Episode 5 - Oh There It Is!
The second semifinal duel of the tournament came to an end with Zachary Thomas edging out a win with only one Grid left. The officiating staff now had to make certain final preparations, giving the young man time to excuse himself, with the explanation that he wished to talk to his friend by himself before the game. After a bit of persuasion of the more stubborn members of the impromptu fan club that his playing had generated, he was allowed to slip away, and found the woman he meant quickly, only barely resorting to his ability to scan the room for her presence.
“You okay?” Zach asked as he slid into the seat opposite Jiyu Nereis. She had somehow managed to find a spot in the large auditorium with few other people in close proximity, leaving Zach to wonder if she had 'guided' others away from her position.
“I should be asking you that,” Jiyu remarked, having just finished a brief scan of her friend. It was in her nature to collect information, and in this case, the state of her self-proclaimed 'little brother' was the foremost priority.
“Mm?” was all Zach said, the sound only barely carrying the inquisitive intonation.
“You are tired. Given your stamina for this level of concentration and the rate that it regenerates at, I have to wonder if you can even handle the final game as you are now.”
“Oh, that,” Zach chuckled, dismissively, slouching somewhat in his seat, “They said I had time for a break, so I should be fine. Besides, you moved around more than I did. Got data for me?”
He knew beforehand, what mode of thinking that question would put Jiyu into. The ability to have someone else watch and analyze opponents at tournaments was a large advantage, tactically, and quite a few of the more serious players of the game went to tournaments in pairs, as they had, for reasons beyond simple camraderie.
“Your opponent plays a Wind-Earth combination. It appears to be a Blitz but it has a few heavy hitters as well, so you cannot depend on your regular attacks and defenses to stop those, not even Jet Paradox. You have to save your Wormholes for them. The player herself is--”
She paused here, trying to find the correct word.
“Exuberant. Lots of energy and cheerful and possibly impatient though I couldn't really tell. Your normal rate of play will possibly frustrate her, so take your time with your moves. Better for her to slip up than you. You'll need to destroy the early creatures, as always, but only the first.”
Zach contemplated this, thinking of who he had seen winning that matched the description. It clicked then. Fortunately, the young lady Jiyu had described was probably one of the ones he had actually been watching. He now posed a question for confirmation.
“She's the one with the wild brown hair and the erratic control of her effect?”
“Yeah,” Jiyu nodded, indicating the current direction to the opponent with a gentle mental push.
Zach sighed and closed his eyes. “She won't be easy.”
“It will be fine,” Jiyu reassured, standing, “It'll be just like beating me.”
With that, she walked away, dismissing the attempt at comforting resonance that Zach and Ars Megistus extended toward her. Zach settled into his own thoughts, now tinged with worry at her reaction, and thoughts of if coming to the tournament at all had been a good idea.
Jiyu, meanwhile, had moved to where the staff was preparing the main dueling table for the final. The other duelists had moved into their various little pockets of activity around the room, giving the officiators lots of space. She casually drifted to within earshot, just in case there was more to learn and possibly report back to Zachary before the game started.
“So do we have an alternative?” came the voice of the man she knew to be in charge of the whole event. The question was a serious inquiry, almost hopeful, catching her attention fully. She focused her precision inwardly, and Suna's resonance allowed her to augment her auditory processing, to catch the strains of words that reached her ears.
“It's not really that we need one,” another younger man replied, “Their outputs only affect the signal in a small band of values, and it's only a bit of interference. It's probably not even worth trying to run the wires for it, so--”
“Why would that help?” the chief organizer interrupted, his voice only barely reaching her.
“Their power only disrupts the wireless signal, not the EyeCam itself. Anyway, it's never constant, it seems to be only at a certain point between energy states, for them, so I doubt it will cause more than a few seconds of blip. If you want us to run the wires anyway it may take a bit longer.”
Jiyu's mind filled in some of the less audible parts of that explanation automatically, but she was confident that she had interpreted it correctly, and now even the normally unflappable Nereis found her heartbeat quickening. She stopped her mind from going on a processing tangent of how they knew and how much they knew, attempting to keep her focus on the conversation.
“Then I guess we will just use it and hope they don't get somehow stuck in that frequency band. It's odd for them to affect something as modular as a wireless signal though. I'll have to note it for the guys back at R & D...”
