< Previous Chapter Next Chapter >
Book 1 – Chapter 2
1F – Headon’s Floor
Somewhere inside the Tower, far above the Lowest Floor, far above Night and Headon and the Spirit-fish, two figures were running down a seemingly endless flight of stairs.
One of them was a woman; the other was a man. The woman was tall, lithe, and graceful. She was impeccably dressed; her white suit fit her slim figure perfectly, and her blood-red necktie, the same color as her eyes, complemented the black hair that currently were tied up into a rough yet tasteful ponytail. She bounded down the flights of stairs in careful yet powerful steps, often taking four – or even five – at a time.
The man, despite being normally proportioned, couldn’t have been taller than Night himself. He was dressed in military garb from head to toe, and carried a backpack nearly as big as himself on his back. His silver-white hair was done into a crew cut. Despite his youthful appearance, he exuded wisdom; he was much older than what he looked. Also despite his physique, he had no problem keeping up with the woman, seemingly magically holding pace with her already superhuman speed.
The two of them made an unlikely combination. Their argument echoed throughout the space as they kept running, the woman in front, the man behind.
“Lady Yuri!” the man yelled, as they descended ever deeper. “Lady Yuri, please!“
The woman known as Yuri barely glanced backwards, only laughing as she put on a spurt of speed. The man increased his own speed to keep up. “My lady, what could you possibly want to do on the Lowest Floor?”
Yuri now deigned to actually turn her head slightly. Her eyes twinkled, and a playful smile tugged at her lips. “An irregular, Evan! There’s an irregular on the Lowest Floor!”
Evan gaped. “It can’t be,” he sputtered, sounding a little out of breath – the running was getting to him – yet still matching Yuri, stride for stride.
Yuri, apparently enjoying her little triumph, sprinted down the next flight of stairs. “And guess what else, Evan? That irregular apparently opened the door himself!”
She let out a little whoop. “Did you hear that? He literally opened the door!” she chortled. “Magnificent!”
“But – but if that’s true,” Evan yelled behind her, “that’s a big deal, isn’t it? Opening the door yourself?”
Yuri snorted. “Of course it is,” she now slowed down quite drastically, causing Evan to nearly crash into her posterior. “Slow down now, we don’t want to be spotted.”
They were within sight of a light shining in the distance, and they stepped out of the final flight of stairs. Evan caught his breath. “What do you mean, spotted?”
The lady merely grinned playfully again. A slightly fearful, yet grudgingly admiring, look came upon Evan’s face. “You surely don’t plan on … watching?“
Yuri slapped Headon on the head, an act which actually required her to bend down a little. “What do you think, Evan?”
Evan merely sighed as Yuri strode towards the light. “Come on, Headon’s probably with him right now!”
That woman is going to be the death of me, Evan thought. Out loud, he said, “But – what’s the point? Do you know what’ll happen to us if we get caught?”
“But it sounds fun, doesn’t it?” Yuri yelled from the distance, her voice already fading.
“No, not at all!” Evan yelled, reluctantly following. “It sounds bloody dangerous, if you ask me!”
“Evan’s a c-o-w-a-r-d,” Yuri’s voice mocked. “Hurry, it’s about to start.”
Several minutes later, Evan found himself leaning over a huge chasm bored into the stone floor, squinting into the enormous room that was the Lowest Floor, trying to make out Headon – and the irregular.
Despite himself, Evan was curious – someone had the courage, or the balls, to go into the Lowest Floor, and an irregular, at that! This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, possibly one of the rarest things to happen inside the Tower. Despite what he had said earlier, he wouldn’t miss this for the world.
Beside him, Yuri let out an impatient titter. “Where are they?”
For once, Evan felt good that he was the one to mote out information. He was a guide, after all. ”Be patient, my lady. They’ll show themselves.”
Yuri groaned, but kept silent.
After a few minutes spent in the dark, Evan pointed. “There they are.”
Beside him, Yuri crawled forward, her breath coming in excited gasps. “Where?” she demanded once more.
Evan was slightly better at maintaining his composure, but even he was excited as he took his first glance at the irregular.
His first impression was that of profound disappointment. Firstly, he was much too young, Evan’s brain told him. And he looked too … normal.
Yuri apparently shared the same sentiments, letting out a small puff of air from her nose. “Is that him?” she asked, before slumping slightly. “Man, what a disappointment.”
Tell me about it, Evan thought. “He does seem a bit … underpowered for an irregular.”
“Underpowered?” Yuri said. “Look at him. He’s a stick, for crying out loud. And he looks like he’ll be struck down by a breeze. I thought he’d be a monster or something, like Urek.”
