“Are you ready?”
The answer to that question was no, but Nic nodded instead, doing his best to look the part if nothing else.
“You’re a terrible liar,” Isabella said, casting Nic an amused smile.
“That’s a bad thing?” Nic asked.
Isabella shook her head. “No. Might make your life easier if you learned though.”
With this Nic did not disagree and so let the topic drop. Instead, he returned to fussing with buckles as he tried and failed to get his rig sitting comfortably. For having spent days working on it, Nic had never actually tried the thing on and realized that had been a mistake. The thing felt weird, not in any big single way but in a thousand different little ones. The way the straps chaffed, that the articulated joints pinched his skin, the bits of equipment that stuck out just far enough to get in the way. A bunch of little things that all added up to making everything feel strange and wrong.
A notable issue was how unbalanced it was. The rig wasn’t heavy per-say, he could easily support the load, but it just didn’t settle right. There was too much bulk sitting high up on his back while his arms didn’t have enough, making the limbs feel weightless by comparison. Keeping steady took some effort, just enough that he had to actively work to keep his balance. He was like a toddler trying to wear grown up clothes, tripping stumbling over every alternate step, never quite able to get the hang of it.
Isabella, by contrast, looked entirely in her element. Her rig was far sleeker, the armature built for her frame, lacking the bulk and lopsided construction of his own. Instead, it sported silver filigree that lay intricately woven into the metal, highlighted by occasional flashes of sapphire and emerald. The only real sign what she wore was a casting rig rather than a fashion accessory were the twin power cells hanging from her back and even those only just peeked up over her shoulders. Artful, though Nic couldn’t say it didn’t fit her perfectly.
It was one of two objects she’d brought with her to Greytower. The other sat on the ground nearby, a tall cylinder of dark metal, covered in crystal projectors and capped with a screen at standing height. Nic had no idea what it was, the device sitting inert, save for the quiet hum of electricity coursing through its power cables.
“So, what now?” Nic asked, shuffling his feet.
“We’ll start with the basics,” she turned towards Zephyr where he hovered nearby, watching them both like a playful cat. “Little one, if you would be so kind?”
“Akay!” Zephyr said. Nic had no time to marvel at the fact he was being willingly helpful as the little sprite hovered over to the cylinder. With a flash of green from the device, a new window appeared in Nic’s eyepiece, asking permission to interface with a new network connection. Nic clicked accept without thinking and his whole display exploded with a flurry of load screens and progress bars. After an embarrassingly long time, his system hadn’t been ready for this kind of data load, the program activated and flashed the words ARBITER INITIALIZE before his eyes.
In the same instant, he felt the telltale flicker of a ward blooming in the air around him. It grew swiftly, completely enshrouding Nic before contracting back to settle against his body like a second skin. The whole process happened so fast that it was over before he had time to jump in surprise, leaving him only a lingering itch and the faintest smell of ozone.
“You good?” Isabella asked.
“Loaded yeah,” Nic said, scanning the new icons. “What is this?”
“It’s called the Arbiter System. It’s used to facilitate duels, so we don’t all kill each other by accident.”
“Make sense,” Nic said. “Is that what the ward is for?”
She nodded. “That’s part of it. The ward is tied to the box,” she pointed at the device. “It has its own power source, completely separate from our systems but programmed so it won’t get in the way of our casting.”
“So, what does it do then?”
“Stops anything lethal from getting through. I could throw lightning at you right now and it wouldn’t get through.”
Nic began to descend into calculations about the kind of coding and power that lay behind such a feat but consciously pulled himself back to more pressing matters.
“Okay, but how do we duel then?”
“You see that bar in the upper left of our display?” Nic did and confirmed as such. “That’s how much power your Arbiter has left. Once it’s gone, the system will shut us both down and end any active casts.” She threw her hand forward in a dramatic flourish. “And of course, the person it happens to first loses.”
He nodded, waiting for her to continue. She didn’t, apparently content to let him break the silence.
“What, that’s it?”
She shrugged. “More or less. Keep your Arbiter safe and break your opponent’s. Everything else is on you.”
Nic stood in a daze, lamenting the entire night he had lost trying to parse that very information from the Code Duello. He made a mental note to find out who had written the thing, then smack them over the head with it.
“Ready to give it a go?” Isabella asked.
Nic blinked in surprise.
“What, like, right now?”
“Do you have somewhere else you need to be?”
“I mean, no,” Nic said, lifting his arms. “But this thing isn’t exactly ready.”
“It’s good enough for now,” she raised a hand, at once inviting and challenging. “You ready?”
“…you’re sure I won’t hurt you.”
Isabella smiled, sweet and sincere. “You have my word Greytower, I won’t feel a thing.”
Nic hesitated a moment longer, then nodded.
“Wonderful,” Isabella said before turning to Zephyr, who Nic realized had been shockingly quiet throughout this whole exchange. “Little one?”
Zephyr bobbed in the air, still agreeable for what might easily be the first time in his life. Through his eyepiece, Nic watched as the little sprite reached out towards the Arbiter with invisible fingers of code. His own display changed in response, an icon turning red as the words COMBAT DECLARED flashed across Nic’s vision.
Across from him, Isabella bent at the waist in a modest bow, her head tilted back to maintain eye contact. Nic scrambled to imitate the move, every motion feeling awkward, certain he’d messed it up somehow. Isabella didn’t seem to notice, instead widening her stance with practiced grace.
