Chapter 20 – Dueling Wills

2 Days Later

— Windia, Skydiath 14, 8054 —

(Thursday, November 3, 2129 AD)

“Oof… man, I’m sore all over…”

“Tell me about it…” Conrad muttered in response to Austin as he trudged alongside the other Earthian Chaotics, gingerly massaging his shoulder the whole time. “We’ve only been students for a week, and already we’re being driven into the ground…”

“Ah, suck it up,” Pierce remarked with a smirk as he threw an arm over Conrad’s shoulders. “Hard training like this is a sign of respect! It means the Dean thinks we can take it! And, more importantly than that — it means that we’ll be able to see real fights just that much sooner!”

“You want to see a real fight…?” Twy questioned warily.

“That’s Pierce, for you,” Phoenix replied with a roll of her eyes. “Even after seeing the results of a ‘real’ fight first-hand, he can still barely grasp the consequences.”

“Oh shut the hell up, you know what I meant,” Pierce retorted as he drew away from Conrad to eye the rest of the group with annoyance. “It’s all about doing real work, you know? Actually doing something of substance with our powers. Kicking the asses of bad guys, and all that.”

“I get it, I wanna do that, too,” Spike commented, and then looked down at his hand as he slowly closed it. “…But we ain’t ready for that, yet. And tryin’ to jump into it too fast is a recipe for disaster.”

“Aren’t ready my ass, we’ve already been in fights and done perfectly well!”

Kestrel shook her head. “Wrong.”

“Yeah, Kestrel’s right,” Conrad pointed out. “Did you forget that we lost against EA?”

We’ve at least won once against him,” Austin quickly declared. “Hell, if not for you guys—”

“We’re not doing this here,” Twy interjected, the suddenness of her comment causing Austin to draw back in surprise. He then turned away dejectedly as she continued, “either way, I agree with Spike. We shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves.”

“Fuckin’ hell, you guys are hella uptight…” Pierce muttered to himself.

“That’s an odd way to say ‘reasonable’,” Phoenix countered, and then stopped to look up at the walls of WCU that now stood before the group. The day’s training had brought them just outside of Compound Tresnon’s walls; only just now, under the golden and orange-tinted light of sunset, was the group able to return to the campus.

Pierce sighed. “Time for another boring evening in the middle of nowhere…”

“There really doesn’t seem to be anything going on around here, does there…” Phoenix commented with a frown.

“Well, what’d’ya expect? We’re in a dinky little town in the middle of buttfuck, nowhere,” Austin replied. “‘Sides, I’m perfectly fine staying in my room.”

“Not all of us are shut-ins,” Pierce shot back. “Some of us like to actually, you know, go out and talk to people. Novel concepts for a dweeb like you, I know.”

Austin shot Pierce a glare and began to respond, but was cut off as Sky said, “you know, things actually seem kinda weird around here.”

Spike looked down at her with a confused expression upon his face. “…Weird?”

She nodded, and then looked around at the group’s surroundings. They still stood just outside of the walls of WCU, on the main road that led up to the campus. Traffic was light, but even so, the occasional pedestrian would walk up or down the street. “…The people, here…” Sky eventually continued, watching as one such pedestrian moved to the far side of the street as they passed the Earthians. “…It’s like they’re avoiding us.”

“Avoiding?” Twy echoed incredulously. “Are you sure they aren’t just keeping to themselves?”

“Or maybe they just hear us talking in a language they don’t understand, so don’t even try to talk to us,” Austin suggested.

“But it isn’t just randoms on the street, it’s the students, too!” Sky countered. “Just the other day, I went around the parts of the dorm where the other students live and tried to introduce myself, but everyone acted really cagey and didn’t want to talk.”

“Sounds like they just didn’t want to talk,” Conrad remarked.

“An entire dorm, though?…” Phoenix questioned, “look, I get some people not wanting to talk. But usually there’s at least a couple of outgoing people wherever you go.”