She sighed. “Don’t tell me I came all the way here for nothing…”
This was your idea, Evan mouthed silently. Not that he’d actually ever say that to her face, of course. Lady Yuri could be touchy – and a bit childish.
But along with that childishness came youth, and a certain kind of je ne sais quoi that made her such a powerful force in the Tower. And – as she had just recently affirmed – quite unpredictable.
“What do you think?” Yuri now prodded Evan hopefully. “You’re the guide. What’s your opinion?”
Evan bit his lips, then shrugged. “All of the irregulars so far have been … powerful, to say the least – “
Yuri nodded. “People like Urek. Or Phantaminum.”
” – but maybe he has something up his sleeve, like transformation, or something. I’m not sure. He does look agile, but he doesn’t seem to be mixed with any other species.”
Yes, Evan was certain, he was, totally, without a doubt, absolutely -
“He’s just a normal kid,” he finished. “And … “
“…and?” Yuri urged.
“I can’t feel that special kind of … power … that’s I’ve felt before. From other irregulars like Urek, Phantaminum.”
Yuri couldn’t hide her disappointment. “Man. And I came here expecting something exciting.”
Evan couldn’t help but share her disappointment. To be quite frank, his heart had started pounding the moment he had heard that an irregular had entered the Tower. All previous irregulars – now-legendary figures like Urek and Phantaminum – had all been beings of extraordinary strength and power, possibly even stronger than Lady Yuri and definitely above Evan’s own level.
But … this was some kid. He didn’t look like he would be able to get past the first level, let alone climb to the top of the Tower.
A clanking noise drew his attention to the far wall of the Lowest Floor, and he couldn’t help but chuckle slightly at Headon’s decision. “He’s bringing out the Ball,” he muttered.
Yuri leaned forward from where she had been slouching. “Hmm?”
Evan now gasped as something big and dark came into view. “Oh, Headon, this is going too far,” he murmured to himself. Yuri drew near him, her curiosity piqued. She gasped audibly.
“Look at the size of that thing!”
For she had just spotted the Spirit-fish that was making its way, teeth bared, toward the boy.
Evan gulped. “I don’t know what Headon’s thinking. He’ll die for sure. Normally, a Spirit-fish of that size wouldn’t appear until … the Twentieth Floor, at least.”
Yuri squinted. “Maybe he’s trying to persuade him to give up?”
“Well,” Evan watched in glum distaste as the boy took a step backward below him. “I guess we know one thing for certain.”
Yuri looked up. “And what’s that?”
Evan managed a small grin. “His journey ends here.”
These words seemed to have a more powerful effect on Yuri than Evan intended, as she sank into a cloud of thought.
Both of them watched Headon and the irregular trade words in silence.
Yuri broke the atmosphere. “Should we help him?”
Evan hung his head. I knew it. “Don’t be stupid.”
Normally, such a sentence would’ve earned him a stinging rebuke and a smart rap against the forehead, but Yuri was preoccupied. “Why not? He’s so pitiable. I mean, look at him.”
“But do you realize the consequences of – “
Yuri cut him off. “And irregulars have always brought upheavals within the Tower. Big changes, Evan. I’m talking massive power shifts,” she said, positively salivating.
“We don’t need change!” Evan cried. “No one likes irregulars! No one!”
Yuri pursed her lips. “Hmmm,” she said, apparently on the verge of coming to a decision, her eyes locked on the Lowest Floor below.
Evan shook his head forcefully. “Seriously, my lady, this is not a good idea.”
“And why is that?”
“Well, most importantly, if the King hears about this,” – and here Evan made a chopping motion with his hands across his throat – “we’re done for. Executed. Do you hear me?”
Evan threw up his hands. “Whatever, it doesn’t matter anyways.”
“And why is that?“
“Because he’s not going to take the test. He’s going to run away, obviously.”
Yuri seemingly couldn’t contain her grin any longer, and a smile spread across her face. “A-ha, Evan! Is this when I finally get to one-up you?”
Evan was caught unawares by this. “How do you mean?”
The lady simply pointed below her, one finger extending down into the chamber. “Things are finally getting interesting.“
Evan somehow knew what was going to happen before his eyes had the chance.
“He’s running,” he said in disbelief.
“Towards the Spirit-fish.”
Evan looked up at Yuri, whose grin was still plastered on her face, and he knew that the battle was lost.
“I’ll be right back, Evan!” Yuri yelled, and in one fluid motion, jumped off from the ledge into the Spirit-fish chamber below.
