again. Although Eitan's face had not changed overly much, he looked absolutely delighted that Ren had at last struck back, that he was choosing to fight. Ren swallowed. This was far worse than the scene in the lunchroom, but this was no time to debate the pros and cons.

         There was nowhere to go but into the showers, wet as they were. He gained some distance and stood up on trembling legs. Drawing back an arm, Ren concentrated as he had with Varamance and jabbed his palm toward his attacker. Eitan staggered under the blow, but he kept advancing. He was almost within reach now. Ren had time for one more attack. Eitan might be unskilled at hand-to-hand, but with his superior strength and size he would quickly overpower Ren in these close quarters. Ren's head spun and he didn't trust any of his more complicated moves, so he settled for another punch.

         Eitan closed the distance in a rush, his hand engulfing Ren's and twisting viciously. The bone broke with a snap and Ren screamed for the agony, cut off as Eitan grabbed him by the collar and shook him. Feet dangling, Ren kicked, knocking Eitan's knees out from under him. They dropped and Ren blacked out for a scary few seconds. He woke just as suddenly, gasping, scrambling, with Eitan's hands around his throat. He was picked up and slammed repeatedly against the wall. With one hand Eitan pinned him there and punched Ren again, against the very spot he'd been stabbed earlier. Ren would have screamed except he suddenly couldn't breathe. He coughed instead, spattering Eitan with blood. He stared down into those maddened eyes and whimpered.

         Master Moone's voice came over the loudspeakers again, with Varamance's victory by forfeit and starting the next match between Exodeus and Convex.

         Eitan grinned. Ren reacted, half-maddened himself with pain and fear. He swung wildly with his uninjured hand, snarling in a rural Chinese dialect, his face contorted with a desperate rage. The blow never landed, but there was a crunch and they both dropped with identical splats to the tiled floor. Hunched over and cradling his broken arm in his lap, Ren dragged himself away, to be desperately, violently ill in a corner.

         "Here now, what's all this?"

         That authoritative voice scattered the gathering, but there were more masters and they herded the students together in a tight group. Master Yoshi shoved his way through the throng, going to Pandaren's side. The boy pulled away, tried to lash out at him, but the old master evaded the attack with care. Then Master Aikido was also there, weathering the confused chaos of blows to subdue the boy until healers could stick him with a tranquilizer.

         Master Aikido looked at Master Yoshi. As one they turned towards Eitan. Master Physica shook her head. "His neck is broken."

         Aikido lifted his lip in a snarl, as much of a show of temper as he'd given in many, many years. "Get him out of here. And them!" He waved his arm at the dozen or so students, "Bring them. And somebody fetch Master Maestro."

         "We should get back to the competition," said one of the masters. "Forestall any awkward questions."

         "Not so fast," said Master Yoshi, catching the young Tommy by the collar as he tried to sneak away again. "You stay with me."

         Yoshi wended his way up to the box where Master Maestro sat with a few of their more important dignitaries and a handful of other masters. All progressed as normal. No one even suspected that anything had gone amiss. Kagami and Dante took the floor as Yoshi leaned forward to whisper into Maestro's ear.

         "What?" Maestro whispered, shooting to his feet. Yoshi cleared his throat, glancing significantly at the others in the box.

         Maestro bowed. "My apologies, Ladies, Gentlemen, but something has just come to my attention and I must deal with it at once. Master Tyro," he gestured at his seat. "Please see to it that our guests have everything they need."

         The sage sect leader stood and bowed his acceptance.

         Maestro followed Yoshi from the stadium and into the administrative complex. Yoshi prodded Tommy to tell the headmaster what had happened. Master Maestro's face grew sterner and more forbidding with every step. At last, on the steps of the main building, he stopped, scowling at Yoshi.

         "This is all your fault, Master! He should never have fought. Damn you for going over my authority."

         Master Yoshi shrugged, not at all affected by his once-student's ire. "It needed to be done. How was I to foresee this as the result?"

         "You should have!" Maestro snapped "And you should have respected my decision!" With a hand on Tommy's arm, Maestro propelled him inside. After speaking with each of the conspirators separately, Maestro gave orders for them all to be contained in their rooms, seeing to it that all their masters were notified. Maestro would be writing them all reprimands to go in their records. Further punishment would come from each of their masters. Then, steeling himself, he went over to the infirmary.

         Pandaren was in the main clinic, everywhere else being temporarily occupied by guests, and watched over by two masters. They hadn't touched the boy; he sat on the edge of a bed, holding his arm, his face white with pain, but otherwise bereft of any expression at all. Master Physica had returned to the stadium, but Master Enzyme waited there, rolling out supplies onto the counter to one side and looking anxious. From time to time, Ren coughed, his breath rattling in his lungs.

         "Master Maestro!" Enzyme started, as he saw the master, but halted as the headmaster whipped up a hand.

         "Pandaren," said Maestro. The boy's eyes lifted to his own, and there was only a defeated acceptance there. Maestro groaned inwardly, but he kept his voice hard and firm. "Speak, Pandaren. Tell me what happened."

         Ren opened his mouth, paused, and closed it again. He shrugged with one shoulder and returned to staring at nothing.

         "If you cannot speak on your behalf," said Maestro coldly, "then your actions must speak for themselves." He waited, but there was no change. He glanced at Yoshi. The old master looked alarmed.

         "Eitan started it!" piped Tommy. "He was going to kill him! I," he shook his head. "I didn't know, Master, that that's what he intended, or I wouldn't have been there. I swear!"

         Maestro had kept his eyes on Pandaren, but the boy stayed silent. Despite his anger, Maestro felt pity stir inside him. He sighed.

         Turning to Master Aikido, he said, "We must have a discussion with the other leaders in my office once the festivities are fully under way."

         Aikido nodded.

         "Do not waste your skills," Maestro told Enzyme, shaking his head as the healer started to object. "Once we've decided what's to be done, then perhaps. Later. Now I must get back. Stay with him, Enzyme, the rest of you, we have duties yet." Aikido looked like he might object, but Maestro waved him off. "Tommy," he added, "you shall breathe a word of this to no one, understood? You and I will discuss this with your master tomorrow."

         Enzyme didn't wait for the masters to all leave before he started on Pandaren. The boy barely moved as he cleaned and stitched and wrapped bandages over the gash on his forearm. He flinched only slightly as Enzyme set and splinted the arm. He seemed like a puppet whose strings had been cut, moving only when the healer moved him and staring through everything with a blank expression that sent shivers up Enzyme's spine. He stitched and bandaged the cut on Pandaren's jaw and cleaned up several other smaller wounds that did not need tending, before he wound tight wrappings around the broken ribs and bid the boy to sit back against the raised bed, practically biting his fingernails to keep from doing more.

*          *          *

         The closing ceremonies were spectacular. The nine Top Ten Finalists were all brought out to the floor and draped with their heavy golden medallions. Varamance received a standing ovation as he received the winner's cup. All nine students looked worn and tired in various ways, but excitement and pride was on all their faces. They were going to America!

         Outside, all the tables and chairs from the great hall had been moved out beneath the stars and their were fireworks and loud music, dancing and games, food and food, and more food! There were a great number of entertainers hired for the evening and the party spilled out over the whole of the campus, the one night of the year when training was set aside. Saturday would be a quiet day for families and visitors, but Friday night was a party! and would only end in the hours after midnight when everyone was at last exhausted. Even the youngest students had no curfew this night.

         The finalists had a table in the center and everyone pressed around them all night long congratulating them. Most of those injured in the day's events were also out enjoying the celebrations and the others of their sects took great pains to describe and pantomine the great battles. The judges, too, were swarmed with attention, both from the visiting dignitaries, and the students.

         There were more obligatory speeches, of course, to start everything off, and a parade led by Chinese Dragon Dancers up to the feasting area. There they sat and ate and had more speeches and watched the massive fireworks display and Master Maestro kicked up his heels on the dance floor with Master Physica, starting off a playful dance competition between some of the students and even a few masters.

         With so much going on, the fun and the excitement and noise, very few recognized a slight tension in the air. The tenth finalist's absence had never been explained, but even fewer realized that, there was just too much going on! Slowly over the course of the night, the crowd thinned, the older folk leaving the late-night revelry to the younger ones, who would more easily recover on little sleep, and even the debris was left until the following day, to be cleaned up before a late breakfast.

         But there was a smaller subset of people who had business to attend to. Master Maestro and all his sect leaders, plus Master Yoshi and Master Hokkaido, Master Enzyme and the student Pandaren, retired to the headmaster's office for a long discussion.

         Pandaren stood in the warrior's stance between Master Yoshi and the healer, Master Enzyme, to the right of Master Maestro's desk. Maestro leaned on the front of his desk, rather than sit behind it, and the other masters sat in a circle around him, crowded into the small room. They argued. They shouted. Maestro listened. He did not speak until all the others had all voiced their opinions and his voice was dull and tired.

         "Master Aikido," he said formally, "Pandaren is your student, what say you?"

         The Sect-Leader for Samurai stood. He found this hard to say. "Master, the evidence against Pandaren is exhaustive. Perhaps he provoked that fight, but the worst of the fault lies with my other student, and with me, for not instilling better discipline within my sect. That such as this could --" he shook his head in mute apology. "I shall step down at once."

         "No," replied Maestro. "We are all to blame, perhaps, but me most of all. See to your students, Aikido. I would not have you go. What say you about the competition?"

         "I do not wish for Pandaren to represent my sect, my school ... that should be his punishment."

         "Fair. Who would you send in his place?"

         Here Aikido hesitated. "Cleon perhaps," he murmured. Of the rest of his seniors, only Cleon and Konotori had not been swept up in the madness.

         Master Hokkaido stirred, though he had been silent until now.

         "Yes?" asked Master Maestro. "Master Hokkaido, as Head Judge, you would speak in this matter?"

         The occamy master nodded. "There is no doubt in my mind that Pandaren should represent this school for the Samurai. He acquitted himself well this morning. I have never seen anything like it before. Even from what I have heard of the other fight he did well, and struck only as has been taught, to end the matter, life over death. That should be rewarded, in my mind."

         Maestro grimaced. "You would have me ignore murder?"

         "It was self-defense," Hokkaido replied. "I thought that had been agreed upon. Our skills are meant to kill, that is what we are for, is it not?"

         The headmaster ignored that mild rebuke. "I should rather send no one at all!" he snapped. He turned, including both Heart Sect healers in his question, "Master Physica, Master Yoshi, what say you?"

         Physica shrugged. "He can be healed well enough to travel. Our wounds today were not grevious, there is enough to spare. I think he should go."

         "I do not," argued Master Yoshi, casting a worried glance at the silent and still samurai student. "He needs a different kind of healing that cannot take place under the strain of this competition."

         "Pandaren," said Maestro lastly, "have you anything to say?"

         The words seemed to come from far away. "No, Master."

         Maestro frowned, his head pounding in time to the drums outside. He drummed his fingers against his folded arms as he thought. "We are," he said slowly, "decided that this matter does not rate expulsion, but we are equally agreed that this cannot be left unpunished. Unfortunately," he scowled, "I am of a mind with Master Hokkaido. Pandaren goes. But," he added quickly, "whatever the result, he shall not return." He shook his head. "I cannot in good faith award Pandaren a master's belt, even should he pass. Let me speak with my counterparts in these coming weeks and see if I can find a place for him. This is highly unprecedented, but I think we can all agree that this matter shall not be spoken of again."

         Heads nodded all around the room.

         "Good." He tapped his fingers some more. "Masters, our trouble with the Ronin grow. You know this. We must stand strong together." He frowned as he cast a look at Pandaren, who still stared blindly into the distance. Master Maestro's voice dropped in volume, but retained its strength. "I trust I do not need to say what a danger Pandaren could be to us, should he fall into the wrong hands." He stared hard at Master Yoshi. "Master, come with us. Please. Keep him out of trouble, Master, I beg you."

         Then he stood. "The airship comes for us on Sunday. Let us put this mess aside and not let our guests or students know that anything is amiss. Speak of this to no one. Tyro, the school shall be in your capable hands until I return. That is all."
A Non-Existent User
Kagami answers to the call. He walks off to the arena. He had no interest in advancing the competition but he didn’t have a heart to abandon the fight since his sect mates enthusiastically cheer for him. Satsuki even gave him a set of his arm protector. “It may prove useful in the top 10”, he said.

When both he and his opponents steps into the arena, Master Maestro suddenly excuse himself from the crowd. “What could possibly happen till he has to take care the matter personally?” Kagami notes that in his mind. He glances to Kaito who seems to understand his signal and reply with a nod.

“… and Dante with his Vicious Hound combat style.” announce Master Moone. Both fighters bow to the judge and to the each other.

I hate being on the offense. Kagami pulls his needles put them between his fingers as he swiftly dash towards Dante. Dante casually pulls his guns; he blocks Kagami attacks using the gun’s handle. His vacant arm triggers a point blank shot aim at Kagami’s. Kagami’s block the bullet using his new acquired arm guard but the recoil droves him further from Dante. Dante kicks Kagami in the chest and shoot another bullet. Kagami accepts the kick and use its force to dodge the bullet by a hair breadth.

Knowing he won’t have another chance at close combat, Kagami put some distance. He pulls his’ crossbow and a moment later the arena becomes a range battle. Bolts vs. bullets. Kagami shoots off a bolt and received a rain of bullets. Kagami run all over the arena jumping vigorously to dodge those bullets while trying to get closer to Dante and reload his’ crossbow. Eventually, a bullet is nesting in Kagami’s crossbow jamming the device. Unable to use it, he frantically running, dodging the bullets from Dante’s revolver.

Dante’s seems impatient, his aims is less accurate then before. Probably because Kagami’s efforts to constantly dodges his bullets. Suddenly, he stops after reloading his bullets. His brown eyes look like a wild beast ready to seize its prey. “You have become a bothersome prey. Run all you want. But now, you won’t be able to hide.”

Kagami’s mind recognize this is a good opportunity to strike. But the sudden change of his enemy makes him doubt his thought. He prepared his stance, preparing for something that is unknown to him. Dante aim for Kagami and let off a bullet from his left gun. Kagami dodge the bullet easily but cold shivers through his neck. He watches Dante who seems to be concentrating and suddenly Kagami realizes something.

You won’t be able to hide? Could it be? He quickly looks behind, the bullet is ready to smack him. He dodges the bullet, but the bullet still gives him a scratch before it hits the floor. Before Kagami’s able to reason what happened, Dante shot another bullet. This time is from the right gun. Unable to doge, Kagami put his arm guarding his body blocking the bullet. After the impact, a scent of hot iron spread in the air. The bullet is burning, it even melts the iron of that compose his arm protector.

“Ow, shit. And I just got this” Kagami commented on his arm guard.

“Your next”. Said Dante.

“Maybe not.” Kagami rushed towards Dante. Dante use normal shot to keeps Kagami away. It’s heaven or hell. Kagami clapped his palm, creating the same light when he fought Satsuki. After the lights faded, Dante can see Kagami; his palms still stick together looks confused. “Failed, eh?” he said.

“Guess again.” Kagami’s voice comes from behind Dante. Before Dante react, he received a blow to the neck and he fell to the ground.

“You’re maybe a wild lion. But I’m still the most cunning fox in here.” Said Kagami. He took one of Dante’s revolvers. “Nice gun, perhaps I should ask you to make me one.”

***


Kagami sits with Kaito who were able to make Tommy spills the secret. As an informant, he is a more reliable source than Tommy. They were discussing the incident secretly. But now, they have forgotten about everything what happened today and enjoy the night like every other student.
Night was pushing forwards, creeping down and pushing down the day. The sky was a palette of blue and black and red… White chiffon clouds simmered to a dusky blue as the sun collapsed into its bloody red miasma of light behind the silhouetted mountains. The stars were peering out from behind the speckled cirrus, squinting as they woke up for their nocturnal reign. Above the peaks of the mountain range, the moon was faithfully reflecting the sun’s rays across the city, turning the buildings into black obelisks beneath its eerie glow. The horizon still glowed an electric pink as the twilight settled completely. Ansuz looked up from the bloodied body on the tarmac ground and let a warm gust of city air swirl about him. Sun down was always a suitable time to die, or kill, as the case would be. There was something poetic in it, a romantic justice… A cliché.

With a frown he turned his eyes back to the carnage splattered over the narrow alleyway. The man had been from Samurai, the belt around his waist told him. Not a very strong one, admittedly which aggravated him… There was so very little satisfaction in killing a traitor if he was weak. The muscle of the left arm was sliced open as it lay twisted and unmoving at the dead man's side, the pale skin bright against the dark ooze of blood that drizzled from the gash. Similar marks were gauged into the rest of the well toned body. Such hard work… such little skill… The Samurai had been slaughtered like a screaming pig on the way to its doom. Crouching down, he pushed against the cold shoulder and let the body roll over so he could see his slack face. His cheek was ruptured open and the eye was shot red. Slowly he closed those eyes, noting the dull green of them and used the blood to make up the ritual of passing on. He didn't much care to linger where he had fought but he would honour the dead. He always honoured the dead.

Tugging on his hair, he freed it from its loose braid and let it tumbled down cross his neck and the long fringe fall over his face like a mourning veil, he stood. The falling stars were soothing the world about him to sleep and the humid night had taken over from a blazing day. Los Angeles was sighing as the busier metropolitan area along Long Beach and Santa Ana grew in the darkness. Lights burst on and sounds cascade down… Only a thrum on the air where he stood. El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula The city of angels was readying itself for the tournament of the year… This was the time to see the best of the best, the young ninjas with the greatest potential, at their finest. Ansuz turned his back on the dead man, pulled his black suit jacket back on and headed for the buzz of life that quivered in the distance. There was no point in remaining here.

Empty coke cans were crushed into the side of the pavement as he walked, the dark stains of gum on the cement slabs seemed to being spelling out a Morse code message, his eyes were lowered, best not to attract attention. The walls were slick with spray painted graffiti and boasted profanities across the perfectly smiling portraits of models and idols. Strange scents wafted, sweet tangs of rotten fruit from within green bins and sour flavors from pasteurized foods, the remains of a Chinese takeout spilled over the edge of its disposal container. He grimaced, each pungent odor crept through his nose and squeezed his sinuses and ran over his tongue and rubbed raw the back of his throat. A waif woman blew past him in a short skirt and skinny polo, she didn't pay much notice, though he couldn't help but chuckle at her. The disguise was good; a sage no doubt, probably looking for the man he had just killed… but not even alert enough to detect the blood spatters on his collar or the long staff in his hand. Then again with everything in so much confusion as they prepared for the tournament… it was hardly surprising that they had begun to lose their touch.

The stadium and the hotels being used were fairly central to downtown, so that was where he was headed. He needed to some how become part of security in order to be close enough to the students taking part and assess them. He already knew of some to look out for, namely Varamance of RAZI academy, there had been rumors about him for months now. But he was just one, there had been a couple from his old college, Haileybury, though he was fairly certain that most of that was purely British nationalistic pride. Afterall, the people who actually tended to do well from Haileybury, were the under dogs, not those who were signed up immediately and died within their first year. There were the twins. Two girls who worked as the perfect double team. A little stab of jealousy coursed through him at that. Apparently they were the most dangerous in their school, he'd heard some of their co-students debating over whether or not it was fair to allow two people to fight as one. He'd been angry at that too…

He sighed and glanced at the sky, turning green over the city, the clouds almost a stagnant shade of orange in the burn of the street lamps. He was staying in the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, had been for about three weeks now and was booked in for another few, apparently 'on business' for a new trade company that wished to invest a new sect within the city. His disguise was working so far. The finely tailored suits he donned everyday, though not necessarily as practical as he may have liked, were apt enough at creating the general air of a business associate. His secreted sword, hidden in his deliberately designed sheath, he leant on as a walking stick, stride lumbered by a limp an expert would have recognised as the result of apparent osteomyelitis, perhaps that had gone untreated for a long period of time in his youth. In this guise, there was no sign he had ever been a ninja. Or at least, he didn't scream out like that girl had done back there. He looked the part of a self-made man. Well dressed though slightly rough around the edges. In other words, striking enough to catch attention, but not enough to maintain it. At least he was sleeping well.

The hotel was rising out of its amber eyed sidewalk as he approached. He took up his limp, heaving one leg over the other carefully in the precise way of the practised. Feoh would have been proud of him, having never thought him subtle. Then again both had bantered over who was better of the two of them, though secretly they had known they were equal. He wondered what the girl twins would be like. As the hotel mounted to full height over him, he closed his eyes and felt the cool lick of the thermals warming itself across his skin and he sighed. What would be different now? A purple coach was drawing up, the first few students climbing down from the warm interior and shivering in the evening air, some looked wary, others interested, others perceptive, others withdrawn. The corners of his lips twitched ever so slightly downwards as he sighed and pulled up the collar of the jacket to hide the blood on his shirt. Soon some would have to learn that life, not war, was the hardest obstacle to hurdle… And only some would be victorious.

*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

(This is Virgo's add)

“Riko.”

Wordlessly, Riko moved to her sister’s side and pulled her blades from their sheaths at her sides and raised them against Nanami’s dagger-like weapons.

They shifted in tandem and struck one another with the same force, like two swans they danced, forwards and backing up, parrying one another’s blows like a finely tuned instrument, they were in beautiful harmony. Blow for blow they matched one another, dodge for dodge they moved so it was hard to tell them apart, but for the weapons they carried. Nanami’s sai’s and Riko’s wakizashi swords, and neither could touch the other, for they tired at the same pace and they knew each other’s moves so well.

It was Nanami who called a halt to their warm-up, though from an outsider’s perspective it seemed as if they stopped and sheathed their weapons as one. Riko couldn’t help but follow her sister’s idea, they had a lot to do in the coming weeks, for now, they were on airship duty with a couple other’s from their school. They were supposed to greet the airships upon arrival (though none had arrived, nor would arrive at five in the morning) and show the fighters to their rooms. Much to Nanami’s displeasure, though Riko disagreed, she liked seeing her competition up close, make a few jibes and throw maybe a barb if she particularly didn’t like whoever waltzed her way. Nana wasn’t in the competition, so of course she had no reason to see what she was up against, she’d be in the hospital, tending to the wounded when they came to her ... if she felt like. Nana was funny sometimes and refused to tend a patient, for various reasons, but usually for ulterior motives, that ‘healer’s sense’ that Nana had gotten, but Riko had ignored. She sighed quietly, a tightly controlled excitement tingling in her fingers, she was in the competition, Nanami having chosen to remain out of it, because of her ‘delicate nature’, psh, whatever, Nana wasn’t delicate, she had the nastiest bite of the pair of them, Riko was just louder and often said what was on her twins mind.

A tug on her hair and she glanced round to Nana’s blank face, “What’s up, Nana?” She said.

Nanami glanced around curiously, “Weren’t we supposed to have a partner?” She murmured, flicking on the landing strip lights and moving to take a seat.

“Yeah. Her name is Kitty.” Riko murmured.

“Ah yes, the clumsy little Sageling.” Nana said disdainfully, looking to the sky.

“Hm.” Riko said, sitting next to her sister, silent communication passing between the pair with subtle glances and movements. The wind was starting to pick up and whip their hair about, Riko’s eye’s squinting, “Rain.” She murmured.

“How unlucky.” Nana replied.

“Mm.” Riko agreed, turning to face the new presence that had appeared in her range, “You’re,”

“Late.” Nana said, glancing at the girl that nearly tripped as she ran up to the twins.

“M’sorry, there were some brambles and my pants and we should never have met.” Kitty said, looking down.

“See that,”

“It doesn’t happen again.” Nana leaned against Riko, giving a cold look to the apparently offensive sight of the other girl.

Kitty shrunk back, “I said I was sorry ...” She grumbled, following after the twins.

Riko kind of felt bad for trying to intimidate the girl, really, but she could never apologise for her sister's actions, it wasn’t her nature, so she continued to walk the field, check things for problems, make sure the landing fields were free of debris while Nanami moved back to the main room to check the schedule. She handed Kitty a broom and instructed her to start sweeping the dirt from the hangar, as the wind had blown in some excess of annoying ... stuff, that would be a pain if the airships got it in the wrong place. She took up her own and began helping sweep, digging out a dustpan and sweeping the offending material into the trash.

Nanami watched her sister, a careful, but aloof eye watching the scene with muted interest. In truth, she found little that her narrow world allowed her to find some measure of emotion towards, other than her sister, but it was a distinct loyalty and deep-rooted affection for her younger sibling that kept her from going completely insane. Everyone around her was just so ... inferior, and it drove her crazy, knowing all the ways that she could just ... use her ability, sever an artery with just a touch and they’d die in less than five minutes for certain, from bleeding out. It would be simply too easy. Like this girl for instance, this Kitty, which had gotten her on this idea in the first place. This clumsy, useless ninja, (gods weren’t they all?), it would be so easy for that girl if she just died, and didn’t interfere with anything ...

Nanami looked up sharply, Riko was watching her, her eyes concerned as she set aside her broom coming over, “Hey.” Those thoughts again, “Are you okay?”

“Fine.” They keep invading, “Why do you ask?”

“You had a face.” Do you need to talk?

“My face is the same as it always is.” No. Nanami pinched her forehead, just like when they were little, when they had played with Amille, their dog and Nanami had wondered what it would be like, Riko had made her give pause and return to reason, “I’m all right.” Thank you.

“All right.” Love you. Riko played with the ends of her older sister’s hair.

Nanami gave a rare smile and graced her sister with a brush of her lips against the forehead, Love you too. “Come on then.” She checked the schedule, “Someone’s coming in about noon, we need to clear up the space and make sure there’s room.”

Kitty ran from her room toward the airship landing zone. She couldn't imagine why Claretta hadn't woken her as promised, but what did Claretta care if she was later. That was definitely strategic blunder one for the day, depending on the girls sense of morals and fair play. It hadn't occurred to Kitty she'd still be sore about loosing to Kitty the week before in the competition.

Her school uniform had been dirty, and the clean one was missing from her closet somehow, so she'd thrown on a pair of brown slacks with a matching top. As she ran she tried to braid her hair. It was going fairly well really, if only she'd used the pathways instead of trying to forge her own to get their more quickly.

She was just starting on her second braid when her pants snagged on a huge patch of brambles. How could something like that happen to her? She tugged at the pants, but it became very clear, very quickly that her pants would rip if she kept that up. There was really no choice in the matter. She had to slow down and carefully untangled herself from the mass of sharp edged plant life. By the time she was done her fingers were covered with painful little abrasions.

"I'm so late, what will I tell them?" she asked the brambles, which unsurprisingly gave no reply. Again Kitty began running, finishing her braid just in time. Nanami and Riko were sitting near the switch for the landing strip lights as she hurried over. The landing lights were on, but she had a feeling there was plenty left to do.

The twins fascinated her with their easy communication which seemed to go far beyond the words they spoke, or even body language. She felt she could study them for hours without pause, but doubted they would tolerate such open curiosity. She had settled for watching them whenever convenient, careful not to keep them under her gaze too long.

Riko seemed much more straightforward than Nanami, although occasionally, like when they told her she was late they seemed like a single person divided into two bodies.

“M’sorry," Kitty said, having hoped to explain before they got upset, "there were some brambles and my pants and we should never have met.” Kitty looking down, reappraising the damage. The pants were snagged, she could only hope no one would notice. If they did notice she hoped they wouldn't comment, and wouldn't think she'd meant any disrespect greeting them in such a state.

“See that,”

“It doesn’t happen again.” The two said and Kitty shrunk back from them. Why did people constantly use that tone on her? She hadn't meant to be late, and besides they hadn't been stuck doing that much without her.

“I said I was sorry ...” she grumbled, following the two and feeling very inferior for some reason. Normally she would direct and plan things. As a Sage senior she'd been charged with doing so to test her abilities of analyzing the needs in situations and properly directing others. For some reason, however, when someone else was willing Kitty felt the need to allow them the lead. Therefore she found herself being directed to sweep, and she didn't object. It seemed like a good thing to get done at any rate, so why cause ripples.

She stole frequent glances at the twins. In all honesty she'd been pleased to be assigned the same duty as them. They were so fun to watch, and now she had all the excuse she needed to do so. All she had to do was work at the same time. Just after noon the three of them were standing to greet the incoming ship. Kitty shifted a bit uncomfortably as she watched the airship land.

If only that uniform had been in her closet where she'd left it. At least none of her books had gone missing. She sighed, knowing that no matter what happened all she could do now was go with whatever happened and try to make the best of it.
(Sat/Sun/Mon)

         Saturday morning dawned chill and quiet. Guests and students alike rose late in the morning, the night's activities already swept away. Families spent the day together in long walks and conversation and the harbor stayed busy all day as guests began to depart. Behind closed doors the school bustled with activity as preparations were made for the finalists to journey to America. There were uniforms to fit, passports to arrange, and supplies to gather. Each school was required to provide additional judges and healers, for with the hundreds of students participating in the competion, the preliminary rounds would all take place concurrently in different locations.

         Opening ceremonies, Master Maestro noted as he reviewed the schedule, would take place Tuesday afternoon, and the first matches would begin Wednesday. He and his students would arrive Monday, so they should have plenty of time to adapt to the hot, dry environment, and the difference in time zones. Of course he knew that Master Hokkaido had already sent ahead the list of finalists and the size and names of the rest of the team, but Master Maestro still stared at the list.

         Varamance, the best student he'd had in many a year, would certainly do well, he had high hopes for that one. Exodeus was a cause for concern, being that the lad was likely to be humiliated in the tough competition he would be facing. Still, Maestro could not fault the judges for their decision. There was Osore, and Maestro smiled a little. Khu had very nearly stolen the day again, and Master Suitengu was well-pleased, if a little disappointed. He was going to have to give the man another raise. Nnena and Kagami had been anticipated, Convex and Quack were something of a surprise, and Dante had proven once again that his choice of weapons was not a fluke. Coast was an acceptable substitute for Hammer, though Maestro still hoped he'd pass his final at the end of the year. And then there was Pandaren.

         Master Maestro scowled. He'd brought in his old master specifically to work with the boy, because he could get results, but his presence was not an easy thing. He knew from his own experience that Yoshi was an unpredictable old ninja, and this fiasco was yet one more reason why Maestro had greeted the old man's retirement with such relief. Oh, for sure the students he tutored prospered, but Yoshi's methods were bizzare at best, and Maestro was often left cleaning up after his messes. He had a report to write to his superiors now and, while it would have been bad to admit to an uncontrollable trainee, now he had a death.

         Deaths in a ninja academy were not wholly unexpected or unacceptable, but the circumstances of this one would not make for a comfortable interview. Maestro had argued to accept the boy when the monks had applied to the Republic for assistance; now he would have to construct a report that justified his position once more. Giving a ninja, even a half-trained one, to another nation was borderline treason. He would have to first speak to the Samurai World Sect-Leader. If he could get the ninja master on his side, then the battle would be half-won, but convincing the master was going to be difficult, and Maestro did not have much time.

*          *          *

         In his bed in the hospital, Ren stared, unseeing, at the ceiling, oblivious to everything except for the pain in his body and the numbness in his heart, a great gaping nothingness that had swallowed him up. Everything hurt, his back, his head, his arm. Just breathing hurt. Master Physica could give him little for the pain, as the doctors for the competition were even more strict than those of the Olympic Commitee, and the healers could only apply their talents in small stages to keep from exhausting themselves, or him. Healing could sometimes be as or even more painful than the injury itself.

         For Ren, Saturday passed almost unbearably slowly. He didn't want to see anyone; he didn't want to talk to anyone, but the healers would not let him alone. There was constantly someone in the room with him, checking readings, writing on the chart, poking and prodding him, asking questions, and the all-important bits of healing. Master Yoshi was there with him, which wouldn't have been so bad if the old master would just have been quiet, but he insisted on talking. He alternated between chivying Ren to eat or drink more or to get up and walk a little, and pestering him to meditate, to ease the healing, to ease his broken heart. As much as Ren wanted to tell him to go to hell, to just leave him be, he could not. Yoshi was still a master and Ren was still a samurai. The best he could do was to sleep as much as he could.

*          *          *

         The airship taking the students to America arrived well before dawn on Sunday morning. The great dirigible was too large to land, but there was a great lift that reached down out of the belly of the craft to accept its passengers. The students, drowsy and inclined to be grumpy, bunched together in their new uniforms. They had identical bags slung over their shoulders, with more uniforms, standard fare for their sect but in Razi's colors of red and gold, plus a few additional necessities for the few formal occassions and times when the students would have free time.

         Ten students would be boarding, accompanied by a coterie of healers, their Headmaster, Master Moone, Master Yoshi, and the four judges. Master O transfered the limp form of Pandaren into Master Maestro's arms as the lift settled and the passengers started to climb on board. The headmaster gave his deputy, Master Tyro, a few more last-minute instructions, and then he, too, entered the lift.

         The living quarters of the airship hung below the giant gas balloon in a boxy contraption with two levels. The top section was the working area, for the pilot and crew. The bottom section was for passengers. Forward was an open space, with windows to all sides, lots of comfortable seating, and a small bar and snack station. In the middle, next to the ladder to the working section, was the actual dining room and restrooms. Further back, the airship was sectioned off into small, 2-bunk compartments. The rest of the ship was for cargo and supplies and the huge engines.

         They placed Pandaren in the last compartment and let the other students stow their gear, and then the airship lifted once more and headed east, over the sea. Within an hour they passed over the islands of Japan and then they were out over open water. Master Yoshi took up his watch in the bunk next to Pandaren's, produced a book from his bags, and settled in for the long trip. From time to time one of the healers would poke his or her nose in to check on them, but would go away again directly.

         Master Physica and her assistants had placed Ren in a deep slumber the evening before to work on mending the crack in his skull, a delicate process that needed the full concentration of the healers, and was a very taxing endeavor. Those healers were not accompanying the Razi delegation.

         Ren did not stir until early afternoon. He turned his head and looked at Master Yoshi. "Where are we?"

         "Aboard the airship, on our way to America."

         "Oh." He digested that information.

         When Master Physica brought them lunch, she checked Pandaren to see how well he was healing, and then said that she wanted him to get up and stretch his legs a bit. When he tired, they would do some more work, and then he would have to rest again. Ren surprised himself with his eagerness to look around. He'd trained in air craft for his equipment class, but he'd only learned some hovercraft and the few float planes that Razi owned. He'd never even seen a dirigible before. They were high above the clouds now, there was really not much to see, but he wanted to look anyway. He really wanted to see into the pilot's seat, but Master Physica forbade any climbing of the ladders.

         Just the short walk to the forward viewing lounge was tiring. He paused, suddenly uncertain and nervous. The other masters were mostly in their quarters, but there were many other passengers, and the students were all present in the lounge, sitting apart or talking to each other or staring out the huge windows. They all turned to stare at him as he came in, though most looked away again just as quickly.

         Osore, Kagami, and the umbra student, Nnena, sat around a low table playing cards. Master Yoshi moved towards the bar, and Ren stood at the door a minute longer, feeling like an intruder. A sudden swoop of the airship decided him; he made his unsteady way over to one of the window seats. He stretched his legs over the seat and leaned back against a bulkhead, shifting the sling around his splinted arm awkwardly. He dozed for a bit, leaning his bandaged head against the window. Another swoop of the airship woke him as he bumped his still sore head and he sat up, to look out. There wasn't much to see, just clouds and the ocean far below.

         "Hey."

         He blinked up at Varamance. The kant student sank down opposite Ren, by his feet. He handed Ren a glass of water, nodding his head at Master Yoshi. Ren sighed and drank.

         "Missed our battle Friday," said Varamance, looking out the window.

         "Yeah."

         "It would have been something." Ren shrugged, but Varamance continued, "Maybe we'll see each other in the finals this time."

         Ren didn't answer, staring out the window and taking a sip of water.

         "That's going to be quite the scar."

         Ren looked at him. Varamance had his finger along his chin. Ren ducked his head, shrugged a little, and took another gulp.

         "Who won?" he asked weakly.

         "Me." Varamance smiled, a bit of pride, perhaps, but otherwise perfectly straightforward. "Osore came in second."

         "You're the first Kant in --"

         "Close to twenty years, I know."

         "Congrats."

         "Thank you. I'm looking forward to competing against the other schools." He looked over the other students. "We're a good team. We will do well this year."

         "Pandaren." Master Yoshi beckoned. Master Physica stood beside him.

         Varamance quickly moved aside as Ren laboriously stood and left the lounge. He returned to Exodeus, shaking his head.

         "What did he say?" asked the crystal student.

         "Not much," sighed Varamance.

         "He seems even quieter than normal," Exodeus observed.

         "Yes," Varamance agreed with a frown. "He's lost something."

*          *          *

         The place chosen to hold the Ninjutsu International Competition was a collection of fields and buildings that had hosted the Olympics some years before. One of the track and field stadiums was converted into a landing field for airships and a collection of battery-operated vehicles stood by when the party from Razi disembarked from their blimp. Traffic was heavy, the air heavier still.

         The heart of the city, Los Angeles, California, had temperatures in the low nineties, even in May, and little breeze, a far cry from the ocean-sprayed island of Razi. The welcome party consisted of a translator, the headmaster of the host academy, the Head Judge for the event, and the official Competition Physician.

         Master Maestro didn't need the translator, he spoke English very well, and greeted his old friend with a deep bow and smile of greetings. They shook hands warmly.

         One of the assistants handed Maestro a thick packet and they directed the group towards the main buildings for check-in.

         "Although," said the healer, "since you have wounded, perhaps you should go directly to the hospital and do all your work-ups first."

         "Thank you," replied Maestro. "We will do that."

         "My students," said the American Headmaster, pointing to the golf carts, "will take you there. It is good to see you, we shall have to talk over dinner."

         "Indeed."

         The delegation from Razi settled into the carts and were taken, as promised, to the hospital. There, each contestant had to undergo a thorough medical screening. A shorter one would be done before each battle, to make sure that no one tried to fight with illegal augmentation. The healers clucked over Pandaren's still mending bones, but they agreed with Master Physica in that he would be fit to fight on Wednesday, when the competition was set to begin.

         "He will rest," Master Physica assured them, when the healers wanted to keep Pandaren at the hospital. "We will tend to his injuries ourselves, thank you."

         From there the group walked to check-in, situated in a vast, echoing building toward which seemingly hordes of people walked in every minute. There the judges left to go to their own quarters and follow their own check-in procedures; and all the healers, except for Master Enzyme and Master Physica, went to theirs. The students and their team received their packets gratefully and signed all their forms before being directed to their quarters. They had a section within a collection of adobe-style buildings with red tile roofs for their stay, sharing with the delegation from a school in Germany who had not yet arrived, and a school in the pacific islands who were busily settling in.

         Master Maestro gathered his students and masters together in their main rooms.

         "You may now all wander the grounds, but stay within the campus," he told them. "Stay in groups and make sure that you have someone with you, at all times, who can speak English. Be polite and behaved. Wear your school jackets, and carry a map. The time is now two o'clock local time, they're several hours ahead of us. I want everyone back here at five o'clock to change for dinner." He smiled. "This is an exciting time for you, my students, but take care that you stay out of trouble." He held up a hand before they could all run off. "One last thing. Keep your passport and your competition ID," he held up the square badge with its picture in its plastic case, "on you at all times. Do not lose them. This is not the Republic. The rules are different here. Keep that in mind. Now, off with you then!"

         The students all nodded obediantly, chattering excitedly as they tossed bags on beds and settled in or changed, or gathered in groups to go explore. The girls took one room to themselves and the boys divided up equally in the other rooms. Ren ignored the chatter and sank down onto a bed, exhausted.

         Master Yoshi followed a short time later, the house falling silent around them. "Are you asleep?"

         Ren suppressed a sigh. Why couldn't the master leave him alone? He shook his head slightly without opening his eyes. "No, Master."

         "Good, then we shall meditate."

         This time Ren did sigh. "You always want to meditate, Master."

         "It's good for you. Stop arguing."

         The strength of his dislike surprised Ren. He turned his head towards the wall to hide his expression. Master Yoshi had done so much for him, he should be grateful, but he felt angry instead, resentful.

         Master Yoshi pulled up a chair to Pandaren's side. He reached over and placed one palm over Ren's forehead. Ren winced, groaning and twisting weakly under the master's grip.

         "Easy now."

         "I'm going to be sick," Ren murmured, opening then swiftly closing his eyes again.

         "It'll pass," replied Master Yoshi. "Faster if you quit fighting me."

         "I'm not fighting, Master."

         Master Yoshi smiled and laughed quietly. He would probably never get accustomed to a samurai arguing with him. "Relax."

         "I ... don't ...."

         "Shh." He spoke softly, drawing the boy into his meditations, setting him into his trance. Yes, so easy. Pandaren had no mental defenses to speak of and now he could get some actual work done. The only true difficulty would be in hiding his ministrations from the competition healers, but Yoshi was confident in his abilities. He'd been one of them for many years, after all, he'd designed the tests, wrote the manual on illicit augmentation. He knew all the tricks, and Yoshi was still the best.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

This is Anton's add:

Kagami walks around aimlessly in the lounge of the airship. There isn’t a real necessity to put on formal attire in the airship, so he wears his straw sandals. This airship is kick-ass, but it’s been bothering him for this few minutes. He will spend hours just to sit around, talking nonsense and sightseeing. C’mon, the academy is better than this. There is always something going on in that place. His eyes catch an unused deck of cards. It’s better than nothing. Minutes later, he already drag Osore and Nnena to table.

The game is going around Kagami’s pace. His two adversaries are not pretty good at this, so it’s kind of a let down for him. The door suddenly opens and Pandaren comes in. All the students paused and gaze at him for a while then return to their previous activity. From his seat he saw Pandaren take a seat and being approached by Varamance. They both talked for a while before Pandaren is being called by an old man who seems to be a master, accompanied by Master Physica. The three of them then left the lounge.

“Varamance, how is he?” Kagami ask Varamance when he and Exodeus passing their table.

Varamance only shakes his head.

Kagami stare at the exits of the lounge “Now, it’s really up to him to get back on his feet.”

“Maybe, but we can still support him.” Exodeus responded.

“Problem is, how much will it help?” said Kagami, shuffling the cards in his hand. “Anyway, no matter how eager we are to help him, I don’t think we can visit him in the near time.” He stops shuffling the card, and prepares to divide the card “So, are you up to a game?”

*          *          *

After a welcoming party and a long talking, the students are allowed to explore the campus ground. Kagami’s tingling all over with excitement wondering what he may found in this place. He looks around and spotted Dante, his former foe at the competition who is fluent at this country’s language. “Hey, cowboy. Let’s take a walk. With you around, we shouldn’t get into trouble.”

Note: Matt is taking over Varamance's char.

The telephone had been ringing when he arrived, it's conical ear peice rattling on the hook as he shut the door carefully behind him. He frowned. Who would be calling him here? Now? Especially on something as unsound as a telephone. Slowly he picked up the reciever, held the mouth peice to his lips and spoke,

"Who is this?"

"Who else but I? Legum servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus."

"Damnant quodnon intelligunt. Aeneas, why are you phoning me?"

"We heard tell of another, Pandaren of RAZI." The sibilant voice sighed after each word, a rasp catching in the faraway throat, "Apparently he's a Samurai but he has skills which might be associated with Kant. They want you to watch for him. See if he's worth looking into."

"And you couldn't just write to me because...?" Ansuz was verging on angry as he listened to the younger man's rattling voice.

There was a silence, broken only by the heavy breathing before the line went dead. Ansuz scowled. The Authorities were losing their cool when it came to this tournement. Using a phone should have only been part of a last resort. Wires could be tapped, accidently come across, words overheard. There was greater risk when something invented by the new science was used as a means of communication.

He scowled, dropping the dead machine to the table with a clatter and moved towards the window. Outside he could see the last few blimps carrying their cargo of uninitiated Ninja cresting the horizon. He felt a nagging in his chest as he remembered his first journey to this same competition. His naivety then... He had thought it so glorious, his destiny to fight and kill and win wars for his country and his people but war had turned out only to be glamourous to those who had never known it...

Narrowing his eyes, he wondered what to do. The task had been accomplished. He had removed a traitor from their midsts. Perhaps he should go to the pool, relax for a little while, do some lengths, see if any of the new generation would turn up there. After all... if they did it would be all the easier to figure out who it was he was to be keeping an eye on later. Just how good a ninja was should be quite clear even in his or her free time, as long as one knew what to be looking out for. Which was why his job was to become all that much harder, with so many Master's about he would be at greater risk of discovery. But then again, it was the risk that made it worth while.

*

Varamance let the others about him talk, musing to himself, head on hand. Today had been an interesting day, revelatory in some ways and baffling in others. The spark of competition and aggression he'd seen in the eyes of the students he knew he would eventually be fighting had stirred his blood; perhaps some of them would give him a challenge. On the other hand, he could feel his mind sifting over, time and again, the lost look of desolation on Pandaren's face, the forlorn woe which had unmistakably taken over in his time of sickness. It was a shame that they had not fought before… It was a pity because Ren had been the one person he'd really felt testing recently. Of course, the people about him now: Exodeus, Kagami, Osore… They were all good sparring partners but he always knew, even when it felt he was falling behind, that he could still defeat them.

Sighing he stood, nodded to the others and excused himself to ready himself for dinner. He had wanted to go to the pool first and work out his travel tired limbs, but wondered if he'd now have time. Exodeus seemed as if he might follow for a second but then thought better of it when Nnena shook her head and called him back. It wasn't exactly what he'd expected of her, but then again he hadn't been paying much attention to them in the last few minutes and perhaps she had noticed. Walking swiftly now, he strode through the warm, red papered halls towards his room. They had about and hour and half before dinner, he'd go to the pool, see what was what and if any of the other competitors were there. It was useful to know a little of those you fought though he had often wondered if man would fight with man so easily if they were forced to know each person before the battle. It was infinitely easier to battle with a stranger than a companion, despite knowing the friend more intimately. For some reason that thought lead him back to Pandaren…

The boy was an entity. With gifts like his it was no surprise that he wasn't a superb samurai. It even surprised him that someone like him would have been selected for that Sect when it was so blatant that he did not belong there. It was impossible to mould someone's very nature into something it was not. So why had he been chosen? Why not another Sect? And why was this power only emerging with such ferocity now? His curiosity over the strange warrior had only increased since their battle, emphasised by the tragedy of his situation now. It would be very interesting to see how he did now.

Rounding the corner he saw a man in a suit coming along the same corridor, a distinctive limp making him wince slightly. For some reason it seemed overly burdensome for the character heading towards him, the otherwise proud stature suggesting importance, professionalism… The limp just made him seem like a veteran, as odd as it seemed. Yet at the same time, he knew something was off. Varamance felt the hairs on the back of his neck pulling up the skin on his neck a chill running down his spine at the dark haired stranger. Then they passed, their arms brushing and he knew he had to find his towel and release the ridiculous amount of tension within him before he started imagining even weirder things than he already was…

*

The pool wasn't exactly buzzing when Ansuz arrived, though he didn't much mind. The fact that it was nearly empty bar three or four others meant that he could swim around for a little while without feeling as if he had a job to do. The group was hardly being quiet in their discussions, excitement obviously overruling reason. Slowly he laid out his towel on one of the beds. Mild, muggy and heavy with the scent of chlorine, the pool was a peaceful, dancing miasma of cerulean blue light that glittered like jewels in the enclosed space, he almost regretted disturbing the unbroken surface as he waded in. It was like stepping into a piece of sparkling perfection, though he knew it wasn't. No one looked at him as he pushed off from the side and lounged out into the otherwise empty water. No one was too bothered by the business man with a limp. Perfect. Just keeping his ears above the water he began to stroke along the edges of the pool…

"What do you think the competition'll be like?" A girl with short, black, cropped hair was reclining on a bed to the side, talking to a pair of boys on either side of her.

"Dunno… I'm kinda nervous… I only just scraped through to getting here so…" The taller of the two boys responded, his large feet dangling over the edge of his lounge, "I'm worried I'll disappoint the Master's expectations of me."

"I'm not." She bit him off part way through his last word, scowling, "And you shouldn't be either. We got here. That's better than the others."

"But haven’t you heard about some of those other people!?" The gangly one was talking again, "There's some here who already have bloody fearsome reputations. Master -"

"That's enough!" The girl was almost snarling by this point and Ansuz smirked, she'd be an interesting one to watch. She certainly had guts.