“…Might just be how people are around here,” Spike replied with a shrug. “Bein’ social doesn’t really sound like a priority for most of the Tresédians we’ve met. Might be the same for the rest.”

“What a boring place…” Pierce muttered as he finally began to approach the campus gates, with the rest of the group slowly following. “That tour a week ago gave me hope, but nothing’s happened since. Fuck, man, I just want something to happen. Give us some fucking action—!”

Pierce’s words were interrupted by the loud thundering rumble of something impacting the ground nearby. A couple shouts could be heard afterward, followed shortly by a second rumble.

“Is that… cheering?” Phoenix questioned.

“Is someone fighting?” Austin asked.

“If they are, we might be able to get in on it!” Pierce remarked, and moved to finally enter the campus gates. “Let’s see what the hell is going on!”

Once through the gates, the Earthian Chaotics were immediately greeted by the sight of a small crowd formed on the sideline of one of the campus practice fields. The field itself featured a handful of sandy craters that weren’t present at the beginning of the day — and standing just across a crater from each other were Mark and Karísah. The other Earthians had only a brief moment to recognize the two before they lunged at each other, fists out, and then slammed into each other with such tremendous force that the sand at their feet depressed and the two were rocketed backwards. Mark quickly summoned his green- and silver-wreathed halberd and shoved the weapon’s head into the ground to slow himself, while Karísah did the same with her fingers alone; the latter then slammed her fists into the ground at her feet, launching herself across the practice field toward Mark. He eyed her incoming form carefully, dismissing his halberd in a flash of white light and then reaching out with his right hand to grab Karísah’s incoming fist and swing her around. Just before he could throw her, however, she lashed out with her leg, successfully nailing Mark in the sternum and launching him at the far campus wall.

“Wh-what the—?!” Twy exclaimed incredulously as she watched the two duke it out. “What, what happened here?!”

“…Are they sparring?” Phoenix questioned.

“And no one’s stopping them?” Pierce watched with a scowl. “When I suggested more sparring, Davídrius shot me down! What the fuck?!”

“Mark and Karísah have a different level of skill than us, that’s probably why,” Spike countered. “Just watch.”

The eight Chaotics continued watching as Mark and Karísah slowly approached each other, fists out in defensive stances. They circled each other for a couple seconds, catching their breaths, before Karísah lunged at Mark, ducking low to go after his legs. He quickly backstepped in an attempt to escape, but Karísah managed to bowl through his right leg and knock him to the ground — at which point she thrust herself backwards to sit on his back, holding his legs back with her left arm as she pressed Mark’s head into the ground with her right. The pin lasted for barely a second before Mark overpowered Karísah to rip his legs out of her grasp and slam his feet into the ground, sending out a thunderous rumble as a cloud of dust exploded around the two duelists from the force of the impact. Karísah then came tumbling out of the cloud, followed quickly by Mark as he reached out to grab her, only for her to kick his fist away and jump back to her feet.

“…Not bad,” Karísah remarked, wiping a bead of sweat off her brow as she took a second to catch her breath. “…Not often I get to fight someone as strong as you.”

Likewise, Mark replied, his fists out in a defensive stance. He then glanced to the side, at the small crowd of Tresédians that were watching the duel — and then to his other side, where he spotted the other Earthians. …Do you want to keep going? he questioned warily.

“If it’s alright with you. I wanna see which one of us is stronger!”

