Without magic to sustain them, the shards of ice around Irina's head dropped. Her beam of light streamed towards her target, striking him in the shoulder and spinning him around. A poorly aimed shot, but no matter. Even the smallest of bolts would be able to finish him off, assuming she didn't miss a stationary target.
And then the gong sounded, reverberating throughout the Arena. It was louder than the one at the start of the battle, its sonorous booming causing Irina to pause, and look up. Her natural instincts told her to ignore the sound and finish off the chanter, though by then she had already looked away. Everything in the Arena seemed to still; from the competitors, to the once-deadly belt of asteroids, and almost her breathing, it seemed. Was that it then? The tolling of a gong to start the battle, and another to signal its finish? So what happened n-
Then the asteroids around the Arena exploded, blinding and glittering lights bursting forth from within. Irina raised her arms and her blade defensively, knowing very well that such an action would be ineffective should a large enough rock actually fly at her head. An umbrella would be better. A massive steel umbrella, maybe, capable of withstanding a storm of rocks.
No asteroid remnants flew towards her, or any of the other competitors, for that matter. The motes of light rushed at her, zipping and looping around before finally swarming her. The lights were blinding, impossible to see through. Which shouldn't have been possible, yet she couldn't see anything. Irina felt herself moving, being lifted airborne.
And then there was a shark crack, a sharp pain like an electric shock, and then-
"... Wait, that's it?"
"Yes. She's passed. Somewhat quickly, but an interesting chain of events, wouldn't you say?" The grey haired man stood, and turned to leave. "Come on, let's head our other seats."
"But, but. But she didn't DO anything! She stood around in the same pose a lot, and then she ran around a bit." The dark-haired girl huffed. She stood and followed the man out of the exit, pushing roughly past a group of spectators excitedly discussing how all the Sky competitors had disappeared. "If I had known it was Derby Day I would've worn an appropriate outfit!"
"Irina's never been one for starting fights if she could help it. That was unusually assertive plan by her, though. Shame about the timer. And what did you expect, anyway?"
"Well for one thing, I expected her to be dead already, and she's not. Maybe knocked into the belt and crushed against those asteroids, or diced into itty bitty pieces by that old guy's swords. Even a shard of ice through the head would've been something. Or roasted. Or a harpooned, like a whale." The girl said, looking up in thought. "What noise does a whale make?"
"And why do you think she would've died so easily?"
"Well Auros didn't let her bring any decent equipment. She's wearing her dress uniform, for The Gods' sake. Only thing she has that's notable is Auros' super flashlight, and who knows if she can even use it?"
The man looked at her briefly before continuing on, squeezing through the seething mass of spectators. The girl followed in his wake, chewing a nail and staring dreamily at ceiling in thought. They moved on in silence until they reached the entrance to the Final Arena, which was when he spoke again. "Why do you want Irina to die so badly, Lieutenant?"
The girl snapped out of her dreamy staring, her glowing eyes regaining their focus and her face darkening in a scowl. "I just hate her guts. Or where her guts would be, if she wasn't such a big coward." she said, spitting the last word. "Honestly."
"Really. You hate her?"
"Who would've thought?"
The girl redirected her glower to him. "Humor doesn't become you, sir."
"Death isn't funny, Lieutenant."
"No, it is. Trust me, life is just The Gods' longest and worse comedy skit. Wanna guess my favorite part?"
He sighed, and pulled out a pair of tickets as they moved through the entrance, giving them a brief skim before walking to the left and down a flight of steps. They reached the bottom and took a right, pushing past more spectators until they were at their seats. The Grand Arena lay before them, its pink sand winking at them in the morning rays. They sat in silence for a moment, the man taking in the view while the girl muttered about the sun. He glanced around the Arena, and then nodded at a lump on the sands. Something was under there, covered in a mass of insects. A body.
The girl stopped grumbling and watched, as beetles picked and tore at the mass, their numbers growing as the noon sun rose. She stared, concentrating for a few moments before slouching back in her seat, shading her face with a black sleeve. "He's not dead yet. Still alive."
"He. Jumpy monk guy from the Arena earlier. Looked better before. Hard not to." She answered, the response muffled through a faceful of jacket.
The man watched the mound for a few more minutes before speaking again. "I suppose your dispute with Irina isn't of any concern to me. So tell me, why do you want her to die in the arena, Lieutenant?"
The girl sat up and frowned, the expression deepening as a creature resembling an eldritch horror squeezed past them. "I'm sorry, am I supposed to care where she dies? I honestly don't. Where do you think I'd prefer? In a dark, lonely alleyway? In a smelly, damp cave? In a public loo?"
