Ulmir's Domain, Fourth Day of the Contest.
Beware the mysterious key holder,
To him, you're only cannon fodder.
He can leave in a week,
Unless you get Him to speak.
Loosen his tongue a little,
Leave this realm after you solve the riddle.
But meals you cannot miss,
Lest death offers you one last kiss.
Heed my words oh chosen ones,
For they will be spoken only once.
I'll make you plump and juicy,
For with food I am very choosey.
Weapons inside the mansion are forbidden,
Leave the house, seek the one chosen.
Find the key holder,
Lest you serve as cannon fodder.
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The song finished and the woman's voice faded away. Everyone looked at each other with careful eyes. Food was served in front of them. Myles was the first to dive in.
"How can you be so calm after hearing what she's told us?" one of the champions addressed Stalwart.
"I'm hungry, my body's only fed on that liquid they covered us with," Myles answered in between mouthfuls.
"What do you mean?" a woman asked.
"Those who can control the Essence in their Conduits can tell you. We're using our original bodies, not the avatars."
Myles declaration caused quite the uproar. Everybody was checking whether or not they could use their Essence. As soon as one of the champions realized he could use magic, he jumped at Stalwart.
"You seem to be awfully calm about this whole mess. I'd say you're the one carrying that so called key!" The champion made to attack. He conjured an illusory sword then plunged it at Myles but his head exploded into tiny bits before the weapon could land a hit.
"No weapons in the mansion!" Myles declared. "Didn't you hear her words? I suggest everybody calms down and eats something to regain some energy. I bet we'll need it."
"Where the f.u.c.k are we?" a woman with silver hair screamed.
"We're in uncharted territory," a white haired man answered. "Lord Ulmir's punishing us for allowing outsiders inside the realm!"
"What's it got to do with us?" the woman retorted. "It was the chancellor's decision, and Viraldo. The coward! Why're we being punished for it?"
"Cannon fodder!" This time, it was a man with slick black hair that spoke. He had dark, thick sideburns. He was wearing a long black leather coat and brown leather armor underneath ring mail. He wore green eye shadow. His pink cheekbones made him look rather peculiar.
"Ulmir wants to make a point to his Priests and people. The whole world's watching us. We've set our own Lord against us by allowing strangers into his realm."
"What do we do?" Greta asked.
"We find the key holder," Myles said in a manner that suggested it was a simple matter. "One of us must make a sacrifice to the Hunter G.o.d. Whoever holds that key is requested to step forward, offer his soul to our Lord and Savior, and get us out of here. The Hunter G.o.d's anger will subside and we'll be allowed to resume our Contest. How about it?"
Stalwart smiled at the fourteen contestants.
"How do we know it's not you?" the old man who spoke before asked. "Rebeus had a point. You seem awfully calm about this whole mess we're in." He was speaking of the man whose head had just exploded into tiny pieces.
The other champions nodded in agreement. Some of them, especially the woman with silver hair, shot him a dark look.
"I'm being rational," Myles answered. "I do not have the key. So instead of getting worked up, I'm stuffing myself before I go looking for the key holder. Nothing was said about the use of violence outside the mansion. If the key holder doesn't step forward, I'll make sure I get it out of him, or her when the doors open."
"Blondie's right," the woman's voice, their captor, echoed in the mansion halls. "Besides, if you make it to lunch alive, I'll give you a hint regarding the key holder." The woman laughed teasingly then her voice faded away.
The white haired man started eating and the rest followed. Cane observed Myles with careful eyes. This situation wasn't discussed when they planned for the Hunt. He was improvising, and the big bear didn't know whether he spoke truly or he was bluffing. He didn't wish to lose his life. The way he looked at it, only one survivor would be allowed to leave the mansion.
After the fifteen champions ate to their fill, the doors leading outside sprung open. Myles stood, looked at everyone then said. "We can resolve this situation quickly if one of us can perform a Soul Search spell."
Everybody looked around waiting for someone to say they do, but n.o.body spoke. "A shame," the white haired man finally said. "I have another proposition." The champions looked at the old man with expecting eyes.
"We'll all walk outside in an orderly fashion. We'll each present ourselves then subject ourselves to a full body search. We'll ensure no one leaves unless he or she has been thoroughly searched."
