Episode 4 - Presentation Is Key
The trip through the American northeast had been exactly as described by her companion until they reached the city, and by that time, Jiyu Nereis had been fast asleep in the passenger seat of the car. Sitting up in an unfamiliar bed now, she noted the time, and a moment later, the approximate temperature of the room, finding the two to be what she considered 'in sync'. To her left, the sleeping form of Zachary Thomas remained still. No surprise, given that it was still early by many people's standards and that the young man's idea of a 'fairly short drive' on the previous day was actually closer to four hours. Jiyu rolled out of bed and began to do small stretches in the space between the dresser and the door.
Barely three minutes of this passed before an audible groan from the bed indicated that Zach was awake, and he rustled around, tossing the cover off before sitting up with a grouchy expression.
“You coulda let me sleep longer.”
Jiyu regarded him with her usual flat, unblinking stare, before answering “I didn't wake you up” and returning to her morning stretches.
“Huh...” he noted, smoothing long black hair out of his eyes, “Then wh--”
“The room is unfamiliar, as is the bed. You have in fact been asleep for six hours and it became too warm to sleep with covers, also the mattress is cheap and me moving out of bed would have transferred vibrations to you.”
“Right...” Zach said, looking around, by now quite used to Jiyu's tendency to give detailed answers to even his rhetorical questions. Having been close friends for years now, her habits were not something he could be remotely considered 'unfamiliar with'.
“I still say this was a waste of money, by the way,” the woman continued, straightening up from a forward stretch, short bleached-blonde hair settling back into its position around her face.
“And I still say you shouldn't be complaining since it wasn't your money and no garage was going to let us sleep in the car anyway, certainly not the one we left it at. Besides, there's something to be said for getting a good night's sleep and a shower before a competition.”
He shifted out of bed, knowing that he would get no more sleep simply by rolling over and pretending that the morning had not yet come, and crossed the room to get his various implements of hygiene out of his bag, passing right by Jiyu in the process.
Zachary stood half a foot taller than Jiyu, yet she was not notably short, a contrast that belied just how tall the lanky youth was. Jiyu cricked her neck audibly, then retorted to his last comment too.
“I would have said that something if I had indeed got a good night's sleep.”
“Mm, yeah,” Zach muttered, giving no argument, instead stretching a bit himself, “But cheap place equals cheap bed, and I still point out we couldn't have slept in the car. Or do you mean you had nightmares again?”
“When don't I?” she answered quietly, shifting to her own bag, retrieving a deck case from it rather than the soap and deodorant Zach had procured from his.
“The dueling today is going to make it worse, you know that, right?” he sighed, watching her smooth the bed linens back to some semblance of order before sitting cross legged on the bed and spreading out more than fifty Chaos Fractal cards over it.
“I will ride in the back of the car on the way home. Even if I thrash around, which I don't, I won't affect your driving,” she said, already focused on building a deck for the day. Zach sighed.
“That's not what I meant...”
The swirling cosmic 'glow' from within his mind reminded him that there was no point in taking the conversation any further, and he continued his rummaging for a few more moments before Jiyu piped up, without even looking in his direction, “Why don't you just take the whole bag?”
“What if something horrible happened and my cards got wet?”
“That sort of thing only happens to me, Zach. Leave them here then. Makes more sense than doing it the other way around.”
Accepting this, he set his deck box and a book on the bed beside her and exited the small room out into the corridor that would lead to the bathroom, leaving her in silence.
Jiyu looked over the cards before her once more. Work had constantly prevented her from finalizing the deck. Fifty two cards as options, but the tournament allowed only forty cards in a deck, and even the last few days of practice had not made the decisions easier. With only Zach to play against most of the time, the only way to make the deck perform notably differently was to tailor it to defeat his, something that would be no help in the tournament, and in fact would probably need to be avoided, given the general rarity of his own play style.
“So why do I still feel so odd about this?” she sighed inwardly, looking over the fourteen small 'piles' of cards. All but two of those piles contained four copies of a single card. The decision she was now attempting to make was one that many duelists faced even after having chosen what they wanted their deck to do. How much of each thing.
