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"STAY DOWN CALLASANDRA! STAY DOWN! NO, NO, NO…DON’T GET UP! STAY DOWN, JUST STAY DOWN!” Cassi heard Joren’s voice yelling at her. Turning her head, she tried to identify where his voice was coming from.  

Disoriented, Cassi looked through the metal rings of caged fencing at a crowd repeatedly chanting, “TORPEDO! TORPEDO! TORPEDO!”. Closing her eyes, Cassi attempted to put the pieces together of how she had come to be lying on the floor of a mixed martial arts-style fighting ring. Slowly she recalled five or six strangers encircling her excitedly and verbally confirming with each other that she had black hair and green eyes.

“Are you wearing contacts or anything like that?” a young woman asked her.

“No, I’m not wearing contacts,” Cassi responded. The young woman and her friends smiled widely, nodding excitedly at each other.

“Let’s bring her to Larry,” the young woman said, and without warning, two men picked up Cassi, placing her on their shoulders, and then carried her through a crowd toward the arena. Feeling helpless and unable to free herself from their grip, she looked around to see if Joren was following them. To her relief, she saw him running worriedly after them.

“Hey Larry, we found today’s Treasure — a young woman with black hair and green eyes! Did we win? Has anyone else found one?”

“Nope, you guys won. Bring her to the green room, and we’ll get her ready. Here are your tickets. Good luck!” Larry said, handing them a stack of printed papers.

The men carried her to a building at the side of the fighting ring. A large sign entitled ‘Green Room” loomed large over a doorway where two men guarded the entrance. The young woman showed her tickets to the guards, and Cassi was abruptly pulled off the shoulders of the young men and pushed toward the guards.

“What’s happening? I think there’s been a mistake. I’m not supposed to be here.” Cassi said nervously, looking around for Joren. Relieved, she saw Joren had just caught up to her.

The two guards looked at Joren and said, “Sorry, kid. You are not today’s Treasure. You’ll have to buy a ticket like everyone else.”

“Wait, he’s with me,” Cassi said with urgency, not wanting to find out what was waiting for her in the ‘green room.’

The guards chuckled, opened the door, and allowed Cassi to enter, shutting the door behind them before Joren could walk through.

Cassi was then brought to a room painted green, where several colorful outfits hung decoratively on hooks protruding from the wall.

“You can wear one of those outfits in your Combat Tourney or wear what you have on. Whatever you want,” the guard told her before leaving the room, locking the door behind him.

The outfits were glorified one-piece swimsuits, which looked a lot like comic book character costumes. Opting to remain in the clothes she was wearing, Cassi waited nervously for her personal Combat Tourney to begin — she didn’t have to wait long.

Cassi could hear Haley singing through the speakers surrounding the crowd as she was escorted to the ring. Haley has no idea I’m about to be in the Combat Tourney she’s singing for, Cassi thought to herself incredulously.

A very muscular woman opened the cage door and nodded to Cassi to enter the ring. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Cassi shook her head no, hoping she could avoid being today’s “treasure.” But to no avail—the woman took hold of her wrist and pulled her to the center of the ring.

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Callasandra,” Cassi replied, choosing to keep her true identity a secret.

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN…ALL THE REST OF YOU,” the woman announced, looking over at a group of bearded men who jeered back at her jovially, raising their mugs toward her and then swigging back what Cassi presumed to be some kind of alcohol.

“Save some for me, won’t you?” the woman said jokingly. The crowd roared with laughter.

“MY NAME IS BETTINA, AND THIS IS THE TWENTY-FIFTH COMBAT TOURNEY IN THIS FANTASTIC TOWN OF SHERANGA!”

Cheers rose through the crowd, “SHERANGA. SHERANGA. SHERANGA!”

Bettina waited for the chant to peak and then continued, “THE STAR OF THE SHOW IS HERE,” Bettina raised Cassi’s arm and shook it as if she were already the winner, inspiring the crowd to cheer.

“HER NAME IS CALLASANDRA, AND SHE…IS…YOUR…”

“TREASURE!!” The crowd shouted along with Bettina.

“THIS IS YOUR MOMENT, CALLASANDRA. SHOW THE CROWD WHAT YOU’RE MADE OF!” Bettina finished, motioning with her hand that Cassi should take a walk around the ring, so the crowd could get a look at her.

