DGS3 -- Staging: The Prep Level

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Ridley

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Flak’s muscle-bound brain wasn’t built for a lot of complex thinking, but one thing it was pretty good at was watching and enjoying fights, and this one looked awesome. Very primitive compared to the battlefields he loved, but honestly it was still a hell of a lot of fun. It looked like Satan was still on top though, Kicking that Shinku guy’s dosh with just a bit more skill. The larger martial artist had the upper hand for the moment, forcing Shinku into the corner with a set of strikes, each one used to advance and back his opponent into the corner.

Shinku had bruises across his arms from the effort of blocking Satan’s punches, and he seemed pretty out of breath overall, as the champion’s flamboyant but efficient style wore the tattooed islander down. Flak watched as the shorter Shinku was knocked off his feet by a surprisingly fast leg sweep from the champion, but rather than fall down proper, he managed to spring back up to his feet, and spear his opponent with a well-aimed punch, throwing the whole of his body into it and knocking Mr. Satan back.

“Heh! Nice! That’s like, a total Hawke move!” Flak called out, watching the two fighters, looking between Shinku and Satan with a grin, which caused Shinku and Satan to turn.

“Who is this ‘Hawke’? Your mentor?” Shinku would ask, the man looking honestly interested.

“Oh yeah, Hawke taught me everything I know, except the stuff I already knew! Great commander. I should introduce you sometime when…” Flak replied with a grin, as a thought crossed his mind. Hawke was…

He decided to distract himself with a change of subject. “Oh, and Adder, he’s a creep, but honestly he’s fun to hand out… with…”

Next subject, his brain told him, and he obeyed,

“Or like, when Lash isn’t… being all… high and mighty…” Flak grumbled, as his brain skidded to a halt.

He didn’t know where any of those guys were. And he also didn’t know where Shinku or Mister Satan were now, either, because his glasses had gotten all fogged up somehow.

“You, uh… you okay, pal?” he heard Satan ask, as a leathery hand was placed on his shoulder, and Flak sniffed, because his nose was a bit snotty all a sudden.

“You know, I don’t… really feel like fightin’ anymore. All a sudden. I just wanna get a burger. Somethin’ to eat.”

There was a silence for a few seconds, before he just heard Mr. Satan softly reply, “Okay buddy. Okay.”
 

Arthur Morgan

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Coda nervously bit her lip, her gaze alternating between Zayin, Nanaue, and the silent room around them. She took a deep breath, visibly gathering her courage, before finally speaking up.

"So, uhm," she began, voice barely cutting above a whisper, darting a quick glance at Nanaue before swiftly averting her eyes. "What happened in there?"

Appearing to sense Coda's hesitation to speak freely, Zayin's face hardened, though he still managed to force a tight-lipped smile. "I'd… rather not speak of it here."

The angel’s hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists, betraying the unease he was trying to hide. Coda understood the feeling. It seemed like there was a strange energy in the air, now that Zayin's meeting with the Man in Red was over— a chilling sensation that lifted the hairs at the back of her neck and made her feel as if someone was walking over her grave. Or dancing on it, to be more precise.

Coda shivered, her dread palpable. She slowly nodded in agreement to Zayin's words.

"Yeah, this place is starting to give me the creeps, anyway," she admitted. Glancing downward, she wriggled her toes inside the crocs she'd borrowed from the dojo, a sheepish smile tugging at her lips. "Plus, I really need to go get my shoes back."

It took a bit of effort on the part of his companions, but eventually, Nanaue was coaxed away from the vibrant and mesmerizing fish tank. They set off towards the Prep Level, though Nanaue couldn't help but sneak one last peek over his shoulder at the fish cheerfully swimming around inside their aquarium home, as if his departure was equivalent to a painful separation from a very dear friend.

A distant and muffled tune floated through the air as they arrived back at the Prep Level, the tinny quality of the invisible speakers making it difficult to make out any of the lyrics. Once again, they were daunted by this floor's spotless, gleaming and brightly lit appearance— but really, anything was better than the Executive Level's maze-like design, in Coda's humble opinion.