“I should just use my standard play style. Even if I end up facing someone with multiple blockers it just means I would need to stall and revive a lot...”
“There is no way to prepare for everything. Use what is least likely to result in mistakes.”
The 'voice', like tinkling crystal, was that of the swirling form in her mind that now took proper shape as her eyes rested on the card that the energy took its form from. The Glacia creature Suna that had been her favorite card from the moment she saw it, had now become much more to her.
“Least likely to result in mistakes, huh...” Jiyu pouted, immediately moving the Suna 'stack' into the spot in front of her where the deck itself would be built. All of the Hypothermia followed with a movement of her hand, as did all the Parli. The simplest base of all. Ice.
Zachary returned from the bath to find the bed clear save for his own book and deck box, and Jiyu sitting against the headboard with her legs stretched out straight, toes wiggling as she flipped through the deck she had built.
“Done already?” he wondered aloud, a bit surprised. Most duelists could spend a long time working out the odds on their deck before a tournament, and Jiyu was normally no exception. At the edge of his consciousness he could 'feel' Suna doing exactly that, yet she had clearly already put the rest of her cards away.
“Whatever will be, will be,” she replied, smiling for the first time of the day, before swinging her feet out of the bed and putting the cards back on it.
“Yet you were calculating,” the cosmic glow pointed out, speaking to its counterpart in Jiyu's mind. Suna's response could best be likened to an 'of course' as Jiyu picked up her bag and moved to the door.
“Careful, the tiles in the shower are kind of slippery,” was all he said before she vanished.
“Do you think things will go any better than usual today?” The question was directed to the more 'human' half of Zachary, from the same shimmering presence in him. His 'reply' to Ars Megistus was a calm expression close to 'I hope.'
Their vehicle pulled into the parking lot of the convention hall nearly two hours later, a fact that Jiyu was all too eager to point out after getting out of the car.
“Inefficient brat,” she complained of the morning attendant at the parking garage, “She's probably cut off almost all my pre-tournament 'snooping and eavesdropping' time. If I get blindsided by some Fire-Wind blitz with blockers splashed in I'm holding her personally responsible.”
“It's a good thing you let me handle it then or we might still be there,” Zachary laughed, heading toward the building's entrance. Jiyu shot him a stern glance, and held it for another dozen steps before he actually noticed.
“What? You're not exactly good with people, you know,” a shimmer from Ars Megistus reminding her why he was in a further position to state that.
“People have too many improperly defined variables and a poor API,” Jiyu declared, striding ahead of him to get the first good look into the convention hall, “Speaking of which...”
The area was already packed with convention goers and cosplayers, most of whom had no connection directly to the Chaos Fractal State tournament that was part of the event. Jiyu grabbed her 'little brother' by the sleeve.
“Hurry, we may not even make registration if we have to wade through all that.”
Zachary sighed but complied, allowing himself to be dragged along by his considerably more energetic elder, which was fortunate, as they did reach the tournament registration table just in time, being almost the last to actually add their names to the roster.
“That was lucky,” Zach breathed as they moved away from the table, affixing their registration tags to their clothing.
“It's never lucky,” Jiyu corrected, ever-pessimistic, already looking around the large auditorium to figure out where to sit, before noticing something strange.
“The tables are all lined up straight...”
“Eh, so?” Zachary mumbled, putting his deck back into one of his pockets.
“So that means they're not using Two-Out for the tournament. Why not?”
Jiyu referred to the standard format of the preliminary rounds of Chaos Fractal tournaments now. Players would simply play against whoever they felt like until they lost two games. At the end of a certain time period, anyone left would qualify based on their number of wins, if the field of players had not trimmed itself down to a certain number already by then.
“That is sort of odd. This isn't even an invitational tournament...” Zach agreed, looking around. Many of the other players seemed as confused as they were, and no one at all was seated yet.
Minutes would pass before their confusion was cleared up. The man in charge of the officiating staff stepped up to the microphone on the judge's table and leaned in to give an explanation over the Public Address system.
