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Old October 21st, 2007, 06:51 AM
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JX Valentine
Your aquatic overlord
 
Join Date: May 2004
Location: Harassing Bill
Age: 27
Gender: Female
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Pre-chapter warning: This chapter contains spoilers for the online/dice game Petals Around the Rose. If you've never figured out the answer yourself but would like to try, then attempt the game first and then come back. I can wait.

Otherwise, feel free to read on, but please do not post flames or comments that I've spoiled the game. I know I did, and I'm shameless about it.



Act Five: Boom

The Great Hall was silent except for the steady beep of the black box in Imogen's lap. Her hands shook, but she didn't dare release the roselia doll from her grip. Across the table from her sat Viola, who propped her elbow on the white cloth and supported her chin on the palm of that hand. Her eyes stared through her glasses but saw seemingly nothing. Haunter floated nearby, more as a comfort than anything else.

"Imogen?" Viola finally said.

"Yes, Viola?"

"I'm sorry."

There was a short silence as Imogen looked up and studied Viola carefully. The new Knight continued to stare at nothing in particular.

At last, Imogen said, "For what?"

With a sigh, Viola lowered her head until her fingers slipped over the bridge of her nose. Gently, she started rubbing it as a headache set in.

"For everything," she said. "For dragging you into this mess. I should've taken that box from you."

"Listen, girl, you're not the one who opened the box," Imogen said gently, "and you wouldn't have had enough time to take it off me with everyone rushing all over the place. It's okay. We just need to figure out this problem."

"But what if we can't?" Viola said as she removed her hands and shot Imogen a cold look. "What if time runs out or we choose the wrong code? We're going to die, Imogen."

"Viola…"

"There's a one in I don't know how many chance of getting the code right," Viola said. "We can't just guess in this situation. We need to have a certain answer before we try anything, but I can't figure out how to find that out."

"Viola…"

"Even then, I don't have a margin that would allow me to make mistakes. If I make a mistake, that thing is going to go off. On the other hand, it might be a bluff, but I don't think we can take that chance."

"Viola!"

"What?!"

There was a pause. Imogen stared blankly at Viola but was rewarded with a cold glance again. Haunter watched them both cautiously as he drifted past, but otherwise, everything was still. At last, Imogen pointed at Haunter.

"How did you get your Haunter?"

Viola raised an eyebrow.

"Imogen, I'm not in the mood for non sequiturs," she said.

"Just tell me."

"Why?"

"Because—" Imogen paused to look down at the box. "—you need to stop."

Viola's eyes widened as Imogen's words sank into her skull. Slowly, with heavy uncertainty weighing down on her chest, Viola relaxed, allowing her back to drop against the back of the chair. Her chin was against her chest briefly, but soon, she lifted her gaze to look towards the corner that had previously fascinated her.

"He was my father's," she said. "My father had him as long as I can remember. He had all of the pokémon for as long as I can remember, actually. He gave Haunter and the others to me."

Viola suddenly stopped. She closed her eyes as she drifted in her own world. Her head felt light, as if the slightest lean would cause it to roll off her shoulders and float into the air like a balloon. The memory of her father surfaced in her mind. She saw him clearly, as if she saw him that very day. She saw his narrow, blue eyes and his teeth – white like the wisps of snowy hair among his gray mane. Her lower lip curled under her teeth as she remembered how his strong arms hugged her, even in his final days. Above all, she heard his voice, cracked with age and soft with the early grip of illness.

"My little bambina," he whispered, "let me teach you something. Let's play a game."

Her eyes glazed slightly as she dwelled on the memory.

"Viola…"

Suddenly, Viola realized Imogen had asked her a question.

"I'm sorry. What did you say?" she asked.

"I said, 'What are the others?'" Imogen tilted her head. "Are you okay?"

Viola hastily nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm okay. Ah, the others… Well, there's Poliwhirl, Meowth, and Venomoth. I just prefer Haunter's company a bit more than theirs."

"If you say so," Imogen said as she gave Viola a skeptical look. "Anyway, that's a little cruel towards the others, don't you think?"

Viola shook her head. "Not at all. They don't mind, actually. They accept the fact that we have our differences."

"And Haunter?"

"We can relate to one another. Besides, he makes me laugh."

There was a brief pause. The only thing that spoke was the box as it continued its rhythmic beeps.

"So why did your father give you his pokémon?" Imogen finally said. "Did he give up training or something?"

"Had to. He's dead."

Imogen drew in a sharp gasp. "Oh! I'm sorry."

