Chapter 1: 101 Ways To Put Your Foot In Your Mouth
This entire chapter came from the idea of calling Ren Nero. That's... that's all there is to it, really.
“Another long day,” a demon said, scanning the list of names on his clipboard. “Deliver to… all contestants listed… done by noon, blah blah blah… First up is- oh, actually, that’s cool. Looks like I’ve got some big names this time.” He checked his watch, and hoped that most of his list would be awake at six in the morning. He dreaded having to wake any of the more temperamental contestants up. He pushed open the staff door and started on his way. “I’m off, Jhorn!”
It was a quick walk to the first contestant’s quarters, as intended by the order of the names, and he took a moment to smooth down his hair around the horns that protruded from his forehead before knocking on the door. When he got no response, he held his breath and knocked again. This time he heard a shuffle through the thick wood and, hoping he wasn’t waking his recipient from sleep, tried the knob. The door opened.
“Excuse me,” he called, and stepped through.
The room was dark. No personalizations decorated the walls or shelf, but then again, the contestants hadn’t been there long. A lamp was lit, but the messenger had a brief moment of befuddlement when he saw the bed unkempt but empty. Searching the room, he almost jumped when he saw the one he was searching for sitting silently in the corner. Well. Looks like he was awake.
When the contestant didn’t acknowledge him, the messenger fidgeted and tried not to reach up and rub his horns. As he shifted his weight the boy barely glanced up before returning his gaze to limp hands in his lap. Darkness seemed to cling with a twisted glee to the small hunched form.
“Nero,” the messenger said, “I am Fons.”
No reply. The Forfeit King was much more intimidating in person than the boy Fons had been betting against just a match earlier. But then again, he was a Pafhelo, wasn’t he? Strange how weak he had seemed until he won against Quartz, who everyone had agreed was decently strong. Fons shook himself. Not the time to get distracted over losing 30 gold pieces.
“About your last match, with the rock demon, Quartz,” he began again. This time he got a reaction, as the boy turned to gaze at him with flat eyes. Ignoring a sudden chill with the practice of someone who had been surrounded by bloodthirsty beings for all his life, he pushed on. “The remodeling contestant Quartz did will take some time to repair. Matches may be postponed for a week.”
The boy’s eyes unfocused as his gaze drifted from Fons’ face and into the shadows flickering around the room. Something dark flashed in them, and his fingers twitched around an invisible hilt. Fons wondered where the boy’s knives had gone. Subtly glancing around the room revealed no clues. Maybe his sister had taken them? He ignored the twinge of relief that came when he found no sign of the knives.
Nero was still ignoring him, staring at his hands again and rubbing them slowly, when Fons recollected his thoughts. He thought the boy seemed much too dejected for having just won his first match. He glanced at his watch. He had time.
“You know, I saw your match,” Fons said, clutching his message board in one hand as he put the other on his hip. “What an upset! You had everyone fooled into thinking you were a total wimp!”
Nero's hands paused in their twisting but he didn't look up.
"But man, were we wrong or what?" Fons continued with a laugh, "you totally crushed that guy! You know, I actually bet against you, but when I saw contestant Quartz' flying head I knew my gold was doomed! Seriously, was that the perfect kill or what? When the rock shell started to crumble, and you stood up, and your knives were just drenched in blood, I mean it was everywhere-"
Fons blinked in surprise when Nero stood up, hands balled at his sides. "Leave. Please." He added in a hoarse afterthought. He was shaking, and Fons wondered if he was upset to hear Fons had bet against him. Fons stepped a bit closer, and raised a hand to apologize, but as he approached, Nero looked up. Fons froze, and was reminded that he faced a contestant whose bloodthirst was unknown but potentially one of the highest in the tournament, who had just killed for the first time since... Well, Fons didn't know when, but he knew it had to be before the tournament had started. His throat went dry.
"Ah, yes, of course," he stammered out. "E-excuse me." He all but bolted for the door. In an effort to appease Nero from deciding to track him down later for annoying him, he added, "y-you know, your sister must be proud! Right? It was a excellent kill..."