"Senna…" for the first time, the thin faced boy spoke. His mouth seemed too big or his face, his eyes slightly shadowed by his low brow and heavy eyebrows. There was an ugliness to him that Ansuz couldn't place, his face just seemed to be made of an assortment of other people, not one inch looking natural to the skinny frame, "I'm not scared. But I still think we should remain cautious."

"Of course! Fear is for fools, caution for the wise. We have to make sure our inhibitions do not confound us."

Ansuz had heard enough and ducked his head under the water, opening his eyes to the stinging blue depths of a submarine world. It was as if, beneath the surface, you were imbued with a new internalised strength. A strength that was infinite. He pulled himself forward, meters taken in one drag of his arms. This was why he swam. The burning in his lungs that made him feel alive, the ease of pushing forwards and the force of pulling back. With one, final stroke, he burst up to the surface, throwing his head back and drawing air deep into his quaking chest. Then back o relax on the surface, contemplating what he knew… What he would need to know. How he would find out.

It was then that a cool rush of air swept across the water, the door opening a closing as the RAZI student from before stepped into the room. The group on the side stopped talking, fell into silence. It was no wonder really. He wondered if, like him, they could feel his reiatsu, the Kant energy that had fleetingly escaped him as he entered. Briefly, he found himself contemplating that something must have shocked the youth into that wave. But found himself distracted as he dumped his belongings on a bed and dived into the water without a second thought. Perhaps he could engage him in conversation? Perhaps he could enchange some 'friendly banter' about the competition whilst they were here. It wouldn't be too surprising. Would it?
Nanami was looking around and, though it didn't show on her face, she was jumpy around all the new faces, all the people... She'd never liked people to being with, and now with all these new ones invading what she had labelled as 'hers' she was more on edge than ever.

"Nana." Riko murmured, "You're making me antsy, knock it off." Riko found it all fascinating, seeing all these people from other places... those people from R.A.Z.I. were more interesting than all of the rest. They seemed to know what they were doing more than those ones from the German academy. They just seemed like a bunch of muscle-heads determined to throw their weight around. Riko's nose wrinkled and she turned away from the group and led her sister off before some of them formed any funny ideas.

"Riko you're paranoid." Nana said softly, her eyes darting towards the RAZI group curiously, obviously she was intrigued by them as well. It was fortunate that they both had learned several of the languages spoken here by the various schools.

"Not paranoid. I just don't like smelly men." She whispered, looking over Nana's shoulder, "Who's that?" She asked, pointing to the limping man heading towards the pool, "I've seen him around, but..."

"You're paranoid Riko." Nanami replied, pushing Riko in front of her, "Stop seeing..."

"Conspiracy theories everywhere. Yeah I know." Riko mumbled irritably, falling into step with her sister as they moved towards their room, as their duties at the airstation had been completed. "But... what if there are?"

Nanami sighed impatiently, "Don't be silly, what could possibly go wrong here?"
Kitty watched with fascination as students descended from the RAZI blimp. She'd run a bit late getting back since she'd been discussing the competition rules with a short boy named Felsen, a German Geomancy student. He seemed so eager and wistful. She'd hated to leave.

Even more amazing than learning about German culture first hand had been speaking to a native in their own tongue. It was one thing to know a lot of languages and speak with the instructors and other students using them, but to speak with a person who'd never spoken anything but German! He'd understood her well too, even complimented her.

She blushed a bit as she rushed to join Nanami and Riko. They each had a golf cart now and had been transporting students from the landing area to their rooms. The twins both stared daggers at her as she pulled in behind them and she shrunk back uncomfortably. She was late again. Silently she cursed her luck. It was rare for her to be late, really and she seemed to be making enemies today with her unusual tendency.

"Sorry," she mouthed silently. Nanami looked away pointedly and Riko half rolled her eyes. Kitty sighed, knowing she was not forgiven. Her eyes drifted back to the RAZI students.

The Headmaster was speaking perfect English. She immediately admired the easy way he communicated. The German Headmaster had been hopeless, and the translators would have plenty of work with him alone. As Kitty peered at the gathering she sorted the attending Masters from the students, trying to determine their sects by the way they looked, acted and moved.

The injured boy was difficult to pin, the way he stared impassively made her think Samurai, but there was a depth of emotion in his every move that was most definitely not right for the sect. The elderly Master near him seemed familiar somehow, but she couldn't place him. Perhaps he'd made it into some history book or maybe he was active in politics?

Kitty shook her head and moved on, her eyes finding an olive skinned girl with silky black hair. She was athletically built and exuded confidence. Kitty thought she could be just about any sect but Samurai with such confidence. She discarded sects until she'd narrowed it to Khu and Umbra, unable to narrow further.

"...to the hospital and do all your work-ups first." Kitty was startled to hear, but it made sense with an injury to be treated. A moment later the RAZI students and Masters were approaching the carts. A slender boy with a crystal on a choker around his neck entered her cart.

Kitty blinked in surprise as she eyed the boy. He had to be of the Crystal sect, but where was his primary summon? Was it something small, hidden in his pockets or perched on his shoulder? She looked more closely, but didn't see it anywhere. These RAZI students were surprising, and confusing as well. She had a million questions bubbling up inside her.

"Welcome to America," Kitty said enthusiastically in Japanese.

"I was hoping I'd get to practice my English," a girl grumbled, and Kitty immediately identified her as Sage. She was a good Sage, nondescript as could be. The kind of girl who could easily blend in anywhere and Kitty felt an immediate surge of jealously, which she smothered with happy thoughts about her other skills. Inwardly she sighed. She'd gotten here by luck really, and it was only a matter of time before everyone figured that out. She was top of her class, but her competition had just all been having bad days that day.

"I'm sorry," Kitty replied softly in English "we can speak English if you wish."

"Oh, Convex, that's no fun. Now I don't understand her at all," the unusual Crystal student objected. Kitty flashed him a broad grin.

"Or we could speak Japanese, as you prefer," she continued mischievously in Japanese.

"No, it's okay, I won't stop Convex from her practice." The Crystal student replied. Kitty flashed him a smile and returned to English. Convex was amazing, though she was terribly moody, so much so that Kitty picked up on it during the short drive to the hospital. That moodiness could work to her advantage, she mused.

Already she was thinking of Convex as the competition, and trying to find holes in her abilities. One thing was certain, she knew more languages than Kitty. Language would be a poor battleground to choose. She'd come out looking useless if it came to that. Convex was skilled in her chosen focus.

Kitty sighed as she parked the golf cart and watched the twins departure. Now she had what remained of the afternoon to herself. She knew what she should do. She needed to locate her uniform and wash the others as well. She didn't have a huge closet of clothes, and hardly anything was presentable. No one had noticed the snag in her pants however, or at least they hadn't commented.

The thing was, there were all of these people here and she wanted to talk to them all. Even better might be to find a group and become part of it, then she could listen to them communicate with each other. The knowledge she could gather about them that way would be vast! On the other hand speaking one on one with them in their native languages could be great fun as well.

She supposed the pool might be a popular destination, so she started her walk in that direction but was quickly distracted by the Crystal boy she'd more recently transported to the hospital. She followed him for a bit, he seemed to be looking for something. Finally, she decided to speak.

-*-*-*-*-*- Stormy's Post -*-*-*-*-*-

Exodeus looked out the airship window, watching the clouds float by. He wanted to know what had happened to Pandaren exactly, but he knew if he asked, no answer would be forthcoming. He stared at the shapes the clouds made, and felt a shiver of sadness as one shape became a snake coiled and ready to strike. He missed the familiar weight of Vie, the way she always seemed to be there, ready to comfort him whenever he felt any kind of feelings of loneliness. She had always had this knack for knowing when he needed her, and she was always there. He shook his head, trying to wipe out the image of her body on the arena floor, the last he’d ever see of her.

A weight settled down next to him, and he looked up at Varamance, who looked out at the clouds as well. “Brooding?” he asked, and Exodeus shrugged.

“No, just thinking,” his voice was softer than he’d have liked, but he didn’t bother to try to make up for it. Varamance offered him a small smile.

“Brooding then. You’ve lost as well, will you let it stop you?” Exodeus turned away from Varamance, and looked out at the clouds again. The snake was now just a patch of fluffy white.

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Are you?” Exodeus shook his head.

“Yes,” Exodeus answered, and he turned to Varamance once more. “What is your point?” Varamance sighed.

“I’m not one for speeches Exodeus, but I have to say this.” He paused, as though to make sure Exodeus was listening. Of course, he was. “You aren’t weak. Get back up.” With that, Varamance squeezed his shoulder, and stood up, returning to the group and leaving Exodeus to wonder about his words. Exodeus looked out the window, remembering the feeling of Vie, remembering what she had given him.

If it hadn’t been for her sacrifice, he would either be dead, or simply not going at all to this competition. He wouldn’t have been part of the top 10. Vie had given him hope, Vie had given him a chance. Vie had always, always given him love. He stood up, feeling a slight surge in his spirit, Vie had loved him, and he wouldn’t allow her sacrifice to be in vain. He turned to the others, and smiled at them.

“Can I join the next round?”

*****

Exodeus knew he shouldn’t walk off without someone who spoke English, but honestly, he didn’t want to involve anyone with his problems. He took a look at the map and looked around. The practice areas were around here somewhere, he just needed to figure out where.

“Hello,” came a soft voice from behind him. He blinked, turning around. He had been so involved with finding the practice area that he hadn’t noticed someone a mere foot from him. It was a girl, bright eyes filled with a kind of pleasure he couldn’t understand. He bowed lightly, she was one of the girls who had driven the carts, therefore, she was an American student.

“Hello,” he said, lifting from his bow and looking right at her. Her emerald eyes seemed to be fascinated with him, and he found the direct stare she gave him somewhat disconcerting. “Can I help you?” She gave him a bright smile.

“Can I help you?” she returned the question to him, as she lightly bounced up on her tiptoes, returning to stand flatfooted. He watched the bounce, his brows knitting in uncertainty.

“Excuse me?” He knew she spoke Japanese, at least, somewhat. He wondered if her knowledge of the language was limited.

“Can I help you? You seem a bit lost.” No, Exodeus nearly nodded, she knew how to phrase the sentences, she was fluent. He almost sighed in relief. He wouldn’t have known what to do if she had only a passing knowledge of the language. He looked down at the map in his hand.

“I’m looking for the practice arena, any of them,” he pointed to the one closest to them. She looked over his shoulder, and one bright blond braid hit his arm gently. He was surprised by it’s thickness, she must have a lot of hair.

“Oh, you’re almost there, would you like me to guide you?” He nodded, and she started walking. Not so fast that they would reach their goal in a timely manner, but not so slowly they were crawling. Exodeus knew what was coming next. He was almost certain she was from Sage. “So, what is it like at R.A.Z.I.?” she asked. He tried not to groan, he was right. He wanted to get to training, but here he was, about to start a conversation with someone who probably wouldn’t want to let him do anything but flap his mouth for hours.

What is wrong? I don’t usually care if someone wants to talk to me. He looked down at her, at the way she was waiting, her whole body almost tingling with excitement for the answers he might give her. He gave her a small smile, what the hell.

“Well,” he started, looking around, “It’s not so hot?” She smiled, and turned her head to him.

“That’s your first impression of America?” she asked, and he nodded.

“I guess so. Actually, I don’t know much about this place, but it seems so much more…” he looked around himself, searching for the right word. “Open.” She looked around as well, her brow furrowed.

“Open? You think this is open?” She seemed to be trying to match the word with her surroundings.

“Well, there are more buildings, and,” he looked around as well, “but I’m more used to lots of tree’s. There don’t seem to be many trees.” She nodded.

“I can see that. You’re from Crystal, aren’t you?” He nodded, one hand lightly touching his amethyst. “Where is your summon?” she asked, trying to sound nonchalant, but he could feel the curiosity oozing off of her in waves. He took a deep breath, this was always so difficult to explain.

“Well, Vie is…” he trailed off, took a breath, and shrugged, “gone.” She looked over at him. He didn’t want to give too much information to the enemy, so to speak, so he left it at that. She blinked a bit.

“Gone?” she asked softly. He wanted to trust her, the way she seemed so innocent and… he knew it was just her Sage abilities getting to him no doubt. This was the way they defeated their opponents, by talking them to death. Well, that and by digging out more information than they wanted to give. He nodded, a bit stiffly this time.

“Gone,” he said firmly. She turned and opened a door, holding it for him.

“The practice arena,” she said. He walked through and watched as she turned on the lights. Yes, this is what he needed, somewhere to work on the summons he couldn’t control completely.

“Thank you,” he said, trying to be polite, but also wanting her to leave.

“Do you mind if I watch?” she asked, and he looked at her. Did it matter? Yes, he decided, it did.

“I’d rather be alone for this.” She didn’t seem put out by his comment, but merely smiled.

“Alright, good luck,” she held out her hand, “I’m Kitty.” Exodeus looked down at the hand, and shook it.

“Exodeus,” he said. She grinned.

“I look forward to talking to you again,” she said, and Exodeus found, as he let go of her hand and she left, that he was looking forward to it too.
(Monday night)

         The chatter and clatter of the returning students woke Pandaren. He rubbed his eyes. When had he fallen asleep? He sat up stiffly, seeing that Master Yoshi napped in his own chair. Ren yawned and swung his legs over the side. He woke the master with a light touch on his shoulder, then went to the bathroom for a quick wash. Master Enzyme was there, soaking in one of the hot tubs, and helped Ren with the bandages and splint, wrapping him back up again when he was finished.

         The students all dressed in their semi-formal uniforms and gathered in the main hall as Master Maestro had requested. Ren couldn't stop yawning, and the new binding around his ribs felt uncomfortably constricting, but he was down to those and the splint on his arm, so he supposed he ought to be grateful for that. The clothing itched, straight black slacks, though some of the girls had skirts, sandals, and silk shirts, half red-half gold. They had jackets, too, mostly red, with gold accenting, and "RAZI Academy" written in big black letters across the back. Now that the sun was starting to go down, so, too, was the temperature dropping, surprising in the amount of difference from the heat of the day.

         When the masters arrived, dressed similarly to the students, Master Maestro led them across the former-Olympic Village towards the vast dining hall. They joined the line through the buffet and the masters all hailed various other masters as they went. All, with the exception of Master Enzyme, had attended the competition many times in the past. Ren looked up as he took his tray to find Master Yoshi beside him again. The old master smiled even as Ren fought back a scowl.

         Master Yoshi leaned forward, to whisper, "I'll be sticking to you like a leach, young Samurai." Louder, he said, "Let me help you with that, Pandaren."

         The process was mostly unfamiliar to the Razi students, but they picked up the means from those who went before, pointing out the foods they wanted and accepting plates and bowls from the servers interestedly. In the buffet were foods from every country and Dante siezed upon several ears of roasted corn with a cry of glee that made the serving ladies laugh.

         "Corn! Do you have popcorn?" asked the occamy student, in his mostly unaccented American English.

         "For you," replied the lady, "we'll have some tomorrow!"

         "Yes! Thank you!" He grinned at the other, rather perplexed, Razi students. "Popcorn! I haven't had popcorn since I left home!" He sighed.

         Ren stayed quiet, pushing along his tray and trying not to pay attention to what Master Yoshi placed there. All the noise and crowding of the dining hall made him distinctly nervous. There was so much color, too, as all the competitors wore their school colors. The delegations were all different. Quite a few didn't even have the full complement of sects, perhaps they were too small, or more selective. Kant and Crystal were small sects, they numbered the fewest. Samurai, Khu, and Umbra were the largest and almost every school had a competitor for that sect. The Occamists were easy to pick out because of the way they guarded their weapons, eyeing each other jealously, and setting them apart from the Samurai who were very physical, bumping into each other and bristling like dogs looking for a fight. The others were harder to pick out, except possibly for the Sages, who for the most part looked too scholarly to ever hold their own in battle.

         Master Maestro separated from the group and sat down with the other headmasters. Master Moone led the Razi students to a long table towards the far side of the room from the buffet. Ren ended up sitting with Master Yoshi on one side and a towering physical specimen on the left. The student would easily have made at least three of him. He had long, black hair tied back at the nape of his neck, bulging forearms under a sleeveless tunic of black and green, and a ferocious set of eyebrows.

         "Uh, hello?" Ren stammered, as the student looked at him. He bowed his head politely and tried to remember the few words of English he'd been taught.

         "Hello," said the stranger. "I am called Whale. Samurai. Samoa Islands."

         Ren blanched as he figured out what that meant. This huge tower of a man was his Samurai competion from the Pacific Islander school that shared the courtyard with them. He didn't look to have a weapon, either.

         The giant, Whale by name, reached over and patted Ren on the top of the head, saying something that had his mates laughing.

         "He thinks you're cute," Convex translated, sitting across from Ren.

         "What?"

         Coast, on Convex's other side, snickered.

         "They think we all are," Convex explained. "We're so small, to them." She looked over at Whale and said something rapidly in his language. The samurai blinked at her for a minute, then responded.

         "He's a wrestler," said Convex. That did not make Ren feel any better, at all! The samurai could easily have made a fantastic sumo wrestler. If he had to face this student, he'd have to stay well out of his reach. If he ever got caught in those huge arms, it'd be all over.

         Whale asked her a question, then stared at Ren when she answered before turning to his mates again. They all were approximately Whale's size and crowded around to stare.

         "I told him you're a samurai, too," said Convex evenly. "He's surprised."

         "No kidding," muttered Ren.

         "He wants to know how you got hurt."

         Ren shook his head, glancing at Master Yoshi. The Islander next to Convex ruffled her hair and grinned. She grinned back.

         "They think we're all really small, but they've noticed that they're unusually large, compared to most of the folks here, though there's a couple from Iceland and Russia that could match them."

         "Good grief!" said Ren. He poked at his food as Convex got into an animated conversation with the Islanders. There were only five of them, from Samurai, Khu, Heart, Geomancy, and Chakra. They all knew some halting English, but were overjoyed to speak to Convex in their own language. Master Yoshi effectively blocked Ren from the rest of the table conversation, so he slumped on the bench quietly and tried to eat, but he wasn't really hungry, still feeling that the time was far too early to be having dinner.

         "There'll be exhibitions tomorrow," said Master Moone over the chatter, apparently in response to a question, "and video of last year's competion will be playing in the Auditorium tonight. You may go if you like, but we have an early practice time in the morning, so we have an early curfew."

         Master Yoshi looked at Ren. "Eat."

         He sighed, poking at his rice with his chopsticks. Under the master's eye, he forced down a few more bites.

         "Oh, that's neat!" exclaimed Convex. She turned to the rest of them. "Niue School is going into the city tonight and are inviting us along!"

         Master Moone looked over, sharing an inquiring glance with the Islanders' apparent chaperone. The ninja nodded.

         "They're going to a 'circus'?" Convex puzzled over the unfamiliar word.

         Master Moone nodded. "It's a show, with animals, acrobatics, comedic," she explained. "Very American."

         "Actually, the circus originated in Europe," Dante said. "Can we go, Master? It'll be so much fun!"

         "I will speak to Master Maestro," answered Master Moone. Then she smiled. "But I think it safe to say that, yes, you may go if you like."

         Dante whooped. "Yeah! Come on, you guys! This'll be so cool!"

         Talk of the impending excursion dominated the rest of the discussion. After Master Moone returned with the appropriate permissions, they rose as one big cluster and trooped out together. The Razi students split into two groups, some going with Master Moone and the Pacific Islanders, the rest going in a separate direction with Master Enzyme. Master Physica held Ren back.

         "Not you," she said. "You need to rest."

         Ren's shoulders sagged. "Please, Master?" he asked, eyeing the others with longing.

         She shook her head. "No. But don't worry, there will be other opportunities to go out. You need your rest. Tomorrow we'll finish the job on those ribs and your arm, so you can pass your physical in the evening." She looked at Master Yoshi. "Take him back now, please, Master, and see that he sleeps."

         Master Yoshi nodded and set his hand on Ren's shoulder. They turned away and Master Physica hurried to catch up with the larger group. They walked back alone towards their quarters.

         "Pandaren."

         "Yes, Master?" Ren didn't look up from contemplating his feet as they walked.

         "Victory is the Way."

         Pandaren froze. Straightened. His face went very carefully blank.

         Yoshi smiled and turned towards the shadows of the building they walked next to. "Ansuz. Come out. We must speak."

         The blue-eyed Occamy master stepped from the shadows. "Master Yoshi," he said. His eyes flicked towards the silent student.

         Yoshi smiled. "He can do nothing without my permission. He won't even remember this meeting."

         "Still at your old games, I see."

         Yoshi's eyes flashed. "Do not question me, Ansuz! Walk with us a ways." He turned and continued down the sidewalk, the student following like a grim shadow.

         Ansuz frowned, but fell in beside him. "I did not know you were coming, Master."

         "Nor did I, but, as you can see," he gestured behind them, "it has been profitable." He turned cold eyes on the other man. "Tell me why you are watching Pandaren and not Varamance of Razi."

         Ansuz flinched. "I received word today to --"

         "From whom?"

         "Aeneas."

         Yoshi swore softly. "Damned fool. Find out who gave him that information. Kill them both. You take your orders direct from me, now. And, Ansuz," he held the other's gaze, "I am not accustomed to mistakes from you."

         He bowed his head slightly. "No, Master."

         "Varamance is your target. Try not to do too much damage."

         "Yes, Master."

         "I have other plans for Pandaren." He smiled. "You shall see. Varamance I want. The others are disposable."

         "Yes, Master."

         "Go. I have work to do."

         As Ansuz faded away, Yoshi turned his attention back to Pandaren. The boy was starting to look confused. Apparently, his hypnosis had not taken as firmly as he'd thought. He would have to fix that.

         "Pandaren," he said, "you will forget everything you have seen and heard since we left Master Physica. Understood?"

         The boy shook his head, but answered in the affirmative, "Y-yes, Master."

         "Discipline is strength."

         Ren stumbled and fell to his knees. He felt Master Yoshi beside him, hand on his arm.

         "Pandaren, are you alright?"

         Blinking, Ren shook his head. "I ... yes, Master, just dizzy. I ... must have tripped."

         "You're tired," was the master's response. "Come, we are not too far now."

         When they reached the house, Master Yoshi insisted on another session of meditation, and then a series of gentle exercises before sending Ren to bed. He didn't wake when the others returned, but sometime in the early hours of the morning he stumbled to the bathroom, to be horribly sick. He sat on the cold tile with his back against a wall and closed his eyes, feeling absolutely miserable.

         "Pandaren?" came a whisper from the dark.

         Starting, Ren looked up, wiping his mouth. In the dim glow of the nightlight, Osore looked even more sinister than usual, especially as he wasn't wearing his mask. Ren looked away.

         The khu student came towards him and sat down beside him. "Are you okay?"

         "Yes."

         "You're not."

         "Leave me alone."

         "You know, Hammer was disappointed not to see you."

         "It doesn't matter."

         "Oh?"

         "Just leave me alone!" Ren closed his eyes and looked away, biting his lip. He was feeling queasy again, but didn't want to throw up in front of Osore. He hadn't thought he'd eaten enough to be feeling this sick.

         "Should I get Master Physica? Or Master Enzyme?"

         "No. I'm fine!"

         "That's not what it sounded like." He sighed, an irritated, grumpy sound. "I'm just trying to help."

         "I don't want your help! I don't --"

         With a half-sob, half-groan, Ren jumped to his feet and raced lurched into a stall. His stomach clenched and he doubled over, but there was nothing left to expell and he collapsed to the floor, eyes streaming, throat burning. Silently, Osore handed Ren a cup of water. He rinsed his mouth.

         "Thanks."

         Osore draped a towel around Ren's bare shoulders, for he was shivering, wearing only a pair of thin sleep-pants.

         "I hate my life," said Ren quietly after a long moment.

         "Why?"

         "I'm cursed."

         "You need to have a little more faith in yourself."

         "Easy for you to say."

         "You know nothing about me! Don't presume that my life has been easy!"

         "I ... I'm sorry." He huddled closer under the towel.

         Someone else entered the bathroom, yawning, and turned towards them. Stopped. Fumbled for the lightswitch. They all blinked at each other.

         "What are you boys doing up?" asked Master Enzyme. He came towards them. "What's wrong?"

         "N-nothing, Master!" stammered Ren.

         "He got sick," said Osore. Ren glared. "Well, you did."

         Master Enyzme knelt beside them and felt Ren's forehead. "You do feel a little warm. What did you eat for dinner?"

         Ren shrugged. "I wasn't hungry."

         "Hmm, could be stress. Go down to the kitchen. I'll make us all some tea."

         "But, Master, I --"

         "The kitchen, Pandaren. Osore, put the kettle on, please. I'll be down in a minute."

         Hauling a reluctant Ren with him, Osore did as requested. Ren sank down onto a chair at the table and pillowed his head in his arms. Master Enzyme wrapped a blanket around the samurai student and busied himself making the tea.

         "Why don't you take that upstairs with you, Osore?" suggested the master.

         Osore paused, then nodded and rose from his seat, carrying the cup.

         "Pandaren," said Master Enzyme softly. "You can tell me what's bothering you, if you want."

         "I'm fine."

         "Drink your tea, it'll help settle your stomach."

         Ren sat up a little and sipped obediantly.

         "You've had a lot of healing in the last few days," continued Master Enzyme. "It's natural to be a little overwhelmed, especially with the contest looming."

         Master Enzyme sat back in his seat, watching Ren over the top of his teacup. "You know, the Greeks held the competition my year. They made a big deal out of it, too. I did not do so well, but I learned a lot. Even if you lose your first match, Pandaren, you made it here, and that is a big accomplishment. You should have a little pride."

         "I'm fine."

         "Hmmm. Drink your tea."

The card fell. It was queen of spades. Card playing was never really Osore’s thing. Kagami’s cards are not only better, but he himself knows when and how to use every one of them. Osore saw Pandaren a few minutes ago. For Osore it was not really a secret what had happened to him. It was not really hard to put so many obvious clues together. It had been after the first three calls for Pandaren that he had realized that half of the Samurai sect, Dux, Zelda and almost everyone who had a grudge against Pandaren were gone It was the first time in so many years that Osore felt that strangely familiar pain in the chest. He had not done anything. He knew that he won’t do any better job than the masters who had went to search for him. On the other day Osore had tried to squeeze out the truth from the only person he knew best was there- Tommy Mimocrone, but was unable. But he knew that something big had happened, because the Master Maestro had been called out. He did not question Tommy any more. When he had seen Pandaren before a few minutes he had actually come up with a pretty good idea what had happened. Pandaren looked like his worst nightmare had turned into reality. Osore knew what the Samurai student feared the most. So it had happened. Osore looked up towards the sealing and felt better. Though Pandaren was in grave danger right now, that danger was needed to make him more powerful than ever. There was nothing worse than a man who has confronted and beaten his fears. Now was the time for Pandaren to improve. Osore hoped that his calculations were right.


“Like taking candy from a baby!” laughed Kagami taking the last hand. Exodeus had asked to join the card game at the next round. The Crystal student sat down with the others. Osore stood and turned around, walking away. “Hey Osore, what’s wrong? Giving up so easily?” He sat down on his seat and hugged his violin case, without reacting. Hugging his violin case was the best way for him to think. There were so many things that Osore could do today. He had heard a lot about America, and knew that it would be a different place, but he was afraid of the scene of the city. A crimson sight of tall buildings formed in his mind as he closed his eyes. Their tops were covered in clay which the sun melted slowly, but not slowly enough. Their blood-thirsty peeks stretched higher and higher, trying to stab the sky and strangle the clouds. They were tall enough to overshadow the sun. Like an apparition he could see behind them the small block painted in gray. The snaps of a whip hit his ears and the hairs on his neck started to bristle. A shiver ran down his spine as the contours of a dark room shut him in silent panic. He could not be back there. It was impossible, and yet it seemed so real, so painfully similar that it made him gag. He suddenly froze as the outlines of a man appeared and Osore’s heart skipped one beat. After that it started drumming his chest as if it wanted to break free from its bony prison. “Come ‘ere!!!” The silhouette reached for him, Osore took his coseis and cast a Damn spell. The fire spell light the room and engulfed the silhouette. Now Osore could see who had reached for him. His eyes were trembling with fear and regret as he saw Inspector Alber Dorliaque burst into flames. “FAAAATHEEEER!!!!”

He rose up from his seat sharply; his eyes widely opened now, terror covering his face. His right arm was pointing forwards with the ebony coseis. His left hand gripped the violin case and shivered from time to time. In a few seconds he snapped out of it, lowering his coseis. He looked around and saw Nnena looking at him. She looked spooked and puzzle at the same time. His face returned to its stone-cold exterior and he sat down. His body was covered in sweat. He hugged the violin case, but did not close his eyes. He just did not dare to.



-_-_-_-



Just remembering the whole dream was painful to him, but there was nothing out there to entertain him. Master Maestro had told them to go and explore the campus, but it had been hard to find what exactly to explore. The dream had ruined his exploring mood and now he was just cruising around without much of a plan where and what to visit. He had actually thought of going to the practice areas. Then suddenly Osore saw a girl and a boy pass the corridor to his right. He went after them, just to make things a bit more interesting, but in a second he jumped into a shadow. Another girl passed by. She was clearly following them. She had a long, blue hair that fell to her waist, but was tucked in as a ponytail. She had tanned skin. Her tall, athletic body slowly moved, trying not to make too much noise. She moved with grace and elegance, with her back towards the wall. Her hands were sliding on the wall. Osore got closer to her. It was not very difficult to. She was concentrated on what the boy and girl were talking about. She had stopped on the corner of the corridor and was leaning from it to see and hear what was going on. As Osore got closer he could see her much better. She wore a sky blue, short, accordion pleat skirt and a white, pagoda sleeved, shawl collared blouse. She wore white stockings held by blue garters. He was able to see her garters only because the skirt was so short and because she had bent over a bit to have a better view. Well, Osore had a good view himself. On her left garter Osore could see a silver-birch stick sheathed in her blue garter. “A coseis?” thought Osore.

“I know that we Khu are supposed to be curious of the enemy…” whispered Osore. The girl flipped up, turned around and pointed her coseis at the half-masked man. Osore was quicker in his reaction. He grabbed the coseis from her hand as she was pointing it and and threw it away. He then blocked her mouth with his right hand and pointed his coseis at her. She was breathing hard through her nose. He could tell that she was more spooked by his appearance than his abilities. “… but to spy on a couple is a bad thing.” she grabbed his hand and tried to free her mouth but he did not let go. “If I let go, you won’t shout, right? You do realize that …” he said, but stopped. He could feel something touching his crouch. He looked down and saw her hand point a knife at his genital. He let go of her and stepped away, but the knife continued to press against his groin. “You do realize that I could have killed you any time, without even saying a thing.” she looked away to see if the couple was still there, but she could not see anyone.

“What do you want?” she said firmly her face full of fury and rage.

“Don’t get excited over a little thing like this!” he said, his face not changing at all.

“You’ve got guts to think you’re controlling the situation.” she shouted. Osore took his chance and pushed her hand away, trying to contra attack. The second he did that an excruciating pain covered his crouch and he looked down. She had automatically kicked him in the groin- he spot that was most vulnerable. He felt weak in the knees and dropped his coseis. The kick was powerful, but even so he stood his ground. The white-haired girl kicked him in theface and he fell down. She threw herself towards her coseis. Osore stood up, pointed his coseis and started the spell: ”Cannon Fodder!” he had heard her start her own and knew that she was going to have the first shot, so he froze after bending over a bit.

“Nexus!” she shouted. He knew that spell quite well. It was not an areal spell, but an arrow spell. Most water spells were. They dealt a great amount of damage only if the spell hit the target correctly. He could not use the damn spell to cool it down, like he did with Asakira, because it was too fast and would not be stopped by it. He leaned on the right and after that jumped to the right in order to deceive her. The spell flew past him. He fell down on the ground and pointed the coseis. The fire ball was too close for her to dodge it.

“Check Mate!!!” Osore shouted. The white-haired girl’s hands fell down and she grunted annoyingly.

“No fair!” she canceled her spell, putting her coseis back in her garter and held her hand in front of the half-masked ninja.. Osore canceled his and took her hand. It was very difficult for him to jump after she had kicked him in the groin so hard. It was even harder for him to stand up. “You’re good! Haven’t seen you hear before! You English or something?” she asked.

“No, actually I’m French!” he said. He suddenly realized that he did not need to tell her that.

“But you’re not from Lupei’s Academy?” she asked.

“No! I’m from RAZI Academy!”

“You’re from RAZI Academy!? The Khu student from RAZI !?”

“Yes, why?”

“Well, I heard you are master Hellfire’s pupil. Is it true?” she asked, expectation flooding her.

“OH…MY…GOD! No wander you beat me so easily!” she shouted out overwhelmed by the fact she was talking with him. “Oh, I forgot to introduce myself. My name’s Lucy and I’m from America.”

“I’m Garlon, but you can call me Osore!” he said.

“Osore’s a Japanese nick name, right? What does it mean?”

“Fear.”

“Wow, it suits you. No offence, but you scarred the crap out of me.” Her mouth moved so fast that the words ran down like a tidal wave almost drowning him. “So what do you think as an expert? Am I good?” she asked.

“I’m not an expert, but I don’t need to be one to say that you have one hell of good kick!” he said. She suddenly blushed.

“Oh, gosh I’m really sorry! I just…”

“Don’t worry, I’m fine now. Besides it’s alright. It was self-defense you know.”



-_-_-_-




The night was fresh and cool. Much colder than the one in RAZI. The buildings were bright at their bottom because of the street lamps, but dark at their tops. Their figures looked sinister in front of the sea of stars that illuminated the sky. Osore was interested in neither the buildings nor the stars. He had two people on his mind right now. One of them was Lucy. She was a very beautiful Khu student. Sure she liked to talk a lot. Sure she was very strange, but he was strange himself. They had talked for so long, even though Osore was warned not to make a lot of contacts with other Academy students. But she seemed nice and calm. She reminded him of a wild cat- untamed, curious and feminine. She claimed to be Osore’s fan, but he did not really care. He hated that idea and did not let her close to him. Even so, she did not give up. Why did she like him? It was not normal for a girl to like him. He was spooky, weirdish, and even scary. He wasn’t much of a handsome guy too. In truth he was ugly and could not find much charisma in him, for a girltofall for him. He looked more like a villain than a hero. Was she playing him the fool?

At dinner time they split up. She had to join her group and he- his. He had put on the clothing, went to the main hall and saw the second person that was on his mind- Pandaren! He looked tired and still smashed up, so Osore decided to leave him be for now. When they went to the vast dinning hall, he saw Lucy again, and felt somehow excited. While they were lined in front of the buffet, Lucy came to him and started talking to him. Her short skirt flipped around every time that she moved. Her shawl collar revealed her breasts a bit. She had her meal on her Academy’s table, but seemed not to be hungry, and not until he finally took his meal and suggested that they talk later, did she leave him be. When Osore finally sat down on the table, he had found out that it was a bit boring without her, but scolded himself for being so spoiled. Varamance, Exodeus, Nnena and Dante were looking at him. They had a strange smile on their faces. It must have seemed strange to them that such a beautiful girl would have interest in Osore and not them. Or maybe he was overreacting.

“What?” Osore asked but no one answered. Pandaren on the other hand had not even noticed. Soon a conversation between Pandaren and a gigantic guy from the Niue School started and Convex and Dante joined in. Varamance and Exodeus looked at him and smiled again.

“Didn't know you're a player too?” Varamance said in a devilish way. Osore ate without reacting and after he heard of the circus invitation, he lost complete interest. He had been to the circus lots of times before he went to RAZI and did not believe it to be much a sensation anymore ven though the last time he had been to the circus was ten years ago. The others from the group were excited, but he begged to differ. He finished his meal, got up and left without a word. Lucy had asked him a lot of questions about his master before that and as she had come closer to Osore he had told her what exactly he thought.

“If you like me, because I am a student of master Hellfire, then I don’t want to be friends with you.” He had said calmly.

“No, I just… I’m really sorry it’s just that?”

“It’s okay, you just think about what I said. If you are sure you like me because of something else but this, then I’m sure we’ll have a very different conversation tomorrow.”

“I understand.” she said. “Does that mean that if I like you because of different reasons from that you’re going to go out on a date with me?” Osore froze on spot, but his face did not change. She was such a stupid little girl. Or at least she acted like one.

“What ever! Just think it over and tell me tomorrow.” He said. “Well, um, bye!” turned around and as he was leaving he heard her say “good bye” as well.

Now as never before Osore had regretted what he had said. He had regretted his every words, because he thought that she will let go. The hald-masked student was left with only one thing to do- go to his room and play his violin. It was a sad and lonely tone that the violin sobbed, as his right arm moved painfully. He felt so lonely, so isolated. But it was needed loneliness, until he understands and thinks things over. It was such a strange thing. Why did she like him? Was she playing some game. Did he fell for a joke. It was impossible for him to comprehend the idea that someone could like him. It was his first time that a girl actually showed an opened interest in him. it was not natural, and that is why he did not know what was really going on and could not believe that something like that was happening to him. He fell asleep hugging his violin. He woke up from a nightmare once again, but it seemed that he had slept quite more than before. He even did not remember what it was. He had woken up in the early hours of the morning. Osore went to the bathroom to splash some water on his face, but instead found Pandaren there. He looked sick. He was pale and vacant. He got scared a bit, when Osore came in, but the Khu student had gotten use to that.

“Are you okay?”

"Yes."

"You're not."

"Leave me alone."

"You know, Hammer was disappointed not to see you."

"It doesn't matter."

"Oh?" Osore looked at him. This was not exactly what he had expected.

"Just leave me alone!" Pandaren closed his eyes and looked away, biting his lip. Osore looked surprised. Hammer had told him that he and Pandaren were very good friends. What had made Pandaren so selfish and isolated. He sure did not look that way before the Top Ten finals.

"Should I get Master Physica? Or Master Enzyme?" Surely killing someone could not resolve to these catastrophic results. Something else was making it. But what?

 "No. I'm fine!"

"That's not what it sounded like." He sighed, an irritated, grumpy sound. "I'm just trying to help."

"I don't want your help! I don't --"

With a half-sob, half-groan, Ren jumped to his feet and raced lurched into a stall. His stomach clenched and he doubled over, but there was nothing left to expell and he collapsed to the floor, eyes streaming, throat burning. Silently, Osore handed Ren a cup of water. He rinsed his mouth.

"Thanks."

Osore draped a towel around Ren's bare shoulders, for he was shivering, wearing only a pair of thin sleep-pants.

"I hate my life," said Ren quietly after a long moment.

"Why?"

"I'm cursed."

"You need to have a little more faith in yourself."

"Easy for you to say."

"You know nothing about me! Don't presume that my life has been easy!" Osore said, memories of previous horrors made his skin crawl.

"I ... I'm sorry." He huddled closer under the towel.

Someone else entered the bathroom, yawning, and turned towards them. Stopped. Fumbled for the lightswitch. They all blinked at each other.

"What are you boys doing up?" asked Master Enzyme. He came towards them. "What's wrong?"

"N-nothing, Master!" stammered Ren.

"He got sick," said Osore. Ren glared. "Well, you did."

Master Enyzme knelt beside them and felt Ren's forehead. "You do feel a little warm. What did you eat for dinner?"

Ren shrugged. "I wasn't hungry."

"Hmm, could be stress. Go down to the kitchen. I'll make us all some tea."

"But, Master, I --"

"The kitchen, Pandaren. Osore, put the kettle on, please. I'll be down in a minute."

Hauling a reluctant Ren with him, Osore did as requested. Ren sank down onto a chair at the table and pillowed his head in his arms. Master Enzyme wrapped a blanket around the samurai student and busied himself making the tea.

"Why don't you take that upstairs with you, Osore?" suggested the master.

Osore paused, then nodded and rose from his seat, carrying the cup. He sat in his bed once again. He wanted to play his violin. And so he did. He was afraid someone might complain about the noise so he played it very quietly. After about an hour he stopped. He was exhausted. He wanted to go to sleep again. Just for an hour or so. At the door stood a figure. It was Master Enzyme. He was watching Osore and was smiling.

“You play very good.” he complimented.

“How is Pandaren?” asked Osore.

“He is fine. He ate, then went to bed and is asleep now.”

“I thought that no one would go to sleep with me playing the freek’n violin.”

“You mustn’t underestimate the power of music. If played properly, it can put to sleep even demons. Now rest. I want to talk to you about your performance here later.”

“What for? Am I in trouble?”

“No! Don’t worry. We’ll talk later”
“...Nothing but cold, impersonal, and downright nasty to the students that you meet!” Master Chimere reprimanded, “Now I know you both are naturally...”

“Detached.”

“Unfriendly.”

“Yes.” Master Chimere growled, narrowing her eyes at Nanami and Riko, “But please, try and show you have a modicum of interest in the upcoming competition.”

“But it’s against...”

“Our nature,”

“Master Chimere.” They stood side by side, so it was difficult to tell them apart and Master Chimere kept looking between them, as if debating which one she wanted to discipline more. “We don’t know anyone. It’s difficult to socialize.” The eerie unison of their voices usually made even the bravest of the students pause, but Master Chimere ignored it, narrowing her eyes.

“You will socialize and you will make nice with the visiting students or Riko,” She looked at Nanami for this, but the girls decided it was not in their favour to comment, “I will pull you from the competition.”

“Yes, Master Chimere.” Riko said, pleased when the woman swung her gaze to her. “We will do as you request.”

“Good, now go, and I expect to see at least one smile out of you before the day’s out.” She said, as the girls turned and left.

~*~*~

“This bites.” Riko said with a growl, Nanami nodded, agreeing with her.

“It would seem we have no choice, unless you do not care to compete.” Nanami murmured.

“Oh no, I want to, but socializing has never been my forte.” Riko said, laughing with Nanami looked at her.

“You think it’s mine? You have the better talking gene.”

“Yes, but you finish everything for me.”

“Would you like me to stop?”

“No!” Riko said loudly, ignoring the stares that darted her way, “I mean, no.” She cleared her throat.

“We’re being watched, I think Master Chimere has taken it upon herself to make sure that we learn a few social niceties.” Nanami said quietly.

“Quick, grab the first person you see and I’ll start a conversation. I know you haven’t quite developed the muscles, but could you try to offer something maybe resembling a smile?” Riko asked, biting her lip.

“I will do my best.” Nanami nodded, “There, he looks somewhat promising.” She pointed to a boy not too far, the closest to them talking to a group of probably the other Japanese students, playing cards until they all packed up and moved off. They were able to sort of cut him off so he walked alone

“The asian boy? Okay, you picked though.” Riko said and they moved in for the strike, so to speak, one on each side of the poor boy who had the misfortune to be selected.

“Good afternoon.” Nanami said in quiet Japanese, quite possibly the only full sentence she’d ever said to someone they’d first met.

“Hello.” Riko said, “We’re here to,”

“Make friends.” It was quite obvious that neither of them really knew how to talk to people outside of one another and in structured settings and it was likely that they were going to scare the other or intimidate him.

“I’m Riko.”

“Nanami.”

“Aren’t those Japanese names?” The boy asked, his attempt at making conversation with them was appreciated by them.

“Yes.” They replied in unison.

“What’s yours?” Riko asked.

“Kagami.” He supplied, looking a bit overwhelmed by the double team.

“Hello Kagami.” Again their unison made him a bit nervous.

“You speak Japanese fairly well.” He commented, “Your accent is heavy, but it’s good.”

Riko flashed a rare smile at the boy, “We only studied,”

“A little.” Nanami supplied, “Yes she’s still watching, Riko.”

“That’s cause you didn’t smile.” Riko murmured, Kagami looking back and forth between the two, like he was watching a tennis match.

Nanami pulled a face that looked more like a grimace than a smile and Kagami snorted at the look.

“You look like you’re in pain, Nana.” Riko offered.

“I am. Smiling...”

“Doesn’t work on you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile.” Riko said, pausing to think, “Oh, wait, when you got Reginald I think I saw your mouth quirk.”

“Reginald?” Kagami raised a brow.

“Pet rat.” They said.

“I thought American girls didn’t like rats.”

“We’re not,”

“Normal,”

“American girls.” Their sentence flowing smoothly as if one person had spoken, it was hard to tell with them.

“Can see that.” He murmured.

“What sect,”

“Are you from?” They inquired, slowly herding him around the grounds so he really didn’t have anywhere to escape to.

“Chakra. And you?” He was slowly getting used to their odd way of speaking and relaxing a bit when they obviously weren’t going to hurt him.

“Heart.” They gave grim smiles, not the kind that Master Chimere was looking for.

“And that’s bad?” He asked, noticing the smiles.

“No.”

“It’s in,”

“Our favour.” Nanami gave a look that tried to say she was enjoying the conversation, she managed to pull it off. Well, enough that she didn’t look pained, which was an improvement.

Riko laughed at the look, but immediately sobered at the glare Nanami delivered, but she did still keep the amusement in her eyes, “You should try to smile more often, it makes me feel better.”

“Shut up, Riko.” Nanami hissed, glaring at her again.

Riko raised her hands in defeat, all hail her mighty sister for she was terrible and fierce.

How to kill a man.

There were plenty of ways...

Of course, in this walk of life... Most people expected a fight to the death with witty comments thrown in and large explosions as each combatant was launched into walls and shot at. Magic was expected, discipline, skill and awe inspiring techniques. It was about facing off at a peak of power in both opponents...

But after a while... that just becomes boring.

Ansuz contemplated the horizon, the red line of manmade light flickering, as if a mirage, as they were blotted out by traffic. So he was to kill Aeneas... A one on one fight was always fought on the same grounds as the next and he hadn't had a decent challenge in a long time... But Aeneas wouldn't give him that challenge anyway... The man for all his words and 'contacts' was weak, particularly for a member of Crystal. An assassination would be too easy and over too swiftly for his tastes. Plus he would need to find out who had told Aeneas of Panderen. Yoshi was already fuming at his actions, he needed to redeem himself for, despite the old master's age, he was still as merciless to those who failed him as any of his younger followers... Aeneas had to die.

Torture? His face twisted into a grim mask. No matter what the rumours, he wasn't a sadist and didn't want to bask in the other man's pain for any longer than necerssary. His old friend would have to pay for failing but torture was not the way to make him understand... nor the way to loosen his tongue. Of course, there was their old relationship, before Aeneas had become weak... Perhaps he could build on those times, an exquisite manipulation of matter over mind. And of course a reward would help him. Ansuz smirked. He knew exactly what he was going to do to the plebian that could have cost him his position.

*

The air had a chill that only rose off the land as the heat vanished completely. It wasn't cold, but the temperature dropped in the absense of heat and Varamance could smell the coolness as it settled on the waxy leaves and vibrant flowers which coiled inwards in the dark. There were dark silhoettes lying on the short grassy terrace. He could see the closeness of bodies and wondered if any of them were from RAZI or if all of them were the competition. It was as if he could feel their heat in the dusky breeze and he wanted to lie down there and rest, unaccountably tired as from the accumulation of a months work. Instead he stooped slightly, ran his hands through the blades of grass that tangled over his knuckles and tugged like a baby's fingers, feeling as if the dirt, still warm from the day, was a living thing. A bird cried out somewhere above and it seemed strangely familiar in the slaty light. He straightened up and shook his head of the hazy, unsubstantial musings.

This country was playing strange games with him, giving him the impression of living in a different world to that of RAZI. It was more open, the line of glittering lights: the only thing seperating land and sky. It was strange how on this side of the hotel it was like countryside compared to the other which opened onto the city, albeit the suburbs. Stretching himself out, he felt the ache in his limbs from the change in time zones and frowned. He needed to train before he went to sleep, exercise his mind at least a little. His thoughts flickered to the man he had come across earlier. They had spoken as the man exercised his twisted leg and he did lengths.

"You aren't pushing yourself too hard I hope?" The man had said, a smooth tenor voice that belaid his age, "I've known ninja, pushed themselves too hard and are unable to perform to their best on the day." The advice had been sensible... The competition would need him to be at his most alert, something he wouldn't be if he was jetlagged and tired.

"No sir," He had replied, slightly surprised at the stranger's Japanese, "Just keeping myself fit."

There had been a flash of sadness as the man had nodded his approval and briefly he had wondered if he had had dreams of becoming a ninja when he had been younger... From the look of him, if it hadn't have been for the limp, he could have easily succeeded at one of the schools.

