“Hervey, get off the ground,” a melodious voice scolded from behind Alf.
Alf started to turn, but before he could, someone wrapped their arms around his and Olivia’s neck and said, “Hey Alfy, about time you got here.”
He and Olivia stared in awe at the beautiful women standing between them. Leather gladiator sandals wrapped around long, shapely calves, and manicured toes painted ruby red stood in bright contrast to the green grass below. “How’s it going Olivia? Manage to unravel any of the world’s secrets yet?”
“Uh,” Olivia muttered.
“Hey, I see you brought Drake and the girls as well.”
Life flooded back into the supervisor’s face, and he scrambled to his feet. “Oh, they’re your friends.” He breathed deeply. “Thank God, I thought my time had come.”
The women let go of Alf’s neck and sashayed over to Drake. “Still as sour as ever I see,” she said and rubbed his head in affection. Fiery red hair fell in soft waves around the woman’s heart-shaped face, and that’s when Alf suddenly realized…
It was Zaphaniea, the grand champion!
Drake pulled away and glared at her. With a small chuckle, Zaphaniea winked at him and turned to the supervisor. “They’re all old friends of mine. The big guy here is Alf. She,” she waved at Olivia. “Is Olivia. The boy here is Drake—he fancies himself a strategist; then there is the sisters. The eldest is Silver, then Scarlet, and the short one is Pony.”
“Pony?” Alf heard an incredulous voice whisper under her breath. “I’m not a pony.”
“In that case,” Hervey dusted himself off as the six of them stared agape at the grand champion. “Nice to meet you,” he said nodding at them. Then his eyes narrowed. ” Wait just a moment,” he said and turned on the grand champion. “Why did you basically have them sneak in? If they’re you’re friends, there’s no reason for them to be down here mucking around with me.”
“Well froggy told me you needed help, so I thought it’d be nice for them to offer you some assistance.”
“Uh huh,” the supervisor said, not in the least bit convinced.
“Fine, you got me. I think Alf here has what it takes to defeat the vice champion, but I wanted to train him a bit first before I told anyone.”
Hervey’s eyes grew wide with excitement “Really!” His eyes darted to Alf then to the men Alf had pushed off the field. “By the dragon’s teeth, I would love to… Hey! wait, You can’t give him private coaching! That wouldn’t be fair to the other contestants.”
Zaphaniea shrugged and dusted off her shoulder. “What other contestants? I don’t see any other contestants. They all look like fodder to me.”
Hervey frowned. “No, you know all the vice champion’s weaknesses. If you teach him it’s like you rigging the fight,” he said crossing his arms. “That’s no good. I’d rather watch him fight him right now when he is completely new to the arena. It’ll make the match a whole lot better.” His eyes lit up as he latched onto the thought. “You know what? I’m going to talk to the vice champion and see if I can arrange a special fight between them before your next round.”
“Don’t you dare.”
Instead of trying to argue with the grand champion, the supervisor dashed to the closest medical hatch and jumped through.
As the man disappeared down the chute, Zaphaniea turned to Alf, her ivy green eyes flashing with mischief. “Well, it looks like you’re going to be fighting the mysterious vice champion before my next fight.”
“I… ah. What?” Alf managed to stutter.
“How do you know our names?” Drake interrupted.
The grand champion reached down to ruffle his hair once again, but the prince pulled away, his piercing blue eye glaring at her with malicious intent.
She smiled, her white teeth glowing against her golden skin. “That’s not all I know. I know why you’re here, who you are, and what you want from me. And I’ll tell you this right now, I will help you close the stones. In fact, I will booby-trap them to send the blood oaths halfway across the world whenever they use them. But…,” she paused. “I will not help you fight Vackzilian.”
Drake’s jaw dropped wide open and for once he was stunned into silence.
Taking advantage of the lull, the eldest sister Zaphaniea had dubbed as Silver spoke up. “If I may ask? Why won’t you help us fight him?”
Zaphaniea’s eyebrows furled. “I just said I know about everything, and your first question is why I won’t help fight Vackzilian?”
“I’m certain Drake will ask you everything else. Indeed, I’m positive he will give you a hundred and twenty-one questions,” she chuckled. “However, for me, this the only one that truly matters.”
“I see. Well the simple answer is, if I do, I’ll die, and I’m not ready to die yet.”
“Mmm. Understandable,” the silver haired maid said with a nod and waved to Drake. “You may now question the prisoner.”
The prince glared at the maid then solidly stepped in front of her, which would have worked if he’d been at least half her size, but because of his small stature, he looked ridiculous.