Nero's face darkened and his eyes left Fons to glance over at a backpack sitting in the far corner. Fons frowned. He hadn't noticed it earlier. He peered at it, but noticed Nero's hands had started twitching out of the corner of his eye and slipped out the door with a rushed, "well, bye!"
Nero stood alone in the room, staring at when Fons had disappeared through the door. “Please,” he whispered, “leave me alone.” His eyes flicked over to the backpack again.
As Fons rushed down the hallway, scanning his clipboard for the next person he had to deliver the message to, he recalled how he had seen many a strange contestant in his time working for various competitions and street tourneys, but the look on that boy's face when he had asked Fons to leave definitely made him the most disturbing. And oh, would you look at that. Now he had to talk to his sister.
Maybe he should call his mom one last time before he spoke with Sorian the Ripper.
Chapter 2: Though The Looking Glass
Child needs therapy.
A lot of attention was given to the most random of details?
Angst chapter. (Maybe?)
Stop thinking. Stop thinking. Stop. Thinking.
Ren had heard that you were supposed to clear your mind to meditate. He didn't want to meditate, thought it sounded just a little too close to sleeping, but the clearing your mind part sounded great. He closed his eyes and pressed the palms of his hands on the lids and tried to concentrate on the blackness and little specks of yellow and red that swam in it. He spent a couple moments trying to even his breath, but just as his shoulders started to slump from where they had been rigidly hunched the flashes of red began to grow bigger. They began to ooze from the corner of the darkness and splatter across the rest of it, and Ren pulled his head away so quickly it hit the wall behind him.
Almost hyperventilating, he stared at his hands to refocus from the visions of blood, and began to turn them over and over looking for any residual smears. He curled his fingers gingerly to check under the fingernails, and winced at how the skin stretched, so dried out from washing them over and over with the most freezing water he could find because anything warmer reminded him of- no.
"No no no," Ren whispered, digging his fingers into his head and staring with wide-eyed fixation at the ground. Out of the corner of his eye his jacket sleeves were trembling, and as he turned to look at them he saw darker discolorations, previously overlooked in the black cloth. His breath hitched. "Get away from me!"
With a strangled cry he jumped up and ripped the jacket off, flinging it away in uncoordinated terror. One of the sleeves caught on his arm, and, momentum cut, the jacket fell to the ground in front of him. Ren flinched away from it, back to the corner he had claimed, before turning back at trying to kick it farther away, scuffing the dusty ground. The jacket flipped over a couple times, and one of the buttons was uncovered and gleamed in the dim light of the candle he had lit. Ren froze, then slowly kneeled down to rub the dirt from the floor off the simple metal.
He had been so proud to get into that school. When he first tried on his uniform he had struggled with getting the buttons through the new holes and went to see if his mother would help him. She hadn't been home at the time, so he tugged at the holes to widen them and slipped the buttons through. Watching them glimmer now in the candlelight reminded him how cool he had found it that the buttons were made of real metal, not plastic like the other schools. And they were pretty durable too, as he had proved with his trek through the forest and fights with various creatures. But nonetheless the sleeves were starting to fray, and some buttons had started to get a bit loose. Ren knew there were two more hanging in his closet at home, and wondered if maybe he should switch it out-
"Ha," he mumbled, "right." He clutched the jacket to his chest. "Stupid." Metal or plastic, new and laundered or old and worn, what did it matter? Who cared? It wouldn’t change anything. Who cared if the buttons were metal? Not Ren, that’s who. Not. Me.
He left the jacket on the floor, standing up on stiff legs. He almost stumbled back into the simple bed that he had been allotted, but a glance at the twisted sheets reminded him of what a bad idea sleeping had been so he took a couple more steps and collapsed into the corner again. His shoulders sagged and he could barely keep his eyes open.
