PREVIOUSLY, IN PARADOX FIGHTERS: The Master of Games brings the tournament back into full swing, using supercomputers to judge the contestants' performance. The Dovahkiin, a Nordic warrior gifted with powerful and ancient magic, reveals his interest in Holly Short. The Master's challenge is a team-oriented melee in an urban environment. Holly, Katniss, pilot Amuro, martial artist Chuck, and samurai Date Masamune unite to form Team Mockingjay. The team plows through the challenge, even defeating the Master's hand-picked legion of evil. Holly vows to learn more of Katniss' tragic past, and the Master of Games and Cthulhu have a heart-to-heart. Except they don't really have hearts.
Holly squinted at the map that had been drawn on the wall. The map was not the problem, as it was very clearly written. Holly had been up for hours, and there was not much time until the Master would summon them to another challenge. Her eyes were simply too tired to open.
"And that," continued Katniss, who began to mark off another section of the wall with the little chunk of coal, "is District Eleven."
"Where Rue came from, right?" yawned Holly, who glanced at the tiny digital clock on the wall. Instead of displaying a time, it counted down how long the respite would continue. It currently read one hour and fifteen minutes.
"Exactly!" said Katniss, who felt energized by Holly's comprehension. She too noticed the clock.
"Listen, Holly. I'm really grateful that you've given me some of your time. You didn't have to do this."
"Don't sweat it, kid," the elf mumbled.
"But you ought to get back to your room. Get some sleep. We'll probably need it."
Holly muttered something incomprehensible and staggered out the door. Katniss turned off the light and curled up, feeling a little more secure now that someone understood her. Holly was not firing on all cognitive cylinders, but she was conscious enough to notice that unmarked door at the end of the hallway. She knew it wouldn't have showed up unless whatever was inside wanted to talk to her. She shuffled over to the door, checked over her shoulder, and ducked inside.
"Listen. I need some sleep- could you get this over with quickly?"
The perverse darkness shifted and whipped around her like a tornado.
"DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE I CARE ABOUT YOUR PHYSICAL STATE?"
"I believe you care what I think, and I'm not nearly as good at that when my batteries are dead."
"CLEVER LITTLE ELF. VERY WELL, I SHALL NOT PROLONG THIS DISCUSSION."
There was an awful moaning and shuddering, and Holly felt something press against her face. She grasped at it in the darkness- it was a book.
"What's this? Recommended reading?"
"NO. THE TOME IS EMPTY. I EXPECT YOU TO FILL IT."
The vocal abomination paused for a moment, then continued its assault.
"WHETHER YOU KNOW IT OR NOT, THE FRIENDSHIP YOU AND THE GIRL HAVE MAY BE THE ONLY THING THAT CAN WIN THIS GRAND COMBAT."
"Go on," Holly said, but didn't mean it.
"THE GIRL IS A CATALYST. HER STORY, A SPARK. RECORD IT. PROPAGATE IT. IN DOING SO, THE FLAMES OF DOUBT WILL BE FANNED, AND THE PURPOSE OF THIS GRAND COMBAT WILL BE QUESTIONED."
"And I assume you're doing this because you hate the Master of Games, right?"
"THAT IS THE MOTIVE OF MY ACTION. GO NOW, AND SEE THAT HE REGRETS BRINGING YOU HERE."
The voice faded away, and Holly opened her eyes to find herself in her room once more. She wasn't sure whether to be completely unnerved by this or thankful for the convenience. She lifted the book off of her chest and turned the pages. All blank. That thing wasn't kidding. She slid the empty book under her bed and slept for all of forty minutes until the summons began.
"Miss Short. The Master of Games requests that all contestants report to the practice room in five minutes. Please use this time to prepare."
Holly was not aware that there was a training room, but given the ever-changing nature of the place, she decided not to concern herself with that for the moment. She rose and walked to her room's courtyard. Taking an acorn and burying it beneath the tree, she contemplated the something's request. I thought I was just being a good friend, to listen to Katniss' story. To think that it could tear this whole thing apart! Magic flowed from the ground into her fingertips, buzzing through her veins and repairing what rest did not have a chance to. Holly got up, dusted off her knees, changed into a crisp, clean uniform, and left the room.
