Chapter 2: Natasha

Rotting Cracked Motel

I left Katie with the others last night, and took a taxi to my own motel on the outskirts of the City of Demons. The driver was a beige, grunting beast, who only spoke two words to me the entire ride. "In" he said curtly when hailed him and "Pay" when we reached my destination. The motel was a massive, decaying oak tree that had been covered in cement, which was now cracking and falling off. I approached the desk coolly, and asked for a a key.

"Room 636," said the demon behind the desk. This coincidence caught me off guard, and has opened me up to paranoia. When I reached 'Room 636', I was even more unnerved. The door Katie had show me was a red door with black numbers, this door was black with red numbers. However, aside from that minor inversion, it was a perfect ditto, right down the the scratches in the paint. Cautiously, I opened the door. At first, I staggered back, noticing the grass on the floor and fearing I had found some mocking mimic of Katie's ability. Then I noticed the grass was not nearly as long or gilded as those behind Katie's 636th door.

Upon further investigation, I found that this viridiplantae flooring was following the motif set by the rest of the room. It seemed to be a sickening mesh of nature and urban decay. Concrete walls covered in dripping moss, a wooden bed with a mattress filled with gravel, a lead pipe and shower head affixed to a twisted root. A dim, insufficient light was cast by bioluminescent fungi dangling from the ceiling.

I went about my work in the room with a tinge of disgust and anger. I hated this Natural-Industrial patchwork. Why do we insist on putting so much emphasis on blending the lines between opposites? Do artists paint a portrait, then take their hand and smear all the colors together? All you're left with when you do that is a monstrous brown eye-sore. As soon as I finished unpacking, I left the hybrid room, and the deformed motel. I've resolved not to sleep here, in this City of Demons. The worry of being clawed away in my sleep is bad enough without the moral outrage of sleeping in that place.


The Trickster

"The Mute Musician has proved very useful," said the Trapper-Spider. I yawned with a polite disinterest.

"Has silence become the newest musical phenomenon?" I asked, the Trapper-Spider looked at me confused for a few moments, then shook his head.

"No, no, he has found someone we can make use of. A trickster of sorts, a card-trickster. He's special, like Katie in a way. You see, he has wed himself to Luck."

"Please do explain," I said, for this had caught my attention,

"She does whatever he wills, Luck. She is hopelessly in love with him, blind to his abuse and manipulation of her. Tragic if you ask me."

"Finally met her match then, did she? Well, what do you propose we do with this Trickster?"

"We're in the City of Demons, Natasha! What not to do is the question! Tomorrow night, we are going to have the Trickster duel the demons, beat them at their own game," the Trapper-Spider looked at me, and could tell I was worried. And I had good reason to be, I have seen the Demons' Game played before. It was a violent, gladiatorial sport in which players gambled their own lives, and had nothing but their skill with a weapon to rely on.

"We will be caught, in front of so many spectators, they will see that the odds have been unbalanced."

"You give too much credit to the demons," the Trapper-Spider laughed, I was less jovial, "Besides, with you as his Second..."

"As his what?" I asked, taken aback that the Trapper-Spider would assume that I would play such a role without my approval.

"Oh, don't worry, don't worry, child. The Trickster will make sure that you never even have to enter the ring. Besides, I'm his Second for the fourth round, we will need you to wake Katie and get her ready to leave."

"Fleeing like rats when it's done, are we?"

"I'd like to think we are a breed of rodent more noble than rats, but yes."

"Fine. I hope you'll be happy when this ends in tears for all of us," and with that I stormed away, and I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of the City of Demons.


Burn Card

The Trickster, the Trapper-Spider, the Wordsmith, the Mute Musician, and I walked in silence to the first arena. The Demons' Game was typically held in four arenas, with an hour or so between rounds for the spectators to transport themselves from one arena to the next. There were six contestants in the first round, four in the next, three in the third, and two in the last. Additionally, during the first round, each arena was in use (each one hosting six contestants), in the second, only three, and so on. In each round, the goal is to incapacitate the opponents, though not necessarily kill them. In the even that one contestant does die, however they had qualified for the next round (by placing first or second), they have a Second to take their place in the next round. It is a bit more complicated than that, as you may have noticed, the number of arenas, contestants, and rounds don't all add up in a way that makes sense. However, I've gone into enough detail already, and I can assure you I am being perfectly honest when I say the rules don't matter. The only reason anyone watches the Demons' Game is for the brutality of it all. Disturbing. Like a playground bathed in red.