“Maybe I could…” Ren mumbled, glancing at the bed again, “he might not-” Ren stilled. Right. Him. The Assassin still followed him in his dreams, now with more blood coming from unseen sources. Ren worried that one night he’d find his own blades in his hands and still be unable to defend himself because they already were dripping with someone else’s lifeblood.
“Stop it.” Ren slapped his cheeks. “Don’t-don’t do that. Quartz-” Ren started when Quartz’ name slipped out. “Guess I really do need to sleep…”
But how could I? He shivered and rubbed his arms as the hairs began to rise in the early morning chill. He sat and tried to focus on the chill to keep himself awake. On the way the cotton of his shirt felt between him and the wall, how the floor was cold seeping through his socks and made his toes want to curl up, on the one light that flickered from the shelf… He wondered if maybe he should turn on more light to remove some of the dripping darkness in his vision and then squashed that thought as well and focused on how the heavy door reverberated when someone knocked on it.
A second knock came at the door and Ren blinked, standing up to get it before deciding that maybe, just this once, he could ignore someone at the door. Not very polite, but he wouldn’t be a good host at this point in any case.
But the door opened. A tall demon stepped though, and Ren’s thoughts blanked.
Perhaps it was the training with Sorian that urged him to bury his emotions to smooth his face, clear his eyes, and ignore his visitor so the demon wouldn’t notice the one they addressed was something that shouldn’t exist. At least, not down here. Perhaps, hopefully, it was that same training that began analyzing the reach and stride of this new enemy, the way they weren’t built like a fighter, at least not in terms of upper body strength, but that a weapon could change that, but that their wrists were weak so Ren could target those and the enemy’s elbows to disarm-.
The demon was talking. Ren glanced over them, and this time he ignored how two short little horns grew from their forehead to notice that they were wearing what he had begun to classify as professional clothing- similar to what the refs wore, it was brown and green and wrapped around the demons’ chest and came with matching pants that came to their shins. On their chest was a name tag that Ren squinted at, fumbling with the unfamiliar script, until he determined that it read ‘Mr. Fons’.
Mr. Fons was speaking, so Ren made an effort to listen. “-Quartz did will take some time to repair. Matches may be postponed for a week.”
Good. And then, Maybe Quartz could- ah. Ren glanced around the room as something seemed to writhe in the shadows. His stomach turned over, twisting into itself as gnawing guilt returned to scorch up his throat. His hands twitched, and he rubbed them, feeling the papery-dry burn and trying to ignore the phantom grip of two twin blades.
"You know, I saw your match," Mr. Fons' voice broke through Ren's zoned-out thoughts, "...you had everyone fooled into thinking you were a total wimp!" Ren's hands stopped twisting as a small, old part of him protested quietly at being labeled as weak. But, he reasoned with himself, I mean, he's not entirely wrong.
Fons was still talking, and Ren wondered what he was still doing there. Then he berated himself for his rudeness, even internal, and ignoring that his thoughts had sounded suspiciously like his mother for a moment, he made a bit of an effort to listen to Mr. Fons.
"-contestant Quartz' flying head, I knew my gold was doomed! Seriously, was that the perfect kill or what?"
Ren immediately wished he hadn't. As Mr. Fons narrated the end of the fateful match, all Ren could feel was the heavy warmth of blood seeping through his clothes, the rippling drag of it against his sneakers and the way it slid, slick and clinging to his hair, his skin, his hands, which still didn't feel like his own even as he felt the warm thrum of the binding of the grips of the knives digging into his palms from how tightly his fingers curled into them, and the ache in his wrists and arms and the slight tremble of exhaustion that must've come from cutting through something hard and he heard a roaring in his ears and a weight in one of his hands and looked down to see-
"Stop it." Ren focused on the present, on the absolute dryness of his hair and skin and on how a demon was standing there staring at him, and he stood up because he had to leave. now. "Please," he added, and wondered how someone like him could ever make his mother proud.
Fons stepped closer instead. Ren gave him a look. Fons all but bolted for the door, stammering rushed apologies.
