Book 1 – Chapter 4
1F – Headon’s Floor
Night’s screams echoed hollow across the Lowest Floor as he struggled against the immovable black ball that now held his Black March hostage. Behind him, he could sense the Spirit-fish – the large, foul creature that patrolled these depths – regain its footing, spitting out blood from where he had stabbed it earlier in the mouth.
Far away, beyond the cage, Yuri’s hands had balled into fists. “HEADON!!” she yelled, physically grabbing him by the collar. “You nasty, little, rotten rabbit of a…”
“My lady!” Evan wrestled himself between the two of them, forcing them apart. “As your Guide, I must order you to stop!”
Yuri, still seething, disengaged her arms. Headon smoothed out the creases on his robes.
“You didn’t even give him a chance,” Yuri sputtered. “I’ve never – never! – seen anything that could withstand the Black March. And you’re telling me that this is a fair test for the first level? Are you kidding me? Cancel this exam, right now, or I’ll see to it that you spend the rest of your life cleaning the Zahard toilets!”
Headon spun his staff. “I’m sorry, my lady, but I can’t do that. The test has already started. It is beyond my power to stop it, unless he gives up willingly.”
Yuri spun towards the cage, where the Spirit-fish was nearly back on its feet (or flippers, as the case may be). “Night! Can you hear me? You’ve got to get out of there right now!” she yelled.
Night could hear her faintly in the distance, but he ignored her. He was almost there, he was sure of it. Just a few more pulls…
His sweat ran down his brow and dripped to the ground. He kept tugging. Behind him, he could hear Yuri’s voice: “You’ve got to give up! This test is impossible!”
Before she could say anything more, the Spirit-fish let loose a loud roar that shook the stone walls, raining down a hail of loose dirt and rock on the entire floor.
“Oh, no,” Yuri breathed, as the monster started to once again search for its prey. Its humongous, oblong body shimmered in the air as it wrapped its tendrils around every column and every corner, searching for the meal that escaped.
She gritted her teeth. “That’s it,” she said. “I’m going in there and I’m getting him myself. Evan, I’m going to need your support – ”
She was about to dart into the field when Evan suddenly grabbed her wrist. “My lady. Wait.”
Yuri turned to him, stunned. “Wait? Are you serious?” she freed herself from his grip. “You know the situation as well as I do, Evan… ”
“No.” Evan was staring at the cage with great concentration, his eyebrows furrowed. “He still has the Black March. There’s one more thing he can do.”
Yuri hesitated, then laughed. “Oh, come on, Evan. There’s no way…” even as she said it, she recognized a glimmer of hope that was quickly extinguished by her common sense. “He can’t do it, Evan. It’s impossible.”
Evan ignored her and called out to Night. “Hey! Rookie!” Evan’s voice carried clearly, even though he was hundreds of meters away. “Can you hear me?”
“Yeah!” The panic was evident in Night’s voice as he continued struggling with the Black March. He tugged on it with all his might, but it refused to budge. “What am I supposed to do? It won’t come out!”
“Okay, yeah, there’s one more thing you can try.” Evan said, a little apprehensively. Next to him, Yuri stood, waiting to dash at a moment’s notice. “Grab the Black March with both of your hands.”
Night obliged, his heartbeat quickening. He could hear the Spirit-fish come closer and closer; it was bound to spot him any second now.
“Now, talk to it!” Evan yelled. “Ask it for its help! Tell it to ignite!”
Night blinked. Talk to the sword? Ignite? “I don’t – ”
“Just do it! You’re running out of time!”
“Oh… okay, I’ll try!”
Yuri shook her head, her eyes trained on Night in the distance. “You’re crazy if you think this is going to work, Evan. I’m its owner, for crying out loud. It’s never even ignited for me, why do you think it’s going to help him?”
Yuri glanced at him for a brief second. “You’re very confident.”
“Do you remember telling me about the Black March, when you first got it?” Evan asked. “About how you said it was like handling an unruly child, and it was hard to even hold it properly?”
“Then it will work for him.”
Yuri was momentarily lost for words. “I do hope you’re right.”
Evan briefly flashed a grin. “Consider it a Guide’s intuition. He’s got what it takes.”
Can you walk down this path? he thought to himself. Although he had only met him just a couple minutes ago, he knew that the boy was special. He had… something. Something that only revealed itself to a precious few. And he was certain that he wouldn’t be the first person to be attracted to this undefined power that surrounded Night.
Night closed his eyes tightly. He wasn’t quite sure how to ask a sword for its help, but he could try. Please help me, he thought. Help me climb the tower.
A loud screech behind him forced his eyes open. The Spirit-fish had finally spotted him; it opened its jaws wide in anticipation. Night gripped the Black March even tighter in his hand.
Please help me – please!