He activated his data pad now, and walked off further with the other man trailing, leaving earshot completely. Jiyu turned back to where she had left Zach, with the intent of letting him know what she had just learned, but it was too late, in the sense that two of the other staff members were already leading him toward her, for the duel. She growled, and slipped off to the side, out of the way, as the duelists began to notice, and congregate.
Zachary fidgeted. He disliked having gadgets attached to him generally. The microphone was one thing, but the small 'tension monitors' seemed a bit much, in his opinion. The crew's reassurances that they were harmless meant nothing to him. He already knew they were harmless, he just did not like them. A woman to his left tapped his shoulder just as he was about to sit, and held out her hand for his deck. He relinquished it without a word, in contrast to his opponent, who told the man assigned to helping her to make sure not to shuffle it too long.
The two duelists took their seats at the same time, the white cloth covering the table dotted only by the black EyeCam in the middle that would provide the view of their play zones. The staff added the two tempo token dispensers a moment later.
“Oooh snazzy,” the girl noted, looking over the gadget to figure out what to push on it to make a tempo come out. Zach noted similarly but with no comment.
“And now everyone, the final match, the moment we have waited for. Zachary Thomas will face Maze Damarona for the champion title and the prize of five hundred dollars in cash or KirriCorp merchandise! The analyst has decided that Maze will be going first. Good luck to both players!”
The crowd buzzed at the decision. It was a bit unusual to let the faster player go first in these things, particularly those who had attackers with such low costs. Maze smiled broadly, pressed on the side of the tempo dispenser, and moved the green token straight to her 'depleted' side.
The sprite card caused another buzz in the crowd of onlookers. She had played what was known commonly as a 'one drop' that so often put such great pressure on players attempting to hold off blitz decks. Zach did not shift, the screen showing his overall tension showed no change at all. Maze did not need to look at it to know that she had not even given him a reason to worry. Her awareness of his state was already fully active. Jiyu did not cast a glance in that direction either, instead moving to the fringes of the onlooker circle in search of something else.
“Meryl Maid,” was Zachary's response play, revealing why he had shown no concern. Jiyu let herself connect to the resonating field of psionic energy the two were now generating, and the perspective of her subconscious shifted, to a familiar shoreline, where a sprite danced above the waves, watched by a considerably more sedate Siren just offshore.
She split her focus carefully, moving around as inconspicuously as she could manage, in an attempt to find the person reporting on the duel. It took only a few moments to find him, moments in which, as far as she could tell, Zach and Maze each played a turn with no actions.
She found the man, sitting at a laptop, facing away from the duel, but with what appeared to be the live feed from the EyeCam on his screen in the upper right corner. She strained to focus on it, while still out of what would be construed as a suspicious range, and pretended to be looking at the other screen on the wall instead.
“Relax, we can do it, we do not need to watch the screen that closely anyway,” Suna reassured, augmenting Jiyu's physical focus to match the mental. Jiyu 'nodded' inwardly, and settled herself, letting her perceptions mix, focusing on the reporter's voiceover and the duel imagery.
“Maze has just summoned her Queen Honeysuckle card, which may be doubly advantageous against Zachary's Meryl Maid if she's lucky,” came the voice. Jiyu had already noted this herself. The vine spreading out over the rocky beach was very obvious, the imagery for it more detailed than she had ever experienced for that particular card. Maze's output had spiked as well, causing a flicker in the camera feed, but only for a moment.
“Oh, there it is,” the man continued. Jiyu watched in her mind as the sandy trap opened beneath the spreading vines, consuming it, while the announcer continued, “Zachary plays an Antlion Trap and chooses the Queen Honeysuckle, for his turn.”
Jiyu noted the pronounced dip in Maze's output, and another, more prominent flicker in the camera feed, then a third, as Maze made her next move.
“Maze has called two creatures already, both of them Majests, a Lost Ninny Goat and the powerful Kirin Destiny, one of the strongest four-cost creatures available! Will Zachary have a response?”
The goat moved over the rocks easily. The great Kirin, a splendid creature appearing to be half giraffe, half unicorn, moved considerably more gracefully. Jiyu marveled at the power and detail in Maze's imagery, especially since she so seldom saw this card.