As they strolled along, Coda's gaze was drawn to several windows showcasing all sorts of gym equipment, from stationary cycles to weights and treadmills to Zumba gear. Everything was neat and orderly, appearing to be brand new and unused. Would they ever have enough contestants participating in the Carnivale's bread and circuses to use all of that, she wondered? It was almost enough resources to train and house an entire army... Sometimes it seemed like such a waste!

In any case, Coda raced to the dojo and snatched up her shoes in a flash, returning to Zayin and Nanaue in record time. It was then that Zayin inquired about the other competitor's rosters, prompting Coda's eyes to light up. She eagerly grabbed his arm and began to drag him down the hall, more than happy to direct him around another part of the facility— Nanaue contently plodding along in their wake, his big feet slapping wetly against the smooth tiled floor.

Eventually, they wandered past the glass doors of a room labeled Field Medicine. The name of the room caught Coda's eye, and soon her attention was snagged by the sight of the attendant seated inside, her heart leaping inside her chest. It was Aileen!

Appearing as disheveled and mildly grumpy as was her usual state of being, Aileen sat ensconced at a desk, slowly flipping through the pages of an old magazine tattered with age. Her attire was more professional-looking than the usual Carnivale Rosa garb— dominated by a long white jacket, bringing to mind a mad scientist’s lab coat —and it struck a particularly striking image against her flaming red, spiked-up hair.

Coda enthusiastically waved at her friend, who responded with a confused, hesitant flap of her arm, not quite seeming to realize who was waving at her and very obviously distracted by her magazine. Just before Aileen passed out of Coda's sight, though, she saw her eyes widen in shock— her reading material slipping from her grasp and tumbling to the ground in a whirlwind of glossy pages.

WHAM! They had barely made it a few steps away before Aileen was slamming through the glass doors at their backs, scrambling to catch up with them. She stopped only a few paces behind, face flushed as she hunched over to catch her breath, wincing as she clutched at her side.

"Coda!" she panted, huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf. "Was... hah... wondering when I'd see you around. Thought ya might've forgotten about me. Who… who're these guys?"

She eyed Zayin and Nanaue with a uniquely icy kind of distrust, her dark gaze lingering in particular on the formidable shark man. Despite her apparent fear, however, the redhead jutted out her chin in defiance— crossing her arms firmly over her chest to complete the image of a stern, concerned friend.

“Hey Aileen!” Coda said warmly, smiling in the hopes of dispelling the thick atmosphere. “Let me introduce you to my new friends, Nanaue and Zayin! Don’t be shy guys, say hello!”

"Hello," said Zayin, dutifully lifting a hand in greeting.

King Shark mirrored Zayin's gesture.

"Hand," he said, sagely.

Aileen shot Coda an incredulous look.

Unperturbed, the blonde-haired woman merely smiled back at her. "We're headed to one of the computer labs, if you'd like to join us! Zayin here wants to check out some of the other competitors in our files. Y'know, before we're herded into the barracks."

"Right," said Aileen, unconvinced. "Right. Okay, I'll come along."

The 'but just to keep an eye on you' part was implied.

An awkward walk and several minutes later, the strange ensemble had made it to the computer lab. Coda showed Zayin how to use the computers with a brief demonstration and, after setting up Nanaue with an incredibly odd point-and-click adventure game based on technicolor fish, settled back to chat with Aileen a few feet away.

"So..." said Aileen, eying the back of Zayin and Nanaue's heads as they fiddled around with the computers. "These are the guys you've decided to pair up with during the show, eh?"

Coda spluttered. "Well, I don't know yet. Maybe. They seem like nice enough people, I guess..."

Aileen chuckled. "C'mon, Coda. I know you. You don't expect me to believe that you decided to hang out with these two just because, do you? I'm sure you must have some kind of plan for this whole thing."

"Oh, sure," Coda said, a little defensively. She crossed her arms over her chest, slanting a nervous glance at Zayin, but thankfully he seemed to be thoroughly distracted by trying to use the mouse to select things on the screen.