“No, my lady, please – “
“Stop worrying about my neck!” she yelled, her voice growing smaller.
Evan watched as Yuri gradually shrank from view. “It’s not your neck I’m worried about,” he muttered to himself. “It’s mine.”
Blood rushed into Night’s head. His hands were balled into fists. He took one brave step forward, then two. Then three.
The Spirit fish clawed its way, slowly, towards him, almost as if it was analyzing him, questioning him, for being foolhardy enough to step into his domain.
And beyond the fish, Night could barely make out his destination: the black, round Ball, suspended in midair at chest height.
He needed to find a way around the Spirit-fish, he thought. No sooner had the thought entered his mind when it ruled that out as impossible. The fish was simply too quick.
Had he indeed entered a losing battle, like Headon said? Was he doomed to die here, not knowing where Rachel had gone? Rachel, who had mysteriously departed, leaving him all alone in the darkness? Rachel, who had been his only friend, his mentor, his foundation?
Energy filled his body again. He must find a way. For Rachel.
Night dug his heels into the gravel beneath his feet. He must outrun the Spirit-fish, and he must do it head-on. No use going around.
He began sprinting.
The next thing he felt was a solid smack on his forehead, then darkness.
When he came to, he was lying spread-eagled on the floor, his head throbbing. He could see Headon to his right, and from the way he handled his staff, Night could tell he was anxious about something.
To his left, there was …
Night squinted. Someone he had not seen before. It was a woman. Night had never seen humans other than Rachel, but knew from what she had told him that others existed like them.
He also knew, from the look in her blood-red eyes, that this wasn’t a person to trifle with.
The woman now came up to him in big, powerful strides, and leaned over, ignoring Headon. She said something; Night couldn’t understand, and it sounded like unintelligible gibberish. She tilted her head a little, apparently puzzled.
This wasn’t exactly how Yuri had planned her grand entrance.
She hadn’t planned on smacking the irregular in the face with her foot, for example. But she had miscalculated.
Yuri had also calculated on the boy being able to understand her, but fortunately, that wasn’t a significant problem. “Hey, Headon,” she called out to the Master of the Lowest Floor. “Don’t tell me you didn’t even give this guy a Pocket?”
Headon scratched his head. “Whoops,” he said now. “I suppose I forgot.”
Yuri snorted. “Forgot, my ass. A veteran of the Tower, forget to give a newbie a Pocket?”
The Master grinned, or what seemed like it – the lack of eyes made it quite hard to tell. His elongated ears twitched slightly. “Really, now. I make mistakes, too.”
Yuri sighed, then raised her voice. “Hey, Evan!”
From way up high, Evan groaned. Why does she have to bring me into this?
Evan muttered something under his breath. “Yes, my lady?”
“Stop being shy and get down here!”
Headon observed these proceedings calmly, and watched the diminuitive man fall into the chamber, landing safely on his two feet. “Well, well,” he said. “I should’ve known you were the guide.”
He twirled his staff. “Evan Edlock.”
Evan grinned, but couldn’t help drawing back, just a little. “Hello, sir Headon,” he said. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
Yuri rolled her eyes. “Enough with the fake diplomacy,” she said. “Do you have a spare Pocket? I thought you always kept one around?”
The guide nodded. “Yes, it should be in my pack somewhere,” he said, setting down his luggage and beginning to browse through it.
“Give it to the newbie here,” Yuri said, pointing towards Night with her chin. “Headon didn’t even give him a Pocket.”
Night, meanwhile, had been observing the scene with curiosity and confusion. Who were these people that had suddenly appeared from nowhere? Were they Masters like Headon?
Evan had found the Pocket. “Here we are,” he drew the small, black, round object from one of the numerous side pockets. It was approximately the size of a large fist. “It’s a bit out of your league,” Evan said, extending the ball towards the irregular. “But it’s all I’ve got right now…”
Night regarded the object that the second person now held out to him. Was he supposed to take it? He did so, gingerly. For the first few seconds, nothing happened – the ball simply sat, somewhat heavily, in his palms.
Just when he was about to explain that nothing was happening, he felt a curious sensation. There was a brief rush of wind surrounding his body, and the world seemed to go into a tailspin for a brief moment. The black ball rose into the air, and strange white markings appeared on its surface before disappearing again.
Evan and Yuri looked at him expectantly. The Pocket now floated in midair, making small circles.
“Well? Newbie?” Evan prodded. Night looked up – or rather, down – at the new figure. “Can you hear me? This is called a Pocket. It’s yours now.”