“But Zachary seems to be prepared, with a Kilijoa to hold off any onslaught, so we'll have to see if Maze is just as ready to counter h-- oh there it is! Air Cannon has removed Kilijoa from the conflict and Maze is attacking with her Wispy Shala.”
The blast had churned the waves, sending the stronger Siren flying, and now the Sprite was making a beeline for Jiyu's perception of Zachary's protected form. The Meryl Maid made no moves to intercept the attack, letting Shala focus her gust into a shearing blast that drilled against Zach's grid defense energy.
“Minus one grid for Zachary, but his tempo is now six, and it looks like Maze is going in for another attack--”
Of all things, the 'war bleat' of the Lost Ninny Goat drowned out the words the man said, in Jiyu's mind, as it plunged into the water, swimming at a speed that no real goat could ever hope to manage. This one, the Meryl Maid intercepted. Zach had been waiting for that.
“It looks like Zachary is more interested in stopping Maze's Earth than her Wind,” the commentator correctly noted. This was completely tactical, and the charging goat slammed into the Siren, both thrashing in the water a bit before sinking under the waves. Jiyu could not keep focus on the commentator's words during Maze's next play. She had connected herself too strongly, and the vision of the great Kirin wading into the water, the waves literally calming around it as its horn glowed, and the beam of energy that erupted from that horn to blast Zachary's form, took all of her processing capability for that moment.
“--acked with Kirin Destiny even knowing that Zachary still has Kilijoa in his hand!”
The man's words came back through as if it were radio feed after exiting a tunnel. Jiyu calculated the odds even as the announcer continued with his surprisingly accurate tactical analysis. The brown haired girl had also played a second Wispy Shala and another Queen Honeysuckle on her turn, before the Air Cannon. Her move was also correct. This was the pressure a high speed deck could present, and there was no room for hesitation.
“Does she have another Air Cannon and intend to finish this quickly if she can? What will Za-- oh there it is! A Wormhole on Maze's Kirin Destiny!”
The vision was heartwrenching, the spatial distortion looming up from the water like a demon to drag the Kirin into the waves. Even exhausted, the creature did not go easily, struggling and making a great, echoing sound, a bleat that yet was not one, as it fought against the power of the gravity well. The sound was cut off as its head finally vanished beneath the ocean surface, and its calming effect on the waves vanished shortly after. Jiyu winced. Zachary had purposely put that much effort into the imagery. Necessary perhaps, to demoralize Maze somewhat, but for those to whom this all seemed very real, watching the Kirin die was not an easy thing.
Zach had actually replayed his Kilijoa before casting the spell, so now the end of his turn did not mean that he was defenseless. Shala waited, glowing for a moment, as a glowing beetle emerged from the canyon beyond the shore, and another vine spread across as well.
“Maze has called a Firstborn Firefly and Steady Roots, so she certainly has no shortage of attackers now. Can she push through yet? She appears to be attacking with Queen Honeysuckle... but Zachary does not block! This is definitely surprising!”
The vine's attack consisted of a great heaving extension into the water and thrashing dangerously. Zachary was now left with only one more point of grid defense.
“What are you planning?” Jiyu wondered to herself, confused, “Not even Rainboa will be enough if she has another Air Cannon.”
The prismatic Luminaire appeared as she expected, on Zach's following turn, the imagery yet again overpowering her auditory sense, though she still noticed the definite disruption of the video feed as Zach's output spiked suddenly. Rainboa's power brought with it two Antlion Traps, and the commentator's apparently signature phrase 'oh there it is!' managed to make it through her haze as Zach cast both copies of the spell, getting rid of the Queen Honeysuckle yet again, and one of Maze's Wispy Shala. The power of Rainboa's presence also overwhelmed the fragile consciousness of the Firstborn Firefly, resulting in Zach being able to take out three of Maze's creatures in one play, even without a card dedicated to that sort of effect. He could only end his turn there, though, with Maze still having two creatures able to bring this to a swift end if she could remove the Kilijoa. Both knew this well.
“Both players' tension gauges are definitely up now! Maze's speed has made the duel depend on the next card, but she doesn't seem to have drawn an Air Cannon, and is apparently thinking now. There are just two cards in her hand, what can she be considering so?”
