Episode 6 - A Warm Welcome

“I call another Mirage Flight, and cast Fair Wind and Slipstream,” Arielle Dumas declared, with a flourish, meanwhile moving two of her tempo out of the section of the table she had been using to indicate the tokens were usable, “Mirage Flight, attack Leon Paladi!”

“I really didn't think you were actually gonna do that,” her opponent Paul sighed. Leon Paladi had forced her to consume two tempo, one for each spell she cast, but the Mirage Flight now could not be blocked. Arielle continued by attacking with her Artillery Officer Nina, and Suna, finding, to her surprise, that Paul had no responcers in his hand of five cards, with which to stop her. He did not block any of the attacks, despite having blockers. Fair Wind had made her creatures too powerful, and unless Paul had a way to exhaust them himself, Slipstream would now prevent them from even being vulnerable to counterattack.

Arielle ended her turn with a smirk at her friend and rival Karaia Silvis, who stood at the side of the table watching the game. Karaia rolled her eyes, and young Arielle had no problem interpreting what that meant. Despite only being a year older than Arielle herself, Karaia was generally considered far more mature, and her style of playing Chaos Fractal was cautious compared to the pre-teen Arielle.

Paul contemplated the cards in his hand for a while, but before he decided his actual play, a newcomer at the door grabbed the attention of most of the teenagers in the hobby shop. At first, neither Karaia nor Arielle responded, leaving it up to the rest of the players to begin the usual curious buzz that implied a stranger. The sense of 'regal declaration' that swept over the room in response to over a dozen tiny psionic probes, though, was almost tangible to young minds as sensitive to such things as Arielle and Karaia.

It was then, therefore, that the two turned their heads to the door, both instantly recognizing the arrival. Not the man, whose back was now turned to them for a moment, though the height, dark skin and clean-shaven head were strong clues. What Arielle and Karaia recognized was that same regal presence. Within both the girls, similar presences, one playful and breezy, the other rash and fiery, came to the fore, matching the 'wave' the man had produced with their own, both directed right at him.

Niels Crimson reacted to this with a quick turn of the head, unused to such powerful 'greetings' from others, despite being easily capable of generating them himself. Within his mind, Crimson Diana, Eternal Queen, seemed to smile, and without a word, Niels got his deck and moved directly toward Arielle and Karaia.

“Hello, Mr. Crimson!” Karaia took the initiative in greeting, Arielle having been distracted by Paul's play. The response was a nod, and the words 'just Niels will do, or just Crimson'.

Karaia smiled at the very last two words, Turquoise Temper gently 'igniting' within her as if to nod. She understood quite well why being called just Crimson would be something the man would prefer, and continued along that line.

“Welcome back to town then, Crimson. Want to duel?”

Crimson was about to answer, apparently in the affirmative, when Arielle cut in with a quick “Hey! Me first!”, causing Turquoise Temper to flare in irritation from within Karaia, and in turn causing Karaia to snap at her.

“You're dueling already!”

“No I'm not! I surrender, you win!” she said to Paul, “Let's duel, Crimson!”

“What was that about!? You weren't even losing yet really!” Karaia fumed at Arielle, while the other players in the room formed their own questions, usually speculation regarding who exactly this dark skinned newcomer was, and what was so important about him that would cause Arielle Dumas to simply 'throw' a duel.

“But I can play against Paul anytime, I wanna play against Crimson now!” Arielle retorted, causing the resonance so easily associated with Artillery Officer Nina to clash mildly with that of Turquoise Temper. Karaia was having none of that, though, and neither was Temper.

“You could at least have finished your game! I asked him first anyway.”

By now, the curious buzzing of the room had gone up a few volume levels and Crimson could clearly hear the patrons of the shop trying to figure out amongst each other just who he was. He chuckled to himself, resolving to let them figure that out through his dueling, if they were even familiar with his 'fame' in the first place. Now, he allowed his 'avatar' to interrupt the Salamander and Sky Pirate. The Queen's resonance parted the clashing waves between the two girls, and Crimson spoke, his voice taking on a hint of Diana's authority.

“Ladies, there really is no need to argue about this. I'm not in a hurry today and I came specifically to do some dueling. There's time for me to play you both.”

Arielle and Karaia looked at Crimson, then back at each other, then at Crimson again, then finally Arielle, in her usual forthright way, spoke again.

“Okay but me first.”