"Why?" Viola shrugged listlessly at the word. "You weren't the one who killed him. It was a long time ago, anyway, and it's better that he's dead, rather than alive and suffering in this kind of place."

"You're not often called an optimist, are you, Viola?"

Viola smiled bitterly. "Optimism is an easy way to avoid reality."

---

With a crack, the black bolt of lightning surged from the ariados's eyes and straight towards Sebastian and his marowak. Each let loose a separate yelp as they dove out of the way in separate directions. Within seconds, the dark rush of energy struck the carpet behind where they once stood and left a black mark against the deep red of the floor.

Sebastian tilted his head upwards as he heard Olivia's light, slow applause.

"Not bad, Knight Tide," she said. "Not bad at all. It's your move then."

She was met with a wary, brown-eyed gaze. As Sebastian rose to his feet, he surveyed his opponent carefully. She was up to something, and he knew it.

"Marowak, keep your distance," he said. "Focus Energy!"

With that command, Marowak held out his bone and tensed every muscle in his body. His eyes were fixed on the spider as he meditated to prepare himself for the rest of the match.

"My move," Olivia said, "and I choose to move my pawn closer to your bishop. Ariados, Spider Web!"

"Marowak, dodge!"

Quickly, Ariados jerked his head upwards and parted his pincers just enough to reveal his tiny mouth. From somewhere under his exoskeleton, a gurgling noise bubbled into his mouth just before a stream of a strange, white substance shot towards the guardian pokémon. Marowak, however, watched with calm eyes as the substance rushed towards him. Then, at the last moment, he jumped to the side, allowing the white liquid to fly past him and connect with the carpeting. Instantly, the chemicals solidified into a net on the floor. Ariados snapped his pedipalps in disappointment, cutting the string at his mouth.

"How fair is it for you to make a move while mine barely finished!" Olivia said with heavy sarcasm. "Where, pray tell, is the honor in that?"

"Funny you should be talking about honor, Knight Spider," Sebastian retorted. "Marowak, strike with Bonemerang!"

With that, Marowak pulled his arm back and threw his bone with as much vigor as he could muster. The bone twirled through the air at a rapid pace towards its target. Ariados had no time to dodge as the bone closed in on him. With a loud crack, the femur drove itself across Ariados's cheek. The spider's head jerked to the side as the bone curved back towards its owner's outstretched paw. A small crack laced across the site of impact as the spider slowly turned a vicious gaze back towards Marowak. Olivia, meanwhile, grinned, despite the condition of her pokémon.

"My turn," she said. "Ariados, use Disable!"

Ariados's eyes immediately began to take on an eerie, blue glow as the spider concentrated on imagining the guardian pokémon frozen where he stood. Marowak, in the meantime, made the unfortunate mistake of looking directly into Ariados's eyes in a state of cautious curiosity. The ariados's eyes narrowed; his target exposed himself. With the speed of a hunter snatching his prey, Ariados mentally plunged into the marowak's mind. Marowak froze as he felt pressure clamping onto his brain from all sides. A blue aura began to ebb around him, and in his moment of weakness, he found he couldn't move. His trusty bone slipped from his paw and landed on the floor next to him with a muffled thud as the word "Bonemerang" became something unfamiliar to him, covered by the psychic patch Ariados sewed onto his mind.

Sebastian clenched his teeth and his fists at the sight of his disabled pokémon. He didn't want to admit defeat, especially to one of the Trio, but his mind was struggling to find another way around his present problem. Upon seeing the frustration etched on her opponent's hands and face, Olivia took up her feline grin.

"Are you ready to give up?" she asked.

Sebastian ignored her. "Marowak, break out of Ariados's hold with Thrash!"

Upon receiving the command, Marowak's body jerked violently. The blue light surrounding him quickly faded as Ariados twitched as a reflex. Although the spider knew what was about to happen, he had no time to dodge as the lizard lunged at him with as much power as he could muster. At first, Ariados saw Marowak as not much more than an orange and white blur zigzagging around the room, but within a minute, the blur came at and, not long after, was on top of the spider. Marowak slammed into Ariados and pushed him into the floor with a sickening crunch. Ariados squealed as one of his thin legs became trapped under the rest of his body and as cracks began to creep across the rest of his exoskeleton. Shocked by the strike, Ariados couldn't do much more than endure a flurry of kicks, punches, and slams from Marowak's lightning-fast body.

Then, as quickly as it started, it stopped. Marowak backed away with a slow, shaking step. His breath came in gasps as he struggled to keep the balance his heavy body threatened to lose. Sebastian looked from his own pokémon to Ariados and finally to Olivia herself with a smirk of satisfaction. He was surprised to see, however, that despite the condition of Olivia's spider, she was still smiling that feline smile.