The Trickster and I took out places below the Colosseum-esque arena while the other three went up into the stands. We had a good half-hour before the first round was to commence, mostly to allow the patrons to arrive and to build up tension and fear in the contestants. I stood outside the Trickster's... I suppose "dressing room" is the correct phrase, as he put on his armor and sharpened his blade. As there was no guarantee that I would need to fight, it was not necessary for me to dress yet, and so I opted to wear a slim, red dress instead.

"So, how exactly does your... matrimony with Lady Luck work?" I asked.

"Oh," the Trickster sounded vaguely disappointed, as though he was tired of being asked this question, "She, uhm. Well, here, I can just show you. Come on in, I'm dressed," I did so, and was greeted with the sight of the Trickster garbed in some ridiculous armor reminiscent of a hoplite's uniform.

"Sometimes, I need to pause and wonder, do I even have any idea what's going on and why it's happening?" I mused, pausing for a second to appreciate the current situation.

"Do you have a deck of cards?" the Trickster asked, apparently he hadn't heard me, "Ah, nevermind, I found some." He picked up a deck of cards and handed it to me, "Ask me to pick a card."

"Pick a card," I said, and fanned out the deck with a flourish. He grabbed one out of the left-middle of the deck.

"Now, I'm going to hold this card, back facing you, for the rest of the trick in my left hand. I'm not gonna move it or anything, just keep your eyes on it. Now, shuffle the deck, mix it up, then randomly pick a card." I shuffled it two or three times until I was satisfied, the picked a card and looked at it, Seven of Aces. "Alright good, now, put the card in the deck and shuffle it again." Once again, I followed his orders, this time I spent a good five minutes shuffling the deck. "Great, now. Light it on fire with this lighter."

"You want me to burn the cards?" I said as he handed me the lighter, "That's a bit of an unorthodox procedure, don't you think?" But I did it anyway, I lit the deck on fire and left it to burn away on a stone table, when it finished, the Trickster flipped the card in his left hand to show me.

"Seven of Aces, is this your card?" he asked, with ridiculous flourish.

"Two cards. You put two Sevens of Aces in the deck, it was sheer luck that I happened to pick one of the duplicates," I smiled at the shock on his face.

"Yeah, I uhm... That's exactly what I did. You're clever, no one else has figured out any of my tricks before."


Flight

I'm afraid I must disappoint those lovers of schadenfreude in my audience, as the description of the Trickster's performance in the game would be less a description of a spectacular and skilled warrior overcoming insane odds and more a description of how clockwork works. It was more depressing then exhilarating. And I'd like to kindly remind those of you who are disappointed that you are reading my personal journal for my insights and introspective, not for a verbose retelling of a gory battle.

And to be honest, there is not much to tell. The Trickster felled his opponents within seconds, and remarkably did not cause one fatality. I suppose that's honorable, considering how easily he could do it. He had become quite unpopular with the audience by the fourth round (after all, they wanted to see a show, and he was lacking in flashiness). I did not attend the fourth round, instead I was to pick up Katie and gather our belongings so we could leave as soon as the Trickster was finished.

As I moved about my work, gathering and packing various miscellanea, I did my best not to awaken Katie. I wanted to make sure she had the most sleep possible, so I had decided that waking her would be the last task on my list. Alas, my efforts were in vain, she heard me rummaging around and was aroused.

"What are you doing?" she asked bluntly, rubbing her eyes as she sat up in bed.

"Packing, we're going to have to leave quickly," I responded.

"Did you do something bad?" she asked, I was surprised at how quickly the child had been able to deduce that fact.

"What do you mean by bad?"

"Oh, come on," she let out an exasperated, exaggerated sigh, "Bad? Like wrong, or mean, or like... illegal?"

