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The Marred trained with newfound vigor for the rest of the day, all the while sizing each other up to determine the greatest competition. It seemed foul to study each other in a way so predatorial, but Avaria was just as guilty of it as the others, refusing to acknowledge how demented it made her feel.

When the air had grown cold, now lacking suns to heat it, they gradually began to drift back inside. No one had bothered to stop for the morning meal, so they were all especially hungry when they arrived at the food room. It was much livelier today. They finally had something interesting to discuss amongst themselves. 

Avaria plunked her bowl down on the table, but before she could sit Korbak intruded into her space, so close to her that he consumed her field of vision. She was more amused by his unprompted invasion than irritated. He always jumped at any chance for confrontation, although she couldn't imagine how she might have summoned his wrath on this particular occasion. A relaxed smirk and lifted eyebrow conveyed her unprovoked state as she waited for him to spout off. 

His episodes brought a bit of liveliness to their otherwise dull world. However, he said nothing, instead leaning his face even closer to hers in a way that almost seemed... intimate? It caught her completely off guard, possibly more than anything else in her life ever had. Her whole body went rigid, frozen into place. She was fully confident he didn't harbor feelings for her. In fact, if she learned that he had feelings for any other living creature at all, she would be stunned into eternal silence. 

He was nearly a model Chorlak, operating only on logic and necessity. His only character trait inconsistent with the no-nonsense Chorlak teachings was his tendency to pick fights with others, but one could argue that, under the circumstances, even that was a tactical decision designed to separate him from everyone else. Perhaps, like the Chorlak society all of them desperately wanted to be integrated into, he believed himself better than the Marred.

One thing Korbak could be counted upon to do was always be irritable, but at that moment, he was like a different person. Something very strange was happening, but she was too thoroughly distracted to pinpoint exactly what. Her cocky expression, although unmoved, suddenly felt stale and severely lacking authenticity, as though her features were just lagging behind her real emotions.

Everything around her seemed to fade as her mind raced to process what was happening, but her stubbornness kept her from backing down to diffuse the situation. Korbak cupped her jaw, furthering her astonishment, oddly it seemed like he might kiss her. The very thought was enough to revitalize her features, drawing them together in muted aggression. 

She wasn't overly fond of any other members of the Marred, they were all bland, boring, and ill-natured, like most of her race, but Korbak was truly one of her least favorite people alive. Curiosity contained her reaction, but if he even twitched a bit closer, she was fully prepared to jam her eating stick through his liver.

“Good luck.” His words sounded bitter, entirely contrasting his strange display.

His hand fell, and he pushed past her as though nothing unusual had occurred at all. She remained rooted awkwardly to the spot, brows drawn in uncertainty. She glanced at him over her shoulder to find that he was behaving normally, he had gotten himself a food bowl and was now sitting down with it. 

In all the years she had known him, he had never done something so odd. She visibly shook herself to recover, releasing her face from what she could only assume was a very dumb expression. Noticing her hand was clenched around her stick as tightly as if it had been the offending party, she carefully placed it down beside her bowl before situating herself on the stool. Korbak must have spent too much time under the suns.

Her bowl was a little fuller than usual today, and its contents didn't seem as thick sliding down her throat. She jammed a bit more into her mouth, her features cinching together when she noticed an odd smell. She dropped her stick into the bowl and lifted the whole thing to her nose for a closer inspection. 

Her expression went blank, her jaw slack as realization hit her like a bucket of mallets. She leaped up with such force that her bowl went sailing, but she didn't stay to learn where it landed, instead racing into the hallway to hunch over the garbage trough. 

Jamming her fingers down the back of her throat was painful, but the burning sensation building in her esophagus hurt more. She convulsed as her body expelled the minute contents of its stomach, dry retching after only a few moments. She gasped, hurrying to regain her breath. Her esophagus felt raw, like layers of tissue had been scraped from the inside, but the burning had somewhat alleviated. 

She looked up to find that she had an audience now, looking on in confused interest as she pulled herself back from the brink of death.

“You!” The rasp that remained in her voice was intensified by her angry growl upon identifying her would-be murderer. 

She shot to her feet and was upon him in seconds, shoving him so hard that his back slammed against the wall.

“You.” Her tone was still crackly, but it carried indignant annoyance now.

“You poured bleach in my food.”

“I did no such thing.” He straightened his posture from where he still leaned against the wall, staring back at her with an expression of feigned innocence and no signs of shame across his sharp features. She had actually never seen him look calmer or more certain.

“And if I had, it would be a compliment to your combat abilities.”

She breathed a sarcastic, choppy laugh in response, her still-raw throat protesting the display. She tamed her anger back into her typical nonchalant attitude before moving closer to him, stopping only inches from his face.

“You're a coward.” Her tone was quiet enough that her words could only reach his ears.

It didn't carry the sharpness of insult; she was only giving a voice to her realization. She had thought many negative things about Korbak through the years, but a coward wasn't one of them. It all made sense now, the flamboyant displays of anger, the unnecessary snarls. He was overcompensating. 

Avaria pursed her lips to manage the pain that still rippled up and down her neck.

“To be quite honest, I'm ashamed of you.” A smirk lightened her features now; her tone was almost teasing.

She remained vexed at him, with good reason, but her tediously perfected ability to harness her emotions and respond as though unaffected made her feel secure and centered. Evidently, it made her appear that way too. Korbak tensed his shoulders in response to her words, seeming to feel the need to ready himself for an attack.