The hallway was filled with other confused warriors, who all remembered the common hall but did not recall a training room. Holly figured that the common hall would have become the training room, and she was right. She turned at the end of the hallway to find the already-large common hall replaced by a truly cavernous expanse. There was a table with some smaller breakfast items, but the room was dominated by the target dummies, firing ranges, and weapon racks that were scattered at far intervals from one another. A singular throne sat in the corner of the room. The Master of Games lounged upon it, kicking his feet up on the arms while he stroked his chin in thought.
Awful! Awful! Awful! He seethed inside himself. Sure, I got more of them to fight by using teams. But now there's a handful that know what my plan is! And that idiot elf and the girl are making the best of friends! This is a shame- no, a travesty! I can't let my brother be right. No, no, no! I've got to find some way to tear them apart! All of them! But I can't rip them away too quickly. They'd get upset, have a reason to disobey. The warriors below him began to bustle about to their various training exercises. He noticed the wizard Gandalf speaking with his little band of adventurers and fighters. I regret bringing too many of these warriors here. Oh, but I do need them! How can I play off of this? What ever will I do?The Master shifted back in his throne, wracking his mind for a solution.
Meanwhile, Holly had found her way to the firing range. It consisted of several long, narrow lanes composed out of what she assumed was bulletproof glass, so that the warriors could view their competition easily. To the far end of all of the lanes was an extensive shelf that held every kind of firearm conceivable. The elf gazed at the collection of pistols, muskets, high-tech rifles, and weapons with such a bizarre shape that she couldn't tell which end did the killing. Among the menagerie was a comparatively tiny Neutrino 3000. Holly lifted the gun off of the display and turned to find Katniss waiting in line.
"Well, it sure looks like you got the sleep you needed," said the girl empathetically.
"Not quite enough. But it'll do," Holly chirped brightly. She still hadn't told Katniss about the voice in the room or the request to ghost-write Katniss' life story. Holly decided that now would not be the time to drop these bombs.
"That's good," Katniss replied as she reached over the short elf and grabbed her bow from the rack. "Why do you figure that we're training now, after we fought?"
As the Dovahkiin approached, Holly tried to turn her head and look occupied.
"Gandalf says that the Master of Games doesn't know what to do with us," he answered.
"I don't know what to do with you," snapped Holly.
"And did you have anything in mind? I would be interested in knowing," the Dragonborn jested.
"Oh, I did. I'm currently deciding whether to shoot you once or twice."
"Well. You are a feisty little mer. Can you see why I like her?" he inquired of Katniss.
"Oh, sure." responded Katniss nonchalantly.
The Nordic warrior ambled away, leaving Holly and Katniss to get around to their practice. Holly squeezed a few rounds downrange, each landing within the lethality circles on the targets. Two of the shots hit center mass, just to the right of the center. The third had fallen just below the bull's eye on the head section of the target. Not bad, the elf thought. I've done better. She turned and noticed Katniss' target was devoid of arrows altogether. The girl was standing stone-still, her bow at her side. Her gaze was fixated on the target, and she was gulping for air.
Holly set down her blaster on the shelf and moved into Katniss' lane.
"Are you… having a moment?"
The girl nodded.
"Let's go sit down, okay?"
Katniss let her bow clatter to the floor as she took Holly's hand. By the time Holly found a vacant table, she had degraded to the point of senseless sobbing. Holly slid her into a seat and took one opposite of her.
"Hey. It's going to be alright."
"I'm sorry… It was just… just like…"
"No. No. Don't think about that," Holly said soothingly, taking the girl's hand once more. "Those times are over."
"Ssh, ssh. Listen," the elf said, lifting Katniss' head so that their eyes met. "When this is all over-and it will be, I promise- you're going to wake up in your bed. You're going to go and live your life, raise your kids, write that book. That's what you'll do. Don't worry about what you did, what happened. There's good people here. We're going to find a way to stop this."
Katniss sniffled loudly and mumbled "Okay." Holly got up, and with Katniss in tow, began to wander about, taking in the vast variety of warriors that had been assembled. Holly made a point to show Katniss the more ridiculous ones, to cheer her up. There was a truly silly man who was training at the martial arts dummies. His outfit had apparently been designed by a kindergartener, as it proudly displayed all three of the primary colors. After he finished attacking a dummy, he turned to the small crowd that was watching the incredible display.