…Forcetechnics do say that a lot, Mark responded with a sigh, but I can keep going if you can—

Karísah interrupted the rest of Mark’s statement by stomping the ground forcefully enough to kick up another cloud of dust, obscuring her position. Mark quickly jumped backwards to put some distance between himself and the cloud, and then braced himself against any potential incoming attacks — only for none to come. It was only a second later that he realized the top of the dust cloud was disturbed, as though someone had leaped out of it; a half-second after that, he snapped his attention skyward, just in time to spot Karísah descending through the air toward him. He immediately dodged backwards, successfully evading Karísah’s incoming fists — however, when she struck the ground, the shockwave still sent Mark tumbling through the air. A second passed before he touched back down on the ground on the far side of the practice field, managing to catch himself and slow to a stop in a crouch. As soon as he looked up, Karísah was upon him again, winding her fist back for a punch. Mark quickly jumped back to his feet and braced for the blow, but just as Karísah threw her fist out, he dropped down to his knee, allowing her fist to pass harmlessly over his head. Then, as her momentum carried her past him and before she could recover, he reached his arms up around her torso, grabbed her tight, and then slammed her into the ground behind him in a suplex. Momentarily stunned, Karísah was little able to react as Mark then pinned her to the ground, his foot on her back and his hands grabbing her ankles and wrists to prevent her from moving.

“…Oof…” She eventually released a deep exhale after struggling to free herself for a few seconds, to no avail. “Alright… I submit.”

Phew… Mark promptly released her and stepped away, wiping his brow of sweat as he watched Karísah jump back to her feet. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if you decided to keep going.

“Oh, I know when I’m beat,” Karísah remarked, her attention momentarily drawn to the side as the group of Tresédians dispersed — but the Earthian Chaotics approached. “…Still.” She turned back to face Mark and bowed her head slightly. “Good fight. I haven’t had a straightforward loss in a while.”

“But what a loss it was!” Sky exclaimed as she burst onto the scene, her excited gaze switching rapidly between Mark and Karísah. “That was so cool! The way you guys were hitting each other, and flinging each other around the field, and the dust clouds, and wow, you aren’t hurt from any of that?!”

“Of course they aren’t hurt,” Spike remarked as he approached behind her. “They’re Forcetechnics. We’ve been over this.”

“Yeah, but still…”

“Most Forcetechnics would still be bruised and sore from a bare-knuckle brawl like ours,” Karísah commented, and then passed Mark a glance. “The only reason I was willin’ to go as hard as I did is ‘cause we both have Duratechnism, in addition to the Forcetechnism.”

It’s certainly a useful combination of abilities, Mark declared. But even so, you did pretty well. Better than any other Forcetechnic I’ve dueled with.

“You gonna take that lying down?” Conrad questioned as he glanced at Spike.

“Ha…” Spike laughed sheepishly. “Nah… Mark’s right. He’s way stronger than I am.”

“Stronger than any other Forcetechnic I know, as well,” Karísah commented. “Even Dean Kolstén has lost to me…”

“Dean Kolstén?” Austin echoed, “you mean, Christeané Kolstén?”

“Yep. We’ve dueled a few times. To be fair, he usually wins, but I’ve started pullin’ ahead recently.”

“All I’m hearing is that you get cool fights with the Deans, and we get nothing,” Pierce responded irately. “The hell’s with that?”

“First day?” Kestrel questioned.

“All we got on the first day was a bunch of short duels,” Pierce countered. “Nothing since! We’ve had no chances to show that we’re better.”

“It’s only been a week,” Phoenix replied incredulously.

“So? It’s enough.”

“You really are eager to use your abilities, huh?” Karísah commented.

“Wouldn’t anyone be?” Pierce questioned, “why the hell else do we have these abilities, if not to use them?”

“I agree with you, in theory, but you need to have some patience,” Phoenix replied. “We aren’t going to be professionals when we only just got our powers two months ago.”

“Hmph…”

“Still…” Austin spoke up, slowly surveying the damaged practice field before returning his attention to Karísah. “Does Davídrius really let you have duels just… whenever?”

“Uh…” Karísah adopted a sheepish smile. “Well… no. He usually looks the other way if I or certain other students get into duels, but it’s technically against the rules…”

“So he shows favoritism, too? That’s great,” Pierce deadpanned.

