PREVIOUSLY, IN PARADOX FIGHTERS: Holly is tasked with recording and sharing Katniss' story, apparently in order to seed dissent. The fighters are plunged into a deadly game of keep-away over the mysterious and powerful One Ring. While Katniss snags the ring, Holly is approached by a newcomer, Twilight Sparkle. The two locate Katniss only to find her corrupted by the ring. After tracking her down again, they team up with street fighter Ryu and the Survey Corps' brightest, Mikasa Ackerman. Together they confront the Master of Games' team… only to find that Katniss' father is in the Grand Combat- and he's not friendly. Katniss unlocks the power of residual magic and defeats her father, but forever loses any chance to reconcile with him. And it seems that Twilight may have an agenda of her own...
The common hall was empty, as it usually was in the longer stretches between rounds of combat. The only exception to this rule was the yellow-robed, kingly figure whose elevated seat rose high above the floor. The Master of Games lounged across his throne sideways, attempting to look, what was it that they called it? "Casual". He heard the footsteps from across the room, and saw the solitary man walk out from the endless hallway that branched into the warriors' various rooms.
The man was thin, but exceedingly muscular. His wild yellow hair was barely contained by his green headband, his greedy red eyes poking out from underneath the blond waves. His wardrobe was similarly garish, his ridiculously-short yellow jacket conflicting with various green baubles. He knelt in front of the throne.
"I received your message, my liege. Is it time?"
"Not yet," quipped the Master of Games. "I'm going to have another round first. Then we'll set it up. Are there any particular requests you have?"
"First, I'll need something devoid of sunlight."
"No need. I can simply make you immune to its effects."
"Excellent. My only other request is that you give me a nice, big space to work with. Preferably something with some building I could use as a base of operations."
The Master raised an eyebrow. "A base of operations?"
"I think you'll agree that previous techniques involving all-out attacks have failed. A large team on my side, and the ability to either seek out opponents or defend… this would give me a great deal of tactical flexibility."
"Hahaha! You are a clever one aren't you? Very well then. I'll see what I can do. Are you sure there won't be anything else?"
"Now that you mention it, having some ambient… obstacles would be useful as well."
"Keep them on their toes even before they run into you… You are a marked improvement over your predecessor," giggled the Master of Games. "I have just the thing in mind. We'll have one environment-savvy on our hands, but that shouldn't prove to be much of an obstacle to you."
"Nothing does," said the man, licking his lips. He turned and began to walk back to his room.
"Oh, Dio- before you go," called out the King in Yellow.
"Yes, my liege?"
"I just have to compliment you on the outfit again. Simply marvelous."
"Of course, my liege."
Twilight Sparkle saw Holly walk into the room among a crowd of power-armored space marines. She lifted a hoof and waved the elf over, indicating a seat next to her at the table. Holly changed direction and swept herself into the chair.
"This certainly is exciting," said the LEPrecon officer.
"What?" asked Twilight.
"Not being in a round, for once. How does it work?"
"Well, you sit here and watch. Not much to it."
"Hmm," hummed Holly, nodding. She began to drum her fingers on the table.
Twilight lifted the elf's hand just above the table. "Are you… all right?"
"I'm fine," quipped Holly. "I'm more concerned for Katniss. Didn't he say it was-"
"A two-versus-one match." Said the Dovahkiin, plopping himself down on the other side of the table. "Our little archer friend has certainly not won favor from the powers that be."
Holly massaged her forehead with her palm.
"Hello, there, Dovahkiin."
"A warm greeting to you as well, my favorite mer!" For a moment, he seemed puzzled. Then he stood and slammed his hand down on the table, causing Twilight to rear up and fall out of her seat.
"DID YOU EVER REALIZE THAT?" he bellowed excitedly.
Holly approached his enthusiasm with caution.
"'Mer' and 'mare' sound the same! Here is a mer," he chortled, indicating Holly. "Here is a mare!" he pointed at Twilight.
"Wow. That is impressive. You should write a poem about it," said the elf dryly.
"You know, I think I will!" he said, sitting back down. He began to mutter to himself.