Zaphaniea laughed and waved away his impending questions. “I’ll spare you the interrogation. By now you already know I am a holy user and a quarter dragon blood. This means I can use Dragon Ra’avah and Holy Ra’avah at the same time, which lets me see into the future a few seconds. If I charge up a large amount of energy and send it to my eyes, I can see far into the future.”
“Which means,” she fluffed her hair, “I’ve already met all of you. That’s how I know your names and who you are. And that’s also how I know that if I help you fight Vackzilian, I die and so does Alf. While we do succeed in defeating him, both of us kick the bucket.”
“WHAT!?” Olivia exclaimed in alarm.
Zaphaniea placed her finger over Olivia’s lips, and stepped closer to Alf. She kissed her hand, then gently touched his forehead.
“Don’t worry,” Zaphaniea smiled back at her, “he’s not my type. My type is tall, lean with strong wiry muscles, dark hair, and blue eyes. Unfortunately, I have never met a decent man who looked anything like that. Hmph, come to think about it, I’ve never actually met a decent man. Anyway,” she shrugged, “what I’m doing is trying to see his future if I don’t help fight Vackzilian.”
Zaphaniea closed her eyes. For several moments, she stood absolutely still; then, without warning, her eyes shot open, her face paled, and she fell against Alf.
Alf instinctively wrapped his arms around her to keep her from falling as she started to slide to the ground.
Olivia’s cheeks flared a rosy red and Zaphaniea rolled her head to look at her, “Oh, calm down girl,” the champion weakly muttered.
“Are you all right?” Alf asked.
“I’m fine. I just used too much energy.”
“Oh,” Alf said relieved.
“What did you see?” Drake interrupted impatiently. “From the faint look on your face, it didn’t look good.”
“I’m not sure,” the grand champion said pushing away from Alf and falling against some form of invisible support. “All I saw was Vackzilian’s face in pain and then a look of horror on Alf’s. Using my eyes to look at someone else’s future just gives me a bunch of images, and it all can be very confusing.”
“I see,” Drake said.
She patted Alf’s shoulder and said, “I’m going to take my resting potion now and catch a bit of sleep. You guys should clean this place up like you agreed with Hervey. I’ll see you after Alf’s match.”
“Alf’s match?” Olivia asked.
The mischievous smile the grand champion had sported earlier reappeared on her tired face. “Yes, Alf’s match. You know, the one that Hervey said he was going to arrange right before he jumped through the hatch.”
“You mean with the…?” Alf asked in alarm.
Her eyes sparkled. “The vice champion.”
“Wait! There’s no way I can beat him.”
“It’s not that hard,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Just block his first attack, and then turn the ground underneath him into mud. The rest of the fight should be pretty straightforward.” She yawned and stretched. “Well, it’s time for my beauty sleep. See you folks later,” she said and waltzed out of the arena.
Drake stared after the grand champion as she disappeared from view. His eye held a dazed look, and he shook his head in disbelief. “I’ve had more weird things happen to me in one day with you guys, than in entire years of my life. And the day’s not even over yet.”
“That was weird,” the youngest maid said in agreement and turned to her middle sister. “In fact, this was just like one of your bizarre books. Some strange lady tells you she knows all about you, reads your future, tells you you’re doomed to die, and tricks you into fighting her rival.”
“It sure does,” Olivia muttered.
The leader of the maids raised her eyebrows at Olivia. “You mean you read that book?”
Olivia’s cheeks flushed and she fidgeted beneath their gazes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Ahem,” she cleared her throat, “I think it’s time we get back to cleaning.”
“Alf,” Olivia said, motioning towards the piles of haphazardly stacked soldiers along the wall. “They’re blocking the hatches. Would you move a few of them first?”
Instead of moving forward, however, Alf plopped down on the grass and said, “I can’t fight the vice champion. He’ll roll right over me just like he did those low lives.”
Olivia’s eyes softened and she touched his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll do fine; I know you will.”
“Ya, just go out there and face him like a man. It’ll be fun,” the youngest maid said bouncing up and down on her feet.
“Easy for you to say,” Alf moaned. “You’re not the one who is going to get sliced in half in front of half a million people.”
“If you don’t win the fight, it’s no big deal,” Drake said in consolation. “In fact, it would be better if you didn’t. Having that type of fame right now might not be a good idea.”
“Are you saying I should throw the fight and let him smash me?”
Drake waved his hand dismissively. “I know better than doing that. I’m saying if you don’t win, it’s okay. Just try your best. To be honest, even though it’s kind of sudden, I think this fight will be good for you. Either way, win or lose, facing impossible odds is always a good experience.”
Alf leaned backwards and placed his hands in the grass. “I guess.”
