#36 – “A FRIENDLY COMPETITION”

Short story submitted by Tyler Busse
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Nervousness began setting in as I waited for my professor. The door clicked as he walked in not making an attempt to acknowledge me. He’s been like this since I volunteered.
            “So,” I began, “What is the objective?”
“You’ll understand once you get there.” He stated.
“How will I know it’s over?”
“It will be clear once the time comes.”
“Can you tell me anything?” I asked, becoming increasingly more frustrated.
If he heard, he made no signs of it. He began performing the gestures signaling he was casting; he followed this up with a string of words.
“Thanks for your help,” I muttered.
As my professor finished the incantation, I felt myself pulled to the field. The clearing stretched in front of me for about 100 yards; it was lined with trees forming clear boundaries. My competitor stood on the other side of the clearing. Like me, he was surveying the grounds on which we were supposed to perform. Panic washed over me. Did I recognize him? He didn’t waste time as he began reciting a series of syllables in one of the ancient languages. Flowers began to rise from the ground and bloomed into beautiful shades of blues and greens all over the field. I smiled. Let’s do this. 

            I began to start my own spell; effortlessly recalling the words I had learned the last four years in school. Roots began to spring from the ground around the outside of the clearing, rising and rising until they formed an arc that met in the middle of the arena. I transitioned languages and began to alter the arc; slowly the wood began to shift from earthly browns into glimmering gold and a series of purple twigs wound themselves throughout the structure like veins. My creation must have shocked him because he dropped the spell he was working on and turned his head to examine what I had done.

            I could tell now he was younger than I was by at least a couple years. His blonde hair hung down partially covering his face. He had soft features and pale blue eyes that seemed to focus intensely on whatever they decided to rest on. Fear flashed across his face for a moment before determination settled back in. He pushed his hair out of his face as he began working at the air with his hands manipulating the energy necessary to throw his spell. At first I couldn’t see any changes to the field but I found the beginning of a sapling emerge in the middle of the field under my arc. He continued to maintain his spell attempting to nurse his creation into a worthy spectacle.

I turned my attention on the remaining parts of the clearing. It was still mostly a blank canvas waiting for me to transform it. I’m not sure how long I spent creating the pond but I had the feeling hours had elapsed. It’s waters were crystal clear so you could count each of the brilliantly colored scales on the fish I had summoned there. A rainbow display of coral rested at the bottom emblazoned by the sunset’s rays. The whole work of art reminded me of an underwater light show. Ready to start on my next alteration, I looked around to decide on its placement when I saw his tree. It was near ten feet in diameter and probably forty high. He had easily outdone my work but he didn’t look well. He had fallen to his knees and his hair was plastered to his face with sweat. He’s exhausted himself already. How experienced is this guy? As I got closer to the tree I could see the immense detail; he created an ecosystem of insects, rodents, and even birds that had taken up residency in the grand home. Leaves sprouted from branches in beautiful autumn hues and seemed to endlessly fall and replace themselves. I placed my hand on the trunk and was suddenly transported to a different place.

I still felt the rough bark against my hand, only this time the tree seemed much taller. The forest I was in now bore no resemblance to the clearing I was just in. Was the game over? Did I lose?  There was so much adrenaline pumping through my body I thought I might puke. I felt scared and relieved at the same time but I wasn’t sure why. My breathing was heavy. What is causing this? Where am I? There’s no way he could’ve cast on me; the rules forbid it. Images flashed through my mind: there was a dark room, humidity hung thick as did the stench. This room felt familiar, drawing anger, confusion, and guilt from me; I had been here for ages. Two adults flashed into appearance; they both wore disappointment and fear on their faces as they looked at me. One of them, the woman, was sobbing hysterically while trying to mutter what sounded like a prayer while the man ushered her through the door and out of the room. The door. I saw it was left open and I knew I couldn’t be here anymore. I busted through it finding the nearest exit as I ignored the screams and curses that sounded behind me. I just ran, I couldn’t tell you for how far, but when I stopped I was at the tree. I placed my hand on it and I was back at the clearing.

