I. Transition

The day was fading and the sun was setting into the western sea. Away from the waters and on the coast that bordered them was the city of Rosewood. Soon, night began its intrusion and as it did, Talbot stood and stared at the ocean in some type of silent wonder. It was the one sight in all of Midscape that he would stop to perceive.

As calming as it was, there had been a feeling of trepidation that manifested itself in his mind. He sat up from his position and walked to the edge of the rooftop, putting a foot on the ledge and staring out at the gleaming sea.

Talbot's tall figure stood out and his black hair flailed in the gentle, yet sporadic wind. His ragged clothes hung loosely onto his lean frame and waved in the gusts as gently as they would. He wasn't unattractive but he had that beat up look that most street kids had after many years of aimlessly wandering the streets.

"Tal."

The voice that had spoken to him was Wedge, a cocky young man who did not care for anyone else's troubles. Beside him was Biggs, a soft-spoken and gentle giant. They had been his friends since childhood when they had all discovered each other living on the streets without home or family. With no home or family, the three found solace in each other.

The great depression had left its mark on them but they lived without fear or worry. As far as Talbot was concerned, they had lost everything but each other and because of that, the only thing they cared about was themselves.

"Why do you always come up here?" Biggs asked as he and Wedge walked up to either side of Talbot, looking over the seemingly endless sea.

"There's no better place I can think of to enjoy a cigarette." Talbot replied, smiling to himself as he stared out at the waning light of the sun.

"It's going to be busy day tomorrow." Biggs said, more to himself than to his two companions.

"I heard the River Boys are looking for us." Wedge said off the subject.

"Well, we'll see what they want before we go to the tournament." Talbot replied.

The three talked among each other, laughing at bits of their conversation here and there, joking among themselves before they left the roof and the fading light of the sun.

----------------------------

On a balcony in the center of Rosewood, Bishop was staring at the same setting sun in silent wonder. A faint smile was on his face, a smile of serenity that he rarely illustrated in his lifetime.

Rosewood, in his mind, was the most beautiful city in the world of Midscape. And for him, he who had been to most of the large cities in the world, it was the city he would miss the most after the tournament.

Bishop looked down to the streets and the people who were preparing for the next day's events. There would be a parade, no doubt, and a pre-tournament celebration. The serene smile left his face and was replaced by a look of sorrow. He knew what would happen in the days to follow, of the events that would unfold in the peaceful and beautiful city of Rosewood.

It would be a spectacle that no one in Rosewood would ever forget and one that everyone would wonder about for years to come. He walked back into the building to clean his swords, the swords that would be his only friends in the tournament.

He laughed quietly to himself at the thought of his swords being his only company. But that was, in fact, what they were, and what they had been since he had attained them.

"My only family…" He whispered to himself.

The sun set and the city slept in anticipation of the tournament but no one would expect the experience to come.

----------------------------

Talbot, Biggs and Wedge woke early the next day to meet with the River Boys, a gang of hoods whose goal was to control the whole of the west side of Rosewood. The three thought the River Boys were a joke and often insulted and ridiculed them. It was the reason why the River Boys wanted to see them, to quiet their insults.

Six of the River Boys had come to the gathering in a ravine in the west side of Rosewood. Talbot and his friends were all ready there, waiting for their rivals in the light of sunrise. They stood staring at each other in silence like the calm before a furious storm. It was Talbot who broke the silence between the two groups who were standing off against each other.

"We're all here." Talbot said. "Let's do this before the tournament starts."

Talbot rushed forward and started what was a street fight between two rival gangs.

----------------------------

Bishop was walking through the quiet streets, going through his thoughts and pondering what the day's events would hold. He'd wandered mindlessly into the west side of Rosewood, where the streets were empty. All of the west side residents had left to get their own early start for the tournament. He continued walking until he heard sounds of rage, familiar cries of angry youth. He walked towards sounds to the ravine where Talbot and his two friends were fighting with the River Boys.

Bishop stood there and watched. There were nine of them engaged in the fist fight, but he couldn't tell who was fighting who. But among the fury of the brawl, there was one kid who caught his eye; a tall young man who seemed to have a great advantage over the others. His punches were hard and he was fighting faster and much better than any other youth that Bishop had ever seen.

His assault was near startling. He would punch one; turn to punch another, then turn again to knock one to the ground. He was coordinated unlike the others who looked like they were swinging without a target. He had experience fighting beyond his years, Bishop could tell this from his standpoint. The brawl slowed and soon, six of the young men were running away, leaving three standing in victory.

The tall one was being patted on the back by the other two when Bishop called out to them.

"Do any of you know how to get to the tournament from here?" He asked. They noticed him after the long and brutal fight and stood quiet for a second before the chubby one of the three, Biggs, pointed the way. Bishop looked down the street and looked back to the tall one, Talbot, who had fought better then the others.

"Hey, kid." Bishop yelled. "Nice fighting."

Bishop turned and walked away, headed for the stadium where the tournament was being held.

"That was Bishop." Talbot said, recognizing the competitor. "He's competing in the tournament today."

"Really?" Biggs said. "Hey, you just got complimented on your fighting by him."

"That's right." Wedge said, smiling. "I guess we're going to have to cheer for him now."

And, laughingly, they walked away.

----------------------------

On the first day, there would always be an opening speech by some person of high authority, but Talbot, Biggs and Wedge never listened. They only waited.

"I always liked the first day." Talbot said to his friends as they waited for tournament to begin. "You want to know something?"

"What?" Wedge replied, knowing that Talbot would go on his yearly rant, explaining to them what he knew of the tournament and every year, he knew a little bit more.