“That being said, you should try to do your best,” Drake continued, “Being knocked out in one attack would be embarrassing and you wouldn’t learn much from it.”
“That’s just it,” Alf said. “To even have a decent chance at winning, I have to be able to stop his first attack. If I attempt to use a channeled shield, he’ll most likely smash straight through it, and from what I’ve seen, I won’t have enough time to charge one. So the only way to stop it is to use a sword, and I have never used one in my entire life, except for the time I attacked Vackzilian, but that hardly counts. I haven’t even pulled this one out of its sheath yet,” he said as he motioned to the decorative sword at his side.
Drake ran his fingers through his short black hair. “I see. That is indeed a problem.”
“You could try to form a shield with earth magic,” Olivia offered.
Alf shook his head. “His attack would smash straight through it unless I make it real thick, and then it’d be too heavy.”
“What about a real shield then? There’s bound to be some for sale around here.”
“We have no resources to buy one,” Drake answered. “Also, finding one of sufficient quality would not be an easy task judging from the distance he sent his first victim flying.”
“So that’s it. I’m going to get one-shotted,” Alf pouted.
“No, you just have to stop his first attack with your sword like you said. While decorative, it is of imperial build, and combined with the reinforcing spells imbedded in the Stone of Kay, it should withstand the vice champion’s attacks,” Drake said.
“But I don’t know anything about swords!”
The prince sighed. “I don’t really want to, but I guess I can let you have my Kishron sphere. With its help, stopping his assault should be easy.”
“You have a skill ball?” The youngest maid’s eyes lit up. “But they’re worth millions! How on the earth did ever afford one?”
“Kishron sphere,” Drake corrected. “And they’re not worth millions, just a considerable amount of crypto. As to how I can afford one, I am the Emperor’s son.”
Drake placed his hand against the side of his temple. The area beneath his fingers glowed for a few seconds; then a radiant gold gem the size of a pea emerged from his head. Carefully, Drake held out the gem to Alf.
Alf took it from him and held it in front of his eyes. As a High Lord, he’d thought he had seen most of the higher end commodities, but he had never seen anything like this before. “What is this?” he asked. “And what does it do? And why was it in your head?”
Olivia squinted in curiosity at the small golden sphere in Alf’s hand. “You said weird things happen to you while being with us, but it’s the same for us, as well. How was this thing in your cerebrum? I don’t see any magic spells on it.”
“That’s because it’s mechanical, not magical, although it does use the science of imprinting, much like that of spells.”
“Mechanical? What exactly does it do?” Alf asked again.
“The Kishron sphere contains a vast array of knowledge and information. Once its microscopic mechanisms are inside your brain, you have access to that knowledge, at least to a certain extent.”
“That doesn’t work,” Olivia argued. “You can’t just imprint information on your mind and use it. Spells work because they are a program and your body automatically carries out the actions listed inside them. If you tried something like that for information…,” Olivia’s face contorted in pain as she thought about what might occur.
Drake nodded. “The results could be disastrous. That’s why the Kishron sphere doesn’t use spells. Instead, it hijacks new neural pathways.”
Olivia motioned for Drake to go on.
He sighed. “As you see and experience new things, your brain continuously forms new neural pathways. The Kishron sphere hijacks those newly forming pathways and allows you to temporarily imprint information or knowledge on them, instead of what was originally there. The larger the area in your brain you allow it to access, the more information you can imprint, and because it’s only temporarily, you can change the information imprinted at any time.”
“That’s ingenious,” Olivia said. “Harold and I once hypothesized something of the sort might be possible, but I never imagined someone could actually do it.”
“Yes, well, the technology to make these is long lost and they are a finite resource. So I would appreciate if Alf would put it in his head before something happens to it.”
Alf furled his eyebrows. “Ok, but I am still not clear on what it does.”
“That’s because Drake’s making it complicated.” The middle sister flipped her long, red braid over her shoulder and said, “It’s better to think of it like this. Your mind is full of energy, most of it locked down, but as you gain experience, new energy appears. The skill ball,” the maid stressed, “allows you to take that energy and assign it to any aspect of your life, in turn, increasing your ability and skill in that aspect. You can also change what aspect you want to assign it to at any time.”
“Ah, I understand now.”
Drake shifted his weight in agitation. “Good, insert the Kishron sphere,” he glared at the maid, “into your into your cerebrum.”
“Push the gem against your temple,” the eldest maid told him.
“Ah,” Alf replied. He went to push the Kishron sphere against his temple, but was interrupted.
“Hold it,” the middle sister said. “You should know whatever energy you commit to the skill ball is permanently changed into energy only that device can use. If you continuously give it all your energy, the other parts of your mind won’t grow.”