"Well, you know, I've always had a bit of a flexible viewpoint regarding the law."

"I like the way you think," Katie replied, her words worried me a bit, but I didn't stop the chastise her. And really, who am I to criticize people of a criminal mindset anyway? Katie fell asleep again, bored with watching me. When I awoke her again, she brought up a point that I had foolishly ignored, and in retrospect, it was a blinding oversight.

"You didn't stay with the rest of us, where are your clothes?" she said. I cursed, then apologized to her for doing so. I had left my possessions back at the motel that I irrationally hated. I don't know quite what I hated about that place so much, maybe it was more the idea of collaboration that it represented that disgusted me. In any event, I knew I wouldn't be able to bring myself to enter that place again.

"Those are just material possessions," I said, "I don't need them."

"Well just don't complain to me when you start smelling 'cause you only have one outfit."

I took Katie and checked out of the hotel, then went to pick up the Wordsmith and the Mute Musician early from the Demons' Game. The Trickster appeared to be having difficulty with his battle, which was odd, and the Trapper-Spider was still stuck underground, even though in the fourth round Seconds were unnecessary. I noticed the crowd growing restless, and the various "security" personnel talking with each other. For a minute or so, I debated whether or not I should create a distraction and get the Trickster and Trapper-Spider out, or see if I should wait and see how things panned out. In the end, I went with the latter.

I had been spectating the match for a bit after picking up the Wordsmith and Mute Musician, and had left Katie alone with the two. When I returned, I found the thugs trying to intimidate answers out of her.

"Oh come on, you can tell us, we're your friends," the Wordsmith said, each word coated in a sugary-sweet compound that he was using to sway the poor child.

"Miss Natasha said I wasn't allowed," Katie responded. Good girl.

"Aww, but she's not around is she? Come on, you can tell us."

"Actually," I said loudly, and the Wordsmith spun around in panic (the Mute Musician tried to feign innocence).

"I thought we had an agreement that you were not allowed to talk with Katie," I said, "Please refrain from violating future agreements." And with that I shepherded Katie towards me and held her close. The four of us said nothing for the rest of the wait. When the Trapper-Spider (the Trickster jogging after him) finally did show up, he too said nothing, and hailed a cab. Quickly, Katie, the Trapper-Spider. And I shoved ourselves into one cab, and the others into a second. The Trapper-Spider used his cellular phone and put it on speaker so as to talk with those in the other taxi.

"So," he said after a few minutes, "I don't know if you're aware, but we're being tailed." I had actually noticed, immediately after we left the fourth arena, that we were being suspiciously followed. "That's security from the Games. The Trickster was accused of cheating, and that is a very serious offense. We're going to be followed for a while unless..."

"Unless you ditch me, eh?" the Trickster's voice crackled through the phone.

"Well, yes. But it's okay, we've provided alternate means of escape for you. I phoned my friend the Oktoberist, and... Hey driver, could you pull over here?" The first taxi stopped and pulled over, and the second followed suit (we were about a mile out of the City of Demons by now). We all got out, and the cabs drove off. I noticed to the left of me a large boulder.

"Let me guess, your hiding spot?" I said, and pointed to the boulder. The Trapper-Spider frowned.

"It makes up for it's lack of originality for it's usage advantages."

"I can see parts of what's behind there from almost every angle except one," I said, "And out of curiosity, what exactly is behind there." I circled around the rock, and a large, red Ferrari came into sight. "... And what do you say we ourselves were using for transport?"

"We're walking."

"... I can't help but to wonder, why?" I retorted. But my argument was left ignored, and the Trickster got into his vehicle. Pleasantries were exchanged, I told him farewell and gave him a gift (a silver lighter with the four suits engraved on it). And that was it, just as soon as we had all known him, he was gone.

Sometimes, I wonder about the nature of fleetingness, since so much of my life consists of it. We all met the Trickster less than twenty-four hours ago, and yet, he's already become one of the most interesting people any of us has ever met. Because he was only part of our lives for such a short time, should we even really acknowledge him? Or do we just let him fade away. Is it worse to be exciting and eractic or dull and consistent? In the end, it comes down to preference.




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