Challenges Of The Deeps – Chapter 09

Chapter 9.

“Draw two,” DuQuesne said, evaluating his cards. Nothing impressive in this hand. I need a break.

The two cards passed to him turned out to be a Sky Gate and a Nexus Gateway. With the Inner Gateway and Outer Gate I have, that at least makes a decent run. “Bet 5 points,” he said, not without trepidation. That’s half of what I’ve got left.

He could see Orphan, absently stroking his high head-crest in a nervous fashion, sitting near Ariane; Laila Canning sat on his other side, with Simon on Ariane’s left. The Players themselves were in the center of a large circular amphitheater — maybe even the same one that Ariane and Amas-Garao had dueled in — and around them was a ghostly image of the racing course.

Unlike the racers, DuQuesne could also see inside the huge final building, which contained a winding maze which was at least three kilometers long — a lot more of the race than the building’s external appearance would imply. Have to mention that to Wu — without being specific, of course.

“Match five points,” Byto said in his gravelly, deep voice. “Rolling draw die.”

The eight-sided die rattled across the table, to come up with a single-line symbol. Damn! That’s the fourth time!

“Line of Transition,” the Arena announced. “Accrue two more Obstacle points and may draw up to three cards.”

Byto’s gained points almost every play so far, and I’ve barely stayed even. DuQuesne saw his opponent choose to take three cards. At least that means his hand wasn’t that strong –

The twitch Byto gave was incredibly subtle, but DuQuesne’s Hyperion-built senses picked up on it. Damn. He’s got something now. As he’d delved deeper into the game, it had become clear it was indeed more like a mash-up of three or four games, ranging from standard poker to collectible card duel games, but that wasn’t really helping. There were more ways to win, or lose, and different types of winning plays or hands.

Wu Kung and Tunuvun were dashing through the forest now, the Genasi racer considerably ahead of Wu — and, DuQuesne saw, was taking advantage of the lead to drop large tree branches across his competitor’s path. If my luck doesn’t turn…

He rolled the Draw die; it came up as Emergent, which at least let him draw three like his opponent. He decided to only take two. Okay, that makes a Gateway run and Dual Shadeweavers, that’s not a bad hand. Still… “Bet three points.”

Byto rocked his head from side to side, rolled, drew two cards, discarded two into the dump, and matched the bet, spreading out his cards. DuQuesne also saw him muttering instructions to Tunuvun. Can’t hear them, of course, any more than he can hear what I say to Wu.

Huh. I don’t see any triples or doubles, or a run of…

The murmuring from the crowd started just before it dawned on DuQuesne. “Hand of Arena,” the Arena announced. Every one of Byto’s cards was different, and represented one of the major facets of the Arena, including the Arena card itself as the high card. It was technically a losing hand in Arena Challenge — but in a Racing Challenge such a hand gained the player twenty Obstacle points. Since the total bet on the hand by Byto had been eight points, this was a big win overall for him.

On the positive side, DuQuesne was at least now up by eight points, and it would also be his turn first on this play. Still… “Wu,” he said.

“Yes, DuQuesne?”

“Open it up just a hair. You’re way back and it’s not getting any easier from here on out. By the way, the course in that building is a lot bigger than it looks.” That should be sufficiently nonspecific.

Apparently he was right, because the Arena said nothing, as Wu answered, “Okay, I’m stretching my legs a little. But only a little, right?”

“Right. Not quite ready to hit the panic button.”

The murmurs rippled around the stadium again, with Ariane showing a hint of a smile instead of concern as Wu Kung raced along the branches of the network-like trees, ducking under the branches to evade the obstacles Tunuvun had dropped. He was closing the distance, slowly but surely, between him and his opponent.

DuQuesne and Byto finished the next play as Wu Kung burst from the forest and began racing across gray-golden desert sands, pursuing the faint dust trail that showed where Tunuvun was scrambling like a lizard ahead of him. “I’m getting closer, DuQuesne. Two hundred thirty meters, I think. Still keep going at this speed?” Wu didn’t even sound winded yet, which — if anyone other than DuQuesne could have heard it — might have been a dead giveaway about how much Wu was holding back.