“Sounds like these ‘duels’ don’t happen often, then?” Sky questioned, and then looked to the side of the practice field, where the group of Tresédians had been standing just a few minutes earlier. “That was a small audience, then. And they split up so quickly…”

“Maybe they just didn’t want to get in trouble,” Conrad suggested.

“No, that’s just normal,” Karísah replied. “There’s just not much point in stickin’ around once a duel is over, you know? If anythin’… you guys are the weird ones, comin’ over to start conversations like this.”

“How couldn’t we?! That duel was too awesome to not acknowledge!” Sky exclaimed.

“I guess people usually keep to themselves around here, then?” Twy questioned.

Karísah responded with a weary sigh. “…Yeah. That’s just Treséd, for you…”

“But everyone, though?” Phoenix pressed, “can it really be true that everyone around here is a virtual shut-in?”

“I didn’t say we were shut-ins. But…” Karísah looked down. “…It’s just Tresédian culture to keep to yourself. Most Tresédians don’t wanna draw attention to themselves, ‘cause when you do… your life gets worse. And groupin’ up tends to draw attention.”

“Sure, but there’s also safety in numbers,” Spike pointed out.

“Not to mention that what you just said runs counter to the existence of this town,” Phoenix commented. “Hell, you were the one who showed us Market Street, which was incredibly crowded for a group of people who apparently don’t like crowds.”

“Compound Tresnon is different,” Karísah explained. “Most of the people who live here have been here for a while, or grew up here, and have accepted how we do things. Tresnon is the biggest and safest Compound in Treséd, after all, and part of that is ‘cause we ignore the typical Tresédian preference to run solo or in small groups. But the vast majority of the students here at WCU ain’t from Tresnon, they’re from elsewhere on the continent — places that still face very real threats from their environment, and the Bleeders. You can’t expect them to drop their natural wariness just ‘cause they’re in a new environment… in fact, I usually find the opposite.”

“…I guess that makes sense…” Sky muttered.

“This ain’t the first time we’ve heard about how shi— uh, dangerous it is around here,” Austin commented warily. “Why the hell are we here if everyone’s afraid of bein’ attacked all the time?”

“‘Cause the risk of attack is much lower than most people realize.”

“Davídrius!” Karísah exclaimed, drawing the group’s attention to the Dean as he approached. “What are you doin’ here?”

“You know damn well what I’m doin’ here,” Davídrius retorted as he looked over the pockmarked practice field. “What’d I say about havin’ random duels without permission?”

“Sorry…”

Yes, we didn’t mean to cause trouble, Mark added. We can help clean up…

Davídrius simply shook his head. “Don’t bother. Gettin’ one of the Geotechnics to clean up will be way faster.” He then glanced over at the other Earthians. “…Even after a full day of trainin’, y’all just have to stop and watch a fuckin’ duel, huh?”

“Don’t get mad at us,” Pierce countered irately, “we weren’t even the ones who broke the rules!”

“No, but you’ve been insistin’ on seein’ ‘action’ every damn day of the week,” Davídrius retorted. “Rookie Chaotics are always reckless, but y’all are somethin’ else.”

Conrad rose his hand slightly as he commented dryly, “personally, I’m fine with seeing minimal action.”

“Of course the invisible guy would say that,” Sky remarked. “C’mon, where’s your sense of adventure?!”

“That ‘sense of adventure’ is dangerous,” Davídrius interjected. “Keep a lid on it. And watch how you use your powers.”

“Okay, that really isn’t fair,” Austin spoke up, “Pierce might be too into this, sure, but he was right when he said that we didn’t do anything wrong, here. Why aren’t you lecturin’ Karísah and Mark, instead of us?”

“Fuck, you know shit’s fucked when even a loser agrees with you,” Pierce said.

