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Nina hated the way Clarina ate her meat. It was an act of aggression and dominance. A show put on for her benefit. All of this was a show, fine things at a fine price meant to show Nina her place. Nina hated people who tried to put her in her place. Nina had no place. Nina was limitless, and it was the Demon Slayer’s experience that the moment one had to try to prove that they were better than someone, was the moment they had already lost.
Fear. This room of self-appointed rulers reeked of it. The fear that came from stealing and buying your status in life rather than earning it, and with that fear came hate. Hate for anyone who didn’t share their fear. Nina could feel their hate radiating off of them in waves and Nina hated them for their petty hatred.
Nina had never exactly been a social creature, she understood it just fine and did enjoy the right gathering of the right people. However, it had been Nina’s unfortunate experience that the right people were very few and far between. Even when you had a whole universe of them. This did not jade her any, it simply made her appreciate the people worth spending time with. It did bother her however, that there currently did not seem to be any in the room. She would have to insist Leonaldus accompany her when next Clarina L.S. Huber requested her presence at Huber Plaza.
“So it would seem your ship is finally in order then.” Clarina stated in her high churlish way, her knife audibly clinking and tearing through flesh before she raised a rare dripping piece and chewed primly with a pointed stare informing Nina she could speak now.
Nina dipped her own meat lazily taking a bite of her own before smiling wanly. “Yes. Quite in order. Thank you for inquiring.”
“Well it certainly took them long enough over there at Armano Tower.” Clarina went on derisively. “I was beginning to believe they must fear you a flight risk.”
Nina smiled tighter with calm poised patience. “Actually, I am quite looking forward to participating in your Labyrinth Games, as well as accompanying Argonni to the Opening Ball this evening.” She used the familiarity of his first name pointedly, knowing exactly where to cut Clarina. Nina was no fool, what bothered Clarina most in the universe at this precise moment was that Nina was being presented as a feather in Armano’s cap and not her own.
Of course, that was where Clarina and Armano differed. Armano would never be stupid enough to see an arrow as a feather. Armano knew what Nina was, and that very respect and awareness of true power was why he was the top player in this little game.
Nina’s dress for the Ball was a fabulously bizarre thing. A combination of ancient ceremonial armor and crimson ruffles. All of the contestants were given ornate robes with the brand of their company stitched in fine metal threading across the back. The robes were engineered to seal the wearer in and protect them from all elements. A DNA sample was taken from each contestant to make certain the robes would respond only to their wearers genetic make-up.
There were many genetic make-ups at the Ball that night, and Nina noted them silently from her gliding place in Argonni’s expertly dancing arms.
“Scoping out the competition?” Armano asked coyly, staring down at her mid turn. He didn’t have much on her, a few inches but the dip in the twirl made her feel oddly feminine under the circumstances.
“You could say I am making notes of a sort.” Nina replied casually. “Taking in all the things that stand out to me in the light before my decent into the dark.”
“You strike me as someone quite at home in the dark.” Armano smirked.
“I have no home, so I am at home everywhere.” Nina replied easily, spinning out and then back into his arms. Their pose almost one of lovers as he swept her back and forth in the pre-set steps of the dance.
“You have figured it out, why no ever comes out, yes?” Argonni asked softly. “You are no fool.”
“Because none of the sponsors have ever wished them to.” Nina replied.
“I would not mind, Lady Nina.” Armano stated calmly, those cold hunters eyes of his staring into hers. “If you truly were the first.”
Nina smirked, stepping back from him and clapping with the rest now that the dance was done. “I am glad, because trust me. I will.”
A trumpet sounded out, low and reverberating as it cut into the scattered clapping of the room.
A hush fell.
The Labyrinth Games had begun.
* * *
The decent into the maze was cold and metallic with no temperature or air moderation for such a forgotten and rusted place. She could hear the dripping of the waters from the City above leaking down below and echoing back to her at the mouth of her entrance from below Armano Towers. The air smelled of metal, age, and cold damp despair.
Each contestant had their own entrance. The first task was to navigate through the darkness to the center of the labyrinth.
The second, was to kill everyone there.
The third of course was then to find your way back out once you had.
The Labyrinth exit would lead to the Ballroom Floor where the lone survivor would be made rich beyond their wildest dreams. Only this never happened, and from the cryptic words of her mystery hijacker Nina was quite certain she knew why.
Shouting from ahead. Nina stretched. Waiting patiently for her cue.
Ah, there it was. Nina began running towards it, the sound that confirmed all her suspicions.
The sound of all the bravest warriors in the City screaming in terror.
The demon was massive. Thirty feet tall and made of smoldering hard blackened flesh, long whips of flame. It roared in unearthly rage, furious to be summoned from its slumber and determined to annihilate all in its sights.
“I don’t understand.” A man quivered from her feat, all signs of his large and once ferocious warriors spirit now gone as he clutched the seared stump that had been his right leg. Well perhaps not all Nina noted, his left hand while shaking terribly, still held his sword.
“It is unfortunately quite simple.” Nina replied, firing up her trusty plasma sword. “We are not our sponsors champions.”
She winced, holding her ground as another great roar blew around her in a burning breath of harsh wind.
“We are their sacrifices.”