He's afraid, Ren realized, eyes widening, he's afraid of me.
"Y-you know, your sister must be proud! Right? It was a perfect kill..." Fons dwindled off. Sorian would be proud, huh? If only it was even him who- who had... His eyes slid over to the backpack that slumped, exiled, in the corner. The door shut and Ren was glad he was finally alone.
As if he ever could be, the backpack reminded him. He silently begged it to leave him alone, and then, realizing he had said it aloud, retreated to his corner with a wary eye watching the circle and spot stamped on it. He remembered when Sorian had first seen the mark.
"Is this the sigil of your kidnapper?" She had asked one day, out of the blue.
"Eh?" Ren had glanced over his shoulder at where she walked behind him, then followed her line of sight to where he knew the symbol adorned his backpack. A brief moment of panic filled him. "A-ah! U-uh, yes? Well, I mean, no, but- well, that is, it must be! That's right! You- uh, you don't recognize it?"
His smile shook, and Sorian eyed him with a suspecting gleam, but she let his stammering slide as she went on to explain how some clans, villages, or such had sigils, but not all, as usually only the powerful ones did- so the Pafhelo did, of course, but-
Ren tuned her out, nodding when she looked at him, and had understood from her reaction that not all- or maybe even no one really knew the signs of Hell Kitchen's power. Or presence. Or hand? Did it have hands? In any case, if Sorian didn't know about it then it was definitely not common knowledge. He had let out a relieved breath. At least something was going right.
Staring at the backpack now, circle and spot but a red blur across the room, he wondered why he had never realized just what having the attentions of such a powerful being meant. First the assassin, then Quartz, was there anyone Hell Kitchen wouldn't behead at his bequest? And why stop there? With its power, he could beat anyone, win any fight, getting home would be a cinch! He wouldn't need anyone to- wait.
His breath hitched and he scrambled up from the ground. What was he thinking? How could he do something like that? "What did you do to me?" He shouted at the empty room, voice cracking. "What are you doing to me?"
He backed away against the wall. He felt his lip curling and bit it, shaking his head minutely and scrabbling to wipe away the tears that escaped his scrunched eyes. He gasped up several heaving breaths and stilled before raising his head to address the backpack with red eyes.
"Q-Quartz-" he cleared his throat, "Quartz- he was- in the rock maze we fought together, kind of, and he- he was trying to be nice to me, in his own, kind of mean way, and- aghhh!" He pulled at his hair and heaved a sigh.
"I don't know, ok? I don't know why, maybe it's because I'm human, maybe it's because, gee, I didn't grow up learning how to kill people, maybe it's because I'm weak, because I am, I know I really am, but I didn't want to kill him." He glared hard at the backpack, imagining a faceless figure in its place, shoulders hunched and fists curled. "He saved my life, in that maze. He didn't have to, might've even gotten out of a match! But he did, and then I just turned around and- and-"
Ren closed his eyes. "How could anyone with a heart do that?"
He opened his eyes to stare down at his trembling hands. How could someone who calls themself human do something like that?
He turned his head to look at himself in the mirror and instead of the bags under his eyes or the sleep-deprived tremble of his shoulders, he saw a new dark side to the glimmer in his eyes. But his concentration wandered when he tried to focus on anything, he found, and the little mirror on the shelf was straining his eyes.
It took him a moment to move his legs, but when he finally could he picked up the little mirror and stumbled to sit on the edge of the bed. The boy staring back at him looked tired, and young, and his eyes were still ringed red, but as Ren stared into them he found that the image was changing, ever so slowly.
The mirror was growing darker. Ren had to squint to see his reflected face, but the boy in the mirror stared back at him wide-eyed. His eyes were darkening, the color changing, as stains began to spread up the sleeves of his shirt and to the collar, dripping upward to stain his neck with the rust of blood that caked and dried in an instant in a line across his neck, crossing his jugular, which began to thump faster, pulses of living blood rushing through it and growing bigger and bigger, and Ren snapped a hand up to his own neck with a yell, dropping the mirror and falling back on the bed.