In every time that the tournament was held, the first day was always the busiest. Most of the city's residents could be found in the center of Rosewood, gathering in the stadium built for the tournament, The Centennial. The seats within the stadium could hold the people of the city and many more.

The tournament itself consisted of three separate challenges composed together to make what Midscape knew as the gauntlet.

In every time that the tournament was held, there would always be more competitors than needed. Because of this, there would always be a limit to how many people would be able to move on to the next challenge.

Of the five hundred fifty-three people who came to compete, only one hundred would proceed.

"And what's always the first challenge, Tal?" Biggs asked, humoring his old friend.

The first challenge on the first day of the gauntlet was always the agility challenge, a trial where large ceramic discs are thrown into the air for the challenger to shatter before they struck into the ground. The top one hundred that shatter the most discs within the time limit would advance to the following day's challenge.

"What about the second day?" Wedge asked.

The second challenge on the second day of the gauntlet was always the strength challenge. In each year the gauntlet was held, the second challenge was always a new task and never one that had been used in a previous tournament. But it always involved the strength of the challenger.

"And the third?" Biggs asked with a broad smile across his face.

"You know what the third challenge is." Talbot replied, who decided to light a cigarette while waiting for the games to begin.

Within the first puff of his cigarette, though, the speech ended and the first competitor was called to the field.

----------------------------

Bishop sat in what the challengers called the cage. He could hear the sounds of cheering for the first challenger who was called out. He felt uncomfortable, being able to listen to every cheer, every insult and every cry.

He waited in silence, unlike many other challengers who were warming up, talking to themselves. But there was one other he could see waiting completely still. He sat with his legs crossed in a dark corner, eyes half open and slowly staring over the other competitors. His hair was cut just above his shoulders and was white as if by age, but the competitor himself looked no older thirty. A white, yet dirty, cloak hung off of his shoulders and bunched around his neck and mouth, making a makeshift mask to conceal the bottom half of his face. Although it was meant to be a disguise, Bishop knew who the mysterious challenger was.

"Isaiah…" Bishop told himself quietly before returning his concentration to the sounds outside the cage.

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And so, a new challenger would be called when one would finish; the cheers and cries of many people filled the Centennial and heightened the anticipation for the remaining heroes for the round where they would compete. And one by one, Bishop grew more eager and more frustrated.

Talbot cheered and insulted, but that feeling of dread that he had felt the day before still haunted him and his ever wondering mind. His thoughts told him to anticipate the unanticipated. But he didn't know what to expect.

Isaiah, the masked fighter, only sat uneager yet aware. He had seen Bishop and knew that he had seen him as well. Bishop knew. Isaiah was sure that Bishop, the dark mage, knew what to expect just as he himself expected. Of the thousands upon thousands of people who were in Rosewood, he was sure that them alone, the two challengers, knew of the events to come.

----------------------------

When the time came, it was Bishop who was called to the field. He stood slowly and stepped up to the elevator that would show him to the field. The elevator rose and he breathed slowly, slowing his heart and concentrating his conscious upon the task at hand. The elevator stopped and the doorways opened. He stepped out and into the center field. He closed his eyes as the crowds cheered and insulted and cried. He listened until they were a natural sound and became nothing at all.

The time came and with almost no warning, the heavy ceramic discs were flung into the air. Few at first and these he handled easily. He drew his twin swords and without human thought, he began his furious assault on the falling plates.

The crowds roared as he swung his blades, seemingly randomly but obviously with an inhuman concentration. More and more, they fell; twenty, thirty, fifty… They continued and started their way outwards. They became so far from the center, that Bishop started quick foot work to catch every falling plate. Without expectation, they were flung in a spiral pattern that Bishop followed.

The crowds cheered when he had broken a record number without a single whole disc hitting the ground and still he continued unfaltering. He continued until his advance to the next round was guaranteed and, even then, he continued.

When a single disc had strayed too far for his twin swords to reach, he had flung one blade into the air and used the freed hand to throw an elemental spell to the stray disc. The crowds hollered as he caught the flying sword in time to carry on his livid assault.

Just as the plates had started falling, they had stopped being thrown threw the air for Bishop to shatter. The last plate had been broken and he stood before the crowd that came to life. A holographic display came to life and displayed his count of hits and misses:

954 out of 955

His performance gave him the first position in the first trial of the gauntlet.

----------------------------

In the vast world of Midscape, there were certain people who were able to manipulate a certain aspect of the world around them, an acquired skill that most competitors had. Bishop, whose spell appeared as a type of dark aura emitted from his hand, indicated that the aspect of his manipulation was of shadows.

"And the spell he cast was called a shadowed flare." Talbot had just finished explaining Magenry in great detail. Bishop had been the first competitor who used a Magen spell, and Talbot felt the need to retell the same facet of history of magenry, the magic of Midscape.

Biggs and Wedge didn't mind. In all the years that they had attended the gauntlet, Talbot had always given small lessons into the inner workings of the tournament itself. So much, that it became a type of tradition among the three.

It couldn't be denied that the three friends were close enough to be family.

The competition carried on, but there were no spectacular exhibitions. At least, none to the degree of Bishop, and when there was no one to excite the crowds, Talbot talked with his kin.

A competitor had taken the field, a challenger whose name Talbot couldn't pronounce, but his nickname in among the people of Rosewood was the Brute.

"This guy isn't a mage." Talbot said to his two friends.

"He's not?" Wedge exclaimed in unfeigned curiosity.

"Nope," Talbot replied. "He's one of the strongest people in Midscape."

The Brute, as he was known, was quite muscular and using only his hammer sized fists to shatter the discs. He excited the crowd slightly when he pulled no weapon to break the plates being thrown to him. But as the challenge ended, it was obvious that had not broken as many as Bishop and was exhausted to near unconsciousness.