“Dammit, it’s not working!” Yuri swore. “Get out of there!” she yelled, taking out her weapons inventory. Her fingers gripped a sword. “Can you hear me?? Evan, let’s go!”
Evan wasn’t listening; his eyes were focused on the silhouette of the Black March. Come on, he thought. Show yourself.
A faint glimmer of gold began to diffuse from the Black March. Evan’s eyes widened; it was igniting. Beside him, he could hear Yuri gasp.
The sword began to vibrate in Night’s hands as the golden light became brighter, almost as if it were trying to escape its confines. Not a second later, the light coalesced into a shimmering ball of gold, suspended in the air at Night’s eye level.
It stayed that way for a couple seconds, enough time for Yuri to murmur, “That was it?”.
Then, the light exploded and radiant energy filled the entire room. Yuri and Evan were both blown back a few inches by its intensity, yet it did not seem to affect Night at all. He shielded his eyes; the light was too much for him, he had to let go of the sword –
And then, all of a sudden, all of the energy dissipated. Floating in midair, above the sword and connected to it by a thin tendril of remaining gold light, was a woman – the most beautiful woman Night had ever seen. She had flowing golden tresses and piercing blue eyes. Her dainty hands remained folded on her chest. She was wearing a dress of the purest black; it shimmered against the blue mist that percolated throughout the cage.
“You… you are…” Night was awestruck. “Who are you?”
She yawned, then smiled. “I am the Black March. You have called me?”
He simply stared. The Black March laughed. It rang like a glissando; Night’s hairs stood up on his skin. “Hahaha… so you want to climb the Tower?”
Night could merely nod. “You are… the Black March?”
The Black March ignored this. “Gold and riches… power beyond all imagination… beauty beyond compare… what is it that you seek?”
He thought for a moment. “Nothing,” he answered truthfully. “I’m looking for… a girl.” Rachel.
The Black March tilted her head. “Rachel?” she asked, even though he had never said her name out loud. “What’s that? The name of a jewel, a position of power? The most beautiful lady in the land?”
“No… she’s none of those,” he answered. “She’s a friend. She’s not a jewel, or – or the most beautiful. She’s a tomboy, and she sometimes can be a little mean. But she’s the most precious thing to me.”
“I’m not really looking to climb the Tower,” he finished. “I just want to find her.”
The Black March sighed. “Well, aren’t you a boring one.” She descended to his level, looking him in the eye, her faces inches away from his. “But, y’know, that intrigues me.”
She looked around, taking in the situation. Her eyes swept around Headon and the Spirit-fish, which had been temporarily blinded. Her gaze lingered for a second on Yuri and Evan.
“And you’re pretty cute.” she finally said. “Fine. I’ll help you. Just this once, though.”
What happened next, neither Yuri nor Evan could have foretold. The Black March disappeared, only to be replaced by a whirlwind that formed at the base of the ball – small at first, then steadily growing, crackling with the energy from the surrounding blue Spirit and tearing up the stonework within the cage. The Spirit-fish roared with confusion; Night couldn’t be seen amidst the haze and the swirling mass of debris that didn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
Yuri gritted her teeth as the wind reached the outer cage where they were all standing. Her hair blew sideways and she had to struggle to keep her balance, her heels creating groove marks on the floor.
Next to Yuri, Evan was bent double. “It’s – igniting – “ he spat, the words coming one at a time and carried away almost immediately by the tempest. A big mass of stone flew in their general direction; Yuri held out a hand and it shattered into a thousand pieces, settling harmlessly into the air. Bursts of electricity cracked down from the ceiling far above, focusing on the ball and Night’s approximate location, although Yuri couldn’t be sure if he was still there. Hell, she wasn’t sure if he was still alive.
“Night! Night!” she screamed, but it was as effective as throwing a pebble into the ocean; no one could hear anything now.
Then, as suddenly as it came, everything stopped. No more wind, or lightning, or bursts of light. The air cleared. Both the ball and Night were gone; the Spirit-fish flopped around weakly in the corner, its energy spent.
“They’re… gone?” Yuri blinked, her sword in hand. “How…?”
Evan turned toward Headon, who seemed unaffected by the miniature storm. “Headon, can you explain this?”
Yuri glared. “What did you do this time?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Headon said, calmly. “I merely granted his wish, that’s all.”
“Granted…?” Yuri raised her eyebrows.
“Yes, lady Yuri,” Headon bowed slightly. “Granted. He wanted a way up to the next floor. I gave it to him.”
Yuri gritted her teeth, taking her hands off her weapons. “Headon, I don’t know how you’re running this place – ”
“With the very best intentions, naturally,” Headon frowned slightly, or as near as it was possible for a creature with no eyes nor nose to frown. “My task is to test those who enter the tower. And that means preparing… ah… certain exams.”
“But – ”
“Exams that are tailored to the value of their wish,” Headon finished. “That is my duty. That is my existence.”