Feeling Bettina’s hand on her back gently push her forward, Cassi awkwardly walked toward the edge of the ring and continued along the wired fencing looking back at the crowd cheering at her. Turning away from the sea of faces, she saw a chair with a placard above it entitled, TREASURE. Assuming the chair was intended for her, Cassi detoured from the remaining fence line, headed directly for the chair, and took a seat. Suddenly the crowd began booing her for not allowing the remaining front row fans to get a good look at her.

A low, deep rumbling drumbeat began echoing and growing louder through the speakers. Soon, a hush fell over the crowd. Then, with anticipation, everyone looked around excitedly until together they began shouting, “TORPEDO! TORPEDO! TORPEDO!”

Doors opened, and a man dressed as a gladiator bolted into the ring and took center stage, raising his hands to the crowd, leading them like a conductor. The roar of the crowd grew with each wave of his hand. As they cheered, he walked to the edge of the ring and struck a pose appearing as though he was about to charge an enemy. Flexing his muscles as he held the pose, the crowd grew wild. Over the next several minutes, his muscles were well displayed through a variety of Greek-God-esque poses for the crowd to admire.

The man neared where Cassi was seated and then suddenly lunged toward her, thrusting his arm forward, sword-like, and pointed threateningly at her. The crowd once again began chanting, “TORPEDO! TORPEDO! TORPEDO!”

Bettina’s voice rang through the speakers, “LET THE BATTLE BEGIN!”

Without notice, Cassi suddenly fell to the floor as the chair she was seated on was abruptly pulled out from under her. The crowd burst into laughter and jeers.

The man, she presumed went by the name Torpedo, laughed boisterously and then stopped cold, slowly turning to look threateningly at Cassi.

Not knowing what else she could do, her heart racing, Cassi jumped to her feet and brought her arms up protectively as she had been taught in a self-defense class.

Torpedo smiled endearingly at Cassi, amused by her attempt to protect herself. Turning to look at the crowd, he pointed toward Cassi and mouthed adorable

In the blink of an eye, Torpedo rushed at Cassi, wrapping his arm around her waist, flipping her around, and tossing her to the floor. The wind knocked out of her, Cassi lay flat on her back, trying to catch her breath.

Torpedo aerial cartwheeled over Cassi, and the crowd roared. Rolling to her side Cassi attempted to crawl away, but Torpedo swiftly grabbed Cassi by her ankles and flipped her around sharply. Cassi bit her lip with the force of her head slamming to the floor, and she could feel the blood drip down her cheek.

Not missing a beat, Torpedo straddled Cassi and reached down to wipe the blood from Cassi’s face. Proudly showing his bloody hand to the crowd, Torpedo raised his hand high, and the crowd went wild.

Annoyed at the crowd and Torpedo’s amusement, Cassi quickly pulled one knee up, aimed, and kicked Torpedo in between his legs with all the strength she had. He went down instantly. The crowd in the arena gasped and then slowly began shouting, “TREASURE, TREASURE, TREASURE.”

Hoping the fighting match was over, Cassi briskly walked over to the doors behind where Bettina was standing. Before Cassi could open them, Bettina stepped in front of the doors and raised her hand, indicating Cassi should stop, while slowly shaking her head no.

All of a sudden, Cassi felt arms wrap around her from behind. Torpedo picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder. With a thud, she landed on the floor and tried to catch her breath. Ringing in her ears drowned out the sound of the crowd. Torpedo continued to pick Cassi up and creatively throw her to the ground until the gift of unconsciousness fell over her.

Awakened by the pain of being kicked in the ribcage, Cassi heard an involuntary groan come out of her throat. Upon opening her eyes, Cassi found she was pressed into the wire fence around the ring. Joren was standing on the other side of the fencing. She could see his mouth moving but could not hear what he was yelling as the crowd around him shouted and cheered.

Three bells rang out, and Cassi heard Bettina announce, “TORPEDO VS TREASURE. AND YOUR WINNER IS…TORPEDO!”