He filed off the field, receiving little appreciation, but still performing well enough to advance to the next round. Still, the three boys chattered amongst each other and had barely taken notice of the mage that had stepped into the center field after the Brute.

Isaiah was well practiced and had no doubt in his thinking mind that he would advance to the next round. The plates were thrown and he began to use nothing but his ever skillful hands to emit powerful spells to shatter the falling plates. Flashes of lights were thrown from his hands and cast light that were only seen during the most furious of lightning storms. He had not drawn his weapon, which appeared to be a silver ornamented staff.

The crowds roared to life as the bolts of lightning were thrown into the air, seemingly hanging for a moment before they struck the heavy plates. More and more they were thrown and he had not missed a single one. Even as they traveled outwards, they were not out of his powerful reach.

When the plates had fallen and the remains were scattered and scorched on the field, Isaiah stepped off the field even before viewing his final count, which had been all of nine hundred thirty-two. His success guaranteed his position in the following day's challenge.

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The day continued and the challengers tried bravely to do their best, but only one hundred would advance. On the top of the list at the end of the day's trial were Bishop and Isaiah in the top two positions.

The time came when every resident and visitor to the magnificent metropolis of Rosewood were attending the bars and pubs that were annually busied by the crowds of spectators.

Talbot had forgone the bar scene, leaving Biggs and Wedge to drink to their hearts' desire. He had gone for a walk through the streets of Rosewood. The ominous feeling still plagued him and he had thought wandering the streets alone for awhile would calm his mind. But the cold canyon streets were no help.

He got lost in his thoughts and found himself wandering the city limits just off the west side. The sounds of people and their chatter became less and less until he could actually hear the splashing waves of the western sea hitting the sandy coastline.

In moments of desolation, Talbot would have a cigarette and enjoy the calm, which is exactly what he did. The taste of the summer's night air filled his lungs along with the heavy smoke of his poorly rolled cigarette, and for a moment, he had completely forgotten the portentous thoughts that persisted in his mind.

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The night went by slowly.

Talbot had reentered the small rundown one-room house that he shared with Biggs and Wedge, both of whom had fallen asleep after they had returned from the bars. The single room smelled of liquor from Biggs and Wedge breathing forms. Talbot proceeded directly to his overly firm bed and lay down to sleep and dream the night.

In his dreams, Talbot saw himself flying high above a lake, looking down at an abandoned yet well-kept house that stood on the water's surface. He landed and recognized the surroundings despite not ever seeing the house in the waking world. He wandered, kicking up dust and setting out rugs, feeling as though the house would become his home.

He roamed into the higher levels of the house, which looked more dark and sinister than the rest of the house. He turned down a hall and stopped before a young woman, probably no older than he was. Startled by the site of the woman, Talbot grabbed a spear that had been lying on the floor and plunged it forward, through the woman's chest. But she hadn't reacted to the sudden impalement. She stood and let the spear flow into her body and out the other side.

When Talbot had backed away, leaving the woman stuck on the spear, she slowly pulled it from her body and let it fall to the floor. She gestured for him to follow and walked down the hall, into the darkest areas where Talbot could not see.

Talbot opened his eyes to the dim light of a sun that had not yet risen. He sat up on his bed and rubbed his eyes, trying hard to remember what he had seen in his dreams that made him wake so suddenly. He recalled flying and a house he wanted to live in. He remembered stabbing a young woman who he wanted to follow, as well.

He wouldn't have been able to fall back asleep, not that he wanted to, so he woke and got ready for the day's events.

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Later in the day, Talbot, Biggs and Wedge had been filing into the stadium along with every other spectator to watch the second trial of the gauntlet.

"Any thoughts, Tal?" Wedge asked, almost jokingly.

"Not today." Talbot replied. The dream he had seemed to reinforce that odd feeling and he was unable to think clearly or rationally.

"Are you feeling all right, Tal?" Biggs asked.

Talbot said nothing, lost in thoughts and memories of dreams.

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The daily opening speech was just as tedious as it was the day before. Some high authority spoke with little enthusiasm, the crowds eager for the second Trial; inside the cage, however, was a completely different story. The remaining competitors were all warming up and building up their energy and anticipation.

The dark mage Bishop, on the other hand, sat in complete silence as he had the day before. He listened to the crowds, the competitors; but in the background, he could hear the faint sound of something. It was the sound of something alive, large and animalistic. He thought he recognized the sound, but pushed it form his mind.

He didn't want to hear what he thought he heard, especially since he was the first challenger to take the second trial. His concentration broke when he felt someone's hard glare on the back of his head. He turned his head to the side and saw Isaiah out of the corner of his eyes, who was staring back with great intensity.

This was when Bishop heard his name being called and the sound of something living and captive was louder than ever. At this point, he knew what the sound was.

"A dragon…" Bishop thought to himself as he walked to the elevator that would take him to the field.

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There was a collective gasp as the second trial was revealed. The dragon was raised from the center of the field, which had been changed from the first day's setting to a larger field scattered with large rocks and boulders and dead trees that head been forced into the ground throughout the field.

The dragon was not at all large but looked quite ferocious all the same. It was not fully developed; it was an immature dragon that had yet to reach its adult life. The elevator doors opened, revealing to Bishop the black-scaled dragon. It roared at the sight of the dark mage and scampered in its place, chained to a stake set into the earth. Multiple men came out and stepped up to Bishop, holding large chains and braces.

"The second challenge…" One of them said as he grabbed Bishop's arms and put the braces on him. "… is to hold down the dragon for as long as possible."