“I’m not a—”

“I’m lecturin’ y’all ‘cause you lot still don’t know better,” Davídrius declared, his arms crossed as he stared down Pierce and Austin. “Karísah here has had years to hone her abilities. She’s one of the strongest and most responsible folks I know, despite her youth. And this… Mark…” He passed Mark a brief glance before shaking his head. “…We do need to talk, but at least he has military experience. The lot of you, though?” The Dean returned his attention to the rest of the Earthians. “Y’all have nothin’. And until you realize how important it is to take things at the proper pace, I will continue to remind you.”

“Harsh…” Conrad muttered.

“That’s not correct, anyways,” Pierce countered. “I’ve been saying this over and over, we do have experience! We’ve fought robots and mechs that tried to kill us, and Phoenix and I even helped save a city from the fucking sky coming down!”

“Yes, I’m aware,” Davídrius responded, “but that shit you pulled on Ainminthalus is exactly why I’m tryin’ to drive home how important it is to keep a check on your powers! A situation like that can easily go south very quickly when you involve rookie Chaotics.”

“Wait, hold on…” Phoenix regarded the Dean with confused suspicion. “How do you know that we were involved with the Ainminthalus skyfall…?”

Davídrius shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Not now.”

“Sure sounds like it matters to me,” Pierce challenged.

“Uh, you know… it’s gettin’ late,” Karísah interjected, wearing an uneasy smile as she tried to interpose herself between Davídrius and Pierce. “Why don’t we take a break from this, have some dinner—?”

“Hmph.” Pierce snorted in derision, cutting off Karísah’s statement. He then passed her a disdainful glare as he said, “you would want to gloss over the obvious favoritism here, huh?”

“Alright, you little shit,” Davídrius immediately countered, shoving past Karísah to step in close to Pierce — who responded with crossing his arms and returning the harsh glare the Dean gave him. “I have had it up to here with your bullshit,” Davídrius continued, “you come here, from your lush little foreign Homeworld, and then act like you know better than me and everyone else here? A rookie Chaotic, of two damn months, from fucking Earth? The fuck do Earthians know about Chaotics, huh?”

“D-Davídrius, this isn’t…” Karísah attempted to interject once more, only to get cut off again.

“No, this needs sayin’,” the Dean insisted, never once removing his glare from Pierce. “There ain’t no favoritism here, only perfect reason. See, Karísah’s had the kind of life experiences that help her keep her powers and emotions under control — just like many of the other students here. They’ve been through shit that I’m sure you can only imagine, and came out the other side with a proper understandin’ of what bein’ a Chaotic means, of what havin’ power means.” He then turned his glare on the rest of the group. “None of you Earthians can say the same!”

“Like hell we can’t,” Pierce retorted irately. “Life hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for us, either!”

“Y-yeah!” Austin quickly added. “Do you think we want to be here? That joining the military was our choice?”

“Ha! Is that your idea of ‘hardship’?” Davídrius smirked, though his brow remained deeply furrowed. “Every damn Chaotic in the galaxy has to face that reality. I’m talkin’ about other shit.”

“As was I,” Pierce stated as he threw Austin a brief glare, only to return his irate attention to Davídrius. “Besides, I don’t see why the stuff that we went through doesn’t count as ‘experience’ or giving us ‘perspective’ or whatever the hell you want to lecture us about. We — literally all of us! — have hands-on experience, using our powers in literal life-or-death situations. How many times do I have to say that before it sinks into that skull of yours, old man?!”

“Old—?!”

I hate to interject, but I’m going to have to put my foot down, here, Mark declared, stepping up to the two men and forcefully separating them. Pierce… Dean Wrikax, and Compound Tresnon in general, have been extremely generous in allowing us to stay here. I will not stand by while you so blatantly disrespect them.

“What about the part where he’s disrespecting us, huh?!” Sky exclaimed, “did you not hear what he just said? About us ‘Earthians’?”

“Nothin’ I’ve said here is false,” Davídrius insisted.

“I can think of many people who’ve said the same, about similar claims…” Phoenix muttered.

