He was awoken by a pounding on the door to his room.
“Wake up! You have one hour to be ready for breakfast. Do not be late!” the voice growled from the other side of the door. With a sigh, a yawn, and a deep stretch, he was awake. Michael thankfully had never been the type to need much sleep, and once he was up, he was up. It was rare for him to go back to sleep after being woken up.
“You could have been a bit gentler about it. Jarring me from my sleep isn’t helping anyone,” he grumbled at the nonexistent voice. Dragging himself to the bathroom to use it, he did, and then decided to take what was probably going to be his last shower. As he reveled in the warm embrace of the water, he thought about what squawky said yesterday. He took a deep breath in, smacked his cheeks, and washed up. His stomach gently reminded him by growling that it was time to eat.
As always, there was the metal tray near the door shining back at him. He lifted up the lid to the tray and there was nothing. Nothing but a small capsule and a note that said eat me were what was laid out before him. He was not about to do this, but what choice did he have? So far the food had been seemingly safe, so he felt like this one would be too. As soon as the capsule passed his lips and hit his tongue, it was as if flavor exploded all over his tongue. He thought that he was eating a delicious meal meant for four. He immediately felt full and his stomach stopped growling.
“Technology is great isn’t it?” a voice said from behind him.
Michael jumped at the shock and spun around sure that he had just lost about ten years off of his life. There was a man now standing in the doorway. He looked familiar but Michael could not put his finger on his name.
“With that simple pill, you won’t be hungry for three days. Not only that but you will continue to get all the necessary nutrients that your body needs for those three days,” the strange man said.
Michael was still taking in this man. He could not be much older than Michael himself. "Is he a participant?" he wondered. Michael knew that he was not supposed to come into contact with other people until his team was assigned, so he was a bit wary to interact with this man. The man flashed a smile and Michael thought, “At least he’s nothing like squawky currently.” There was still the problem of who this man was. There had to be some sort of hint and he just needed to figure out what it was.
“I’m sorry. I should introduce myself. I know you’re wondering if I’m a contestant, and I’m not. Sorry. My name is Lark.”
Michael immediately felt like slapping himself across his head. Of course. This man was the winner of the last tournament and that’s why he stood out so much in his mind. -This guy only has the upper hand if you show him how star struck you are. Just stay cool and play it cool.-
“Oh cool,” Michael said. “You’re the guy who won about sixteen months ago yea?” -Totally nailed it.-
“That I am,” Lark said flashing another smile. “You are now allowed to ask me one question about your journey that starts today. It can be about anything, but you only get one shot. So if you have a burning question, now is the time.”
Michael knew exactly what he wanted to ask as Lark finished his sentence. “What was the most difficult part of your journey? I do not want a fairy tale. I want the real, honest truth.” As soon as he asked it, he realized that he had struck a nerve.
Almost immediately it as if dark clouds started forming in Lark’s eyes. They were followed by what looked like a deep, deep pain. “Do you want the whole story or just the condensed version?” Lark asked. -Well since it seems that I’ve asked the unthinkable…,-
“Let’s just stick with the condensed version because I’m sure you must be terribly busy,” Michael said trying to save some face.
Lark took a deep breath in and then sighed. “Well the hardest part of my journey was that yes, while my team and I did win as we were the fastest, we lost a teammate in the race to the Temple of Altheggan. It may seem to you, a newcomer, odd that you should treasure your teammates, people you barely know, right off the bat. However, you will spend so much time with them that forming a bond with them will be something that you don’t even notice. When one teammate puts their actions over the team, it causes problems and can disrupt the harmony of the group. Unfortunately we lost a teammate due to such a situation. The pain is great when you lose someone so close to you.” Lark pulled out what looked to be like a small locket. He put it in his hands and squeezed the sides of it. Suddenly a hologram sprung to life showing a beautiful woman with deep green eyes as well as a very serene disposition. She was playing a lute and dancing around ever so gingerly. Michael noticed that Lark had a very tender expression on his face and it was easy to put two and two together to realize that this was the lost teammate. It was a brief glimpse into someone else’s life. As Michael tried to look more into Lark’s face, Lark’s expression once again turned warm and he smiled.
