Chapter 6: The Champion
The void had always been a fascination for Baxter. Elementalists had been accessing it for millennia, some just glimpsing it during meditation, others being able to use it to traverse vast distances by traveling along their element’s flow. The truly skilled, like Baxter, could enter it bodily, floating through the vast emptiness broken up by the twisted mirrors of reality formed by the flows. Yet after all these years no one knew much about it. Was it the origin of the elemental flows or just a waypoint for them? What determined the forms the flows took while they were here? What was the purpose of the omnipresent city that remained fixed in the distance no matter where you traveled? Baxter loved mysteries, and the void was one of the most intriguing.
And now a new mystery of the void had arisen: how had three people who had blazed a wild path through the void suddenly disappeared? Travel using the void was useful, from a speed perspective, but it wasn’t exactly subtle. You left a trail that all but glowed in the absence of the void. The more power used in the transit the more prominent the trail, and these three left a veritable stream in their wake. At least, until it suddenly vanished.
Entering the void bodily presented certain risks not present when simply viewing it through meditation. The void seemed to resist the presence of physical beings and tried to tear them to into their base elements. It required constant concentration to not lose your form. The things you could do with such direct access to the flows made it worth the risk.
Baxter held a hand out in front of him, palm downwards. Water formed in his palm, dripped down to his fingertips, and fell in large droplets. The droplets came together in a rapidly spinning circle. Once the circle was large enough, Baxter brought the circle up near his face. He saw his reflection in the perfectly formed mirror.
He reached out for the elemental flow of water and forced it to pass through his mirror. Images flashed through mirror like television channels being flicked through too fast. Baxter forced the passage of images to slow so he could make out individual forms. Now it was just a matter of tuning it to where he needed to see.
The presence of well-known dark tendrils caused him to pause at one image. It was strangely clear image for the void, one of a tall, muscular man surrounded by stone. Baxter quickly realized what he was seeing: the next carrier.
He wondered briefly if he could keep this hidden from the host for a short time. If he was the first to locate the next carrier, and he could capture him before the host had even realized, he could prove himself as being more reliable to the Dark God.
The notion was quickly disregarded as a familiar shadowy form appeared beside him. “Ah, our next target is finally here. I had been sensing him coming for some time.”
Baxter couldn’t help but be impressed by the ease in which the host was able to project himself into the void. “What do you want to do?” Baxter’s motivation to go after the carrier himself had greatly diminished now that the gains were much lower. He hoped the host wouldn’t send him.
“I will send one of the others. You continue to work on locating the boy. We expect great things.”
With that the host was gone. Baxter didn’t waste time concerning himself with missed opportunities and instead went right back his work. The secrets of the void were at his fingertips and soon he would uncover how the boy had vanished and where he was now.
Unknown to Baxter, another had already located Sam. Small tricks meant nothing to his unrivaled sense of smell. He concealed himself in the wooded area beyond the farmland and waited. His role was to observe.
Peter meditated, blocking all outside distractions, and focused on the life around him. The grass beneath his feet. The wood of the tree his back was against. The birds flying overhead. He tried to picture the common thread between them, a flow of energy that connected all living things. Almost he could see it, reach it. The wood was the closest to him and he tried to reach for the energy there.
But he couldn’t grasp it. It remained just mere inches from the edges of his fingertips. Peter gasped in frustration as his concentration shattered. Again the power had been tantalizing close only to be denied.
“Good,” Ryu said, nodding. “Your focus is improving. You are making remarkable progress.”
“Am I?” Peter said, somewhat spitefully.
Nearby Sam had formed a small ball of fire and was gleefully tossing it from hand to hand. It barely took him any time now to get the fire to form. Meanwhile, Peter couldn’t even reach his element yet.
“You can not compare yourself,” Ryu said, understanding Peter’s frustration. “Sam is a carrier. He has a connection to his element well beyond the rest of us. It is possible, if not likely, that he would have eventually come into his power on his own. It takes normal disciples years to even grasp their element for the first time.”
Peter sighed and shook his head. “It is just frustrating to see someone do so easily what you have to struggle with, you know?”
Ryu took a look at Arthur, meditating on the other side of the field. “I know.”
The was a yelp as Sam waved his hand back and forth before sticking his thumb in his mouth.
“There are some drawbacks to learning so quickly,” Ryu observed.
“I don’t have years, do I?” Peter asked. “Before Fariman is in danger again.”
“No, you do not,” Ryu said without hesitation. “You will need to work twice as hard.”
Without another word, Peter resumed his meditation. Ryu watched with approval, and no small amount of pride, of the young man’s determination. He closed his eyes to observe the flows in the void to see his student’s progress …
Something else quickly took his attention. The Darkness, all too present in the void these days, was excited, the tendrils grasping at something with intent. He followed it and found the image of what it sought. The next fragment.