The crowd began to cheer for Torpedo’s win, and then Cassi felt herself being lifted and placed on a stretcher. As she was carried out of the ring, the humiliation she felt overrode any physical pain. Closing her eyes, Cassi silently fumed at once again, being unable to defend herself.

 

 

2 – Day of Arrival

 

Waiting for her injuries to be assessed, Cassi lay staring at the ceiling. A brace had been secured around her neck, as a precaution, one of the young men carrying her out of the arena had mentioned. Cassi was instructed to lay back and wait for the ‘tourney MedEx’ to examine her and ultimately say whether she was clear to leave.

Bored and emotionally deflated, Cassi allowed her thoughts to wander back to two weeks prior when she and Joren had narrowly escaped Sergeant Leonard by crossing through the portal from Cimerrion into Aramanthia.

“CASSI! I can’t believe you’re here. You’re really here!” Haley said excitedly.

“And, wait⁠—what are you wearing? Are you seriously wearing PINK? And, oh my God – what happened to your face?” Haley shouted, noticing the bruises.

Cassi and Haley’s mom, Olivia, stepped between them and gently cupped Cassi’s face between her hands. Tears began welling up in her eyes.

“My sweet girl. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to protect you. What happened?”

Feeling overwhelmed with emotion, Cassi said, “It’s okay, mom. This is mostly makeup. It’s a long story.”

“Sergeant Leonard is what happened,” Joren said with disdain.

Cassi, Haley, and Olivia turned to Joren, having briefly forgotten he was standing next to them.

“Joren, I’m sorry for being so rude,” Olivia told him. “Let’s get you both back to our hotel. We’ll order dinner, and you can tell us all about Sergeant Leonard and where you’ve been.”

“AND we can tell you about my singing gig at the Combat Tourneys,” Haley added excitedly, linking her arm with Cassi’s and walking with her to their car.

It was surprising how bright and warm it was in Aramanthia compared to the cold, grayness of Cimerrion. It reminded Cassi of their drives to Lake Havasu, Arizona, for Spring Break. The landscape was flat, with palm trees and cactus interspersed across orange-red, dusty flatlands, eventually meeting the base of a mountain range.

Haley opened the door of a black SUV and crawled inside. Before climbing in, Cassi stood at the open door and looked toward the portal. She was surprised to see the Victorian-style house they had rented for the summer. It appeared the same as it looked in Hardwick on Cimerrion; only instead of a tree growing through and holding it in place on a rocky ledge, it stood next to several other homes nearly identical in appearance.

“Cassi, are you ready?” Olivia asked.

“Yes, Mom,” Cassi said, realizing everyone in the car was buckled up and ready to go.

 

As they drove to the hotel, Cassi’s mother turned on the stereo, and comforting piano music began playing through the speakers. The lilting melody reminded Cassi of home, and she began to feel herself relax.

“So, Joren. How do you know my sister?” Haley asked.

“I met Callasandra when she arrived at The Camp at Fort Kent.”

“Wait? So, you were camping this whole time?” Haley asked Cassi.

 

“Not exactly,” Cassi answered.

“The Camp is an assigned part of the Curriculum for sixteen-year-olds,” Joren explained.

“The Curriculum? How fancy!” Haley told him. “Sixteen-year-olds where we come from, go to plain old high school. It sounds so boring compared to the Curriculum.”

“I’ll take boring from now on,” Cassi added.

“When Callasandra entered The Camp, she looked terrified and out of place. My friends said I should help her fit in before the guards decided to, you know…help…her.”

“So, it was Violet and Tony’s idea?” Cassi asked. Joren nodded. “Hmm. I never knew that. I guess I thought you were the designated greeter.”

Joren—The Designated Greeter. I like it!” Joren said with a wide grin, enjoying the title.

Observing Haley’s curious expression, Joren continued, “Well, anyway, everyone looks terrified when they enter a new year of the curriculum. The way I see it, with every new kid I help get acclimated, I take away opportunities for the guards to motivate them. It feels really good to throw a wrench in their plans, you know what I mean?” Joren told Haley.

Shaking her head, No¸ Haley laughed and said, “You’re so rebellious.”

“Hear that, Callasandra? Your sister already has me all figured out,” Joren said, raising his eyebrows up and down playfully.

Smiling, Cassi turned to Haley and lightheartedly warned, “Don’t encourage him.”