"What?" Sebastian asked.

With a grin, Olivia said, "Flash."

Immediately, Ariados rose to five of his six legs, the sixth being the one that had been damaged under his weight. His eyes took on a strange, white glow this time as he concentrated. A white aura engulfed him as he visualized pushing his energy outward in all directions.

Then, it happened. The spider released his light.

For a split second, Sebastian saw nothing but white. He stumbled backwards in confusion: he no longer knew which way was up. Somewhere in the field of white, he could hear his Marowak crying out in pain before a loud thump signaled that he had fallen. Soon, Sebastian joined him as his heel caught on something under him. A sharp pain jolted through his back as the hard floor slammed against it. He winced and shut his eyes, but it felt like the light entered his body and was ripping his eyeballs apart from the inside out. His vision turned from white to pink and purple behind his eyelids, and he knew then that he would receive no relief from the assault.

Somewhere beyond his reach, glass shattered. Knowing he had to act quickly before Olivia made her next move, Sebastian struggled to his hands and knees as his eyes slowly opened. All he could see was a hazy parody of Ophelia Dumont's bedchamber. Sebastian cursed as he realized it would take some time for his eyesight to fully recover. He shut his eyes again as a searing pain ripped through his head, emanating from the cores of his eyeballs. Gingerly, he put his hand to his forehead and tried to shake the feeling off, but he knew it was no use.

"You won't get away," he whispered to Olivia.

What he couldn't see at that very moment was a fine thread of spider's silk trailing from the corner of the sole broken window.

---

If it wasn't for the fact that she didn't want to die in the first place, Viola would have stabbed herself with one of the butter knives on the table to get relief from the incessant beeping of the black box. As it stood, her eyes remained fixed on a random point in the corner of the room. Her mind wove around possibilities, but in actuality, she was only making a feeble attempt at solving the puzzle. She was already set on the idea that she was doomed.

Imogen, meanwhile, gave her a concerned look.

"Maybe we're thinking about it all wrong," she said.

Viola simply gave her a look. It was a look of quiet frustration – the sort that told someone to sit down and shut up or face painful consequences. Unfortunately for Viola, Imogen's attention had just been turned back to the box she had managed to shove onto the table – not that she was fluent in death glares anyway.

"Think about it. What did the recording say about the game?" she asked.

Viola raised an eyebrow. "About the game?"

Imogen nodded. "The only two things it could tell us about the game."

Briefly, Viola closed her eyes and tried to remember. Already, the events of twenty minutes ago were fading.

"The name of the game is 'Petals Around the Rose,'" Viola said slowly, "and the answer will either be zero or an even number."

Imogen bobbed her head. "So, therefore…"

"So, therefore, we don't have enough to work with," Viola said. "Think rationally, Imogen. How many different possibilities are there for an answer that's an even number? And add in the possibility that the answer's actually zero…"

"Okay," Imogen said. "I get it."

In the lull in the conversation, Imogen looked down at the box. She looked at the roselia in her hands, the keypad, the timer, and everything else about it.

"Maybe these dots have something to do with it," she said.

Viola asked, "What dots?"

"Below the timer," Imogen said.

At that point, Viola looked. She was astounded that she hadn't noticed them before, but she carefully kept her stoic expression. Her blue eyes took in all five in order: one box with four dots, one with one, another with four, a fourth with five, and the last with three.

"What do we do with them?" she asked.

Imogen shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe we add them."

Viola mentally added all five numbers before she shook her head and said, "That equals seventeen. An odd number."

"How about multiply?"

"Even if we could, there's no way to verify that we've gotten the correct answer. We can't take that risk until we figure out this game."

Imogen pursed her lips. The game became a headache for her, and she almost envied Viola for at least knowing enough to know what couldn't be the answer. On the other hand, Imogen was holding back her criticisms of the girl's brand of inconveniently timed pessimism.

"There must be something we're not looking at," she muttered, mostly to herself.

"What?" Viola said. "The box? The buttons? The title of the stupid game?"

Imogen sighed in frustration. "I don't know! What did the recording say?"

Viola rolled her eyes. "The answer will be either a zero or an even number, and the name of the game is 'Petals Around the Rose.' Big deal."

Again, the two lapsed into silence. Viola frowned as she careened down the path of sheer pessimism. Her eyes closed again.

"If my father was here, he'd be able to solve this."

Imogen looked at her with a strange glance. "What?"