"Excellent idea!" the man with black slick hair commented. "Let the old perverted freak lay his shriveled fingers all over your body."
"Do you have a better idea?" a woman, wearing an emerald cloak, asked.
"I say only one of us can leave this place alive," the man answered. "It's like the Contest, only this time, death really counts. The winner would be the one who manages to kill everyone. He's bound to find the key eventually!"
"Yer mad!" Cane interjected. "We can leave this place together, given we use our brains!"
"Coming from a hulking brute!" the slick haired man scoffed. "Only thing you seem capable of is using your fists."
"Wanna try 'em on?" Cane strode toward slick hair.
"Be my guest," he mockingly answered. "I'd be glad to see if you've actually got brains after your head explodes!"
"Enough!" the woman in the emerald cloak intervened. "I'm with white hair. We shall agree to a full search."
"Name's Guss," the old man interrupted.
The woman briefly looked at Guss then went on: "Women will search women and men will do the same for each other. The key holder will be dealt with and we'll leave this dreadful place."
Everyone seemed to agree to this plan except slick hair. They all left the mansion then stood in a circle outside.
"I'm Myles," the man with dark blond hair said then stepped forward. "Since you all suspect me, I reckon I should go first."
"I'm Guss," the white haired man said then stepped forward. "I'll search you."
After a careful examination, Guss let go of Stalwart then declared, "he's clean." Myles stood back within the circle and allowed the rest to be searched. Cane came next and was declared clean. Guss was searched as well. Then came the woman wearing an emerald cloak.
"I'm Vivian," she said as she stepped forward.
"And I'm Rose," the woman with silver hair said. "I'll do the inspection."
Both women examined each other and came out clean. When the slick haired man's turn came up, he announced his name. "Name's Vegat! I'm not your man!" he announced as he stepped forward.
As soon as Guss approached him however, Vegat bolted. He mumbled some spell and a force shockwave blasted the champions away, allowing him to get away. He ran towards the woods that surrounded the mansion.
"Sounds like trouble!" the woman, their captor's voice reached their ears. She spoke in a teasing tone. "Better go after him!"
Myles sprung back to his feet then went after Vegat. The rest of the champions followed suit.
"Let's split up," Guss suggested. "We'll have a better chance finding him if we cover up more ground."
Everybody seemed to agree with the old man. Each ran in a different direction. Those who took the same path teamed up, looking for the one they suspected as the key holder. Myles ran towards the thick trees that surrounded the mansion then stopped. He closed his eyes then activated his senses to pinpoint Cane's location. He knew his Essence Print now. He could find him wherever he went.
A moment later, he caught up to the big bear then intercepted him.
"What happened ter not bein' seen together?"
"What happened? You mean aside from being captured by an unknown ent.i.ty?"
"What d'ya mean?"
"I was visited by a Maron a few nights ago. She invaded my dreams but I thought she worked for Utar."
"I dunno what the f.u.c.k yer talkin' about! Speak words I can understand."
"Marons are powerful ent.i.ties. They're not linked to the Hunter G.o.d. In fact, they used to be his sworn enemies." Myles walked to a tree then punched a hole in it. The hole immediately reconstructed. "We're trapped in an illusion somewhere inside the Castle. Utar won't find us on time."
"All we gotta do is catch that b.a.s.t.a.r.d Vetor right?"
"Vegat," Myles corrected. "It's not as simple as you think."
"What d'ya mean?"
"Before we were abducted, I kinda got in trouble with Utar. I dragged another champion along with me, to get me out of trouble." Myles was pacing back and forth between two trees.
"So? How 's it complicatin' things?"
"The champion I dragged along was still detained in the dungeons when we got here, I'm sure about it. There should be fifteen champions in here, not sixteen."
"So whoever trapped us here's with us?"
"I'm quite certain yes," Myles answered. He was still pacing back and forth between the trees. It made Cane nervous.
"Can't it be this Vegat fella?" Cane blurted out. "Ya saw him, he just took off."
"That's because it's a she. Whatever reason she has for hiding, she doesn't want to reveal her true ident.i.ty to the world. So she ran, at the cost of being suspected."
"Then who's the key holder?"
"That's what I want to ask you about," Myles retorted. He stopped his pacing then approached Cane. "I've been in detention ever since I arrived to the Castle. You on the other hand, were on the clear. You must know most champions who cleared the preliminaries."