"Well good luck. Do your best."

As wierd as it had been to talk to him... It now seemed very good advice. Varamance glanced around him, wondering what everyone else was up to, turning and knowing he wanted to find Exodeus and the others. Perhaps if any of them were going to the circus thing in the city he could go too. There was at least an hour before it began after all.

Inside the hotel it was warmer, the brazen heat captured in the thick walls and layered corridors. Despite the windows, the hallways had the feel of a trench without the sky in the evening atmosphere, the dark carpet and rouge cieling making the chiffon curtains seem ghostly. His thoughts were very odd tonight... Normally ideas like this barely graced his mind before they were ignored. Shaking his head for the upteenth time that evening he finally managed to seek out Nnena and Exodeus, cards spilling over their table as they had earlier.

"Game?"

"Sure."

*

Hatred swelled up in his chest, a concoction of distaste and disgust stirring and threatening to make itself known. The grubby doorway to Aeneas' hovel had swung open onto a flight of uncarpeted wooden stairs, stained by muddy boots and spilled food. There was a damp smell, stale fart and grime blended together as he fell into the closest persona he could come to the one he wanted. He softened his face, let his eyebrows fall out of their usual frown, relaxed his jaw and let a small smile play over his lips. His shoulders dropped, losing the impression of tension, his normal walk resumed and his movements became graceful as he trod carefully over the steps and entered the almost spartan studio which had become the dilapidated base for LA information... It was almost exactly as he remembered it being when he had first met Aeneas three years previously, though back then the boy ninja had been living with Master Aphrodite, his sensei.

Gently, he pushed open the door and leant against the frame, waiting for the figure whose shadow was clearly cast across the floor in the orange light from outside. The male ronin span to face him, the pathetic monkey summons hopping out in front of his master.

"Ansuz?"

"Who else but I? Legum servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus." He echoed the greeting they had swapped only hours before and smiled, a full smile that he usually reserved for his friends.

"Damnant quodnon intelligunt..." Aeneas stepped forward, muttering the words as if he couldn't believe who he was seeing, "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Rewarding you." Ansuz pulled out a small bag from his pocket and let it drop to the small lamp table at his side, hearing the chink of coins with a satisfied smirk, "Our Master was very pleased to have been alerted to that boy's abilities." He walked towards the skinny, wretch of a ninja. The unhealthy yellow to the skin and the clamminess tangible even from where he stood made his disgust spike again, though he hid it carefully behind a familiar grin, "And I am so proud of you..."

Aeneas was nothing like his mythical counterpart, wiping his sweaty hands on the side of his unwashed shirt. They were polar opposites with Aeneas' dirty, unkempt condition and his own well cut apparel. It saddened him to see how far his old friend had fallen into decadence after inheriting Aphrodite's role. The dead Master hadn't been any goddess either... but once Aeneas had at least been interesting to look at, not the villain he had become. Yet he forced himself to step even closer to the man, reaching one elegant hand out to brush away the greasy strands from his forehead, "We are so very proud..."

Aeneas leant into his touch, just as he had known he would. So predictable and pathetic. Why would he have changed his mind about a coward now? But he still pretended he had. The fact that he had rejected him so many times before not seeming to matter to the miserable little creature. The monkey, he realised, had vanished. He smiled and brought himself yet closer to the other, breathing lightly across his face. Aeneas closed his eyes, breathing rapid and uneven... like a trapped rabbit's, Ansuz mused but didn't move any further, just let his fingers smooth out the tangles in the lank locks... Laughing lightly at the small smile on the gaunt face...

"Who told you such information? We need to reward him too..." He whispered softly, brushing fingers across chapped lips. Lips which opened willingly to answer his question....

"It was Frazier..."

Such perfect manipulation... torture of the sweetest kind for a wretch who would never know any other sort of fondness. Ansuz drew his knife, "Thank you..." He muttered to cover up the sound of it unsheathing. And then he buried the blade downwards into the left shoulder, slicing the vein in his neck at the same time. Lifting the knife again, he let his face crumple back into a sneer, "Thank you so much."

*

"Well you see... It's not exactly a circus." The Master admitted guiltily.

But they had already realised that 'Cirque Des Échassiers' was not a circus...

Elements from worlds they had never known combined with strong, emotional music... It wasn't a circus... The colours were bright... Yellows and reds and oranges thrown into a swirling mass of limbs and acrobatics and a contortion, a miasma of light and the night had burst into flame. The beats tumbled in and out of a spiral of bodies, jewels of the earth, scattered by a magical outburst from the very core of existance. Then darkness, a single blue gem, haloed with an orange crown. It was a dream and a nightmare and the whole world was absorbing into it. It was like abstract art, the imagination of the young and the jaded.

Exodeus leant forward beside him, hands clutching at the back of the seat infront of him, face tilited upwards as if the magic could fall on him like fairy dust. Nnena was not much different, her eyes wide and fixated on the performance. Kagami, who had appeared shaken up when he found them, was leaning back, sunk down in his chair so he could gaze up at the men and women now crawling towards the blue figure as she piroetted across the stage, their legs and arms were tied into silk that dropped lower as they reached out for her until one had caught her arm and another her head, another her hand, another her leg, her waist.... everything was trapped and she was no longer circling in woeful lonliness but was being torn apart... Varamance lurched forward, gasping as she vanished and tiny crystalline sparkles were cast across the stage as the beasts that had destroyed her fled away.

Then they were deep within a forest and from the sky came a solitary young man, capulted into the world of lost jewels. His feathered head and brightly painted body became a story... And in it Varamance lost himself to a different beat and the thoughts of the competition were lost to his mind until morning.
***M's Post***

Kitty left the practice room, closing the door firmly behind her. Exodeus was his name, and his summon used to be Vie, but Vie was gone. She didn't know that was possible. It was puzzling, disturbing and upsetting all at once. For a Crystal to loose their primary summon, that would be loosing a part of themselves. How could he be here, representing RAZI in such a state? He had to be in terrible turmoil and it was akin to torture to tell him to fight on, wasn't it?

On the other hand, most sects had odd ideas regarding what was torture and what was training. At least Kitty thought they did, and some of the Masters did as well. Still, how could he loose his primary summon? Kitty veered to the left and headed toward a tall grey stone building. She needed to visit the library and see if she could get some answers.

The library was by far the most relaxing place in the universe so far as Kitty was concerned. Her eyes flowed past the checkout desk as if it didn't exist, focusing upon the tall wooden shelves. The scent of crisp paper and worn leather greeted her like an old friend and Kitty followed the natural pull of the books into the shelves with a soft smile playing across her lips, her eyes soft yet eager. She soon had twenty different Crystal Sect references or so stacked at her side as she sat cross legged with three others, one balanced on each knee and a third atop her crossed ankles. She bit at the tip of her right braid absently as she sought out cases of missing primary summons. Nearly an hour later she leapt to her feet, loosing five books.

"Ah ha!" She exclaimed, lunging forward to catch the books and tripping over her diminished pile to land in a couple strong arms. "Who?" Her eyes met another pair of bright green ones. Kitty blinked uncertainly, taking in red hair and strong arms in a moment. Then she heard him speak. Irish, she knew enough Irish to converse with him, although Irish wasn't one of her better languages. Now she had learned a possible explanation for the missing Vie and she had the opportunity to work on her Irish!

"Are you alright," the boy asked with a laugh.

"I'm fine," Kitty nodded, smiling as heat rose to her cheeks. "I'm very sorry, I can't believe I did that."

He shrugged, releasing her as she moved away a bit. "It's alright, I was just going to do a bit of reading before I headed back to my room to get ready for the circus."

"Oh? The Cirque du Soleil in town?" She'd almost forgotten about it. Now, did she have a good excuse to go? She might not have anything to wear actually. Kitty sighed. "I'm sure it's going to be fantastic!"

He nodded, "Aren't you going?"

"Well, I..." Kitty looked around at the books and leaned over to pick up the ones in most disarray. "No, I should probably stay in." After all, she'd disgrace them all if she were to go dressed poorly. On the other hand perhaps no one would notice.

"That's too bad. I thought we might go together," he said. Suddenly the books leapt from her hands of their own accord. Kitty scrambled to catch them, sending one into her knee cap, one tumbling to the ground and a third right into the boy's chest, but he caught it neatly. He had a nice smile, very nice.

"I'd love to!" Kitty wasn't sure when her mouth had been given permission to say the words, but they were out and there was nothing to do about it. Maybe it was the fact that she'd never been asked out before. She couldn't be sure.

"Great," he bent to pick up a few more books, "let me help you re-shelf these so you have a bit of time to get ready." Kitty could feel herself grinning like a moron and there seemed to be no helping it. Well, she'd just have to wear a different pair of slacks. She had to have a clean pair. In fact, she was fairly sure she did.

-

"Hi Kitty," Claretta said pleasantly as Kitty entered the room. Kitty stopped to look at the other girl, anger flashing into her emotions and out as quickly as it had come.

"You forgot to wake me this morning," she said quickly. Calc laughed and Bio shook his head.

"Sorry," Claretta sounded sincere, but Kitty knew it couldn't be trusted, "I thought you were up."

"Oh Claretta," Owl said, eying Kitty sympathetically, "that was so unfair. I'd have woken you Kitty."

Kitty shrugged. "I was fine." She went to her closet and opened it. There wasn't a single thing in it at all. It hadn't been that empty in the morning. She closed it and checked her dresser. "Where are my clothes?" She felt a tingling along her spine that made her muscles tense. Everything down to her underwear was missing. She looked at the others. Calc and Bio were studiously playing a game of chess and not looking up. Claretta was studying something but Owl was looking at her with wide eyes.

"Your clothes are missing?" Owl asked, her disbelief obvious. "Did you take them to the laundry and forget them?"

"No," Kitty snapped turning to look at her hamper. It too was empty. She scrambled to her bed, falling on the floor and searching underneath it. Her books! Soon she had her hands on them and they were still there, safe and sound. She sighed and went over to Owl, sitting down beside her.

"Kitty, is something else wrong?" Owl was a nice girl, so far as Kitty had been able to tell. She resisted lashing out at her because of that, although what she really wanted to do was scream.

"Yes, I have a date, and it's with one of the Irish boys." Claretta looked up from her book to focus fully alert eyes on Kitty.

"Really? What sect?"

Kitty felt herself blushing again. "I... don't know." She thought back. She hadn't seen a weapon, he was too expressive to be Samurai. Actually there'd been something around his neck. Now that she thought about it. Her mind picked it out and set it in front of her, evidence she'd missed at the time. There'd been a loose silver chain and on it a faintly blue-green, see through crystal. "He's Crystal sect, actually."

"Crystal," Claretta moved forward gazing at Kitty, "so, Ireland has a Crystal, what's his name."

"I'm not sure..." Kitty was beginning to feel like a complete idiot now. "Oh, what does it matter? I can't even go. I don't have anything to wear except the same thing I've had on all day, and my pants are snagged." She displayed the pant leg forlornly. How could she have forgotten to ask the boys name?

"Don't worry," Owl patted her on the shoulder a bit awkwardly. "I think I have something that will fit you. Remember that top I picked up last year from Cirque du Soleil? You could wear that, with my Capri's."

Claretta leapt up, "I have some adorable sandles that would be perfect with it. Then I'll do your make-up," she hurried to her own closet. Kitty felt her brow crease as she wondered what Claretta was up to. Bio sniggered a bit and she glared, but Calc seemed unaffected.

"I can't wear something like that Owl," she saw Owl's hurt expression and shook her head, "I mean I love it, but for a Sage who sticks out like I do it's no good, you know?"

"Nonsense," Owl replied with a sudden smile, "it's a date, right? It's not really ninja business, you know? You can go however you want to."

"Do you think?" Kitty wasn't so sure.

"No, she doesn't think, she knows," Claretta said, shoving some platform sandles at Kitty. "Now, hurry up, we need to do your make-up."

-

Kitty nearly ran into Exodeus on her way to meet the Irish boy. She chatted with him for a few minutes before remembering she needed to hurry. It occurred to her that she liked Exodeus and he might be fun to go somewhere with sometime. Of course she was being silly, just because one boy seemed to like her they weren't all going to start asking her out.

"Did you know that Cirque du Soliel is French for Circus of the Sun?" Kitty asked as she started towards a gathering group of Irish students further on.

"I'll see you later Kitty, have fun," Exodeus replied as he moved closer to another RAZI student. The other student looked pretty closely at her, and she felt like she was being evaluated for a moment.

"You too Exodeus! Enjoy yourself!" Kitty called, grinning and waving as she headed into the throng of Irish competitors. She found the boy with the great smile towards the middle.

"I'm very sorry for taking so long," she said as soon as she was close enough.

"It was worth the wait," he replied, glancing in the direction of Exodeus. "Who was that?"

"Oh, Exodeus? He's here for RAZI Academy, representing the Crystal sect," Kitty replied cheerfully. She was thrilled to be going to the circus and happy with his compliment as well. "By the way, I'm Kitty," she held out her hand to shake his.

"Zen," the red head replied, taking her hand and kissing it, making Kitty giggle. Then he turned his attention on Exodeus again and narrowed his eyes. "Where's his summon?"

"Maybe it's the small and deadly type," Kitty joked, unwilling to share the situation as she thought it was. Another thought occurred to her. "Where's yours."

"It's a mouse," a girl nearby joked, her inflection obvious, "he keeps it in his pocket."

"Goliath is too big to keep out all the time. He causes too much of a scene, especially where he's unknown," Zen said, taking Kitty's hand. "Let's get going, or we'll be late."

"Goliath?" Kitty considered the name. It sure made his summon sound huge, but before she could ask any questions they were walking and that took much more concentration than usual in the platforms. By the time they arrived Zen had an arm around her to steady her. Kitty really didn't know what was wrong with her. It was like she'd suddenly forgotten how to walk. Once they were seated and the show began it was hard to move her eyes from it.

"Where are the elephants and stuff," the girl who'd spoken earlier asked about ten minutes into the show.

"There are none," Kitty replied, loudly enough for those in her immediate vicinity to hear. "Cirque du Soliel is about expression through bodily movement. It was formed by two street performers, Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthier in 1984. Prior to that they acted as part of a small troupe, but they were in poor shape financially. Luckily they were able to get a government grant which allowed them to continue developing and performing the Cirque Nouveau or New Circus which was their vision."

"It's a mixture of styles from around the world all celebrating circus styles, but there is a story to be found if you pay attention. Some shows include extensive use of water, and most include airborne portions." Kitty fell silent so she could better watch the magic unfold. Zen's arm was around her again, and it was creeping a bit too close to her chest. She moved away from the distraction, but he pulled her closer.

"Zen, don't you want to watch?" Kitty asked softly.

He moved his mouth to her ear. "Your beautiful," he whispered directly into it, slipping his hand just under her shirt. Kitty jumped and twisted away from him, glaring at him.

"Thank you, but I really want to see this. It's beautiful." Had it been a mistake to say yes to his invitation? She didn't remember anything about his culture that would make him think she'd been inviting physical contact. Kitty glanced at the performers to see six trapeze artists swing forward and meet to form an intricate flower pattern in the air. She held her breath as they broke apart in three groups of two. Below three men wove across the floor in the middle of metal rings. It was all so graceful and they seemed so strong. It was a beauty of strength, poise, discipline.

"Fine," Zen's voice broke into her thoughts, harsh and less kind than in the library, "but don't think I'm done for the night."

That didn't bode well. Kitty sighed, was it the clothes? Maybe she should have stuck with the braids and the snagged brown slacks. Her eyes caught on the show again as the lights dimmed and the performers cleared the set, preparing for a new scene. Somehow the trapeze artists had descended and she'd missed it. She sighed and focused, determined not to miss one more thing.

After the show as they were all standing she'd forgotten Zen's attitude. "I think they're a lot like ninjas, don't you?" Kitty asked Zen, meeting his eyes.

"How so?"

"They must train constantly to be in top form, you know. They can never loose sight of their goal and it requires constant diligence."

Zen shook his head, "Ninja are either good or not. They're born, not made."

Kitty shook her own head, "You think so? I..." She never got to finish the sentence however, because Zen was kissing her. Oddly she didn't like it at all. She pushed against him, trying to get away.

"Don't!" she screeched as soon as he backed away enough for her to do so. She wanted to slap him, or knee him, but she didn't want to cause any sort of issue between America and Ireland by starting a fight. Instead she wiggled free of his grip and ran for the exit. As she bolted out a hand caught her wrist and pulled her, hard.

"I sat through all your damn Sage speeches and listed. The least you can do is give me something in return," Zen thundered.

"I thought you were interested," Kitty returned heatedly, tears streaking her face. She wiped at them impatiently.

"Interested," he laughed, it was a nasty laugh, and Kitty didn't like it. She shivered. "Don't act stupid, I know you aren't."

"Let me go," Kitty tugged, trying to loosen his grip.

"No," he moved closer, way too much closer. She winced, was he going to try to kiss her again?




**Stormy's Post**


Exodeus took a deep breath of the air outside. There was something completely foreign about it. Perhaps it was simply the lack of fresh air where he expected it. There was a completely different atmosphere, and he knew it was because he was in America, instead of home. His hand touched his crystal and he felt the loss of Vie again.

"Dreaming?" Exodeus turned and looked at Varamance. He shook his head.

"No." He turned to look at the display of city lights. Varamance came closer and stared as well.

"What do you see?" Exodeus looked out and nodded.

"Smog." He heard a small chuckle and he turned to look at Varamance. "What?" he asked, his voice somewhat annoyed.

"I just can't believe, in all that beauty, you could pick out the one thing that's ugly. It says a lot about you." Exodeus rolled his eyes and gave him a glare.

"The smog is disgusting. Can't you smell it? It chokes the body, clutters the mind." He glanced back at the building that the other students were in.

"Are you going to the circus thing with the rest of us?" Exodeus shrugged.

"I didn't plan on it, why?"

"Come with us." Varamance put a hand on Exodeus' shoulder. "You need to relax every once in a while." Exodeus shook his head, and Varamance squeezed the shoulder. "Relax, I know you went out to practice today, when the rest of us were exploring and

learning about the other students." Exodeus narrowed his eyes and Varamance continued. "I saw you leave the practice room, sweaty and frustrated. Come to the circus with us, and relax. You'll need your strength for the competition."

"I won't be able to fight!" Exodeus exploded. The fear he had in the pit of his stomach was threatening to overwhelm him. He could feel the vibrations of it deep within himself, and he wanted to just curl up and lose himself in his tears. When he looked up into Varamance's eyes however, he could see the cold, calculating eyes of someone sizing up their enemy and finding him lacking. "What do you care anyway," he said, throwing off Varamance's hand and taking a few steps away from him. "I don't think this is anymore any of your business. Go away."

"Come to the circus Exodeus," Varamance said, "come and relax."

"I won't!" Exodeus said, denying the desire he had to do just that. If Varamance thought he could be easily swayed into doing what he wanted, he was wrong.

*

As he was walking to his room, the people had gathered to go to the circus a room away and he was not interested at all, he ran into a mound of blonde curls. It wasn't literal, but close enough. It was hurtling around a corner, bright blue shirt with strange patterns on it flying out from the waist in an interesting way. He held out a hand to stop the figure from tripping on the slightly raised door frame.

"Oh! Sorry!" came a voice speaking in English, and Exodeus wasn't certain why the voice sounded so familiar until the face turned, and he saw he was looking at Kitty.

"Sorry?" he said, uncertain what she had said. She blinked up at him.

"Exodeus!" she said in pleasure, and she straightened up immediately, beaming at him. "How are you?" she asked, the roll of the words having only a slight accent.

"I'm fine, are you alright? You looked like you were going to fall there for a moment."

"I can't imagine where that ledge came from!" she said in exasperation, "honestly I think they change this building every day just to make it difficult to remember where everything is." She took a step, and then fell forward, right into Exodeus. He reached out and grabbed hold of her shoulders, pulling her into a standing position again, glancing down at her feet, she seemed somewhat taller. There were a pair of inch high platform sandles, the straps wrapping around her ankles and part of her lower leg, tying in the back mid thigh. Her pants were form fitting capri-length blue jeans that came just to the top of the laces. Blue flowers were embroidered on the edges of the pants, and as he relooked at the shirt, he realized that there were people on it. He blinked.

"Are you alright to walk?" he asked. She looked at him puzzled.

"Of course, why wouldn't I be?" She seemed genuinely surprised, so he felt it wasn't prudent to tell her that she had almost tripped over her own two feet.

"Nevermind. Where are you going in such a rush?" She looked off and shook her head.

"I'm going to the circus. I guess you could say I have a date!" She sounded excited and uncertain all at once, which was somewhat strange to him. She had a way of making him believe she had emotions, wrapping words around tones in such complex patterns that it seemed as though she was really feeling two or three things at once. It was strange to him, as almost every one he'd come across thus far, outside of his sect, tried to refrain from having emotions.

"Is that a good thing?" he asked, and she tilted her head to one side, looking up at him with those very expressive green eyes.

"Of course?" she asked, her eyes the only thing that betrayed the uncertainty she was feeling. As he looked at her, he realized that she had put on make up as well, a little bit of blue outlining her eyes, and her lips were a brighter shade of rose. He wondered if it was a chance encounter or if it was something she'd had planned for days.

"Alright. Have fun." She tilted her head to the other side, much like a dog would, and he found his lips lifting at the corners.

"Aren't you coming too?" she asked, and he shook his head.

"No, I've got more important things to do."

"Oh," she almost sounded disappointed, but he knew better than to believe emotions from someone from Sage.

"So, have fun," he turned to go, but she reached for him. He stilled and glanced behind him.

"Um," she shifted her weight from one foot to the other and then smiled, "I wanted to say good luck too." He felt a slight rush of rage. Had she been reading up on what had happened to him? Gotta hand it to a Sage, they didn't wait to be told what was wrong with a person.

"In what?" he asked bitterly. She blinked uncertainly at him.

"Your training. I hope you got a lot accomplished during your time in the training arena." Oh, this afternoon, he could almost smack himself for doubting her integrity. Of course, it only made sense for him to doubt her.

"I did," he lied, and nodded to the group. "Your date is going to be wondering where you are," he said, nodding to the gathering group. She shrugged.

"I doubt it, he just asked me out this afternoon." Exodeus blinked.

"Excuse me?"

"He just asked me out this afternoon," she repeated, speaking the words more clearly. He realized that she must have thought she hadn't said the words properly.

"You've gotten this dressed up for a date that was asked about this afternoon?" He couldn't understand girls.

"Yes, of course," she said, her voice sounding quite certain now. "A friend helped me. I admit I feel a little strange without my dagger, but she said it wasn't right to go on a date with weapons." She looked down at the ground for a moment, as Exodeus felt a sinking in his stomach. "Do you think I should take something with me?" she looked back up at him. "Perhaps she was wrong." He realized that for some reason, this girl trusted him. It was such a strange thing that he didn't have the heart to tell her no.

"For a date, you don't need weapons. Unless you're doing it for a job of course." He said it all matter of factly, although he felt quite differently. He turned and motioned to the crowd. "Come on, let's go." She smiled.

"I thought you weren't going?" He shook his head.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world, live American entertainment. The perfect chance to relax." The perfect chance to keep her from getting herself killed in her own world. Was she stupid?

"Oh, that's so awesome! Did you know that..." he almost tuned her out as they walked to the group, Varamance seeing him and waving him over.

"I'll see you later Kitty, have fun," he said, as he moved closer to Varamance.

"You too Exodeus! Enjoy yourself!" she called as she waved. He nodded and watched as she walked up to another group of people.

"I knew you'd come," Varamance said to him as he got within speaking distance.

"Shut up, I didn't come for you," Exodeus said irritably. His eyes followed Kitty as she was surrounded by a group of people.

She seemed happy enough, but he felt a touch of uncertainty flit through his stomach. He hoped she was going to be alright.

"But someone convinced you to come," Varamance said, noticing where his gaze was. Exodeus felt his face color slightly.

"It's not what your insinuating," he growled as one of the guys put an arm around her shoulders. He narrowed his eyes.

"I don't care what it is, as long as you relax."

Oh sure, I'm going to relax, Exodeus thought, relax the whole time I'm wondering if she's going to get killed, a few days early.

*

He honestly didn't expect to enjoy himself. As he watched the forms on the stage twist, turn, and throw themselves up into the air, he held his breath, expecting something to break, fall, or get destroyed. Between the way people were flinging themselves across the ground, rolling around as though they were dying and smiling the whole time, and the way they folded their bodies up in different and strange positions, he was surprised no one had ever died from working at this place. Perhaps the accident rate went down as more people knew about it, and therefore understood they needed to be super flexable before they even tried out to join.

Although rather frightening, it was also somehow enrapturing as well. He wondered if it was some kind of personal magic that made a person capable of flying up into the air by wrapping cloth around their arms. And the poles! The way they twisted their bodies, climbing to the top! He'd never seen anything like it! It was fascinating.

When it was over, hours later, and several stopped heartbeats as well, he looked around, blinking amazement out of his eyes to look for Kitty. What he saw was unsettling in a different kind of way. She was gone, and he had no idea where she'd gone. The people she'd been with were gone as well, and that made him all the more suspicious. He was determined to find her, and he lept to his feet, ignoring the calls from the rest of his group as he headed out, looking for a mop of curly blonde hair.

He wandered a few feet away and turned around a couple of times before he heard a shout. He dashed to the other side of the large tent, turning around the corner in time to see Kitty pushing at the red-haired Irishman. He seemed to be trying to force himself on her. Exodeus knew it had been a mistake to leave her alone. He should have invited her to stay with their group instead of allowing her to run off with the insane Irish.

"Leave her alone!" he called out, racing over and grabbing hold of the hand that was reaching for Kitty's shirt. The man turned to him and narrowed his eyes. His aquamarine stone glittered from the necklace and Exodeus realized that perhaps, he didn't really want to fight someone else from Crystal. Kitty twisted around in the man's hands, and once she was free, she dashed behind Exodeus, glancing at the man and shivering. "Are you alright?" Exodeus asked as the man said something in a language far beyond his comprehension. She shook her head.

"He says that if you're going to stop him from being with me, you need to prove you're better than he is. He tried to.. he.. he kissed me! How dare he! Without permission!" The indignation in her voice was amusing and he couldn't help it, his lips curved up in a smile.

"It must be those shoes." He nodded his head, and kept eye contact with the red-head. Kitty backed away from Exodeus and he felt a strange surge of pride. He could protect her. The question he kept asking himself though, was why he wanted to do so.

She looked down at her feet in confusion.

"What?" she said, and he heard the chanting sound of summoning. He held his stance, and blinked once, he wasn't going to be caught unaware's. He took a breath, and started chanting himself. He knew he had to do this, and he knew why, but he was still uncertain.

Exodeus felt the magic swirl through himself as he summoned, quickly speaking the words that would bring his creature to life. It was a desperate summon, full of anxiety and fear as he saw the other man bringing something black and large to his side. It was also Vie's summon. Why was it so natural to summon someone who no longer existed? He'd hardly summoned Vie, she was usually out, her body wrapped around his as he moved. What on earth was going to replace her?

Power flowed, a familiar feeling of separation, and then he saw it, on the ground, and barely moving. His new summon, in a pile of water. He leaned forward and blinked a few times, feeling a new kind of feeling. Hopelessness.

Kitty leaned forward and gasped, "Water!" she said in a flash, and Exodeus mentally agree'd. The poor thing should be in water. What on earth were the deity's thinking, sending something so incredibly fragile to him? At least it wasn't a butterfly. Kitty dashed around a bit, looking in all directions. He took a step closer, and watched as the creature flopped once. He scooped it up in his hands, trying to keep some of the water that had been around him from flowing down his fingers. He held it closer, he'd never seen something so incredibly small as a summon before. And what the hell was he going to do with a seahorse anyway?

"It's dying," Exodeus said softly, and Kitty looked at him. She said a few things rapidly in English, to which Exodeus just ignored her, looking down at the somewhat pathetic creature in his hands. Was he supposed to carry a fish bowl around with him at all times now?

"What kind of water does it need?" he said softly, completely uncertain of the answer as he looked up at her. The man had finished his summons, Exodeus heard the laughter from the Irishmen, and he could feel his intense loathing and mockery of his new creature. He could relate, he really could, but he also felt angry. He had no idea what he had been through, how dare he mock him?

"I think brackish water is alright, or maybe it's a freshwater seahorse, don't you know?" Kitty looked at him in shock, and he felt the ridges of it's body becoming dry. He looked down, and his eyes met the seahorse's. That connection that one felt with their summon reminded him that although he shouldn't worry too much about this creature, it did have the ability to die. Like Vie. Like his hopes, and the part of him that was Vie, that was gone. He looked up at Kitty frantically now.

"We have to get him into some kind of water," he said, blinking once. "It's going to die, it really is." The new surge of panic made him move, "Maybe in the tent?" Kitty shook her head.

"I don't think so, maybe a pet store?" He turned to a hand on his shoulder. The Irish man was grinning at him. "I don't really care about the fight anymore, you win, your summon is stronger, alright?" The other man's look of disbelief was enough to make him angry. "Kitty, tell him he's won, alright? He's not getting any wetter in my hands now." When she turned to him, Exodeus looked down again in his hands.

*What is your name?* he asked softly, wondering if the creature, in it's state of near-death would be able to answer his thoughts. The one and only time the summoner and his summoned communicated mentally was the first time the creature was summoned. It was some kind of joining in thoughts. He'd read about it, and he noticed how it worked, but he had never really thought about it very hard. He supposed he should have, but it had never seemed overly important.

*Squirt,* came a faint voice in his mind. *Lord of the Deep Waters. But most simply call me Squirt, Lord of the Deep.* He blinked, and wondered if it was simply people making fun of the creature that had made that long, utterly rediculous name.

*It's very nice to meet you, Squirt,* he said formally, while outwardly, he'd gone pale. What on earth kind of name is Squirt?

*I have a feeling the pleasure is all mine,* Squirt replied. The tiny voice that was high pitched carried a weight of several thousand years. Exodeus didn't understand it, but he knew better than to try. He felt the edges becoming even more dry, and he started to look around.

"Find us the pet store then!" he said, and he linked arms with her, he knew better than to let her walk without help. He started moving at a fast pace, trying to put distance between her and the Irishman.

"You're walking awful fast," she said, looking behind herself. "I'm going to fall."

"Don't look back, keep walking, I won't let you fall." She turned back to him, and nodded once. Exodeus gathered as much spit as he could, and with an apologetic look at the seahorse, he let it fall on the edges of the body. It certainly wouldn't keep the creature for too long, but he had nothing else to give him.

"Turn here," she pointed, and he did so, glancing quickly behind himself to see that the boy wasn't following them.

"What was his summon?" he asked, and Kitty shook her head.

"I don't know, it's name is Goliath though." Exodeus nodded. Go figure.

"Squirt," he said, and Kitty looked at him curiously. He motioned with his hands. "Squirt." She grinned at him in what could only be pleasure. He wished he felt even half as happy as she was.

"It's so cute!" she said, her tone reflecting what he was dreading. That terrible word. "Cute".

"I can't believe I summoned a seahorse."

"I'm sure he'll be a fierce companion for you," she said confidently to him. Exodeus shook his head.

"What's he going to do, float in some water and make the girls sqeal?" he asked sarcastically. She turned surprised eyes on him.

"I'm sure whatever he does, he's going to be dangerous."

"Maybe to some shrimp or alge." Exodeus couldn't believe he had to trade Vie for Squirt. What kind of life was this anyway?

"Stop!" she said quickly. He did so, and realized suddenly that he had been traveling through town, and away from everyone else, and they were outside a shop that sported all manner of pet supplies in the windows. "This is where I'll go. I'll get you something," she slipped out of his arm and started inside, but tripped over the doorway.

"Be careful in those," he said, "I can't help you with Squirt in my hands."

"I can't believe I did that," she said in surprise, "I just don't understand." Exodeus shook his head.

"Maybe I should go instead," he offered, dropping some more spit onto the creature. She waved her hands emphatically, almost tumbling to the ground in her enthusiasm.

"No, no, you can't! I'll be just a moment!" With that she was inside the store, and he was left outside, wondering how long it would take her to emerge. And wondering what he was going to do with a damned seahorse.

"What am I supposed to do with you? Put a magnifying glass behind you so everyone can see your vicious eating habits?" He looked down at the brown body that seemed to be almost hard with it's dryness. One eye blinked slightly at him, and he felt that pang of fear and panic again. What if he lost two summons because of his lack of abilities? What if he was going to have to stop summoning because he was killing his spirit? What would he do then?

"Here!" Kitty's voice broke through his melencholy. "Put him in this!" she said proudly. She had a small bowl with a lid in her hands. There was also water in it as well. He looked down at the seahorse and nodded.

"I hope this doesn't kill you," he said as he dumped him in. Kitty closed the lid and the both watched as the somewhat stiff body floated to the ground. One eye watched them as they watched him. Several minutes later he was standing, floating?, on his end, looking happy as... well, very happy. Exodeus shook his head.

"It's really for sea monkeys, but I figured it would fit the seahorse, so I didn't really think past that. He's very cute."

"Do you want him?" Exodeus was almost positive he didn't want to see what this creature could do. Kitty glared at him.

"How can you talk like that? Of course I don't want him! He's your summon, you've got to bond, and become strong together."

"The only thing that he's strong at is being able swim. Last I checked, the competition isn't going to be in the water." She crossed her arms.

"That's not the point." She said in that matter-of-fact tone. He shook his head.

"What is the point then? Last I checked I summoned my main summon as a damned water horse that is about an inch and a half long! I can't imagine what kind of trick he'll be able to do, but I'm pretty sure it isn't something that's going to astound my sparing partners!" He was getting angry. Angry at the world, angry at the deities, angry at the people, and certainly angry at the competition. Kitty looked at him as though she were going to cry. She still had her arms crossed, and he cursed inwardly, still angry, but also full of remorse.

"Don't have to get so angry, I got him a home, and.." she trailed off, sniffing. "It's got a chain, so you can wear him from your neck or your wrist." Her voice was soft and sad, and he looked down at the seahorse. It looked at him and opened it's mouth a tiny bit. It was as if it was saying, "Glub, glub," at him. He held it carefully in his hands, and then walked to her, giving her a brief hug.

"Sorry, I shouldn't have snapped like that. It's my fault. I must be seriously lacking in something to have summoned this... thing." She shook her head emphatically.

"Stop saying that! Squirt is something amazing, I know! You have to give him a chance." Exodeus sighed.

"Alright, now calm down." She nodded.

"I'm fine," she said, and he gave her another one of his smiles.

"Let's get back to the group," he suggested, tucking Squirt into his shirt. He didn't want to deal with anyone right now.

Certainly not Varamance.
 

         Tuesday morning dawned cool and bright. With lots of grumbling and prodding, the masters of Razi dragged their students to the hall for breakfast, back to their rooms to change, and then to the gym allotted to them for practice time. Master Maestro even led the warm-ups.

         Back at the cottage, Master Physica watched carefully as Master Enzyme sat next to Pandaren. The boy bit his lip, but held still as Enzyme placed his hands over his ribcage and concentrated. Light poured out from around his fingers, lightening the tan of Ren's skin for an instant before seeming to sink in and be absorbed. Enzyme grunted, pain briefly showing on his own face. Still he concentrated, and Physica went to Pandaren's head as he kicked involuntarily. Enzyme hung on grimly and a few minutes later was done.

         "Perhaps we should wait for the rest," suggested Physica.

         "No, Master," Enzyme replied, brushing sweaty hair back from his face. "I'm alright. Best we do this now." He looked down at Pandaren, the boy staring back, face looking rather gaunt. Enzyme shook his head, looking over his shoulder. "You really need to make him eat, Master," he said to the other man, hovering by the door.

         Yoshi shrugged. "The boy is obstinate."

         Enzyme sighed and turned his attention back to Pandaren. He straightened the arm out of its splint and settled his hands over the broken bones. He looked at Pandaren. "This," he warned him, "is going to hurt."

         A crease appeared between Pandaren's brows and he hadn't stopped chewing on his lip. Enzyme gave Master Physica a nod, then closed his eyes to concentrate better. Physica placed her hands on Pandaren's shoulders, ready to hold him still. He cried out twice, twisting, but Physica kept him steady and Enzyme looked up after awhile, smiling.

         "Done," he groaned. Sweat trickled down the sides of his face but he gave Pandaren a jaunty wink. "There, good as new, hmmm?"

         Pandaren's eyes glistened with tears. "Thank you," he whispered back.

         "Now you," said Master Physica, tapping on Pandaren's forehead, "are to sleep. Rest." She turned to Enzyme, frowning. "You, too. You've overdone yourself."

         He shrugged. "It was necessary. I'll be fine, I'm just tired."

         Ren wanted to argue; he felt that all he'd done for the last several days was sleep, but his eyes were already closing of their own accord. He missed seeing Master Physica and Master Yoshi helping Enzyme stumble to another of the beds and settle him in. The two masters spoke briefly, and then Master Physica rejoined the others at the gymnasium.

         Yoshi took Enzyme's place at Pandaren's side. With one glance for the exhausted healer, now also sleeping, Yoshi placed one palm over Pandaren's forehead. The boy frowned slightly, but did not stir.

         To Ren, it seemed that only a few minutes passed before he was being shaken awake again. He blinked. Master Yoshi smiled down at him.

         "Come, Pandaren," said the old master kindly. "Rise. Get dressed. I brought you something to eat, and then we must go to see the healers."

         Rubbing his eyes, Ren yawned. As he stretched, he paused. No pain! His fingers probed his side. For the first time in days he could take a deep breath. He almost smiled, but Master Yoshi was pushing him now, telling him to hurry. He ran down the hall and back again, carefully composing his face before walking into the room to dress and eat a little. He was disappointed that Master Enzyme was gone, but Ren supposed that he had other things he had to do. He pulled on the uniform from the day before, carrying his jacket, for Master Yoshi told him that the night would get cold out on the stands.

         They walked swiftly to the hospital tents. Though he didn't notice, Ren had a bounce to his step. He breathed in the hot air, staring all around at the brightly colored ninjas and spectators milling around, interested in his surroundings, as he had not been before. He looked at everything, sometimes turning in a full circle, and having to trot to keep up with Master Yoshi's steady pace.

         Sitting in a chair waiting for the healers, Ren asked, "How do they get it so cool in here? This is nice."

         "We have..."

         "... A swamp cooler."

         Ren turned. Two girls stood there. They looked identical, except for their clothing. One held a clipboard, dressed in smart-looking clothes like most of the other healers in the tents. The other looked like she'd just come from a work-out.

         "A what?" he asked, puzzled, but keeping his emotions off his face.

         "Swamp cooler," the first repeated.

         "Over there," said the other.

         Ren watched first one, then the other, but their conversation was so quick he found it hard to follow. Who was saying what?

         "Turns hot air outside ..."

         "Into cold air inside."

         "Oh."

         "Are you Pandaren, of Razi?" asked the one with the clipboard.

         "Yes."

         "We're ready for you. Come this way."

         Ren and Master Yoshi followed the girl into another tent adjoined to the first. He looked around, but he didn't see the mysterious 'cooler.' The girl escorted them into a small, curtained enclosure with a few machines, a hospital bed, and temporary storage units.

         "You can sit there," she gestured to the bed. "Take off your tunic. Master Poly will be with you shortly."

         "Thank you," said Master Yoshi.

         "She can speak Japanese!" Ren whispered.

         "Yes."

         Ren slipped out of his shirt and hopped up on the bed as Master Yoshi settled into the chair. Soon enough, the girl and another woman appeared. She carried a manila folder under one arm and scanned the contents before going over to Ren's side.

         "Lie back," said Nanami, translating for the other healer. "How do you feel?"

         Ren found it quite odd, looking at the heart ninja, but talking to the student. "Uh, fine." He twitched under the healer's probing fingers, then gave in and giggled.

         The two healers stared at him. Master Yoshi merely raised an eyebrow.

         "Tickles," mumbled Ren, blushing.

         "You're a samurai?" asked Nanami.

         "Yes."

         "I don't think I've ever seen a samurai laugh before."

         Ren closed his eyes, blushing deeper, then stared at the ceiling and tried to hold still. The examination was over within a few minutes and the healer, through her student, told Ren that he was cleared for the competition and reminded him to be sure he arrived at his matches at least thirty minutes early so that his fitness to continue could be assessed. Everyone must do so. He nodded his understanding.

         "You must have good healers at home," said Nanami, lingering after Master Poly left.

         Ren pulled his shirt over his head and didn't answer.

         "Good luck in the competition!" she called as they left.

         "We are a few minutes ahead of schedule," said Master Yoshi as they stepped outside once more. "Is there anything you would like to do?"

         "I want to see where we're battling tomorrow!"

         The old master nodded and led the way to a large, outdoor auditorium in an oblong shape. A dirt track ran around the outside. Tall netting and barriers separated the grassy interior into several equal-sized enclosures. Stands filled the entire outside of the oval. All of Razi Academy might fill only a quarter of the space available.

         "Wow!"

         They were not the only ones having a look around. Security stood at intervals around the inside of the track, keeping the curious from getting too close. The indoor arrangements could be locked with their plexiglas walls, but the outdoor rings had to be guarded. Master Yoshi led the way along the dirt to where Ren would have his first match in the morning.

         "And you must go there," he pointed at a corner, where another of the healer's white tents stood, "to check in first."

         Ren nodded. "What will they do?"

         "Make sure you're not cheating," replied the master with a small smile.

         As they continued around in their small tour, Master Yoshi said, "Now, if I were you, Pandaren, what I would do is use that gift of yours right away."

         "Why?"

         The master shrugged. "Samurai are the most prolific of the sects. There will be many, many battles. Let your competition wear themselves out fighting. That way, when you progress, you will still be fresh. The less time you spend in the ring, the better."

         "Oh. But, Master Yoshi, I don't want to!"

         Eyebrows raised in surprise, Master Yoshi said, "The gift is there to be used, Pandaren. Use it, or it'll use you."

         Ren was silent for a long while, staring up at the rings with less excitement and more dread. His mind went back to some very similar words that Varamance had said only a week ago.

         "Um, Master Yoshi?"

         "Yes, Pandaren?"

         "I know ... I know I'm here and all, but ...."

         "Yes?"

         "Am I -- should I be?"

         "Do not tell me you're still having doubts?"

         "Well ...."

         Master Yoshi stopped, to put his hands on Ren's shoulders and look into his face. "Your performance during the Top Ten was outstanding. You have every right to be here as -- as Varamance does."

         "But ...!"

         "Now no more of this nonsense," the master said firmly, giving him a little shake. "Come. We must go meet the others."

         The rest of Razi milled about in a sea of color amongst the other schools, having instructions barked out at them from several someones with megaphones and waiting impatiently to start the Opening Ceremonies. Master Yoshi gave Ren a little push towards the other students and went to talk to the other masters.

         "Hey, Pandaren," said Exodeus. "You look better."

         He stared down at his feet, starting when Varamance clapped him on the shoulder.

         "All good to go, then?"

         Nodding, Ren said, "Yes, I've -- I passed."

         "That's good," said Kagami.

         "We really had a workout," Nnena chimed in. "Master Maestro is tough!"

         They all chatted gaily amongst themselves, not seeming to mind that Ren said very little. He often felt Osore's eyes on him and tried to avoid the other student's gaze.

         "Hey!" called Master Moone presently. "Pay attention, you lot! We're about to start."

         Organized based on their school's performance in the previous year's tournament, the American Academy for Ninjas and their full complement of ten competitors went first. The parade continued, filling up the track with a rainbow of colors. The stands were packed, and folding chairs waited for the competitors down by the stage. Speakers boomed out the announcers, speaking in English and expecting the schools to have translators.

         As each school entered, their name rang out over the spectators, with various amounts of cheering for each group. The Americans and the Canadians were the largest, though a large cheer went up for the Alaskans and the United Latinos. Somewhere in the middle of the masses walked Razi Academy. They waved as they walked in, prompted by the organizers standing by the entrance. Over the speakers, the announcer's factoid about Razi was their gun-toting student, first ever for the Occamy Sect, world-wide.

         "Whoo! I'm famous!" said Dante, waving both arms and jumping up and down to attract the newsfeeds. Then he grinned. "Wish my parents could come! But they'll be here tomorrow to watch me compete!"

         Master Moone looked back at him and winked. The masters ushered the students through the walk around the track and into their seats. Once all the schools were in place, the speakers played the national anthem of the host country. Razi stood with their heads bowed, as was expected to show respect. Out of the corner of his eye, Ren thought he could see Dante mouthing the words.

         What followed was over two hours of boring speeches interspersed with an eclectic variety of entertainment. Ren slid down in his seat and closed his eyes.

         Convex translated for those of Razi who didn't understand English, sitting in the middle of their group and speaking as quickly as she could to keep up. Master Maestro passed her a bottle of water, mouthing, "Good job!"

         By the end, everyone was growing restless. How many times do we have to hear the rules? Ren wondered.

         "Hey," he heard Varamance say softly, "all the World Sect-Leaders are here, look, that must be them, there." He pointed.

         Convex turned around. She nodded. "Good eye. Yeah, that looks like them."

         Master Maestro leaned across a couple of the students to say in a low voice, "Varamance, as our top student, you and I will be staying after the show. You'll get your chance to meet them."

         "Oooh, Varamance, you are so lucky!" sighed Nnena. "You'll have to tell us everything!"

         "Shhh!" hissed Master Moone.

         "Oh," said Convex at one point. "They're calling this a martial arts competition."

         "Well, you can't expect them to televise a bunch of kids kicking the shit out of each other and call it much else," quipped Quack, rolling her eyes. She stared at Ren. "By the way, they'll mostly be concentrating on the Samurai and Occamy portions of the contest, 'cause you're all so boring."

         "That's not true!" snapped Convex as Ren started in alarm. "They'll be watching us and Heart, too!"

         Quack sniffed. "Yeah, like that'll be entertaining. Just you wait. All you'll see on the monitors will be Samurai this and Samurai that."

         "Would you stop talking!" Master Moone growled. "Pay attention! You all did terribly on the history portion of the last exam!"

         "The history of Ninjutsu," the speaker was saying now, "has its roots in the East with the Samurai of Ancient Japan. These skilled warriors, born out of the necessity for defense, lived and died at the whim of their masters, though there were some mercenaries. They carried the knowledge of their training with them across the continents. The first Ninjutsu Sect, Samurai, is named for those ancient warriors.

         "However, it might also be said that the first ninjas were Sages, for in Ancient Greece the greatest power of all was knowledge and wisdom, the most powerful of all being Socrates, the first Sage. Of course the use of force was still a part of Greek society, the Spartans being a prime example. However, they were not the oldest, a creation of the Sages who were the thrust of the country's defense coming from diplomacy and rhetoric, knowing their enemies and conquering through words.

         "And again, Ancient Egypt was different, too, their power coming from powerful summons like that of the Crystal Sect. Exactly how they performed their feats to this day remains unknown. They used no crystals and the Pharoahs were able to pass on their summons from generation to generation. The most famous of those were the apparent 'Gods:' Osiris, the Scorpian King, Isis, Set, Ra, Geb, Shu and Nut, even the Sphinx. All were equivelent to the fifth summons of a trained Crystal Ninja.

         "Or, as in Australia, the Aboriginies believed they came from the Dreamtime and from this gained their adeptness at Khu Ryu and using the elements to preserve their way of life. There are similar stories among the Celts.

         "Many more are the origins of the Ninjutsu as we know it today, for example the Norse and their gift of Occamy, or the Iranians and their relationsip with a defense similar to Umbra. Hence, historians debate vehemently over which Sect is the oldest, seeing as many, although not bearing that title at the time, were present across the world at various instances in history.
(*Wink* --> wink for Matt!)

         "However, all can agree that our newest Sect is that of Geomancy, for the fortunes of nature that could have had a devastating toll on our nation of India. However we all came to be, Ninja are who we are and who we strive to be. To better the world, in as large or as little a means as it is within our power to accomplish.

         "This is a fine day, a wondrous example of the best that our world has to offer. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Next Generation! Let us now go forth and celebrate, for in a few days' time, we shall have a new World Champion!"

         "Oooh!"

         "Aah!"

         "Got to love fireworks!" exclaimed Dante, grinning. "Oh, look at that one!"

