Chapter One

The Tournament of Prestige

 

            I raced up the stairwell pretty fast for someone in my awful condition. My empty backpack bounced on my shoulders, my feet landing just in front of the steps’ worn, chipped edges. Sunlight leaked through the dusty windows at the top of each landing, enough to light my way to the decaying apartment building’s eighth floor.

            The rest of the Valuable Objects better still be there. 

            No way I was losing the Tournament of Prestige this year, and the VOs could be worth just enough prestige points to finally push my faction into the top spot. But if someone else found them while I was gone…

            At last I made it to the eighth floor. My chest heaved as I sucked in breath, my burning legs threatening to crumple.

            You’ve gotta be kidding me.

            The second door on the right lay wide open. My heart banged against my ribs, making it tough to breathe, as I crept to the door as quietly as only I could.

            I peeked inside the room. My gut clenched, even though I’d seen it coming.

            A boy about my size—taller than average with good-size muscles—stood in front of the old wooden cabinets on the left side of the room. He had blotchy, dark gray skin, so was about sixteen years old like me. His back looked a little crooked, like his spine wasn’t quite aligned right. Mine was probably in similar shape.

            Even from the doorway I could see through the cabinet doors’ inlaid glass. Empty, except for one measly glass bottle. Sure enough, the boy started to turn away from them. I jerked my head back into the hallway, then peered back in. He made his way to the right side of the room.

            No—not there.

            He stopped at the faded loveseat wedged against the wall. Patches of peeled leather formed large, complicated shapes that looked like continents on a globe.

            Get away from there.

            Then again, this room had been scoured countless times over the past fifty years by generations of supply hunters like us, and none of them had found the short, tiny closet behind the sofa. Chances were slim this kid would.

            Please, Power, this is my last year, my last chance. Please don’t let him find the VOs.

            He walked to the side of the loveseat and put his hands on it. He was about to push it!

            I yanked my flashlight out of my pocket, snapped open the battery compartment as quickly and quietly as I could, and hurled a battery across the room. Wasn’t like I needed it. Our faction got fresh batteries every week from the mansion, and could probably get more if we asked.

            The battery smacked the back wall by the open window—I felt a light breeze, even from where I stood by the door—and hit the floor with a thud. The boy stopped pushing the sofa. Thankfully, he’d only moved it a couple inches. Not enough to reveal any of the closet.

            “What the…?” He watched the battery roll across the wooden floor a bit and stay still.

            He walked toward it.

            Yes.

            He picked it up and headed toward the window, his back to me. Probably thought someone had thrown the battery through it.

            I crept toward the sofa as quietly as I could, so there was no chance the kid could hear me. Few people had feet as soundless as Gorin of Faction 235.

            I navigated around the squeaky floorboards. Good thing I’d memorized them during my first two trips to this room, after I’d found the jackpot of a closet this morning. Could never be too careful or prepared for a situation like this. Every VO counted, especially ones worth as many prestige points as DVDs.

            When I made it to the loveseat, I shoved it aside as hard as I could and burst into the closet.

            “Hey!” the boy cried as I lifted the lid of the plastic blue bin inside and started to stuff the last of the whopping stash—a stack of plastic DVD cases coated in thick dust—into my backpack. Not sure exactly what they were or what they did in the Old World. Us supply hunters weren’t trained to know stuff like that, annoyingly enough, though I’d give all my limbs to be given one hint.

            Feet shuffled toward me. “Get your filthy paws off those. They’re mine.”

            I turned my head toward the boy. He towered over me, at least by a foot. Thick, muscled arms framed his sides. Okay, so I was wrong—he was bigger and stronger than me. He dug his gaze into mine with pebbles for eyes on his overly broad forehead. A large, beak-like nose jutted from his face.

            “Sorry, you know the rules,” I said. “I got to all of these before you, fair and square.” Which meant I got to keep them. Actually, I’d gotten to them way before him, but I had no proof of that, so no use mentioning it.

            He folded his meaty arms across his chest. “Sorry, punk, but I don’t play by the rules.”

            I stopped stuffing the DVDs into my backpack. My knees knocked, then locked together, and my forehead grew moist. So he was that kind of supply hunter. Rumors had it some kids did illegal stuff out in town—like beat up other supply hunters and take their VOs, since in that kind of situation it was the criminal’s word against the victim’s. But in all my sixteen—almost seventeen—years, I’d never come across someone like that. I’d always been able to find my VOs and slip back to my faction without being noticed.

            “Come on now,” I said. “Rules are rules. You know that.” I couldn’t help but notice the slight quiver in my voice. Great. “So, please, if you could just move aside, please.” Did I have to say “please” twice, like a complete idiot?