Thinking about Violet, Cassi felt her eyes well up with tears. Turning to stare out of the window, so her mother and sister wouldn’t worry, she allowed warm tears to roll down her cheeks.

 

 

After about half an hour, they reached the base of the mountains. Cassi was surprised to see hundreds of cave homes with brightly colored doors built into the foothills. After passing the cave community, her mother drove through a small city with a handful of buildings and casual dining restaurants. After several turns, she eventually pulled into a parking garage. Above the entrance, a sign read, Welcome to Hotel Valiad – Where Your Pleasure is Our Demand.

Hotel Valiad was not as lush as the Swan Resort at Lake Harlow, but it did have the nuance of being a luxury hotel. Olivia and Haley’s room was a suite with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a cozy living room and dining area. Cassi also noticed a patio facing the foothills.

“Let me show you around,” Haley said, taking Cassi’s hand and pulling her along behind her.

“This is my room. You and I can sleep in here. This is where mom sleeps, and this is where I do all my sit-ups!” Haley said proudly. “Joren, you can sleep in here. In my Combat Tourney entertainer contract, we always ask for three bedrooms…just in case we found you. WHICH WE DID!” Bursting with excitement, Haley wrapped her arms around Cassi and rocked from side to side.

“I can sleep on the couch if Callasandra wants her own room. Er, I mean Cassi.” Joren said.

Before Cassi could answer, Haley shouted, “NO! Cassi and I need to catch up on our twin talks at night. Please, Cassi?”

Laughing, Cassi responded, “Thanks, Joren. I think I’ll take Haley up on her offer. You can have the workout room. It will be good for you.”

“Six-pack abs coming right up!” Joren said, patting his stomach, which immediately began audibly rumbling with hunger.

“Oh, my goodness. You both must be hungry. I’ll order dinner. Joren, do you have a favorite food?” Olivia asked.

“If it starts with an F, ends in a D, with double O’s⁠ in the middle—I’m in!  I pretty much like everything⁠!” Joren said with a big smile.

“And when he says everything, he means everything. Joren has been banned from all-you-can-eat restaurants,” Cassi said endearingly.

Nodding proudly, Joren agreed and said, “That’s right! The last time we went to Captain Sam’s, I ate 11 platefuls, and they kicked us out. They said I was banned for life. But that doesn’t mean you have to order a lot of food. I’ll just eat whatever Cassi doesn’t eat,” Joren said, nudging Cassi gently with his elbow.

Cassi shook her head with mock irritation.

Enjoying seeing Cassi genuinely happy for the first time since her friend, Renee, had been killed, Olivia smiled and said, “Let’s get pizza. It will be quick, and we can order a wide variety.”

After submitting the order, Olivia asked, “Cassi, I hate to ask so soon, but do you still have the journal?”

Pulling it out from between the small of her back and the waistband of her yoga pants, Cassi said, “Yes, Mom. It’s right here,” handing the journal to her mother.

Olivia sighed with relief and began flipping through the pages with nostalgia, clearly missing and worrying about her husband.

“Have you heard anything from Dad?” Cassi asked.

“Nothing yet, but we are hopeful he will hear Haley singing at one of the Combat Tourneys and find us.”

“Oh, that’s right! Haley, tell us how you began singing at the Combat Tourneys.”

“Callasandra?” Joren said quietly, appearing to be worried.

Cassi turned to Joren and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Shouldn’t we play music through the speakers or something, you know, so….” Joren’s voice trailed off as he animatedly looked around the room for cameras and recording devices.

Understanding his concern, Cassi glanced around for cameras and microphones wondering if Aramanthia was also highly monitored. Not seeing any, she asked, “I don’t know. Mom? Do you think we should play some music?”

“YES!” Haley said excitedly. “Let’s play the Combat Tourney opener!”

 

Laughing softly, Olivia switched on a speaker, flipped through her phone, and, soon, music began playing through the room.

“I love this song! Thanks, Mom!” Haley said quickly. She plopped into a chair next to the couch and nodded for Cassi and Joren to sit down, so she could finish her story.

“So. It was about six months ago—a month after we arrived in Aramanthia, we noticed a crowd outside the Combat Tourney in Hardwick,” Haley began.