He opened his eyes. When had he closed them? His breath came out in pants as the pulse under his hand quieted, and he stared up at the dark ceiling of his room. The room he rented. Rented? More like just borrowed, he wasn't paying for it... Was he? Was Sorian? With a groan he swung himself up to look for the mirror. Had he hallucinated dropping it? He kind of hoped so. If it was broken maybe he and Sorian would swing by the market- no. There it was.
"No more markets," he said, picking up the mirror and tiling it to examine the hairline crack spiking from the corner. Not too bad. He went to put it back on the shelf but as he moved it through the candlelight, the fracture reflected it in a flare that illuminated a room with a cavernous ceiling behind him. No, Ren realized, glancing over his shoulder to a completely different ceiling, a room within it. He closed his eyes. Breathed in, and out, slowly, deeply.
Ren fixed his eyes onto the mirror and gave it and the room once more hidden behind the glass the darkest, most grim glare he could muster. "Remember what I said, Ramia."
He turned and hurled the mirror against the wall. It cracked loudly against the wall, and fell to the ground with a clatter, thousands of cracks zig-zagging though it like a Lichtenberg figure. Noticing that the glass hadn't actually fallen out from the glue holding it to the frame, he stomped over to it with a growl. His face, distorted by the displaced glass, reflected back to him a hundred times.
"With every ounce of my being," he grit out, and raised his fist.
Sorian is the best.
I'm on Tumblr now- shaulafan. Not much up there but if you want to drop by and say hi or anything...
“Hey Nero!” Sorian shouted as she kicked the door open. “Have you heard about this? They’re postponing matches! It’ll take ‘em ages to sort out the arena and you’re going to get out of practice, so I’m reinstating daily training! We’ll- hey, what’re you doing?”
Sorian tsked at the boy curled in the corner, who had un-hunched when she entered the room but made no move to get up. She glanced over the room, noticing how he had only lit one insufficient lamp when there were three more sitting unused. The candle lamp provided meager light as it flickered on a shelf against the wall, and she wondered if he had been using it because it reminded him of their campfires, but then she saw how he had thrown his backpack in the corner. She turned to look at him, and realized he hadn’t even changed his clothes, but thrown his bloodstained jacket toward the backpack, and it had fallen a couple feet from him. Also, the mirror from the shelf, for whatever reason, had been smashed, and she noticed little flecks of blood on Nero's right hand.
This was bad.
"Oh come on, at least send this to get cleaned," she said, picking up the jacket with her foot and using her good hand to open a hatch in the wall. Tossing the jacket down, she explained, "all contestant rooms get cleaning services. It'll be back by dinner."
Nero hadn't moved when she picked up the jacket, but he followed her with his eyes so she knew she at least had his attention. "Speaking of which, I found this great place for dinner just outside the arena. It's run by sound demons, and they cook the food with sound waves or something, so it's supposed to be really good. We're gonna try it! But first, training."
Sorian dropped down on the ground beside Nero and went to cross her arms before she remembered she wore a sling. With a slight scowl she poked at her bandaged arm before dropping the matter to gesticulate with her good one. "So I was thinking we could start with a run around the arena a couple times, then through the town to the rocks we were at the other day. We could benchpress some of the boulders. Then I want to go over your hand-to-hand. I know you're pretty handy with those knives of yours, but if they're ever knocked away you'll-"
"Sorian, I," Nero cleared his throat and looked away from her. "I don't want to train today."
"Nero, you need more practice!"
"I don't think I even can train anymore."
"We've spent all this time building up your reflexes and if you let yourself relax-"
"I just want a break." His voice cracked, and he buried his head in his arms. His shoulders trembled. "Please."