"O'er the icy hills lived a mer, who each day did converse with her mare…"
Thankfully, his creative process was cut short by the lights dimming. A screen flickered into being on the far wall of the room, with no visible screen or projector. The fidelity was superb, far beyond the twelve-thousand-pixel HD displays found in most fairy cinemas.
"That's impressive," commented Holly.
The Master of Games' disembodied voice echoed through the hall, silencing the other discussions.
"Two versus one. Win condition: Defeat of opposing party. Round start."
The blank screen faded into the familiar profile of their friend, Katniss, stepping onto a deserted-looking street. She looked around nervously, and slipped her bow around her shoulder, marching off.
"I think she'll be fine," said Holly convincingly.
No, I don't, she thought.
Katniss kept her eyes peeled. The scenery could definitely hide her opponent well. The arena seemed to be some sort of ruined city, bomb craters dotting the worn streets, buildings reduced to pig-iron skeletons. Occasionally as Katniss would walk by, a girder would lose its purchase and clatter to the ground loudly, nearly scaring her out of her boots.
I need to get to higher ground. Seeing my opponents before they see me would cover my numbers disadvantage.
She assessed her immediate environment, and located the tallest building nearby- what looked like a 3-story office.
It's not much, but I have to start somewhere.
Katniss rushed toward the building and pressed herself against its front wall, quickly scanning for possible assailants. The coast was clear. She cautiously moved to the door and began to turn the handle, only for it to crumble into rust in her hands. She stepped back, steadied herself, and unleashed a powerful kick into the door's center. It buckled, moaned, and fell inward onto the floor, knocking dust into the air. Through the haze, she saw the narrow stairwell that snaked along the building's back wall.
Katniss advanced toward the stairwell, her left hand ready to slip her bow off of her shoulder. The steps were wooden, and nearly rotted through. She began her careful ascent, her foot more than once snapping through the thin wood.
These wouldn't be to code in District 12.
After what seemed like a half hour climbing the steps, Katniss reached the door that opened onto the roof. She placed her hand on the knob- this one seemed sturdier.
Okay. Here goes nothing.
She swung the door open, and behind it stood… the ruined skyline.
Katniss almost laughed. She stepped out onto the roof, shielding her eyes from the sun. She looked down over the edge of the building, to the empty, rusty streets below.
"Oh, god. It's clear."
"No, it's not," called a voice from behind her. She heard a footstep, and the door click shut. She spun, preparing to draw her bow. She was greeted by a leveled submachine gun. The boy on the other end of the weapon almost smirked. He had been standing along the wall, out of view from the door. His long, black bangs danced in the third-story air, his school uniform providing a sharp contrast to the heavy survival pack he had slung over his back.
"And who the hell are you?" asked Katniss, lowering her hands from her bow.
"I am Shuya Nanahara. I am your opponent."
"Now that was unexpected," said Twilight.
"No kidding," agreed Holly. "How is she going to get herself out of this one?"
Katniss raised her hands above her head.
"Okay, you've got me."
"Hold up, Everdeen. I'm not going to let you get away that easily."
The boy pulled a knife out of his pack, keeping the submachine gun steady with the other. He extended the knife out to his side, and dropped it. The metal blade clattered to the concrete roof and tumbled off of the building's edge. Shuya wiped a few bangs out of his face and tucked them behind an ear.
"I'm no more of a fan of this than you are, Everdeen. So we'll settle this like civilized humans, and not a bunch of bloodthirsty animals."
"I like where you're going with this, Nanahara," said Katniss, lowering her hands.
"Set down your weapons. We'll fight with our bare hands, to a knockout. Nobody has to die."
"I don't know," chuckled Katniss sarcastically. "Did you see what happened last time I fought with my hands?"
"I seriously doubt you can pull off that again."
Holly pondered this for a moment.
"Is he bluffing?" she asked her unicorn companion.
"I have no idea. I can't detect the Residual Magical Genesis Field if I'm not in the arena. I mean, I can tell visually if it's being used-"
"But… could he be right?"
"It was a one-in-a-million event. It takes some serious determination to convince the magic to work for you. If Katniss tried to pull it on anyone less threatening than her father, it would probably fail."
Katniss slipped her bow off her shoulder and set it on the ground gently. She laid her knife next to it, and placed her arrows between the two.