"The secret to drawing upon your true strength is YOUR NAAAMME!" he shouted suddenly, taking those watching off-guard. He scratched his bright red helmet, as if bewildered by the crowd's response.
"Watch THIS," he called, continuing to emphasize select words. He wound up with his right arm, preparing to strike a dummy.
"FAALCOHN," he yelled, letting his fist fly forward, "PAAAWNCH!"
As his arm hurtled through the air, it became enveloped by flame. Then, perhaps more fantastically, the flame morphed itself into the shape of a great hawk, which dove toward the dummy and exploded with terrible force. The spectators contemplated this for a moment and broke into applause. Holly was surprised to see Katniss grinning.
"That's all it takes? Calling out your name?" the girl asked the spandex-clad man.
"YES!" he cried, gesturing for Katniss to come forward. "Now SHOW ME YO MOVES!"
Katniss shot a glance toward Holly, who waved her on. She stepped up next to the dummy.
"So I just have to call out my name?"
The strange man was no help. She did not plan on screaming "KATNISS PUNCH" at the top of her lungs, even if some sort of flaming Mockingjay would project itself from her arm and annihilate the dummy. This was a stupid idea, and now she had to dig her way out of it.
"Katniss Punch" is awful. "Everdeen Punch" is also awful. "Mockingjay Punch" is not only too long winded, but completely misses the point. But I have to get this over with.
She pulled her arm back, planting herself firmly on the ground.
I'm going to regret this, she thought, and began calling out her attack.
"MOCKINGJAAAY PUUUNCH!" she cried, slamming her fist into the target dummy and instantly feeling like an idiot. No flaming bird motif erupted from her arm, which Katniss was honestly relieved to see. The crowd gave a good chuckle and began to flow away from the strange man.
"DO YOU FEEL the SPIRIT?" the man shouted again, but Katniss and Holly had already walked away. Holly gave the girl a pat on the back.
"You did pretty good," she said supportively.
"That was absolutely the most embarrassed I've ever been."
"Better to be embarrassed than be getting killed," Holly said before realizing that the comment went too far.
"Oooh… sorry," she apologized.
"No, no. It's okay. You're right."
Holly sighed in relief.
"Just don't say that ever again."
"I'll try not to," muttered the elf.
The pair wandered past Date Masamune and the Spartan king Leonidas, who were sparring with wooden training weapons. They passed a table where the members of the Master of Games' evil team sat arguing with one another over their loss. Holly noticed several large, oblong devices that she guessed were simulators to be used by the mech-piloting contestants. The training area really did seem to go on forever. Eventually, the two arrived back at the front of the room, where Holly picked up two granola bars from the breakfast table. She unwrapped one and began to chow down, while she handed the other to Katniss. The girl gave the bar an unpleasant look.
"You're supposed to eat it," instructed the elf.
"I know. I just can't bring myself to eat anything." Katniss tried to hand it back, only for Holly to push it to her once more.
"You need to eat. I don't care what it reminds you of."
Katniss took another look at the granola bar and decided that Holly had a point. She peeled off the wrapper and forced it down.
"There you go! You'll feel a lot better with food in your stomach."
"I guess you're right. I don't think I'm ready for anything more than that, though."
Holly gave her an assuring pat on the shoulder, and was going to suggest that it was wise for Katniss to take her time when the Master of Games began to make an address.
"My fine warriors! I trust you all have taken advantage of this opportunity to hone your skills! Now, I plan on bringing one-on-one fights back into the focus of this Grand Combat, but I've got one more team exercise for you!"
He held out his hand, and a giant holographic projection lit up the center of the room. The projection showed the Master's hand, and, cupped in the palm, a ring. The gray-robed mage began to shout indignantly.
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Oh, yes," said the Master of Games, turning towards the old man, "I would. As Mr. Gandalf here is so aware, this is no ordinary ring. Your challenge will be to find the One Ring and hold onto it for as long as possible as a team. If any individuals were to leave their team with the ring, they will begin to accumulate points on their own, but are also fair game to anyone who would like the ring as well."
The warriors began to murmur amongst themselves about the challenge. It didn't seem particularly difficult, but it was also very vague.
"I would like to add," continued the Master, "That you will be assembling your teams inside the arena."
The murmurs became a little more distressed.
"AHEM!" The room fell silent.
"Thank you. You have forty five minutes to head to your rooms and prepare."