“Wait, hold on. Six months ago? I was only in Cimerrion for a few weeks! Isn’t that right, Joren!” Cassi said incredulously.

“Yeah, you showed up right before the National Day of Liberty.”

“Interesting. So time must be relative to each dimension affected by the fracture,” Olivia mused.

“Wow, does that mean Haley is older now?” Joren asked, smiling widely at Cassi.

Excited by the notion of being Cassi’s older sister, “Does that mean I’m older, Mom?” Haley asked excitedly.

“Well, technically, you have always been older⁠—nine minutes older, to be exact. The time differential, however, does not change the fact that you were born on the same day—so, you are still twins.”

“Aww,” Haley moaned in jest, “That would have been so awesome to be your big sister.”

“Shotgun seat for life, right?!” Cassi said congenially.

“Anyway, Mom and I decided to see what was going on with the crowd, and I don’t know what came over me, but I just started singing the Star-Spangled Banner, and the crowd got quiet and turned to face us. It was so crazy! I had an audience, so I stepped toward them and sang even louder. When I finished singing, they all started cheering. It was amazing!

“Mom worked her magic and pitched to the Combat Tourney Council for me to sing during their tourneys. And, they agreed! Mom thought it would help us blend in since we had heard the Turantaras were kidnapping people in Hardwick. After the first week, they hired me to tour with them, and I signed Mom as my manager. All I have to do is sing, sing, sing! And mom handles all the paperwork. IT’S PERFECT!” Haley finished, beaming.

“I want to hear you sing The Star-Spangled Banner,” Joren said, mesmerized by Haley.

“Marissa is going to be jealous, Joren, if you become Haley’s biggest fan,” Cassi said jokingly.

“Harmony’s biggest fan,” Haley corrected her, thrilled with the idea of Joren becoming a fan.

“We are still keeping our identities private in case the men who took your father ended up in Aramanthia,” Olivia told them.

“So, Joren, who is this, Marissa?” Haley asked.

“Only the best singer in all of Cimerrion!” Joren responded enthusiastically.

While Joren told Olivia and Haley about Marissa, Cassi felt herself relax for the first time in weeks. Laughter filled the room as Joren shared his rendition of Marissa’s song, Raven Eyes.

Over pizza, Joren talked more about Marissa and then told them about the day he introduced Cassi to Marissa. His hilarious version of sharing a bean bag chair at the Day by Day captivated Haley and Olivia. Thinking of Cimerrion reminded Cassi of when she and Violet first met.

“Cassi, are you all right?” Olivia asked.

“I’m worried about our friend, Violet, Mom. We need to find a way to get back to Cimerrion, so we can help find her,” Cassi told them worriedly.

Cassi explained that Violet had been taken by the guards and how they had barely escaped Sergeant Leonard. Concerned about how her mother might feel about Cassi’s torturous interview/interrogation with Sergeant Leonard, Cassi avoided recapping that part of her time spent in Cimerrion.

“They have these things called Mobile Service Stations in Cimerrion, where they send young women, and probably young men, too. People who are non-compliant with the rules in Cimerrion, or who have helped the Disunited…some are sent to slog prisons, and others are inserted into the Mobile Service Stations.

“Violet was taken because of me!” Cassi said, her breath catching. Tears began rolling down her cheeks. 

“Cassi, it’s not your fau….” Olivia began before Cassi cut her off.

“No, Mom, it IS my fault! I am a Disunited. Violet didn’t even know that about me, but still…she was taken because of me.”

Cassi looked at Joren and said, “We need to get back to Cimerrion and save Violet.” Joren nodded.

Olivia looked at the clock and, realizing it was nearly midnight, sighed, “It’s been quite a day. Let’s get some rest and think through all of this in the morning.”

Feeling overwhelmingly exhausted, Cassi agreed, “Okay, Mom.”

 

 

3 – Kissed by the Gods

 

The sound of booming voices outside of the MedEx waiting room where she was lying brought Cassi’s mind to the present. Curious about who would be entering, Cassi attempted to look beyond the curtain around her bed but found it difficult with the brace around her neck. Sighing with frustration, she relaxed back into her pillow and waited for the voices to enter the room.