Holly was a little surprised. "Half of me expected her to not take up the bargain."
Twilight raised a hoof toward the screen. "Wait! What's she doing now?"
Katniss swung her jacket off, catching it by the sleeve. With a deft hand, she tied the sleeves into a belt around her waist. Her hands curled into fists, her right raised to chest height, her left guarding her midsection. She bent her legs slightly, keeping the muscles tense and ready to push off.
"I never knew she had martial arts training," said Twilight, bewildered.
Holly narrowed her eyebrows. "I didn't either. That stance… it looks familiar."
"I'm glad you took up my offer," said Shuya, flicking the safety on the gun on and tossing it to the ground.
"You won't be, soon enough," growled Katniss through gritted teeth.
The boy launched himself toward her at a sprint, leaping just feet in front of her to deliver a flying punch. Katniss ducked, and drove a fist into his gut. She followed through on the punch, sending him falling back toward the door. He tumbled backward, barely catching himself. He placed a hand on his stomach and groaned.
"Not bad," he said. "I didn't know you could do that."
Katniss returned to her stance, wringing out her striking hand. With her left, she raised two fingers, beckoning him to attack. Shuya obliged, rushing at her with a straight punch. Katniss crossed her arms, absorbing the blow. Shuya wound up and delivered another strike, and another, thrashing wildly. The girl merely leaned into the attacks, keeping her arms raised.
"Hmmm," said Twilight, staring intently at the screen. "This kid has next to no formal combat training. His form is sloppy, and his strikes don't seem very powerful. Why would he purposefully challenge Katniss in hand-to-hand combat when he has no advantage there?"
Holly seemed distracted, gazing into the distance. Twilight spoke clearer, louder.
"Why would he do that?"
"Huh? Oh, ah, no idea," said the elf, bringing her attention back on the fight.
Shuya's attacks were pathetic, barely bruising Katniss' arms as she deflected them.
Any moment now, he's going to slow down…
Shuya did not launch his next punch immediately, his eyes searching for a way to attack that would not get blocked. Unfortunately for him, this brief lapse into strategy was Katniss' chance. She leapt forward into the air, twisting herself at the waist. She tilted her extended leg so that it caught the momentum, swinging outward, straight toward Shuya's face.
"Shinrin-Kasai-Kyaku!" she shouted as her boot found its mark in the boy's cheek. Another twist of her waist, and her hammer-like foot struck again, sending teeth flying. Katniss dropped to the ground, and watched the boy stagger and crumple.
"By the Divines," said the Dovahkiin. "How can someone so small hit so hard? And with such grace?"
"Of course!" said Holly, snapping her fingers in mental jubilation. "Remember? That martial arts guy, Ryu- he said he would teach her some of his style!"
"That certainly explains her sudden command of the Japanese language," said the unicorn.
It also accounts for why I didn't see her after the end of the last round. Thought Holly. She must have been training in the martial arts sector… but why? Perhaps she's concerned about facing her father again…
Katniss approached her fallen opponent. Shuya Nanahara's mouth ran over with blood, and he attempted feebly to get up. He spat teeth before speaking.
"I didn't think you could do that… that's not what I had read," he gasped.
Katniss frowned. "What you had read?"
"I want you to know… that you have my sympathy. I know how it…" his voice trailed off. He closed his eyes, still breathing.
She crossed back over the roof and collected her weapons. She looked down at the unconscious boy, and placed his survival pack next to him, to give him a hand when he woke up.
"Shuya Nanahara. You fought bravely, even if it was futile. We all fight against odds we can't beat sometimes," she said solemnly, kissing her first three left fingers and holding them aloft.
"Sayonara," whispered Katniss, closing her not-eulogy. She slipped through the door and carefully descended the stairs, stepping back onto the street. She flicked her shoulder, her bow dropping into her hand, and walked on.
Holly shook her head subtly. The more she fights, the more she becomes the person she must have been before coming here. Broken enough not to care, jaded enough to not let anyone too close. I only hope that… thing was right. She needs a friend whether she thinks so or not.
"What he read," muttered Twilight. "What he read. What did he read? Was the Master of Games behind this?"
"Dunno," said the elf nonchalantly.