Shaking her head, Coda couldn't suppress a small smile. It was always entertaining to watch the less technologically fluent contestants attempt to figure out the Carnivale's tech. It was practically everyone's favorite pastime.

"Well, what about you?" she asked, turning to Aileen. "Aren't you supposed to be working or something right now?"

Aileen shrugged. "I was just about to take my lunch break anyway, so it's all good." She paused, giving Coda a sly smile. "Besides, my dearest Coda's about to go off into the trenches. Might as well give her a proper sendoff!"

"Thanks," said Coda, completely deadpan. "You're really painting this whole thing in a super optimistic light."

"Don't mention it!"
 

Anders Nazret

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As she often did, Lauren found herself alone. However, this time it was by choice rather than a result of her pariah nature. Being abducted was rarely something one ever planned for and as such she was at a bit of a loss. The provided facilities were nice, well stocked and full of amenities. She managed to get a couple packs of smokes and even watched an old-school silent film while the other contestants started to filter in. It was a pleasant few hours. Still, she couldn’t help but be reminded of high-end beef cattle being massaged and fed beer before ultimately being butchered for their meat.

Regardless she had time to kill and an anxious knot in her gut. Despite her unique relationship with death she had no intention to shed her mortal coil for the sick amusement of some anonymous sociopath. Though, it seemed that there may not be much choice in the matter. She had heard of these death games before. She had heard of their cruelty. It sickened her, but it was nothing new. History was brimming with examples of bloodshed in the name of sport. Worse yet, was the fact that some of her fellow victims were absolutely delighted at the prospect of tearing one another apart. So, despite chain smoking and downing shot after shot of top-shelf whiskey she couldn’t fill that existential pit in her gut.

She needed guidance, something to set her mind at ease or at least make the situation bearable. She made her way from the entertainment hub and towards the dojos. Early in her career she had come to the realization that most people grew uneasy in the presence of necromancy. So she often worked isolated from others, not out of any embarrassment or guilt, but rather out of simple practicality. She reserved a private dojo, which was not much more than a padded room with racks of sparring equipment separated from the main hub by a curtain of beads.

She removed a sealed packet from her coat before taking it off and placing it on a hook just inside the room. She sat cross-legged in the center of the room and opened the packet, dumping its contents out in front of her. Grave dirt, the cornerstone to many necromantic rituals. Though it was not chemically different from regular soil it carried the essence of death as easily as a sponge carried water. Once emptied she set the packet aside and reached for her bracelet. Lauren was unique amongst necromancers. Most of her fellow practitioners learned their practice secluded and alone. Lauren however, came from a family of necromancers and, in a way, had inherited the family business.

She slipped her bracelet off and held it between her fingers. It was made from a single purple string laced through several small bones. These bones were her ancestors, each one harvested from the tip of the index finger. She untied the string and slid them into her palm. Each bone was engraved with the initials of its owner. Lauren tumbled the bones in her palm and looked for a specific one, grabbing it and placing it onto the mound of grave dirt. From there she laced the string through the remaining bones and set them aside.

“From dirt I raise thee and to dirt I return thee, heed my call and rise before me.”

A simple incantation, but the underpinning magic she weaved through her words was a complex ritual which she had practiced until perfected. The dirt shuddered and started to swirl as if caught within a twister. The bone, her father’s bone, rose into the air. Pulling someone from beyond the curtain of death was no simple matter. That was the true power of necromancy, that which it held over the dead and departed. Her breath slowed and the soil followed suit. The whirling twister of grave dirt slowed mid air, coming to a gentle crawl.

“Lauren, my pride and joy!” Her father’s voice boomed as if projected from invisible speakers, “How wonderful it is to see you! However… I see you haven’t kicked that nasty habit.”

Shit. She had grown so used to lighting one right up after another that she had forgotten to put out her smoke. Hastily she plucked the slim cigarette from her lips and smushed it into the dojo’s padded floor. She bowed her head.