Night hesitated, then nodded. The gibberish had been transformed into normal speech; he wasn’t sure, but was fairly certain that the ball – the “Pocket” – had something to do with it.
While Night was admiring the Pocket, Evan took a few seconds to look him over. Everything seemed to be the same as when he had first seem him from above. He was small and scrawny; probably wouldn’t last five seconds in a fight.
Yuri shouldered Evan aside. “Hey, newbie,” she said.
Night looked up from the Pocket at the imposing figure. “Y – yes?” he said, hesitantly. Yuri grinned. “Finally you understand me! You should be happy, that’s a pretty expensive Pocket – especially for your level.”
The ball floated at waist level. Night couldn’t hide his curiosity. “I can understand you now. Is it because of this … thing? This ‘Pocket’?”
Yuri nodded. Night shook his head in awe. “That’s…that’s impossible.”
Evan grinned. “If you can’t wrap your head around this, the rest of the Tower will be mighty surprising for you.”
He held out his hand to shake. “I’ll introduce myself. I’m an A-ranked guide and one of the Rankers of the Tower. My name is Evan Edlock. And that lady over there who gave you that scar on your forehead” – here Yuri growled slightly – “is another Ranker, Lady Yuri.”
“Pleased … pleased to meet you.”
“Pleasure,” Evan said. “Oh, and about that Pocket – it has a lot of uses in the Tower, but for now, just remember that it will translate all languages into Maxess, the language of the Tower. Understand?”
“Now, just one more thing – try saying ‘invisible mode’ to the Pocket.”
The newbie complied. The Pocket promptly vanished.
Before Night could express his surprise, Evan held up his hand. “Don’t worry – it’s not gone, just invisible. Saying ‘visible mode’ will bring it back to normal – like so.”
For Night had just uttered the command. The Pocket re-appeared. “Oh!”
Evan nodded. “The Tower has a lot of strange things like that. You’re going to have to get used to them.”
Meanwhile, Yuri had been having a discussion with Headon.
“Headon,” she said, while Evan and Night were busy with the Pocket. “Don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to try and kick him out of the Tower, just because he’s an irregular?”
Headon shrugged. “I don’t understand what you mean. I’m merely giving the test in a fair and concise way, not trying to boot him from the Tower.”
Yuri’s voice rose. “If you’re going to make excuses, at least try to make them believable,” she spat, hands on her hips. “This difficulty level is appropriate for the Twentieth Floor, not here!”
The Master of the Lowest Floor remained unperturbed. “Princess Yuri,” he now said. “You’ve noticed that this boy here is an irregular, haven’t you?”
From a few paces away, Night turned his head. Are they talking about me?
“For an irregular, this level of difficulty is not only appropriate, it is normal,” Headon said. “Surely you’re aware of the fantastical powers that the other irregulars possess?”
“Um – excuse me,” Night said, hesitantly.
In unison, both Headon and Yuri turned to stare at the newcomer to the Tower.
“You keep calling me an irregular,” he said. “What … what is that?”
It was Yuri who answered him. “An irregular is someone like you,” she said, staring at him. Her voice had become quieter. “Beings who have come into the Tower by themselves. Those who haven’t been chosen, but instead choose for their own.”
“This Tower…” Yuri gestured to their surroundings. “This Tower can only be entered by the chosen. But infrequently … very rarely, in fact … people like you, the one who weren’t chosen and decide to enter the Tower on their own, attempt to climb the Tower.”
Evan now spoke from behind him. “Every time an irregular has entered the Tower, that person has brought incredible change and turmoil within the institution,” he spoke quietly. “All of them possessed powers beyond regular imagination, so people naturally feared them.”
Night couldn’t wrap his head around the subject. I’m an … irregular? So people will fear … me? Somehow, it seemed nearly comical.
Yuri now spoke in a businesslike tone. “Headon, I’d like to suggest something.”
If Headon had eyebrows, he would’ve raised them. “What is your suggestion?”
“It’s pretty clear – to me, at least – that this irregular is nowhere on the scale of the previous entries,” she said.
Night felt a bit left out of this conversation, but Yuri pushed forward. “So what do you say to lowering the difficulty scale a little?”
Headon regarded Night, then Yuri. “Princess Yuri,” he spoke after a few seconds, and this time his voice contained an inflection of the mildest annoyance mixed with amusement. “It seems like you want him to climb the Tower.”
Yuri remained silent.