The purple lights that diffused the room seemed to take on a certain otherworldly glow as Yuri and Headon appraised each other. Yuri didn’t say anything; she merely turned her head sideways and stared into the now-empty cage, where Night and the Spirit-fish had battled it out mere moments before.
“Ummm… my lady?” Evan said, tentatively. Yuri turned around. “What is it?”
“The boy… he took the Black March.”
Yuri sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “I suppose he did.”
“So – what now?”
“Well, we’d better get it back, right?”
“Do you… do you mean that we should follow him?”
Yuri rapped him smartly on the forehead. “Of course. Do you know what would happen if word got out that I lost one of the Thirteen Swords?”
With a final sidelong glance at Headon, Yuri started walking. “Come on, Evan! Let’s go find that crazy sonofabitch.”
“Yes, my lady!”
Headon watched the two Rankers walk away. He chortled to himself, then leaned on his staff. “Did you see that?” he said, seemingly to nobody in particular. “The boy… he has ascended.”
“What will you do now, miss?”
Yuri’s grumbling could fill an entire floor of the Tower, Evan thought to himself, as he tagged alongside his mistress. “For crying out loud, Evan,” she now said. “How am I supposed to control the Black March when it turns out that the thing’s a girl? This is sexism!”
“Well, I don’t know…” Evan said, lost in thought. “That may have not been the only reason.”
Yuri noticed his serious face. “What are you thinking about, Evan?”
“Oh, nothing. Just… the irregular.”
“What about him?”
“I wonder if… if I was kind of like that. You know, when I first started climbing. A long time ago.”
Yuri stared at him for a second, then smartly rapped him on the forehead. “You’re funny, Evan.”
“Well, for one, you don’t have his looks.”
Evan groaned. “You know what I mean.” He started walking again, and for a few minutes, there was silence.
“My lady…” he broke it. There was something niggling away at him.
“What is it, Evan?”
“He will change too… eventually… won’t he?”
Yuri glanced at him askance. “How do you mean?”
“In the Tower, there’s going to be a lot of things the boy has never seen, or heard, or felt before.” Evan glanced upwards. “Ideas and places and schools of thought that defy the imagination and tempt all of us. Like they will for him.”
“Even after he experiences everything the Tower has to offer – will he remain the way he is, chasing after his friend? Does that kind of passion even exist? For me… I don’t even remember the reason I started climbing the Tower at all. It’s all hazy. It’s like we’re all doppelgangers of who we used to be.”
Evan looked upwards at Yuri. “He’s going to turn into the same thing, isn’t he? Like who we turned out to be?”
Yuri paused and met his eyes for a second, then let loose a booming laugh. “Who’re you talking ‘we‘, little man?” She grinned. “C’mon, don’t be so serious. Let’s just figure out where he went.”
He sighed. “Well… couldn’t he have gone to Evankhell’s Floor?”
“Evankhell’s Floor?” Yuri asked. “You mean the Floor of Tests?”
“Well, that’s the informal name for it, but yeah,” Evan said. “That’s where they initially sort the regulars who want to climb the Tower, isn’t it? That’s where they check their qualifications.”
“So you think Headon sent him there?”
“It’s a good bet.”
“Hmm,” Yuri pursed her lips. “But it’s super dangerous to break in there. The security’s no joke. If we were caught…”
She shook her head. “Well, alright. Let’s do it.”
Evan blinked. “Do… do what?”
Yuri started walking at a faster pace. “Breaking into the Floor of Tests, of course! I need my sword back, don’t I?”
“But – but we’re expressly forbidden! We’re not allowed to go there!”
“Oh, please, Evan. Like that’s ever stopped the two of us!”
“Why can’t you just follow the rules for once, huh?” Evan yelled after her, but she ignored him. “Lead the way, my Guide!” she called back.
“Oh, and – ” Yuri suddenly stopped and turned around. “You haven’t changed at all, Evan,” she said. “At least, not since the moment I met you.”
She smiled. “You haven’t grown any taller, either.”
Evan rolled his eyes with a pained expression. “Very funny, miss. You don’t see me insulting you about your weight…”
“Whatever, Evan.” Yuri said, already walking again. “Let’s go!”
Night awoke slowly.
Where the heck am I?
Through his eyelids, he could see that he wasn’t on the Lowest Floor anymore – it was bright. Too bright. The kind of yellow brightness that only came from –
He opened his eyes. Far above him, a dazzling yellow light shone down on him. He seemed to be lying in a desolate field, the grass around him taller than himself. As far as he could tell, he was alone.
Then, suddenly, a loud, booming voice echoed across the sky:
“Hello, good morning, everyone!” The voice, seemingly amplified through a microphone with its signature fuzziness, cut through the air. “Welcome to the Floor of Tests!!”