         At the conclusion of Opening Ceremonies and all the 'celebrating' the masters would allow their excited students, Razi Academy walked back to their quarters. Ren rubbed his eyes tiredly, trailing behind the group. Osore, he saw, was being patted on the back so hard he was having trouble walking. Master Enzyme looked smug; but Osore seemed more than a little overwhelmed by the situation, keeping a tight grip on his violin case.

         A huge hand descended on Ren's shoulder. He jumped. Then looked up. The giant Samoan, Whale, stared down at him, saying something that Ren took to mean either "Good luck" or "See you tomorrow." He replied with both and a polite bow. The other samurai nodded and headed off at an angle with the others of his school, away from the Razi side.

         Crawling into bed with the others, Ren found that he couldn't go to sleep. He dozed off and on and tossed and turned, but nothing seemed to help. Then, just like the previous night, Ren found himself in the bathroom at 2 a.m. He sat in the dark for awhile, then, chewing his lip nervously, sought out Master Enzyme.

         "Well, you did sleep all day," yawned the master, blinking into the cabinets for a whole minute before realizing he was staring right at the tea he wanted.

         Ren just shrugged, chin in his hands on the table.

         "I mean," continued Enzyme as he fumbled with the teapot, "I expected you to sleep for several hours, but all day? Young as you are, you should've been awake before I was." He squinted at Ren. "Are you sure that's all there is? You just can't sleep?"

         "Yes, Master."

         "You didn't get sick again?" Ren started to shake his head, but Master Enzyme sighed. "A samurai should never lie, Pandaren. You really suck at it."

         "I'm sorry, Master."

         "Why'd you wake me up? Master Yoshi can put you to sleep. Better than herbs."

         "But I don't --"

         "I thought you liked Master Yoshi."

         "Oh, I do! He's been very good to me."

         Enzyme rubbed his head. "I feel there's a 'but' in there somewhere."

         "He's disappointed in me."

         "Pandaren," sighed Enzyme, sinking into a chair and pouring the tea. "Master Yoshi does nothing but sing your praises. He's not disappointed."

         "But I don't belong here!"

         "Oh, blast!" Hastily, Enzyme mopped up the spilled liquid. He stared at the young, guilty face. "Now listen to me, Pandaren! You killed a man. That will not change. But it is what we do."

         "I don't want to kill anyone!"

         "You would not have been accepted to Razi if there was any doubt that you would kill. There is a part of you that is proud of killing that boy. It's okay to feel that way."

         Ren leaped to his feet. "No it's not! It's not! It's not!"

         "Pandaren!" gasped Enzyme.

         Ren clasped his arms over his chest. "I can't do this, Master! I can't!"

         Enzyme frowned in concern, suddenly terrified of saying the wrong thing.

         "Pandaren, come here."

         They both turned sharply. Master Yoshi stood in the doorway, his mouth drawn down into a deep, angry scowl. His eyes flashed to Enzyme for a second and the younger heart ninja flinched as if slapped. He stood, but felt completely powerless to resist as Pandaren, head bowed and feet dragging, followed his master back upstairs.

         "Shit!" whispered Enzyme into his cooling tea, suddenly wide awake.
The applauds grew louder. The Razi group was slowly moving with the flow of people. Osore did not like these kinds of events. They were too loud and chaotic. There was no order in them. Everyone talked, laughed, shouted, threw pop-corns and flowers at the same time. He hated that, but could not do anything about it. While he was walking and waving at the crowd he could see the people’s happiness and anxiety. He was surrounded by the other students. He could see Pandaren to his right. Physically he seemed to be fully recovered, but there was still something that bothered him. Something that troubled his mind and did not seem to leave him be. Osore wanted to talk to him, but he wanted to do it alone. Master Yoshi was always by his side. Sure, he was there to insure that Pandaren did not do anything out of line, and prevent any fights, but in Osore’s opinion, Pandaren also needed a time-out. He had gone through his worst nightmare and most probably was afraid to get near someone. Master Yoshi was making things worse by sticking on him like a leech. What Pandaren needed now more than ever, was for someone to trust in him. He needed to lighten up, to see a bit of the good side of life, to laugh, to joke, and play and talk freely. He had to be given a reason to exist. It seemed strange though, that he was so isolated, so far away from everyone. It was not just that he had done it on his own. It was as if someone had done it to him.

Osore knew what will make Pandaren feel better. He had the answer to this problem right here in his pocket. It was a letter by Hammer. He had it since Sunday, when he last saw him. Hammer seemed disappointed that Pandaren had not come, but Osore did not tell him why he had not. He had written a letter to him and decided Osore to be the mailman. But until now, Osore had not seen a good time to give the letter to him. Even when he had found Pandaren in the showers all alone, he still had no intention of giving it to him. He wanted to the timing to be perfect. Since it was a personal letter he was intending to deliver it when Pandaren was all alone.

They were now heading to their seats. The crowd was still roaring. He sat down next to Varamance. In front of him was Convex. She was translating for those who did not know English. She was pretty good too. After all she was a Sage. Her abilities and knowledge were enormous. And she used it on the battle field even better than Osore would have anticipated. Osore tried to remember everyone’s actions in the warm-ups this morning, but came to the conclusion that he had not even tried to remember them. Their fights had gone almost without him realizing it, because there was something on his mind- The American khu student which seemed to have a crush on him. He had been wondering what her decision was. Did she really like him? Why did he actually care? He had been around Orihimaue for ten years, but never felt the same as with her. Was he actually developing feelings for her too? It felt really odd to him. To like someone, he does not know, to the point of falling in love was unimaginative.

He had fallen in a strange semi dream. The endless talks of important and famous people were giving him a headache. All they said was the same. How utterly spectacular this competition would be. Osore was half asleep and did not wish to think of anything, but after what seemed to be an eternity he finally woke up, when patted on the shoulder. It was Master Enzyme. “Yes, Master?” Osore had said.

“Come with me.” The master had said and they stood up and went through the closest exist.

“Where are we going?” Osore asked as they passed through the streets.

“To the Laudien theater.”

“The what?”

“It’s a new theater. It was actually made for musical concerts, and that is what its opening show will be tonight. It has a whole group of musicians, as young and talented as you. The students and teachers of every Academy are invited. And I’m sure most of them will come. Especially your girlfriend.”

“What girlfriend?”

“Well, the girl from yesterday at dinner time, that talked with you. Aren’t you two going out?”

“Well, I can’t. Aren’t we not allowed to let our guard down when surrounded by enemies?”

“Well, it is very essential to do that, yes, but you do realize this is only a competition, a game. Real live missions will be much more unpredictable, and surely you won’t be fighting fairly one-on-one. You should take this as a chance to get yourself a girlfriend.”

“Sir, why are we going so early to the Theater?”

“Well, you’re gonna participate.”

“What? I can’t! I don’t want to!”

“What? Are you mad? You play so good! You must play the same way. You must!”

“I…” Osore seemed so disturbed and panicked for the first time in about twelve years. His gaze whirled around Master Enzyme, the buildings, the ground and the sky.

“You must, for the sake of our school you must. This is an order!” The master said and looked him in the eyes. Osore calmed down, looked back in the teacher’s eyes and said:”Alright! I’ll do my best.”

Even so, after they continued to walk to the theater, after every turn they made, panic grew larger in him. He had not reacted physically to it, but he could feel his arms go numb, his legs soften and his head go dizzy. He wanted to run away, to hide somewhere so he would not need to play in front of everyone. Was he afraid he will not perform well? No, he was afraid that so many people will hear his thoughts, will bathe in his feelings and experience his desires and dreams. Then a strange thought overtook his mind: „What if she is there? What would she think of me? What would happen…”

“We’re here, Osore!” master Enzyme said. The broad, white building had a roman architecture. Just as master Enzyme had said, it was new. Osore gazed at its beautiful marble pillars supported the second floor balconies, as they were running up the white marble steps. They entered from the main gates, past the enormous lobby and entered the huge hall. The hall had parterre, second balcony and gallery, with loges on the rear walls, but the orchestra seats would not be taken, obviously because there would be none, and only solo or duet musicians would go on stage to perform. Osore could hear the sounds of violin, viola, violoncello, double bass, flute, piccolo, oboe and clarinet, trumpet, tuba and trombone, kettledrums, xylophones, piano and even a harp all mixed in a chaotic parody of synchronous. He did not recognize all of them though. If the instruments started working together, there would definitely come something quite beautiful.

“Master Enzyme? Is that him?” someone shouted from the stage. On stage were all the instruments and the musicians that played them. He saw a man get down from the stage. He was fairly tall, old man with white, short hair, who wore huge glasses. H approached them, shook enzyme’s hand and took a closer look at Osore. “Osore, heh? Well, that ain’t gonna work here. Give me your full real name.” the man said.

“Why?” Osore asked

“That’s how we’ll present you. ‘Cause people have come to see a musician not a ninja.”

“Come on, say it!” said master Enzyme.

“Garlon Grein.” said Osore. The man wrote it down.

“Alright! Go up the stage and practice. We start in thirty minutes so you don’t have much time. When we start you go to the dressing-room. You’ll get something more decent to wear.”



-_-_-_-



“And next are Garlon Grien with violin and Hurburt Schtainman with piano playing Talecto Flera!” the announcer shouted out. The crowd greeted calmly as both the ninja and the pianist entered. The crowd seemed very relaxed, because just before a few minutes the harp played. Since the time was limited and the organizers wanted to make the show a bit more interesting, groups of musicians were allowed to play in duo, trio and quartet. Osore had chosen Schtainman, because he seemed to be closest to producing a good synchronous with him. They talked through the things they could play, and decided to perform Talecto Flera, because they both knew how to play it and was created for a duo of violin and piano. For bout thirty minutes they practiced together in order to get the rhythm right, and in the end found out they worked together perfectly. Now as they were walking in stage, Osore’s grip over his violin tightened. He was finally getting the stage-fright. He went close to the piano, where Schtainman sat and froze. Schtainman was about to begin, but Osore said quietly: „Just a minute.” He closed his eyes and started breathing steady. He shook up his legs and ignored the whispers of the audience. “Ok, go!” he said and continued to breath calmly. The piano began. It was a steady rhythm that suggested calmness and order, beautiful only in its simplicity. Then the tone turned more aggressive as the rhythm quickened and just as the moment came the violin joined in, almost instant and in the same time invisible to the untrained ears. The people from the audience that did not have their eyes opened, did not really recognize the violin at first, because it was playing very quietly, but after a few seconds it actually started to sound louder than the piano, giving out screeching sounds from time to time that hurt the ear. Of course these screeching sounds of the violin were intended. They were one of the requirements for Talecto Flera to be successful. They had to wake up the audience, to excite it. From time to time Osore looked into the notations in order to see what followed. Through the whole performance the violin and piano changed their places, as one became louder than the other. Slowly at the end the piano started to sound fainter and fainter until it disappeared. After that only the smooth and relaxing tones of the violin sounded. They were not sad; they were beautiful, calm and steady. It was like dipping slowly in a hot-spring. The violin’s tone silently faded away. Osore left his hand hang down, still gripping the bow and released the violin. Schtainman did not stand. The audience was quiet. It seemed they did not like it. Suddenly applauds came from the loges, where the VIPs were. Schtainman had told him that some of the loges were reserved for music critics. The applauds that came from the upper loges suddenly engulfed the parterre, then the second floor and the galleries. The whole hall was applauding them. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and saw Schtainman behind him. “Let’s go!” he said as they approached the end of the stage they bowed down. The applauds became louder and now he could swear he heard from time to time someone call out “Way the go, Osore!”. He could feel a strange relaxation take him over, and an unsuspected energy take over his limbs. He wanted to jump, laugh and shout. He felt alive for the first time in years.

As he got behind the stage and shook hands with Schtainman, he was smiling. “”Osore!” someone shouted out and he turned around. Lucy was running towards him. How did she come in here?

“Hey, Lucy!” he said a smile still on his face as she stopped in front of him.

“You idiot, why didn’t you tell me you played violin?” she asked

“You never asked.” he answered.

“Well, anyway, you were great out there.”

“Thank you!” he said as she got closer to him.

“You know, I‘ve been thinking about what you told me and I…”

“Don’t worry. It’s just that I wanted you to like me for something else than that, when you actually did not know anything else about me. So, what do you say? Let’s get to know each other.”

“Yeh, after the show, why don’t you come with my group to a party in the hostels? You’ll like it. There’ll be a lot of Academies there. Of course a lot of masters too, so there won’t be any trouble going on. And don’t worry it will be over till midnight.”

“Well, I’ll think about it.”

“Oh, did I hear yes. Yeh, you are coming then.”

“No, I said…”

“Then you are gonna love this…”


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

This is Virgo's add:

Nanami walked with her sister, her nose curling as Riko had yet to take a shower. “You smell,” She hissed quietly as they entered the healers tent.

“I do not. You just say that because you don’t want me feeling good,” Riko replied quietly, stretching a moment to loosen her tense muscles from her exercise. “Oooh, he’s cute.” She murmured to Nanami in English as they spotted the boy, grinning slightly. At the comment in inquiry, they responded, “We have...”

“A swamp cooler.” Nanami murmured, her eyes trailing over the figure clinically, though she was hard-pressed not to agree with her sister. Not that she’d admit it.

At the question, Riko hid a smile, looking down, “Swamp cooler.” She returned, looking over him.

“Over there.” Nanami gestured vaguely, a good samurai the boy did not make, he showed too much, in both his voice and his movement, though it was minimal. Apparently, however, he was supposed to be a top contender in Razi, next to the talked about Varamance.

“Turns hot air outside...”

“Into cold air inside.” Nanami kept her gaze steady, until she let them fall to her clipboard, “Are you Pandaren of Razi?” She asked, though she knew the answer already.

“Yes.” He replied.

“We’re ready for you. Come this way.” She waved off Riko, with quiet instructions to leave and get a shower and led the boy and the old man to another tent, gesturing for him to go inside. “You can sit there,” She pointed and took a step back, “Master Poly will be with you shortly. She dropped the curtain and moved away, deciding that she liked Pandaren, mostly because of his un-samurai like behaviour. It amused her. She went to Master Poly’s tent and pushed it open unannounced, as she usually did, and snuck up behind the Master. She was talking to someone that Nanami didn’t know, possibly some sort of argument, judging from the heated tones, but she didn’t understand German, so perhaps it was just the way they sounded. She plucked up Pandaren’s manilla folder and thumbed through it a moment, looking over his file before Master Poly could notice. She looked up when she heard the voices rise, but not enough to move into the surrounding tents, and shut the folder, having absorbed most of it in her quick glance through. Deciding she was tired of hearing the maybe-argument, she tapped Master Poly’s shoulder, “Pandaren of Razi is ready for you in tent four.” She murmured as the woman whirled on her.

“Very well.” Master Poly said, turning back to her conversational companion, barking something that sounded like a ‘finish this later’ statement and left, her face schooling itself into the cool, collected, clinical look as Nanami handed her the manilla folder. “Thank you.” Master Poly murmured, “I don’t speak Japanese, you know.”

“Yes.” Nanami said shortly, stepping inside and holding open the curtain for Master Poly, “Lie back.” She murmured, at the request of the other heart woman. “How do you feel?” She examined the unmarked skin where there should have been bruises. She’d read the report on his injuries, it didn’t seem probable that they’d healed so quickly, even with a heart ninja aiding at all times, or even two. She let Master Poly do most of the touching, though she did one or two presses of her own, her mental map of the body and where the worst of his bruising was supposed to be, but all she got was a giggle. Which was amusing in and of itself, a samurai giggling, and she had to hide a vague smile of her own at his response.

“Tickles.”

Tickles indeed. “You’re a samurai?” She asked, careful to keep her voice steady and the laughter she felt out of her tone.

“Yes.” He seemed very serious suddenly.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a samurai laugh before,” she replied mildly, though her tone did convey a bit of her amusement now.

The exam was concluded quickly, apparently Poly wanted to finish what she’d started with that german fellow, and she left as soon as she’d finished her formalities. Nanami lingered, her eyes falling on the old man for a moment, she’d forgotten he was there, he’d kept so quiet during the exam, but he was nice enough she supposed, her eyes flicked back to Pandaren, her eyes quietly serious, “You must have good healers at home.” Wondering if Riko was going to have trouble with the competitor from Heart. She hoped not, knowing Riko, she’d wipe the floor with all the other Heart members, or she’d better, Nanami wouldn’t forgive her if she lost.

When Pandaren didn’t reply, her eyes moved to his, searching for a moment, as if he knew his healers well enough to give her clues to pass onto Riko, alas, none were forthcoming and her eyes trailed to the old man, Yoshi? Was that his name? She searched him for a moment, but she’d never perceived such blankness in a person before, even the masters of the various sects, including Samurai, had some depth and small flickers in their eyes, but there was... nothing. She chalked it up to age and experience, the man must know his stuff. She turned then, “Good luck in the competition!” She called, trotting to the dorms, checking her weapons, the sudden urge to do so filtered through her, and she pulled her sai’s from her back, twirling them in her grasp. She held them on her all the way to the dorms, her gaze eagle sharp, and people avoided her, not that they didn’t usually. She reached her and Riko’s room and pushed the door open, relieved to find her sister there.

“How’d the exam go?” Riko asked, her hair wet, obviously having recently showered, her battle gear in a pile next to her, preparing for the evening’s festivities.

“Interesting.” Nanami replied and explained when Riko raised an inquiring brow.

“Funny, I didn’t peg him for Samurai.” Riko said, raking a brush through her hair and twisting it up out of her face and pinning back her strays.

Nanami offered a faint smile in her sister’s direction, “They must have a talented heart sect at Razi, watch your back, Ri.” She murmured in warning, “I looked through his file,” She ignored the look that Riko gave her, “His bruising should still be there, according to the reports, he shouldn’t really be as... fixed as he was.”

“You’re going to get in trouble if you keep that up.” Riko murmured, glancing sharply at her sister.

Nanami shrugged, it was obvious she didn’t care much, “Hurry up, you’ll be late.”

“God forbid.” Then Riko got a devious look, tossing her gear to Nanami, “You go, I’m bailing.” She said, dusting off her pants.

Nanami looked at her, “You know, someone’s going to notice.”

“No chance in hell.” Riko grinned, “People who’ve known us forever still can’t tell the difference.”

“If you say so.” Nanami said, taking off her weapons and replacing them with Riko’s. The blades felt foreign at her back, but she didn’t complain. They did this quite a bit, switching places, especially if Riko didn’t want to do something, like this parade, which was bound to be dull, so Nanami allowed herself to be pushed into her sister’s place and offered no protests.

~*~

Nanami remained stoic through the parade, looking around occasionally, usually to pick her sister from the crowd, even though she knew she wouldn’t be there. Nanami was entertained by the people, some tripping, lots of screaming and hollering all about this that and the other, most of which she didn’t pay much mind to. She’d heard the rules, the odds and ends, from her Masters and Riko multiple times in the past, due mostly to the fact that they were hosting this year, and that they had better be on their best behavior, no matter what. So Nanami kept a steady eye on her sister’s competitors, most of the heart sect from other countries were much more cheerful-looking than she was, and happy, waving and saluting and generally being bright and effervescent.

She rolled her eyes at all the frock and flippery, sighing softly and shifting away slightly when someone came to near. She hated being touched by other people, so she kept her self indifferent, trying to convey the general aloofness her sister pulled off fairly well, though it probably didn’t go so well when she physically pushed someone away from her because they were too close, giving them a sharp look before turning her attention back to the center.

She was relieved when it was over, and Riko sidled up next to her when she escaped the clutches of the crowd then, quickly exchanging their weapons so no one noticed, moved off towards their room to change.
Ansuz growled, the rumble low in his throat and chest as he paced. Some how he needed to be in there where the boy was, where the Sect-Master's were. He had to be in there… if possible without blowing his cover. But the only way to enter those rooms would be as a ninja. Unless he could come up with a story that would account for his pretence of being a businessman and having a limp and not admitting to being an Occamist… Well… He wasn't going anywhere. It was times like this that he wished the movement would have progressed further, their infiltrators closer to the higher-ups of the elitist society. And there was no way he could have maintained his guise in that room… The old headmistress of Haileybury was now the world sect-leader for Khu… God that woman was a bitch …

He stomped his feet, leant against the wall, lit a cigarette, muttered under his breath and then started pacing again. He didn't know what to do… Which was a first. But normally he'd have had a little help from a Sage in order to come up with a plan before it got to this point. There had to be a way… He glanced up, noticing a fire escape and wondering if he could break in and then hide somewhere, somehow. Surely it couldn't be that difficult?

Or maybe… He took a long, last drag of smoke and then dropped the dead thing to the ground. A plan formed in his head and a smirk travelled over his lips.

*

There were a small collection of students, all First for their schools when it came to the competition and he couldn't help but feel defensive. Each was sizing the other up behind their smiles and enthusiastic greetings. He could see it. These were the people most likely to challenge him and they were therefore the most dangerous. He recognised one or two who had been hanging around at the hotel, though he could see the narrowness of their eyes, the cold appraisal of each individual and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Not in fear… for he did not bother to fear; but in anticipation. A light flared up behind his own eyes and he could feel it in his chest, burning.

Doors opened at the end of the long, blue carpeted room, the World Leaders trooping through in a virtual silence. Silent except for the murmur of the wind, the natter of people far below, the swish of their clothes... The students bowed, falling into a pose that would prove their respect. For a second Varamance didn't want to bow but then he thought of their strength and dug deep to seek out the awe and admiration he was meant to feel towards them. To succeed was his ambition and they had the power to stop him from amounting to anything.

"Welcome." There was a loud bang; presumably the doors and the austere, nasal voice broke the dense quiet, "Do stand."

He didn't hesitate, wanting to see the faces of these famed few who controlled so much of the politics of the world albeit behind the scenes. The Occamy leader was easiest to spot, the overly ostentatious Gaelic claidheamh mòr lying thick and deadly against his thigh, he seemed to be seeking out those form his sect amongst the group of students… On the other hand the Sage leader became just as obvious, the middle-aged gentleman was a sharp faced, angular sort of fellow with teeth that were slightly too big for his thin lipped mouth; pen tucked behind his ear and strangely average clothes compared to the others, made him uninteresting to pay attention to despite the harsh contours of his physique. It was the two women who seemed the most interesting: one of Crystal, made obvious by the large silvery wolf sitting at her side; the other of Khu, the red hair matching the long scarlet coseis that she spun between her long, pale fingers.

However, despite his eyes raking over the hulking body of the Samurai and the darkly robed Umbra master he finally managed to see the man he really wanted to see. Master Schopenhauer of Kant. The German born man was tall with a face defined by his Roman nose and high eyebrows. His strange, blue gaze met his own as he examined the man he one day wanted to emulate. Varamance let a comfortable smile slip onto and then of his face, relaxed and calm, just as he had promised himself he would be. After the night before, where his emotions had been carried away only for his senses to return during the Cirque, he had decided that it was best to just remain passive in human emotion until this competition was over. The way to win was through desire and confidence and prowess. And to do well after the competition he had to prove those things now.

It was slow but little by little the room dissolved into conversation, at first strained but then more casual, though always respectful. There were drinks, Italian wine for the adults should they desire it, whiskey was held close to the chest of the shadow swathed Master Tartarus of Umbra. There were only four members of Kant present in the room; one a tall, white haired girl who called herself Novalis who made even he feel slightly small and wary; a smaller boy called Habermas and another whose chest seemed to have a hole in it called Priori. Varamance watched them, taking in the little details of their actions… The girl seemed brash, her voice rough and manners inelegant, the two boys seemed more aware of their relative sizes and seemed to be actively choosing to ignore his presence as he approached Master Schopenhauer himself.

"Master Schopenhauer," He bowed low as an introduction and then righted himself, "My name is Varamance of RAZI Academy…"

*

Ansuz watched the occupants carefully, he had settled for perching on the windowsill of the room for the moment, using a little of his brother's talent to shield himself from view. He could see the boy, Varamance, standing relaxed within a ring of other Kant members, talking with Schopenhauer as if it was an everyday occurrence. Shaking his head, he couldn't help but let a flicker of amusement twinge within him. The boy was interesting, and where most seemed to be listening intently, he showed very little intrigue.

He was meant to be trying to reach the next floor so he could break in and climb down… But since he could see them all from where he was and it was too far up for other people to see him, it made sense to malinger where he was. Waiting in the early afternoon heat that longed to lull him into a daze. Below, he could see the flash of metal glaring up from the roads, smell the city's debris and hear the calls of man at war with traffic, street sellers and newly found opportunities. He couldn't listen to them though, not when he had to concentrate on the job in hand.

It was his role to judge whether Varamance was truly worth the hassle of their time, whether he had any weakness they could exploit, any talent that would make him too important to lose. And since he had angered Yoshi before, he had to make sure he did this right. And so far it seemed the only weakness the youth may have was his ambition. It showed in his appraisal of situations, what seemed to be a lack of real relationships. His friend who had lost his summons, seemed not to be his friend at all, a barely contained anger flaring up towards his target. But then, when you had lost a piece of your soul, maybe that's what happened… You became jealous of all of those who seemed better than you… That friend was decidedly weak of character. Varamance shouldn't be associating with people like that anyway, it would only hinder his success. Ansuz broke away from his musings, realising again that the heat was making him lax in his observations. He wished he had a drink…

*

Schopenhauer was a cliché. A walking, talking, breathing cliché. Everything he said was a complex discussion of what a Kant member should consider as part of the Sect and seemed to revolve entirely around complicated terminology that meant the bright, dapper personality became swamped in unattractive language.

"…complete determination of all maxims…"

"…So act as if your maxims should serve at the same time as the universal law (of all rational beings), meaning that we should so act that we may think of ourselves as a member in the universal realm of ends…"

"…the question whether we must admit a power of spontaneously beginning a series of successive things or states…"

"…a true battle is like a democracy is, properly speaking, it is necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power in which 'all' decide for or even against one who does not agree; that is, 'all,' who are not quite all, decide, and this is a contradiction of the general will with itself and with freedom..."

It made Varamance's head reel, particularly as the man was using a translator in order to communicate with him. But he chose to remain as unflustered as he could be, not wanting to appear as if he didn't understand what the man was on about. Every so often he would glance around when no one was looking, just to retain his bearings… He had never felt so stupid whilst responding with intelligent remarks as he had in those few minutes.

He started to reply to a comment made, "Surely…Rather than developing an understanding of the concepts we use to understand phenomena, we need to understand the way we experience some things first-"

The Master interrupted and a brief flash of irritation swarmed through him only to be pushed down. He couldn't appear rude. He had to retain this dramatis persona… He at least had to make out that he could respect a man whose ability to explain was so poor.

*

Ansuz stood in the back of the music hall, watching the RAZI violinist with very little appreciation. He was only there because Varamance was there and because he was trying to figure out exactly what was going on in the ninja's head. He was obviously strong, dedicated, determined. But most of the people here were. He wanted to see him fight. And he wanted to know if what he had seen was true.

Varamance, it seemed, had a little secret. He was living a lie. For all his appreciation of what he had been taught, it was quite clear that he was losing his infatuation with those in authority. The brief rise of fury in the otherwise passive eyes that day had given him away, though no one else had been watching. He wondered if he should tell Yoshi and knew, at heart, that he should. To be losing that sense of loyalty was a definite weakness that they should exploit. But he didn't know if it ran as deeply as his own country, his own teachers, his own school.

And he still had to kill Frazier. That would be an interesting face off. The man would be harder to be rid of than Aeneas for Frazier was of Heart and would have to be challenged… He would have to do that soon.

And then someone started playing 'The Devil's Trill' by Tartini and he lifted his head.
When Exodeus woke up, he was quite certain the night before had been some kind of terrible nightmare. Afterall, he used to have this incredible, large snake, why would he have summoned a tiny seahorse? That must have been his imagination. Feeling somewhat lightned by his acknowledgment of a situation that could only be fake, he turned in his bed, pulling his covers over himself and slipped a hand under his pillow, a habit he had of trying to keep the pillow from escaping onto the floor. His fingers tapped against hard plastic. He paused, his heart catching in his throat. His eyes opened and he looked around, noting that he was the only one still in bed. He lifted the edge of the pillow and peered under it.

"Glub, glub," came the sounds from the plastic ball. His eyes caught on Exodeus' and the breath caught in Exodeus' throat. During the night, when there was next to no light, and next to nothing in Exodeus' mind but getting the thing in water, he hadn't seen that the seahorse had any color. Now, in the bright light of day, Exodeus could see the lines of dark blue and green that formed the main color of the body, and there were small spots of white and yellow at the tip of its nose. He blinked, and watched as the seahorse, Squirt, righted itself and swam in the middle of the water keeping his eyes on Exodeus.

Exodeus ran a hand through his hair in frustration. It hadn't been a dream. He couldn't believe he had something he had to carry around with him at all times now. He had Vie for so long that he didn't think even vaguely of this as being an equal partnership. How could it be? He sat up, which caused the ball to fall out from under the pillow, sending it across the bed and tumbling straight for the floor. Instinct alone was what made him reach and catch the plastic, and in that instant he felt that strange connection to Squirt, that forced him to realize he really had summoned this creature. He held the ball in his hands and pulled it up so he could look at the seahorse in its small container, spiraling around due to the sudden floorward treak it had almost made. Watching it made Exodeus dizzy. If he was dizzy, how must Squirt feel? He sighed and waited until Squirt was no longer moving in circles, then blinked.

"I'm sorry, alright?" he said to it. "I'm not really a good person for you to have as a partner. I simply can't understand what you're supposed to do, and how I'm supposed to fight with you. You'd be a better partner with Kitty, at least she can appreciate you." He felt a twang of guilt, he hadn't really thanked her properly the night before. He'd have to make up for that. "So, um, yeah," he shook his head and put the plastic back under his pillow.

Standing and stretching, he headed for the showers and a much needed moment of peace. He showered slowly, dressing afterwards and trying to avoid the others. He slipped a hand under his pillow and pulled Squirt out, putting him under his shirt, tucked by his side, so he could hold the ball while he walked. He didn't really want anyone to know about his seahorse, funny that, but he knew he was not going to be able to avoid the terrible truth for very long. He knew, soon enough, that everyone would know his main summons was capable of doing nothing more than staring at them.

After breakfast he followed everyone else out to the workout and was surprised to find that he was capable of moving in many interesting and difficult ways without losing the small plastic ball. He supposed Squirt could use the exercise as well and it wasn't a bad thing he was being swirled around.

When they broke away afterwards, he excused himself and slipped to the library. If there was one place he knew he could find some answers, it was among books. Maybe he could find Kitty and ask her questions while he was there. He could hear the echoing voice of Master Maestro, "Make sure you travel with someone who speaks English." One of these days, he was bound to get into trouble.

Following his instincts, and the brief description of where the library was Kitty had given him, he meandered around for a while, finally opening the doors to a large room filled with the musty scent of hundreds of books. Looking around he was surprised. He had never been one for reading, but seeing all these old tomes of knowledge made him feel somehow insignificant. Like an ant among giants.

He took a few steps looking all around him at the lines and lines of shelves. How many different people had contributed to this well of information? What couldn't be found here? His foot caught on a book and he stumbled a few feet.

"Oh! Exodeus?" came a surprised voice from the ground. He looked down, and saw the emerald eyes of Kitty, staring up at him in surprise. She was surrounded by over fifteen books, all scattered around her, some opened, some on top of each other, and some simply sitting there. Her hair was back in what he suspected was their customary braids, and her uniform was... too small in places and too large in others. He blinked at her a moment, then nodded.

"Yeah, hi Kitty. I was actually hoping I'd run into you." She blushed a bit and gave him a big smile.

"I was just reading up on seahorses. They're fascinating creatures, you know? Did you know that the male is the one who gets pregnant and births the babies? They also are the only creature on the earth that does that. And usually they mate again right after the male gives birth. Also, they like to mate on the full moon. They can blend in with their environment and--" Exodeus cut her off with a wave of his hand.

"Alright, hold on!" he said, somewhat exasperated. She blushed.

"Sorry, I suppose you don't want me to talk too much," there was something in the way she said it that bothered him, but he simply shook his head.

"Actually no, I do want to know about them, but a little bit at a time. First, I was wondering..." he trailed off, looked around, then pulled Squirt out from under his shirt. "If you think he's going to be alright in here while I walk." He looked down at him, and realized that he seemed to be spinning in the water, and his eyes looked a little funny. "I think I've screwed with his head."

"Oh wow! Look at his colors!" Kitty stood up and reached for the plastic bowl, pulling her face closer as she did so. Exodeus noticed that her skirt was much too long for her, and the shirt pulled across her shoulders and chest in a disturbing way.

"Kitty? That can't be your uniform, right?" He didn't want to ask, but... it was distracting. She looked at him in surprise.

"Of course not. No, no, my clothes are still missing. I can't imagine where they have wandered off to. I borrowed this from a friend." He blinked at her but she was already looking back at Squirt. "He's so pretty."

Exodeus watched her look at Squirt for a few moments, then shook his head. "What do you mean they're still missing? Where would your clothes have gone off to?" She shrugged. "Has this happened often?" She shook her head. "Kitty!" he said exasperated.

"Shh! Don't be too loud, you're in the library." Finally she looked away from Squirt and to him. "What?" He shook his head again.

"Kitty, don't make light of the situation. What is going on with your clothes?" He saw her struggle with something internally for a few moments, then she sat down, pulling a book onto her lap.

"I've already told you what's going on with my clothes. There's no need to discuss it further. What do you want to ask me regarding seahorses." Exodeus sighed in exasperation.

"Fine, fine. I'll ask my first question. Is he going to be alright here in this tiny thing, or will he need more space to roam around in?" Kitty shook her head and looked up at him.

"It'll be big enough, you'll just want to add things to it. Something stationary that he can wrap his tail around or something. So he doesn't get so dizzy. Seahorses grasp hold of seaweed when they rest so they won't drift away. Since he's going to be inside there, until you decide you want him in something else of course, you should probably put something like seaweed in it, or..." she drifted off, looking at the plastic container. "Or something. Maybe we could drill a hole in the bottom, and attach a clasp and glue it in, and then you could put seaweed in it and..." she drifted of again and looked up at Exodeus. Her face was slightly pink. "So, yeah, um, maybe?" Exodeus smiled and sat down on the other side of the books.

"Alright, we'll have to work out something stationary for him to hold onto. I don't think that'll happen right away, I mean, we're all about to fight." Exodeus' stomach flopped a few times, and he felt grossly unprepared for the coming battles. He couldn't understand how he was supposed to do that with Squirt. He looked down at the seahorse, but all it said was, "Glub, glub." He took a deep breath. "Right. So, my next question was, what do you think would be the best way of keeping him on me. I remember you gave me this chain thing so I could wear him around my neck..." he trailed off and shivered, "but I don't think it would actually work as a practical thing. Maybe while I'm walking around, but not for fighting." She looked at him thoughtfully, then shrugged, looking down at her book.

"You'll have to get something stronger to put him on. Maybe the clasp itself would need to be stronger. Ultimately, something like that, purchased at a pet store, won't last forever." Her voice had gone sad and Exodeus looked at her more closely.

"I really appreciate it, you know?" he said, his voice soft. She peered up at him through her long lashes and blinked away a tear.

"Yeah? I feel like I just sort of messed that whole thing up." Exodeus shook his head.

"No, you didn't. Alright? I took that fight on myself, and I knew better. When I face him again, he'll see how bad I am, and..." he stopped as he felt a small thump on the plastic in his hands. He looked down at Squirt, who seemed to be glaring at him. "What?" The seahorse was steadily looking at him, it's eyes bright and annoyed. "What can you do Squirt? Swim at them?" But he knew the answer. He didn't know what Squirt could do, he hadn't tried to do anything with him yet, and he was scoffing him. No doubt the seahorse felt a bit of resentment. "Do you want him? Free of charge?" Exodeus looked at Kitty.

"Don't even tease. He's yours, and I'm sure he'll do a wonderful attack that will stun everyone. You have to become partners, remember? He isn't just a summoned creature, you have to feel as though you two are joined in body and spirit. You aren't going to do that if you just talk down to him and yourself." Kitty looked annoyed but certain. Exodeus sighed.

"Will you show me to the practice room again? I think I want to meditate." Kitty stood up in a rush, knocking books over, a beaming smile on her face.

"Sure! Let's go."

**

Exodeus sat cross legged with the plastic bowl balanced on his legs. He took several deep breaths and forced himself to fall into the meditation he hadn't done since he'd lost Vie. Vie, his souls companion, whom he'd never see again. Vie, who had made this journey possible for him, by sacrificing herself. Vie... the piece of himself that was gone.

His eyes closed, he fell deeply into himself, and he searched. For a long time he searched, finding that part of him that was linked to Squirt. Trying to understand why he'd gotten such a creature. Not in anger this time, not in annoyance, mere curiosity. What he got for an answer was vague to say the least.

*He is a part of yourself. He is what you need to understand.* What the hell did that mean?

*Bubble* *Bubble* *Bubble* *Bubble* *Bubble*

His eyes opened. He felt the stiff muscles between his shoulder blades. He knew that he was going to have to trust that he would be able to do something when he fought. He looked down at the plastic, and into Squirts eyes. Yes, he would have to trust him.

"Kitty? Spar with me?" She looked at him in surprise.

"Are you sure?" He looked over at her and nodded.

"Just for a moment? I want to see... well, what bubble means." She tilted her head to one side, then nodded.

"Alright, sure." She stood up and he did so as well. They faced off, and she pulled out her knife. Which fell to the ground instantly. Then when she picked it up, she knicked herself on it. Softly swearing, she put her finger into her mouth and picked the knife up again. She turned to Exodeus, crouched and looking incredibly endearing with a knife in one hand and a finger in her mouth.

"Ready?" he asked her, brows knitting together in concern. She might do more damage to herself than she would to him. She nodded and he held the seahorse in his hands. "Good."

For several minutes they stared at each other. Then Kitty dashed forward, tripped over her foot and fell down to the ground. The knife skittered across the floor and she pulled her hand out of her mouth. "Ouch!" she said as she tried to stand up. Exodeus blinked.

"Are you alright?" he asked, wondering why she kept such a dangerous thing on her if she didn't know how to use it.

"Yeah, I can't understand what happened." She moved forward and picked up her knife. "Sorry about that." She turned to him, knife in hand, and eyes narrowed dangerously. Somehow, Exodeus couldn't take her seriously.

"Alright." She rushed at him again, this time managing to swipe at him, but this time she over judged her thrust and went sprawling on the other side of him as he stepped out of the way.

"Are you okay?" He decided this wasn't the best idea after all. Kitty was certainly not nearly as well trained as he had thought.

"Fine!" She picked herself up and brushed herself off.

"I think we should stop," he offered.

"No!" She seemed somehow disturbed. "I said I'd help and I will."

**

Several hours later, Kitty was ready to admit defeat. The fact that Exodeus hadn't done anything to her at all, all her injuries were self inflicted, was something that Exodeus realized but Kitty didn't. He decided he'd just have to wait. Perhaps he could ask Varamance...

'No, he'd only laugh at me,' came the inner voice Exodeus was trying to stifle these days. As he walked back to the main building, Kitty next to him, he contemplated his next move. What was he going to do?

*Bubble* *Bubble* *Bubble*

What the hell did it mean?
The Contest Begins!


         Ren woke to a tight knot of excitement in his belly. He kept his eyes closed still, breathing in the crisp air of the early morning and listening to the snores of the other boys. On the other side of the room, someone rolled over, and there was a vague, snorting noise from someone else. Being in a single, large room with three other boys seemed quite odd to him, and he wondered why he had not noticed before. On the other hand, he wasn't so much sure that he didn't like it, more that he was aware of the difference. Perhaps Americans were just lazy, and didn't want to build or maintain separate facilities; they certainly weren't poor enough to make it a necessity. Or perhaps the difference was more fundamental. In the East, they were individuals first, part of a Sect second, and a member of the Razi team a somewhat distant third.

         He slipped from his bed and over to the glass doors leading out onto the balcony. With a little bit of fumbling, he figured out that they slid, like doors back home, and moved outside. Their balcony faced North-East and Ren could see the sun starting to rise over the stocky city horizon. The concrete beneath his feet felt very calm and cool, the light breeze fresh and inviting. He stretched, yawning, and leaned over the rail.

         The competition starts today! he thought, and waited for the gut-twisting dread that usually accompanied such thoughts. There was only anticipation, and a slight growling of hunger. Eyes shining, face and body relaxed, Ren stepped into a light workout, a variation of a solo form and various stretching exercises that could be performed within a limited enclosure, like the balcony. As he flowed through each movement, the words of the wude stood out in his mind and Ren realized, in a dim sense, that he was also getting his meditiation for the day.

         Humility, he thought, leaning down in a caricature of a bow. Loyalty. More short steps, turn, crouch. Respect ... Righteousness ... Trust. As he moved on, waking up his muscles and his mind, Ren could almost smell the sun on the clay tiles of the monastery, the bells of the far-off city jangling in the early air, the soft patter of the brothers as they filed into the courtyard for morning prayers. He lifted his arms to the sky, moving from the wu, morality of deed, into the de, the morality of mind: Courage ... Endurance ... Patience ... Perserverance ... Will.

         At the last, Ren bowed, sitting on his knees, ankles crossed behind him, facing the sun, palms and forehead pressed willingly, peacefully, to the concrete. It was almost as if he could feel the old master's eyes on the back of his head, his lecture to the brothers: "We strive in all things for balance, within ourselves, within our lives, within our world. There are no extremes to a well-balanced soul. We train to bring our two sides, our actions and our inner thoughts, into equal harmony. Emotions and Wisdom come one from the other; they are one; only together can we be whole. Put away anger and fear and hatred, but do not forget them. Only when the mind is in harmony can the body be at peace."

         Ren sat up, hands resting easily on his thighs. He breathed deeply, but steadily, noting distantly that the city, as a whole, was now beginning to stir. Exhaust fumes tinged the sky, a certain excitement in the air, voices raised in conversation, vehicles pressing together in the constricting environment of the city. The noise and bustle did not seem so far away now, but was no longer an intrusion and he found that he did not really mind. He felt calm.

         Standing, he turned around, and froze.

         "That was really beautiful," said Osore. "Like ballet."

         "I ..." Ren bowed a little. "Thank you."

         Watching him, Osore thought that Ren looked very relaxed. Although he had no expression, there was something about the eyes and the tone of his voice that built a shadow of a smile on his face. Perhaps this was the right time to give him the letter.

         "I have something for you," he said, "something from Hammer."

         Ren almost said, "Who?" before his lazy mind dredged up the answer for him: Hammer was also from Razi, one of the Geomancers. He recalled the boy, well, young man, really, always with a friendly smile on his face and a wave in greeting. He laughed too much.

         "Why would he give anything to me?" he asked instead, face plain, but voice puzzled.

         This time, Osore blinked in confusion. "Um, you're friends?"

         "I don't have friends," he replied smoothly, easily. "Excuse me."

         Ren stepped forward and the other student stepped back out of the way. Ren moved past him, towards the bathroom for a shower. By the time he emerged, the other boys were awake and getting ready. Ren dressed in his competition uniform, the loose, dark-red pants, cloth belt, and sleeveless, golden-yellow shirt with RAZI written on the back. He even had his name embroidered on the front. He dragged his small gym bag out from under the bed, making sure he had a couple towels, his jacket, and wrappings for his hands and feet. He slipped on his sandals, grabbed the bag, and made his way downstairs.

         The healer, Master Enzyme, stood in the kitchen making tea. He looked up at Ren and a variety of thoughts seemed to cross his face, but the only thing he asked was, "Tea?"

         "No, thank you, Master," Ren replied. He filled his waterbottle at the sink and then wandered into the front parlor to wait for the rest. He thought, as he passed the older man, that the healer was going to talk to him. He paused, looking back, but Master Enzyme merely shook his head and wandered back upstairs.

         Ren ate in moderation when at last everyone gathered and the masters led the way to breakfast. There was rice pudding, pickled eggs, fried bread, and sweat soy milk, all foods that Ren especially enjoyed. He sat quietly beside Master Yoshi and ate slowly, knowing that he would need all his strength in the coming hours. The master gave Ren a smile as he cleaned his plate and Ren felt an accompanying surge of pride in his chest at that approval.

         Few others at the table that morning did not look nervous. Convex seemed as privately superior as ever and Varamance dug into his food with relish, but everyone else seemed rather listless. Ren's eyes slid to Exodeus, the summoner carefully holding onto something he kept hidden below the edge of the table. He looked exceedingly anxious, grimacing down into a plate of food more pushed around than actually eaten.

         Through it all, Master Moone and Master Maestro talked animatedly, giving their students a last pep-talk, and trying to keep up their spirits. Ren found all the discussion distracting and annoying. Master Yoshi's hand settled over Ren's as he started to drum his fingers on the edge of the table.

         "Patience, Pandaren," he said quietly. Ren stilled. He half-closed his eyes and waited. When at last they were allowed up from the table, Master Maestro gathered all his students about him, for a few last words.

         "I cannot watch everyone all the time," he said, smiling, "but I know that you shall all make me very proud. I shall watch for you on the monitors and try to make it out to at least one match for everyone. You have all worked very hard for this moment and I know that you will all do your very best. Good luck, my students!"

         The masters split the students into groups to escort them to their competition locations. Quack and Ren went with Master Yoshi, being that the Samurai field was closest to the healer's tents.

         Master Enzyme gave Ren a cheery wave, saying, "Good luck!"

         Ren nodded his head politely and turned away. They dropped off Quack first and then continued to the Samurai section. Master Yoshi stood in line with Ren to check in, which was not unusual; most of the other samurai students had a master or two with them. Ren shrugged to himself and waited easily, finally taking the last steps up to the desk to check-in.

         "Pandaren of Razi?" asked the lady behind the desk.

         He nodded.

         She pointed to a diagram. "Your first match will take place in Ring Six precisely at nine o'clock. When you're finished there, come straight back here." She stamped something on a sheet of paper, signed it, and slid the form into a folder with his name on it. This she handed to him. "Give this to Master Motive in curtain two." She pointed to a space behind her in the tent. "Next!"

         Master Motive was an older man, Korean. In the space of a couple heartbeats, something twisted inside Ren and he paused, half-inclined to turn on his heel and flee. But the panic passed just as quickly and without, he thought, anyone noticing. He bowed politely, greeted the healer in halting Korean, and handed him his folder.

         "Well, well!" replied Master Motive. "Greetings," his eyes dropped to the folder, "Pandaren. Ah, of Razi, of course. Your accent is atrocious."

         Ren nodded to accept the remark. "I thought my time better suited to learning Japanese, Master."

         Most students at Razi were at least bi-lingual. China being so large, there were multiple dialects, to the effect of having numerous written and spoken languages, so Razi and their Ninja had adopted Japanese as the standard for communication. What with being so far behind everyone else in learning the ways of the Ninja, Ren had not had much time for language lessons, learning Japanese mostly because that's all he heard, day in and day out. Master Rosetta had not dedicated much time to making him learn much more than a few basics in Korean and Mandarin Chinese, the other two main languages of the Republic.

         "Still," Master Motive replied, with a smile and a soft chuckle, "a Chinese boy speaking Korean is nothing to scoff at, eh? Come here, then, while I take a look at you."

         Ren obediantly moved forward and the healer placed his hands on either side of Ren's head. There was a tingling sensation, a buzzing in his ears, and he felt light-headed, but the feeling passed as the healer moved to place one palm over Ren's heart and the other on his back. Again the tingling, and a sense of disconnectedness, and then the healer stepped back, nodding. He signed a piece of paper and tossed the folder into a stack of others.

         He smiled. "All set, Pandaren. Good luck!"

         "Thank you," Ren replied, very carefully, in Korean. He bowed, and followed Master Yoshi towards his ring. Ren slipped his sandals and ID holder in his bag. Master Yoshi accepted the kit without comment and directed Ren to a roped-off area where several others were beginning to warm up.

         Still feeling loose from earlier and not wanting to push himself too hard, Ren took his time with his own warm-ups, and watched the others with interest. Swords seemed popular with this group of a dozen or so samurai students. There was one other un-armed person, the Samoan, easily recognizeable by just his bulk alone. There was one person with a bow and arrow, firing steadily into a target down the field, and a couple folks with various pole arms. The male to female ratio seemed to be about what it was at Razi, about 25%, and they were as varied from each other as the two female samurai that Ren knew.