“Arthur!” Ryu shouted, breaking the concentration of all of his students. “Get ready to go. The next carrier needs you.”
“What? Now?! Already!?” Arthur stumbled to his feet. “It only been a few weeks since Fariman appeared. Shouldn’t there be more time?”
“The Dark God calls for his power; the fragments are responding. The battle has begun.”
Arthur quickly prepared for the next fight while Ryu focused on creating a path through the void. The carrier was far to the north physically, but through the void was fairly close. With luck Arthur could grab the carrier and be back before the Dark God’s servants arrived.
When Arthur returned, he hesitated. Ryu could see something was greatly troubling his student’s mind. “What is wrong?”
“Last time, when I faced that air element …” Arthur paused, struggling to say what had been bothering him ever since that day. “I could have beaten her. I should have beaten her. I had the fight won, I had the sword right within striking range. But I … I hesitated. I couldn’t bring myself to kill her, and because of that, I almost died. Fariman almost died. I … don’t know if I could do it.”
Ryu put a hand on his student’s shoulder. “If it was easy for you, then I would be worried. You have a good heart, Arthur. Harming others will always be hard for you. But doing nothing while others are killed would be even harder. When the moment comes, I am confident you will do the right thing.”
Arthur was less sure, but he nodded as he stepped into the void.
Worried for his student, Ryu rushed back into the farmhouse. He grabbed the phone, an old corded thing, and punched in a number. It was answered on the first ring.
“Yes, it is me. Are you still waiting for your next flight? I need you to change your tickets.”
“Celebrities drink free, that’s what the sign says,” the big man said, jabbing the sign with a meaty finger. “I’m the biggest celebrity this dinky little bar has ever seen.”
The pimply-faced bartender didn’t look up from the chart he was using to navigate the complicated drink-mixing process. “We had Danny Dithers in here once.”
“The soap-opera star?” the big man asked, sounding legitimately impressed. He coughed to cover his embarrassment. “Not bad, but I’m still bigger. Surely you’ve heard of Marco Mascle?”
“Nope,” the bartender replied. “Man, why can’t everyone just order beers? I’ve never even heard of a ‘lemon drop’ before.”
“Mascle the Muscle? Marco the Mauler?”
“Are those old cartoon villains?” He handed the drink he had been mixing to the bar’s sole other patron, and old man sitting at the farthest stool. “Gah, drinks with sugar are the worst. My hands are all sticky now.”
“No, that’s me! Mascle the Muscle, the greatest boxer who ever lived. I was almost the World Heavyweight Champion, you know?”
He rose from his seat to stretch and show off his physique. He was impressively built, tall and muscular without being overly bulky. Somewhat detracting from the look was the rest of him: the dirty jeans and stained white t-shirt, the shadow of a beard matching the light scruff of hair on his formerly bald head. The look was somewhere between a bodybuilder and a homeless man.
“How could you have been the best if you weren’t the Champion?” the bartender asked.
Marco plopped back down in his seat. “I was disqualified before I got to the Championship. The judges found rocks in my boxing mitts. Like I would need to cheat! My opponents must have set me up because they were afraid. And the bastards got away with it, too.”
“That’s rough, buddy.”
“So about that drink …”
The bartender sighed. “Look, like I said in the beginning, only the owner can determine who counts as a celebrity, and he’s not here right now. Please don’t make this difficult. I’m just trying to pay for my classes here.”
Marco looked like he was about to say something that was not accepting the bartender’s response when the door to bar crashed open. There was a thunderous sound as the door slammed against the wall, sending tremors through the room, before slowly falling to the ground. A small, strange Asian man walked in after it. Half of his head was shaved, the other dyed pink and styled into spikes. They matched the similarly dyed spikes strapped to his collar, wrists, and ankles, breaking up a black leather biker’s outfit.
“Hey, the hell man?” the bartender called out. “Not cool. You know how much trouble I get in whenever some drunk trashes this place?”
The new arrival ignored the bartender and instead focused his attention on Marco. His smile was wide and friendly as he raised his arms like he was greeting a friend he hadn’t seen in a long time.
“Mascle the Muscle!” he called out. “I knew it was you! When I heard the description, I knew I had to come myself. It is an honor, sir. Big fan.”
Marco gave the bartender a smug, I-told-you-so look. “Sorry, my fans are very enthusiastic. I’ll take care of this.”
He rose and approached the small man, who seemed even smaller in comparison to the giant. “Always glad to meet a fan. You want to an autograph? As long as you’re buying drinks, I’ll give you as many as you need.”
The fan looked up at the ceiling. “I wonder if we have time for just one drink.” He shook his head. “No, probably not. The swordsman could be here at any moment. We have to leave now.”
“Hey, you’re not going to anywhere until you pay for that door!” the bartender yelled.