Sorian regarded him and took a deep breath. "Nero, if, at any moment, in the arena or out of it, you were to get hurt, you could be-"
"I know!" He bust out, flinging up his hands, "I know! But being on guard every second of every waking moment and fearing for my life because I know I'm not good enough at fighting or at-at handling anything is driving me insane! I can barely sleep at night and I almost don't even want to because when I do all I see is- is Quartz or that guy who- or crowds of people looking at me funny and they know somehow and I'm just so tired, Sorian." He dropped his elbows to his knees and clutched his head in his hands. "I'm done with this."
Sorian put her hand on his shoulder and ignored the flinch that met it. "You don't have to be good enough." He turned his head to glare at her with a glimmering eye, silently trying to refute her.
"No," she shook her head, "look. I can tell it's hard for you. Heck, I'd be difficult for anyone, having to pretend you're something you know nothing about being. But you've got me, ok? As long as we stick together, should any of that happen, I'll get you out. You know that." She looked away, slightly embarrassed as he raised his head to stare at her. She looked down when she felt a slight tug on her sling. Nero had reached out and was tugged on the strap.
"But if anything were to happen to you..." He closed his eyes. "I'm terrified of losing you. You're- you're really like a sister to me."
Sorian's throat closed for a moment. "You- heh, thanks, little bro." Throwing caution to the wind, she slid over and wrapped him in a shoulder hug. "You're the best little brother a Pafhelo could ask for." He had long stopped trembling, but as he tucked his head into her shoulder she could feel him beginning to shake again, and a wetness became apparent from where his face was hidden. She rubbed her thumb on his shoulder soothingly.
They sat there in silence for a while, and Sorian felt that maybe the darkness of the room had more of a cozy feel to it now. Her eyes, meandering around the room, fell on Nero's backpack, haphazardly leaning against the wall. She took a deep breath, pushing it out slowly. She didn't want to go there as much as he did, but it had to be discussed.
"Nero," she said. She paused to collect her thoughts, and felt him turn his head slightly to listen. "If anything were to happen to me... That's why I want you to train. Not just so you can win this thing and go home, but in case something happens and I'm not around or- or I can't be around to help." Nero had frozen against her shoulder, and she sighed as she pulled her arm back to lift him off her.
"Hey," she said when he wouldn't look at her. "Are you ok? I mean... About Quartz."
Nero closed his eyes and after a moment shook his head slightly, then more vigorously. "No. I- I don't know if I ever will be." She nodded.
"That's ok. Honestly, I hope not."
Nero looked up at her with wide eyes.
"Yeah," Sorian added, "from what I can tell things are really different in the human world. I want you to be able to defend yourself so that you're safe, not so that you can kill whomever you please."
"But I just- somebody is dead because of me." He sniffed and looked up, blinking rapidly. "No, Q-Quartz is dead, because I killed him. How- how is that different?"
"Because you only killed him because he had you at his mercy, and he showed no signs of giving it. Look, you knew this could happen when we signed up. We both did, right?"
"And I'm sorry that it did. But it might happen again, ok? You need to understand that."
Nero's eyes widened. It hadn't occurred to him yet that he might end up killing someone else.
"So I'm not asking you to like it. I'm not asking you to look forward to it or forget it as no big deal. You are who you are, and that's someone who honestly cares about the lives of others. But you're also terrified for your life in a place where other people literally make sport out of people killing each other."
Sorian leaned against the wall with a sigh. "Our plan was that you'd never have to fight and we're still going to stick to it. I'll do my best, and you do yours, and come to me anytime you can't sleep, ok?"
"And look, you need to keep training. So you don't get hurt, and so that if we get in a situation like that again, where you have to fight, you don't get yourself killed or make your match with Quartz go to waste. If we lose now..." She gave him a sidelong look and saw that he was starting to understand.
"Now!" She jumped up and Nero fell back with a yelp. She put her hand on her hip. "Since you obviously haven't been sleeping, training's going to be different today! Because training your body includes taking care of it!" She whirled around to point at him and declared, "so! One lap around the arena, and then you're gonna stretch, and we're gonna get sound demon food! But first," she smirked, and inwardly smiled at how expression had returned to his face, albeit in the form of fear, "take a nap!"