            The boy held out a beefy hand, eyes firm as asphalt. “Actually, I would much rather you give me all those precious VOs you just put into your backpack, and then kindly step aside so I can clean out the rest of the bin.”

            I laughed, though it sounded more like an ancient animal corpse crackling in the summer sun out on the street. “You’re kidding, right? You could go to jail for life for stealing these VOs from me. They’re rightfully mine according to the rules.”

            A scowl warped his dark gray face, making it real ugly, and a chill rolled down my spine. “I’ve made a living breaking those pointless rules. Plus, I beat up punks at least your size about three times a month. Now hand them over now, or things are gonna start getting real physical around here.”

            I glanced down into my backpack and could’ve sworn I saw my life’s dream rotting in one of its murky corners. According to the last Tournament Update, the top-ranked factions were extremely close this year—just like every year. My faction had finished in the top ten the past couple years, and we’d been doing at least as well this year. These VOs could make all the difference. Plus, I wasn’t about to let this piece of horse crap have what he wanted. Not when I only had two months left to live—if that—thanks to the awful birth-transmitted disease.

            “Okay,” I said in the softest, weakest voice I could muster, which wasn’t too hard, given the hulking bully who towered over me. “I’m not a very violent person. You can have them.”

            A ripe grin grew on his face. “Wise choice, punk.”

            I pulled one of the DVD cases out of my backpack.

            “All of them.” His grin disappeared as an edge crept into his voice.

            “Right. Well, take this one first.” I extended the case toward him, then whipped it up at his face with one of its sharp corners out front. It met his chin first, and I tore it up his face—almost a perfect vertical line. He shrieked, doubled over, and clapped both hands to his face. I rushed past him, but not before I caught a glimpse of bright red blood squirting between the cracks in his fingers.

            That was going to scar bad.

            I darted out the apartment door. My thrashing heartbeat echoed in my ears.

            Footsteps pounded after me. No way. I thought for sure that blow would’ve stunned him too much to chase me.

            I glanced behind me just before I reached the stairwell. Sure enough, he was only a few feet away, his whole face a red liquid stream.

            “You’re gonna pay way more than your VOs for that!” Blood dripped from his mouth as he yelled.

            I raced down the stairs two at a time. Our footsteps echoed in the narrow stairwell. Adrenaline churned through me.

            I glanced behind again. Mother of Power—he was gaining.

            I made it to the first floor. Burst through the stairwell side exit. And onto a street surrounded by tall brick buildings.

            I sped down the road. Risked another glance back.

            A couple feet away.

            Even though he was taller than me by a whole foot, he was seriously quick. A true monster. I had to do something—and fast.

            I was going to have to make a sacrifice.

            I twisted my body as I ran, and threw the DVD case I still held—sharp corner out—at him, as hard as I could. It struck him in the left eye. Perfect. He let out another shriek, cupped both hands over his injured eye, and crumpled to the ground.

            I looked at the sky, a slow smile working its way onto my face. But I didn’t stop. Kept barreling ahead.

            I glanced back one last time before I turned onto Route 240. He still lay on the ground, both hands over his eye.

            I’d escaped. Thank Power, I’d escaped. Sure, it’d cost me a priceless VO, but since I’d gotten all the other VOs in that gold mine of a closet—not to mention, was still in one piece myself—I was in pretty good shape, all things considered.

            My lungs threatened to shrivel into themselves, so I slowed to a walk. I navigated around Route 240’s countless massive potholes and patches of weeds that poked up through it. Crumbling stone and wooden buildings lined the sides of the street. Same with the occasional flimsy metal sign, which either jutted far off to one side or had been totally removed and lay next to the ruptured gap in the earth, where it used to be entrenched. Remnants of the Old World. I’d love to see how everything looked back then, when it was all still in good shape, and everything was in its rightful spot. Probably a lot cheerier than the dump it was now, but obviously there was no way to turn back time.

            Breath still gushed from my mouth after twenty minutes. I shook my head. I shouldn’t be this tired. Even though I’d raced up and down those apartment stairs three times today—not to mention just escaped a raging bully of a supply hunter—the terrible disease kept sapping more and more of my strength away every day. And it would keep up the horrific tradition until it’d finally get me around my seventeenth birthday. What an awesome way to go out…

            I fast-walked north toward my faction. Might as well put as much distance between me and the bully as possible. I didn’t spot any other supply hunters along the way, but it was a bit early to be going home. Even though it was the last day of this year’s tournament, I’d had enough excitement, and I’d made a priceless find. Chances were slim I’d locate any other VOs today, and even if I did, they were bound to be worth hardly any prestige points, anyway. I deserved to turn in early.