Alf nodded. “That makes sense. What happens if I remove it?”
“If you remove the Kishron sphere,” Drake explained, “the information you currently have imprinted on your neural pathways becomes permanent, and after a bit, it becomes like any other part of your brain. Though there is no reason to take out a Kishron sphere. They are rather expensive and removing it is not worth the risk of losing or breaking it.”
“What were you using it for?” Olivia asked.
“I mostly used it to augment my ability to strategize and occasionally switched it to memorization. When I withdrew it, I let it permanently enhance my memorization skills.”
“As a spy master, those skills are important to you. Why would you give this to me?” Alf asked.
“With all that you’ve been through lately, I’m sure they’re thousands of new neural pathways forming. The Kishron sphere will enable you to appropriate a good percentage of them and assign it to your nonexistent sword skills.”
“I got that part. I meant, if it’s so expensive, why give it to me? It’s yours. And I can tell you don’t really want to part with it.”
“Because it will be a great help to you, and right now I need you to get stronger as fast as possible so I can get back my kingdom. Once I have back my empire, replacing that one isn’t going to be difficult. Now, if you would please put the Kishron sphere in your head, you would greatly reduce my anxiety.”
Alf smiled and pushed the gem against his temple. The sphere melted like water against his skin and slowly absorbed into his mind.
“Now that is cool,” Alf blurted a moment later.
“What is?” Olivia asked as she leaned closer to his head as if she were trying to peer inside his brain. Her eyes glowed gold in holy Ra’avah, and her voice brimmed with eagerness.
“It’s like I can see the inside of my own mind and observe how it learns new things.”
“Fascinating,” she breathed. “Can you describe it to me?”
“Sure, there’s these…”
“You should probably describe it to her later,” Drake interrupted. “For now you need to take about one fourth of the glowing pathways in your brain and allocate them to the Kishron sphere. Then use the sphere to enhance your earth casting capabilities.”
Olivia’s eyes dimmed in disappointment and Alf chuckled. He’d have to explain it to her some other time. Closing his eyes, he nodded and said, “Done.”
“Good. Let’s clean this place up.”
Sometime later, Alf pushed the last piece of sod into place and used earth magic to close the seams. “Perfect,” he declared as he gazed out over the battlefield.
“Like new,” Olivia agreed.
“That didn’t take as long as I thought it would,” Drake said as he wiped his dirty hands on a handkerchief. Thankfully, the X soldiers hadn’t been as filthy as the Backstreet Boys, nor quite as smelly.
“That’s because this Kishron sphere is amazing! With all that extra mental energy focused on my earth casting, it’s a lot easier and less strenuous to cast earth spells. I can’t believe how easy it is.”
For the first time since he had given the sphere to Alf, Drake smiled. “I’m glad you like it, because it is officially the most expensive gift I am ever going to give anyone.”
“Aw, I thought maybe you’d turned over a new leaf and had a generous heart now,” the shortest of the maids teased.
Drake glanced at her. “On second thought Alf, let’s just say that it’s part of the payment for helping me get back my Empire.”
Alf laughed, “Thanks Drake. With this, I think I may be able to beat the vice champion.”
“You’re welcome. Just remember if you don’t, it’s not a big deal.”
“We have about fifteen minutes before the fight.” Olivia asked. “What do you guys want to do?” She and the maids had just finished sending random pieces of armor and weaponry down the medic chutes and were now pulling water out of the air to clean themselves.
“Actually, I’d like to be alone for little bit,” Alf said. “I want to think and pray before the fight.”
Olivia smiled and nodded. “Alright everyone, let’s give Alf some alone time.”
As the others walked away, Olivia offered, “Drake, I can clean you if you want.”
“Ya, you stink,” one of the maids said as they walked out of earshot.
With the others on the other side of the field, Alf knelt down to pray.
Thirteen minutes later, Hervey walked in through a hidden door in the wall. “I was hoping you would still be here. I have arranged your fight for you with the vice champion. I know you’re not ready yet, but that’s what makes it all the more exciting. The match will begin as soon as you walk out onto the beta field.”
Alf stood up. “What happens if I choose not to?”
Hervey fidgeted. “I, I, a . . .”
Alf smiled and put his hand on Hervey’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ll fight.”
“Alright! I knew you’d do it,” the supervisor said in excitement. “There’s VIP seats for all of you in the stands. Just go through the door there,” he shouted to the others, then grabbed Alf’s hand and started dragging him towards the archway.
Taking a deep breath, Alf sent up one last prayer for strength and let the supervisor lead the way.