"That's the worse lie this morning."
"Lack of preference."
"A contender, but probably not the worse. In all honesty, sir, I'd much prefer she died begging at my feet. A shame, that she's going to end up like that," she grinned, nodding at the swarming mound. "Are we done with the small talk yet?"
"If that's the case, wouldn't it be better if she survived? What do you get if Irina dies fighting? " he asked, watching spectators flow from into the stand entrances.
The grin shifted into a smile, showing far too many teeth. "I made a bet with General Nightlight. If she dies, I give her some company. Lots of company. A literal Company. Her Company, to give her company and accompany her in the afterlife." A pause. "Say that five times quickly... No, wait. Not tongue-twisty enough."
The man looked at her, the placid air around him vanishing. He stared at her, like a teacher about to scold a student for breaking the classroom's windows. If the girl was concerned she didn't show it, her smile somehow growing wider. The man spoke again, his voice cold.
"And he agreed to the slaughter of his own troops if his former Lieutenant is slain?"
"Pfft, yes. These guys followed Irina over from the other side when she 'joined' all those years back, like sheep. They aren't especially loyalty to the Army or dear Auros." she replied cheerily. "Honestly, who cares? If they follow like cattle then I'll treat them like cattle."
"What you're proposing is beyond inhumane."
The girl yawned, and stretched, her joints giving off some unnatural, metallic cracks. "You're the only human involved here, sir. And if you think that's bad then-, hmm. Probably shouldn't say any more."
"And should Irina survive?"
"Then I guess Auros' original deal with her stands, whatever that is. Fate worse than death, yada yada. Sounded boring, but I'm biased. Always loved me a good murder."
The man continued to stare at her, his face expressionless but his blue eyes hard. The girl winked, popped a pair of black plugs in her ears and started whistling. He glared at her for another moment more before turning back to the Arena and pulling something out of his pocket. He fiddled with it, then held it to his ear and waited.
Irina was dumped unceremoniously on the floor of a dark and empty room. Or what she guessed was a dark, and hopefully empty room. She lit up her skin, though the light it provided failed to penetrate the gloom beyond her feet. She would've had better luck trying to lighting a path through a fog-filled forest at midnight. And from experience, she could say that it was not an enjoyable experience.
She stood, and walked forward, watching out for anything of interest. Anything. A door, a wall. But as she continued to walk nothing happened and the darkness hugged her, oppressing her radiance and staying at her side. It was an uncomfortable feeling, like having a stranger constantly breathe down your neck. But as long as it wasn't a murderous stranger she didn't mind it so much. A moment to relax and calm her nerves maybe? What had happened, anyway? She blinded and then shot the ice chanter, and then... what? Lights? From behind? What had been behind her? The boulders? Or the Arena wall? Then did that mean....?
There was something glowing in the distance. She sheathed her blade as she approached, recognizing it only when it was several paces away. A glowing crystal panel, affixed to the top of a dome. A magical projector. Normally found in tactical rooms or airship bridges. She reached it, and looked at the display. It showed a map, depicting their current location over a city. That seemed about right, she guessed? Although the name wasn't correct. Karrés...
Irina started, jumping back and almost falling over. It wasn't possible. Karrés was gone. Karrés had been destroyed. This had to be a trick.
The darkness in the room was slowly dissipating, and Irina could slowly see what was around her. Bronze, metal walls. Wooden floor. A table decked with tactical notes, maps and books sat next to the projector. A set of seats next to an instrument panel at the far wall. Two large, heavy steel doors were on each corner of the wall behind her. And in front of her, a large window showing-
The window burst into sunlight as she noticed it. Its brilliance was magnificent, especially when contrasted with the consuming darkness that had been around her moments earlier. So brilliant that Irina couldn't see beyond it. Or perhaps there wasn't anything to see at all. She gazed around the room. An airship command bridge.
A voice came from behind her. A familiar voice. Calm, and carefully weighted, it spoke slowly, as though reading from a book.
"Day five, month of flame, 1158 A.R, Army calendar. After two weeks of siege, the order was given to lay waste to the capital city of Karrés and its surrounding regions. A magical strike was released on entire area, leaving little behind but rubble and bodies. There were no enemy nor civilian survivors."
The voice stopped, giving Irina time to respond. She tried to speak, to say something. She couldn't, and kept staring down at the floor.
It spoke again, its tone hard. Cold. Angry. "How many people died that day?"
"I don't..." she croaked, her voice failing at the end. The light bathing the room changed to a deep red, matching the voice that controlled the illusion.
"No one knows how many you killed with that one command, Irina. Maybe your Lords know, but that I cannot say. What you know, what is very clear, is that you killed an entire civilization that day."