He was still on his knees trying to muster strength. Those were his memories. I shook my head. I still didn’t understand why I could see that. Can he look into my past? I filled my head with the memory of the first time I ever received flowers.  I felt so special, so loved; they were from my first love back before I left for training. I began casting. A beautiful red rose came into existence at the ground in front of me. It was vibrant even amongst the other flowers splayed across the field. I picked it and conjured a light wind that carried it across the field and dropped it in front of him. He seemed confused at first and I thought he might not even pick it up, but he did. I watched as a smile crept across his face as he felt the love I had felt.  He must have snapped back to reality because he looked confused again. If only we were allowed to talk…

I began to prepare for something huge. I rolled into a series of minor spells to make sure I could manage with the pace; I wanted to be done casting before the sun was down. As I started casting, walls of earth began to rise from the ground; slowly I began to piece together the castle. It took a while to pull it together and even longer to make sure that it could be used for what I had in mind. Bioluminescent vines wound themselves around the spires and walls setting it aglow in the dying light. I felt a strong sense of pride when I was done. It was beautiful, like something right out of a fairy tale. I hope he understands.

            As I’d hoped, he walked into the entrance; I followed behind. He turned to me and raised his hands as if to signal he didn’t understand. I let the memory of my graduation fill my head and as intended we were both suddenly there; my thoughts became our reality. He watched as I walked to my professor and had the ceremonial robes placed over me. I joined the rest of my friends on the other side of the stage, where I was embraced and praised.  It wasn’t that long ago, so I could recall the detail of each of their faces and all the phrases exchanged. I looked to him and raised my eyebrows. Your turn.

The scene changed and I saw him at what must’ve have been school. An older lady stopped him and pulled him aside as the other children filtered out. She praised him for his advanced performance in his classes and informed him that he was going to be moved to the next class up. Pride consumed me and a wide grin spread across my face. I should’ve known he was different. I squeezed his shoulder in support. He turned to me with tears in his eyes. I didn’t need to see into his memories to know that I was the only person to ever do that. We continued back and forth until we knew each other’s stories. I showed him my love of knowledge and the countless hours I’d spent studying and poring over textbooks, striving to memorize and perfect every spell I could get my hands on. I saw him fight for everything he ever had in life; he never caught a break. How could someone be strong for so long alone? His desire, his drive to succeed was overwhelming. I’ve never felt anything so intense. I no longer saw him as a competitor; in fact, the idea of a competition melted away as we reveled in each other’s happiness and understood each other’s pain.

I’m not sure who began it, but we used the castle to bend reality and found ways to entertain ourselves. As we projected our imagination onto the room, I found myself dressed in full plate armor with a sword and shield with a dragon standing in front of me. An arrow soared over my head as he began to assault our winged foe. The beast let out a terrific roar in contempt and turned his attention onto my teammate. Fire began to pour from his mouth in a blazing stream. I quickly intercepted it, bringing my shield up to protect us from the flames. Sweat began to form on my brow as the relentless onslaught of flames battered my shield. I felt my ally shift around as he pressed his back to mine and began to notch another arrow. I felt my heart began to race. He quickly turned and loosed the arrow; the flames died and I heard another roar. I dropped my shield and grabbed my sword, closing the ground between me and the dragon. He brought his claws down and I just barely managed to dodge and bring my sword back, slamming it into his leg.  A gash formed and blood began to trickle from the wound. I saw rage course through its body as it whipped its tail at me and sent me and my sword flying backwards. I felt a couple of my ribs snap as I met the ground. The beast took the opportunity to finish me off, effortlessly making his way to me and opening his jaws to devour me. I tried to move but the pain was paralyzing. I braced myself and waited for my ensuing death, however it never came. I saw my sword pierce up into the dragon’s skull, then suddenly his pale blue eyes staring into mine as he changed reality.

I felt warm sand under me and saw I was surrounded by vibrant blue waters and swaying palm trees. A warm breeze blew across me.  He was standing in the water with a half smirk on his face as he stared down at his feet. He saved me. I felt a smile spread across my face as I watched him stand there. He lifted his head and our eyes met and he playfully gestured with his hand for me to join him. It wasn’t long until we were whipping water at each other and contending to see who could dunk the other the most, our wet bodies became locked in an ever-shifting grapple. When we grew bored of that we just changed the scenery, and we spent the whole night cycling through adventures until we eventually dozed off under the African sun as leaders of our own pride of lions.