Katniss followed the street for an hour, scowling at the quickly-fading daylight. She knew being stuck outside in the dark was not an option, so she resolved to find her opponent or shelter, whichever turned up first. In an attempt to make sure it was the latter, she picked up the pace, barreling around the nearest street corner. The road was fairly wide, and at the end of the street sat a dilapidated warehouse. The roof was caved in and rusty, and the windows had all shattered- it was perfect for avoiding suspicion. Katniss broke out into a sprint toward the building. She was reaching for the handle when the air split with a gunshot. She felt the stinging wind of a bullet passing between her extended fingers, freezing her in place.
She turned her eyes, avoiding any large movements that could provoke another shot. To her left, down the street the warehouse was adjacent to, a figure approached- pistol extended in one hand. A dull grey hooded cloak concealed the identity of Katniss' second opponent.
"You missed," said Katniss softly.
"Say that again, and I'll put the next bullet where I meant to." It was a girl's voice, accented, familiar.
"I doubt that," said Katniss, drawing her hand back towards herself.
"No!" shouted Holly, jumping out of her seat.
Another shot rang out, the bullet clipping the asphalt and kicking up dust.
"Am I really that difficult of a target to hit?" called Katniss to her foe. Another shot, just over her head.
"I swear, you'll be more useful as a pencil when I-"
"Shut up," interrupted Katniss.
The cloaked girl lowered her gun. "What?"
"Cut the smack," hissed the girl with the bow. "I watched your form with the gun. You're not trembling. You're not making mistakes, you're trying to not shoot me. You can't do it."
"I'm not going to take this from some goddamned whiner!" shouted the girl, whipping off the cloak. Underneath, a simple black combat uniform, sleeves removed. Tattoos peeked out from under the heavy vest, and blonde hair swung back in a long, loose braid. She raised her gun again, leveling it on Katniss. This time, she noticed something was different. The girl's bow was drawn.
But where's the arr-
The projectile she was looking for dove between her middle and ring finger of her gun-wielding hand. She clenched her fist in pain, and as a result, pulled the trigger. Her injured hand and stunned mind could not prepare, and the recoil tossed the weapon out of her hand. It hit the ground with enough force to go off again, the bullet whizzing away harmlessly. The disarmed girl stared at her own hand in disbelief and pain.
Katniss lowered her bow, and began to advance toward the girl.
"I don't miss shots I mean to take."
"Stay back," said the girl, surprisingly calm. She fumbled in her cargo pants' pocket.
"What was your name again? Tris, right? Tris Prior." Katniss realized she was almost smiling, seeing the fear in the girl's eyes.
"Go to hell!" screamed Tris, flicking a throwing knife toward her.
Katniss watched the throw carefully. It was very accurate, and there was a lot of force behind it, but it was simply too telegraphed. She stepped to the left, the blade whistling past her.
"You're very strong," commented Katniss, ever closer to her prey. "I'm sure if you hit me you would stop me in my tracks. Why won't you?"
Tris staggered backward, dropping a second throwing knife she had drawn in vain.
"I… just… you're too much like… after all you've…"
Katniss stood over the girl now, who was sobbing audibly.
"What? What are you talking about?"
"You're like my friends… you're like me. Maybe worse… I can't just attack… I know why you were crying…"
"Wait, how do you know this?"
"I read it… in the book," whimpered Tris.
"What. Book?" asked Katniss. Tris heard something in the other girl's voice she did not want to hear. She was angry.
"Some people were passing it around. It was interesting to learn more about the people here, and I'm really sorry about-"
"Did I say I wanted people to know?" said Katniss, with the sort of calm that only comes from restraining rage.
"But I… I didn't…"
Katniss was silent. Her grip on her bow relaxed, and the weapon clattered to the ground.
Tris stumbled to her feet, apologizing profusely.
"Listen, I'm really sorry, I won't-"
Katniss' eyes rose to meet hers. They were not filled with forgiveness.
"Oh," squeaked Tris.
A fist hammered across her face, a thin stream of blood escaping her mouth. Tris barely had time to catch the second vicious strike in mid-throw. Even then, she had trouble holding it. Katniss' eyes were narrowed, her teeth gritted. She was beyond reason now. A swift kick caved Tris' stomach, knocking the wind out of her, and forcing her to let go of Katniss' punch- which now freely traveled into her nose. She heard it snap under the attack's force.
