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The clanging of weights coupled with laborious grunts and exhales greeted Phalax a breath before the receptionist could. He responded to her tired welcoming line with an indifferent nod, as his eyes scanned the facility. Arlukent, Chaetor, Daria, and Micale filed in through the swinging glass door immediately behind him, each with a different mind about their being in this place. Phalax cared little for what they wanted to gain from their trip here; he only wanted an escape from his reality. Even with these people surrounding him constantly for the months he’d spent on this planet called Earth, he constantly felt desperately alone.

“Card?” asked the receptionist in a tone bordering on irritation. Phalax snapped from his reverie and looked to her to find an eyebrow arched high reminding him of the tip of the Arrows back home.

He made to snap back at her but Arlukent beat him to it, skipping forward and singing, “Here, my dear.” Chaetor had obviously infected the old wizard with another mood today. That old man could be anyone’s best friend. “And how are you this fine day?” he asked.

“Not a chance,” Chaetor whispered far too loud to actually achieve the point of doing so.

Daria rolled her eyes up to look at the ceiling as if asking the gods why she must be subject to such jackasses. No one is there to hear you, Phalax thought to himself. They never were and never will be.

The receptionist snatched the card from Arlukent’s hand, her bubblegum popping in her mouth as she did so, slid it across a solid red light beaming from the face of a scanner, then let her wrist flop over in his direction so he could pluck it from her. He took the laminated piece of plastic and slid it into the pocket of his sweats, his unkempt beard doing nothing to hide his smile. It was clear as day that he only had attempted to flirt with her so he could rile up Chaetor. Anything could get him going. Tits on a goose could fascinate him until the day he died of old age.

Micale, ever the silent one in the group conversations, tapped Daria on the shoulder and asked, “Ladders for agility, a few miles on the treadmill, and some circuit training today?”

“You know it,” she responded as they headed off to get started with their workout. Those two truly sought to achieve something physical here. Phalax was only here to exercise his mind in a way that kept him too busy to ponder other things.

Chaetor, visibly offended that the two had gone off without extending an invitation his way grumbled, “I’ve been barking up that tree for months and where does it get me? Absolutely nowhere. Gods! This guy and his strong and silent horse shit … Maybe I should try that?”

“Don’t make me hit you again, Chaetor,” Micale taunted lightheartedly as he strolled away with Daria at his side.

“Oh, let me do it this time,” she chimed in.

“To the hells with you two,” Chaetor mumbled as he swiped at the air weakly.

Arlukent slapped Phalax and Chaetor on the back and said, “Well, I’m off to the hot tub and sauna. Enjoy your workout, kids.”

“A pile of dust is a kid to you, old man,” Chaetor teased.

Arlukent shrugged, a smile on his face and sauntered away.

“That old bag of bones never does a damn thing when he comes here. Just sits in that tub and turns the water foul.”

“Oh, and you do anything more?” Phalax asked. “You come here and do nothing more than show off at hand ball and try to catch the eye of a woman.”

“Hey! That hurts … I don’t try. I do catch their eyes. Plenty of them too. Hey, before you go all angry-weight-lifting-guy-who-hates-everything, how about we play a few rounds on the court?”

Phalax lifted a hand to reject the offer and took a single step forward. Chaetor stalled him though, reaching out and catching his shoulder with a hand while begging, “Come on! I promise to let you serve. And I’ll go easy, since you desperately need me to.”

A competitive nature swelled in Phalax and it wasn’t something that he had to conjure by force of will. He had always been one given to competition. It fueled him, kept things interesting, and he won many of those he engaged in, so that was a bonus reason to find joy in it. For a moment, as he looked at Chaetor, wondering whether he should call forth a sliver of steel and mold it into a sharp blade with which to lop the groping hand off from the idiot who owned it, he was reminded of Ven.