"What?" Bishop asked, almost unsure if he heard what he had just heard.

"Stay on the ground for as long as you can." The man said before taking the opposite end of the chain and attaching it to the chain that held the dragon in place.

The men that were carrying the chain hurriedly left the playing area and a countdown was initiated.

Three.

Bishop immediately began looking for footing in the play field, unsure of how strong the dragon would be, unsure if the dragon would try to attack him.

Two.

Bishop took up position in front of a large boulder that had one of the dying trees on its surface and wrapped the chain around the trunk as best he could.

One!

He braced his foot on the jagged grooves of the boulder and held on as if his life depended on it.

And with little warning, the stake was released and an arrow was shot into the rear end of the young dragon, who took to the air within the second. The chain pulled around the trunk of the tree and crushed every fiber into splinters. The force of the pull launched Bishop into the air and he lost his footing almost immediately, but was heavy enough to float down slowly and catch another footing on a jagged boulder.

Bishop was barely able to hold down the dragon; his arms felt as if they were going to be pulled from their sockets and carried away on the dragon's chains. But still, he persisted with strength that he hadn't used for many years. He growled as the pain of being pulled sank in. His main concern was the chance that the chains would snap and the recoil would strike him dead.

The dragon shifted its direction and Bishop felt himself being lifted off the ground once more, only to find footing seconds later. There was a roar and Bishop couldn't tell if it was the dragon, the crowds or his own screaming voice. He persisted longer than the dark mage had thought he would be able to, until finally, he was lifted above the ground and carried into the air.

For a moment, Bishop thought he would be carried off, being pulled along in the dragon's wake until it landed. But before the dragon could escape, four cannons were fired, shooting large hooks attached to chains that ensnared the dragon in mid-flight. Gently, the dragon was pulled back down into the stadium, Bishop dangling beneath it until his feet met solid earth.

The men who had locked him and the dragon together came out and unclasped the braces on Bishop's arms and reattached the chain to the stake in the earth. The feeling was a mixture of relief and pain as Bishop left the field, holding his sore arms and listening to the cheering crowd.

The other competitors stared deeply at Bishop as he reentered the cage. He looked thoroughly exhausted and was holding his arms with a look of pure excruciation on his face. He walked past them and into a room where the competitors rested after each trial. Beds lined the walls and, even though it was unlike him, he took one, falling asleep from fatigue as soon as his head hit the pillow.

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Talbot, Biggs and Wedge were nearly overwhelmed by Bishop's display of power, and were still cheering after he had gone back into the cage. The holographic display showed his time as being four minutes and forty-seven seconds. If he could stay within the top fifty, he would advance to the next round of the gauntlet.

The cheering died within a few moments of the spectacle, leaving everyone almost breathless and overwhelmed. In their lifetime, Talbot, Biggs and Wedge had never seen the second challenge to be so lively. Talbot, himself, couldn't wait to see how the other competitors would handle themselves against the young and immature dragon.

Isaiah, who'd finished the previous day's trial in second place, was next to face the dragon. The mysterious, masked mage gave an almost questioning look when four men had come out and attached the chains to his arms. It became apparent to him and as soon as the countdown began, he did as Bishop had and began looking for footing in the rocky terrain.

Unlike Bishop, however, he had not been pulled into the air when the dragon was set loose into the air. Isaiah roared in struggle as the dragon set off and attempted to escape its imprisonment, but the challenger was determined not to let go. To and fro, the dragon flew and proved to be a demanding opponent for Isaiah, but the masked mage persevered, struggling with every tug and jerk the dragon made.

Once, it seemed the dragon had gotten Isaiah into the air, but the mage gave a powerful pull and used his own body weight to plant his feet back on the ground and get a good footing on the trunk of one of the dying trees. He used both feet, standing almost upside down on the trunk to hold down the dragon. The tree quaked and creaked under the pressure until it finally gave way to the tremendous force and was lifted out of its roots before crashing back into the earth.

The dragon flew for the sky as it had before, Isaiah dangling behind it, and was captured by the four large chains yet again.

The sound of the audience grew louder when Isaiah's time was displayed. He had lasted just under four minutes. He doubted that many of the competitors would be able to hold the dragon down for that long, and he left the field with a concealed grin on his face that said he was sure he would advance to the next trial.

He passed the other challengers just as Bishop had and walked into the resting area. Bishop was fast asleep, still holding his arms that were sore from his bout with the dragon. Isaiah decided that wasn't a bad idea, and took a bed to fall asleep in, too.

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The rest of the trial passed, some competitors making great spectacle, others being carried into the air as soon as the dragon was released. It came to the challenger the Brute, the non-mage, whose exhibition turned out to be quite surprising.

When the dragon was released, the Brute had barely even flinched when the pull came. He held onto the chain with his hands, unlike the others who had used the braces to keep hold. He barely wavered in his spot and the minutes passed like this. He had been holding the dragon in place for six minutes before the crowd showed boredom. To cure this show of tedium, he began pulling on the chain; hand over hand, drawing the dragon ever closer to his standing form.

The crowds approved with applause, but for the Brute, it wasn't enough. When he had forced the dragon close enough, it snapped its head back to attack the warrior. With reflexes unseen by the people of Midplane, he grabbed the neck of the dragon and planted its head securely on the earth with one hand. He used his free hand to entice the audience, who cheered back with no constraint.

When ten minutes had passed, the Brute became bored and let the dragon take to the air, pulling along the huge man with difficulty. It was brought down once again, the Brute was unbound and he left the field laughing.