“The funny thing about spheres is that once you have it, they start to become a part of you. In exchange for their power, you start to lose a bit of yourself piece by piece as you are overtaken with characteristics of the element imbued within. It will always start out as minor changes: eye color, hair color/texture, clothing on your body, and even fingernails. Then other things start to change too, but I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own.”
Now that the darkness was gone from Lark’s face and his jolly disposition seemed to return. However, in a twist, Lark came very close to Michael and stared deep into his eyes.
-Too close, too close, too close!!!- It was as if Lark was searching for something.
Michael however, was obscenely uncomfortable, and he was ready to back up. As he started to, Michael bumped into the wall because of course that would be behind him. He tried to make a face breaking eye contact with Lark. However, Lark grabbed his arm and pulled him even closer.
Michael was now so close to the face of victory that he was not sure what to do nor how to react. He was so shocked at what was happening that he couldn’t even process it. He started to mumble in protest, but it came out completely incomprehensible as, “ggg…bbbb….w-well…uhh…err…”
“Ok! All clear!” Lark said stepping back with that giant smile plastered back on his face. “Well I have a busy day, and yours is going to be even busier, so I’ll let you finish getting prepared. Good luck on the race. I’ll personally be rooting for you.” Lark flashed his teeth in an even larger smile and was out the door carefully letting it close behind him.
Michael heard the lock click into place and slumped into a nearby chair. He was beyond flabbergasted and bewildered. -What just happened? What was he looking for in my face, and why we he so close to me?- Michael wondered while shivering. Almost borderline in a cold sweat by how much his own private space had been invaded, he needed to clear his mind. He decided to the one thing to calm him down. It was time for a cold shower. Michael climbed in and just let the water run down his body. Leaving no space on his body dry, he took deep breaths and attempted to relax again. It wasn’t necessarily that he was covered in sweat or dirty, but he liked showers because he used them to think. He would just get in the shower and stare at the walls forever thinking. It had gotten him into trouble more than once. He didn’t care though. He just loved being surrounded by water. Clearing his mind eventually, he relegated the whole experience with Lark to Lark being funny and messing with him. He climbed out of the shower and dried off. Glancing at a clock on the wall, he was it was only 6:20 am. That meant he still had plenty of time before breakfast.
Just as the morning before, he decided to do yoga. This time he set up the furniture and he made sure to give himself plenty of space. Michael this time though, was generous with just stretch poses instead of actually full blown poses, so he would not break a sweat. He did a full 25 minutes of stretching and give himself a 10 minute cool down. As he finished, Michael realized that he embodied everything for his planet and he was also only one person. Putting his best foot forward, he was going to win this race with his team and bring regeneration to his world. He wasn’t here to make friends. He was here to win. He shot upright and realized that he hadn’t thought at all about his teammates! Michael realized that he wanted to know what they were like!
“Welp regardless, I hope we get along. No strike that. I hope we win. NEXT, I hope that we get along,” he said. At 7:00 am sharp, there was a knock at his door and someone entered the room.
He turned to see what looked like a small maid. She curtsied slightly and then in a calm voice said, “Are you ready and do you have all of your belongings in order?”
“Yes ma’am I do,” Michael responded politely. In this instance, he did not mind at all having to speak politely to someone as she had spoken politely to him.
“What was that adage? Uhh… Do unto others what you would have them do unto you?” That was how he lived his life. Be nice to him, and he would be just as nice back, but if he could, he would return foulness with foulness. Which, in retrospect, does not actually adhere to the adage, but oh well. Close enough.
The maid spoke again in the small voice, “My name is Kensia and I will be escorting you to breakfast. Nice to meet you. Please do not do anything irrational or out of order. I am under strict orders to keep you under control, and that includes submission or sedation if need be.”
Partially shell-shocked at what he had just heard, Michael nodded his head in acknowledgement and he picked up his few belongings including his backpack. He double checked the room one last time and stepped out into the hallway.