         His eyes went often to the stands. Even this early, spectators streamed in at a steady flow and the cameras that Convex had spoken of were focused on a number of different people, all talking into microphones with numbers attached to them. From time to time one of those cameras would swing around and up, focusing on the rings or the crowd, or the contestants and masters milling around.

         He also looked over the judges. There were three judges per ring, the same as during Razi's Top Ten competition, and each ring had its own healer. Ren thought he recognized one or two of them. Three -- or was it four? -- sages ran around between the various rings, translating between judges and helping get things organized. The judges wore an assortment of weapons, but healers and judges alike wore the plain white uniforms that the competition committee had adopted for all its staff.

         Bells rang across the field, drawing everyone's attention. At Master Yoshi's wave, Ren moved to his assigned ring, following the tall, thin boy carrying the bow. He had a quiver of red-fletched arrows at his back and gave Ren an appraising look as they stood before their head judge. Ren stared back evenly.

         The obligatory rules recited once more, Ren bowed to the judges and to his opponent. The boy looked puzzled for a moment, then bowed slightly in return before offering his hand. Ren set his small hand in the larger, darker one a little hesitantly and received a firm, quick handshake in return. Then the judges stepped back and the two contestants went to their starting places.

         Breathing in deeply and settling his legs into a ready crouch, Ren waited. In those few seconds, the various, distracting noises of feet in the stands, people chatting, automobiles honking in the distance, birds calling, voices shouting, weapons drawn, even the whisper of the wind, all died away. The sunshine on his back and warming the grass under his bare feet even ceased to matter. His world narrowed down to a small sphere that included only himself and the arrows that shortly started flying towards him.

         He leaped and dove, spun and twisted, performing cartwheels and flips, handsprings and rolls, dancing as lightly in the air as if he were alone, as if without a care in the world. For a moment there was only the peace in feeling his body respond to his every whim, catching arrow after arrow and dropping them at his feet. He knew that his opponent would be wanting to close with him, seeing that his arrows were having no effect, and carefully tracked his movements. When he judged the timing to be right, Ren unwound in a corkscrew, flashing out with one foot, and spinning easily in midair to land again on his feet. His opponent lay crumbled in a heap against the netting. The judges just stood and stared at Ren for a minute, long enough for him to swallow nervously and wonder what he'd done wrong.

         But the healer ran over to the bow-wielder and quickly raised her hand in a thumbs-up gesture. The head judge nodded and beckoned to Ren. He trotted over and bowed.

         "You are the winner," the judge said slowly, in highly accented English. "Congratulations."

         Ren nodded, bowed again, and left the ring. Inside, the judges conferred again and spoke into a microphone-like device to announce the outcome of the match.

         Perhaps if Ren had not been so distracted by the judges' reaction to his win he might not have searched out his master's face so quickly, and might never have seen the old ninja give the stands a triumphant glance. Ren followed that gaze and instantly spotted the Samurai World Sect-Leader, surrounded by his aids and assistants. The man was staring down, at him! Ren realized, and dropped his eyes in confusion.

         "Master ...?" he started to say, but Master Yoshi's hand thumping his back cut him off.

         "That was extraordinary, Pandaren!" he said, hustling him off to the healers and frowning at a couple of reporters that seemed to be coming their way.

         "Was it?" asked Ren, feeling kind of faint. "The judges, they --"

         "Can't believe it, I know!" replied Master Yoshi excitedly. "I'd never thought --" He stopped suddenly, putting both hands on Ren's shoulders and looking into his face. "Pandaren," he asked, eyes searching his intently, "do you know why everyone is so amazed?"

         "No, Master."

         Master Yoshi closed his eyes for a second. "Sometimes, Pandaren," he sighed, "your ignorance truly frightens me." He shook his head. "Only very skilled Samurai, with years of training, can dodge arrows."

         "Master?"

         "You caught them, Pandaren! Your feet touched down in the exact same spot you started in and you caught all those arrows. I have never seen that before, and I can safely say that no one else here has, either."

         "But ..."

         "Come, the healers are going to want to examine you."

         Ren glanced behind them as Master Yoshi dragged him off again and saw many heads turned in his direction. Word spread very quickly and by the time Ren stood in front of the desk again, he heard his name several times, with students and masters alike pointing or staring in his direction. Shuffling self-consciously, he absorbed himself in contemplating his feet.

         The healers were more thorough this time. All of the Heart Ninjas seemed to want to check him over. For what, Ren wasn't sure, and he was starting to grow really uneasy before Master Yoshi finally lost his temper and snapped that if there was nothing wrong with him before, then there was nothing wrong with him now. The Sages at the check-in desk gave him his next match location and time, in about forty-five minutes, and Master Yoshi dragged him to a somewhat secluded spot to take some rest and stay limber.

         Soon enough he was back in the ring, this time facing a tall, blonde giant with arms the size of Ren's legs and hefting an axe that Ren wasn't sure he'd even be able to lift. Formalities concluded, Ren swallowed nervously and tried to review his options. He could certainly outlast this man, provided he didn't do anything stupid, but he didn't relish the thought of being long in the ring with that axe whistling around his head. He took a deep breath, settling himself in a ready position as the viking charged him.

         Employing a quick, leaping turn, Ren met that attack head on, with a straight-arm punch. Ren's opponent sagged to his knees and then to his face with a sound like a balloon with all the air rushing out. The axe schlocked into the grass some ways behind him. Shaking a little, Ren relaxed his stance, standing and waiting until the healer proclaimed the blonde fine, if unconscious; and the judges declared Ren the winner. This time, as he bowed to the judges, he was quite aware of their astonishment, gleaned from a shift of an eyebrow or lip, the flush of color or a certain roundness to the eyes.

         Back to the healers, then, for another round of checks, and Ren stayed close to Master Yoshi as the stares grew more frequent and pointed. Master Yoshi noted the location and time for the next match, nodding briefly, and grabbed Ren by the arm.

         "Lunch," he decided.

         There was enough time between matches that Ren had to get checked again by the healers when they returned from a quick meal and then it was back in the ring.

         Ren stared at the brown-haired man standing across the ring from him and decided to go on the offensive. He dashed forward, leaned down into a forward handspring, and spun through the air. He had a second's realization, as something thin, supple, and very strong wrapped around his waist -- Where did the whip come from? -- and then he was falling, plummeting, really, to the ground. Protecting his head as he hit, Ren rolled, body already reacting to bring him back up to his feet with a twisting trip-kick.

         They both stood again at the same time, the whip held loose and ready in his opponent's hand. He cracked the leather menacingly.

         Speed, thought Ren, legs already moving, zig-zagging in a pattern too quick to allow that whip to grab him again. He stayed on the ground; he was too vulnerable in the air, until he was right up close. Somersaulting over his opponent, Ren twisted in mid-air to land several kicks to the chest as the other samurai whirled around. Ren landed on his feet. His rival did not, but he slashed out with the whip anyway. When Ren instinctively raised an arm to block, the thin leather wound itself around his arm.

         Holding firm against the wrist-flick meant to peel back the whip, Ren grabbed the weapon in both hands and yanked back. This was a Samurai not an Occamist, so Ren had no fear of the weapon itself as it came free in his own hand. From there, victory was assured, being quick to take advantage of the other's momentary panic upon losing his weapon. Here was where the unarmed combatant regained the upper hand over his weapon-wielding foes. Still, all Samurai learned the basics of hand-to-hand and Ren took a couple jabs before rendering his opponent unconscious.

         "Congratulations," said the judge.

         Ren bowed, in acceptance and honor, and promptly collapsed forward onto his hands and knees. The world seemed to spin for a moment and he tightened his fingers in the grass, gasping. Blinking his eyes and swallowing fiercely to stay conscious, Ren noted that the ground beneath him seemed to be turning red. Pain blossomed along his shredded arm and, when he looked, from deep cuts on his palms.

         Why, I've never ...! he thought, staring, transfixed, at all the blood.

         "Fais voir!" snapped the healer. She grabbed Ren's arm and immediately started winding strips of cotton bandages around his forearm and hands. "Il doit aller à l'hôpital. Vous!" The healer looked up from her work to snap her fingers and shout at one of the American students hanging around as assistants and runners. "Car! Go! Allez-y!" Muttering, she turned her attention back to Ren.

         Under the constant barrage of what could only be colorful language from the healer, one of the judges lifted Ren in his arms and carried him to the waiting cart. Ren groaned as he was set down, but he didn't miss the flash of distaste across the other Samurai's face. Biting his lip, Ren looked away. With another spout of language, the healer tied off another wide bandage around Ren's mid-section and then shouted once more at the driver.

         "Wait!" gasped Ren, struggling a little. "Master Yoshi!" The old ninja was not in the cart. The healer's irritated scowl settled Ren back into his mostly-horizontal position and he gritted his teeth for the remainder of the ride.

         There was already a flurry of activity surrounding the entrance to the healer's tents. A half-dozen carts rested nearby, their drivers conspicuously absent. A large crowd had formed to one side amongst the hustle and bustle and Ren jerked out of his healer's hands as he recognized a voice.

         "No! Don't touch him!"

         A woman screamed, and then Ren was pushing through the crowd without even realizing he'd even moved. As he shoved the last person aside and came to the front, Ren saw first Dante, leaning against another of the carts, blood staining his golden shirt crimson. He appeared to be unconscious. A figure in white lay near-by on the ground, also not moving, and Master Enzyme, conspicuous in his red and gold, wrestled with another man wearing three different shades of blue. The blue ninja held the broken blade of a sword in bloody hands, Enzyme's grip upon his wrists.

         The crowd surged forward and back around this ghastly tableau and Ren finally saw the hilt of the sword, buried in the other healer by Dante. His mind finally understood what was going on and his mouth dropped open in shock and sudden fear for Enzyme. The blue ninja was an occamy student. Presumably during the competition, his sword had been broken. How he'd come to be in the same place as another occamist in front of the healer's tents, Ren didn't know, but he'd obviously seized on Dante as a threat. Master Enzyme was strong, but he was no match for the insane pain and rage possessing the occamist.

         Just as Ren started to move, to intervene, time seemed to slow down. Enzyme's foot lashed out in a kick, evidently hoping to trip the other, but they both fell, heavily. The blue occamist rose back to his feet with what seemed to be inhuman speed and he threw himself at Dante again.

         Reaction, that's what it was, or adrenaline maybe. There was more blood on that sword-blade now and Ren's eyes took it all in even though his mind hadn't yet processed what that must mean. He barreled into the other ninja, rolling with him down onto the blood-spattered grass. They grappled savagely with one another, the occamist stabbing, Ren evading the powerful slices and thrusts. Grabbing the other boy's wrists, Ren tumbled back to his feet and returned to the offensive.

         Hand-to-hand again in close quarters, Ren managed to swing the broken blade in the other's bloody grip down, the jab digging deep into a thigh instead of his shoulder. Ren pushed the pain to the back of his mind. He wrenched away, ripping the blade free of the other's hands, and leaped backwards in a flip, landing badly, but with several feet separating him from his opponent. The distance only magnified that murderous intent; the man screamed. On one knee, Ren aimed a punch, the force of which sent the occamist flying, tumbling to the ground. He didn't rise.

         Ren scrambled back to his feet, limping and running. "Master Enzyme!"

         The shocked crowd startled into movement. Hands grabbed Ren and he struggled. He got close enough to the healer to see that both eyes were open and staring, and then someone put a finger to Ren's forehead and he collapsed.

         He woke to quiet talking, to bandages on his arm and pain in his chest. Perhaps he groaned, or made some other small noise, for when he blinked, some familiar faces stared back down at him. Ren leaned back in a bed in one of the hospital tents, the storage bins still neatly organized and stashed against one cloth wall. Master Yoshi had one firm hand on Ren's shoulder and beside him was the Razi Headmaster, looking both worried and confused. On Ren's other side was the healer he'd seen the day before and her young assistant.

         Ren swallowed. "What happened?"

         Master Maestro reached for and squeezed one of Ren's hands. "Master Enzyme is dead, Pandaren ...."

         His other words were lost to Ren. He struggled up, throwing off their hands and swung his legs over the side. There he paused, staring down at the ground that looked suddenly perilously far away.

         "No."

         "Pandaren --"

         "No! I don't believe it!" he shouted, curling his hands into fists in the mattress. "He's a healer! You're all healers! We're here! I don't -- No! That's impossible! He's got to be okay!"

         Master Maestro grabbed one wrist and Master Yoshi the other. Ren had to stop struggling; he was growing light-headed. He threw his arms around Master Yoshi's neck.

         "He was nice to me," he whispered.

         "I know."

         "Even ...."

         "I know. Lie back again, Pandaren, the healers have some more work to do and you've a match in less than an hour. You need to get what rest you can."

         "But ...."

         Master Maestro added his voice. "That's an order, Pandaren. This day is only barely half over. You've lots to do yet."

         Later, Ren stood in another ring back in the Samurai Arena, and stared at his opponent. He'd passed most of the last hour in a stupified daze, not wanting to close his eyes for fear of seeing Master Enzyme's blank face staring back at him. Dante, he learned, was going to be alright; they were able to postpone his match. He'd merely come down with heat exhaustion and had been walking out of the healer's tents again with Master Enzyme when the other occamist, his name was Ricasso, had been brought in. He'd been unconscious and on a stretcher, and had jumped to his feet rather suddenly, stabbing Dante as they'd tried to get out of the way.

         The healer who'd brought Ricasso in had jumped forward to intervene, Master Enzyme had shouted, and Ren knew the rest. Two healers lost in a confrontation lasting, from start to finish, less than three minutes. It was startling, and tragic, and the news spread over the competition like a storm cloud. Ricasso was finished; the loss of his weapon had irrevocably broken him.

         Ren parried and attacked numbly, distantly. The pain in his chest hadn't gone away. If anything, it was stronger than ever. If he'd only acted sooner! Maybe Master Enzyme would still be alive. Still there to make tea.

         He was drained, tired, his blows lacking their usual strength. Ren felt himself pushed back against the netting in the ring, weight half-supported by the plastic-coated wires. He stared back at his opponent, saw the anger in the black eyes, the contempt at Ren's weakness. Beyond them, the judges' postures seemed to say the same thing. He was weak, emotional, and he deserved to lose. Eitan had had the same look.

         "No!" whispered Ren. "I won't let you win!"

         The samurai raised his sword. Ren grabbed the netting in his hands and pushed backwards, kicking with both feet. He flipped around his hands and landed lightly back on the balls of his feet. His opponent struggled, but he couldn't rise and in moments the match was over. The last he saw, the healer had his hands over the other boy's chest, glowing with energy. Then Master Yoshi had Ren by the arm again, dragging him to the healer's small tents for his check-up. Afterwards Master Yoshi pulled the still unresisting Ren into one of the bathrooms.

         "Out!" he snapped, and the few occupants scattered for the door.

         Master Yoshi turned glittering eyes on Ren, and Ren backed up, blinking, under the force of that stare. More shocked than hurt, he staggered back into a wall, sliding to the floor, hand to his face where the master had slapped him.

         "Don't you ever let me see that again!" said Master Yoshi, standing over him.

         Ren cringed, huddling into his knees.

         "You're a Samurai! And you're going to win, do you understand?"

         "Y-y-yes, m-master."

         "You better. Enzyme was nothing! He was weak. Forget about him. When you go back out there, you'll fight and you'll win. Understand?"

         "Yes, Master."

         "Good. Now pull yourself together." Ren flinched as that steel grip wrapped around his arm, pulling him to his feet. "Wash your face."

         Under Master Yoshi's watchful eye, Ren returned to the ampitheatre. He sat quietly, meditating obediantly, and was quite relieved to note that, upon rising again for his next match, that he did feel better, just as the master had promised. He couldn't quite recapture the same calmness and excitement from the morning, but the ache in his chest was gone and he no longer felt so detached from everything.

         He won his last two matches quickly and efficiently, much to Master Yoshi's satisfaction, and followed tiredly behind in the cool air of evening as they returned to the cottage. Most of the others were back as well, showering and changing and talking quietly as they got ready for dinner. Ren dropped his bag on his bed and sat down with a sigh. Suddenly, everything ached. His muscles complained dully of a day's worth of abuse and his head pounded fiercely from the aftereffects of all that stress, both emotional and from using his strange, psychic gift more than he'd ever thought he would in one day.

         Gone from his mind now were his blood-spattered clothes, grass-stained feet and knees, sweaty, ichy skin and hair. He flopped over sideways and closed his eyes ... just for a minute ... he had time.

         Waking up in the middle of the night, Ren rolled over on his back and stared at the ceiling. His stomach hurt and his chest hurt again. He got to his feet and walked down the hall, halting, hand poised to knock, on one of the master's doors. He turned around quickly and pounded down the stairs into the kitchen. As he came down the final steps and looked up, around the corner through the doorway, he still half-expected to see Master Enzyme at the counter, calmly making tea.

         He halted, and then he retreated again, running back upstairs. He couldn't face an empty kitchen. He walked into the bathroom and turned on the water in one of the showers, standing under the stream and leaning his forehead and arms against the tile. He hurt all over again, something beyond sore muscles and an aching head. Tears warmed his cheeks, shoulders shaking with silent sobs.

         "Good luck!" he could hear the master say, and "I hope I won't be seeing you tomorrow, samurai." A wink, a smile, a raised eyebrow over the edge of a teacup.

         "Pandaren?"

         He started and half-turned at that interruption, and flinched at the following curse.

         "What are you doing?"

         Osore wrenched Ren out of the freezing cold water and wrapped him in a couple of towels. Ren stared back at him for a moment, and then flung off helping hands and towels to stagger into a stall. He shivered, leaning there, but his stomach refused to let go and Osore drew him away again.

         "You need to get out of those wet things," continued Osore, leading him back to the room. "Whatever were you thinking, getting in there still dressed?"

         Ren stripped out of the wet clothes at Osore's insistence, pulling a blanket around himself as he sat down again on the bed. He didn't feel cold, not on the outside, at least. He turned one hand over and looked at the palm, remembering the deep slice of leather and the stinging of blood and sweat, but seeing only old scars and calluses.

         "Osore?" he asked quietly, still staring at his hand. "Tell me it was a dream?"

         The khu student sat beside him. "No, Ren, it really happened. Dante told us. And Master Maestro. Everyone's upset, we all liked him, pushy or not."

         "He's a master, how could he? This isn't -- I don't -- It just isn't fair!"

         "He was stabbed right in the heart, Ren, nobody could've survived that. He --"

         Ren hunched his shoulders and turned away. "Don't!"

         "It's not your fault."

         "Why did I just stand there? I could have stopped it sooner." He stared at his hands. "Why have all this power if I can't get it to do what I want?" Another tear dropped onto a palm. Ren brushed at his face angrily. "Just ... just leave me alone ... please."

         Osore grabbed him by the arm so that they were face to face. "Stop it, Ren!" he hissed. "Feeling sorry for yourself isn't going to change things! Don't you think Dante feels awful, too? You're not the only one affected here!"

         Ren blinked and hung his head. "You're ... right, Osore. I just keep thinking that there ought to have been something more that I should have done."

         "You kept more people from being hurt," Osore said, softer. "You saved Dante's life. He won't forget that. Everybody's talking about it, you know. That kid was supposed to be real promising, the best at his school, and look what happened. Who'd have ever thought that the first death this year wouldn't be a student at all?"

         "First death? You mean somebody else died?"

         "I don't know, all the talk was about that Ricasso guy. There's usually at least a couple folks die every year, more that end their ninja careers here due to injury, and sometimes choice."

         "Am I going to make it?"

         Osore nodded. "I believe you will, and this," he tucked an envelope into Ren's hands, "will probably say the same thing. Good-night."

         "Good-night," Ren replied absently, fingering the letter. Who had written -- his heart gave an extra little thump as he recognized the handwriting. He leaned to turn on the small lamp by the bed and paused, a little startled, to see a small box on the table as well. He opened it cautiously. Rice and fish. Somebody had brought him back dinner. He rather wished he felt like eating it.

         With the light on, Ren opened the seal and tilted the paper to read. At first his eyes wanted to turn the characters into something else, but then he finally recognized them for what they were: Korean. He hadn't the faintest idea how to read this and he wanted to crumple it up in frustration. Either Hammer had forgotten that Ren wasn't as language-fluent as the rest of them, unlikely, or he'd still been on so much medication that he hadn't even considered it. Ren sighed, a little smile coming to his lips. Hammer had written him a letter.

         Tucking the papers back inside the envelope, Ren turned off the light and wriggled back under the covers, letter clenched tightly in his hand.

         "Thank you, Osore," he whispered. He wondered if he heard.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

This is Virgo's add:

Riko breathed, the only sound in her ears as she blocked out the jeering voice of her competition. Some ditzy swedish broad that kept trying to get into her head, but she knew much better than to let the woman’s words touch much beyond her registry of the girls location. She drew her blades, her sturdy little swords sang as she did so, swinging them a bit as she advanced on the girl. The swede had enough common sense to stop talking and draw her own weapon, seemingly unnerved by Riko’s pure indifference.

Riko took in the sight of the blonde, a yellower look than her own whitish blonde and her blue eyes leveled on Riko’s mismatched ones as she raised a wooden stave and leapt at her. Riko blocked the blow quickly and dropped, her leg touching the blonde’s and stealing a bit of strength from her with a flash of soft blue light as she took the girls legs from beneath her. The blonde recovered, her hand catching her fall and letting her get her feet under her. She swung her stave around and Riko was forced to turn to block the blow with her shoulder. She reached up, adjusting her grip on her blades and wrapped her hands around the swede’s wrists, her blade’s laying against the woman’s forearms. Another small flash of blue light and Riko rolled away as the swede could no longer hold her weapon, her wrists weakened by Riko’s special attack. Her blades rose and the flat end struck the girl in her weakened wrist, breaking one as she gathered her feet and stepped back.

The blonde growled and clutched her broken wrist, glaring at Riko, who merely tilted her head and raised her brows in challenge. She whirled as the swede girl rushed her, Riko raised her elbow and slammed it into the side of the girls head, knocking her out cold.

She moved away as the healer came out to check the girl and bring her round so she could move off the field, making sure she was okay. Riko did the same with her eyes, she hadn’t damaged the girl nearly enough to cripple her, but it would be a couple days before she could use her wrists again.

Riko moved to the judges, gave a bow and escorted herself off the field. The Swedish girl wasn’t much of a challenge and Riko had been a bit bored through out it, even worse, Nanami had been relegated to another set of matches and away from the Heart sect entirely, Riko supposed it was because they didn’t want her and her sister communicating with one another, which she understood, but it was mildly depressing that her sister wasn’t here to congratulate her on her match. She brushed the stray strands of white from her face and leaned against the frame of the stadium as another set of Heart fighters paired off and clashed. She sized up the duo, measuring their strength and forming ways to battle them already but soon enough the male beat the female and was moving on. Riko shrugged elegantly away from the concrete partition, her second match wasn’t until later in the day, so she had some time to kill before she had to be back.

She jogged a bit, keeping her body warm and ready, just in case something happened, but she was looking for her sister at this point, her boredom stealing over her like so much useless emotion. She knew exactly where she had to go, Nana was an assistant at the Samurai battles and then she would be at the healer’s tents, puttering around with one of Razi’s healers for a bit and with Master Poly, attending the injured fighters. She had done her thing at the stadium, so she was down in the tents now and Riko jogged over to the tents, just in time to catch the tail end of the confrontation, Nanami caught in the crowd, trying to elbow her way through, but something happened, and they were forced to retreat as someone and someone else shuffled people away, even the healers. Nanami caught up to Riko and grabbed her arm, dragging her off.

“Someone just got killed, keep your head down, we’re not supposed to be talking.” She growled to her sister, “Why did you come to see me?”

“I have a bruise.” Riko said, “I wanted a healer.”

“Bullshit.” Nana hissed, “There’s trouble, he was the healer I was with earlier, nice guy.” She raised her head and looked over her shoulder, “I’ll talk to you later, in our rooms, scram.”

She pushed Riko away and Riko did as requested, running off and back to the stadium, nearly running into an old man on the way, “Oh! Excuse me.” She said, hardly getting a look at the man before she was off and back to the stadium for her second match.

~*~

An hour later served her well and she was moving on to the next day, her match won, her success secured, on to see the next series of competitors. Now she went back, now she went to see her sister, who sat Riko down and explained, in a hushed voice, about the murder, about Ren, and his abilities and his this that an the other. Riko, however, could not focus, even for her sister, she was tired and, after brushing Nanami off, brushed her teeth, changed and promptly crashed, even as Nana tsked and reprimanded her softly.
The woman behind the counter stared at Kitty. Kitty shifted, hoping she didn't look as uncomfortable as she felt.

"You want what?" The woman tapped her right forefinger on her desk, the nail clicking.

"A full new set of uniforms please," Kitty replied softly, glancing around her. Most of the other occupants of the school were in the dining hall, or still getting ready for breakfast. She didn't really want anyone to know she was doing this, as she still didn't know where her old uniforms went. Someone was trying to make her look bad. She knew that much.

"Shouldn't you be preparing for the competitions or something?" The woman narrowed her eyes at Kitty and her fingernail clicked a bit more briskly, "Aren't you representing Sage for our school?"

"Yes, and I am preparing," Kitty replied eying the woman's finger. That clicking was more than a little annoying. "I'm preparing by trying to get a uniform."

"It's not my fault if you forgot to do your laundry. You can't expect us to have your size on hand in case you need new clothes on a whim. Now, go back to your room and..." the woman was obviously insane.

"I'm not asking because I'm bored, or lazy," Kitty blurted, cutting into the woman's tirade. "I'm asking because my uniform is missing and you could at least look before you..."

"No, I'm not selling uniforms during the competition. You'll just have to wear someone else's." The tap, tap, tapping became ever more persistent making Kitty want to scream. She took a deep breath. There was more than one way to deal with this type of situation.

"What are you selling then?" Kitty asked, trying to sound pleasant again.

"Pardon me?" The woman stared at her blankly.

"Well, I'm sorry I was mistaken about the uniforms. I see you are here though, so what are you selling."

Silence.

The two of them stared at each other.

Finally the woman spoke, "Pins."

"Pins?" Kitty raised her eyebrows.

"Yes, pins, commemorative pins for the competition." The woman smiled triumphantly, "That's all we're selling."

"Okay, thanks," Kitty left.

*

Kitty watched as Owl approached the woman. She'd had to pull Owl out of breakfast to help her and now she definitely owed her one, or two, or several.

"Hi, I'd like to buy a commemorative pin!" Owl said clearly. Kitty imagined the woman in the booth was scowling. "I heard that you were selling them for the competition. Isn't it exciting?" Kitty nodded as Owl went on, following along the wall. She was careful not to stray from it lest the woman spot her.

"Yes, it is," the woman didn't sound all that excited to Kitty. She put her door on the knob for the storage room and turned it. It was locked.

"Here you are, it's five dollars." The woman's fingernail started tapping.

"You don't mind if I use change do you?" Owl asked cheerfully, "I'm a bit short of bills. Let me see twenty five, thirty, thirty five..."

Kitty glared at the lock as if sheer force of will would pop it open.

"That's one, and five pennies is one-oh-five, now here's one fifteen..." Kitty sighed and tapped on the door just for the heck of it. After all, there was no way she'd get another chance like this.

"Hold on," the woman said, "I think my deliveries in." Kitty blinked at the door, than rushed away from it. She scrambled over to Owl, pulled herself onto the counter, scooted off on the other side and hurried through the door to the back room, where the woman was peering out of the door Kitty had knocked on ever so lightly. The room was well lit, with shelf after shelf of folded uniform pieces. Each shelf was labeled with a size. As the woman turned away from the door to the hall Kitty scooted behind the door to the the front desk. The woman grumbled incoherently as she made her way back, closing the door behind her.

Kitty let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding and hurried to the shelves. She picked out a full uniform in her size as Owl resumed her counting. Then she carefully opened the door to the hallway, caught her foot on it and fell forward with a loud echoing bang. Pain flashed through her hands and her nose as she lay there staring at the tile floor. She heard the other door open and then the woman's voice.

"I knew there was something fishy going on," she said coming right for Kitty. Kitty scrambled to her feet and half ran, half stumbled down the hall. "Stop," the woman yelled but that was one thing Kitty was not doing. She needed that uniform. She wasn't giving it up now.

*

Kitty stood in line, shifting from foot to foot. The uniform was perfect. It fit just like it needed to. She was glad that Owl had gotten away as well. Her one regret was her broken finger. She sighed and looked down at it. She could have gone to the healers with it, but they'd have wanted to know how it happened. Instead she'd set it with a cut popsicle stick and some white bandage. It looked odd, but it was better than not having a uniform, maybe. Luckily she wouldn't need her finger for the competition.

"Are you ready?" The man at the desk gave Kitty a disapproving look.

"Ready?" Kitty had suddenly remembered something very important she'd forgotten about in the rush of getting her uniform.

"Once you accept your test booklet and enter the room you will not be permitted to leave until the booklet is complete." He sounded bored. Kitty knew she probably had that deer in the headlights look on her face.

"I, how much longer until we start?"

"Forty five minutes."

"Sorry, I'll be right back," Kitty dashed off. She had to find the Crystal competitions and then Exodeus, because she had to give him the belt thing. She hadn't stayed up late sewing it to leave him without it on the first day of competition. She had forty five minutes to get to him and get back. She had to hurry!
Ansuz had never been one to shy away from violence of any sort. He was used to seeing the cadavers of those passed. The mutilated, the bent beyond recognition, the seemingly untouched, the tortured and maimed, the peaceful. Nothing quite shook you as much as your first dead body, your first kill. He had long since thought that it was in those moments that the rest of your life was determined. If you were strong enough to cope with your actions then you became a warrior, a ninja, a master. If you could not maintain your reason after these encounters, if you let emotion carry you away, you became weak. And he let his eyes glance over the bloodied room with nonchalance.

Frazier's own foolishness had been his downfall, the petit Heart member realising he was being followed and assuming it to be an enemy, had lead him to a warehouse where he also presumed himself to be completely safe. Ridiculous in retrospect, how could an abandoned warehouse be safe? Desolate and open, the room had left no place for Frazier to hide from him, had he been a long range occamist the man would have been dead in minutes. As it was, he had relaxed, seeing who it was, only to see the glimmer of darkness in his movements, reading the malignant thoughts that trespassed upon his mind through the slow steps leading him closer. To give him credit, the man had at least tried to fight back, though it hadn't been to any true gain. Ansuz had only been using the sheathed blade as a stave, falling into a relaxed trance as he blocked and parried the futile onslaught. There had been no pauses in his opponent's attack, but he hadn't expected there to be. A left side roundhouse, right side jab, overhead spin: one form slipping into another as he fought back without thought… Frazier's fear had smelt in the blue gloom of the twilight room, the occasional landed hit baring no effect on the wild man that had overtaken from the rational dark haired master.

Having lead Ansuz into the warehouse, Frazier had been trying to force his enemy to show his face, only to relax too soon and fight back too late. Panic had over taken, as it probably had on the first time he had killed, tears of frustration had spilt down his eyes as finally Ansuz fought back properly and knocked him onto his back on the dusty concrete floor.

"No more wrong information." He had murmured, the words forming low in his throat but carrying all the guttural sounds of a wild animal. A plain knife had been drawn, the same that had been used to kill Aeneas. It had still been stained a little with copper coloured blood, "Stick out your tongue."

Frazier had quivered as he had crouched, one knee firmly pressed against the other's chest. He had shaken his head so he had seized his jaw and forced him, like a dog that wouldn't spit out a stick, to open his mouth and stick out his tongue. Sliced in two the tongue had spurted out crimson liquid, drowning the spasming man. Even as he lived, Ansuz had slashed an almost medically precise gash in the well toned stomach, now exposed. Ripping open the entrails, it was as if he wasn't in full control of his own actions.

He left the room, the imprint of Frazier, lying sprawled on dusty floor, intestines slopping out of his mutilated corpse was already fading away, although he was dimly aware of a hollowness filling him where he had previously felt anger and hatred. This was the time he was at his most weak, he supposed, as the adrenaline wore off and he realised that it was over…

In the bright morning air, he remembered Varamance, thought of the rapidly approaching fights that would take place and wondered if that boy would ever kill as easily as he did now.

*

Round One had never sounded so ominous in his life. Varamance, could see all the other students preparing about him and for the first time it hit him that they had all succeeded in making it here because they were all of a high standard. Whether or not he cared to admit it, he knew that any victory here would not be forgotten. Of course, he wasn't afraid. He stretched, flexing his shoulders and cracked the bones in his neck to loosen up the tension in his jaw. Glancing around, he noticed Exodeus moving away from him, hurrying towards his first battle, or so he assumed. Around his waist hung a belt, a bubble pressed into his right hip… Frowning he lost sight of his friend in the crowd and shook his head.

He dimly heard his name being called, stepped into the meditative trance he used to fight, the world falling away from the almost oval shaped area, his opponent and the call for them to bow. He did so, albeit with little flourish, unlike the girl before him. Wraith like, she wore a white uniform, her pale skin highlighting the large dark eyes which seemed to be all pupil, dank black hair sliding over her shoulders in dreadlocks. There was nothing about her which suggested she was weak, nothing which gave away any emotion. She seemed like a doll, dangling from the hands of a puppet master, head tipped to one side as the cry to start came and went and no one moved.

To be a member of Kant was to defy normality. Each law of physics, each scientific discovery could be disproved with the will of a ninja of Kant. To defy gravity, to refract sunlight through air, to destroy with sound, to blink in and out of sight and vanish in vibrations. He knew what he was going to do, though he had never done it before… and in the second it took for the distant crowd to hush, he disappeared entirely.

The girl stood alone in the arena, eyes narrowed into pencil lines where her eyelashes met. Dropping into a defensive stance, she drew her twin estoc blades. She had never seen anyone disappear like that and the flutter of her heart in her chest was stopping the thoughts of how to respond from becoming cognizant in her mind. Only seconds had passed and the world had slowed for the both of them now, time enveloping them in immortal folds. Then, she span, feeling a flash of intense heat dash by her left shoulder. She smiled, realising what he had done and opened her mouth and screamed.

The scream was so high it was only just audible, the squeal of undeniable purpose making the audience collectively moan, their heads beginning to pound. She heard a gasp to her right and flashed her blade around. Varamance saw it coming, felt the blood burning in his temples and fled backwards, only just maintaining the perfect level of vibration which kept him invisible. The noise was not only making him lose concentration but also meant that he had to keep changing the speed of his motion in order to adjust to the vibrations of the air.

It was at this moment he realised he would have to act fast. Leaping into the air he surrounded himself with air, pushing him upwards so air resistance was greater than the pull of gravity and steadied himself in the air. She was still spinning, dust dancing about her when he saw the first spark. CRACK. Static electricity span out from about the demonic damsel and sparkled all about her. Each flare burst out from the protons dashing into the next and she was a lightning storm of dirt and sand. He drew his sword, planned out his next move and dropped all of his manipulations, appearing and dropping, now making gravity push him towards her more quickly than was known, thrusting forth the blade and knocking her to the ground, hilt crashing into the side of her head and cutting the storm off immediately.

The entire battle had lasted one hundred and thirty four seconds.

*

Ansuz watched quietly. If the girl had been paying attention properly she would have seen the very slight distortion of air as he had moved, caused by the heat of his move, there had been a haze in his wake. Yet, he still had to hand it to the boy, he knew his trade, knew his science… The slump of tense shoulders, the raising of a defined chin, the flicker of barely visible eyes as he was declared victor, Varamance was gone. Walking slowly, either on purpose or because the fight had taken more out of him than he cared to say. Either way, Ansuz let a wry smile cross his features and tousled his hair slightly. A good fight like that was always refreshing after seeing some of the drab acts of some of the other students. He stared after Varamance, only being distracted as the girl was revived with salts and carried away.

It was a shame she had been pitted against Varamance so soon… She would have done well had she had an easier opponent to start out with. In fact… with ability like that, had she only been more aware of what was going on, she may have even been one to watch out for in the future. As it was, she was worthless.

Stretching, he let his body work out some of the stiffness of sitting still in the audience for so long after a morning of action. The joints cracked slightly as he bent them into positions that weren't entirely normal, though he remembered to keep himself leaning on his staff in order to keep up appearances. A businessman in a place such of this did no warrant much attention, but a crippled man who could suddenly move as normal did. Settling , silently back into his seat, he folded his hands in his lap, saw his target talking with the boy with the broken soul, only to notice that Varamance was repeatedly moving his hands, animated with what looked like a mixture of anger and upset. He growled. The last thing that boy needed was to become upset or distracted. Why was the Crystal Sect student here anyway? What was he playing at?

*

"Is that your new summons?" He asked casually, noting that Exodeus had reappeared.

His friend nodded, "Yes. I came to see how you were doing. It looked like it went well. My first match isn't for another twenty minutes."

"It went alright. I'm a little more tired than I would have liked…" Varamance, crinkled his mouth into a smile and sighed, trying to keep any signs of exhaustion from his face. Being invisible was energising at the time but not so nice once the adrenaline was lost, "But I won. That's all that matters. Who is she?"

Exodeus hesitated, eyes roving over him with suspicion glimmering there, "His name is Squirt."

The emphasis on 'his' was not lost on Varamance, "I'm sorry, I assumed-"

"Well don't." Exodeus's face grew taught, "Just because he's small doesn't mean he's useless!"

"I never said that!-"

"But you implied it!"

"No I didn't! All I did was assume it to be female! I associate the sea and all it's inhabitants as -"

"Don't call him an IT!" His friend was glowering by this point. Body like a bow string that had been tied to tightly, "I shouldn't have come here. Good luck with the rest of your matches."

The voice was scathing. Nothing like the Exodeus he knew from home and Varamance slumped forwards, watching the other go and almost shaking from confusion. It sounded like Exodeus was more than a little scared, more than a little self-conscious about his summons but… for the first time ever… Varamance didn't quite know what to do.

*

Ansuz watched Varamance fight the next few matches, none as exciting as the first and Varamance won without much challenge. He smiled to himself, leaving the stadiums behind for today, wondering if he should report to Yoshi and tell him of what he had seen that morning. Varamance certainly had power and if he was tested enough tomorrow, they'd be able to see a much greater extent of that power tomorrow. Invisibility had been something new to his eyes… That still held his attention even after he had pushed an oscillation into the form of his second opponent and rendered him immobile against the earth.

Deep down Ansuz was wondering what would happen if he ever was to fight this boy. Half hoped he'd have the chance to in the future.
The most stressful thing of all was to walk around carrying a plastic ball in your hands and pretend it was something to be feared. Exodeus knew better. Exodeus knew, somehow, this creature, was only something to be laughed at.

He hid him under the table at breakfast, but afterwards, as they all moved off, he admitted to his presence. He kept him out in the open now, no longer tucked in his hands. How he was supposed to fight like that, he wasn't sure, but he knew he was going to have to deal somehow.

**

"Exodeus!" a familiar female voice called out to him. He turned and saw Kitty running up to him, tripping over her own two feet and tumbling to the ground. He would have reached for her, but she was up and running again, apparently not even having noticed that she was face to face with concrete a moment before.

"Hello Kitty," he said, smiling a bit at her. She looked down at his hands, and beamed.

"Squirt! How have you been?" she said exuberantly. Exodeus thought she was more pleased than he was about Squirt's presence.

"He's fine, I'll still offer him to you, free of charge," Exodeus' lip twitched. For the first time, he realized he was really bantering, not honestly meaning the offer.

"Exodeus, you.." she said, straightening to glare at him when she noticed his smirk. She beamed at him. "You're getting along, aren't you? See, I told you he'd be a wonderful companion!"

"Well," Exodeus shrugged, "I don't know about all of that, but he certainly isn't any more of a pain then not having him was a pain. I guess I should just accept defeat." Kitty's pretty green eyes turned dark and she put a hand on her hip.

"Now is not when you should be feeling defeated. You've got the whole competition to get through. You'll be fine! Especially with Squirt by your side."

Exodeus leaned against the wall and gave her a small smile. "I wish I could feel as confident as you do." She rocked lightly on her feet and gave him a small, shy smile.

"Well, I was kinda hoping... you know, that, well," she paused and pulled out something from the bag at her side. "Here," she said, handing something to him. Exodeus blinked at her for a moment and then reached out and took the package. "It's not much, but, well, I thought.. I don't know, that maybe it would be useful at least." He looked down at it and then carefully opened it and took out what was inside.

A light blue cloth belt, carefully stitched with something hard inside reinforcing it to be stiff came out into Exodeus' hands. He stared at it, feeling it slide through his fingers. No one had ever made anything for him.

"It's not much," she said as he looked over the whole thing. There was a small seahorse cross-stitched on one side, a few bubbles floating around his head. The other side had the word "Squirt" cross-stitched on it, right next to a metal clasp that had a hoop on it. "But, you know, this way you could keep him with you, but not.. well, you know, in the way." He blinked a few times and then looked up at her.

"How long did this take you?" he asked. She blushed and shrugged.

"Most of last night, but it's alright, I had to find the patterns first, that's what took so long."

"You looked for patterns, just so you could make this for me?" He was astonished really.

"Yeah," she offered him a small smile, which he returned.

"Thanks," he said softly. "No one's ever made me anything before." She gave him a big grin.

"I'm glad to do it. I actually really enjoyed it. I think it'll last for a while, I did a lot of research on what best to use for each component, and," she couldn't continue because he was laughing too hard. "What?" she asked, an edge to her voice.

"Nothing, just, you're such a Sage, that's all." He couldn't help it, with everything that had been going on, this insane girl was becoming a fast friend, and he really, really, really enjoyed her company.

"Is that a bad thing?" she asked, a hint of anger and annoyance to her tone. He shook his head.

"No, not at all, in fact, I really like that about you." He smiled at her, and grabbed one of her braids, tugging lightly on it. "Thank you, really, thanks a lot." She blushed deeper, and smiled at him.

"You're welcome."

"What time is your first fight?" She looked up at the clock nearby and grimaced.

"Like, in ten minutes." She looked at him in shock. "I've got to go. Sorry! Good luck! Take care Squirt!" and in a moment, she was stumbling away and out of his sight.

He smiled slightly, and put on the belt, leaving it loose so Squirt would hang a bit lower than his exact waist. He picked up the plastic ball and smiled at Squirt before clipping him to the belt. It was strange, as he moved around a bit, feeling the weight of the water at his hip, and knowing that he would have to get used to it. Squirt was his new, main summons.

**

Why had he gone to talk to Varamance anyway? He sighed and reached a corner, taking several deep breaths to steady his thumping heart. He should have known that he couldn't possibly communicate with him when he was so nervous. His first match wasn't for another fifteen minutes, but why was he so anxious? Perhaps a part of him had hoped that talking to Varamance would calm him, center him again. He'd been wandering for over an hour doing nothing but feel the weight of everyone's stares as he walked. He could feel their contempt, their utter lack of fear for him and his... seahorse. He also couldn't blame them.

*Bubble* *Bubble* *Bubble*

"Bubble what?" he hissed out loud, staring down at his seahorse. His eyes turned to look at him, and he seemed to suck some of the water into his mouth. Exodeus sighed, and pushed off the wall, heading towards the arena. He might as well be there when it was time, that way he could just deal with the contempt from other Crystal students, not everyone at the same time. It didn't take long for him to make it there, and he ignored the whispers of the people he passed. He reached it in record time, took a deep breath, and looked into the battle ground.

He watched admiring as two summoners who obviously knew more about themselves and their summons than he did fought it out in a straight summoned fight. Creature against creature. Exodeus wondered if he should forfeit his match. Just give up right from the beginning. Forget it all. Prepare to fail. Give in. Curl up in a ball and just let the world pass him by.

Forget what he had always fought for.

His eyes closed and he felt the tense muscles of his back tighten, loosen, and reform into something more like what he was used to. Firm, not upset, firm, but loose. That was what he was. He opened his eyes, and looked down at Squirt, attached to his hip.

Squirt, Lord of the Deep Waters. What a pretentious name. He connected eyes with the seahorse again, and he felt something inside of him calm. What was the phrase everyone always stated about deep water? Oh, yeah. He blinked, and looked at the match again.

Still waters run deep.

He felt grounded for the first time in a long time. Grounded in himself. Was that what Squirt had been trying to tell him, these last few days? Relax, find yourself, move on? What had he lost when he lost Vie? Was it everything that made him him? Perhaps it was self-confidence? Maybe it was only something that was undeveloped? Perhaps, he lost Vie because that part of himself was no longer needed?

He shook his head. Vie was an important part of his life. Vie had been everything to him, strength, love, understanding, all of that was Vie. He looked down at the ball of water, barely able to see Squirt through the top. Vie had been hope. What was Squirt?

Change.

He blinked, looked up, saw that the match was over, and he was being called. It was time for him to walk out into the arena and fight. For what? He looked down again.

For change.

**

"What is that anyway? A fish?" came the call of the student in front of him. Exodeus shrugged.

"I'm not sure if it counts as a fish. It's a water creature. Never seen a water summon before?" Exodeus taunted. The tall, lanky figure in front of him shook his head at Exodeus and Exodeus nodded. "Me either." Exodeus bowed, as did the other, his brown hair falling over his eyes as he did so. Exodeus looked over at the large lizard on the ground next to him. It was mammoth for a lizard, about a foot tall and five feet long, it flicked out it's tongue and caught something that buzzed in the air. Exodeus thought it wouldn't even think Squirt was much of a snack if it caught him. Perhaps that's what the lizard was trying to say, 'Your summon is nothing more than a bump in my throat.' He stood tall and cocked his head to one side as he stared at the lizard.

"Begin!" came the voice that could make Exodeus wet himself if he thought of the implications behind that word too hard. What was he going to do with a lizard?

"Name?" Exodeus asked, and the form shrugged.

"Slahk, Salamander of the Lava Pits."

"Nice name. Squirt, Lord of the Deep Waters." They stared at each other for a few moments, then Exodeus grinned as the other Crystal student laughed uproariously. He never thought he'd be able to smile at something so terribly tragic before in his life, but now it seemed only natural that he would do so. It seemed to slightly unnerve his opponent. He felt his heart pump fast in his chest, and the lizard opened it's mouth, spewing fire from it in a steady line. Exodeus put a hand on the ball and dashed off to the side, forcing the lizard to stop as it was about to set it's summoner on fire. If it was one thing he knew, it was how to run. He stopped when the fire stopped, and he watched as Slahk blinked at him. Exodeus knew, both were wondering what Squirt could do.

Exodeus wondered that himself.

He continued to crouch, and he stared at the two in front of him, wondering what on earth he would have to do to win. He had originally wondered if he would have to give the whole competition up, and now, he wanted to win. Something inside of himself cried out in horror at his earlier lack of desire. What on earth had he worked so hard for if he was just going to lose? How could he look at Varamance if he just gave up and lost? He narrowed his eyes and he gave a small, slightly feral smile. He hadn't lived this long to curl up and die. The lizard took the smile as a clue that he was to attack again, and he dashed forward to Exodeus, trying to clamp his teeth on a leg or arm, but Exodeus dashed off quickly, feeling the heat of the lizard as he got out of the way just in time.

For several minutes, he dashed off, losing Slahk just in time to avoid damage. When the flame breath came out again, Exodeus merely ran for the summoner, and it wasn't long before it stopped entirely. Exodeus paused, several minutes later, catching his breath. He was used to running away, but he wasn't used to trying to protect his summons at the same time.

"Don't you do anything Squirt?" he hissed down at the seahorse. The plastic swayed slightly. It was enough to distract him so when the next burst of fire came, he wasn't able to get out of the way quickly enough. As he dashed to one side, and rolled on the ground to take care of the flames that were blazing across his legs, he realized that his side and parts of his body were encased in something that didn't allow the fire to reach his body.

*Bubble*

He stood up, the fire out, and looked through something that was slightly hazy. It was gone a moment later, and he breathed fresh air, wondering what it was that his seahorse had done. "Bubble indeed," he said softly, brushing dust and ash off of his pants. He stared his opponent down and decided to stop running. "Bubble this," he said, running forward and grappling with the lizard.

He wasn't sure if it was the blood rushing through his ears, or the cries of outrage from his opponent, but he was sure that he had done nothing more than tackle the lizard when he saw the first round orb of something attach to one of Slahk's feet. He twisted, hoping to not fall on the plastic water ball, and another orb appeared above the first one. Then there was one on another foot. Exodeus let go of the lizard, and pushed him away from himself. What was going on exactly here?