“Forgive me,” She said, “That was disrespectful.”

“Nonsense!” He answered, “Who do you think gave you that habit hmm?”

In truth all Abernathys smoked. It was a family joke that true Abernathys started smoking before they spoke their first word. Regardless, spirits were fickle things, even familiar ones, and it was disrespectful to smoke during a seance. Her father would have been well within his right to refuse her summons. The older generation would have. She had figured that though these ancient spirits were technically her forebears, it was hard to call them family if she had never truly met them. It was fair to say they felt the same about her and merely answered summons out of a sense of duty.

“I…” She muttered, “I miss you dad.”

“Bah, nonsense, we’re talking right now aren’t we?”

“It’s not really the same is it?”

“Well, no, it isn’t, but you are more fortunate than most,” Her father said.

“Given the situation I’ve got a feeling I’ve used up all of my good fortune,” She answered.

“Mmm, yes, perhaps that is the case,” He said, “I take it that is why you’ve summoned me?”

Lauren spoke after a moment, “Yes.”

She had no need to explain the intricacies of the death games, her father already understood them. Though they were kept beyond the curtain of death, the bone charm allowed her ancestors some level of awareness and this was the true power of her family’s tradition. Lauren had access to several hundred years of experience between them, and when that experience failed she still could find comfort in them. Her father’s bone still floated midair, silently waiting for her to explain herself.

“I am afraid of what may come once this contest is underway,” She said, “These people are killers, plain and simple, this contest isn’t meant to have a winner.”

“This whole place reeks of malignancy, that much is correct,” He said, “There is no shame in fear, Lauren. It is only shameful to be moved to inaction by it. What about the others who are like you?”

She looked up, “Like me? I’m sorry I don’t follow.”

“The ones brought here against their will,” He explained, “Yes there are killers and murderers, but surely you aren’t the only victim of abduction.”

“I… I suppose I haven’t considered that.”

“Ah and what of the contestants who came before you?” He continued, “I doubt their passings were peaceful, I would imagine that you will find many the lingering spirit. Do they not deserve rest? Is it not the duty of our family to provide that rest to them?”

“It is,” She said, “It most certainly is.”

“Then, my dear daughter, it seems you have a purpose and it seems you may not be as alone as you had imagined,” He said, “When it comes for you, greet Death as you would a long lost friend, but until then live your life in the service of others.”

She smiled. There was no escaping the sword of Damocles. Death was the inevitable conclusion of life. It drawing nearer or farer did not change that. Nor did it change her duty as a human being. Perhaps she could still do some good before being slaughtered by the maniacal machinations of the Man in Red.

“Thank you, elder” She said, bowing her head in respect, “Your guidance does not go unappreciated.”

“Ah, cut the formal crap, I’m your father for arbiter’s sake,” He said, “I love you Lauren, I’m proud of you.”

“I love you too, dad.”

With that the grave dirt fell from the air along with her father’s finger bone. She picked the bone up and laced it back onto her bracelet. For a few moments she simply sat with her eyes shut. There was peace to be found in the silence. But the silence did not last. The bead curtain to her dojo clattered as a leviathan of a man stepped through. He nearly filled the entire door frame with his physique. Lauren’s heart skipped a beat and she shot to her feet.

“Forgive me,” Alexander bowed his head, “I did not realize this was occupied.”

The clear embarrassment on his face wiped away any anxiety that Lauren felt and she said quickly, “Oh, no worries, I was just finishing up. Please help yourself.”

“Thank you,” He said, stepping back into the room, “Again, my apologies for the intrusion.”

“Ah, it’s fine, they should really put a lock on that door,” She said dryly, nodding towards the bead curtains. She held out a gloved hand, “Laurentius Abernathy, Lauren’s fine.”

“Alexander Louis Armstrong, pleasure to meet you,” He answered, shaking her hand.

“Pleasure’s mine big guy,” She answered, donning her coat and fishing a smoke out of an inner pocket, “So what brings someone so polite to participate in something so crude?”
 
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