“GOLDEN, I AM GOLDEN—KISSED BY THE GODS, HAHA! OF COURSE, I WON!” Torpedo proclaimed, bursting forcefully through the double doors. With a cracking sound, the doors slammed against the walls at each side of the entrance, startling Cassi.

“Where is this shy little sprite?” Torpedo asked, walking through the room, abruptly opening curtains.

“Er, sorry,” Cassi heard Torpedo say multiple times before opening the curtain encircling Cassi’s bed.

“I see they have adorned you with Torpedo's necklace,” Torpedo said proudly, referring to the brace around Cassi’s neck.

Joren, along with Torpedo’s entourage, caught up with him and stood at the edge of her bed, beaming at her as though getting ready to begin singing the song, Happy Birthday.

“I thought I was Torpedo’s necklace,” a 5-foot nothing Cirque du Soleil-esque costumed young woman stated with a touch of jealousy. Without warning, and with a gymnastic flair, the young woman effortlessly flipped onto the foot of Cassi’s bed and, in a blur, climbed Torpedo like a jungle-gym, ending with her seated on his shoulder, one leg around his neck. Her arms raised with balletic finesse, she nodded her head as though bowing to an imaginary crowd.

Laughing, Torpedo gently unwound her leg from his neck, “Aww Twink, you know you're the only necklace that counts.” With an appeased smile, the young woman closed her eyes, and with a twist, intentionally fell off of his shoulder. In an instant, Torpedo smoothly thrust his arms forward, catching her. Opening her eyes, the young woman wrapped her arms around his neck, quickly kissed his cheek, kicked one leg in the air, backflipped, and like an Olympic gymnast, stuck the landing directly next to Torpedo.

Applauding loudly as he moved to stand closer to Cassi, Joren asked wide-eyed and in awe, “Wow! Can you do that again? That was amazing!”

“You got ten bucks?” Twink asked mischievously.

“No,” Joren said slowly, shaking his head, still mesmerized.

Turning to Torpedo, Twink said, “Give the girl her money already and let’s get outta here. I’m hungry.”

Torpedo cleared his voice and said, “ON BEHALF OF THE COUNCIL FOR THE TWENTY-FIFTH COMBAT TOURNEY, IN…,” Looking around, Torpedo asked, “Where are we, again?”

Twink shrugged.

“Sheranga. Right?” A couple of people standing at the foot of her bed blurted out, nodding to one another.

In a booming voice, Torpedo formally announced, “ON BEHALF OF THE COUNCIL FOR THE TWENTY-FIFTH COMBAT TOURNEY, IN SHERANGA—TWINKLE-TOES, HAMMER, VERTIGO, AND I ARE HERE TO CONGRATULATE YOU ON YOUR BATTLE.”

Dropping the formality, Torpedo leaned in toward Cassi and said congenially, “I have to say, you were terrific. The straddle-kick is my new move, and you played it perfectly. It was beautiful. Did you hear the crowd? They went wild. I made five large ones today because you went for it, and I went down. Boom!”

“I’m sorry about that, uh, Torpedo,” Cassi said shamefully. “That must have hurt.” Cassi could feel herself blushing.

“Not at all! I’m wearing a cup!” Torpedo exclaimed, lifting his kilt to show everyone.

“NO!” the others shouted in unison, reaching over to force the metal skirt down as Cassi simultaneously brought her hands up to cover her eyes.

Laughing boisterously, Torpedo tossed a velvet satchel onto Cassi’s bed. “This is your payment for being today’s treasure.”

Turning to his Combat Tourney family, Torpedo announced, “IT IS TIME TO FEAST! Hammer! You doubted my straddle-kick…so, the first round is on you!”

“First round is on you,” the others echoed as they left the room, laughing.

The double doors swinging to a close, an awestruck Joren turned to Cassi and said, “That was incredible.”

“Yeah, that was definitely, something,” Cassi responded, unclear how she felt about receiving a personal visit and payment from the man responsible for her injuries.

“Geez, Callasandra, I’m sorry,” Joren said, “How are you feeling?”

“Physically, I think I’m okay. It’s hard to tell with this bulky thing around my neck,” Cassi responded while attempting to adjust the neck brace.