He saw an orb appear on Slahk's neck next, and he felt a bit of pleasure. The lizard was having trouble moving now. Exodeus smiled, this was nice, actually. Better than he had expected. His opponent swore, and the lizard disappeared. Exodeus frowned and looked down at Squirt.

"Squirt, you can do that again, any time you want to," he whispered down to him. The seahorse was staring out at the summoner and Exodeus could swear he was weighing him. When the next creature came into being, a sleek panther, Exodeus felt the fear again. How could he run from something so quick?

He didn't have to wonder for more than a moment though, as before the cat even moved, one of it's paws was covered in an orb. Exodeus stood straight now, feeling more the rush of victory in sight than he had since Vie had died. The cat tried to lunge at him, but it's balance was off, as one paw, no two now, were covered in balls. When the cat came closer, Exodeus could see that it seemed to be an orb of air, filling with water. Exodeus stared at the cat that was gnawing at its own paws, before returning his gaze to the other summoner.

"Restrict," he said softly, his eyes locked with the others. A ball attached itself to the boys neck, wrists and ankles. The quickest way to deal with summoned creatures was to get rid of the summoner. A thrill of energy, of power, of arrogance filled Exodeus. "Don't mock Squirt," he said softly. When the summoner passed out onto the ground, his cat disappearing in a flash of lights, and Exodeus was called as the winner of this match, he walked out and into the healers hands.

It was a few moments later, when he realized he'd have to cut his hair because the bubble hadn't protected the back of his head, just the front, that he also realized how unconnected he was. Unconnected to himself, unconnected to his summon, and unconnected to his goals. What were they again? To be the best? To defeat the current Master of Crystal and take his spot at R.A.Z.I.? Was he really going to forget about all of it?

Of course not. He looked into Squirt's eyes. "Bubble huh? I guess I owe you an apology. I'm sorry for being an ass Squirt, I'll try to make it up to you." He realized he needed to apologize to someone else as well.

"Varamance, I'll make up for being so retarded," he whispered to himself.
 

         Music. He knew what it was, of course; he'd heard Osore play, had spied on a few of the others with their illicit gadgets, but he'd never expected music like that, on Tuesday night following Opening Ceremonies. All those people, crammed together in the theatre. The lights and the singing and all those instruments! He'd never known sound could sound so good. He'd loved it, all of it, even as some of his peers winced or jeered, it had all sounded so marvelous. He didn't know even what half of it was, but it had been better than warm sake on a cold night. He hadn't wanted to leave, hadn't wanted it to ever end, tired as he was.

         He was always so tired, even now, tired, so tired, so tired ... and yet the music called to him. He sprang into the air at the beckons, working the muscles with a familiarity that bordered on obsession, each move so absolutely fucking perfect, for nothing less was expected by the wizards that were shaolin. He sank from there down into a crouch and then leaped out of that stance into another, and another and another, mock-fighting in the traditional dance for exhibition and training. Pure bliss; he just let go, let the wind make way for him, let his mind go completely blank in complete harmony with his body.

         Sword and spear came alternately to his hands as he moved between the different forms of his martial arts training. He hadn't practiced with a weapon in all the time he'd been at Razi, but his hands remembered the feel, his body the moves so endlessly drilled. The turns and jabs and strikes were calming, peaceful, his sub-conscious supplying a hooded and masked opponent, the music climbing around them in encouragement.

         The straight, two-edged Taiji sword sliced through his opponent with a crashing climax of sound. He smiled, but not for long. The body of his rival morphed back together, the pieces sliding around each other, drawing itself upwards in a mass of darkness that only hinted at a body. The sword fell from his limp grasp as he stared. The golem opened an even darker maw to leer at him. It took one step, then another and another and he couldn't move, couldn't so much as find a breath. Music! Why was it suddenly so quiet?

         He stared in horror as the golem walked straight up to him and opened its chest, like opening a cupboard door. A familiar face stared back at him and he put his arms over his face in horror -- only to see the light fading away as that cupboard door closed in his face. He pressed hands to the door, pushing, trying to keep it open, but his hands sank into the soft mud, and then it was all over him, sliding all over his body, in his mouth and ears and even eyes. He tried to scream but he couldn't even breathe, just thrashing and fighting and --


         Ren hit the ground of the dormitory with a solid thump, knocking himself breathless, face in a pillow, legs and arms fully entangled in sheets damp with sweat. He just gasped for several minutes, staring at the ceiling, until his heart rate finally slowed and his burning lungs could function again. I am losing my mind.

         He sat up shakily, seeing from the glow of the alarm clocks that he might have slept an hour or two. There was a faint, pre-dawn light coming in through the open curtains. Still feeling dirty and grimy, both from his nightmare and the previous day's exertions, Ren grabbed a fresh uniform and took a proper shower, even shaving. He repacked his kit bag and wandered downstairs to watch the sun come up.

         There was someone in the kitchen and Ren started to automatically say "Good morning," before he abruptly realized who it was. "M-master Yoshi!"

         The old master turned slowly, eyes raking over Ren with an unreadable expression. He sipped his tea. "What's that?"

         Ren glanced down, unconsciously clutching Hammer's letter even tighter. A strange, sudden defensive anger pounded in his chest. "It's mine."

         Master Yoshi's eyebrows rose and Ren instantly regretted his temper. Still, when the master held out an empty palm, giving him a silent command, Ren found he couldn't do it. His back stiffened in protest.

         "It's mine."

         "Give it to me!"

         Ren jumped. He started to move forward, arm moving up, and stopped as suddenly. "No."

         The china of Master Yoshi's teacup hit the counter with a sharp crack that echoed in the silence. Twice had the old master fixed upon Ren a look that had both terrified and confused him. Once at Razi, trying to learn to master his qi, and once here, after he'd almost fallen apart following ... following -- no, no, don't think about it! This angry, frustrated scowl left both those glares far behind and Ren trembled, scared down to his very core. Who was this man?

         "M-master ...?" Ren barely recognized his own voice, tentative and uncertain, suddenly, about where he stood with this Heart Master, about numerous other things that skidded around his mind in half-formed images, almost as if he were waking from some weird dream, as if he wasn't really awake at all ....

         "Pandaren?" Wet hands patted at his cheek. He groaned and blinked. Master Physica stared down at him, eyes wide in concern.

         "Wha ...?" he croaked, starting to sit up.

         She kept him down with a hand on his chest. "Just lie still a moment, you had a bad fall."

         "Fall?" He rubbed his eyes. His head did hurt. He was partly in the kitchen, his back on the stairs, his kit bag still around his shoulder. "Eh? I --" his eyes took in the dazzlingly bright light from behind the healer. "What time is it?"

         "Almost seven o'clock," replied Physica. "What are you doing up this early?"

         "Um, yeah, I don't -- don't know." He rubbed his eyes again. "I just woke up. I'm ready, didn't want to wait upstairs."

         "Well, okay. Come on, then, I'll make you some tea for that headache."

         Ren took her hand gratefully and climbed to his feet. Even before the drinks were ready, sounds from upstairs indicated that the rest of the students stirred as well, and by eight o'clock they were through the lines in the dining hall and sitting down.

         Breakfast on Thursday was a quiet affair for those from Razi Academy. Ren chewed on his chopsticks idly, ignoring Master Yoshi's occassional, pointed stares. He just wasn't hungry. Across from him Dante had dark circles under his eyes, as if he had hardly slept at all. The rest of the group showed their stress in various ways. He could see Convex's mouth moving silently as she drew things in her rice, Coast drank water as if she hadn't drank anything in days, Quack dissected some random piece of meat quietly, Kagami kept staring at one hand as if he expected it to disappear, Nnena mechanically chewed and swallowed, her eyes far away, Varamance, as unruffled as ever -- did nothing ever upset him? -- Exodeus stared hard at that funny bowl he seemed to always be carrying around these days, communing perhaps, and Osore ... Osore looked up at Ren a few times and Ren didn't like meeting those eyes. They seemed faintly accusing, but of what? What did Ren have to be guilty of? He didn't know, didn't care, really, but it was unsettling all the same.

         Their little group attracted a lot of stares and pointing. Several of them had graced the news over the last day as the death of a doctor brought the media's attention to the students. Varamance, they said, was a top contender. Exodeus with his tiny seahorse, Dante with his guns, Ren with his arrow-catching, and Osore with Razi's legacy of producing Khu contestants with mind-blowing abilities. All ten students from Razi had survived to the second day of the competition, a remarkable achievement for any school, and, as the media kept saying, all eyes would be on them to see what, if any, effect losing one of their teachers would have.

         "Vultures," Master Yoshi spat, staring up at the monitors as they showed yet another violent incident from the day before. "Always have to turn everything into a sensation."

         Security at least kept the media from approaching the students, confining all the news cameras and reporters to the competition arenas. Ren looked away from those boxes with their blocky captions and chewed on his chopsticks.

*          *          *

         Master Maestro had been expecting a summons for the last several days. He was getting fairly exasperated by the time a slight man in khaki pants and sleeveless shirt presented himself just after lunch. Maestro stared back at the ninja silently.

         "My master requests the honor of your company, sir."

         About time! Maestro wanted to say. He smiled instead. "That would be my pleasure. I shall come presently."

         They bowed slightly to each other and Maestro turned back to the ring he currently watched, just in time to see the end of the match. He shook his head. Dante was evidently more shaken by the previous day's events than he'd appeared. A shame. He'd been so promising. He made a mental note to watch the boy more closely leading up to the exams and then turned away, heading for the Samurai field.

         The crowds were busier on this second day of competition, even more so than usual. Evidently, tragedy made for good publicity. He rolled his eyes, firmly repressing the spike of pain over the loss. He would, they all would, properly mourn later. For now, they needed to stay focused. Enzyme was -- had been a good healer, one of the best Razi had produced under Maestro's leadership, but he'd never been a particularly good combatant. Maestro sighed. Then shook his head. He could be depressed later, most certainly not now, not when he had his chance, finally, to meet with the Samurai World Sect Leader. He needed all his wits.

         Master Retzef was a ninja from the nation of Israel, and few were the occassions where Maestro had met a more conniving ninja than the ones from the Middle East. They were more famous for their Umbra Sect, but the few that practiced the other aspects of ninja were more, not less, to be feared. Retzef was also the first Samurai World Sect Leader to practice unarmed techniques, the krav maga fighting style of karate. How something that almost literally had no rules could be stipulated as a 'technique,' Maestro wasn't sure, but he'd been extraordinarily glad, on the few occassions they'd met, that there was such a difference in their ages. Samurai leaders were usually young and Retzef was no exception, being just over thirty. Retzef was a sneaky bastard, but there was to be no underestimating his combat prowess, not with the way Samurai selected their leaders.

         The aide waited for Maestro at the foot of the stands and guided him silently up to the private box where Retzef viewed the competition. The Samurai Master was of average height, black-haired and black-eyed, with a curly moustache. He wore the white and blue uniform of his nation, standing smooth and unruffled, his arms crossed over his chest as he gazed downwards.

         "Sir," said the aide quietly, "Master Maestro from Razi Academy is here."

         Retzef nodded, but his eyes didn't leave the field. Maestro stepped to his side and followed that gaze. His student, Pandaren, battled a student in black and yellow. The match was fast-paced and furious and Maestro had to admit that he'd rarely seen Pandaren in such good form. He blocked the spear attacks seemingly effortlessly, ducking inside his opponent's guard to land a blow or two and then dancing back out of the way. The match ended suddenly. Pandaren's foot snaked out in one of his stunning, spinning kicks and snapped the spear in two pieces. Two quick moves later and Pandaren stood victorious.

         "Why did you request to see me?" asked Retzef, his eyes following Pandaren as Master Yoshi walked with him back to the medical tent.

         "I wished to seek your advice," Maestro replied evenly. "About my student. That one, in fact. Pandaren."

         "He has talent," said the Samurai. He sat down abruptly. "Coffee?"

         "No, thank you, sir," said Maestro, taking the proffered chair gratefully.

         Retzef poured himself a cup from a tall thermos. "My condolences on your loss."

         "Thank you," Maestro accepted with a polite nod. "Master Enzyme was a good healer. He will be missed."

         A shrug from the Samurai. "We all know the risks."

         Maestro frowned. "That may be true, but an occamist, crazy out of his head with --"

         "That student of yours was there, too, was he not?"

         "Yes," answered Maestro, put off by the rapid questioning. "Pandaren's quick thinking probably saved lives."

         Retzef made a dismissive gesture that had Maestro grinding his teeth in irritation. "Be that as it may, I'm more interested in what this 'Qi' Fighting Style. Tell me about it."

         "Certainly," Maestro ground out, "but I'm afraid there's not much to tell. We really don't understand it. He does something similar to a Kant trick of manipulating matter by thought," his brow wrinkled, "but there seems to be some movement required to activate it."

         "Why is he a Samurai?"

         If you'd have read my letter, thought Maestro testily, Then you'd know that. He looked away to steady his temper. "Pandaren is from a small monastery in Northern China, trained in the shaolin style. He responded best to the samurai ways, being closest to the strict discipline he was used to."

         "I think that was a mistake."

         Maestro bristled again. This man had no idea what he'd gone through over this boy! How dare he make a snap judgement now? He had to take a few deep breaths and forcefully relax his clenched fists. "With all due respect, Master," he said, "we did not have a lot of options at the time."

         Taking a deep draught of his steaming coffee, Retzef regarded Maestro calmly, his face and eyes completely masked. He could have been carved from stone. "What do you want my advice on?" he asked at last.

         "Pandaren killed a fellow student in cold blood." That still rankled. Master Maestro's personal gift was in seeing things before they happened. Maybe only a few seconds, but they were pivotal seconds in battle, and particularly useful in keeping track of his students. He'd been completely blindsided by the locker room brawl and he could count on one hand the number of times that had happened.

         There was no inclination from the Samurai that he was either surprised or concerned. He continued to gaze levelly back at Maestro, drinking his coffee. "So?" he prompted.

         "I no longer feel comfortable in testing him for his mastery."

         "Ah."

         "But," Maestro added, "he is too skilled to dismiss, not with the threat the Ronin provide. I would not want him falling into their hands."

         Retzef set his cup down and folded his arms across his chest, staring out at the field again. "Another school?" he asked, turning back.

         Maestro nodded. "That was my thought. Do I have your support?"

         "No."

         "What?" Maestro yelped, startled, but before he could protest, Retzef cut him off.

         "I will test him myself."

         Maestro's mouth fell the rest of the way open. "Y-you?" He shook his head. "That's ... unprecedented."

         There was absolutely no change in facial expression or tone, but Meastro got the distinct impression that the other ninja was amused. "You still test the last week of June?"

         "Yes."

         "I'll be there."

         "But ...."

         "That would be the most proper thing to do, unless you'd rather I take him off your hands now."

         That gave Maestro pause. "What is your interest in Pandaren?"

         "I have an opening on my staff. I plan to give the top Samurai that post. That could be your student, if he keeps this up. And he intrigues me."

         "The boy is unstable!" Maestro blurted, horrified at the idea that Pandaren could be in a position to cause so much havoc.

         Retzef's eyes searched Maestro's. "Then why is he here?"

         "If I got him to another school, and they saw the same things ...."

         "Then you wouldn't have to pass the sentence yourself," the Samurai finished.

         Maestro flushed, but he determinedly kept the eye contact.

         "Isn't it a little late for second thoughts?" Retzef pressed. "His training is almost finished."

         "He's had barely three years of formal training, hardly long enough to --"

         "What?" This time, there was a definite spark of emotion: shock. The Samurai master stood abruptly, going to the rail and looking out. He turned back slowly. "Three years? He's where he's at in three years and you want to just hand him off to someone else, are you out of your mind?"

         "Just a minute!" Maestro snapped, jumping to his feet. He snapped back a further retort as Retzef's hand snapped up between them.

         "Consider the boy no longer your problem, Master Maestro. Zion will show you out."

         Despite himself, Maestro flinched at the aide who suddenly appeared at his elbow. He ground his teeth together, nodded his head in a formal, if less-than polite, bow and stormed from the box.

*          *          *

         "That was sloppy, Pandaren!" said Master Yoshi as they found an unoccupied piece of shade. "You could have ended that match a dozen times. Why did you not use your qi?"

         "I'm tired, Master," sighed Ren, sinking down on the grass. "And I have a headache." He rubbed at the knot on the back of his head in irritation.

         "A Samurai doesn't get tired!" snapped the master, shoving the water bottle at Ren. "Drink. You haven't been drinking enough, that'll help the headache, and here, eat this."

         "Ew-yuck," said Ren, holding up the foil-wrapped bar. "What's this?"

         "Just eat it! If you'd eaten either at breakfast or lunch you wouldn't be so fatigued."

         "Bleck, it's awful!"

         "Eat it! And then you can have these."

         "What are those?"

         "Pretzels. Your body needs the salt. That," he indicated the energy bar, "has carbohydrates and protein. It's a short-term solution, but it should do for now."

         "Ick."

         Yoshi sighed and lay back. "I'm going to take a nap, Pandaren. Stay here."

         Ren sighed. "Yes, Master."

         Sitting there in the heat, Ren also started to feel sleepy. He edged a little further into the shade and gave his snoring master a long look. His match wasn't for almost two hours. He didn't want to sit around, just waiting, surely Master Yoshi wouldn't miss him for just a few minutes? He slipped the small, clear bag of pretzels into a pocket and edged sideways again, this time away from his master. Water bottle in hand, he got slowly to his feet and looked around. Where did he want to go? He wasn't sure where the other fields were, but he knew where the Heart pavilion was, they'd dropped off Quack there again this morning.

         He glanced back at Master Yoshi and then out at the busy field. All six rings for the Samurai competition were filled and busy; they had been all day. In one he could see the massive bulk of Whale and winced. He'd hoped the other man wouldn't make it this far. He really didn't want to face the wrestler. With another glance at Yoshi, Ren turned his feet towards the exit and lost himself in the crowd.

         There were so many people! The clothing was as varied as the people and several times Ren stopped to stare. How could that be decent? And why would a person want all that metal sticking out of his face? Was blue hair natural? Mmmm, that smelled good, what was that? What were they eating?

         "Hey, Pandaren!"

         He halted, looking around. A pale-faced girl with hair so blonde it was almost white appeared out of the crowd. She wore a uniform in a tri-color pattern: red, white, and blue, and had a kit bag over her shoulder, water bottle in one hand. As she grinned at him, Ren also saw that her eyes were different colors, one blue, the other black. He looked behind him, but she just grinned at him. She was slightly taller than him; quite odd.

         "Um, do you know me?"

         She shrugged. "Maybe not. I saw you in the healer's tent on Tuesday. Getting a check-up or something?"

         "You speak Japanese."

         "Yep! Thought it might be handy." She grinned. "Want to get some ice-cream?"

         "What's that?"

         "Oh, you've got to be kidding! You don't know what ice-cream is? Come on, then!"

         "But, I'm supposed to -- ah ...." She grabbed his hand and dragged Ren through the crowd. He stared down at their joined hands for a second and then pulled free. "Uh ...."

         "What do you want? Vanilla or chocolate?"

         "Um, I don't ... um ...."

         She laughed. "Both, then. Here."

         Ren stared at the brown and white confection on its foamy holder.

         "Eat it, before it melts," she said, taking a big mouthful of her own.

         "It's all sugar!" Ren exclaimed, absently following her as they moved away from the booth.

         She laughed again. "You've got ice-cream on your nose!"

         "This can't be good for you," Ren murmured, licking at the base of the cone before it could drip on his hand.

         "Of course not! Just be sure you drink lots of water, and you'll be fine. Hot today, isn't it?" She sat down on a concrete bench in some shade. "I'm Riko, by the way."

         He bowed, a little awkwardly with the teetering ice-cream in one hand. "Pleased to meet you, Riko, I'm Pandaren."

         She giggled. "I know. How are your matches going?"

         "Good," he replied. "I'm really tired, though."

         "Yeah, me, too. It's so much more work than I thought it would be."

         Ren stared down at his ice-cream. "I never thought I'd get here at all."

         "You know, you don't seem like a typical Samurai."

         "I don't?" He turned towards her, surprise lifting his eyebrows. "What do you mean?"

         She shrugged and popped the last of the cone in her mouth, grinning at Ren's amazed expression and pointing at her mouth. "Edible."

         He glanced at his half-eaten treat. "I think I'm done. You want the rest?"

         "No, just throw it away. Guess it can be a bit much if you're not used to it."

         "You eat this kind of thing alot?" asked Ren, giving her a once-over. She still looked very fit. "What are you? Um, I mean, type of ninja."

         "Heart," replied Riko. "Whoa, hey, you got something against healers?"

         Ren had jumped to his feet, staring back at her awkwardly. He dumped the ice-cream in a trash bin and licked his fingers. "Um, no," he answered, siddling sideways as he realized that Riko had followed him. "Not ... exactly."

         She peered at him quizzically. "I'm sorry about your friend."

         "My ... my friend?"

         "Yeah. That healer who got killed yesterday. Wasn't he from your school?"

         "Um ... I need to go, excuse me." Rubbing his head, he took a quick swig of water, nearly jumping out of his skin as Riko reappeared at his side.

         "I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't mean to upset you."

         "I'm not ...!"

         "Where are you going?"

         Ren paused, looking around. "I don't ... Oh, no! I need to get back!"

         "Hey, chill out, the Samurai field is this way." She pointed, then started off down the path. He followed. "Don't you have a map?"

         Ren shook his head, blushing a little. "I'm not ... not supposed to be on my own."

         Riko gave him a puzzled look. "Why not?"

         "Well, I ... I got in trouble."

         "So that old guy's your babysitter? Geez, tough luck."

         Ren wasn't sure he understood that slang. "He's nice. Master Yoshi has helped me a lot. I wouldn't be here at all if it wasn't for him."

         "How come?"

         "I'm not a very good Samurai."

         Riko laughed, stopping to stare at him. "You?" she asked, poking him in the arm. "You don't think you're any good?" She gestured around them. "Look where you are, dummy! It's day two of the competition and you're still here! Why don't you think you're any good? Is it because you're not stone-man like all the rest of 'em?"

         Ren blinked at this girl and rubbed his arm reflexively, at a loss for anything to say. "We've met before?" he asked. Why didn't he remember? Wouldn't he remember meeting someone like her?

         "Kind of," she replied. "My sister was the one helping the healer for your exam, and the healing yesterday."

         "Yesterday?"

         "Yeah, after th --"

         "Pandaren!"

         He jumped. "Oh, shit."

         Master Yoshi reached up and latched onto Ren's ear, jerking him around. "What are you doing? Fraternizing with the enemy! Have you no sense? I told you to stay put!"

         "Ow! Master, I --"

         "Shut up!" His blazing eyes flashed to Riko. "Excuse us." He pulled Ren along by the ear back to the field, cursing fluently in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese.

*          *          *

         Ren's last match of the day was the very match he'd been dreading since meeting the man at dinner that first night. Whale nodded at Ren from across the ring. Ren squeezed his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. They bowed to the judges, to each other, and then the match began!

         Ren held his ground and lashed out at the other Samurai, but Whale was too fast. They met in a flurry of blows and kicks and Ren sprang backwards and away, to get out of reach of those massive arms. He aimed a punch at Whale ... and nothing happened! He froze for a second, staring at his hands, long enough to get clipped upside the head and go sprawling. Whale was so fast! The wrestler moved to pin Ren but he scrambled up and out of the way, continuing to retreat and desperately trying to think of what to do. How could he negate the larger Samurai's advantage?

         He shook his his head, moved to counteract Whale's attacks. Ren couldn't keep enough distance between them to build up any speed or combination attacks and his qi didn't seem to be responding. What was he going to do?

         Whale backed Ren up into a corner. Dodging another attempt to grapple him, Ren leaped up into the netting and outward, landing on Whale's shoulders. He wrapped a leg around that stout neck, hanging on with the other and using his arms to fend off Whale's fists. The wrestler staggered around for a minute, then crashed over backwards, his hands going to one of Ren's ankles.

         Ren bounced as he hit the ground, eyes watering, reacting to protect his head at the last minute, but Whale had his leg and he couldn't get away. Within seconds, he was pinned by the larger Samurai. Ren's strength was as nothing compared to Whale. He squirmed and struggled, but could feel darkness creeping along the edges of his vision as Whale choked him.

         To Ren's ears came the sound of crunching and he blinked a second in confusion until he realized he'd left his pretzels in his pocket. He rather felt like a pretzel at the moment ... he twisted again, swinging his one free leg. Whale shifted slightly to negate the movement and Ren cursed. If ... if he could dislocate his shoulder, he could get an elbow into Whale's face, maybe that would buy him enough time.

         "Auu-rgh!" grunted Ren, putting all his effort into freeing his arm and then slamming back into Whale's face. He gasped for breath and rolled as Whale's eyes teared, blood gushing from his nose. Ren tried to lift his arm again but couldn't. The shoulder was one mass of agony. The two Samurai kneeled, wheezing, facing each other. They lurched to their feet at the same time.

         From the corner of his eye, Ren saw one of the judges circling around. He blinked, trying to regain his focus, but all he could think of was the pain in his arm. The heat pressed down all around him and his head pounded. Taking a step, he staggered to his knees. Why didn't he attack? What was he wait --

         Whale charged. Ren put up his working arm, palm out towards his opponent. Why? He didn't know, it wasn't as if he could stop the -- wait. Whale pushed at something invisible. As he pushed, Ren slid backwards, on his knees in the grass. He dug his toes in, scraping deep furrows in the dirt and slowly getting to his feet. He leaned all his strength, all his determination, at Whale, to hold him back. Ren's arm started to tremble with the strain. He lowered his head, bending his knees to meet the demand. Sweat poured down his face and there were strange lights behind his eyes and a huge increase in the pain in his head. Too much, too much, it was too much! I'm going to pass out!

         Ren pulled his hand back some, letting his elbow bend, letting Whale gain some distance, but then he snapped his arm back out straight, cracking like a rubber band. Whale slammed backwards, tumbling into the netting. Ren fell onto his face, renewed pain surging up his injured arm. He gasped, but forced himself to blink, to breathe, to stay conscious. I have to get up, I have to get up!

         The dirt smelled so good, the sun so warm on his back, he wanted to stay put.

         "Giovane? Attenzione del giovane?"

         Ren hiked his eyelids back up. They felt like they weighed a ton. The ring's healer leaned over, they were almost nose to nose. Ren grimaced and levered himself up on a shaky arms, to legs that weren't much better. The healer touched Ren's shoulder and he cringed. He could barely stand to look the judges in the eyes. Their disapproval was just one more thing he didn't want to have to deal with right then. He managed a small bow.

         "Congratulations," said the head judge.

         I win? thought Ren in a bit of a fog. He looked over and saw Whale sitting up against the netting. He lifted a hand in a small gesture. Ren gave him as much of a bow as he could manage before straightening his back and moving from the ring, the healer twittering something at him that he couldn't understand. There were strange shadows fluttering in the corners of his eyes, but when he turned his head, there was nothing there. The ground also seemed to be in cahoots with his head, for it kept shifting on him.

         Master Yoshi's arms went around him and Ren lurched into him. "Master ...."

         With Master Yoshi on one side and the healer on the other, they stumbled for the medical tent. Ren passed out when they re-seated his shoulder, but jolted awake soon after, to see the Korean healer from the other day, Master Motive, smiling down at him.

         "Back with us now? Good. How do you feel?"

         "Weird," Ren replied. He lifted his hand to stare at it, feeling vaguely disconnected, as if he wasn't quite all there.

         "It's a good thing you're done for the day," continued Motive. "I've given you a temporary boost, and a pain blocker. You've gone and overstretched yourself. Too bad you can't just sleep for the next week. You could use it."

         "All I do is sleep," Ren protested, blinking. The curtained room spun as he sat up. The healer steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.

         "Your body's trying to tell you something, then," said the Healer. "You need some more work on that shoulder. Gone and tore all sorts of things loose. Hold still, I'm going to bind you up, so it doesn't come undone on the ride."

         "Ride?"

         "Yes. You need to go to the hospital. Then I'd suggest you eat a high-calorie dinner, and get some sleep. You've made it to the semi-finals, congratulations."

         "Ung."

         "You're in pretty good shape, too. Sent a dozen or more boys to the hospital today for various things. Whoops, hang on there. Ah, Nanami! You're back. Good." He switched to English, saying something that Ren couldn't catch, it was too fast.

         He grinned tiredly at the girl. "He'Riko. Eyes-screamz cold."

         She gave him a strange look. Hadn't the blue eye been on the other side? Ah, that was okay. He slumped against Master Motive. When Master Yoshi returned, Ren's kit bag over his shoulder, they bundled him into one of the carts and returned to the hospital. Ren groaned into his master's shoulder as they approached the entrance.

         Master Yoshi and Nanami exchanged a few words and then the girl hurried off. When she returned, Ren was bustled onto a stretcher and inside. His wounds weren't serious and there was a wait. He just lay still and dozed on Master Yoshi's shoulder. His own shoulder and head were beginning to throb again by the time he got to see a healer. The master, a different one than last time, tut-tutted for a moment or two and then called for a couple of assistants. The younger healers, students, Ren guessed, put their hands around the master's and he shuddered from the heat that suddenly surged through his arm. When they were done, the healer wrapped his shoulder in ice.

         "Ice every hour," the healer told Master Yoshi, in clipped Chinese, "for twenty minutes. We can't do anything for over-exertion, but you can give him some tylenol, that may take the edge off. He needs rest, but," and he shrugged, "try telling that to these kids." Then he grinned. "Don't think I would've listened, either, back then. Okay, kiddo, you're done, off you go. Keep that arm wrapped overnight, okay?"

         "Well, we're just in time for dinner," said Master Yoshi as they exited the tents.

         Ren groaned again. The world was once more in sharp focus and the ice on his shoulder was not making up for the painful throbbing. "I'm not hungry."

         "Well, you're going to eat," snapped the master. "You're not going to win this competition by starving yourself."

         "I don't want to win."

         "Of course you do! You're just out of your head from pain right now. Come on, steady now."

         There were a lot of glum faces at the dinner table, but some relief as well. Varamance looked rather smug, but he spared time for a grin at Ren. Osore and Exodeus also seemed quite pleased with themselves. Convex looked like she was one second away from crying, but Dante just looked relieved.

         "Thank God that's over!" he muttered as Ren sat down.

         "I'll get you some food, just sit," said Master Yoshi.

         "So, Pandaren," said Kagami. "Continuing on, yes? Congratulations! I'm so exhausted, though! Wish it was Friday night! Heh."

         "You've got way too much energy," sighed Nnena, elbowing the other boy.

         Ren leaned his cheek into his good hand. He was so tired! And all the noise in the crowded dining hall was only making the pounding in his head worse. When a heaping plate landed in front of his noise, he recoiled. "Oh, Master," he groaned.

         Master Yoshi handed him some chopsticks. "Eat. Healer's orders."

         He sighed, but fiddled with the sticks obediantly. He was clumsy left-handed, but he got more food in his mouth than his lap and if it took him twice as long to eat as everyone else, well, that was okay, he guessed.

         "Hey, need a lift?"

         Ren had been wondering how he was going to manage walking all the way back to their quarters. He gave the ... twins? He blinked and gave both blondes a small, tired smile, and then glanced up at Master Yoshi. The master scowled, but shrugged.

         "Go ahead. I'll walk."

         "C'mon," called Nanami, waving, as the other Razi students stared at them. "We can probably get most of you on here."

         Ren found himself wedged in next to Osore for the short ride back.

         "So?" asked the Khu student. "What'd it say?"

         "Huh?"

         "The letter. Last night, the letter from Hammer."

         "I don't know what you're talking about."

         Osore frowned. He leaned in a little closer, to whisper, "What's wrong with you?"

         "Nothing. I'm just tired. Leave me alone!"

         "You're always tired," muttered Osore, but he didn't say another word the rest of the way to the buildings that were their temporary home.

         Ren straggled a little behind. "Thank you," he said, blushing a little.

         "No problem!" chirped Nanami. "You looked like you were dead on your feet." She climbed back in the cart. "Don't forget to get more ice on that before you go to sleep."

         "Oh, right." He gave them both a small bow. "Good night."

*          *          *

         Master Yoshi lagged behind Master Physica, Master Moone, and Master Maestro. They were deep in discussion about the students, estimating their chances and excitedly talking about how they hadn't had so many advance to the third day in quite a long time. Master Moone said as how she thought that they would end up much higher in the overall rankings than ever.

         "Are you alright, Master?" called Physica, looking back.

         "I'm fine," he replied. "Just old. I'll get there in my own time."

         He waved them on and shortly they were out of sight, not wanting to leave the students to their own devices for too long. In almost no time at all, a familiar shape emerged from the darkness to limp on his cane next to Yoshi.

         "Master," said Ansuz.

         "You have finished your tasks?"

         "Yes, Master."

         "And what are your observations on the youth? Varamance."

         "He is very skilled, Master, but reckless. He has much in the way of pride."

         "Anything else?"

         "I wonder at his loyalty."

         "How's that?"

         "I'm not sure he has any. To himself, to be sure, but to anything else? I don't know."

         "Will he continue to advance?"

         "I believe so, Master. Such power! I would like to see what he is really capable of."

         "You are nervous about battling him?" Master Yoshi lifted an eyebrow.

         "Yes," Ansuz replied. Then he smiled. "I have not had a real challenge in a long time."

         "Then take him."

         "Now, Master?"

         "You will find a good opportunity, I am sure." Yoshi mocked his young companion lightly. "I would prefer that he not make the Top Ten, but I do not want too much attention drawn to his disappearance."

         "Then shouldn't we wait? The earthquake will keep things busy for a long time."

         "Yes," mused Yoshi. "That is true, but if you get a good opportunity, then take it."

         Ansuz nodded. "Yes, Master."

         "Damn that healer," Yoshi muttered. "His death has attracted far too much attention as it is. Humphf. What a waste. Oh, and give Felicity and Ambrosia a heads-up before you descend on them with their new subject. And make sure you take back-up. I don't want to lose you."

         "Yes, Master."

         "Go on, then. Report back to me when the job is done. Or," he added softly as the occamist started to take his leave, "see that someone informs me that all has gone well."

         "Yes, Master."

         Yoshi smiled. "Good hunting."
Osore ducked once again. The powerful air spell had flown right over his head, shattering the wall behind him. Shelgon was a powerful air Khu. He was tall and muscular, with short red hair and black eyes. By nationality he was Turkish, but his father was Greek. That is all that Osore had found out about him. Shelgon had a lot of simple spells in his arsenal, which were easy to cast but a lot more deadly than most simple air spells. They must have been invented by him, because Osore had never heard of them before. They were arrow spells, as usually, but with a lesser duration and needed less accuracy than most of the usual air spells. He must be a genius to be able to think of such spells on his own. Osore ducked again. The arrow-like spell fell on his right and threw him two feet away, forming a big hole in the ground. A mobile air pocket. Yes, that is what he was doing. Air pockets that could move. As Osore fell to the ground he stabbed the coseis in the ground. This had been the fifth time he did it. The crowd was roaring. Up until now, every opponent that Osore fought was beaten in a matter of minutes. Twenty minutes had passed, since the start of this match. Osore had tried to cast a spell, but was interrupted in the beginning, so now he was just running around, pissing the crowd off. He stood up, pulling the coseis out of the ground and started running again. This time he was limping pretty badly with his right leg. Shalgon saw that as an opportunity and ran after him.

Suddenly Osore turned around and pointed his coseis. “Morduul Gehena Spravis!!!” the fire Khu shouted and suddenly fiery circle surrounded Shalgon. The air Khu realized it now, that Osore had stabbed the ground five times not because he was clumsy or angry, but because he was inserting his fire Khai inside the ground. Suddenly a huge pillar appeared on the upper right side of the circle and widened to the extent of pushing him back. Then another pillar right behind Shalgon appeared and widened. Then another and another and suddenly the air Khu found himself surrounded by the pillars. Osore felt Shalgon try to create a shielding spell, in order to protect himself from the fifth pillar he knew was coming. The ironic part of it was that Shalgon did not realize that it was exactly the air that fueled the strength of this spell. So the fire was devouring the air shield of Shalgon. The fifth fire pillar appeared right under Shalgon and engulfed him. Seconds later the whole spell disappeared. In the middle of what was a few moments ago a spell, was Shalgon covered in burned marks and bruises. Heart ninjas and the judges ran toward him with buckets of water and sand. His short, red hair was still burning. As they splashed water over his head and examined his body Osore was declared winner. He exited the battle arena and went to the medic’s den for examination. Afterwards he was sent to the pool of power, because he needed to recover.

The pool of power was a hot spring which had the ability to restore Khai. After every match every Khu contestant was sent here to replenish his powers for the next fight. Osore took his clothes off and went inside. The warm water calmed his muscles and mind. Osore did not take his mask off even in the pool of power. He had to watch out not to get dizzy from the water. Suddenly he heard a noise. Someone was getting in the pool as well. He opened his eye and saw Lucy get in. She was wearing a white bikini and bra. Her soft, tanned skin had fire markings all around it. Her hair was alright though. It was now waving freely around her thin neck. She went to Osore and dipped herself to the neck in water.

“Hi, Osore.”

“Hi. I see you’ve fought a fire Khu.”

“Yeah, and the bastard almost won.” sighed Lucy looking the other way.

“Well, knowing you, it must have been a a blast.”

“Knowing me?” Lucy looked at his eyes.

“Yes.”

“How do you know me? Like the girl that has a crush on you? Like the girl that has big breasts and long legs? How do you know me?” she said angrily.

“My, My, a messy day, huh? Well, let’s see: I now that your full name is Lucy Angeloty. You are a fourth generation Khu in your family as your grand-grand…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can get that info from your average gossiper. But you don’t know anything about me as a personal matter, do you?”

“As a matter of fact I do.”

“Oh, yeah? Like what?”

“I’ve got three things on you. You’re jealous of your sister. You hate Khu and ninja arts as whole. Or at least you used to. And last but not least, as much as you want to hide it you’re actually quite a romantic and traditional woman.” said Osore. Lucy was shocked. Her face had a strange mixture of surprise and astonishment frozen on it. “You’re jealous of your sister because she is favored by your family. I presume that she is a model or a fashion designer. When you were little you wanted to be just like her- beautiful, adored and god-like. But you did not seem to be as beautiful as she was. At least that’s what you thought. When the time came your dream was taken away from you when you were discovered to have Khai in you and that is why you hate Khu and the ninja arts. Or at least you used to.”

“But how did you know I wanted to be a model as well?”

“It took me three facts- the way you dress, the way you act and the way you think. You dress in very stylish clothes. But in the same time you use clothes that are freer than usual stylish clothes. Short skirts, bikini, low-collared blouses. Sure, you can full other guys that you do it to distract the attention of your male opponents, but not me. You do it to attract attention to your beauty in hope that people will acknowledge you as much as your sister. You act and think the same way- trying to attract everyone’s attention. The way you think is also the way I know you are romantic and traditional. You like me, because you saw romance in the way we saw each other. I am mysterious and powerful to you. To marry me would be too perfect of a story so you fantasize about it and keep going after me. You are traditional and not eccentric as you want everyone to think, because you could have invited me on a date, but instead you wait for me to make the first move.”

“You’re incredible, Osore.” she said, hugging him.

“No, I’m not I can’t see through everyone, you know.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah! There is this guy, um let’s call him P, who I just can’t understand.”

“What do you mean?”

“He is described by many as quite an emotional guy, but lately he’s been cold and egoistic. He doesn’t want me to help him and doesn’t really care about his real friends. Yesterday evening I thought I had waken him up a bit, but this morning… It’s like nothing had happened. It’s weird. So weird it scares even me.”

“How do you know he’s not back to his old self?”

“His eyes! His glare had a kind of emptiness. He had emotions, yeah, but… ahh… I don’t know? Maybe I’m seeing things.”

“What if he’s like this again?”

“I’ll have to have a serious talk with him. Or if not him at least Master Physica. There is something wrong with him, I think. I just hope that I have made a horrible mistake.”

“You really care for him, don’t you?”

“No, no I don’t. I made a promise to a mutual friend of ours to keep him safe and happy. Or at least be there for him when he needs someone.”

“So you do care?”

“I just told you I don’t.”

“Yes you do!”

“You’re such a child sometimes.”

“And you like me, too, don’t you?”

“Well, … at least I don’t hate you.”

“You like me! Yes…” she said and kissed him on the lips. ”Oh, I’m sorry, I…uh.” She started to stutter, her whole face going red.

“It’s ok. Just don’t do it again, if you don’t mean it.”

“But I…”

“Hm?”

“You’re the worst!” she said hitting hi on the shoulder.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

(sigh) This is Virgo's add:

Riko decided she liked Pandaren, he was kind of cute, in a I’m-so-confused-and-not-so-very-serious way. What she didn’t like was that he kept hanging around that old guy, that old guy who was so very not nice and didn’t like him getting ice cream. The poor kid had never had any, what right did the old man have to be pissy at her for wanting to take him to experience the world? She supposed that this ‘Yoshi’ person had some rights seeing as he was the guy’s master and all, but seriously, someone with a stick shoved that far up their ass had to have some secrets lurking up there that they didn’t want revealed. She huffed, before an idea lit in her mind, “Hey Nana...” She murmured, sneaking off towards the healer’s tents.

To her surprise, her Panda was already there when she arrived, and seemed to have been knocked silly by his competition, mind you... She stepped aside as the ginormous beast of a man was assisted into the tent, her eyes wide. Someone that big could not possibly be allowed to exist on this plane, but alas, her eyes did not deceive her. She sidled a bit closer and saw Nanami there, looking puzzled as Panda said something she couldn’t make out before he went into some sort of slumber. She gestured Nana over, Nana who glared at her and moved over, hissing about regulations and rules specially made for the two of them before Riko put her hand over her mouth, “Meet me at the training grounds after my last match of today.” She whispered in her ear before vanishing so no one could see.

~*~

It was four hours later that she was screaming in rage in the arena, screaming at her competitor as she clutched her nearly ruined shoulder. She had come so close! That bitch! She got a lucky shot! It was cheating! It had to be cheating! Penalty! Penalty! She threw spiteful words at the smirking bitch as she had to be physically removed from the field so she wasn’t tempted to wring the nasally brunette’s throat. She’d cheated! Someone wrenched her shoulder and she yelped in pain, fuming, but now silent as she shoved off her ‘assistants’ and stormed off the field on her own, slamming her hand into the concrete angrily. She wasn’t going on to Friday, she wasn’t going to be able to keep fighting, she nearly saw red and she’d never felt such venom well in her at the Chinese wretch who hadn’t stopped and had purposely torn the muscle in her shoulder.

Overkill was illegal and so was intentionally trying to kill your competition, if Riko hadn’t moved when she did she’d have been toast. She hissed, jogging to the training field, her fiery gaze chasing everyone off as she perched on the horse, attending to the bleeding mess that her shoulder was in. Her body was already naturally compensating for the wound, her blood clotting at an abnormal rate as most Heart members’ bodies did, her muscle trying to knit itself, but the wound was pretty bad, she’d need Nana’s help.

“What happened?”

Her sister’s voice nearly knocked her from the beam as she started turning, “The bitch I was fighting tried to kill me.” She hissed, “I hope she has to fight Panda or Varamance. And I hope they make her a bloody smear on the wall.”

“Usually that’s my line.” Nana said dryly, hopping up to sit with Riko, helping heal her shoulder, “So you’re not going tomorrow?” She asked, frowning when Riko looked away.

“No.” She muttered, “Chink won the match.” She was disheartened, she worked hard to get in the competition and because of one fluke she was culled from the herd.

“I'm sorry.”

She leaned against Nanami, who hugged her, “Hey, you were talking with Panda and his keeper.”

“Huh?” Nana looked down at Riko as Riko sat up.

“Look, there’s something funny about the old man, you know, the Razi one, who keeps an eye on Panda all the time? He keeps him so close and closed off, you’d think he was some sort of prize.”

“Have you seen him fight?” Nana asked.

“No, there’s more to it than that, it’s beyond favouritism, it’s like... well, I dunno, but the old lizard has more than a betting interest in Panda, that’s for certain.” Riko pondered moving her shoulder as Nana instructed, wincing as the movement pulled on the newly reconstructed muscle.

“Keep moving it, it’ll be all right in a couple days.” She said, brushing a kiss over her sister’s forehead.

“He’s so overprotective.” Riko said as Nana nodded and hopped down, helping Riko to the ground as well, “It’s like... I don’t know!” She growled, “Let’s find Kitty, she could...”

“No, you keep your conspiracy theories to yourself, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of the old Samurai’s wrath, and if you start spreading stuff around, he will get very, very angry. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open, then, when you have something, you come to me and me alone and then we will talk. Come on, it’s time for dinner.”

~*~

They arrived as everyone else was packing up and heading out, Nanami murmured something that Riko didn’t catch and she made her way over to Panda, who was having some difficulty eating left-handed. The old lizard was sitting nearby, watching Panda and Riko took a seat, watching the lizard watch her Panda.

“Stop it.” Nanami hissed, nudging her and Riko hurriedly looked away, quickly devouring her cheeseburger and french fries.

“Come on.” Riko said, “We still have access to the carts and those guys look tired.” She hauled Nanami to her feet before she could finish her own meal of pesto pasta.

Nanami sighed, cursing under her breath as she was dragged along and helped pile Razi students into the cart as Riko cheerfully drove, none of her angry, depressed, inner turmoil showed as she drove them to their bunkhouse. She watched Riko carefully as they said their goodbyes to the Razi students and she noticed the cheerful glow around her cheeks as Panda stayed behind and thanked them both. Nanami spoke quickly, before Riko began stuttering and then said good night to the young Samurai.

Riko rounded on her, “You didn’t have to do that.” She said, hopping back in the cart as they quickly drove it back to a charging station before they moved in silence back towards their own rooms.

Nanami paused as she heard something, inclining her head as she gestured to Riko to stay quiet, listening hard for what she heard.

“Yes Master.”

“Good hunting.”

Nanami glanced over, seeing the old man, Yoshi, and some other, hunched over figure talking. Hunting? Hunting for what? You couldn’t hunt out here. She furrowed her brow, trying to lean forward more to hear, when the old man turned, looking at her, or in her direction at least, enough that she backed up quickly and shoved Riko, “Run!” She hissed under her breath and they bolted, trying to hide their less-than-inconspicuous looks as they ran into their bunk room, panting and shaking.

“What was that?” Riko asked, looking bewilderedly at her sister.

“I don’t know and I don’t think I want to know.” Nanami said tiredly, breathing heavily as she closed her eyes. She hoped that the old lizard hadn’t seen her, and if he had, what would happen? Somehow, she got the feeling that the other, hunched over, figure was not the type to be on her Christmas card list, nor really the type to exist at all.

“I’m tired.” Riko said, pulling down the shades of her window, “Come on Nana.”

Nanami hesitated, “Ri, do... do you mind if I stay in your bed tonight?” She asked, she was too nervous to be on her own.

“Yeah, come on.” Riko patted her bed as she stripped and put on her pajamas sliding under the covers as Nanami did the same. “Night.”

“Night.” Nanami murmured, cuddling up with her sister as they fell asleep.
"What are you doing?" Claretta asked, looking down her nose at Kitty.

"I'm preparing a traditional Japanese dish for my lunch tomorrow." Kitty sat before a small cook fire behind the dorms cooking rice. To her side strips of nori and sesame seeds lay out on a cloth in the sun.

"What, seaweed, sesame seeds and rice? Is that really a traditional Japanese dish?" Claretta gazed intently, "And what's with the funny boxes?"

"Those are bento boxes," Kitty replied gazing into the pot speculatively. She wasn't a bad cook, but she'd never tried anything Japanese before.

"Why are you doing it out here? Couldn't your use the kitchen?" Claretta bent to look into the pot as well.

"Too busy."

"Hey," Owl came running over, "how did you do in the first competition today Kitty?"

"Not bad," she'd made it into the test just in time. A full day of answering questions had nearly driven her mad. It wasn't that she didn't know the answers, she just hated sitting still that long. "The results will be posted in the morning, along with our next challenges if we made it through."

"I'll definitely come watch if you make it," Owl smiled at her. "By the way, hows your finger?"