The instant surge of Temper's power would have led any observer to believe that Karaia had been waiting for, and expecting, that precise reaction. They would be right.

“Oh no you don't! I asked first, and you already had three duels for the day, I've only played one. No 'cutting in line'.”

“Two and a half!” Arielle countered, gathering her cards as she got up out of her seat, “You can duel Paul while Crimson and I play.”

Karaia fixed Arielle with a glare that could make grown men wilt and enunciated through gritted teeth, “I don't want to duel Paul, or I'd have done that before. I asked Crimson to duel.”

Paul laughed and pretended to be offended, “You girls sure know how to make me feel special.”

The two continued to glare at each other, giving the impression that they were planning to somehow decide this by means of a staring contest. To Crimson, the truth was a bit more apparent. He could not tell exactly what the exchange going on between Turquoise Temper and Artillery Officer Nina was, but it was clear that they were having a 'heated' discussion.

Between them, the discussion was far more clear...

“Will you stop being so stubborn for one minute and listen to me?!” Nina argued, poking the Salamander in the head with the bristled end of her cannon-cleaning staff, “You have got to stop thinking that everything I do is some kinda plot to upstage you!”

“Maybe not, but this time what else can it possibly be?!” Temper flared back, igniting the brush, “I asked first, it's not even complicated!”

“But I'm going first so you can see more about him! You get something out of analyzing, it changes what you do! It doesn't change what I do so it's better for me to go first,” Nina argued, waving the brush around to put out the flickering turquoise flames that were now threatening to consume it.

“And didn't you think of how that will make me feel, furthermore look, if you win like that and then I lose even though I got to see what I was up against?” Temper, conveying Karaia's full feelings, continued.

“But I know I can't beat him! That's why I have to do this! At least you have a chance if you can watch and figure him out...”

The Salamander's ire seemed to subside at this admission, and Karaia broke the staring match first, turning away and folding her arms.

“Fine, you go first. But you owe me for this.”

Arielle smiled broadly, then looked over at Paul, who was already gathering his cards and moving out of the chair, muttering good-naturedly about how he could take a hint. Crimson moved around to where Paul had been and sat, his powerful frame making the cheap chair look even more flimsy than it actually was.

A quick bout of 'odds and evens' decided who would go first, and Arielle moved one token into her tempo 'zone', before nodding to Crimson to do the same. Her second turn was a mild surprise to Crimson. Arielle played nothing at all.

Karaia groaned inwardly. “I keep telling her she can't function like that... and she never listens because she's lucky whenever it matters... why is it then, that the time I need her to be lucky for my sake, she doesn't have anything to play...?”

Crimson, on the other hand, was not having any such problem. His Red Seeker appeared, in their minds, appearing to float in the air, before the tree in which it was lounging became visible. The imagery spread out slowly even as Arielle drew her card and sent a blast of chill at the branch with her Hypothermia spell, causing it to freeze over and the now-chilled Salamander to fall out of it and disappear into the underbrush.

Crimson's third turn meant a new challenger. The Aztotl warrior, Togami the Hitman, emerged from the trees, casting a wary gaze up the mountainside. In the distance, the off white sails of the floating frigate billowed lightly in the wind. The ship was anchored about halfway up the mountain, buoyed up even in the air by some unexplained force. Crimson had declared 'Affinity' as Togami's targets, causing the Hitman to be armed with various ranged weaponry, not the least of which was the large edged boomerang slung across his back.

Arielle drew her card, and to those onlookers attuned to their inner world, those sails billowed, and the ship began to move, descending slowly at first, but accelerating until it seemed as though it would crash into the treetops.

“I call Solarion Thistle,” were her words, as the ship came to an unexplainable stop. The aft deck came alive with the sprouting of huge flowering vines, almost giving the impression that the ship itself was one with the massive plant that now covered it. “End turn.”

“I call another Red Seeker,” Crimson said, depleting two of his four tempo. The imagery was becoming more vibrant now, and Karaia watched as many of the onlookers seemed to become mesmerized. She knew what was happening in their minds, having experienced it herself months ago. The feeling that she had described, at the time, as 'her imagination running wild', due to the similarity in the feeling. For most of the players now enthralled by the game in front of them, this would seem to be nothing more than their own vivid imaginations conjuring up images for them. It could take weeks, even months, for them to understand the truth, and so, the appearance of a new Salamander in the treetops above Togami would not even disturb their idea of what was happening in front of them.

