“Hand me the case, Al,” a man commanded.
Al nodded, transferring possession of the briefcase over to his master. The man, in his early fifties, strolled past a long line of well-dressed servants, who flanked him on both sides. When he walked past, they bowed their head in respect, courteous expressions on their faces. Al remained behind, watching him walk through an open ornate door. A pair of servants closed the door and stood to the side, guarding it. Al walked over to the waiting room sat down in a booth, answering an incoming call.
“Are they impressed?” a female voice questioned with excitement.
“My lady, the official meeting hasn’t even begun. I am waiting for Master to complete his demonstration. Once he is finished, I will update you with the latest information,” Al assured the orange haired woman.
“You better, Al. Gotta go! Training for the new recruits is starting soon. I can’t be late!” she said, hanging up.
The young lady dedicated many hours to this project. It would be a shame if it wasn’t well-received. He stood up and stretched, hoping for great success.
“I will provide an example of its capabilities,” the man announced, setting his briefcase down on the table.
The audience watched in silence. They were a group of influential people in the Mirror, responsible for planning the Masquerade and the actual operation of the event itself. Al’s master revealed three masks. Two were plain in design, resembling ones worn in dramatic operas. The third was a kitsune mask, decorated with sparkling glitter and sharp red scratch-like marks underneath the eye holes.
“My daughter made great strides in developing this most recent batch. Allow me to demonstrate,” the man explained.
“Mr. S, I have prepared everything,” one of the audience members spoke, clapping his hands.
The stage curtains rose, revealing a man wearing Shakespearean clothing. He wielded a rapier, awaiting his opponent. Mr. S went backstage, returning in three minutes. A woman, donning the kitsune mask, appeared on stage shortly after.
“This will be a standard exhibition battle within a bounded area. Participants will work within this space and are not allowed to exit until a winner is decided. You may begin,” Mr. S explained the rules before raising his hand in the air.
The man began with a flurry of rapid stabs at the masked woman. She avoided his attacks with ease and stomped her left foot. Sharp rocks shot up from the ground. He swiped his pointer finger across his blade, cancelling her magical projectiles. The masked woman stared at his hand, a slight smile on her face. She took small steps toward him, knowing he couldn’t retaliate. The man stared at her in confusion, unable to strike.
She stole his rapier and then poked him in the forehead. He fell downward, regaining movement again. The masked woman thrust the rapier at the man, landing thirty consecutive blows. Each blow alternated between the fire and wind elemental. The man’s left and right arm became enveloped in flames. Bursts of wind struck his chest and stomach, creating dark bruises everywhere on the upper body. She tossed away his weapon and pointed at the ground. A portal whisked away the man and he reappeared in the air.
Tears started running down the man’s face. He agreed to this because of the money offered. It wouldn’t matter though if he ended up spending all of it on medical costs. He plummeted, striking the ground hard. The man coughed out blood, blacking out. Mr. S declared the match over, announcing the masked woman as the winner.
“I’m not quite impressed yet,” one of the audience members said.
“I must see more before making a decision. It has promise though,” another commented.
“Yes, it will make for great entertainment in the Masquerade,” someone else agreed.
“Mr. S, that was a good showing. Let’s see more. Onto the next one,” a person in the front row demanded.
“As you wish,” Mr. S agreed.
The curtains closed. After one minute, they slid open, revealing a new challenger. This time it was a woman, wearing a regal dress, who carried a staff. Mr. S motioned for the match to begin.
“Oh, you managed to get someone from the previous Masquerade. How did you manage to convince Ms. Stella?” an elderly woman in the front row questioned.
“She’s one of my many clients. It was easy to invite her,” a middle-aged man, wearing a white suit, replied with a slight grin.
Ms. Stella raised her staff in the air and the entire area plunged into darkness. Those in the audience heard sounds of two weapons striking against each other. When the darkness subsided, Ms. Stella held her glowing staff against her foe’s neck. The fox-masked woman stared at her opponent’s weapon and its glow vanished. Ms. Stella dropped her staff, clutching her right hand in pain. The masked woman took possession of the staff, feeling a sudden shock. She dropped the weapon, seeing burn marks on her hands.
“Mr. S, we never got to hear what her name was,” a young man in the middle row remarked.
“Renee, beta tester No. 5, one of our promising,” Mr. S answered.
Ms. Stella tapped her right foot and her staff flew back into her hands. She raised her staff again and ice shards flew at Renee. The masked woman unleashed a stream of flames from her hands, countering the attack. Ms. Stella swung her staff and a magical circle appeared underneath Renee. The masked woman knelt, placing her hand down on the ground. Initially, the magical circle dimmed in brightness, losing its form. However, it soon stabilized, and Ms. Stella chanted an incantation. Three dozen wispy hands burst from the magical circle and latched onto Renee’s legs. The masked woman fired off bolts of magical energy but failed at extricating herself. Soon, she vanished, dragged into the unknown abyss.
The magical circle dissipated, tiny orbs of light rising into the air. Ms. Stella’s brow furrowed, forming a protective barrier. The orbs of light, originally light in hue, turned a scarlet red. They clumped together, merging into the shape of a spear. It shot towards Ms. Stella, piercing through the woman’s barrier.
The Masquerade participant blocked the spear with her staff, pushing against it. As she struggled, a dark tinted magical circle formed underneath Ms. Stella. The same hands which dragged Renee downward now lifted her upward. Renee shoved Ms. Stella forward as her staff shattered. The spear struck Ms. Stella in the chest and a dark mist enveloped her. She screamed out in pain, falling unconscious onto the stage.