            By the time I made it to the suburbs, a sliver of sun sat on the horizon, and the thick forests cast most of the place in shadows. The late fall chill bit into me now that I’d been walking for a while.

            I turned onto my faction’s cul-de-sac. My house loomed in front of me at the end. The big suburban residence with its chipped white paint always gave me a warm, homey feeling, even though I only had one real friend in there. The rest of the eight boys of my faction were, well, not the easiest to get along with.

            I walked past the other faction houses in the cul-de-sac, then the last street lamp—even more crooked and pathetic than the others on the block—and finally went along the stone path that led to my faction house’s door. Supposedly, the dwelling had a number in the Old World, but it had long since eroded or fallen off. Now my faction’s large black number “235” had been spray-painted on the side of the structure. So charming.

I went inside and headed to the living room, where heat roared from the fireplace. It seeped into me and warmed my bones. I grabbed one of the tree-branch torches that leaned against the wall and thrust the end into the fire. The pitch-drenched rag at the end of the stick blazed, helping to light the rest of the room.

            Like in most of the house’s rooms, the wallpaper was peeling away in places, revealing small squares of naked white wall. A shoddy brown sofa sat in the middle of the area, next to a dilapidated wooden tea table that always looked like it’d crumple to the floor if anyone so much as breathed on it. Random patches of the sofa’s exterior were missing, revealing yellow pieces of stuffing underneath.

            The sputtering torch lit my way to the garage, where I dumped the DVDs from my backpack into one of the large plastic bins by the door—the bin where I’d discarded the other VOs from the closet. I stared down at my precious find for a couple minutes, barely aware of the soft whinnies that came from the faction’s two horses in the garage’s dimness.

Please tell me this will do it. Please tell me we’ve finally won the Tournament of Prestige.

 

****

 

            I couldn’t sleep that night, nor concentrate on supply hunting all next day out in town. Not that it mattered. Yesterday was the last day that counted for this year’s tournament, and by this time next year my body will have already been rotting for ten months six feet underground in the Old World football field. I pushed aside that disturbing thought as I stuck to dark alleys and shadowy areas—just to make sure I didn’t run into the bully from yesterday. If he was even in good enough shape to be out hunting.

            I got home early again, grabbed a torch from the fireplace, and went to my room. I dropped my empty backpack on the faded wooden floor, which groaned in protest. I placed the torch on the wall sconce next to the worn wooden wardrobe, the only piece of furniture in the room other than two small, sagging beds. A bunch of lengthy, thin cracks splintered out along the walls, like the legs of a daddy long-legs spider.

           Nope, not exactly the most luxurious room in town. That’d be in the mansion where the ridiculously lucky Baudelux family lived. Jev should be there now, getting the tournament results. Should be back in a few minutes. My whole body tingled with anticipation.

I walked to my bed and reached into the hole in my mattress. Warmth spread through me as I pulled out a thin, gold necklace. I kept a couple other objects illegally stashed in there, but this one was by far the best. Necklaces had been high on the VO List for a long time, but weren’t these days for some reason. The other items I hid inside my mattress were also hardly worth any points. Still, if Jev—or anyone else in the faction, let alone all of Middleton—knew I kept any VOs for myself…I shivered. No use thinking about it.

           I held the necklace, which had some kind of silver-lined red stone on it, up to the torch. According to a recent VO List Update, the rulers still didn’t know what the point of necklaces were. I put it around my neck, something I’d started doing about a year ago. It just felt right. I stepped in front of the mirror above the wardrobe.

          The gold glinted in the torchlight, and every muscle in my body relaxed. So precious…The necklace looked out of place next to the mottled gray tone of my skin, which seemed even darker than yesterday, if that was possible. Now that I only had two months to live before the plague finally got me, my skin was darker than most kids’ in town. Such was life. Still, I could make out my large, blunt features. Not exactly good-looking, but I was tall and my decent-size muscles stretched even my sweater’s sleeves. A couple more reasons I was a supply hunter, and good at it.

          I rubbed my thumb over the red stone, curling my other hand into a fist. It was so unfair I wasn’t allowed to keep things like this. So unfair everybody in Middleton had to transport all objects they found to the Baudelux family at the mansion.

Sure, it made sense to preserve the few precious objects left from the Old World and to ship ones that could be used to factions that needed them. And it made even more sense to try to find a cure to the plague and rediscover Power by studying books and other priceless VOs. But why couldn’t I do that? I’d trade my prestigious job of supply hunter faster than you could say “Valuable Object” for a chance to examine those things every day.

The bedroom door creaked open. I jerked my hand to my chest and tried to cover the necklace.

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