“You mean, Torpedo’s necklace!” Joren said, nudging Cassi good-naturedly.

Annoyed with his attempt at humor during the incredulous situation she found herself in, Cassi looked sharply at Joren. Upon seeing his humorous grin, an uncontrollable hysteria began to bubble up from deep within, and she started chuckling. Softly at first and then, within seconds, building into full-throttle, side-splitting, gut-laughter. As she attempted to catch her breath, Cassi turned to Joren, expecting to find him laughing along with her. Instead, Joren looked back with wide-eyed surprise, which inexplicably caused Cassi to laugh even harder. Overcome now to the point of crying, Cassi gasping for air, sputtered out, “Torpedo’s,” followed by a short round of laughter, and then “Neck…lace!”

As Cassi continued laughing hysterically, Joren chuckled along with her while feeling a bit worried and looked around for a medical professional.

As if on cue, a MedEx arrived at the foot of Cassi’s bed. Observing Joren’s concerned expression, she calmly told him, “Don’t worry, uncontrollable laughter frequently follows a high adrenaline incident.

“So, Callasandra, let’s check your neck, shall we? I’m going to remove the neck brace now,” The MedEx said, moving her hands toward the back of Cassi’s neck before abruptly stopping as Cassi’s laughter took on a new life.

Cassi, wanting to let the MedEx in on the joke, shook her head, saying, “No, it’s not a neck brace…it’s Torpedo’s Necklace!”

Turning to Joren, the MedEx said calmly, “I think a sedative may be in order here.” Joren silently nodded in agreement.

Unlocking the top drawer of a medical station behind Cassi’s bed, the MedEx pulled out a pre-filled syringe and injected Cassi with a sedative.

After the MedEx walked away, Joren listened as Cassi’s laughter evolved into soft, regulated breathing. Finding a chair and placing it near Cassi’s bed, Joren sat back and chuckled quietly, as Cassi said to no one in particular before falling asleep, “He’s golden, you know. Kissed by the Gods.”

 

“I’m telling you, you have a thing for Torpedo,” Joren told Cassi playfully as they walked to the parking lot to meet Olivia and Haley.

“I do NOT have a thing for Torpedo. Why would you even say that?” Cassi said in utter disbelief.

“You were talking all gushy about Torpedo being kissed by the gods just before you fell asleep, and you were definitely smiling.”

“That is ridiculous, Joren.” Cassi huffed, walking faster.

“I feel so betrayed,” Joren said, chuckling and pretending to sniffle as if he were holding back tears.

Cassi stopped abruptly and turned around to see if Joren was genuinely crying. Not anticipating this, Joren stumbled into her, causing them both to fall. Worried about Cassi’s neck, Joren reached out, pulled Cassi on top of him and rolled, so he would bear the brunt of the fall.

Landing face-to-face, with Cassi on top of him, Joren couldn’t resist and said, “I guess you do only have eyes for me,” raising his eyebrows up and down.

Irritated and embarrassed, Cassi rolled off of Joren, stood, and held her hand out to help him up.

“Why, thank you, my lady,” Joren said, coming to a stand and brushing the dust off of his jeans.

“You’re welcome, kind sir,” Cassi said, going along with his silly formality.

Turning in unison, they continued walking to the arena parking lot. After several minutes, Cassi sighed heavily with frustration, blurting out, “You know what, Joren, I am done with not being able to protect myself. I took self-defense classes, which I guess worked with Raina, but I need to learn how to really fight. I mean, you saw Twink, or Twinkle Toes, or whatever her name is—I’ll bet she’s more dangerous than Torpedo.

“After Sergeant Leonard and today with Torpedo, it makes me wonder…what is next?” Cassi said, exasperated.

“And you know what, whatever that next thing is, I want to make sure that I am the one standing at the end.”

Joren nodded, also wondering what was in store for them in Aramanthia.

 

Unexpectedly, Joren shook his head and chuckled, “You said, ‘or whatever her name is’—you definitely have a crush on Torpedo!”

Before Cassi could respond, Joren jogged ahead, turning around laughing, as he ran to join Olivia and Haley at their SUV.

Unable to resist laughing, Cassi shook her head while pretending to threaten him with her fist. She knew it would be impossible to ever truly be angry with Joren.

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