“The winner, Renee!” Mr. S shouted.
The curtains closed for the second time and Mr. S spoke with a few people in the front row. He nodded and accepted a piece of paper from a woman with a fur scarf.
“We have a special request from the audience. They wish to nominate a special guest of honor to test Renee. I accept this challenge,” Mr. S revealed, bowing to the woman.
Jessica Staccato sat in the middle row, intrigued by the sudden development. It was true the second challenger was a Masquerade participant, but she didn’t make it past the initial elimination round. To her, Renee’s first two opponents gave her no indication of what the woman was truly capable of. However, this special guest of honor might change her opinion.
A man, wearing an eyepatch emblazoned with a stylized P and the number 3, appeared on the stage. He wore a dark military coat with a silver metal hanging from the right breast pocket. Jessica sat up straight with a smile.
“Our third contestant is a not a Mirror native but has trained with countless Masquerade participants including those that have made it to the final rounds. He’s known as Professor Tri. Let the match begin!” Mr. S proclaimed.
Jessica took out her phone, reading the information she requested on Mr. S. He was a businessman, doing business in both the Mirror and other places. She scrolled further down, expecting a full name, but found most of the data redacted. How very strange. Her clearance was high, allowing her access to sensitive information that even local authorities couldn’t access. This man had clout, able to prevent anyone from digging further.
Professor Tri took one step forward and appeared in front of Renee right away, despite being five feet away from her initially. The masked woman leaped into a portal, avoiding his flurry of punches. She appeared behind him but was suddenly struck by those same punches she avoided seconds ago. The woman teleported away again, this time into the air. Mr. Tri appeared above her, sending Renee face first into the ground. She clutched her fractured jaw as blood leaked out of her nose. Mr. Tri wasted no time in attacking, hurling the woman into a nearby stage scaffolding. The back of her head struck the metal and a big welt formed. She stood up dazed, blocking the man’s kicks.
“Well done, young lady. However, you lack form. Those powers you have won’t carry you too far if you don’t hone them,” Professor Tri admonished, landing a kick on her arm.
The man leaped over her, kicking the scaffolding. It fell over, crushing Renee. She finally managed to throw it off and swung the scaffolding around. Her wild attack struck Professor Tri in the stomach. At least, that’s what she saw. The man already avoided her attack and stole the scaffolding. He kicked the woman’s legs, knocking her prone. He lifted the scaffolding above his head and threw it downward at Renee. The scaffolding decimated her back, leaving her unable to move.
Renee’s fingers twitched and the piece of metal flew off her back. She attempted to stand but lacked the stamina. Multiple portals surrounded Professor Tri and sharp projectiles shot out. Daggers, swords, ice pellets, sharp rocks, and compressed magic all struck the man. Jessica saw through it right away, aware Professor Tri already escaped. The man reached for the woman’s mask, but Mr. S warped to her position, stymieing him.
“I like to protect my client’s identity. You’ve already won,” Mr. S said.
“As you wish. Let’s see how far these masks will get you,” Professor Tri relented, stepping back.
Renee was inexperienced, unable to see through his mirages and tricks. Jessica, an experienced fighter, even had trouble locating his true location at times. This man was dangerous because he was holding back. She could tell from his strikes that he wasn’t putting full power behind them. The woman wondered if he was connected to the strange occurrences happening near the Mirror border.
“I apologize for creating such an unfavorable situation for you, Mr. S. Professor Tri has beaten many upper tier Masquerade participants before. Thank you for humoring me,” the woman said.
“It’s no problem at all. I’m always thankful for a chance to see strong people such as him,” Mr. S responded.
“Mr. S, that’s enough for now. We’ll discuss it among ourselves and contact you once a decision is made,” a man wearing a monocle said.
Mr. S nodded and called over audience members to test the plain masks in his briefcase. He asked them to wear it and then whispered commands into their ears. Almost every tester followed their orders without disobedience, except for higher ranking members. Mr. S assured them the final versions would work on anyone, no matter their willpower or magical resistance. He glanced upwards, finally noticing Jessica Staccato. She gave him a pleasant smile and departed.
He required her assistance in the future. For now, he depended on his daughter to complete the initial phases of the plan. However, he wasn’t naïve to believe she wouldn’t fail. There was always a backup in place. Mr. S hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
The orange-haired woman stared at her three candidates. She held up masks, deciding which ones fit them. Usually, there were five people, but one of them was on loan to her father for his demonstration. Another was busy, learning how to harness her true potential.
“Remember, you’re all capable of beating anyone. This potential lies within all of you and these masks are a conduit for channeling that. You’ve all been vetted and selected based on your skills and performance. Keep that in mind when facing enemies,” she said.
All three nodded. She finally handed everyone their masks and led them out into the training field. The woman instructed them on their postures, pointing out their mistakes and re-positioned their body parts. She sparred with everyone, pushing them to their limit. By the end, they were exhausted, their masks containing cracks and dins. The woman dismissed them for the day, taking the masks back home for analysis.
Arriving at home, she stared at the one mask not worn yet. She was especially proud of the butterfly adorned on the eye hole. Yes, this mask was intended for one very special individual. And soon, they would make their debut along with the other four people. The woman couldn’t wait to see them finally crush Tess and her uninspired group of “heroes”.