The simultaneous “whoa” that came from two of those onlookers when Crimson's Spotter Dragon rumbled through the trees, on the other hand, might at least be enough to inspire a little further thought into the matter. Crimson did not attack with Togami, though, and so, the resonating power between him and Arielle did not actually clash on that turn.

Karaia turned her mind from thoughts of this, back to analysis of the duel before her, and groaned when she realized that Arielle probably had not drawn any of her Slim Jackson, either, or that would have been the girl's third turn play rather than the Hypothermia. Red Seeker was suited to the destruction of opposing blockers, of which Arielle had none. Dumas was not the type to concern herself more with slowing down her opponent than speeding herself up, and rightly so. For most Wind players, speed was their best offense and defense.

Knowing this made Arielle's next play even more surprising to Karaia. Rather than any new creature at all, a precise blast from one of the frigate's Air Cannons struck the Spotter Dragon, launching it out of the area entirely, back towards the distant Aztotl temple where Crimson Diana surely was waiting for her moment. Another rush of freezing air engulfed Togami. Another Hypothermia. Arielle's Solarion Thistle began to deploy its explosive thistledown...

“Solarion, attack Togami,” Arielle's words and hand movement, turning her card sideways on the table, made the attack official, but to Crimson, his Aztotl warrior was already struggling to shake off the numbing effects of the cold enough to evade the thistle bombs, and failing.

As the younger ended her turn, Karaia found her 'inner flames' calming further, as Temper became contemplative. The two parts of the girl's mind conversed again.

“Her way of playing... is it possible that she really is just trying to gather information...?”

Karaia's more 'human' side was not so easily convinced.

“She probably really just didn't draw anything that would let her do anything else.”

The truth of that was about to be tested in a very serious way. Now, from the temple, came the rumbling through the trees of not one, but two Spotter Dragons. Someone in the group of onlookers let out a low whistle. This was one of the most difficult occurrences to defend against in Chaos Fractal, even with the powerful Solarion Thistle present. Karaia found herself unconsciously biting on the corner of her lower lip, and stopped. Arielle, by contrast, seemed calm enough, for a person facing such a force.

“Not coming yourself?” Nina projected clearly at Crimson. The Queen's response was simply a thought projection that implied it was unnecessary, yet the expression was not condescending. Arielle laughed lightly and drew her card. A stunning ice form emerged from the snow of the mountain, sending another chilling wind into Crimson's rainforest, this time right past the reptiles and into the undergrowth.

“Suna,” she said, consuming one of her own tempo as a result.

“She can't just stall though,” Turquoise Temper observed, “It's unl--”

There was no need to finish the thought, as the Solarion Thistle deployed more down into the air, this time letting the winds carry it directly toward the temple, revealing the 'idea' that was Niels Crimson and exploding against his Grid as he sat on the steps near the top of the temple building. The thistle bombs created hairline cracks in the stone steps, and the shimmer of the Grid became visible for a while before the smoke cleared, fading a bit after that.

“Still don't need to come?” Nina taunted playfully, fully aware that very little had actually changed.

Karaia wondered if the other players around her were as aware of the conversation as she was, as the Queen's response now gave a clear hint as to Crimson's next play, even before Arielle ended her turn and sat back in her chair.

“I will send a friend. He is better suited for handling sky battles. I would ask you to welcome him warmly but I expect he will handle that himself.”

The deafening roar that now echoed over the rainforest left no doubt as to what Crimson was calling into the conflict. Both the Spotter Dragons roared in greeting, and even the Red Seeker made its own small shriek of welcome as Balamar, Ruler of the Skies, came into view. The sparkling form of a Shine Missile followed not far behind.

The shift in 'presence' accompanying the play made Karaia tremble despite herself, and for the first time in a very long time, she noted the same reaction in Arielle. The Wind duelist showed no signs of surprise, but if she was somehow hiding that, she was failing to hide her awe.

Balamar nodded to the lizards below as he flapped to a stop in the sky above them, with the Shine Missile coming to a hovering stop over the great War Dragon's shoulder. On that signal, the Red Seeker leapt down and moved quickly toward the ship, accelerating until it flung itself into the air and somersaulted, using the same cleaving wave of red flames it would normally use to destroy blockers, to attack Arielle's ethereal form, standing on the bow of the ship. The sphere of grid energy around her took the hit, flickering and losing some of its golden shimmer. Only then did Balamar himself move, with a mighty wingbeat ascending over the ship, then breathing a stream of flame down at the Solarion Thistle.