The remaining tributes stared terrified as the horror of her revelation sunk in. The wounded solider at her feet threw off his cloak in disgust.
“If I could stand I would gut that monster and bring them its head before taking all of theirs back to my wife and children as tribute.” He sneered.
Nina smiled, readying her battle stance. “He is an awful big fellow, I daresay there are plenty of pieces to go around should you all share your fallen companion’s sentiments.”
“Aye.” A large reptilian breed with a patch slithered, hoisting up his axe and swinging it into the demons left leg. “I could go for some dark meat.”
The demon roared lifting him up to his fiery fangs. The reptilian fought against his grip, his cloak falling free in the process.
For a moment they stood shocked as the demon released him and chased after it, swallowing it down with a unsatisfied roar.
“The cloaks!” Nina yelled, ripping her own from her shoulders. “They’re not only linked to our DNA, they’re also linked to the demon! Take them off!”
The warriors wrenched them from their bodies, hurling them towards the beast who lunged after each with forced cries like an addict in need.
Nina nearly felt bad for him. The creators of this City had summoned and enslaved him with their dark magic for something as arbitrary as base capitalism. A creature older than time reduced to the mere blood and mortar foundations of who could have the tallest skyscraper. It made her sick, and unfortunately for the demon it showed her exactly how to beat him.
“Wait.” She called, lifting a hand to halt a blue skinned monk of some far off place covered in bones, piercings, and ancient symbols. “Watch.”
Slowly the creature began to stagger, his roars softening to almost mere moans and groans as he fell to a knee. His flames grew dimmer and dimmer until they smoldered silently and the beast laid down giving into an unflinching slumber.
“The cloaks not only allow the demon to take us down with ease.” Nina muttered. “They also were designed to take him down as well once he had disposed of us.”
She frowned, lifting her sword solemnly and marching over to the beast.
“Come. Let us end all this misery, once and for all.”
The main ballroom was full of toasting and laughter. The City’s elite all content that they should have yet another era of unending and nearly unreasonable prosperity. Only Armano sat calm amongst the throng.
“Oh come now, Argonni.” Clarina tittered, waving a teal gloved hand dismissively. “You can’t really think that droll sad little girl will actually beat The Engine. It is absurd to even consider.”
“I could beat it.” He replied cuttingly, now almost certain of what was about to befall them all and oddly content with it. “And if I could, so too can the Demon Slayer.”
“She is a true hunter.” Armano murmured, his eyes cool and considering.
“Oh you’re only saying that because you know its weakness, Armano.” Clarina laughed. “No outsider could ever stand a chance.”
“But that is what makes good hunters so good, Clarina.” Armano replied. “Their tireless ability to see all weaknesses, even if they aren’t trying to.”
Leonaldus coughed, looking down quickly but not quick enough for Armano to miss the smile tugging at his lips.
The doors slammed open with a thud, each member of the City’s bloodied chosen dirtied and singed, holding their pound of flesh high.
Each member, save for Nina.
Nina held up the one-legged warrior proudly and he in turn hoisted the beasts head for both of them, dropping it straight on Clarina’s plate.
Sputters and questions broke out across the room growing louder and louder until Nina held up a hand.
“Promotions.” She declared cuttingly, the room stopping to stare in stunned confusion. “That is what I believe is in order.”
“To ensure the legacy of this fine City stays secret and safe.” Nina went on easily. “Promotions for these fine chosen few. Why, they look like board members to me. Maybe even City Council.”
“For life.” She decreed coldly, challenging anyone with her eyes to question her ruling.
“Excellent.” Nina breathed. “And now, Leonaldus, would you please be so kind as to load my winnings onto my ship?”
“Winnings!” Clarina yelped, finally unable to hold her tongue. “There are no winnings for you! You destroyed our entire civilization!”
“First of all, while I understand that the only way someone like you could ever become the master of anything in this universe would have to be by archaic blood ritual, I think the rest of your fine City leaders actually know how to run a business just fine without it.” Nina replied, sharing a knowing smirk with Armano. “And as for the matter of my winnings, I speak of my gambling winnings.”
Nina smirked lightly . “Evil greedy bastards that you all are, I knew there was no way you could have something like this go down and not try and make even more money off of it on the side.”
“Sure you each place a nice good faith bet on your champion so the people don’t catch wise.” She went on. “But then you have your personal assistants book the odds on winning bet. Total annihilation.”
Nina smirked. “I had Leonaldus take out two bets for me, a handsome one on myself of course, but the second far more large and daring, not mention entirely stacked against.”
Two men wheeled a cart in.
Until finally there were six in all.
“I bet that we would all come back.” Nina smiled delightedly, her smile growing ever so much wider as Clarina fainted delicately. “Needless to say, no one else but I was willing to invest in those odds, so only I will be collecting. From mostly all of you, I believe.”
“Oh, and Leonaldus?” She called lightly. “Do be sure to tip yourself at least ten percent.”
“With pleasure, my lady.” He beamed, escorting the first of her carts back to her ship.
Nina sighed, placing her watch back in its container, thankful once again she hadn’t had to waste it. There was no doubt now that she would hear from her mystery caller again.
This trip had been about much more than money, it had been about revolution.
Nina was not sure how she felt about this. Nina only knew that she had done good work down there today.
What happened tomorrow would be up to them.