The rushing force contained in Maze's power had indeed steadied, and she seemed to be very carefully contemplating the two cards in her hand. Some players behind her strained to see what it was she was holding that could make the normally instinctive player deliberate so long. Others conferred with each other, speculating about her options. Jiyu waited.
Gravity energy formed into a nondistinct shape over the coast now, and this power reached out into the water, causing the body of the Kirin Destiny to resurface and wash up onto the shore. A gentle pulse spurred it to cough up seawater and begin to breathe again, then the gravity force supported it as it struggled back to its feet.
“Maze has called Indigo to the conflict and discarded her Fair Wind card to get back her Kirin Destiny! And with her current tempo she has called it too! This is going to get tough for Zachary if he can't remove those two, since he still has Steady Roots and another Wispy Shala to worry about! Can he move forward from here still?”
Jiyu wondered this herself, but sensed no real change in Zach's energy, a surprising fact given the situation. His next play easily showed why, but it was not something that even one who trained against the young man constantly would have expected.
The camera feed went completely out for a few moments as Ars Megistus descended from the heavens, causing the Wormhole to rumble beneath the waves once again and exert its force on the Kirin. This time, the creature was not so tired as to be unable to stand its ground at least somewhat, and the spell's effect ended in the more 'usual' way, a sudden inversion of its force that ejected the Kirin from the conflict area completely.
There was only a minor pause in the flow before the crowd's buzz doubled in its decibel count. A second Ars Megistus now followed the first, energizing the same Wormhole once again, this time targeting the Steady Roots, but the result was the same. No destruction, only a setback, as the Great Vine was also flung off the shoreline back into the winding canyon beyond.
“-with his Elemental Warmage! Minus one grid for Maze!” the commentator announced, now sounding excited and relatively loud. Zach's turn ended, but neither of the players' tension gauges, nor the outputs they were emanating through the room, changed. Zach's presence loomed over Maze's, though. He had two copies of his avatar fully manifest, and had destroyed both copies of the card that had appeared to be hers. The only reason he could not rest easy yet, was that the situation had not changed overall. One Air Cannon would still probably end the game.
What Maze actually drew was a Wooden Hammer, seen after the Vine and Majest managed to return to the conflict. The spell, in the form of a great uprooted tree, was almost effortlessly swung around by the gravity manifestation that Indigo currently projected from wherever the Deep Thought resided in Maze's world. There was no choice but to block this one.
The attack slammed into Kilijoa, but even in defeat, the Siren's power surged, a waterspout of great force impacting with the small form of Wispy Shala, and sending her too, flying out of the conflict area, preventing another strike.
“Now the situation has changed quite a bit! Maze has been able to defeat Kilijoa and has two other creatures ready, so Zachary again has to do something right away! Even if he plays another blocker, there's still Air Cannon to worry about!”
Jiyu decided at this point to block out the commentator purposely. He was no longer necessary to her own analysis, and it was simply easier to watch the disturbances in the feed without the distraction. She shifted her focus to the dueling duo.
Zach's resonance became almost solid in its intensity. Another Rainboa coalesced in the sky, bringing with it the winning combination. An encore. The Luminaire brought with it Zach's other two Wormhole, and the Steady Roots and Kirin Destiny were once again subjected to the power of the gravity fluctuation. Both went flying once again, leaving only Indigo on Maze's shoreline.
A screech in the sky above indicated the arrival of Aquila Superior as well, and the three Luminaires that had been there before, now made their move. Rainboa's prismatic lasers swept over Indigo's projected form, dissipating it completely in one pass, while the cosmic projections from both of the Ars Megistus sought out a different form. Maze shuddered at the effect of their attacks on the Grid field encasing her.
“Just as predicted,” Suna noted, the resonance very close to a shrug. The duel was already over. The four Luminaires would be able to defeat Maze alone, even if she did find a way to remove one.
Maze either did not notice this or did not care. Her group of creatures quickly reappeared. First the Wispy Shala, then another Indigo, apparently her draw for the turn. Indigo's power reached out into the ocean again, to revive the Lost Ninny Goat that had sank into the waves early on. The small Majest was coaxed to its feet just as the Kirin had been, with some encouragement from that same Kirin, as it joined the group, and finally the Steady Roots.