Katniss was breathing heavily, her fists wet with Tris' blood. Her mind just seconds ago was filled with questions. Why didn't she hit me? How does she know that? Where did she get the book? Who wrote it? Now, those things seemed to disappear. A single thought populated her brain: Kill her.
Tris struggled to keep herself standing. She laboriously moved her arms into a defensive stance, guarding her face from further attacks. She adjusted her footing, and began to watch her opponent's movements. I'm not going down that easily.
Katniss saw the girl move toward her. An arm swung forward in a hammer-fist move, a fast, if predictable attack. She crouched, letting the girl's straight arm fly over her. For a moment, Tris' chin was completely exposed. Katniss knew this was the opportunity to satisfy that ravenous thought. She released her breath slowly, methodically. She turned her focus to her target, planning the movements that would deliver the strike. She clenched her fist, tensed her legs. She was an explosive charge, a landmine. Tris had just stepped on the trigger.
Katniss leapt up with astounding force, the uppercut driving itself into Tris' gut. The blow knocked the wounded girl skyward, soaring on the rocket-propelled fist of her opponent.
Katniss flicked her waist, giving her uppercut a horizontal spin. Her fist, no longer inhibited by being embedded in the girl's body, travelled upward again, a gout of flame trailing in its wake.
The fist connected with the sternum, which fractured under the raw power. The air evacuated Tris' lungs.
The punch met its ultimate target, Tris' chin. Katniss felt the mandible snap, her hand breaking the jaw in one strike. Her foe fell away as the uppercut continued skyward, tumbling to the ground with a splat. Katniss lost altitude as well, barely catching herself on her feet. Her hand ached, she was pretty sure it was broken. She looked down at the body of the girl she barely knew, blood pooling underneath her head.
Why did I snap? What made me want to kill her like that? Of course, the book. I'll figure that out… but something else drove me that far. I shouldn't have just…
"Katniss Everdeen wins this round," declared the computerized voice of Deep Thought. "Though I must question the theatrics of calling out your attacks like that, very illogical."
Her legs slipped through the ground, and she closed her eyes.
Holly saw her friend rise up through the floor in the inverse of how she left the arena.
"Katniss!" she cried, rushing to her. "Are you all right?"
The girl looked down at her hand grimly. It did not hurt anymore.
Twilight sauntered toward the two.
"That last attack… I don't think that was a R.M.G.F. burst. I think that may have been a genuine ki attack," said the unicorn.
Katniss shifted her gaze away from her hand to the elf.
"Holly, you're the only person I've told."
Holly's eyes widened in fear.
"Look, I thought that, maybe it would stir up some sympathy. And it did! Did you listen to those people as you were beating them into a bloody pulp?"
"That doesn't matter. I don't need their sympathy. And I don't need your help."
With that, the girl turned and walked away. Holly could have sworn that she saw a tear in the girl's eye, but perhaps it was the light.
"Holly," said Twilight sternly.
"Great, are you going to chew me out, too? I feel like a dwarven teenager with a close shave."
"You just gave away not only your friend's strengths and weaknesses to anyone who desires to read them, but you also threw in her personal life as an added bonus!"
"When you put it that way-"
"Listen, Holly. You are no idiot. I have no doubt in my mind that you are fairly intelligent. Where did you come up with this asinine idea?"
Holly scratched her head nervously.
"It was… a whim. A whim I got with very little sleep."
"Something in your dreams, then?"
Holly almost gasped.
"No, it was-"
"Where did you get the book, Holly?"
The elf's eyes flitted back and forth, searching for an explanation she could not find. She shivered, twisted her back, stamped her foot, and screamed.
"THIS HORSE SAYS SHE'S THE STRONGEST IN THE WORLD! SHE'LL TAKE ALL COMERS!"
Instantly, a barrage of warriors surrounded Twilight, asking questions about her preferred fighting style, and whether she was a practitioner of classical or new-age sorcery. Holly slipped through their ranks, sprinting away.
This has gone too far, she thought. I need backup.