Headon regarded both of them for a while, interrupted only by the desolate cries of the Spirit-fish behind them (which seemed to have become somewhat lonely). Finally, he spoke. “Very well,” he said, turning around abruptly. “I’ll change the rules a little, if it suits you.”
Yuri smiled. “Thanks, Headon.” she said. “I was sure that you’ll – “
“How about Princess Yuri lending him the Black March?”
Yuri froze mid-sentence. Evan let out an audible gasp.
“The … the Black …?”
Headon’s teeth glinted. “Lending weapons are against the rules of the test,” he mused. “But I think we can … make one exception to this rule. If you agree to lend the boy your Black March – your weapon – I’ll accept it as an advantage.”
Yuri’s gaze faltered. “The … the Black March is a bit …”
“What do you mean?” Headon said, clearly relishing the moment. “Are you afraid? Do you wish to send the boy skyward, but without sacrificing any of yourself?”
Evan couldn’t take it any longer. “Headon!” he yelled. “You know what the Black March is, you rascally rabbit of a – “
Evan’s next words caught in his throat. “Lady Yuri – “
Yuri ignored him. “Hey, newbie!” she now yelled at Night. “Do you have a name?”
“Y – yes, my name’s Night – “
“Alright, Night - listen up,” Yuri pointed toward him. “I’m going to give you something. But before I do, I want you to answer something for me.”
“Do you want to go up the Tower?”
He nodded again, without hesitation. “I – I need to find someone.”
“You could die. Possibly before you could ever find the person you’re looking for.”
Evan could see that something burned in Yuri’s eyes, a red flame that he knew was the sign that something big was about to happen.
Night paused for a second, then nodded once more.
Yuri sighed. “Alright, kid. Stand back.”
Both Evan and Night took steps backward.
“Weapons inventory – visible mode.”
What happened next, even Evan wasn’t able to completely hide his awe, for he had seen it only a few times before. An extended sword holder magically appeared beside Yuri, containing dozens of swords and an array of other weapons.
If it was aweing for Evan, it was absolutely mind-blowing for Night, who watched with his jaws open as Yuri carefully drew out the longest, thinnest, and most beautiful sword of them all. It was pitch black, needle-sharp, and taller than Night himself.
Evan was compelled to make one final effort. “Lady Yuri! You can’t possibly – “
Yuri glared at him. “I do what I want.”
“But it’s the Black March!” Evan yelled. “If the King finds out what you’re going to do with it – “
The ground cracked slightly beneath Yuri’s feet, and Evan fell silent, although he kept watching with worried eyes.
“Here, kid.” Yuri held out the sword for him to take. Night shook his head. “No, I couldn’t possibly, you keep it – “
Yuri knelt down to his eye level. “Listen up. You say you want to find someone?”
“And you’d stop at nothing?”
He nodded once more.
“Then shut up and take the sword, before I change my mind.”
Silently – and with Evan looking on in disapproval – Night took the sword from Yuri.
“I’m only letting you borrow it, remember,” Yuri stood up again. “This is called the Black March. It’s one of the most powerful swords in the Tower.”
She watched as Night handled the sword. “Not bad. At least you’re not stabbing yourself with it.”
Evan stepped forward; if he couldn’t change her decision, he might as well explain its importance. “The Black March is one of thirteen in a series,” he told Night. “It’s partially alive, so if it ever ‘ignites’, it will give you incredible power.”
Here, Evan turned slightly toward Yuri. “It’s never ignited for Lady Yuri, though.”
Yuri ignored him. “Even if you have the sword, the chances of you winning against that Spirit-fish are incredibly low,” she cautioned. As if on cue, the Spirit-fish roared behind them. The hairs stood up on Evan’s back.
“But if you still want to try … go ahead.”
She walked away. It was all up to Night now.
Night glanced at the sword, then at the Spirit-fish, then at Yuri. “Thank you,” he said to her retreating back. “I promise I’ll return it to you.”
Evan followed Yuri to a safe distance away from the arena. “My lady,” he said. “Can I ask you a question?”
Yuri smirked. “I suppose I owe you one.”
“Do you really believe … that this irregular … that kid … can bring change to the Tower?”
She remained silent for a few seconds. “I don’t hold ridiculous expectations.”
Evan was quiet as he watched the shape of Night’s back disappear into the blue mist.
“I just like him, that’s all.”
In front of him, the Spirit-fish roared. Night held the Black March at eye level. He felt more reassured now, like the weapon had given him a power of his own.
He stood facing the enormous creature. Its jaws were wide, and the teeth glistened. He dug his heels into the gravel, and began sprinting.
Now, he had two promises to keep.