She glared into his eyes a moment, smirk still plastered into place, then shifted away. It didn't seem that he was going to respond, so she gave him a dismissive once over with her eyes and walked away, her confident stride prompting those gathered to part in front of her.

She wasn't afraid of Korbak, but it was terrifying how quickly he was willing to turn on a fellow Chorlak. Unfortunately, she doubted he was the only one. The single winner mentality of this trial, so starkly contrasting the hive mentality with which a Chorlak was ingrained, seemed like enough to make many more of the Marred willing to do whatever they deemed necessary to become the most formidable competitor. 

Her reservations about the upcoming battle were mounting. She couldn't believe that the Oversight had intended to encourage any Chorlak, even the Marred, to murder one another. Despite her suspicions, her hatred for these walls that had entrapped her for so long filled her with a firm resolution to win.

*

She stood in front of the Marred facility's sign, the only thing in the compound that hadn't begun to show its age. It was a tombstone in a way, marking the exact spot she stood when the clever, high-spirited little girl she'd been began to mutilate her care-free nature, only sparing enough of herself to maintain a front that seemed beneficial. It was a very practical, Chorlak thing to do.

What she was about to be a part of violated everything that little girl had been taught. Contrary to the detached mindset that was encouraged, her parents believed in loving one another. They taught her that Chorlak should respect one another out of the conviction that each life they saw was valuable and not just that each person was a cog necessary to keep their race successful. 

In a way, her parents had acquired this belief from one another when they fell in love outside of the algorithm's mate assignments. They described it to her as bursting free from a black and white bubble and suddenly seeing the world in color. The Oversight was wrong, they'd said, living in such a vivid, emotionally thriving world wasn't a weakness; it was the only way to truly live. 

Maybe it was the only way to live, but at that moment, Avaria wanted to survive more than she wanted to live. Her parents were executed for their beliefs, and although she was allowed to live, her entire life was dedicated to paying for their mistake.

Avaria ran her fingers over the sign's raised inscription almost reverently in their memory, even as she mentally distanced herself from them. She couldn't bear the thought of growing old in this pit, so she had to steel herself against the still lingering morals from the innocent child that once stood here.

As she walked away, she vowed to herself that she would never set eyes upon that horrid sign again.

*

Everything seemed just slightly off-kilter the next morning. Avaria was glad to see that the food portions were more substantial than they'd been in a long time, but she felt like the food hall was less densely populated than usual. Tarr, Gasmi, and Korbak were all present, but many other faces she knew seemed to be absent.

Still carrying leftover distrust from last night's incident, she woofed down her food and quickly made her exit. She took her usual route to the courtyard, barely glancing at any of the hallways she passed until something odd at the corner of her eye halted her purposeful stride. Brows drawn in confusion, she backed up a few paces to re-evaluate whatever she'd just seen.

Her jaw went slack as her eyes widened. She couldn't believe what she was seeing and stared dumbfounded for quite some time as if it was a mirage that could be driven away with enough scrutiny. Carts lined the hallway, a body-sized lump distorting the sheet atop each one. She approached the closest carcass, moved by the illogical instinct to confirm what she already knew to be true.

Under the sheet, a pair of still-open eyes forever frozen into a blank stare cut into her soul. The face of the woman lying there was unnervingly void. Avaria couldn't help but stumble back a few steps in shock as if she hadn't expected it.

She'd known this woman, just as she knew everyone in the small community, and now she lay dead among twenty-five others like her. 

“Those two Enforcers rounded them up this morning.” Tarr's unannounced appearance enhanced her already startled state, but she didn't visibly react.

“What happened?” Her voice was just above a whisper, once again investigating to find an answer she already knew. 

“Unexpected medical emergencies.” His tone was snappy with sarcasm. “That's what the Enforcers ruled them.”

On cue, an Enforcer rolled another cart into the hallway, positioning it in line with the others. He didn't even glance at its lifeless contents before he marched off the way he came.

Tarr came to stand at her left, joining her in gazing at the mounting collection of the deceased. From her peripheral, she saw his poorly smothered fear in the tightening of his jaw and the paleness of his skin. She didn't exactly think less of him for being unable to hide his horror as well as he should, but he needed to get it under control. This was no time for weakness. It occurred to her that, perhaps, she was the tiniest bit worried about him. That wasn't very Chorlak of her.

“They're going to bury them all at once, after the Battle,” he stated, his voice admirably even. 

The word 'all' hung in the air, the heavy implication that there would be more clear. Avaria ran her hand over the eyes of the body in front of her, some unexpected sense of kinsmanship moving her to close the dead woman's lids. Charla was her name. Avaria hadn't talked to her much, but they had trained together. 

Some of her own fighting style had come from mimicking the older woman. Avaria's gaze was drawn to the 'unexpected medical emergency' that had led to Charla's demise, a gash that grossly disfigured the side of her head.

If there was any doubt in her mind before, it was solidified now. Something very ominous was at work here.

 
 

MESSAGE FROM THE AUTHOR <3

 

Wishin’ you a mighty happy weekend and a sizable dose of hot chocolate! (not the lame stuff made with water though :-P)

 

It’s starting to get a lil’ spicy in Avaria land, don’t ya’ think? ;)

 

What do you think Avaria will do when battle day arrives?


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Submitted: March 27, 2021

© Copyright 2021 M.G.Hopkins. All rights reserved.

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