"Good, the healer saw it in my physical and fixed it for me," Kitty sighed.

"Is that bad?" Owl picked up a bento box and examined it.

"Not really," Kitty watched her friend. For some reason she wanted to ask her to put the box down, but she knew it was silly.

"So why are there 2 bento boxes then?" Claretta asked.

"Um..." Kitty really didn't trust Claretta at this point. She was her prime candidate for the person responsible for her missing clothes. "I'm making two lunches."

"Oh, are you making one for your boyfriend?" Owl's excitement was obvious. Claretta's eyebrows rose as she looked at Kitty.

"Boyfriend? No! Uh, I mean, um I don't really, that is he isn't my boyfriend." She looked directly at the pot. Not that she wouldn't like Exodeus to be her boyfriend, because she definitely liked him.

"Who is this? That Irish guy she went to the circus with?" Claretta eyed her in a way that made Kitty very uncomfortable.

"No, he was a jerk," Kitty responded immediately.

"No, it's the Japanese one, or at least I think he's Japanese, he's with that RAZI Academy." Owl seemed all to happy to spill as much information as she could about him. "He saved her from the Irish one. He's the one she made that belt thing for last night. I watched him fight today. You should have seen! No one expected anything out of that seahorse and then all of a sudden... bubble!" She shouted and giggled. Kitty blinked at her uncertainly.

Claretta shook her head. "Bubble?"

"Yes, it was fantastic!"

"So he figured out what bubble meant?" Kitty asked adding a bit of wood to her fire.

"I'd say so," Owl replied, "it was fantastic, the way it worked."

"I hope I can see him fight tomorrow," Kitty smiled.

"So, is that who the other bento is for?" Owl seemed too eager for the reply. Kitty nodded.

"What's this guys name?" Claretta asked.

"Exodeus," Kitty and Owl replied simultaneously.

"Well, at least you know this one's name." Claretta seemed to be sulking though Kitty couldn't imagine why.

"Is something wrong?" Kitty asked. Claretta shook her head but Owl replied.

"Her boyfriend broke it off with her."

"What? You too have been dating for years though. Why did he break up with you."

Claretta shrugged, picking up a piece of seaweed and staring at it. "He says there's no telling what will happen after the competitions and he doesn't want to feel tied down if he's offered something."

Owl looked at Kitty and shook her head. Kitty nodded. "So he's just being a jerk," Kitty said, "and after all this time. I'm really sorry."

"What do you have to be sorry about?" Claretta dropped the seaweed and stood up. "Anyhow, I'll see you around." Kitty looked at Owl who shrugged. The two of them sat in silence for several minutes.

"I wonder if your clothes will resurface now," Owl finally said.

"Maybe, I feel badly though. He really led her on."

"Yes, he did." There was another long silence. Kitty removed the pot, testing the rice. "Perfect."

"So, what else is on the menu?"

"I'm making onigiri, umeboshi, kuri kinton and an assortment of cut vegetables. I even made cherry tomatoes that are cut like roses," Kitty grinned, "of course I'll have to remake them in the morning or they'll go all floppy by lunch time. Want one?" Kitty opened a basket at her side and pulled out a container of vegetables.

"Are those bunny rabbit carrots?" Owl squealed, an odd sound from her. "They're so cute!"

Kitty nodded, grinning, "They look right then."

"Oh yes, definitely." The two snacked on the vegetables in silence. Kitty molded the rice while it was still very hot, rolled it in the sesame seeds, then wrapped it with the nori, gently passing it over the cook fire to crisp the seaweed. Slowly she filled the bento boxes.

"You really like him don't you," Owl finally asked when she spoke again.

"No, well, maybe, yes," Kitty felt her face reddening. "Why?"

"I think it's great, you know, but chances are you'll never see him again once he leaves right?"

Kitty looked down at her hands. "I suppose, but you don't know that."

Owl nodded, "Good luck Kitty. I think you two would make a really cute couple."

"Really?"

"Really."

Kitty grinned, uncertain why that made her so happy. When she got back to her room her mood brightened even further as her clothes were back.

*

Kitty stared at the results. Her name was actually there on the list. She'd be continuing on today! She hoped very much that she'd get good debate topics, because honestly that was the worst part. Having to debate some random topic you knew nothing about could be the absolute end for any Sage. She read the results again. She had three matches, and the first was in an hour. She couldn't really leave, but the second wasn't until after lunch which would give her plenty of time to take the bento to Exodeus.

"Hey Kitty, good luck against the Swedish boy, he's smarter than you," Bio called as he passed by.

"Gee thanks," Kitty mumbled though she knew Bio wouldn't hear. He was probably headed to watch. She ought to be doing the same. There was much she could learn about her competitors by doing so. She wandered into the stands but found herself worrying about silly trivial things like whether the umeboshi would really be properly pickled in such a short time, and if the meal was large enough for a boy or not.

The topic picked was history but she wasn't sure which part of history the two were going on about. If that wasn't proof her head was in the clouds nothing would be. Kitty's eyes caught on a brown tabby cat that was perched near the back of the seating. It was rare to see a cat hover that close to such a crowd. Kitty was making her way back to it before she knew what she was doing. When she got to the cat she reached out her hand for the cat to sniff.

"Hi there, my name is Kitty, what's yours?"

"Tabitha," a soft, low voice replied. Kitty looked up to see a boy with glasses, fluffy brown hair and a British uniform if she wasn't mistaken.

"Oh, you're from SKYe right? The British school," Kitty smiled, "are you Sage?"

The boy shook his head, "one of the few Crystal."

"Oh," Kitty wasn't sure why, but it seemed she kept running into them. With so few Crystal competitors what were the chances?

"You're Sage though."

Kitty nodded and held out her hand, "Kitty."

"Adrian," the boy replied.

"That's your ninja name?" Adrian nodded. "It's nice to meet you."

"It's nice to meet you to," Adrian replied, but instead of shaking her hand he kissed it. "You're up next I believe, good luck."

Why was her heart speeding and why had he kissed her hand? Kitty stared at him several moments longer, then realized the competitors were down to their rapid fire question and answer session which meant she needed to get up to the front for her match.

"Sorry, um, thanks," she said, turning and rushing to the front. It wasn't her fault that some idiot had their foot out in the middle of the aisle, but she was the one who would have to deal with the painful nose from it. Kitty glanced into the stands. She could still see Tabitha way up at the top. For some reason it made her wonder how Exodeus was doing.
Limitations, it was all about limitations. Finding someone else's and exploiting them. The range of animals Exodeus had had to deal with lately was astonishing, and enlightening. You really can't trust anything or anyone. Well, on the battlefield at any rate.

He was getting the hang of Bubble as well. A strange thing he hadn't expected to be surprising for more than one or two fights. As the day wore on, he though perhaps people would get used to his seahorse. No one did. Many people thought Squirt was a joke. As the matches were won in his favor, Exodeus stopped agreeing with them.

It came as quite a surprise when Kitty showed up around noon. He was watching a match between a couple of Crystal students who didn't seem able to judge each others weight. It was interesting how difficult it was to see other people fight and not want to be in there fighting as well. He hadn't felt this, ready, for battle in a while. Not since Vie... he needed to stop thinking of things like that. In that way. As though his life was divided. Before Vie and After Vie. Did that make his life run in BV and AV? He shook his head, and lifted his eyes to see the blonde hair and green eyes walking up the stands to smile at him.

"How are you?" she asked, and Exodeus smiled back.

"Not bad, how are your matches going so far?" She shrugged.

"I made it through to today. We'll have the results posted tomorrow for who gets to continue on." Exodeus shook his head.

"I tried to watch a match yesterday. It didn't go so well for me. I couldn't keep track of what was going on, and I certainly didn't know who was winning." She motioned to the seat next to him, and he scooted over a bit to give her more room.

"Thanks," and Exodeus nodded. "We have to converse on different topics. It's always very interesting, but sometimes difficult because you never know what they're going to ask you to talk about. I did well in my first today, I think." She chewed her lip a few times, and Exodeus put a hand on her shoulder.

"Then I'm sure you did." Where was this confidence coming from anyway? She nodded.

"I... um... made lunch, and, well," she blushed a bit and looked down. "Was wondering if you'd eat with me?" Exodeus tilted his head to one side for a moment, then smiled.

"Alright. Want to go outside?" She nodded and stood up, turning to face him, her whole posture showing how excited she was.

"Yeah!" With that, she started down the bleachers, and tripped over something, no surprise there, and started heading face first down the bleachers. Exodeus dashed down, and caught her, just before her face came in contact with the ground.

"Careful there," he said, helping her to stand.

"I just don't understand!" she said, looking around. Exodeus shrugged.

"Just chance." It was then that he noticed something was in her hands. Two wrapped packages, and they looked so very familiar in their wrapping. He looked at her and she took his hand.

"This way then," she said, tucking the packages under her arm and taking him out of the building. A small smile spread across his face. A bento. In America. How strange was that?
The day his first master had died, Ansuz had been elated. But of course he was meant to have sworn to 'oibara seppuku' or 'hara kiri'. A ritual suicide, meant to be a sign of bravery, of nobility. To accept defeat and destruction and realise that it was better to die than to become one of the enemy's victories. But why should he have killed himself when he was only nineteen, not much older than some of these here, younger than others… No… These archaic rituals were antiquated and obsolete, these traditions verging on the ridiculous, games such as the Top Ten were already passed respectability in the eyes of those he now favoured.

Yet amongst all those brought up in this primordial maelstrom of antediluvian alacrity these students trod, unassumingly following the path laid out for them on stones so ancient that they had crumbled into the earth and become dust. They fought, not realising the contract the signed with every precise movement, every flash of steel, every grunt of effort. He could see the outline of the stadium from this angle, leaning his forehead on the window and looking out over to the rising sun.

"Get out of my bed." He spoke slowly and with a malicious emphasis on the consonance. The youth wrapped in his sheets had blearily opened blue eyes and smiled, but he wasn't in the mood for morning niceties.

An open mouth, round in surprise and delicate, immature incomprehension, "I-"

"Am no longer interested. Get your clothes and get out."

He was not going to be messed with today. Anyone less than twenty five was never again coming to his rooms. Knowing the wretched expression on the pale face more keenly than he would have had he looked, made him angry. He had things to do. Certain plans to set in motion. He had already sent word to his… comrades… letting them know what he was going to do. He heard the scuffled of feet, the rustle of clothes. There was a tentative brush of fingers against his waist but he growled, low in his throat and then the door was open and the room was left empty of ridiculous romantic notions.

Varamance was important now. Varamance... Who had responded so well to a friendly word. Who assumed he knew enough about the crippled business man. Who had seemed so disdainful of the Sect Leaders. Who had no true allegiances but had ambition. If he played the right dice, the dominoes would fall like a house of cards and hit the bull's eye. He most certainly would have to tread carefully. It wouldn't be a good idea to lose new potential. And it wouldn't do to kill it. Although… He mused, it would be interesting to see how one who fare, pitted against a ninja like Varamance.

*

To have the chance to become great, appealed to Varamance without a doubt. It was a dream, to be recognised and renown and respected. He craved that. Desired it more than he had ever done before. And he stood only metres away from being in the Top Ten of the united world. The fighter was from Algeria's International School of Ninjitsu Ryo. Coming from such a random school, very few had heard anything about this opponent and although he'd come this far, it was as if no one had ever seen him fight, hey knew so little. He had a funny feeling that this match would be much more fun than the others. He really needed a challenge, like that first.

But for now he merely bowed and made ready, eyes watching each twitching eyebrow, each white knuckled fist. Nerves would work against him. Varamance smiled hearing the declaration for them to start and preparing to figure this guy out. But there was no chance. Speed, unlike anything he had seen before was speeding towards him, almost flickering out of sight, fourteen stone of muscle launched it self in his direction and all he could do was bend gravity and make the impact worth nothing. It looked spectacular still standing after someone threw a punch like that but both of them knew it was reflective. The Algerian leapt backwards, skidding on the dusty floor, feet seeming to smoke.

Slowly, so not to attract attention Varamance began to construct a shield like gravitational defence as he took the advantage by jumping into the air over his opponent's head. Gathering energy into his hands he drew his swords and made them burn, white hot and then dived, plummeting but knowing that the other would probably be able to dodge him. He smirked as he saw the other looking up, narrowed eyes and anticipating the burning blow. The world about him was out of focus. What was he doing?... The Algerian was no where near him… But he seemed far too close… What… Light… Something to do with… Refracting light. Frowning, he forced himself to battle back, trying to find the angle of incidence and bring back into proper correlation with the normal line, returning normalcy to the density of the air. But as he did so the other drew a nagamaki, the light deceiving him and dividing his attention. He didn't see it until blood was spurting from his right arm and dripping across the dust. He had to ignore it, tried to detached from the throbbing pain that came with the pulse of blood. If he could just corner this guy and… use his sonic boom. That would win this… If he could corner him… and use…

There was a rush of air as his opponent slashed at him again but this time his gravitational defence was back in force and the sword became heavy, the Algerian's shoulders dropping into a stoop as the blade became an intolerable weight. It left him open. And Varamance too his chance, round house to the stomach as his sword gashed open the sword shoulder. He smirked, hearing the splatter of blood and seeing the cry of pain.

He continued the onslaught of attacks after that. Knowing that he was weakening under the strain of loss of blood, he had to push himself now. He pushed, every blow striking hard and knocking the disorientated Algerian towards the corner of the room. He was pulling hard from everyone else's energy, drawing more and more into his fists, his arms, his body and core. Bloody faced and only just standing the dark-skinned boy was desperately trying to put up a defence. But he was too slow, too little too late. In a minute he was going to break the speed of sound with a mass of energy so strong that this opponent would be lucky to remain conscious.

He didn't want to kill.

He'd be disqualified.

*

Ansuz heard the sound, saw the dust ball that had mushroomed into the air and saw Varamance's shadow looming in the grim, brown stained light. He smirked. That tug of raw energy. The power unleashed in that split second… Marvellous. Absolutely bloody marvellous. Twitching, barely conscious, the black Algerian opponent, what was his name… Camus?... Lay sprawled in the dirt. A crater had formed, a bowl of brown clay, in the ground and the heat haze flickered over it now as if the sound hand broken up reality and it was trying to hurriedly fix itself. The blurred form of the victor lowered his head and then tipped up his chin as his ascendancy to the final paragraph of this tournament was confirmed. A few centimetres closer and the prone body would have been a dead one. That was perfection. He would have to talk to Varamance immediately. See if he was correct in believing that if the deal was better on the other side, the boy would be attracted to it.

His target was leaving, the dark folds of clothes whisking in a phantom wind. Ansuz straightened himself out, lost the limp as he tailed the focus of his attention. This had to be done.

"Yeah, looks like I'm through." Varamance was nodding as the Crystal Sect student appeared from nowhere and swooped the one he wanted into conversation.

"That's great." There was a semi-tangible awkwardness between the two as Varamance met the other's eyes only for the Crystal's gaze to drop and flicker away as if in shame, "I've got to go. Match."

"Right. Sure."

Ansuz smirked as Varamance was left alone, standing still for a brief, sentimental moment that saw a wistful expression cross his chiselled features. Then he was moving again, less purposeful now and heading towards the exit. Probably going out for space. He followed on firm feet, staff lifted off the ground and held, ready for the blade within to be unsheathed.

They rounded the corner into a gloomy public garden area. Shaded by desert trees and obelisks of brick, the place had a quietness to it that was surprising considering the hubbub of sounds outside. Cool, green, the grass was a foresty meadow that was neatly trimmed so it didn't droop into the black stoned pathway that ran through it. Hushed, a moth fluttered, unworried past his ear, it's ghostly hue reminding him of old poetry and dusty books. Here Varamance dropped, sinking to the greenery and lying there with eyes closed, breathing in the heavy balm of nature at peace.

"You've been following me all day." The quiet whisper was far from the voice that he remembered from the pool, but it settled like a breath of wind in the small, encased space and finding itself home.

"Yes." He was glad that he had been noticed.

"You're not really a business man."

It wasn't really a question. "No."

"Why?"

"I was trained as a ninja. I never wanted to be a businessman." He smirked, "But that's not what you meant."

"No."

"What do you want, Varamance of RAZI? What do you want the most?"

"I want to be the best."

"You never will be here."

"What?"

"These people… These Masters… They don't care for people who want power, who have ambition. In their world, we're not meant to have ambition. We're meant to fight and then die with hopefully a little bit of honour that they can put into a history book if necessary." Ansuz kept his voice a little above a whisper, a melodious thrum of baritone on the breeze, "And if you lose, you will never go any further. The Masters and all who follow them… They are doomed to die and be forgotten."

The boy in the grass didn't move, but a thoughtful frown had furrowed its way across his brow and he almost felt guilty for ruining that previous serenity, "I'm not going to fail."

Interesting how he associated Death with Failure.

"Oh no, you shouldn't. Not if you play your cards right. We don't believe in dying for no reason, not like your authorities. We believe that we need change."

"Change?"

"Yes. I'm one of a group of ninja. We're from different sects, different races, different traditions. But we form a united front that aims to break free of archaic traditions and ridiculous notions such as ritual suicide. We want a future where power and recognition are just as tangible as we are." He drew closer to the boy, circling to his right, "We don’t want these institutions that confine our intelligence and ridicule any ability that doesn't cohere with their rules."

"And you're offering this… to me?"

"Yes."

Their eyes met as dark lashes fluttered open. Curiosity lay there, pliable and easy to manipulate. He didn't need mind games.

"All you have to do. Is say yes."
 

         "Panda?"

         There was no response. The Chinese boy with his haunted gray eyes sat on a bench, feet flat on the ground, hands held out before him, staring at his palms. He was an island of silent agony in the bustling day of the Interschool Ninjutsu Competition. His left pants-leg was torn from the knee down and he was covered over in dirt and grass stains, his hair mussed, a bruise forming along a cheek. His scary teacher/master/whatever was nowhere in sight.

         Riko sat down beside him. "Panda?" she asked again, hesitant to touch him.

         He said nothing, still staring down at his hands -- hands, she now noticed, that were riddled with thin, white scars, and shaking uncontrollably. Held the way they were, the marks stretched from hand to hand in long lines, easily identified as whip-marks from a thin switch. Nothing was hidden from a healer's eye, though Samurai were notoriously closed-mouthed about many aspects of their training. Riko frowned, remembering her words of the day before, that Panda was not a typical Samurai; and his words, that he didn't think he was a very good Samurai.

         Technically, Riko was still a contestant, even though she was now finished in the competition, so she had not been assigned a job for Friday's matches, but she'd accompanied Nanami anyway. Ignoring her twin's pointed looks, Riko had followed Panda and his keeper from the moment the two men had appeared on the field. Panda had looked stern and confident, quite the change from the ice-cream-eating boy she'd chatted with previously; but he'd also looked exhausted. He had dark circles under his eyes and his skin seemed stretched tightly over the bones of his face. Was she the only one who saw that?

         Both Nanami and Riko had stayed away during the exam, not wanting to chance being recognized, but they'd dared a look at the charts afterwards. The fatigue was noted, but he'd been described as fit and approved for battle. Riko had watched his two morning battles and been both amazed and intrigued. She'd never seen the like.

         In the first, Panda had gone rounds with a tiny, Swiss girl with a nasty right hook. She'd landed one kick, the mark now blackening on his cheek. The match had lasted ten minutes, filled from start to finish with lightning-fast spins, kicks, and punches. The second match was even faster. Panda had ducked the whirling blades and rammed a punch home, only to cry out in pain. Everyone nearby had winced as well; it had sounded like Panda had punched a brick wall. The other boy had closed the distance and Panda had done some kind of backwards leap-flying-spin-thing and the other had gone down, blood streaming from his nose. Panda had limped out of the ring after that, still cradling his broken hand, and been taken to the infirmary.

         During the extra-long lunch-break, all but two of the rings were dismantled. Riko had seized her chance to speak with Panda when he had returned from the hospital tents, no longer limping, to lie down in some shade while his elder went to the check-in tables. Even from where she'd been hiding, Panda had looked even more exhausted. Most of the students were, those that had made it this far had been fighting practically non-stop for three days, but, to Riko's discerning eye, something about Panda just seemed off.

         "Hey, Pandaren," she'd said, dropping to sit beside him.

         He'd blinked at her a moment before levering himself up on his elbows. "Yes?"

         She'd frowned at the dullness in his gaze, and his complete and utter lack of recognition. "Panda? It's me, Riko, from yesterday?"

         He stared back at her blankly.

         "Ice-cream? You got lost? Um, my sister and I drove your teammates back to the bunkhouse after dinner?"

         "Oh, that was you? Okay, then. Do you need something?"

         "Um, I was just wondering, you look really tired. Is everything okay?"

         "I'm fine." He cocked an eyebrow at her, but there was no emotion in the expression.

         "You really look like you could use some rest."

         He swore and this time Riko could swear she saw a flicker of emotion deep in his eyes.

         "Why is everyone suddenly concerned with the amount of sleep I get? I sleep! I sleep all the time! Leave me alone!" And he'd lain back and thrown his arms over his face.

         She poked him and he'd peered out at her. "Sleep is not the same thing as rest, you know. Oops! Got to go, see you later, good-luck!"

         Ren watched her go, but was distracted again as Master Yoshi sat back down beside him. There were only a half-dozen matches in the afternoon rounds. Three matches each, at the same time, and then the final, to see who went to the Top Ten. Two more battles, and Ren would be the victor.

         "Yeah," he said quietly to his master's enthusiasm. "Great." He was exhausted down to his very core, his headache back with a vengeance, and the events of the past couple weeks all seemed very distant. He'd woken up focused and determined, but he couldn't hold onto his calm. It kept trickling away and he was afraid he'd start shaking again.

         Master Yoshi had met him during his late-night communion with a toilet, helped him clean up after, forced some food down his throat, and then put him back to bed. Ren had been too tired to argue. Even this morning, he'd only done what he'd been told. The will to care just didn't seem there anymore. He thought he ought to be at least a little concerned about that, but he just couldn't seem to gather the energy.

         "Pandaren," sighed Yoshi as the boy shifted around for the dozenth time in as many minutes. "What is eating you?"

         "It's hot. And it's noisy."

         "This is almost the last day of competition. There are a lot of spectators today. And you're right, it is hot. Let's meditate, take your mind off things."

         Ren sat up, stifling a groan.

         "Close your eyes," said Yoshi, sitting cross-legged, palms open, the backs of his hands resting on his knees.

         Ren closed his eyes obediantly and listened to Master Yoshi's soft instructions. He sent himself to his safe place, in the hills above the monastery, sent his body through the forms, gathered the peace back upon himself. The clouds were calling now and he let himself go, drifting among them.

         "Imagine the forms for me, Pandaren," said Master Yoshi at his calmest, feeling the ebb and flow of the stadium and the people around them. "Take your body through the movements. First, the Changquan."

         Changquan dictated strong offense to provide for defense, full of large, extended movements, one of the more popular spectator forms, especially with the large component of acrobatics and flying kicks. One of Ren's favorites was the more traditional tornado-kick, in a combination with the side somersault.

         He felt free and capable and confident in his abilities. In his head, he was in a whole other world. The harsh sounds of the stadium simply ceased to exist. From the Changquan, Ren moved to the Nanquan, and then through the rest, his imagination supplying the weapons for both sword and spear-forms. This was dance, and beauty, and art. This was his life!

         Through it all, Yoshi sat quietly and observed, not touching, and speaking seldom. He allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction, easing Pandaren onto his back as the boy slipped into sleep. It had taken a lot out of the old master, but he'd finally got the hypnosis strengthened, set on a constant loop every time Pandaren relaxed enough to sleep. One of his more brilliant ideas, the conditioning was competely undetectable. Pandaren would be as alert and steady when he woke after this nap as he'd been this morning. Everything was going as he'd planned. Pandaren was going to make sure that his plan went without a hitch tomorrow. To think he'd almost ignored Maestro's summons! Worrying about that ridiculous Samurai Master had almost ruined years of careful planning, but, after tomorrow, the world would be practically defenseless. Soon, there'd be no more need for hiding.

*          *          *

         The last two matches of the Samurai Semi-Finals took place concurrently. Ren's opponent was introduced as Centurian, though he was from Spain and not Italy. He wasn't the largest Samurai Ren had fought, nor the tallest, but he had an active, feline grace. Sword and shield were his chosen weapons.

         "I've heard of you," he said quietly to Ren as the two young men stood in the center of the ring. Then he gave Ren a wink. While he didn't understand Spanish, the respectful tone and playful wink surprised him.

         They bowed, and the fight was on.

         From the start, Centurian had the advantage. In his hands, the shield became a secondary weapon, bashing against Ren every time he closed the distance between them, and Centurian was adept in using his longer reach to keep Ren at bay. With each passing minute, Ren became a little more desperate. He bled from a dozen minor wounds, but his Spanish opponent was untouched. If the stalemate continued, Centurian would win based on points alone, earned for his judicious defense.

         In response, fighting for calm, Ren switched his battle also to a defensive one, trying to draw Centurian to him. He stayed low, using primarily moves from the Nanquan forms he'd learned long ago, and drawing his power to him for an explosive burst that would, hopefully, disarm his opponent. The plan seemed to work well enough. Ren rolled with an attack, flipped back to his feet, twisting and lunging forward with a shout, and punched. Centurian instinctively brought his shield to bear and the metal-enhanced wood splintered under the impact. The pain in Ren's recently healed hand was intense, dragging another cry from his lips.

         The force of Ren's blow slammed him directly into the other boy. They fell back into the grass, rolling and struggling, elbows and knees banging together, four hands fighting over the sword. Ren ended up straddling Centurian's hips, but the Spaniard managed to break free with the remaining weapon, bringing it down in an arc directly at Ren's head. Letting go of the other's neck, Ren lunged for Centurian's wrists, lifting off of the taller boy to accommodate the longer length of his arms. The sudden hooked kick took him by surprise and Centurian was able to throw off the smaller boy while retaining hold of his sword.

         Ren didn't give Centurian much time to bask in his temporary victory. He flipped instantly back to his feet, rushing his opponent and this time landing every attack. He blocked the sword with his damaged hand, swept his feet back out from under him, and seized him in a choke-hold, clinging to Centurian's back, legs wrapped around his waist, and free arm still fighting for the sword. Ren didn't let him go until Centurian dropped face-first to the ground, breathing in shallow gasps, eyes closed. He laid on top of him for a minute, his own heart beating wildly, and then rose to his feet, stepping away for the healer to check on the fallen.

         The finals were delayed for 90 minutes while the two finalists rested and healed. Ren's final Samurai opponent was a boy from the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States. He was average in height, olive-skinned, dark-haired, and wore navy blue and gold. His name was Corsair and his weapon of choice was a cutlass. He was tall, slim, and very fast. He scurried across the netting as easily as the ground itself and knew a large amount of acrobatics. He and Ren were almost equally matched.

         Their battle raged first one way and then another the length of the ring. Corsair was quick on his feet and Ren soon gave up trying to trip him. Likewise, after a few well-aimed virtual blows knocked him to the ground, Corsair kept his feet planted in the beaten grass. Corsair saw that if he stayed close, Ren didn't have any opportunity to smack him with his special fighting style; but he was also hot-tempered and frustrated by being denied the use of the netting for his own special attacks. He swore continuously and without pause except to breathe.

         Ren was terrified of this mad-man. Corsair had terrible breath and, even if Ren couldn't understand a word he was saying, the intent was clear, and he wouldn't allow Ren to retreat, following him closely, almost neglecting his sword's advantage, the cutlass being more a slashing weapon than stabbing, but he managed.

         The late sun pounded down upon them, adding to their exertions to bathe both in sweat. Spectators overflowed from the stands into the grassy area surrounding the rings, their cheers, shouts, and applause deafening and, occassionally, distracting. As fatigue sapped both combatants, their attacks slowed and lost their edge. Individual moves became observable outside of slow-motion replay.

         A high kick from Ren snagged the cutlass in one pants-leg and he twisted to dislodge the weapon. Then they were down to hand-to-hand, at which Corsair wasn't terribly bad, merely average, and no match for Ren's life-time of study. Ren drew back for one final punch ... and managed to halt his attack with just the briefest of touches along Corsair's jaw, allowing him the honor of not being knocked out, meaning to show respect to a worthy opponent. Drawing back, Ren bowed. The other ninja spit.

         Ren stood there for a split-second, hand to the dripping moisture on his dirty, sweaty cheek. Then he scowled, almost the first expression he'd showed all day, hate blazing in his eyes. Corsair stepped back and the judges rushed in, but Ren lashed out at the other boy, hitting him so hard he flew into one of the masters, knocking them both back against the netting. Ren charged after, but the remaining two judges tackled him. Rage swiftly cooled to embarrassment and Ren went limp in their arms, but as soon as they let him go, Ren ran, out of the ring and out of the stadium in a random direction.

*          *          *

         Ren felt Riko grip his hand as if from a long way away.

         "Breathe, Panda," she said. "Just breathe."

         Slowly, he dragged his gaze to meet hers. "I ... am!"

         She smiled. "Now you are." She switched her grip to check his pulse. "Good, your heart rate is slowing down again. Talk to me."

         His forehead wrinkled as he frowned, eyes still dilated, having trouble focusing. "Huh?"

         "You're having an anxiety attack," Riko told him. "What happened?"

         "Anxiety?" he gasped.

         "Looks that way. You went tearing off in a panic. Why'd you hit that guy like that? You'd already won."

         Rubbing his head, he shook free of her grip, and folded over his thighs to hide his face. "I don't know," mumbled Ren.

         "You're still shivering, are you okay?"

         "C-cold."

         "Oh, hell," swore Riko, "you're going into shock. Hang on." She dashed across to her cart and pulled a blanket out of the back. Wrapping that around Panda, she had him lie down on the bench with his feet in her lap. She'd also grabbed her radio and called back to the infirmary that she'd found the missing.

         "Hey, stay awake," she told him.

         "I'm sorry," Ren mumbled.

         "Whatever, it's okay, just stay conscious, help's on the way."

         He tried to shake her off, then, tried to run, but Riko held him wrapped in the blanket and all but sat on him to keep him still. When the healers she'd called arrived, the first thing they did was administer a paralytic. They bundled him in thermal blankets and started an IV drip. Ren stared back at Riko until they were out of sight, his eyes faintly reproachful.

         He tried to object to the sedative when they arrived back at the hospital tents, but Ren's lips didn't work and Master Maestro had been summoned to deal with his recalictrant student. The last thing Ren remembered was the look of utter disgust and disappointment on the headmaster's face ... and the bizarre, smug smile he thought he saw from Master Yoshi.
The bento lunch had gone over well, which was lucky. Kitty hadn't been able to get it out of her mind. She would have liked to say that that was what went wrong in her final Friday competition, that she was distracted, but it was nothing like that. It was nothing like that at all.

"The topic will be... weapon care," the master called out and immediately Kitty's mind went blank. Weapon care? It wasn't as if she knew nothing about it but it certainly hadn't seemed all that important to study up on. She knew how to care for her dagger of course but hadn't really taken the time to learn more than the basics. One glance at her opponent, a smirking Spanish boy with sharp black eyes and she became even more nervous. She was first.

Kitty focussed on what she knew, but she found herself repeating things as she ran out of facts long before her time was up. When she sat down after to listen to her opponent hope was further crushed by his amazing speech. He was more than knowledgeable, it seemed to be an interest of his. He spoke at length and Kitty's mind gobbled up the facts, thinking they might come in handy some time.

Then they had to debate two forms of weapon care, and note the pros and cons, each arguing for their type of care. Kitty felt near tears by the time that was over. The following round of rapid fire questions left her head numb and her heart heavy. This was it. She'd pushed herself hard and gone as far as she could go and this was as far as she could go. She didn't even have to wait to hear the points to know it.

The tears that gathered in her eyes were utterly ridiculous. What ninja cried because they lost? She pushed them away and shook her opponents hand as the winner was announced.

"Congratulations, you taught me something," she said forcing a smile, "you truly deserve this win." She hurried away as soon as propriety allowed and ran from the competition, not certain why she was so upset. She'd done her best and it had turned out to be fantastic. Really she'd never expected to get even this far but somehow, now that she was no longer in the running she felt empty, and very, very sad.
Exodeus walked from Varamance feeling somehow nervous. He'd made it through a ton of battles he thought he wouldn't be able to make it through, and now... now... he was about to head to his last one.

The final battle.

The chance to make it into the Top Ten... in America.

He shivered. He had an ominous feeling about it, as though it was all somehow not quite right. He glanced at Squirt. "I'm nervous," he said to him. "I'm worried I won't be able to make it through." Squirt looked up at him. He could see him trying to keep from getting bashed against the wall of the ball, and he remembered that he really needed to get him some seaweed or something to hold onto. Maybe if it was attached to the lid instead of the bottom?

He'd actually left Varamance earlier than he needed to, he was too nervous to stay in one place for very long, and Varamance hadn't seemed like he wanted to talk. He touched at his chest, feeling a pang there he didn't expect. He had not realized how much his friendship with Varamance meant to him before these last few days. He'd expected to be on talking terms with him, just like they'd been before by now. It still somewhat surprised him that they weren't. It was as though Varamance was changing too. Perhaps that was good, but he'd always expected to be on the same side, in the same understanding, and with the same ideals. It made his heart heavy to know he hadn't had a long conversation with Varamance in days.

He was rounding a corner when a figure hurtled into him, knocking him flat on his back on the ground. "Ow," he said, rubbing the back of his head and trying to see who had hit him. When his eyes met Kitty's, he knew she'd lost her match. She was still crying, her eyes red and her lips trembling.

"Sorry!" she said, but she didn't move, and Exodeus blinked a few times before pulling her up and into his arms.

"Shhh," he said softly, rubbing her back. "It's alright."

"No it isn't!!" she wailed, and she flung her arms around him and held on tight, burying her face in his chest and bawling like a child.

It was a full ten minutes before she started to calm down. As she did so, she pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and blew her nose. He rubbed her back the whole time, calmingly, hoping she wouldn't end up in tears again. Her red-rimed green eyes blinked a few times and met his. "Sorry, sorry, I don't know what - " but Exodeus cut her off.

"You lost, you're sad, it's understandable. How far did you get?" Her lip trembled again, but she bit it, and Exodeus could tell she was warring to keep from crying again.

"To the last match, almost all the way." A few tears got blinked away. "I almost made it," she said in a tremulous voice. Exodeus smiled at her.

"I'm impressed. Do you have any idea how much knowledge is crammed into your brain? That's unreal. I'm glad I don't have to fight you, I think I'd lose." She shook her head.

"Squirt's bubble would take me out fairly quickly, I think." He smiled at her.

"No it wouldn't, he wouldn't want to hurt you, you'd be lucky if I could convince him to use it on you. Then if he did, I bet you're the only one who would be able to figure out a way around it." She shook her head.

"I can't believe I knocked you down, and you... I can't..." she stopped and sighed, looking up at him. "Thank you," she said softly, and he nodded.

"You're welcome. Want to watch my last fight? See if I fail miserably or not?" Truth be told, he was both nervous and excited about the prospect of her watching a fight. Nervous because he was already nervous and if he wasn't careful, he'd look like a real fool out there, and excited because it had been a long time since anyone he knew of or cared about was watching him fight. She blinked.

"Your last fight? You're as far as I was?" He nodded. "Wow, I'm so impressed, you've really bonded well with Squirt, haven't you?" He shrugged.

"We seem to be getting along these days. How about it?" She nodded, blowing her nose again.

"Yeah, I'd love to." Exodeus smiled at her, then stood up, pulling her with him.

"Good, because I'd like to know you were there." She smiled back at him tentatively, and he took her hand. "This way."

The final walk to the arena took all of a minute, and when he looked out, he realized that he'd be disqualified if he didn't get in the ring in 30 seconds. He blinked, let go of her, and dashed out. "See you when I get out!" he called, just barely noticing that Osore, Nnena, Kagami, and Dante were sitting in the stands, looking out at the arena. He had quite a crowd after all. How strange.

*

Exodeus hadn't paid a lot of attention to people as they fought. In fact, he'd been so preoccupied with learning about Squirt, dealing with his own anxieties, and trying not to alienate everyone, including Kitty and Varamance, that he hadn't noticed who he'd be fighting against.

It was pitiful really, to know that the man who had made him summon Squirt, Lord of the Deep Waters the very first time was the man he'd be fighting in the very last battle. The man who he stood before was nothing short of a dwarf compared to his summon. His very... tall... broad shouldered... tin... summon. Was that even allowed? He caught his breath and looked into the face of a metal giant.

"Goliath," he whispered, and took a deep breath. The red haired Zen grinned at him, his green eyes flashing mischievously. He knew he was going to win, and Exodeus was fairly certain that he was right. How did one fight against a machine? He bowed respectfully and blinked a few more times, then took his ready stance. When the call to fight came, he turned around, and fled. As quickly as he could, he got to the edge of the stadium and held his position. Goliath couldn't fight, couldn't hurt innocent bystanders.

"Squirt, help me out here, your little bubbles aren't going to be enough against this thing." He felt the fear in his heart, and he felt the adrenaline, and he felt... he felt... He blinked. He felt clear headed, and incredibly in control. The fear disappeared.

"Crush!" the Irishman said, and Goliath brought his hands down onto the ground. The earth trembled and Exodeus felt it giving way under him. He looked around, and noticed then that Zen was on Goliath's shoulders. Sitting there as though that was where he belonged.

"Is that the only summon you have?" he called out, tauntingly. If he could make him angry, and make him destroy the arena... no, that wouldn't help him too much, except that Goliath might run out of steam. Zen smirked, it wasn't much of a taunt really. Even if it was the only summon he had, it was a very formidable one. Perhaps it was the only one Zen counted on though, like Exodeus with Vie. Maybe then... if he could get rid of it...

He stood tall and held out his hands. "Bubble!" he said clearly, and he pointed to Goliath. Three bubbles appeared, one on each foot and one on his head. Goliath didn't even think about them, he took a few steps closer to Exodeus and brought his hands down on the ground again. Exodeus fell to the floor, twisting away from it all and trying to get back up on his feet. "Bubble!" he said again, and three more bubbles, one on each hand, and another one on his head. If he couldn't take care of it the normal way...

Then he had it, he blinked and he grinned. "Bubble!" he said triumphantly, and each joint on the creature got a bubble. "Fill!" he said, and the bubbles were water, floating around the different joints. If he could rust them out... but that would take a while, he'd have to put cracks in them somehow. Sea water, cracks, and some wind. He needed an order of all three. He looked at Squirt. "Saltwater I hope?" Squirt just looked at him, and he nodded. "Alright, I hope they are then." He took a breath, rode out the next wave of trembling earth, and lept at Goliath.

The whole time, he hadn't really bothered to fight with anything other than Squirt. He was used to using Squirt, he liked to be a summoner. That didn't mean he wasn't good at any kind of normal weapon. He pulled out a dagger and attached himself to the leg of Goliath. If he held on and managed to even lightly scratch the surface... He did so, ripping a line in the joint of the knee and then he was off, just in time to prevent from getting smacked off of him. The second time he wasn't as lucky. He did manage to get the scratch in, but he also managed to get a nice bruise from the job, as he got pummeled with a fist of iron. The bubble of water softened the blow, so he was able to struggle up, and he wiped his face with his hand. "Drain!" he called, and the water around the knees dissipated. "Bubble Salt!" he said, and they reformed, salt water surrounding the joints.

He took a breath. Zen was looking at him like he was a moron. Perhaps he was, rust didn't set in that quickly, but maybe with a little time, it would help. Ten minutes and three more smacks from Goliath later, he wasn't sure he wanted to finish this fight after all. He had at least one cracked rib, he was sure, and he was limping from the hand that had caught his foot for all of a second. That beast was one STRONG creature. He lay on the ground, staring at the sky, and he felt a smile tug at his lips. Well, it was certainly a bit of fun, what he'd had so far. He turned his head, saw Zen point at him, and he held out his hand one last time.

"Bubble Salt," he said softly, and was instantly surprised when it worked, a large bubble of salt water forming around the face of Zen. Suffocating him. Smothering him. He didn't think it would work. He didn't think Goliath would have let him do it. He looked down, then noticed with a feeling of pleasure, that the salt water and the scratches he'd made, had caused Goliath's knees to become weak, and he was falling to the ground. Zen struggled with the bubble around his face, holding his breath and scrambling with it in pain. As Goliath did the same thing, Exodeus realized another thing. This summon and it's master were very well in tune to each other. What caused Zen pain, caused Goliath pain. He had always wanted to be that close to his summon, even though he knew how important it was to not be that close. He thought the bond between Goliath and Zen must be very strong, to do that.

"Drain," he said a moment before Zen passed out. He fell off of Goliath's shoulder, and the large hands caught him. The gentle giant. Exodeus stood up, and walked closer to them. Zen pointed at him again, then promptly passed out. Goliath disappeared, and Exodeus was named victor.

He blinked. Was it possible? He walked to Zen and looked down at him. "That win was for Kitty," he said to him, and then turned away. How had it all worked out? He stared at Squirt. "Thank you," he said, and Squirt looked up at the top of his plastic pointedly. "I will get you seaweed tonight, promise."

*

"You were awesome!" Kitty said, flinging herself at him. He winced and groaned. "Oh!" she backed away, "Sorry!" He was led to the healer's, who promptly told him he had a cracked rib and a broken toe, but was otherwise alright. She blushed. "I shouldn't have touched you, I'm sorry." He shook his head.

"It's alright," he said, and smiled at her. "I can't believe I won." She grinned.

"You still alive?" came a voice that Exodeus hadn't expected to hear this soon. He glanced up quickly at Varamance and gave him a smile.

"Vara! You came to see me get beaten up?" Varamance smiled back, but Exodeus could see something playing behind the eyes. Something was seriously changing in his friend, and he wanted to know what it was.

"Would I miss such an opportunity?" Exodeus grinned and watched as Varamance did the same.

"Of course not." He looked at Kitty, who was watching Varamance closely, and smiled, "Did you two ever meet? Kitty, this is Varamance, my best friend from RAZI, Varamance, Kitty, she's been helping me out here with..." he looked down at the plastic ball that held Squirt, which was in Kitty's hands. "With Squirt." He felt a rush of pride and a swell of hope. "I can't believe I managed to understand him so quickly." Varamance bowed to Kitty.

"It is nice to meet you Kitty, thank you for helping this sorry excuse for a man out." Kitty blushed.

"It's been no problem. I've really had a lot of fun learning about him." She held out a hand and Varamance kissed it, which made her blush again.

"Your words are too kind," Varamance said, and Exodeus lightly hit him.

"Stop rubbing it in." Exodeus felt more alive, more aware, and more in touch with himself than he had in days. "I've been a bad friend, I know, I'm sorry." Varamance let go of Kitty's hand and turned to him.

"You haven't been, you've been involved in many things that were taxing, at a time of pressure most would cave under. I've been impressed. You seem to be more yourself now." Exodeus nodded.

"I feel better. Thank you Varamance. Thank you Kitty." She smiled and he nodded. Exodeus felt a touch of pride. Varamance and he were speaking again. Things would work out well.

"How'd the other's do?" he asked softly, and he leaned back to listen as Varamance told him of the other's battles, and who would be moving on.
He didn't know his name and he didn't know who he was, but he had been… almost enchanted in the dewy light of the gardens, there had been a magic contained within incognizant plants and dingy walls… One Varamance had not been able to ignore. The magnetic allure had struck him most and it had resonated not just in the cold, crystal eyes but also in the words themselves. They had noticed him. They wanted him. They were giving him the chance to be part of a new world, a powerful world. He wanted to know more… Varamance was in awe of himself, of the man… He settled into position to watch the end of Exodeus' fight, the match that he had excused himself to go to only a little while ago. It seemed like an age since he'd last seen his friend and gone to those gardens. Yet, in the brightness of the arena, everything seemed very much clearer, brighter, surreal.

Exodeus took a blow to the side of his head, falling like a heap of rags to bounce on a bubble and right himself. Varamance winced, leant forward in his seat. He could see his friend's plan. Rust would cause irreparable damage to tin, particularly if the tin was already weakened… He'd need salt to make it happen though. The strange belt containing the tiny seahorse had appeared ridiculous at first glance, he'd almost pitied his friend for his weakness but this… As bubble after bubble seized the metal Goliath and sent it into a raptus, he took back every pitying thought he had ever let cross his mind. Coupled with Exodeus' strategic skill, it was a formidable team. It was hard to envisaged the boy who had left RAZI, crumpled with grief over a snake, as this man whose eyes swirled with the rage of a tropical storm. This competition had turned him into a fighter… A real one. One which wanted to win, not just because others wanted him to, but for himself. Or maybe he was wrong… Maybe he just had something to fight for, prestige to defend. The alien expression on Exodeus' face left him unreadable as he fought and Varamane, for the first time, realised how much he had missed talking over nothings with him, sparring and strategising and wondering at the future… Would he have to say goodbye to all that, if he said yes to the gaunt stranger? He supposed he would.

"Come on Exodeus… This is your battle." He found himself murmuring the words over and over, chanting under his breath as he saw bubble after bubble come and go. Then there was one, surrounding and filling up about the head of his opponent and he realised how easy it would be to kill a man with that sea horse. He wondered how you escaped something like that… Create a vacuum? Remove all moisture from the air? How did it conjure water from nothing? Even he would have to convert it from atmospheric moisture. But what mattered was that Exodeus' opponent was flailing and failing and falling into the arms of a battered giant. A wash of tenderness swayed through him as he saw the look of wanting on Exodeus' face and he once again could read his face. A bond like the giant and his master, was something anyone would desire. But then again, everyone was human.

The victory was named. Exodeus was vindicator.

Varamance half walked, half ran after the people taking Exodeus to the healer's tent. He wanted, more than ever, with a spurious salacity to seek out his schoolmate and return some sense of semi-normalcy to his life, something that felt like it was being taken further and further form his grasp with every passing cloud as it crossed the lowering sun. Trying to keep himself under control, he took a few deep gulps of air before entering in after the Sage girl who had rushed, even faster than he to Exodeus' side.

"You still alive?" he called out, introducing himself before he was noticed. Hoping to god that his comrade wouldn't mind the interruption. He knew that they weren't exactly amiable at the moment… But then a smile streaked across the bruised face and he was able to relax.

*

Ansuz had deliberately given Varamance space since their meeting, he'd returned to the hotel, gone to the bar and ordered himself a, "Glass tower, thank you."

It wasn't that he was in need of it. He wasn’t celebrating. In fact in many ways it was more because he was bored and needed something to entertain him. He was certain that he'd be visited by the student before the end of the evening. But in this scenario it had to be on his own terms. If he didn't come… or if his plan didn't work, then he would move into the backup situation. Where he'd have to force the boy to come with him. No matter what. He would not fail. He could not fail.

The day would be long, the hours slow waiting. But it would be worth it as long as Varamance joined him without a fight. Then he could focus on everything else. The alcohol slid down his throat, an inhalation of smoke from the red flaring stick made him calm.

"I'm sorry sir, but this is a none smoking bar."

He smiled leisurely, "Why didn't you say so?"

Rising, he tipped his drink to the barman, knocked back the glass and limped his way out of the room with his lit cigarette. He wasn't in the mood to take hassle, there were more important things to do with his time at any rate. He paced the pavement, backwards and forward, wondering whether to return to the stadium or not. He wanted to contact Yoshi but knew he could not lest they be discovered. The master would come to him if he deemed it necessary from now on, he should not impose himself.

But a headache was brewing in his mind, a panic he had only felt a few times since he had met Master Yoshi when he was 13 and constantly angry, constantly in pain and unhappiness. Back then he had been grieving, struggling with the sudden new power he had gained after the death of Feoh. Yoshi had made sure that he was able to cope before leaving. Yoshi… Yoshi… His arms felt heavy, legs full of surplus energy. His body was dull and electric. He wanted to scream, to laugh, to find Varamance to stay the hell away from him and yet also force him to break and meld into their design.

"Fuck."

He found himself walking, walking and walking and almost running then running and running and sprinting and tearing away through the narrow streets and fragmented alleys. Something was wrong. And he didn't understand what.