Unsurprisingly, the Brute had taken the top rank in the second trial. Combined with his position of the previous day, he took the fifth spot for the third and final challenge. Isaiah managed to take third and Bishop had taken second. In the lead was a well known soldier named Gage who Bishop was sure would be the challenger to beat.

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Talbot slept soundly that night, laying on his hard mattress, and dreamt once more.

He was walking through an abandoned and wrecked city, a city that looked like it had been the setting for a war that had finished only hours before he entered it. He saw the dark mage Bishop leading him through the ruins of the buildings, talking of the breath of a breathless one.

Talbot wasn't sure, but he thought that they might have been looking for this breath, so he followed Bishop through the ruins. They walked slowly into an old and decrepit building. There were sounds inside and Talbot lost Bishop's trail in the darkness.

He wandered through the merciless shadows, heart pounding and feeling desolated. When it felt that he would wake from fear, he found himself walking through a door and onto the rooftop, where the light of the sun shone down on him, letting him feel its warmth. He was reminded of the rooftop where he would watch the sunset and smoke a cigarette from time to time.

And on the far side of the rooftop, he saw her again, the same girl who had been in his dreams the night before. In the light of this dream, her features were more pronounced and Talbot saw the beauty in her face that had not seen the night before.

In the light of the sun, her face seemed to glow, like an angel's would if an angel stood in the rays of sunlight. Her hair seemed to illuminate a dark shade of purple and it waved in a wind that Talbot could not feel. But it was her eyes, her piercing red eyes that caught his attention. They stared at each other as if they knew each other from another life and were trying to decide what life that had been.

Soon, the day sky turned into night, stars suddenly shining and the setting sun being replaced by a crescent moon and still they looked at each other. He felt like he could look at her for ever.

Talbot opened his eyes expecting to see his dream girl's face as he woke, but he woke up alone in the bare room on his hard mattress. As pleasant as the dream was, he felt a tinge of sorrow when he woke. He felt like falling asleep once more just to experience that feeling he felt in his dreams, a happiness he had not felt before in the waking world.

He instead got up to stand on the rooftop to enjoy a cigarette and the rising sun and think about the girl in his dreams.

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The gauntlet started just as it had the past two days, but there was much more anticipation in this round for both the competitors and the viewers. The first day of the Gauntlet had been the busiest, but the last day always drew the larger crowd. The Centennial's capacity had been met and official's began turning people away at the gates, letting them watch from outside the stadium on holographic displays that were very similar to the ones inside the stadium, but much larger so that everyone could see the events unfolding inside.

Talbot, Biggs and Wedge had been lucky, and were able to get the seats in the row that they had been sitting in for the two previous days. Talbot was yet again talking about the gauntlet and its history, so much that Biggs and Wedge were finally beginning to tire of the banter.

"Talbot! We all ready know everything there is to know about the third trial, we don't need to hear it again." Wedge said with a smile across his face, showing his good nature.

"What you need is a cigarette." Biggs said, pulling one of his cigarettes out for Talbot. Biggs had always been the better roller and his cigarettes were always pleasurable to smoke, but he rarely ever sacrificed one of his masterpiece cigarettes for anyone else. Talbot smiled and took the cig with delicate hands.

"Only because you offered it." He said trying to sound unexcited about it. He lit the cigarette and enjoyed the first drag immensely. It had been a few months since he had smoked one of Biggs' rolls and it would probably be a while before he would have the pleasure again.

He didn't know how right he was.

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The final gauntlet was and always has been challenging the other competitor's mettle in the classic trial of dueling. In the gauntlet, the duel was always the main event, the two first trials being more like qualifying rounds. It was always the final trial that the spectators wanted to watch. It was always the final trial that the challengers wanted to take.

Bishop was standing in the cage among the other forty-nine competitors who had made it to the final round. He was finally standing and warming up for the first time in the tournament. He knew he would have to, especially against the likes of Isaiah, the Brute and the spell warrior Gage. There would be very little rest between rounds, and he would need as much energy as he could muster in the later rounds, he knew that for sure.

The lineup had been determined randomly and there would only be one duel at any time. Bishop had not been the first to exit the cage and he saw the first two competitors walk into their own respective elevators, nodding at each other as a sign of respect. They left and the cheers of a large crowd came, almost seeming to shake the whole stadium.

It would not be long before he would be called to face his first challenger.

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So, the duels began. Round by round, competitors walked out onto the field and faced each other in combat. Weapons were drawn, spells were cast and audiences roared. The most brutal fights ended with competitors being carried off the field.

And round by round, Bishop had faced and defeated many weaker opponents, as did Isaiah. The day dragged on, from morning to afternoon to evening. It seemed that Bishop would face no real challenge, until he was called out in the semi-final round against the Brute.

Their names had been called and the two took their places in the elevators. They rose upwards to the field, where the audience erupted with cheers. The two were crowd favorites, but it was anyone's guess as to who would be the better duelist.

They took their places and eyed each other, playing out the battle in their minds before the duel actually began. It seemed a long time that they stood in their spots. The anticipation grew and made the moment seem longer and almost unbearable. The two tensed up as the official raised his hand and lowered it as signal to begin.

The Brute had moved first and surprisingly quick, charging towards Bishop who drew his blades and was able to leap over the Brute before a collision could occur. The Brute swung his fists where Bishop had been standing, but by that time he had already jumped and landed behind the monstrous man. He turned, swinging his blades horizontally, but the Brute had turned to catch the hilts of the dark mage's swords. Bishop had tried to pull away from the man, but he held on strong and swung the mage in a semicircle and sending him flying through the air.

He landed hard, yet gracefully, in a defensive position. The Brute wasted no time and charged at the mage once more. Bishop had not been so quick this time around, and had been struck while trying to dodge the move. He felt his ribs bend inward under the powerful force, but they held together and he was thrown back. He had not landed on his feet as he had before. Instead, he landed on his back and slid a few meters down the field.