“Greetings, players. I'm sure you're all wondering why the format for the tournament has been changed from the usual. Well, today we have staff specifically for administrating all of you, and this event in particular, being part of KengaCon, is going to get a lot of extra coverage overall, so in order to keep things moving clearly and let all our 'reporting staff' keep up, we'll be using some basic groupings and such rather than letting everyone face off randomly.”
To the man's surprise, a collective groan went up from the crowd, before he continued.
“Officials are wearing either a yellow KirriCorp polo or a black KirriCorp hat, depending on their job here today. Follow the directions of anyone in the yellow shirts, ignore anyone in the hats, they're just observing.”
With that announcement, the yellow garbed staff members began to move from their positions, ushering players to seats one by one. Zachary was led off to his place not long into this process, but as it became clear that not everyone on the sideline could actually sit and duel at once, even in the large room, Jiyu resigned herself to another half hour or so of waiting around and perhaps figuring out some of her competition. She had already started to fall into that cognitive trance when she was jolted by the touch of one of the staff on her shoulder.
“And... you. Come with me.”
She held in the sigh, taking her deck out and quickly checking through it as she walked, one final pass to remind herself of the progressions she had chosen for the day.
“Here is your seat, this is your opponent. Says here... Ice-Gravity Assault against... Radiance-Water Spellslinger. Sounds like it will be good.”
The woman's words jolted Jiyu out of her abnormally limited focus, to look up. Sure enough, sitting on the other side of the table was Zachary Thomas.
“You're kidding me, right? There goes our odds at extra prize money...” she groaned, taking her seat, “How does this sort of thing always happen to us, Zach?”
“This technically hasn't happened before...” he noted, handing his deck to her, to be shuffled.
“You know what I meant,” Jiyu growled, doing the same.
“Oh, you two know each other already?” the man in the black cap that stood behind Zach's right shoulder noted, sounding intrigued, “That means this is going to be even more interesting.”
“Trust me, it's never quite what you'd call 'interesting',” Jiyu replied flatly, returning Zachary's deck to him and accepting her own back. The woman in the yellow shirt produced her coin.
“Call it, miss,” she told Jiyu as she flipped it. 'Tails' was the answer she received, and tails it was. Jiyu moved one of the small green tokens from the pile given, into her tempo area, and drew five cards, immediately noting that those cards left her with little option other than speed. She ended her turn, and settled herself.
“I suppose it's not so bad if he doesn't have too many--”
“Meryl Maid,” Zach noted, sliding the green token across the table to signify depletion of his single tempo. Jiyu sighed as her counterpart ended his turn, and flipped another token off the stack.
“Parli,” was all she said, moving her two tempo tokens now, causing the black capped man to lean over a bit to try to get a look at the card. Jiyu wished for that moment that she could simply let herself project the mental imagery that was already forming, into the man's mind, to ensure he would not ask them to pause or any such thing.
That imagery so far consisted of the edge of an ice sheet, with only the faint sense of the Meryl Maid swimming in the water on Zach's 'side'. The Glacia on her own side was slowly shifting form now to prepare for aquatic combat if such was needed. She waved a hand to end her turn.
“Meryl Maid,” Zach repeated, causing Jiyu to huff slightly. He gave her an 'apologetic' look, but she was already scheming by the time he ended his turn. The feeling of the two Sirens in the water was much clearer now, and she added a creature to the sea herself with her next play. An Ink Balloon. The rotund jellyfish would be no match for either Siren, but Jiyu had to at least keep up with Zach's plays, likely to be boosted dramatically by the ability of the Meryl Maids to reduce the cost of any further water creatures. One in particular would be very useful to him now.
Zach drew his card and played nothing, though, leaving everything as it normally would be. The strongest of his Sirens, the creature known as Shiria, would need one more tempo to be called even with the Meryl Maids there.
Jiyu was not about to let that simply happen.
“Another Ink Balloon, and cast Hypothermia on your Meryl.”