“Look, I don’t know who the swordsman is, but he can also buy me a round if he wants an autograph,” Marco replied. “But I’m not ready to leave just yet.” He put a hand on the smaller man’s shoulder, a gesture meant to be friendly but also show off how strong he was.
The man’s smile never faltered. “The hard way, then. I won’t lie, I was kind of hoping for it.” He grabbed Marco’s wrist and slowly lifted his hand from his shoulder. Marco’s eyes went wide as this comparatively tiny man overpowered his grip. He gritted his teeth and pushed down, his muscles straining, but he couldn’t stop his arm from being raised.
“So strong,” the small man said, his voice sounding genuine despite his clear superiority. “It is an honor to test myself against you.”
“What kind of Asian-wonder-drugs they got you on?” Marco growled, “And do you have any more?”
The man twisted his arm and in one fluid movement threw Marco over his shoulder. Marco went soaring over the bar and crashed into the liquor bottle shelf. Shelves and bottles shattered against the ground as the bartender sputtered in shock.
“Kids are so noisy,” said the incredibly drunk elderly patron.
Marco picked himself up and dusted himself off. Despite all the glass broken around him it didn’t feel like he had been cut anywhere. For most people that would have been considered a miracle, but Marco was used to being strangely difficult to hurt. Thick skinned, he guessed. He dusted himself off and vaulted the counted.
“So you want to test yourself against the champion,” he said, getting into a fighting stance. It had been a few years since he had last boxed but he still knew the moves. “Let’s go then.”
He rushed at his opponent and opened up with mighty right hook. A part of him felt a little guilty for fighting a guy who was clearly in a much lower weight-class, but that guilt was quickly dispelled when his punch connected with the guy’s face and his fist flared with pain as if he had just punched a solid brick wall. Marco backed up a few steps and looked at the his fist. His knuckles were already turning purple.
The pink-haired man came at him without another word, launching a flurry of punches directed at Marco’s upper body. Marco bobbed and weaved, giving ground but easily avoiding the strikes. Part of his instincts screamed at him to lean-in to his opponent’s blows so that he could get in one of his own, but after being tossed bodily across the room, he figured even he couldn’t take that many hits with that strength behind it. He needed to wait for his opening.
Time ran out when he realized he had been backed up into a corner. His opponent was craftier than he had realized and he been lured into a space with little room to maneuver. A rookie mistake if he had been in the ring.
Seeing no other option, Marco leaned and prepared to take a hit in exchange for the chance to counterattack. The blow came, striking him hard in the ribs. Marco felt himself being lifted up from the force of the punch, but his own strike was already on its way. The spiky-haired man made no attempt to avoid it.
The last punch Marco had delivered had felt like he had struck a brick wall, so he needed to punch with enough force to destroy bricks. He roared as he put everything into his punch even as he body wanted to buckle from the pressure on his chest. That’s when he felt it: a surge of power, of might, of strength. It was a familiar feeling to him, one he had often felt right before delivering the knock-out blow. His coaches called it an adrenaline-rush, he called it his inner-fire. And right now his inner-fire was burning hotter than ever before, he felt stronger than ever before. He struck with the most powerful punch he had ever thrown.
Pain shot through his fist, his wrist, up his shoulder, but it was worth it as he was rewarded with his opponent getting knocked through the air. The little man went flying as if he had been struck but a car, across the bar and into the wall.
Actually, through the wall.
Arthur scanned the street, unsure which of the seedy establishments in front of him was his destination. The bar Ryu had described could be any one of the dozen buildings on this back-street, each with glowing neon signs proclaiming ‘Cold Beer’ and ‘Cash Only.’ The one on the corner more closely resembled a mart, but any of the others could be a bar. Or they all could be one. How could he narrow down where the carrier was?
His question was answered when a wall of one of the buildings came exploding outward. A small man landed in the street among the rubble. While Arthur was still trying to comprehend what had just happened the man got back on his feet. He was bleeding from the nose but otherwise seemed unharmed.
“He’s still got it,” the man said with a laugh. “This is going to be -” He cut himself off as he noticed Arthur looking at him. His eyes widened in recognition. “Oh, it’s the swordsman. You’re here to take my fun away, aren’t you?” He leveled a hand in Arthur’s direction.
Arthur’s instincts had him forming his sword before he was consciously aware of it. He grasped the familiar hilt and raised the weapon to deflect any attacks coming his way. His opponent had the advantage here, apparently knowing how Arthur fought while Arthur didn’t even know what element he was up against.
“You were too slow this time.” The leather-clad man turned his arm so his hand was now facing the building with the broken wall. Arthur watched as the entire structure began to shake. Too late did he realize that the carrier must be in there.
Arthur had barely taken one step in its direction before the whole building came crumbling down.