“Throttle it back just a hair, to the top we agreed on before. You’ll still catch him about the time you guys hit the water, I think.”

This time Byto obviously thought he had something, but DuQuesne knew he had a major hand, too. Arena card for me. Only two in circulation, and the one he had is still going to be in the dump, but more importantly I’ve got three Faction Leader cards — and not small ones, either. Vengeance, Molothos, and Blessed– only two of each of those in circulation, too. The Arena can be counted as a Faction, a Construct, or a Leader, so that gives me almost a Great Leader Run, which is something close to a Royal Straight Flush. Plus with two Spheres in my show cards and the single Sphere in my hand I’ve got a triple.

“Bet eight,” he said. Byto matched him without a pause, rolled, got to draw one card. Again Byto tensed in that way that signaled he thought he had something big. But by now he might guess I’ve started reading him and be trying to use his tell to throw me off. Hard to know if he realizes what his tell is; maybe no one but a Hyperion would notice it.

Byto glanced up, then nodded. “Bet eight.”

Ow. That’s a big bite. Must be confident.  DuQuesne wasn’t going to yield this one that easily, so he matched and rolled the die. Ha! Finally luck’s turning my way! Line of Transition for me. Two more points and I get to draw up to three. Real good chance of drawing at least some Faction Leader in that, even if not a Great Faction. Time for me to make up some ground too. “Draw three.”

Staring at him from the middle of the two new cards was Faction Leader: Tantimorcan. Not all Great Factions, but definitely a very high Leader Run… and I’ve got another Sphere, too! He dumped one of the draw cards — a Sky Gate — and also dumped the Challenge card from his show cards, replacing it with the Tantimorcan Leader card. I’ve got sixteen points left. This is a huge hand, though. “Bet ten.”

Byto looked up at him, expression on the rhinoceros-like face unreadable. “Match and increase six.”

That’s the most allowed — he can’t raise beyond what I can match! “Are you sure you want to do that, Byto?” he asked, levelly.

The other hesitated only a fraction, then waggled his ears in what was clearly assent. “Match and increase six.”

Too late to bail now. Okay, that’s the sunk cost fallacy, but still… “Match with six. Beat this: Leader Run, Arena high, and a Quadruple Sphere,” he said, laying down his cards.

Murmurs chased themselves around the audience; Byto sat back slightly, surprised. “Indeed an impressive hand,” he said. “And an interesting coincidence.” He spread out his hand. “Great Leader Run, with Quadruple Challenges.”

DuQuesne stared in momentary shock. He couldn’t even think of an appropriate curse as his count of Obstacle Points went to zero. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted that Orphan looked, if anything, more shocked. Wonder why that is. Probably the whole improbability of the thing; chances of both of us getting all those same cards is ridiculously low. But this is really bad; I’m broke and he’s thirty-two points up in one play. “Arena, I need my first stake,” he said, and saw ten points appear in his account.

I’ve really got to win the next plays. At least I’ve got a good read on his style, his tells — I don’t think he knows I can read them — and I know what’s in the dump and how fast it recirculates. There’s still time.

But Wu, nearing the edge of the desert, suddenly vanished into the sand. “DuQuesne! Dry quicksand! This really annoys me!” The image showed Wu now effectively swimming through the sand, looking for an edge where it turned solid enough to burrow upwards. Ordinary human wouldn’t stand a chance, really, but Wu and Tunuvun ain’t ordinary in any sense of the word. Still, that was dead-slow movement compared to Tunuvun, who was now speeding through the water part of the course, his tail lashing back and forth and helping propel him rapidly through the water. Looks like… it is! That damn tail actually shifted shape, it’s got fins top and bottom!

That was going to be too much of a pain. DuQuesne used all ten of his points to have a bunch of predators converge on Tunuvun, letting the Arena give him another ten stake. If I lose so badly again that I need the third stake, it’s not going to matter much that I used up the first this way.