Ignoring the throbbing pain in his chest, he stood and took the offensive. He ran towards the Brute who had begun his run and strike maneuver again. They met and Bishop tucked and rolled under the Brute's fist, holding out one of his blades to catch the side of his opponents open torso. But the blade didn't seem to have much effect. Instead of slicing into the Brute's flesh, it seemed to grind along and barely broke his skin.

Nonetheless, the Brute fell to a knee, holding his side where he had been struck. He lifted his hand away from the wound and he stared at the little blood that had been drawn. He cocked his head to look back at Bishop, who was standing in a defensive position.

Bishop saw the anger in his eyes, a pure and raw energy that had released when the blood had started to flow. The Brute turned and ran, growling as he went. Bishop had tried to leap over the impending form of the man, but the Brute leapt as well and caught Bishop in the air. His massive hand ensnared the thigh of the unsuspecting Bishop, and he felt himself being flung downwards. The mage fell into the field with a sickening thud and he let out a loud grunt of pain.

Before he could check to see if anything had been broken, he saw the Brute's falling form and rolled away and onto his feet as his opponent landed knee first where Bishop had lay only a nanosecond before. He swung a single blade through the air above him, hoping to catch the Brute while he was still regaining composure, but the Brute had seen the blade and caught its cold steel with a bare hand. He winced as the blade dug itself into his palm, but was quick in swinging a fist into Bishop's face.

The dark mage felt his face crunch under the force of the punch and felt the blood start to flow from his shattered nose. He had let go of one of his blades when he stumbled back from the punch and was wiping the blood away from his eyes when the Brute had wrapped his arms around Bishop's body. The monster of a man closed his arms and squeezed the dark mage who vented the excruciating pain by letting out a tumultuous scream and letting go of his remaining blade so he could clench his fists.

He could feel his chest collapsing and the world began to fade into darkness. When it felt as if he would faint from the pain, he opened his eyes and could see the Brute through the blood that was building up around his eyes. He used what strength he had and slammed his own head into that of the Brute. His grip loosened slightly, enough for Bishop to pull back and use the added leverage to deliver another head to head blow. He felt a sickening crunch on the top of his head and immediately knew that he had broken his opponent's nose.

"An arm for an arm…" Bishop thought darkly.

The Brute had let go of Bishop to snap his nose back into place and the mage used the chance to move away before he could be attacked again. The intensity of the duel had been enough to block out the sounds of the crowd and right there and then, it was only the Brute and himself standing alone in the Centennial stadium.

The Brute regained his composure and stood staring at the dark mage. There was a glint of madness in his eyes, an almost animalistic presence and Bishop knew that he had let go of his human thought and reverted to pure bestial instinct. If the dark mage couldn't bring him down before his next attack, Bishop would not be able defeat his monstrous opponent. With no blade and strength that was almost nothing compared to the Brute's, Bishop's only option was Magenry, a skillful spell called a shadowed flare.

He concentrated his energy as quick as he could, building it up as the Brute let out an animalistic battle cry and raged towards the dark mage. The energy coursed through his veins and seemed to explode in his hand. It was almost painful for the mage to build such great power in so little time.

The Brute was only a few feet away when Bishop had let the dark energy flow from his being and released it into the Brute's impending form. The both of them were flung backwards from the force of the delivery, landing yards away from each other. The Brute stood up as if he had not just been hit with the dark aura and began his charge once again.

Bishop stood as well, not exhausted as before, but angry that his opponent would not give up. He let out another shadowed flare that knocked the Brute down, but he stood again and resumed his charge, screaming as he went. Bishop yelled and let out another shadowed flare, but this one didn't even seem to faze his opponent.

"Why won't you stay down!?" Bishop yelled in anger and started charging towards the Brute like a madman. They both ran hard, screaming as they went, but just as they collided, the dark mage seemed to evaporate into a dark cloud, a dark mist that the Brute had run into and as soon as he did, there was silence. The Brute emerged out of the other side, still running but slowed to a walk, and then a stumble. He fell to his knees, breathing hard and staring at nothing. Bishop stepped slowly out of the dark cloud that disappeared as soon he did so and fell on all fours, blood gushing forth from his face and flowing onto the ground.

Bishop heard his opponent say something in his home language. Something he didn't understand but could remember easily enough. The Brute's eyes had rolled upwards with his eyes blinking madly before he collapsed to the ground.

Bishop stood up with great difficulty and turned to stare at his opponent's prone form, face down on the earth. He wiped the blood off his face and whipped it to the ground. All was silent until Bishop started thinking straight, and then he could hear the sound of the spectators. The sound grew louder gradually as Bishop regained logical thoughts. When the full volume of the applause was heard, he gathered his two blades and started walking back to the cage.

But he stopped before he did. He had accomplished something there that day and he felt the need to rejoice his triumph. He turned to the audience and drew both of his swords, holding them up in the air in victory. The crowd responded with thunderous applause. Then he went back into the cage.

----------------------------

"You're the expert, what kind of spell did he use?" Biggs asked Talbot after Bishop had left the field.

"Which one?" Talbot replied.

"The one where he turned into a shadow."

"I think that was a gloom cloud. I don't know how it works exactly." Talbot said. He didn't know much about spells but he had always been fascinated by mages. The duel had been the most violent one of the trial and a very exhilarating display of power. The people in the stadium had immediately starting talking about the duel after it had finished. The best way to remember it was to discuss it right after and no one would want to forget the fight between the Brute and Bishop.