Arielle was ready. To the surprise of all present, including Karaia and Crimson.

“Foam Shield!”

An explosion of bubbles surged up around Solarion, meeting Balamar's fire breath with a hissing sound that dominated their senses for several seconds before the attack ended. The Thistle, singed, but overall still alright, retreated below deck, as Arielle returned the card to her hand. The play brought a chorus of 'yes!' and other encouragement from the onlookers, which in turn caused Karaia to roll her eyes.

“Admirable, but a little futile...” was Diana's opinion, before sending the Spotter Dragons in to strike. The fire blast from the first engulfed Arielle, and instantly triggered another shot from one of her Air Cannons that not only dissipated the second fire blast, but sent its source yet again flying back toward the temple.

“You seem very sure of that,” Nina challenged, as Arielle now drew her card. Her bravado was unlikely to be anything but a bluff, and yet even Karaia wondered. Two Switchblade Scarabs appeared now, each crawling out of the side of the ship and toward the bow, along the hull. From the mast, a swirling form descended too. NiaNia, Tradewinds Pixie, a creature whose 'winds of change' could seal fates either way.

NiaNia's power swept over the rainforest like a hurricane, disrupting any plans Crimson might have had, and revealing the forces now capable of doing anything against Arielle on his next turn. Only this was finally enough to make Diana emerge from her temple, with two attendants beside her, Togami and Phoenix Alicia, and a Shine Missile floating over her head. The winds revealed a Gaia Rumble peacefully 'sleeping' nearby as well. Suna moved to strike at the exhausted Red Seeker before it could return to the forest, but her icy blade-arm met only a shimmering collection of disks of light. There was a flash and a beam that stunned one of Arielle's beetles, causing it to fall off the hull and land on its back in the snow below.

The Red Seeker continued on home, having been saved by the Shine Missile, that action alone having assured Arielle's defeat, even if NiaNia's power had not changed things as they had.

“For that effort, you have earned my presence.”

Togami was dismissed back into the temple, but Crimson Diana and Phoenix Alicia now descended the huge staircase, the Shine Missile floating along just behind the queen's right shoulder. As they reached the bottom, Alicia knelt, hot energy flaring up around her as it flowed into Diana's body through a regal, outstretched left hand.

Then, the Aztotl queen simply disappeared. Arielle had no time to contemplate what this really meant, as Balamar's next fire blast bore down on her. The Air Cannons remained silent. Whatever the remaining cards in Arielle's hand were, they were no use now. As the flame subsided, Diana appeared in all her majesty before Arielle's form, and swung her weapon to cleave easily through it, causing the girl's body to physically stiffen with the shock, and bringing her mental projection of herself to its knees before Diana.

“As you were.”

Balamar descended, to allow Diana to leap onto his back in order to be carried back to her temple.

Arielle began to breathe again, finally muttering 'wow'.

“New guy's good,” someone to Karaia's rear left muttered. She sighed. At least now the watchers were understanding their previous enthusiasm.

“Good game,” Crimson offered, “Another round?”

Karaia was just about to interject when Arielle spoke, making it unnecessary, “Whew, no, I think that's it for me, I'll need to think quite a bit to figure out how to beat you. Karaia's turn.”

Crimson laughed and accepted this answer, shuffling his cards back into his deck as Arielle started to get up, picking up her own. Karaia's mind was already racing in too many directions at once. Arielle's words had triggered a memory, a memory of being told practically the same thing by the other girl months ago. At the time, she had considered it very arrogant of Dumas to act like she did not normally need to think to win, but in retrospect it was much clearer. Regular opponents were simply too 'straightforward' to cause Arielle to need to do much beyond follow the flow of her deck. It made a certain other, later memory, make more sense. She had teased Arielle a bit bitterly once, after a particularly close game, asking if Dumas had 'needed to think this time', and been even more offended when Arielle simply answered no.

“Was that enough?” came Nina's mental question, jarring her swirling thoughts into another channel. Temper considered the cards and strategy seen, then reluctantly admitted to not being sure, as Karaia sat.

“I think you made sure we got to see everything,” the salamander continued, “Only his removal or responcer matters now.”

“It will be Air Cannon,” Nina responded confidently, before Arielle moved to where Karaia had been standing, and her face became serious and focused once more, “Don't lose, or at least look better than I did while doing it.”

“Didn't you hear them cheering you on? You looked fine.”

“Not to you.”