She spun to argue, her voice stalling once more when she saw who had spoken. Another Irina stood before her, the duplicate's face twisted with fury and hatred. The crimson dress uniform that it wore was a relic of centuries past, its color almost matching the glow suffusing the room. At its hip sat a glowing sabre, larger and more ornate looking than her own, simplistic blade. With neck-length hair, glowing blue eyes and a brilliant aura radiating from her, the double in front of her was the splitting image of an Irina from a bygone era.
They stood in silence for a minute, before the Light's Avatar spoke again. "Tell me, Irina. For what do you fight? What could possibly be worth the slaughter of over a million innocents and allies alike?"
At last, she found her voice. "I never had a choice."
"You were the one who gave the order."
"Auros ordered me to call down the strike."
"You could have refused." the Avatar pressed, raising its hand and resting it on the pommel of its sword.
"If I had refused..." she began, but was then stopped with a motion.
The Avatar stared at her, then it closed its eyes and inhaled. When it exhaled, the room shifted. They were still in the bridge, but the room was now littered with the dead. Corpses lay across consoles and on the floor, some slashed to ribbons while others were barely marked. The room itself bore many signs of a battle, with scorch marks and great, smoldering gashes in the walls and wooden floor. Combined with the bloody, red light in the room, the whole room looked like it had been plucked straight from a nightmare.
Again, silence. Irina stared at the Avatar as it looked around the room, and then down as a soft crackling filled the air. It raised its hand to its chest, where a blackened, cauterized gash wound formed. Seemingly unbothered by the hole in its chest, the Avatar looked up at Irina. It's expression lightened, replaced with disappointment and sorrow. "The lives of millions for the lives of a few. What poor judgement. How cowardly. How shameful."
"I... I made a mistake. I-," she began, though the Avatar held a hand up, cutting her off.
The room began fading slowly, the equipment, bodies and walls melting away into the shadows. And then the darkness slowly vanished, revealing the empty room she had been in, with a large gate on the far wall. A rune glowed faintly above the gate, the symbol of the Light in this realm. The Avatar walked to the gate, its wound slowly closing with each step. It paused a few steps from the gate, and turned to Irina once more.
"After all that you have done, I am unsure if I should give you my blessing. So I ask once more, why do you fight, Irina von Ra?" It gestured towards the heavy doors with a hand. "Regardless of your answer, know that you will fight on this grand stage in my name."
Irina stood in contemplating silence for a moment, and opened her mouth to try to give an answer as the Avatar held up a hand again. There was a pause, and then yet another question.
"Such an answer might not be so simple, I understand. So answer me this instead. Knowing very well that the lives of your comrades hangs on your survival, what lengths would you be willing to ensure their survival?" And with that, it pointed at Irina's right hip. Her right...?
The weight of the golden hilt seemed to grow even heavier as she looked at it. She had tried to ignore the presence of the sword completely, its very presence a blight on her very existence. Though given the sword as a 'gift' for the tournament, there were... terms and conditions on its use, as the entire competition would be far easier if it were completely available. However, the terms were... costly to say the least. To the point that Irina would rather have died than consider using the sword.
Of course, that was before that monster had shown up at her room that morning, with her promise of murdering everything she held dear if she fell. The few that remained with her, that still held loyalty to her. And the many that would die soon after, the many that she still loved. Was that worth Auros' price? A price worse than death?
She closed her eyes and two images flashed before her. One, of Auros, standing tall before her. Another, the dark-haired girl that reeked of death, cackling at her back.
Irina opened her eyes, and found the Avatar's blue eyes. Her blue eyes. She answered, and watched as her own face gave her a small smile.
The gates burst open, and the crowd roared. Irina strode forward into the afternoon sun, basking in its rays and the light of the Pillar before her. Her skin's illumination grew as she walked, until it was at its normal intensity. After keeping it low since arriving in Bren and fighting in the Arena of the Sky, it was a relief to allow it to shine once more. Along with the healing and rejuvenation that the Avatar had granted her at the last moment, she was as prepared as she was going to be.
Irina glanced at right, and then looked to her left. The frost chanter, representing Ice. And the wizened seafarer, Water. The immediate threats.
She drew her sabre, its polished edge catching light from all directions. A short flourish of the blade to loosen her wrist, and she settled into her familiar stance with her blade held out. Something instinctual made her look up, and so she did. And then she saw them, at the foremost and priciest row of seats. A silver haired man, and the dark-haired girl. The girl winked at her, and the man gave a small nod. Who the hell was he?
Regardless, Irina gave the slightest of nods in reply.
Do, or die. Or worse.