They’d often times taken their jobs as sentries as a game, despite understanding the importance and gravity such a title held. They’d competed over most things. From who could arrest the most offenders of the law in one day to who could spit the most heinous of tales and coerce a recruit into believing it. He recalled, with a bittersweet smile, a time when one recruit followed around a group of children for hours under the pretense that each one were merely a dwarf shaven of face but malicious of intent as they sought real children to abduct and sell to a slaver. The new sentry had in fact arrested two of them before all the others, scared out of their minds, turned and bolted for home. He then took them into a watch station, advising the “kids” to drop their act, quit their sobbing and squeaking, and face the justice of the law like men.

Phalax and Ven had both been there to stop the incident before it went any further. They would have answered for their games gone awry by going to their own captains and confessing had the kids not turned cheery so soon after being allowed to arrest the recruit then playfully, but with no small amount of effort, smack his thighs with a truncheon. Also, the recruit had spent all that time on a false case while he was supposed to be off duty, so Phalax hadn’t really taken anything away from Cavia’s defending force. In fact, he had ended up with a week’s worth of Ven’s pay for the antics and a grand laugh shared between the too, albeit in private over a few tankards of ale.

“Fine,” Phalax relented as he snapped back to the here and now.

“Hah! Let’s get to it then!” Chaetor punctuated his glee with a cartwheel and a skip toward the square rooms with one thick, clear plastic wall located near the back of the gym.

In a minute, they were on the court. Chaetor reached into his sweats and pulled out a red ball the size of a child’s fist then tossed it to Phalax. Then, the young, cocky, idiot slid his pants off and stood in obscenely short and tight shorts that showed off far too much. He began to stretch, smiling at Phalax’s quizzical stare. “Why hide these ladykillers?” he asked as he smacked his thigh.

Phalax shook his head vehemently, then bounced the ball once and slapped the hell out of it. The sphere took off from his palm, slammed into the wall, then ricocheted back with a low bounce. Hell, he might score his first point that easily. He smiled in victory as Chaetor burst forward and thrust his hand out, coming to a jarring halt as the ball slid right beneath his fingertips.

Giggling female voices flew through the small cracks around the plastic door and Chaetor spun around to see his worst fears realized. Several women in tight-fitting clothes sat on the other side snickering. They’d obviously been drawn to him when he removed his pants and had immediately seen him made to look a fool. Certainly not his aim with his ridiculous attire.

Chaetor glared at the now chuckling Phalax, who at the moment thought of nothing more than this game and the feeling of delight swelling in his chest. It had been some time since he’d felt this way. “The gloves are off, friend,” Chaetor vowed, the only serious thing he had said in weeks.

“I didn’t know they were ever on.” Phalax bounced the ball again and repeated his serve, but his adversary was ready this time and retaliated.

Ten minutes passed and an interested congregation had swelled to six people outside the court. Sweat dripped from Phalax, although his anger seeped from him with far more intensity. Presently, Chaetor was winning by twelve points, and the young buffoon had accumulated thirteen. A roar of shear power threatened to rip from Phalax’s throat and blast the walls down around him.

Chaetor noticed as much and offered, “Perhaps we should stop now? There are a few other gents waiting and, now that I’m warm, I’m thinking of taking them all on at once.”

“Serve the damn ball!” Phalax growled.

“Straight. Your funeral though.”

This time, as the ball came streaking to Phalax’s right, he willed a stalk of steel to take on the shape of a paddle and struck the ball. It flew true and, since the metal he commanded from the disk in his chest was weightless, with great speed. Chaetor was too stricken by the fact that Phalax had just revealed his power to the public to attempt a retaliatory swipe of his hand. That brought Phalax to two points; thirteen more to go.

“Shut up,” Phalax commanded before Chaetor could utter his nonsense, “and play!”

Chaetor shrugged and Phalax felt a cold fill his stomach as he knew he was defying the rules of being here. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was this game, and he would win.