The chilling shift in the water directly around the Siren caused its normal quick movements to slow to almost complete lethargy, to the point where it even somewhat sank for a moment as ice crystals formed around its body. The ice buoyed it up a moment later, causing it to pop to the surface just in time for Jiyu to declare her attack.
“Parli attacks that Meryl.”
“Nice,” the man behind commented. He could not perceive the visualization that accompanied Zachary's decision not to block Parli, but he did have some understanding of what exactly was going to happen as a result. The shapeshifter Glacia surged into the water to finish off the Siren, and Jiyu's turn ended. Any possible arrival of Shiria had been delayed one more turn, and now there was only one defender to worry about.
“Meryl Maid,” Zachary declared for the third time. Jiyu closed her eyes and lowered her head, discouraged already. Zachary waited for a few moments after ending his turn, then tentatively reached out with Ars Megistus' power.
“Come on, don't give up now, we're not practicing at home, you can't just say 'next game' and give up this one, even if you can see how it will go.”
Jiyu did not respond, but did draw her next card, just as the woman in the yellow shirt had been about to shake her to see if she was alright.
“Cast Hypothermia on your Meryl again. Parli, attack.”
“Heh, deja vu,” the observer laughed, “You two are used to this. Seem prepared for each other.”
Ars Megistus redirected the chill that Suna sent at the man in response to the comment, as Parli defeated another of the Siren, and Jiyu's turn ended.
“Calm down, he doesn't know, he's only saying what he observes.”
Zachary's actual play was Aquila Superior, the predator bird appearing with a powerful shriek over the waters, before settling into a slow gliding circle over the area. Jiyu drew her card and began to calculate her chances of getting through if she went all or nothing right away.
“It's already too late,” Suna noted, finishing the analysis, “Perhaps if it was someone else, but...”
Jiyu played the cards anyway. Zach was right. Simply saying 'I give up' would do no good here other than to look like she had not even tried.
“Call Mirage Flight, then Air Cannon on Aquila, and another on Meryl.”
The surge blasts released their energy in strong bursts, sending the Falcon spiraling off into the distance and carrying the Siren away on a wave. Zachary returned the two cards to his hand. Jiyu turned her Parli sideways to exhaust it, and hoped that her friend could not respond to her attack.
Zachary moved one token from the small group of five that represented his Grid defense, into his tempo area, but did not use them, causing Jiyu some relief. She sent the Ink Balloon also, causing Zach to repeat the action, but this time...
“Quickfire Sedative, on your second Ink Balloon.”
The man in the black hat nodded approvingly. Zach had not responded to the first attack for tactical reasons. Now he had what he needed, and stopped the third with the flash and fire tranquilizer that exhausted the other Ink Balloon, fundamentally ending Jiyu's turn for her.
“Alright, call Meryl Maid and Kilijoa--” two of the Sirens now appeared, the Meryl Maid coming first and leading the stronger 'merman' to the area, “-- and Aquila Superior again. End turn.”
The Falcon's cry, to Jiyu, was like declaring the end of the duel already. Kilijoa could easily block if not removed, and her Air Cannons were already used. Her only real hope now was to build up as much of an attacking force as she could and hope for one of her runes, but Zachary was eminently skilled at quickly ending any hopes of building up such forces. The card she drew caused her waning spirits to lift a little, though it would be no actual help now.
“Suna.” Her avatar now rose up from the ice and approached the conflict area, each step causing ice to form in her path, before the full effect kicked in, chill spreading outward, causing Zachary to move one tempo token back to the pile.
“Mirage Flight, attack.”
The Valkyrie spread its wings to catch the gust of freezing air that it now called to itself, driving forward directly at the easily visualized form of Zachary Thomas, faster than either Kilijoa or the Meryl Maid could react, to strike once again at his defense Grid.
Three strikes would still be needed though, and Zach's next play put Jiyu further out of reach of making them. The sky 'split' with the power of the Elemental Warmage, Rainboa, and for Zach's opponent, the creature lived up to its reputation as a harbinger of destruction. He searched two spells from his deck. Both the same card, Antlion Trap. Casting one of them with his two remaining tempo robbed him of the use of the other, as the ethereal 'jaws' snapped shut on Jiyu's Ink Balloon, causing it to explode in murk and forcing him to discard the second Antlion Trap.