“Y-you too,” Nic said, the awkwardness only growing worse. He had no time to think about it as one last image flashed across his screen.
At first, Nic was at a loss for what to do. A quick check of his screens told him the Arbiter System had given him control of his rig back. He had free reign of his spells, every cast, ward and summon loaded on his drives. It should have left him plenty of options but as he stood poised with his fingers on the controls, Nic realized he didn’t know what to do. Faced with infinite choice, Nic was frozen with just as many doubts, wondering and second guessing every whisper of an idea or strategy. Should he get another ward up to protect the important one? Maybe get some more solid cover to save power? Or should he go on the offensive immediately, throw out something before Isabella had time to do the same? And if so, what kind of attack? He still didn’t want to risk hurting her, even with her assurances that he wouldn’t.
Nic was still trapped in this looping uncertainty when the hit came.
It felt like he’d been struck by a rampaging basilisk, the force so great that it blew him clear off his feet, landing hard on the ground several paces back. Something, he assumed the Arbiter ward, cushioned the worst of the impact but it seemed that lethal damage didn’t extend to pain. He felt quite a lot of that as he lay prone, gasping like a fish out of water as he tried to remember how to breathe. He managed it eventually, regaining enough of himself to realize that Isabella was standing over him, an amused smile on her face.
“What did we learn?” Isabella asked.
“That’s right: don’t freeze. Freezing is a good way to lose.”
She chuckled, extending a hand towards him.
“Come on, get up. Time for round two.”
By lunchtime, Nic had discovered that the human body had a truly astounding capacity to feel pain without suffering any actual injuries. His back for instance had achieved a state Nic felt was best described as having been trampled by a herd of rampaging elephants wearing sharpened stiletto heels. A unique blend of stabbing, throbbing, popping, and cracking, all without so much as a bone out of place or drop of blood spilled. The headache by contrast lacked the same degree of visceral imagery though it was no lesser for it, a thudding hammer on the anvil of his brain. And those were simply the strongest hurts among an array of lesser ones. ‘Ow’ barely seemed adequate to cover them all but it remained the only word he had.
“You intact?” Isabella asked, standing over him once again.
“I take back every nice thing I’ve ever said about you.”
“You’ve known me less than a week.”
“Be a short list then.”
Isabella laughed, the sound still wondrous despite the throbbing pain shooting through his everything. She offered him a hand, Nic taking it and allowing himself to be pulled back to his feet.
“If it’s any consolation, you are getting better.”
Nic answered that with a laugh of his own, certain that one had to be a joke. He’d lost count of how many “rounds” they’d gone, each one seeing Nic desperately trying to simply hold on against Isabella’s onslaught. Mostly trying to throw up defenses to stop her many, many attacks, mingled with a few feeble attempts to strike back. Both were quickly worked around and countered, resulting in the now familiar state of lying prone on his back with a fresh collection of aches.
“If this is progress, I’m screwed.”
“Never said you weren’t.”
“…you’re a saint my lady.”
She lightly smacked him on the shoulder. “That’s the kind of talk that gets you another round.”
Nic didn’t even have the energy left to complain, instead letting out a sigh. It seemed to pull some degree of sympathy from Isabella as a shutdown message flashed before Nic’s eyes, the Arbiter interface vanishing from sight. Something cold pressed into his cheek, Nic turning to find Isabella holding a bottle of water. He took it without comment, downing half in a single gulp.
“I’m serious,” she said. “You made progress.”
“You kicked my ass.”
“Yes, I did. And you think Worthington won’t have done the same?”
Much as he wanted to, Nic couldn’t argue with that. He’d been so consumed trying to get his rig in working order that testing it out had never even occurred to him. As the pain began to subside, he began reviewing the salient details of his ass kicking. Speed was his main problem, his current build using projected keyboards to type new code as needed. That took far too long and required him to hold still, lest he make typos or mis-clicks, leaving him a sitting duck. He’d have to think of a more streamlined solution that didn’t require as much focus to use.
The rig’s weight distribution was all wrong too. What he’d dismissed as uncomfortable had turned out to be actively detrimental when trying to dodge fireballs or direct code. More than once, he’d missed with his precious few attacks because of the weightless feeling in his arms, sending the spell flying off at nothing. He’d have to move some things around to allow for more controlled movements, maybe even some hydraulic assistance if he had time.
“And he’s gone everybody,” Isabella said.
“What?” Nic asked, realizing he’d gotten lost in his own thoughts, leaving him standing there like an idiot. “Sorry, I was just-”
“Oh, I get it, don’t worry,” Without warning, her face morphed to a pout, complete with tearful warble in her voice and dainty hand over her forehead. “Just leave this poor, helpless maiden all alone to worry.”
“…you’re making fun of me.”
Just as quickly the pout was gone, replaced by a coy smile. “Yes, yes I am.”
Nic rolled his eyes, returning his attention to massaging battered extremities.
“I take it you have some ideas?” She continued.
“A few, yeah.”
“Good, we can test them out tomorrow,” She turned away, waving over her shoulder as she went. “Tata!”
She left without another word, climbing into an autocar that had been sitting unnoticed on the driveway. Nic said nothing and did nothing, simply watching as she drove away, unable to tell if her words were promise or threat. At some point, Zephyr came over to buzz around Nic’s ear.
“I like her, she’s fun!”
Nic could only quietly scream.
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