Another ten minutes left Chaetor pouring with sweat and heaving breath as though he might expel a lung onto the polished hardwood. They were currently tied with one more point to go. Damn near every patron in the gym stood outside the court now, gawking at Phalax who had gone far enough to cover himself, head to toe, in gleaming armor. He couldn’t help but imagine demons during the match, their snarling countenance and rabidly gnashing jaws clear as day in his mind, and such thoughts conjured the will to encase himself in protection regardless of his present location. Daria and Micale had strode by once, shook their head in disapproval, then continued with their workout, the majority of the facility theirs alone.

The final serve commenced and the two volleyed for a painstakingly long and stressful bout. Phalax smashed the ball into the middle of the wall and the spin on it caused from the steel paddle he commanded sent the ball careening into the air in a long and hard arc. Chaetor was quick to react, springing at a side wall then vaulting off it to catch the ball before it could hit the back wall. His strike sent the ball into a low bounce at Phalax’s feet but left him far back on the court. Phalax dipped low and his paddle barely reached the ball, although lightly. He regained enough control in that moment to make the winning strike.

The ball tapped the wall then bounced a few feet from it once, then twice. Phalax raised his hand in triumph and shouted in joy. Chaetor swore loudly and kicked the ground with his heel.

“Good game,” Phalax cheered. Then, more serious of tone, he said, “Thank you,” and extended his arm. “I needed that.”

Chaetor looked at Phalax with eyes like that of a child who’d lost a bet to a friend and, for the moment, harbored an intense dislike of him. The disdain melted away quickly and the two grasped hands firmly. “Good thing the gods gave you that shiny disk there,” he said as he tapped on it. “Bad thing your dumbass decided to use it here. You’ll be all over those things these people always have their faces stuck to.”

“I’ll go grab Arlukent. Maybe he can do something about that.”

“You do that. I’m going to whoop some of these kids before he turns back time or whatever trick that old bat wants to pull.”

With that, Phalax turned and exited the court to push through the rabble of dumbfounded people. Chaetor began taunting those in the audience while simultaneously trying to melt the women in the crowd into mewling kittens eager for his affection.

Phalax pushed a door open and found Arlukent along with a few other elderly men wading in the large pool. Only, the entire pool itself burst with steam. “Arlukent, what did you do to the water?”

The wizard ceased floating on his back, opened his eyes and flowed to a standing position with the water covering him up to his shoulders. Saggy skin and twirling hair took on a distorted look below the water and Phalax was briefly drawn to the man’s wrinkled body. He must be at least a hundred and fifty years of age.

“The whole thing is one big hot tub now. It’s wonderful, swimming through such warm water covering ones entire body. Does wonders for these achy joints. Who won the handball match?”

“That’s actually what I’m here to talk about.” Phalax held his arms out wide to show off his armored body.

“Yeah, I figured as much. It’s already been taken care of. See?”

Phalax followed the pointed finger of the elderly man to find that another in the pool slowly spun in a lazy circle in the water as if in a daze, his focus on anything obviously nonexistent.

“I cast an enchantment over this whole place, excluding you four,” Arlukent offered before Phalax could even ask. “The others are all going about their business, but more zombie-like than normal. All lethargic and unfocused, they won’t remember a thing, nor did they bother to pull their phones out and record the match. While we have the time, you should take a dip in here. It really does feel quite therapeutic.”

Before Phalax could utter a reply, Chaetor stormed in and called, “Arlukent! What in all of the hells is the matter with these people? They don’t say a word. They don’t respond to anything. I even smacked one and nothing!”

“Where’d you smack her?” Arlukent teased.

Chaetor immediately smiled broadly and winked.

“I felt Phalax call on his powers as he did it and handled it. Now, go get the others, I feel like showing you kids how an ‘old bat’ kicks your collective rear ends at racing across a pool.”

“No spells though, right? This is going to be an honest competition, unlike it was between Phalax and I?” Chaetor said with a scowl he didn’t truly feel.

“Of course I’m going to use spells. Do we ever compete fairly?”

Chaetor shook his head, smiling, before he turned to call Daria and Micale over for the race. Phalax pulled off his shirt and, feeling for the first time in months as if nothing was wrong, cannon-balled into the pool.