----------------------------

The dark mage would be able to take a much needed break until his next duel, which would be the final round. In that time, he would take a white tonic to mend his shattered face and sleep while it took its time to repair the damage that the Brute had done. Bishop hadn't used the strength he used on the field for many years. He had almost forgotten what it was like to duel against someone who had so much mettle in him.

But he had feared for his life when his opponent had reverted to a berserk state of mind, where he couldn't think, couldn't be hindered; he could only attack until the effects wore off, which would have been after Bishop was killed.

The resting area was full of beaten, battered and bruised competitors. Some were sitting up, not being badly beaten, others were writhing in pain, and some were not even conscious at all. The Brute was on of the unconscious ones, lying in a bed surrounded by doctors and light mages. He took a bottle of white tonic from a passing nurse who was handing them out and drank it to the very last drop. He heard the word "coma" come from one of the doctors that were standing around the Brute.

All of a sudden, he remembered what the Brute had said just before he collapsed.

"Excuse me." He said to a passing nurse. "Do you know what 'Han Er Djevelen' means?"

"Han Er Djevelen…" The nurse repeated thoughtfully and then replied. "He is the Devil."

She continued her normal routine, leaving Bishop to grunt in mild surprise before he lay down to take a nap.

----------------------------

Isaiah took his place on the field when his time came. Across from him, Gage stood waiting serenely, staring at the ground as if in a trance. They stood among the cheering crowd in the Centennial awaiting the mark that would signal semi-final match in what was a long day of dueling.

The wait seemed to last longer than it was supposed to but moments of eagerness always did. But the time came when the official walked onto the field and raised his hand. The two competitors took their mark and waited for his hand to fall.

When it did, Isaiah immediately started throwing flares of light at his competitor, but they hadn't even gotten close to the spell-warrior Gage. He ran in circles around Isaiah, the flares continuing to fly into the places he had been standing seconds before. He impeded ever closer to Isaiah, who continued throwing multiple spells until Gage was too close to strike with the flares.

Isaiah started using close combat spells. He cast a constraint spell that didn't contact and was instead assailed with strikes from Gage's heavy sword. He used his staff the best he could to withstand the strikes, but to no avail. The masked mage used a cloaking spell to conceal his retreat but was struck by a radial spell that Gage had cast.

When the cloak was broken, the spell-warrior hindered Isaiah's escape by casting two constraint spells on the mage, who fell to the ground, unable to move for seconds. By the time he was able to move, Gage had leapt into the air and was fast falling towards Isaiah. He cast a thrust spell towards Gage, but was only thrown off course instead of being thrown back the way the spell was intended to work.

He landed hard beside Isaiah and instantly started striking the prone mage. He lay defending himself and waiting for the opportunity to cast some type of spell that would constrain Gage long enough to use a more powerful spell. But he received no chance under the constant strikes that collided with his staff that rang through the air.

Gage managed to get a foot under the staff when he realized it was Isaiah's only defense and used the strength in his leg to hurl the weapon away. When he had done this, he brought his blade down towards Isaiah's neck. But he stopped it an inch away from his throat and held it there, patiently waiting for surrender. Isaiah ran through his thoughts for any way to escape, but there were none.

"Yield…" Gage said to him, and with that, Isaiah raised his hands in front of body, palms open and giving in to the mighty spell-warrior.

----------------------------

Bishop had all ready woken when the applause erupted from the field. The semi-final had ended and the last match was approaching. He was unaware of them, though. His thoughts were elsewhere, concentrating on what would happen in only a matter of hours, maybe sooner, after the tournament ended.

It would shock the world, he knew that. He didn't want what would happen to happen but it would. The events that would unfold were fast approaching.

"Bishop," A voice called to him. "Gage won the match. You face him after a twenty minute rest.

Bishop only raised a hand in acknowledgement. He stood to use one the sinks in the resting room and wash away the dried blood on his face. The white tonic had healed his wounds and he was ready for the match.

"Am I ready for the transition, though?" He thought to himself.

----------------------------

The twenty minutes passed and Bishop walked onto the field to face Gage in the final fight of the night. Talbot watched eagerly, hoping to see a match that he would never forget. He butted out his cigarette when Bishop and Gage walked out onto the field and took the edge of his seat with enthusiasm.

But he had not expected Bishop to look up into the stands to where he was sitting. It seemed he was looking directly at him and the excitement left Talbot to be replaced by that familiar feeling of trepidation.

"Something's not right." Talbot said, but no one heard. Bishop looked away from the stands and concentrated on the task at hand. There were officials of the tournament conversing off to the side of the field before one made his way to the center between the two competitors, one of whom would claim the glory of victory.

The official raised his hand, signaling the mark. And when he dropped it, the two competitors charged at each other at inhuman speeds and their weapons met, ringing through the air. Their movement was almost impossible to follow, but it was obvious that Gage was the quicker of the two. He swung his sword at speed that Bishop could barely defend against, backing away so that he could escape the deadly assault of the sword that Gage was swinging furiously and strategically.

Bishop managed to escape the onslaught with a leap backwards. His landing marked the opening of his assault of shadowed flares that flew from his free hand. As quick as the flares were, Gage was weaving around them in an acrobatic display of flips and sidesteps. Before Bishop knew it, Gage had reencountered the dark mage in close combat and was swinging his blade once more. With no warning, the blade that Bishop thought was a single sided weapon split and reformed as a double sided sword. A last second reflex saved his legs from being taken out from under him as one side of the double sword swung low. He pulled his second sword from its sheath to compensate.