Without missing a beat, Zach simply declared the attack of his Aquila Superior on the Mirage Flight. The falcon banked to get a fix on its target, then went into a steep dive. Few things could match the power of Aquila when it attacked, and though the Mirage Flight would have been able to do so if it ever got the chance by somehow exhausting the great bird and being the attacker, it stood no chance in its exhausted state. The subzero gust that it managed to summon in an attempt to deter Aquila's dive barely made the falcon flinch, and it was only seconds before sharp talons brought a swift end to their 'clash'. Zach ended his turn, Aquila swooping and slowly gaining altitude again, out of the range of any counterattack.
Jiyu drew a Wormhole and cursed in her thoughts. Aquila could not even be destroyed by this, with its ability. Instead, she called upon a different force.
Gravity tendrils surrounded the Mirage Flight's torn body, dragging it into the water, then a surge of power, and the creature was 'ejected', alive and well, back onto the ice, as Jiyu used her remaining tempo to recall it to the conflict as well.
This sound from Zachary was one Jiyu knew was not a sound of contemplation, not in the usual sense. He was about to summon his own 'avatar', and was merely deciding how much of his visualization to allow when he did so.
“Call Ars Megistus, and recast Quickfire Sedative, on your Mirage Flight.”
The sphere formed slowly, coalescing out of tiny luminous sparkles in the air, gathering and recycling the energy of the environment as it came into being. These sparkles slowly compressed themselves into one small point before expanding outward in a shimmering field that looked for all to see as if the night sky had formed itself into a floating ball.
The Sedative's energy yet again exhausted the Valkyrie, but Zachary was not done yet, casting another spell, Steady Aim, on Aquila.
“Rainboa attacks Mirage, Aquila attacks Suna.”
Dual prismatic 'lasers' from above swept over and through the Valkyrie, dissipating it, and despite Suna's readiness, Aquila's next dive could not be deterred, talons shattering the form of the Glacia and causing Jiyu to gasp for breath as the balance of 'presence' in the conflict shifted completely in just one turn. That turn now ended, and she was able to draw a card, but it was no creature. Another Hypothermia. She made use of the Wormhole now to absorb the kaleidoscopic presence of Rainboa, with no escape for the exhausted Luminaire, but did no more.
“Just a bit longer, alright?” Ars promised as Zachary called a new Rainboa on his turn, getting another Antlion Trap and Quickfire Sedative from his deck. The Trap closed in on the other Ink Balloon, while the Sedative's energy lessened the writhing of the gravity tendrils long enough for another diving strike from Aquila to dissipate Indigo's projected form, as yet another Siren, Rainboa's Apprentice Warmage, Spectra, floated up to the surface, gathering in the energy from the two spells, moreso for 'practice' than anything else. Ars projected a beam directly at Jiyu's form to attack, her Grid lessening in strength by one point as a result.
She did not move much now, casting the Hypothermia on Spectra, freezing the Siren completely, and summoning another of her Valkyries. Dvoid could draw power from the conflict conditions in a strange way, reliant on the outputs of her opponents during their own turn, but it would make no difference now.
Zachary played another Ars Megistus, causing Jiyu to grimace as the Antlion Trap returned once more to claim Parli. Between the twin Luminaires, the Sparkball known as Jet Paradox also appeared now. Without hesitation, Zachary attacked with all three of his available strikers.
“Call Mirage Flight, cast Wormhole on... Rainboa...”
Ars silently thanked her for not reducing his presence, knowing that even if it was at his friend's expense, going forward through the tournament with even a small boost could make all the difference. Jiyu sat back in her chair now, having put on what she considered to be a reasonable show, and braced her mind for the end. Zachary did not even bother to look at the card he drew.
“Jet Paradox, last Grid point. Ars Megistus, finale.”
Jiyu closed her eyes, resonating with Suna in defeat as the cosmic waves swept over her form, bringing her close to the edge of consciousness. It was over.