*

Varamance walked his way up the third flight of stairs, having left Exodeus to do this, there was a sense of guilt almost pitting in his stomach. But at the same time he was excited, trembling innards quaking in the brilliance of his invitation. He had made his decision. The carpeted landing squidged beneath his toes and made him feel lightly ridiculous for having come, particularly without shoes… Why had he come so spur of the moment. Had it really been triggered by the uproar downstairs as RAZI celebrated their victories and laughed at the fact that if they were lucky they'd have two more heroes to ascribe history books to. With those words it had been a like a spoon being splattered onto a slab of melting butter, yellow globules spattering the floor and staining like yellow blood on a clean table cloth. Until that minute, he'd been distracted from all thoughts of the mysterious non-businessman. Now it was as if a hot shower had been replaced by a Roman frigitarium and the ice was packed about his chest. Revelations had that effect.

"You here to see him too?"

A young voice spoke from the windowsill as he turned to knock on the door. He froze, cold washing over him as he wondered if he'd been caught in the act by someone who knew better and could defame him…

"Don't bother. He's not answering the door."

Varamance turned, eyes flickering to where, in the window, a youth sat, legs crossed on the sitting mantle piece and pale blond hair whispering in the open draft.

"Did he tell you that you were special too?" The boy dropped forwards on pale, long fingered hands, "Did he tell you that he needed you?"

"What-?"

"Did he ask you to come with him and mutter some sweet romanticised words into your ear as your eyes widened and glazed?" The boys voice was so soft it was almost monotonic, "Well did he?"

"Something like that." Varamance's heart was pounding, he could feel his eyes growing large, his blood thundering through each capillary.

"Well then." The boy rose, long limbed and fair, "I guess he really has no more use of me." He stretched, face blank and wave farewell with the flick of a narrow wrist, "I should have believed Nadine when she told me to avoid him because he'd messed with her. I didn't believe her. Ha!"

But then the boy was gone and Varamance stood on the spot, decisiveness and nervousness dissipated with the onset of sick fascination. Was that youth telling the truth? Was that all that this guy wanted of him? A shag? Was there really no rebellion, no power, no freedom to be gained with this.

"You're here. How nice."

The low, British drawl made him flinch. He turned swiftly, trying to cover up that small blunder and fighting to keep himself from exploding as the lean form of the smaller man came towards him. The limp had disappeared within second of the man's appearance. Was he a sage? No, the staff made him reconsider, for that's what it was, not a walking stick at all. But what he detected was a weariness that he hadn't felt before. So if he wanted, he could fight this man… And he would have the upper hand.

"You lied."

"What?" Long dark hair which had been tied before was now loose and wild, as if he'd been running through a maelstrom.

"You lied. There's nothing in your words, is there? It's all a bloody lie."

*

"There are things you lie about and thing you don’t. This is over the latter-" Ansuz had been relieved to see that his prediction was right when he had walked through the corridor. How easy he had thought.

"I met the other boy. The boy with the blond hair. He told me what you're after."

Now he wasn't so sure. The crackle of anger hung on the air and blazed in the eyes of the boy. His body ached, his head pounded, only slightly less painful than before.

"You have nothing to say. He was right!" Varamance was furious, tangible heat seeming to flare into the corridor.

"Let's take this into my room shall we-"

"So you can do… do…"

"I make no secret of the fact that I neither mind the company of men or women but this has no-"

But Varamance was backing down the carpet, fists clenching and unclenching as he stepped steadily backwards, "You bastard. You fucking bastard."

And then there was chaos.

First Varamance took to the air, then he found himself being forced to roll over on the floor to escape the rain of blows streaming down from above him. Ansuz growled, the sound low in his throat as he tumbled to his knees and twirled his sheathed blade about his head to ward off the feet and hands trying to attack him. He was too tired for this. He was so tired. Pushing himself to his feet, he noted the hovering maniac and launched himself at the anti-gravity form, throwing himself bodily into the other and smashing in through the door, letting it burst open without caring about the crash as it hit the wall behind it. No one would interrupt them, he was sure of that. He'd heard the students mock sparring above and below him. No doubt that's what they'd think of this.

Varamance raced at him again, face screwed up in concentration as his hand spread wide. Heat haze flickered there and he realised that the boy was aiming to burn him. Flipping backwards he seized a complementary hotel bottle of water and brought it down across the fist clenched in burning air. The hiss made him smirk; this kid was powerful, though anger was making him rash. The now normalised hands clenched and drew itself back for a punch. Ansuz leapt into the air, seizing the moment that Varamance attacked as his chance to escape. He began to draw Masamune from her sheath, the sparkle of the moon blade lighting up the room for a moment before he was pummelled into by twelve-stone of pure muscle.

Each smack of flesh on flesh reminded him of his tiredness and thus his weakness, they were attacks which he sparred away but that they were hand-to-hand suggested much more about both of them… at least he was still able to fight back, even if it was he who was being driven into the wall. If he could draw Masamune this battle would be over. Finally Varamance landed a blow. The cupboard smashed against his head, the pain ricocheting through each cell before throbbing and pulsing in a way that he had never felt before. Agony ripped through him at the same time as ideas that he had never even thought of before.

"Masamune!" He shouted, drawing that sword, finally, from her sheath and letting the pearlite swell into an ethereal radiance, blinding Varamance and making him cry out in unseeing agony. At the same time he called upon a swathe of darkness, filling in the room like a dark cape as he felt for and smothered all sources of light.

"What are you doing!?" Varamance's desperate, angry voice raged through the splintered coherence of his mind.

"I'm using Feoh."

"This isn't possible. You're an occamist!" Outrage was poured with vehemence into those words. What a simple mind. So young. Didn't he know that sometimes bounds were so strong they were impossible to break, even in death.

"Masamune… Moon blade…" He whispered. Knowing, without understanding how, exactly where his opponent was in the dark, where he wanted that blade to go.

Dark scattered. Pink light flashed as blood stained the burst of light from his sword. Pinioned to the wall was the moaning form of the boy. Not a drop of red seeped from the wound as the sword held him where he was. The aim was perfect, precision undeniably faultless.

"Not a single major vein has been broken. Not a single muscle irreparably torn. No lasting damage will be present from that wound, only a mild ache for tomorrow. As long as I seek out a healer this second."

"You see, Varamance, this is the power we offer you."

*

He stood in front of Yoshi , relating everything that had happened as they sat opposite each other.

"You did very well."

Ansuz smiled slightly, a quirk of his lips, "Do you remember when you helped me after Feoh was killed. That's what it felt like, before I fought him, it was strange. Until he threw me against that cabinet… then it was as if… everything that Feoh had been able to do was suddenly very doable to me. I was able to invoke things he had done. I don't…"

"No." Yoshi's face was no longer nodding and smiling, "I don't remember that at all."

There was a tapping sound against the table but Ansuz looked the old Master in the eyes, "What?"

"I don't remember anything about my being there to help you after your brother was killed."

Ansuz felt a drowsiness overcoming him and he yawned, wondering what they were talking about.
SATURDAY!


         Something sweet and low pulled Ren from his dreams. He was lost in swirling darkness, filled with a hate that was not his own, struggling to do something ... and failing. The penetrating timbre of the music called to him, cut through the black to wrap around him. He held on as if the sound was tangible. Real.

         "Jang," he called. "Jang, help me. Help me, Jang."

         The music only seemed more real as Ren drifted on the edge of consciousness. There was beauty and power there and it felt ... familiar. Only this time the music called him, asking him to wake instead of lulling him to sleep. Still rather confused, he blinked his eyes a few times.

         "Jang?"

         The music stopped and Ren almost cried out again. He raised a hand to rub at his face and shield his eyes from the bright sunlight streaming through the tent walls of the hospital.

         "No ...."

         "Pandaren?"

         His first impulse was to shake that hand off his arm. He didn't want pity. He didn't want compassion. He didn't want anyone to see the tears in his eyes. Clapping hands over his ears, he rolled to his side, elbows protecting his face.

         "Go away. Please, just go away."

         "Panda?" That was a different voice, a lighter hand on his shoulder. He knew her, he thought, he wasn't quite sure.

         "Jang," he murmured softly. "I want my letter. I want to go home, Jang."

         "What happened to your letter, Ren?" That was the other voice, the first voice, the one that came from the violin.

         "It's gone. My letter's gone."

         The second voice: "Did he take it? Did your master take your letter?" Light touches eased a hand and arm from his face, tugging on him gently.

         He opened one eye a crack, saw blonde hair and mis-matched eyes. "Riko?" he asked, half-frowning, half-smiling.

         She grinned back at him. "You remember! Yep, it's me, and your classmate, Osore. He's been playing his violin for you."

         Ren's eyes passed from her to the taller boy standing slightly behind her. He wore a mask and held a violin. Osore gave Ren a half-shrug and smiled slightly.

         "You missed all the excitement. We've been worried for you."

         "Excitement?" he asked, sitting up. He swayed for a minute, dizzy, and pressed the heels of his hands to his temples. "Ugh."

         "Hey, don't move so fast. You alright?"

         Ren nodded slightly without looking at her. "Fine. What's happened?"

         "Varamance didn't come back to the house last night," answered Osore. "Master Maestro had a coniption. He and the other masters are out right now, looking for him. If they don't find him soon, he'll be disqualified and some other guy will be named Champ for the Top Ten."

         "That's terrible!"

         "Here." Riko pressed a cup into Ren's hands. "Drink this." He took a swallow and grimaced. She laughed.

         "Is it Saturday?" he asked, rubbing his face again. "What time is it?" He felt more alert now, seeing that he wasn't hooked up to any machines, and he seemed to be in a raised hospital bed, one of many in this section of the tents. There were no curtains here. Some of the other beds were occupied, with healers making their rounds, but most were empty.

         "Yeah, it's Saturday," said Riko. "They knocked you out yesterday and you slept the whole morning through. It's almost noon. How do you feel?"

         Ren thought about that for a minute. "I need to use the bathroom."

         Riko grinned as Osore laughed.

         "I'll leave you to get dressed then," said the healer girl. She pointed. "Bathrooms are through there." She wrinkled her nose. "Port-a-pots. Can't be too choosy when there's no plumbing. I'll go get something for you to eat. Be right back."

         Ren set down the empty cup. He hadn't realized he'd drank it all. He still had a headache and, as he swung his legs over the side of the bed, experienced another dizzy spell, making his stomach lurch in protest.

         Osore handed Ren his duffle. "About your letter?" he began.

         "What about it?" Ren pulled out a pair of uniform pants and slid them on.

         "Who took it? And why?"

         Ren shrugged. "Does it matter? It's gone, Osore. Leave it be." He slid off the bed, holding on while his body adjusted to the sensation of being vertical.

         "You've been acting real strange all week," said the Khu student, frowning. "Do you remember, at least?"

         His sandals were under the bed. Ren slid them on. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said, yawning. Then he stared right at Osore's freaky face. "What do you want, Osore? Why are you here?"

         "I'm trying to help!" he snapped, clicking shut the clasps on his instrument case. "Hammer asked me to watch out for you and I'm trying to do that!"

         "I don't need your help!"

         "Oh, yeah? Well, they weren't going to wake you, either. You would have slept through the whole thing if I hadn't come!" His frown deepened as Ren rubbed at his head again. "What's wrong?"

         "I have a headache!" snapped Ren. "Not that it's any of your concern."

         "You shouldn't --"

         "I've been using my Qi too much," Ren explained. He felt bad for snapping at Osore, but he hadn't had a moment's peace in over a week and he just wanted left alone. "It's just a headache, nothing more. This'll all be over soon, anyway."

         "Are you okay?"

         "Why does everyone keep asking me that? I'm fine!"

         "If you're so fine, why are your legs shaking? You can hardly stand up straight."

         Glaring at him, Ren forced his hands to let go of the mattress and made his legs carry him towards the bathrooms. He stumbled a few times, but like circulation does after a limb has fallen asleep, his strength returned quickly once he started moving. He made it down the length of the tent with only a couple stumbles and was pulling a shirt over his head when Riko came back, carrying a tray piled high with muffins and pastries and fruit.

         "Here," she said, sliding the tray on the bed and grabbing a doughnut to munch on. She hopped up on the foot of the bed, frowning at the two boys. "You guys have a fight?" Or, at least that's what they thought she said around the crumbs.

         "No," they replied.

         She laughed and handed Ren the glass on the tray. "So, who's Jang?"

         "Jang?"

         Osore picked up a piece of fruit. "You were calling her name in your sleep."

         "I ... I was?" Ren sipped at his flavored water.

         "Yeah," Riko agreed. "You got a girlfriend or something?"

         Osore laughed. "Girlfriend? Pandaren?" He stopped abruptly. "Hey, Hammer's dad's name is Chang. Is that who you were calling for? Hammer?"

         Ren looked down at his hands. "Jang is the proper Korean pronounciation of their family name."

         "Who's Hammer?" asked Riko.

         "My friend," said Ren quietly.

         "Our friend," Osore corrected. "Hammer's back at school. He got injured, was too hurt to fight in our school's Top Ten so that's why he's not here."

         "Oh. Wow. He really must've been hurt bad," said Riko. "You guys have some great healers." She blanched as Ren winced, looking away. "Oh! Oh, I'm sorry, Panda. I forgot."

         Ren said nothing.

         "Hey, you really need to eat something."

         "I'm not hungry."

         Riko frowned. "According to your charts, you've been losing weight, Panda. And it's not like you have extra fat just lying around."

         Pulling his feet back upon the bed, Ren drew his knees up to his chest and laid his cheek on top. He closed his eyes, pain and grief pulling at his chest. "Can you ... just go? I'm sorry, I just want ... can I be alone?"

         The two other students looked at each other and then turned to leave. Ren squeezed his eyes closed, trying to find an inner source of calm, but he was so tired. His bones ached. There was energy inside, itching for movement, for activity, but it was a weird sort of pseudo-strength, like that which accompanies fever. It didn't seem part of him at all. Inside, he just hurt, pain that sucked at his very soul.

         Help me, he thought. Somebody. Please. Help me.

         "Pandaren. Ah, good, you're awake."

         A loud voice startled him, making him jump and look up. Master Yoshi came down the row of beds, right to Ren's side. He reached up to touch him, but Ren drew away.

         "Where's my letter?"

         "Letter?" asked the master, voice high with surprise.

         "You took my letter. I want it back!"

         Yoshi's voice cracked like a whip. "You will not raise your voice to me, Pandaren!"

         Ren jumped, curling up again. "I'm ... I'm sorry, Master."

         "You better be. Now get down here at once. You have meditations and exercises to complete before the social and the competition." He grabbed an orange off the tray as Ren clambored down. "Here. Eat this. Let's go." Throwing the strap of the duffle over his shoulder, Master Yoshi steered Pandaren, with a hand on the back of his neck, out of the tent and across the grounds.

*          *          *

         The gymnasium holding the Top Ten portion of the International Ninjutsu Competition was a modified ampitheatre that could seat thousands. Guards and ropes kept the surging crowd from getting too close to the plexiglass cube within which the contestants would be battling. Music blared from the speakers, but the voices of all the people overpowered all but the heavy bass line.

         The closest sections were roped off for the different schools, standing apart from each other in a sea of color. The VIPs had a section of padded seating right next to the cube. Barricades formed a corridor to the cube from the insides of the gym. Up the stadium seating, souvenirs and refreshments were selling like hotcakes upon the promenade. Overhead, the bright lights flickered and faded, narrowing to a single spotlight within the cube as the MC began the show.

         Under the stadium seating, in the private rooms of the ampitheatre, healers dashed around, getting things ready and sorting through supplies. Nanami tugged on her sister's sleeve to draw her attention back to what they were supposed to be doing; and not staring at Panda. Riko chewed her lip worriedly and shook her head silently to a question from her twin.

         The make-shift hospital wing was a wide, hangar-like area. Standing clustered by the entrance to the ampitheatre floor, the VIPs spoke quietly to each other. Nearby, the three Top Ten judges adjusted their white uniforms and weapons, fidgeting nervously. The competition healer sighed and shook her head, staring at her watch from time to time. A white, plastic case with a red cross on it rested at her feet.

         The ten contestants stood awkwardly together to one side, watched over by a couple sages and healers. The two in the red and gold of Razi Academy stood close, not talking to one another, but silently drawing support from each others' presence.

         The first battle of the first round would be between Pandaren of Razi for the Samurai Sect and a Tibetan boy for the Occamy Sect. He wore red and blue and walked nervously over to where Ren and Exodeus stood together. He carried a long pole that had a wicked-looking, curved blade on one end, like a scythe. He bowed to Ren.

         One of their Sage guardians edged closer, noticing the conversation. She translated from Tibetan to Japanese and back again.

         "Greetings. I am Namri. And this," he patted his staff. "Is Yak."

         Ren and Exodeus looked at each other, then back to Namri.

         "Yak?" asked Ren.

         The boy nodded, smiling. "Yak."

         Ren bowed back. "I am Pandaren."

         "I look forward to our battle. Good luck."

         Ren nodded. "I, too. Good luck."

         Satisfied, the boy wandered off.

         "Yak?" whispered Exodeus. "Isn't that some kind of hairy animal?"

         Ren shrugged.

         "Yeah, good luck with that." His fingers trailed over the plastic bubble on his belt, glancing nervously out the opening towards the noisy and very full stadium.

         Exodeus of Razi represented the Crystal Sect. He would battle second, against a contestant from Iran in the Umbra Sect. His name was Basij and he wore green, white, and red. He stayed in the shadows.

         Battling third were the contestants for the Heart and Geomancy Sects. Camidae was the healer, a Vietnamese girl wearing a uniform all in red, except for a gold star on the back. She had her nose in the air. The geomancer sat cross-legged on the floor, barefoot and with both hands palm-down on the concrete. He seemed the most relaxed of anyone, eyes closed, breathing steadily in and out. He was from Bangledesh, wearing peculiar shades of green and orange. His name was Amrta.

         The fourth pair should have included Varamance of Razi. In his place was a still rather surprised-looking Algerian boy. He'd lost to Varamance in the finals and though he would not be named the Kant champion, he had by default progressed into the Top Ten. From time to time, he looked up and around, as if waiting for someone to tell him that the joke was over and he must go sit down. His name was Raï and he wore green and white. He would be battling a girl from the Khu Sect. She was American, wearing the red, white, and blue uniform of her country. Her name was Lucy.

         The final battle would be between the Chakra and Sage Sects. From the Chakra Sect was Mirage, another American girl. She leaned from one foot to the other impatiently. She would be battling against the Sage, Telekino, a Spanish lad in red and yellow. He paced back and forth, mumbling quietly to himself.

         Finally, the endless opening speeches complete, the announcer called for the introductions of the VIPs, who filed in and took their seats, the judges, bowing and waving to the crowd, and the contestants. All ten were lined up inside the cube, introduced by their name, school, sect, and fighting style. They all stood quietly as the American National Anthem was played, and then the students were pushed to their seats by the VIPs while the contest got underway.

*          *          *

         Ren was curiously devoid of either excitement or apprehension as he stood beside Namri, waiting for the others to leave the cube. The occamist flashed him a smile. Ren gave him a slight nod back. The judges moved back to their opening places and gestured for the contestants to do the same.

         They bowed to each other, received the signal to begin, and the battle was on!

         Ren sank into a ready crouch, waiting for his opponent to make the first move. Namri put one foot back in a similar position, whipping his staff into a horizontal position, butt facing towards Ren. He jabbed the stick. An invisible hand seemed to slam into Ren's chest, sending him tumbling, flying backwards to hit a wall. The stadium groaned in sympathy.

         Head ringing, Ren picked himself up and dusted himself off. Namri waited, standing quietly, staff back to its normal, neutral position. Ren watched him, circling. An occamist stored magical energy within their weapons. Namri had showed him one. His energy would seem to have something to do with air, which was relatively weak, but quiet, fast, and, usually, invisible. This was going to be very tricky.

         He closed with his opponent, only to bounce off an invisible wall. He scowled. No wonder Namri was just standing there! Ren paced around him, but the wall encircled him totally. Backing up to the boundaries of the cube, Ren ran forward, using his Kung Fu to leap up towards where he hoped the top of the wall would be. He saw Namri's face tilt to follow him, bringing his staff up diagonally over his torso, and knew he'd made the right decision.

         As he landed on the lip of the wall, Namri lashed out with Yak again, swiping at him with more air-jabs. Ren ducked them, listening for the slight whistle of the air's passage. He somer-saulted and danced out of Namri's reach, turning the last move into a downwards dive, foot outstretched into a kick, and focusing his Qi.

         Namri spun Yak above his head, not fleeing the high-speed attack, but meeting it head-on. Ren connected with the pole, jarring his whole leg. The spinning weapon threw him off and he hastily collected himself in another flying twist to land on his feet. Namri went on the offensive then, trying to back Ren into a corner of his wall. This was combat that Ren knew. He deflected the attacks and landed his own kicks and punches. They spun and whirled together, invisible blasts from Yak slamming into the walls and howling up through the hole in the top.

         Laughing, Ren ducked and rolled a slash from the scythe, reaching out at the last second to snag Namri's ankle, yanking him from his feet. Ren crouched at the ready, waiting for his opponent to rise again, smiling. Gone was the cloying fatigue and interminable headache. Forgotten was the crowd and their mutterings, cheering, and noise. Forgotten were the judges and masters and cameras. Everything around him was narrowed down to this one moment. His heart was light and merry. He couldn't see and wouldn't have understood the reaction to himself, at the lithe, deadly grace he displayed, as if the battle were a carefully-orchestrated dance and not a possibly-mortal challenge. When he smiled, he didn't know that he looked even more ferocious, that he hardly seemed to be exerting himself at all and, by smiling, mocked his opponent.

         Ren only knew that, for the first time in forever, he was back in tune with his body. This was to him a dance, a marvelous pantomime of beautiful death and he was a master. The unnatural energy that filled him did not seem extraneous or foreign anymore. He did a hands-free cartwheel away from another of Namri's attacks, the Tibetan boy dripping sweat, hands shaking in fatigue. Ren wasn't even winded.

         Namri and Yak threw everything they had at Ren. He dodged or evaded most of it, rolling with the rest to return again unharmed. Namri pulled the scythe free from Yak and prepared his special move. Flinging the blade upwards like a boomerang, Namri charged, Yak glowing red-hot in his hands.

         Ren met the attack with parries and counter-thrusts. This last encounter moved the length and breadth of the tiny space Namri had formed with his invisible wall. The scythe spun around them, faster and faster, creating a tight vacuum, an invisible tornado.

         As he felt the air currents ripple and pulse around him, Ren made his way to the very center of their battleground. He kept Namri at bay and waited, eyes following the path of the blade. He might have looked worried were it not for the smile.

         The Tibetan boy shouted, whirled Yak in a wide arc, and the scythe arced down, burying itself in the ground. The wind roared furiously, gusting upwards and outwards at hurricane-force speeds. The wind could have crushed Ren, but it didn't. He stood alone, an island of calm, spread-eagled, palms up and facing outwards from his body, eyes closed. No breeze so much as brushed his sweat-dampened hair away from his face. The wind picked him up and threw him, spinning him around the tiny bowl and finally flinging him out the top.

         Ren somersaulted free, clutching the edge of the invisible wall as the wind whipped by him, tossing him to and fro. His hands slid along the edge, but he did not fall. When all was quiet, Ren dropped back inside and walked over to his exhausted opponent. He offered his hand.

         Gasping for breath, Namri wiped his face, and then he smiled. "Congratulations," he said, in his own language, but Ren recognized the intent. They clasped hands and Ren helped him to his feet. When they bowed again to each other, the fishbowl vanished, and the thunderous applause in the stadium could be heard.

         Both boys were escorted to the healers for a check-up as the next battle got underway. Wild energy still seemed to sing through Ren's veins. He hopped free from his examination, to come face-to-face with a stern-looking older man of average height, with black hair and eyes and a curly moustache. He wore a fancy uniform in blue and white. Another man stood at his elbow.

         "Greetings, Pandaren," said the first man through his interpreter. "I am Master Retsef. I would like to speak with you. Will you come with me?"

         Curious, Ren nodded. He had some time before he must report back for the second round. He followed the master quietly as they made their way towards the offices in the back of the stadium.

*          *          *

         In his seat beside Master Maestro, Master Moone, and the rest of their students, minus Varamance, Master Yoshi surreptitiously checked his watch. He smiled. A few more minutes and this would all be over.


*Star*          *Star*          *Star*

Apologies for the delay! This is Richard's add:

A swift tremble quivered in the air. A restless rhythm cutting through the calm breeze. A violin was playing “The Anactromus“ from Jacob Manus. A great composer, who died at the eve of his twenty-forth birthday from food poisoning. No one knew who had done it, but then again, no one knew Manus more than the great composer that he was praised for. Jacob had never had any real friends, having his family been murdered when he was twelve, he seemed so closed in himself that it was painful for those who really cared for him. The air was filled with a strange feeling of deja vu. A half masked face was watching the bow that was slowly, to the point of pain, dabbing the strings of the violin. “The Anactromus“ was very hard to play. Its sad and yet spirited rhythm had, as if through magic, taken over the wind and guided it in and out of the small summer-house. A group of students had taken a break down on the grass listening to the music.

“What is that shit?“ one of the boys in the group asked.

“Don't be so rude. It's really a nice melody.“ a girl, right next to the boy, said.

“That's why I'm asking what that shit is?“

“I don't know. Stop calling it shit.“

“Will you two shut up and listen.“ a boy that was taller than most of the students, said firmly.

“Sorry!“ the girl said.

“I like the tune, but the guy that's playing it, 's creepier than Johnny's grandma.“ a third boy said

“Shut Up, Tony. She just survived a major car accident. How would you act if...“

“Johnny, shut up!“ the tallest boy said again.

“The tune is called “The Anactromus“ from Jacob Manus.“ said a soft voice and everyone looked towards a black figure that was right in front to them. The melody of the violin had stopped. In front of them was a tall man in ninja uniform. He was holding a violin in his right hand. Hal of his body was hidden behind a half, white mask. Most of the students rose up quickly on their knees, half scared, half embarrassed.

“I'm sorry, we did not mean to bother you.“ said the tallest boy in the group.

“It's fine. I was planning to stop soon anyway.“

“Why?“ one of the girls asked. Another one smacked the first girl's shoulder, to keep her quiet.

“I have to meet someone and wish her good luck.“

“I see. Are you gonna play your violin tomorrow as well?“ asked the same girl.

“Perhaps. If you promise to be silent tomorrow, I will.“

“We promise!!!“ said the whole group in synchrony. A small smile appeared on the half-masked man and as he realized it, shook his head. He turned around saying “Good bye!“ to the group of students.

-_-_-_-

The pool of power was empty. Lucy's friends had lied to Osore. They had told him that she was there. Osore, who was only his underpants, made a quick reverse to head towards the exit, when he heard bubbles coming from the pool. Osore's body, which was covered in cuts and bruises, turned around getting closer to the hot water. He stretched his neck so that he could look at the pool. The water was thick and the visibility was limited. He came closer to the surface. Suddenly something came out of the water and pulled him in the pool. He f ell down with a splash, spattering water all around the pool. Instead of a chocking feeling around his neck, Osore could feel a warm hug around his waste. He emerged, drawing breath and looked at the attacker.

“Lucy! I could have killed you. What are you doing?“ he said firmly looking directly at her light blue eyes. She wore only blue bikini and blue bra. She was hugging him firmly.

“Having fun. Wasn't that exciting?“ she said and lightly kissed one of the cuts on his chest.

“It was not funny, Lucy. Don't do it any more.“

“Ok!“ she said and kissed his stomach. Her hand slowly crawled down his body.

“Lucy? What are you doing?“

“It's called caress. You like it?“ Lucy said as her hand gluided down his crouch.

“Lucy, stop it. We're not supposed to.“ he said as he pushed her hand off his crouch.

“Oh, no! We've got only two days together. I'm not missing this chance.“ she said as she put her hand back on the same spot.

“You've got the match in a hour and a half.“

“That's more than enough to do it.“

“What do you mean by do it?“ Osore said tilting his head.

“You know!“ she said with a devilish smile on her face.

“No, I don't know.“

“God damn it, Osore, I want you to make love to me!!!“ she shouted, her whole face turning brightly red. At the same time her hands went behind her and unhooked her bra. The bra fell in the water.

“Lucy, there's no way you would want that from me. You should do it with someone more... handsome.“ said Osore. Lucy untied her bikini and took them off. His eyes couldn't stop looking at her naked body.

“I like you, and I know that you like me too. That's why I want you to give me all you've got!“ she said as she sat on his lap and kissed him on the lips.

-_-_-_-

“Round five?“ asked Lucy, gasping for breath.

“Oh, no. We can go on like that forever, but you need energy for the Tournament.“ said Osore panting in the water. They had been in the pool for a very long time. The mixture of fire and water Khai had recked the walls that surrounded the pool. They were sweaty, but relaxed for some kind of reason. Lucy was resting her head on his chest, drawing circles on his stomach.

“Fuck the Top Ten! I want to stay as long with you as possible.“

“Listen, Lucy! If you don't participate in the Top Ten, I swear you won't have the same experience with me ever again.“

“You're mean!“ she pouted, scratching his stomach.

“Oh, hear this then. If you do your best on the Top Ten I'll be with you the whole night and day after that. Ok?“ Osore said looking at her.

“Really? You promise?“

“Yes!“

“Are you sure?“

“A Khu always keeps his word.“ said Osore emerging from the pool.

“Wait a little!“ she said rising after him. She jumped towards him. As she hugged him she kissed him continuously. He pushed her away gently. Her gaze was full of disappointment.

“Can I help you?“ Osore said looking towards the door, which was opened. Through it had come a blond haired, green-eyed girl.

“What do you want Kitty? You've got Exodeus, so go to him for fun, 'cause Osore's taken.“ she pouted girlishly. Kitty turned around, her face blushing bright red.

“I'm sorry, Lucy. I was sent to tell you that the Top Ten is starting in thirty minutes.“ she said stuttering.

“I see. Well, I'll be leaving you then.“ Osore said as he put on his pants. “Don't forget what we promised each other. All night and day if you do your best!“ he said and started walking towards the door.
Riko stayed with him, concerned, though she put on an air of checking over his charts, and tucking his blankets up whenever anyone came in and she all but disappeared all together when the old man entered the room to check on his student. She was sitting in the chair next to him as he snored quietly, swinging her feet when Nana came in. She looked up and Nanami shook her head.

“You are entirely too worried about him. If someone catches you...” She warned.

“They won’t. I’m a medi-nin, I’m allowed in if I’m working.” Riko said, “Or if I’m a visitor.”

“Well you are neither.” Nana hissed, “What if that old man sees you?”

“I’m not afraid of any lizard man.” Riko said, “There’s something wrong with him and that old man’s behind it, we just gotta figure out what it is.” She pleaded with her sister.

Nanami sighed heavily, “No, no, and again, no!” She growled, “Don’t give me that look, Riko, you know we can’t interfere...”

“Yes we can! If we don’t then something bad is bound to happen, you didn’t see that smug look on the old lizard’s face when he came to get Panda. That smirk, the kind that makes your skin crawl and want to run away from your muscle and bone.” She shivered, rubbing her arms.

Nana shook her head, “No, you can’t stay here. Yoshi could recognize you.” She growled, her hand wrapping around Riko’s wrist, “We have to go.” She said firmly, grabbing Riko’s wrist in a punishing grip and yanking her from the room, much to her protest.

“Nana, please, the old lizard’s...”

“He will continue doing what he’s doing, whether you stay there or not, you can’t watch him all the time or you’ll be suspect. That’s the last thing we need right now.” Nana whirled her sister around, levelling her with a fierce glare, “You said so yourself, he’s dangerous, he wouldn’t hesitate to take us out of the picture if we suspected anything.” She snarled lowly, well aware they were in a public place, though all was quiet as things wound up outside for the final matches.

Riko quailed beneath her sisters gaze, falling silent and nodding reluctantly, “I understand.” She said quietly.

“Now, you’re not permitted in here. I’ll keep an eye on things, you go watch the matches for anything suspicious.” She growled,

Riko slunk off without another word.

~*~

Nanami waited quietly, attending to the other patients, until Riko returned carrying a tray of goodies, ignoring Nanami’s noise as she protested. She slid into Panda’s room, almost running into another Japanese student, Osodre? Onsomer? Something that started with ‘O’, she was disappointed that she couldn’t remember his name. O was standing next to Panda and Riko hopped up onto the bed after shutting the door behind herself as she munched cheerfully on goodie of her own choosing.

They talked for awhile, Riko finally figuring out that O’s name was, in fact Osore, and Panda was significantly more snappish than usual. She was oddly satisfied when she discovered Panda didn’t have a girlfriend, but she was worried about him, especially with her slip of the tongue. She flushed ashamedly, apologising, but he didn’t want her apology and she was forced to reconcile her position on his bed, in favour of his desires.

She slid out, her eyes lowered, leaping aside as Nanami’s hand clamped on her arm and dragged her to one side, stuffing her out of the tent and holding it shut as the old lizard slithered into Panda’s room.

Nanami watched through strands of her hair that fell out of her french twist, her head lowered to a chart as the lizard left the flap open a bit. She listened closely to the conversation, as best she could while still holding her sister out. She didn’t get much out of their hurried talking, and Panda’s yelling. Just that the lizard was pushing him, probably a bit too hard, even for the circumstances. She stood aside, ducking out of sight as the lizard steered Panda out, wanting to stop him, for fear of her patient’s health, but she didn’t, he had a match after all.

~*~

Riko fled to the competition grounds, quickly finding a seat close to the stage and watched Panda closely with one eye, the other half keeping an eye on the old lizard and half watching for any other possible dangers. Ninja instinct after all, one couldn’t be completely focussed on something else while leaving herself free for attack. She was tense to say the least and she was as aware as she could possibly at one time, well aware she was out in the open and, even though there were tons of people around, she felt... oddly exposed. She stood abruptly and streaked down to the hospital wing, skidding to a stop next to her sister, her eyes falling immediately to Panda, but the tug on her sleeve dragged her attention away and she shook her head to her sister’s unasked question, sticking close, “Keep on your toes.” She murmured to Nana.

“You too, troublemaker.” Nana replied, grim humour in her voice.

Riko sighed and moved closer, crouching down so she could watch the match intently, extending her senses beyond the match itself. She held her breath when Panda fought, every muscle tense to the point where she hadn’t realized that her focus had narrowed down to just Panda, his fight, and partially to the old lizard. Which was why she started as her sister laid a hand on her shoulder, her every muscle tensing as she whirled, “Nana.” She sighed in relief, “You startled me.”

“You’re going to make yourself sick you keep this up.” She warned quietly, “Stop it.”

“But I can’t...”

“No, Riko, you’re becoming obsessed.” Nana hissed, “What if we’re wrong?”

“No sense in not being ready if something happens.”

“And if nothing does? Then what will you do?”

“Nothing.”

Nana glared at her, “You’re my sister, don’t play me for a damn fool.”

“I promise. If nothing happens I’ll make nothing of it.” She said lowly, glancing around at the others, suspicious and on edge slightly.

“You’re paranoid.” Nana said, “Come here, lay down and relax, okay?” She said, leading Riko to a bed and pushing her down onto it, keeping watch and forcing her down each time she tried to get up again. “Stay down.” She growled at Riko, ignoring protests and huffed annoyance.

She let her back up once they had reached the end of the match and let her watch the next couple as Nana was called back to attend to the hurt from the fights, her senses tuned mostly to her sister and, thankfully, the injuries were either considered out of her skill range, or small enough that she didn’t have to focus too much to see them healed.

Riko found her way back over to Nana, assisting where she could and where she was wanted, mostly to listen to her sister and keep her mind on something else, other than the old lizard and her Panda. She needed to stay her focus, lest she be caught off guard.
 

         Ingrained obediance and programmed behavior should have made resistance impossible. Everything else went exactly as planned.

         Yoshi made his way from the stadium up to the promenade without notice. The earthquake started at the end of the second match, between Crystal and Umbra, but at first it was only a barely-noticeable rumble. The earth often shook along the main fault-line of the Pacific Coast of America and no one paid much attention. Yoshi had plenty of time to signal his Ronin. They closed in on their targets.

         Throughout the stadium, geomancers reached for earth or stone, seeking to stabilize the building and land around them, to join their powers to protect the thousands of people inside. They would work in vain. Panic struck as the quake only intensified in power. In the battle-cube, the Umbra contestant fell sideways into a shadow ... and disappeared. A sudden surge of the ground threw the summoner off his feet and he lunged for his summons, flopping free of its bounced-loose water-ball. In the next moment, the lights cut off, the screaming started, and the building started to shake loose all around them.

         The earth's undulations kept the building's occupants confined, the crowd's panic isolating and crippling the healers among them. A snap and crack in the wide, heavy ceiling above ensured the concealing confusion. With Ansuz by his side, Yoshi made his way down to the back-rooms of the stadium. He had to see with his own eyes that his secondary mission had gone as planned.

         In the pitch-black darkness, dust, debris, and thousands of struggling, screaming people, the actions of the Ronin went unnoticed by all but a very few. The Ronin had their targets and they would either take them captive or kill them; and they would die themselves before they failed in their mission.

         Hands scooped up Squirt while Exodeus could only watch, sprawled on his stomach and pinned by crashing ceiling supports, lights, and who-knew-what-all else. He felt a hand on his collar, and then nothing.

         The contestants waiting their turns at battle were scattered, tossed apart by the movement of the earth, the people around them, and the rain of debris. There were a few, short-lived battles. The geomancer fell into a crack that appeared and ran the length of the stadium floor. The majority of the VIPs perished at the same instant. The shaking of the ground and building grew even stronger. Stadium seating collapsed as holes opened in the ground, sucking all within their gaping mouths, and the vast building's supports crumbed under the strain.

         Kitty and Osore were carried along with or pinned down by the panicked mob. They couldn't see much, could hear only the groaning of steel struts, the cracking of concrete, the frightened screams of the crowd, smelling dust and dirt, sweat and fear, struggling for balance in the nightmare world they'd ended up in. It was a bad earthquake, but nothing more could be determined. Fires started as gas lines ruptured, electical wiring shorted out, and water pipes burst. People pushed and shoved against each other, trampling one another in their instinctive need to get out of the danger area, but all around them entrances and exits were blocked by collapsing walls, falling debris, and dropping floors.

         The Samurai World-Sect Leader should have been nothing but paste by the time Yoshi arrived in the back room where he'd taken Pandaren following the boy's match. Instead, Pandaren stood frozen in the center of the empty room, fists up and ready, sweat pouring down his body. Retsef lay propped against a shifting, groaning wall, protected by a slim, blonde girl. She stood spread-eagled in front of the fallen Samurai.

         "Kill him!" thundered Yoshi, slamming into the room, heedless of the devastation taking its toll elsewhere in the building.

         Pandaren jumped and turned; Yoshi was all too familiar with the confused and rebellious expression he wore.

         "Victory is the Way."

         Pandaren froze. Yoshi pointed at Retsef, who was staring back at the Heart Master in shock, mouth forming words, but no sound emerging.

         "Kill him."

         "No! Panda! NO!" Riko took a tiny step forward as Pandaren drew back his arm, gathering his qi for the final blow.

         A small sound alerted Ansuz to an attack from the side. Nanami had stepped away from where she tended Retsef's aide. The occamist caught her easily.

         Yoshi spared them a sneer. "Kill them." Then he turned back to Pandaren, who was still hesitating. "You will obey me! KILL HIM!" he ordered, pointing at the fallen Samurai.

         Pandaren's arm trembled.

         Riko stared helplessly from Panda to Nanami. "Nana!" she called. Her twin hung limply from Ansuz's grip on her neck. The occamist seemed just as reluctant to kill the girl as Pandaren, though the aide was now dead, blood dripping from the end of Ansuz's sword.

         Yoshi turned from Pandaren to Ansuz, his face a mask of rage. He raised his arm, and was hit by Riko from behind. His many years had not slowed Yoshi's reflexes at all. As the room shuddered around them from the ever-strengthening quake, the healer grabbed and twisted the younger Heart Ninja's arm, snapping it into pieces. The two girls screamed in unison. Yoshi threw Riko to the floor and speared Ansuz with his icy stare.

         "Kill her. Or answer to me."

         "Master ...."

         Yoshi lashed out at Riko, throwing her down again, careful to avoid her grasping hands. Twisting the injured arm behind her, Yoshi kneeled on her back. He lifted Riko by her hair.

         "What's it going to be?" he snarled.

         In all the confusion, Retsef charged the Heart Master. The floor heaved at the same time, sending Ansuz and Nanami reeling, throwing Pandaren to the floor, and slamming Yoshi and Retsef careening into each other, wildly off balance. Two Umbra Ninjas appeared in the sudden darkness as the lights shattered. Screams rang out in the melee, and then silence.

         Ansuz still held Nanami, screaming silently and thrashing, in one hand and his sword in the other. One of the shadow ninjas held the occamist by his upper arm. Another had Yoshi, who had his fist in Pandaren's hair, the boy sobbing, blood on his hands.

         "Many apologies, Master," said another ninja who stepped out of the shadows towards them, "but there was no more time." He bowed low.

         Yoshi shook Pandaren cruelly. "Silence!" The weeping abruptly cut off. Yoshi threw him into the hands of the waiting Ronin. "Take him." He gestured at the healer girl. "Take them both." He glared up at Ansuz. "We shall discuss your disobediance later. See to the prisoners."

         "Yes, Master."

         "Status report in fifteen," Yoshi snapped at the other ninjas gathering around them. He stalked into a waiting vehicle and slammed the door.

         In minutes, even before the city's emergency services had re-gathered itself in the wake of the monumental disaster, the Ronin were back in their headquarters, safely hidden away.

Chaos! The most deadly enemy of the human mind. Once it takes over the crowd, it can not be controlled. It is always followed by irrationality, fear, self-destruction. The crowds were grasped by that same fear, irrationality, to the point of mindlessly running to the obvious trap, created by fallen walls and dropping floors.That was one of the reasons why Osore hated such events. He was afraid that without control over the people around him, he won't be able to control his own fate as well. The crowd was pushing him further and further away from the stadium. A few seconds before that he had seen Kitty, but now she was out of his sight, somewhere out there, hidden among the countless heads that chaotically were running with the flow. He started looking around. The unstopping shiver of the earth's surface, made it impossible to concentrate. Suddenly he felt a higher thrust right in front of himself and tried to stop, but the people behind him were pushing him, too scared to realize that they were running blindly towards death. The floor under his feet trembled. The people realized now what was happening and started getting back. Osore followed.

The ground vanished in a second, the gapping hole devouring the people that were still in it. Osore's reflexes were faster. Taking his sword and stabbing the still stable ground in front of himself. He felt someone pushing his head and looked up. A woman in front of him had put her left foot on his head, trying not to fall, because the crowd behind her was pushing her forward. Osore's mind sliced the possibility that his sword was not going to take on both of them. He did not think twice. He took her leg and pulled it with all force, throwing the screaming woman in the frightening darkness of the hole. The half-masked ninja pulled himself up on the ground. The crowd was heading towards another exit. He followed them. Suddenly at a certain point the crowd stopped. Osore jumped trying to see what was the cause. The entrance was blocked by two fallen pillars. The people in front were trying to remove the pillars, but they were too heavy. Suddenly he heard something zap past him and hit the wall to the right. Osore looked at it and realized it was a frozen arrow. The Nemicta spell was typical for Lucy, but why was it flying his way? Osore looked around but the crowd was not allowing him to see. His gaze stopped on a very tall and muscular ninja, who was a few steps away in the crowd, trying to get to the entrance. Osore raised his voice:

“Whale!!!“ the ninja stopped and looked back. As he saw Osore he turned around. Osore elbowed his way through the crowd to the ninja. “Pick me up!“ he said as he mimicked what he wanted to say. Whale looked at him taken aback by the situation. He then went on his knees and Osore climbed on his shoulder. Whale got up taking the RAZI student by the legs to stabilize him. Lucy was fighting some man in blue jeans and red shirt, who was holding a long staff, far away from the two students. “Calendo Milokta!“ shouted Osore. Nothing visible happened to the coseis, but the fire Khu could feel the Khai filling on the tip of the stick. The spell was a new one, since Osore himself had created it. Osore got off Whale and ran at the direction he had seen Lucy fighting. Whale did not seem to be following him, but Osore did not really care. He had to run faster elbowing his way through the piles of people that were running to the opposite direction. As he got through the crowd, he took a step back dodging a fireball that flew past him.He looked at the direction the fireball had come, only to see how Lucy was trying to snatch the staff from the civilian in blue jeans. To Osore it was obvious that the man in blue jeans and red shirt was not a civilian. What did he want with Lucy? Why did Osore feel such a powerful Khai in him? He was Khu, that was for sure, but what was he doing? The Khu suddenly headbutt Lucy and she fell on the ground. "Hey!" Osore shouted at the man.

"Cannon Fodder!" said the man raising his staff. Osore did not move. He needed just a few more seconds. “You be damn!“ shouted the Khu as his spell was completed. He extended his staff towards Osore and a fireball flew from it towards the half-masked ninja. “Forge!!!“ shouted Osore and pointed the coseis towards the fireball that was flying towards him. A crimson arrow blasted out of the black stick, and as it hit the fireball, it entailed the fireball backwards. The surprised fire Khu had time only to put his arms up as a shield. The arrow pierced through him. As the fireball following it hit the Khu, it exploded and threw him at the wall a few steps away. He fell down on the ground, leaving a bloody imprint on the wall. Osore ran to Lucy. She was unconscient. “Lucy!!!“ he shouted as he threw himself towards her. A crack appeared right in front and crawled right under Lucy. Her body fell down, darkness covering her silhouette. His right hand extended forward, taking a grip of hers, his left one piercing the ground with his sword to support him from falling. He pulled her up and dragged her farther from the crack. “Lucy, WAKE UP!“ he said slapping her cheeks gently. Her eyes opened and she hugged him, berrying her face in his chest. “Lucy, get a grip, we need to get out!“ he shouted in her ear. He rose up, pulling her with himself. She stood up slowly, trying to keep her balance as the earth shivered even stronger. Suddenly they saw two men in front of them.

"What are you doing?" one of them asked, as he saw the other one raise his arms towards the couple.

"We don't have time for this. We're taking them both!" the other one shouted as he clenched his arms into fists. Osore raised his coseis, starting a damn spell. The fire ball enlarged, ready to strike the two men. "Corsau Selendio!!!" shouted the man and retracted his arms to his chest. Suddenly the ground under Osore and Lucy turned red, as strange reddish symbols started flouting from a circlet of power that had surrounded the couple. The fireball evaporated, as the couple was pressed by the negative Khai!

"Blood seal mixed with air Khai!" thought Osore.

"Seal!" shouted the man.
Kitty had given Exodeus a brief but enthusiastic hug before leaving him that evening. He had celebrating to do with his classmates and she with her own. She hadn''t made it into the top ten, but Lucy had and there was sure to be a celebratory atmosphere in the Sage area even though it wasn't a Sage who'd made it. She was still depressed, but Exodeus was right, look how far she had made it. It wasn't like she'd accomplished nothing at all.

Owl greeted her almost as soon as she was through the doors. "Oh Kitty, it's so unfair. I can't believe they'd put a topic like weapon care in there!"

Kitty shook her head. "No, it was fair. You never know what knowledge will come in handy no matter what your specialty is."

"But still..." Owl's company was not bad company. In fact, as the evening went on Kitty found herself happy once more, even in light of the fact that so many people suddenly seemed disappointed in her. It was odd, they hadn't seemed to care before. In fact, many of them had seemed to be hoping she'd do badly.

Saturday morning dawned with hope and excitement in the air. Kitty couldn't wait to watch Exodeus in the final fights, and she was to the fighting arena way too early. The top ten had some sort of social event this morning to meet with the World Leaders and get to know them a bit. It was supposed to be a privilege, though Kitty thought it would be one of those stuffy political games she spent so much time learning how to behave properly during. She hoped that Exodeus wasn't bored, although Varamance would be there too, so they could keep each other company. The two seemed like good friends.

It wasn't like attending that event had been important to her. The idea of meeting such important people... she stood up and left the stadium, returning around 3 when there were actually other people around. She found a place among other American students and settled in. There would be no talking to Exodeus after the fights today. Everyone would be staying in their proper areas.

"Good luck," she said softly, hoping the air would carry her wishes to him. "I know you and Squirt can do it."

"What are you going on about?" the boy next to her asked. She didn't really know him.

"Nothing," Kitty returned turning a bit away from him and looking around to see how the place was filling