Bishop tried to move away from his opponent again, but Gage kept moving forward as fast as Bishop was moving backward. He finally managed to cast a shadow spell that blinded Gage for a split second, a chance Bishop took to move away from his enemy and begin another barrage of shadowed flares. These were more strategically thrown, their directions controlled Bishop's blades, but Gage was still able to move around them with ruthless velocity.

Gage reached the dark mage once more and continued his attack on him. Bishop was beginning to understand his movements and believed he had the upper edge, but Gage shifted his palms around the handle of his weapon and it split at the hilt, making two swords instead of one. The unexpected surprise of the transformation caught Bishop off guard and knocked him back several feet.

He had barely regained his composure when Gage continued. The dark mage did as he had before, and tried to memorize the pattern of the two blades, but Gage reformed them into a double sided sword once more and threw off the whole pattern. Bishop defended against this assault before Gage brought both blades together to recreate it into the heavy sword that he had started off with. Then again, into two blades, then a double sided sword, then back to double sided.

He constantly kept transforming his weapon, confusing Bishop to the point where he would try to defend against one move and all of a sudden need to defend against another. Soon, Gage was striking Bishop with the hilts of his blades, confusing him further. The rapid movement and changes finally confused the dark mage to a point where he could not block the swing of the one blade form of the sword, but he had managed to cast a shielding spell at the last second.

The heavy blade, though, was strong enough to break the shield and throw Bishop backwards through the air. He landed on his side and was not given the chance to get back up. Gage was over him, swinging his blade at the prone form Bishop, who blocked every blow lying down and was trying desperately to crawl away from the skilled swordsman. But when he did, Gage would kick out his feet and Bishop wasn't able to.

Twice Bishop tried to cast spells on the spell-warrior, but he deflected them with ease and continued his assault. The mage grew more and more tired and when Gage saw his chance, he threw a spell at the Bishop's prone form. The impact forced him along the battle field on his back and before he could even think of getting back up, Gage was standing over him again, continuing the assault. The spell-warrior used the hilts of his blade to strike Bishop when he was not expecting it, tiring out his body and his mind.

As tired as he was, Bishop managed to kick Gage in the gut and use the second he had to roll into a standing position. As soon as he did, the spell-warrior swung his multi-weapon in furious swings once more. There was little chance that Bishop would have the required time to perform an advanced spell, so he defended himself the best he could. There was very little chance that he would be able to defeat his opponent and he knew this.

He used his last bit of strength to throw his opponent away from him. When he had, he let his swords hang low, leaving himself undefended against any attack that Gage could throw. But Gage didn't attack. The spell-warrior stopped his barrage of strikes, waiting for Bishop to bring his blades into a defensive position.

Bishop was exhausted and knew that he wouldn't be able to defend against another blow. He let his hands fall loose, let his twin blades fall to the ground and bowed his head towards his opponent before falling to his knees.

"I give…" Bishop said to him in an exhausted voice.

The crowds heard this and began their cheers in favor of Gage, who put his sword back into its place and walked up to Bishop. He offered his hand in peace and Bishop shook it willingly. The gauntlet had ended and Gage had won.

----------------------------

The final ceremonies began soon afterwards when everyone had a chance to regain their breath from all the excitement they had experienced. Gage was standing beside the mayor of Rosewood, smiling with pride. Bishop and Isaiah stood close behind them. The Brute was supposed to be standing with them, but he was still in a comatose state.

Talbot sat uneasily as the mayor began what would likely have been a lengthy speech. He had tried to explain the ominous feeling to Biggs and Wedge, but they were too concentrated on the winning challenger. So he sat, waiting for the feeling to go away but it didn't.

He was looking down at Bishop; the challenger who had began the sentiment that plagued Talbot. He thought that Bishop somehow played a part in his uneasiness and, as if the thought had signaled it, Bishop and Isaiah looked upwards at the nothingness of the night sky.

Talbot cocked his head upwards to look at whatever it was that the two were looking at. It was miniscule, but Talbot could see it floating above the stadium, above all the residents and visitors in Rosewood.

"Tal?" Biggs asked quizzically. Talbot didn't respond. He was too concentrated on the object, a faint glowing light that hung in the air.

"What the hell is that?" He murmured. The light grew brighter, soon it was bright enough for everyone to notice it and everything stopped. There were no words being spoken, no music being played; only inquisitive silence.

The light shone down on Bishop's face and he stared back with a look of sorrow on his face.

"There it is…" He whispered and then the light exploded, releasing overwhelming beams of light and an explosive sound that replaced the audience's curiosity with fear. There were cries of terror as the explosive sounds continued and the beams of light swirled in the air that surrounded the light.

The people started to run to the exits, trying to get away from the volatile sounds of the growing light. Biggs and Wedge yelled and started running for the exits, calling for Talbot to go with them, but he only stood wide-eyed and in awe. Biggs and Wedge had left him, along with everyone else in the Centennial. He was about to follow when he looked down and saw that Bishop and Isaiah were still standing, staring into the growing radiance in the air.

He looked back and forth between the light and competitors. It took time before Bishop noticed the youth still standing in he stadium. A worried look crossed his face and Talbot found himself frozen in his place.

Bishop had yelled "Run!" but by then it was too late. The light flooded the stadium and surrounded the three that were left. The light was warm and it consumed Talbot's body. He felt it on his skin, moving into his mouth, his eyes, his body; it filled him with a warmness he had never felt. Thoughts consumed his mind and he saw glimpses of what was his life. He saw his parents leaving… he saw Biggs and Wedge as children… he saw themselves laughing like there would be no wrong in their lives.

The last thing he saw was the vision of the girl he had seen in his dreams, her beautiful face staring back at his. And then, just as the light had devoured him, it left, leaving Talbot in the dark of unconsciousness.