Only when Maze finished this sequence did Jiyu understand the significance of it. Almost like defiance, the girl was proving that she could not be held down, even with as much force as Zach had used. She too had five creatures in play once again, despite her empty hand and obvious inability to do anything about what was coming now.
Zach made no move for the final turn other than to declare his attacks, beginning with Aquila's shrieking dive, and following with the descent of his two manifest avatars. The first Ars Megistus dissipated Maze's last flickers of grid energy. The second...
“And Ars Megistus brings the finale!” the commentator yelled, enough to overcome Jiyu's focus block. Zach seemed to lack the reserves to put too much behind the final attack, but it was unnecessary, and matching Maze would have been difficult either way.
“Zachary Thomas wins! His diverse spell selection and the power of Luminaires were a winning combination today in every sense of the word!” the exuberant commentator continued, “What a display of the potential of Elemental Warmage Rainboa! A spectacular duel, and a close result!”
Jiyu was already walking back toward the duel table, wondering how many viewers would actually even understand just how 'close' the result had really been.
She did not bother trying to get too close. The staff were already fussing over Maze and Zachary, and so she merely observed as they went through the process of official prize presentation and other related activity. Through it all, Maze seemed completely unaffected by her loss, or perhaps even more excited by the outcome of the duel. It would be over an hour before Zach could get away from the bustle enough to approach her again.
“Why was she so happy?” Jiyu asked with no preamble.
Zach stopped halfway through seating himself, at the abruptness of the question, then sat and leaned toward her.
“You didn't hear any of our banter? She was happy like that for the whole thing, even teasing me that I was walking a thin line against her speed. I don't think she thought she was going to lose even for a moment, until the very end.”
“Must be nice,” Jiyu muttered, the bitterness of her tone masked, but still recognizable to her friend due to his years of knowing her.
“Hey now, there's advantages to being able to do what you do, too, you know--”
“I do not see how knowing how and when you are going to lose, in advance, is a useful ability,” she countered, cutting him off. He sighed and said no more, instead allowing Ars Megistus' power to extend the equivalent of an engulfing embrace to comfort Suna.
He was a little surprised to find that she finally accepted this, allowing his influence to soothe the frustration she had been holding in since their own duel earlier. This surprise was easily picked up on by Jiyu, through Suna, and her next few words offered a bit of explanation.
“We have bigger things to worry about than my losing streak,” she whispered, leaning forward in her own chair as well, “They know about what we can do. I'm not sure how much exactly, but they definitely know something, I heard them talking about it affecting the wireless signal.”
“Wait... it does that?”
Zach's confusion came out a bit louder than he intended, prompting Jiyu to shush him, albeit unnecessarily. She leaned even closer and continued.
“Yes, otherwise I wouldn't be using my voice to talk to you now. I suppose it was silly to ever believe they were ignorant of it, considering that it happens to lots of duelists and they must have people who actually duel, on staff, but the thing is they were really casual about it...”
Zach shifted in his chair, not quite understanding the implication. Jiyu sensed this too, and so, continued, “What I mean is that they talked as if this is something they deal with every day. Maybe it's because the Kengacon KirriCorp staff are from the main office, but if they all know, then it's only a matter of time before more people know.”
“I see, I think,” Zach whispered back, “You mean that they aren't even a little freaked out... they might even know more about this than we do ourselves.”
“Exactly. This isn't some special secret we are holding from everyone who can't do it. Can you imagine what happens if the world starts hearing 'oh there's a card game that can make you psychic'? It'd be passed off as ridiculous at first, but... rumors don't just die when they're actually about something real, especially not if KirriCorp knows and anything they know gets leaked.”
Ars Megistus' influence swirled around Suna, contemplative. The potential outcomes of what she was suggesting were indeed 'all bad', at least if the information was not controlled. This prompted Zach's thoughts to follow a different pattern though, one that contrasted strongly with his eternally pessimistic 'big sister'.
“So if they know all this, why aren't there any leaks? Surely this would be big news even if it were just rumor news. Think about it... isn't it strange that we didn't even know that they knew until now? Maybe they're just as interested in keeping it secret as we are.”
“If so,” Jiyu muttered, “I'm even more worried about that.”