I woke up the next morning and prodded him awake. He sat up groggily and rubbed sleep from his eyes. He looked at me and smiled; we were both happy to see nothing had happened when we were sleeping. How do we win? The thought was pushed out of my head as he grabbed my hand and pulled me out to the field. He pulled me to an empty portion and began to throw a spell. Vines sprung from the ground and formed a chair in an attempt to domesticate the land. That’s all you got? I decided to take the reins. I pressed my hands against the ground, as I focused three trees shot up forming a triangle around us, climbing to impossible heights. Vines began intertwining themselves around our feet forming a net that shot up rising to the tops of the trees. Our bodies racked with laughter as we were hoisted into the air on my makeshift hammock. We crawled to the edge and peered at the ground; everything seemed so far down. As he leaned over to look, I gave him a slight push that sent him toppling over the edge. I quickly spat out a string of syllables and vines whipped from the tree and grabbed him out of the air. He saw the smile on my face and decided to retaliate. The vines under me began to wither and die; I felt myself plummet to the ground. A hole in the ground opened up to a small pool that broke my fall. He greeted me when I surfaced and pulled me out. I squeezed him tight making sure that he faced the same wet fate as I did. Then he kissed me, and something inside of me broke. I kissed him back and then again. We kept kissing and suddenly nothing else mattered. When I pulled away he wasn’t smiling anymore. His face was filled with grief now.

            My heart sank. Did I do something wrong? He turned from me and I watched as he walked to the other side of the clearing. The sky began to darken above him. Winds picked up and began forming a barrier around him, whipping his hair across his face. Hail began falling from the sky, battering the ground around him. I was confused. What happened? As I walked towards him he turned from me. I continued walking and felt the hail hammer down against me but I didn’t care. The winds bore into me as I came closer to him. He was just out of reach. I grabbed him and pulled him into me. We both collapsed to the ground. We were drenched from the rain and we held each other shaking. Eventually the storm died and I felt what might’ve been sobs coming from him. I clutched him tight for what felt like forever. Long enough to see the sun return and feel the soft, rhythmic rise and fall of his breath.  I will save you. With that thought I must’ve drifted off to sleep in the midday heat.
“TEN,” a voiced boomed out.
I was shocked from my slumber; I glanced around and he was missing. I got up to look around. I surveyed the area; he wasn’t anywhere open.
“NINE.”
I began to panic, I tried to throw a location spell but I couldn’t. Something was blocking my ability to manipulate energy. I started to run to the castle.
“EIGHT.”
I threw open the door and saw him. He was standing there, but something was off.
“Hi,” he said smiling.
“We can talk?” I asked.
“The competition is ending,” he said, calmly.
“SEVEN.”
His skin had started to turn gray in blotches, and he seemed rooted to the middle of the room.
“What’s happening to you?” I asked.
“I think I lost.”
“SIX.”
A sob racked my body and I fell to my knees. I felt his dreams slipping away; the fire within him was dying. A part of me was dissolving away.
“FIVE.”
“Look,” he said. I glanced up with tears streaming down my face. He was using the room to show me his life. I saw him grow up in black and white; I saw the way his parents hated him as he somehow continued to love them. I watched him be plucked from the streets and placed into school because of his undeniable talent. He struggled to make friends but even then he was still able to jump ahead a class. Small amounts of color began to pour in as he did well and people began to notice him. I hated them for not seeing him sooner.
“FOUR.”
I walked with him up to his professor as he volunteered to compete. I saw me through his eyes in full color across from him on the field. I knew his admiration and the love he felt when I touched his shoulder in this very place. I watched us dream up quests and become adventurers. He showed us our time we spent together and our creations. I watched me endure his storm and save him from the isolation he had been trapped with.
“THREE.”  I pulled myself off the ground and up to him. He was entirely gray now but still had the life of a human.
“TWO.” I wrapped my arms around him. My breathing was labored where his was calm and gentle.
“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.
“ONE.”
“Thank you,” he said and I felt his exhale for the last time as he turned to stone in my arms.
Then he was gone and I was back at school. My professor was standing in front of me, beaming.
“Congratulations,” he said, “You won.”

 

 

 

 

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