Wu burst from the sands and dove into the water ten seconds before Tunuvun finished dispatching his adversaries. Wu had only lost thirty meters, but it was clear he was going to lose more for the rest of the swim; Tunuvun was just too well adapted for swimming. “DuQuesne…” Wu murmured pleadingly.

“Just a bit. Like you did before.”

That didn’t completely keep him from losing ground, but once they hit the second no-gravity section Wu started eating up the space between the two… until an unexpected flurry of zikki intercepted him in mid-leap. Wu managed to beat them down with his staff and claws (since no inter-competitor combat was allowed, apparently the Arena didn’t object to either Wu’s staff or the chain-link belts that Tunuvun wore), but by that time Tunuvun was scrambling across the ice and tundra, seven hundred meters and more ahead of Wu.

And it kept happening. Every good hand DuQuesne got, somehow Byto had a better one. He couldn’t bluff or trick his opponent. Reading a guy’s tells doesn’t help much when all it tells you is that he’s going to hand you your head on a platter.

At the same time — ominously — Byto had stopped throwing obstacles at Wu. Wu was slowly making up ground, but by that time it was looking very grim. Wu was almost a full kilometer back and the two were toiling their way across the badlands, with Tunuvun — wearing a desperately focused, yet despairing expression — about to enter the immense building for the final stretch.

“I am very much afraid,” he heard Orphan say, “that our friend is going to lose.”

DuQuesne looked up, and finally grinned. “That would be a really bad bet to make.” He lowered his voice — even though he didn’t need to. “Wu, this guy’s kicking my ass, luck’s on his side every moment. So it’s time to stop playing around.”

“You mean it?” He heard the excited tension in his friend’s voice, and chuckled.

“I mean it, Wu. Go, Wu, GO! Go all-out and show them what Sun Wu Kung can do!”

Wu laughed aloud with delight, and there was suddenly a murmur, a rumble, a roar from the crowd, an outcry of stunned disbelief as the Hyperion Monkey King tore his way across the remaining badlands at a speed that made Tunuvun seem to be standing still. Ariane’s jaw dropped, and then she began clapping furiously, the other members of Humanity joining her.

Byto made a noise that DuQuesne was sure was something obscene, then turned his head to his cards.

But, DuQuesne noticed with concern, he still did not call for a single obstacle.

The building-maze was now visible to everyone, and Tunuvun sped through corridors, along perilous cables suspended over drops, through narrow tunnels, always at speeds to put a human runner to shame. But behind him Wu Kung burst through the entrance and ran so fast that as he turned a corner of a corridor he was running on the wall, then bounding back and forth between the walls enclosing an otherwise empty space, spurning the tightrope there as too trivially easy, satisfying the Arena’s requirements by constantly re-crossing the path of green sparks.

DuQuesne made another play, lost, saw his last stake appear in his account. I have no idea how many points Byto has now. He heard an incomprehensible mutter, saw Tunuvun stiffen and redouble his efforts, leaping from isolated pillar to pillar in yet another room; but halfway across, Wu Kung streaked into view, jumping not from one pillar to the next but clearing half a dozen pillars in a single impossible jump, then another and another, passing Tunuvun as both reached the far side of the room.

The Genasi leaned forward and, somehow, wrung another burst of speed from what had seemed to be his ultimate effort, but he was still falling behind at a ludicrous pace. Wu was ahead by a hundred meters, two hundred, four hundred, outdistancing his opponent effortlessly, closing in on the final room: a huge cylindrical room, two hundred meters across with two narrow golden paths leading to the white-sparkling finish line; twenty meters below the paths was a circular platform a hundred fifty meters across, and below that the room dropped away immeasurably.

And then he heard Byto say “Arena, I request my first stake.”

Holy Mother of God. That means he’s just —

As Wu Kung entered and began the final sprint, the golden path dissolved beneath him, sending him plummeting to the flat, silvery platform below. Even as he struck, four shapes materialized at the cardinal points of the circular floor, four shapes clad in unmistakable armor: Adjudicators.

“We have lost,” Orphan said quietly.