"I don't remember most faces," Cane said, dejected.
"We'll wait for lunch time here. There's no reason to rush after Vegat. If they find her, they'll kill her and that's that. They won't find the key then get back to square one."
"I'll go find Greta," Cane announced. "I'll be seeing ya at lunch."
Myles sat under one of the trees then closed his eyes. "Suit yourself. You'll only be wasting precious energy."
The big bear bolted away, looking for the woman with no ears. Stalwart sat under the tree, p.r.i.c.king his ears for suspicious sounds. Hours went by in silence. Myles heard the occasional shouting of the champions in the distance.
They'd been on the slick haired woman's trail for hours. They must've crossed path with her since Myles heard cries then explosions. People shouted in frustration after the explosion echoed. Myles a.s.sumed they'd lost the woman's trail again. That was the only unusual sound he'd heard before lunchtime. Myles sat in complete silence until he felt his body become unusually light.
Next thing he knew, he was sitting at the long table. Only twelve champions remained. Myles let out a sigh of relief when he saw Cane and Greta sitting side by side on the table. Vegat was present too, to most champions' surprise.
"You evaded death quite admirably," the woman's voice rung in the champions' ears. "Remember, no fighting's allowed in the mansion."
Guss, who was about to hurl himself at the key holder, stopped dead in his tracks. Food magically appeared on the table, roasted chicken, grilled basilisk meat, Buffalo wings and so much more.
"Let's enjoy the feast before we discuss the clues shall we?" the woman asked as the twelve remaining champions looked at each other suspiciously.
Myles was the first one to dig in again. Everyone else looked at him devouring a Buffalo wing. He didn't seem to care about what happened that morning at all.
"Why are you still not concerned?" Guss asked.
"Whoever's trapping us here clearly wants us to kill each other. You all panicked when Vegat ran away, a.s.suming she's got the key – Oups, did I just say she?"
Vegat turned beet red. Guss turned around to look at the slick haired woman.
"What do you mean she?" Rose, the silver haired woman, asked.
"Inspect her if you want, Miss Rose," Myles replied. "You'll understand why Miss Vegat had to run away. I just don't understand why she'd risk her life over public exposure. It certainly is better than death."
"You don't understand!" Vegat cried out.
"No!" Myles stood up. "We're all trapped here, with no way out unless we work together. And you just wasted half a day for all of us. You even got three of us killed. For what? You afraid your lord father would find out you've been disguised as a boy all your life?"
"Where's this going Myles?" Vivian asked.
"The rules are simple," Stalwart replied. "We don't fight inside the mansion. This is a test for our brains. Instead of using force to flush the key holder out, we should stay indoors, talk it out. The secret traitor's tongue will slip, make a mistake. And we'll be there to kill him or her, then get out of this place."
"Keep watch on everyone," Vivian commented. "That might work."
"How do you suggest we get this key holder to slip his tongue?" Guss asked.
"We each speak of our preliminary fights," Myles answered. "Tell us how it went and how you succeeded. The others will be able to confirm your whereabouts before and after the fight. We were all kept under watchful eyes. If the story doesn't add up, then we've found our key holder."
"You start!" Rose said. The silver haired woman didn't trust Myles and did everything to show it. "You've been apprehended by guards twice! Mind telling us why?"
"It's a funny story really."
Myles told the other champions his story, including the token Utar offered him and the erotic dream he had. Little did they know, the Photons relayed their images to the whole Kozagan Desert. Everybody learned of his torture at Utar's hands. He was about to tell them about Vyk and their second torture when the woman spoke.
"We've got a smart one here, kudos to you!" Myles stopped talking. Everybody listened to the woman speaking.
"Time for a little hint, I'd even throw in a little surprise for all of you. There are two keys in this place. One is with the key holder. I hid the other somewhere, perhaps inside the mansion, or in the forest around it. I can't seem to remember."
"What kinda game are ya playin'?" Cane cried out. "Lord Ulmir knows of this?!"
"Your G.o.d has nothing to do with this boy!" The woman's voice changed into a hissing whisper. "You've played long enough in this realm of mine! It's time I had some fun." The woman chuckled then added. "Find the second key and you'll be out of here when the week ends. You won't even need to find the key holder!"