“Davídrius… are you alright?” Karísah questioned, gently approaching the Dean to place a hand on his shoulder. “This… isn’t like you.”

He glanced at her out the corner of his eye before snorting and turning away. “…Hmph. What isn’t like me is puttin’ up with all this bullshit, as of late. Can’t believe I got talked into teachin’ a bunch of outsiders who’re so ignorant of their own limits…”

“And I’m saying that you haven’t actually seen our limits!” Pierce countered. “You haven’t even given us a real chance to show you what we can do!”

“That’s what the duels on the first day were for, you ignorant…! Tch.”

“Well, sure, but… you gotta admit,” Spike spoke up, “duels can only show you so much… you know?”

Davídrius made to retort, only to be cut off as Karísah spoke instead. “He is right,” she commented, “you’ve said as much to me many times, Davídrius.”

“…Tch.” The Dean scowled, with his arms crossed as he glared at Karísah, and then at Pierce. “…You know what? Fine. If you want to think you know better, then we’ll do things your way.”

“Huh?” Pierce stared at Davídrius in surprise. “Wait… really?”

Davídrius nodded once. “Yes. Really. I have business to attend to in Compound Goresan this weekend, and when I leave tomorrow, y’all are gonna come with me. Maybe, just maybe, once you’ve seen with your own damn eyes just how the average person lives here in Treséd — maybe then, you won’t be so quick to assume that you know better than I, or Karísah, or anyone who actually fucking lives here!” The Dean then whirled around on his heel and stormed off, pausing only a second later to shout, “Karísah, we’re done here! Let’s go!”

“Ah…” She watched uneasily as he then turned around and disappeared in a cloud of dust. With an uneasy laugh, she turned back to the Earthians, saying, “I’m really sorry about him. I haven’t seen him get this worked up in a while…”

“At least he’s finally seeing reason,” Pierce remarked.

“I don’t really think that’s the right word, here…” Conrad commented.

If anything, I should be the one apologizing, Mark insisted. If I hadn’t agreed to the duel, then none of this would have happened.

“I could say the same about suggestin’ a duel. Really… don’t worry about it.” Karísah then began jogging toward the campus gates. “I really do need to go now, though. I’ll see you all tomorrow!”

A lull fell over the group as they watched her leave; only once she had disappeared through the gates was the uneasy silence broken.

“Well that was… something,” Twy remarked, with an uneasy laugh.

“Hey, sometimes you have to push a few buttons to get what you want,” Pierce said. “It all worked out in the end.”

“I think we still need to wait and see about that,” Phoenix countered, and then shook her head as she sighed wearily. “You have the most ridiculously confrontational way of doing things…”

“Mm…” Kestrel nodded in affirmation.

“Ever considered just chillin’ out, sometimes?” Conrad suggested as he passed Pierce a glance — only to suddenly frown and look at the rest of the group. “…Aw, man, the Dean said ‘this weekend’, didn’t he? Are we going to be gone all weekend? Aw…”

A weekend trip… it sounds interesting, but given the circumstances, I should probably clear this with Captain Travis, Mark said.

“Compound Goresan, though, huh?” Sky remarked, “I wonder what we’re going to find, there?”

“Given the way he talked about it? Probably nothin’ good…” Austin muttered.

“There’s only one way to find out, though,” Spike pointed out. “We leave tomorrow! No use in speculatin’ when we’re gonna find out so soon!”

“Still… given the, uh, ‘circumstances’, we really need to be on our best behavior,” Phoenix said. “I don’t agree with Davídrius’s attitude, but he does kind of have a point. If we blow it here, then we’ll lose any chance we had of getting him on our side.”

“Ah, it’ll be fine,” Pierce declared airily as he began walking off toward the dorms, with the rest of the group slowly following suit. “I don’t know what the dude’s beef is, but after this, he’ll have no choice but to accept that we really can handle ourselves. Just you watch!”