"My father," Viola said. "He had an answer to everything. No matter what the problem, no matter what the game, he could solve it. Every night, he would try to teach me the things he knew – logic, games, common sense – but no matter how eager I was to live by his example, I just couldn't possibly be on his level."

Imogen frowned. "Stop that. Don't be so hard on yourself."

Viola sharply shifted her gaze towards Imogen. Her eyes widened in surprise. She hadn't expected that reaction.

"Look, I don't know you that well," Imogen said, "but I can tell you're a better person than you think. Your problem is your ruddy outlook. You go into everything thinking it's going to turn out for the worse, but you know what? You're not going to get anywhere like that. The Game will eat you alive if you don't shape up. Heck, life will eat you alive."

At her words, Viola bristled. "I don't know about you, but I'm doing just fine, thank you. Who do you think you are, anyway?"

"I think," Imogen said, "that if I didn't have an ounce of goddamn faith in you, I wouldn't be holding this stupid poppet."

That single sentence stopped Viola completely. Her eyes widened, and a hint of redness crossed her cheeks. She felt her hands tremble slightly.

"What?" she whispered.

"I said," Imogen said with a smirk, "that if I didn't have faith in you, I wouldn't be holding this stupid doll."

Viola pulled a few black strands away from her face.

"Do… Do you really mean that?" she asked.

"Imogen doesn't lie, girl."

Viola frowned slightly. "But why? You don't know me. I could disappoint you so easily."

"But you won't," Imogen said, "because you don't want to die either."

Although Viola wanted to ask about Imogen's reasoning, she found that she could only stare into her eyes. Imogen smiled as her gaze penetrated Viola's glasses and possibly her flesh to reach her soul. Viola's heartbeat quickened. Her veins pumped something warm through her body.

"So, go on," Imogen said as she nodded towards the box. "What did your father teach you?"

With a sigh, Viola reclined in her chair and closed her eyes. She summoned her memories of her father, the first of which was the one that had entered her mind a few moments ago.

"My little bambina," she muttered with a small smile. "When I was little, he taught me how to play a game."

"What game?" Imogen asked.

"It was a dice game," Viola said.

She paused. Slowly, she opened her eyes and leaned towards the table, still set and waiting for Knights to come and sit at each place. Even the ice in the glasses of water were still waiting, as if time and temperature had no effect on them. The cold bit her skin, but she still held them – five of them – as if they were dice.

"He had five dice," Viola said, "and he would roll them—"

Briefly, Viola closed her hand into a fist and shook her arm as if she was shaking dice. Then, she flicked open her hand, and the cubes fell onto one of the plates, only to slide onto the tablecloth just beyond its white edge.

"And?" Imogen asked.

"And then he'd ask me," she said, "'Little bambina, how many swinub are around the ice hole?'"

As Viola's eyes continued to stare at the ice cubes, her smile faded, and her expression turned from nostalgic to distant. She watched, seemingly unaware of anything but the shrinking ice cubes on the tablecloth and the growing, gray spots of dampness beneath them. Imogen looked from the ice cubes to Viola with a raised eyebrow.

"What is it?" she said.

"The same game," Viola whispered. "Dice. That's what those spots are."

Imogen's own eyes widened as she looked at the boxes on the face of the device.

"How can you tell?" she asked.

"I don't know, but it looks like they're arranged the same," Viola said. "We have nothing else to go by except for that guess."

Imogen nodded. "I trust you. What now?"

Viola closed her eyes and thought back to her father. She put as much effort as she could on returning to that very moment when her father taught her the game. He saw his dice clearly: little wooden blocks with bright, black spots on each face. They spilled over the empty space on his work bench. When they stopped, Viola stood on the stool, and her father leaned next to her and motioned to the dice with one large, callused hand.

"Look, my little bambina," he said. "Look at the dice and tell me how many swinub there are around the ice hole."

At that point, Viola remembered that she looked into her father's eyes.

"How, Papa?" she asked.

"Ah! Good question," he said. "Two things are important in solving this puzzle. The first is that the name of the game is important, and the second is that the answer will always be even or zero. Always."

"Always," Viola repeated.

Her eyes looked at the dice for a long time. Each face was different: one, six, four, two, and three. She knew that it couldn't be adding, as the sum of the faces produced seventeen. With a furrowed brow, she added up the sum of the even dice.

"Twelve?" she asked.

"No, bambina," her father said gently. "Try again."

Viola tried to add the odd numbers together. "Four?"

"No, bambina. Would you like another hint?"

She nodded eagerly.

"What," he said, "could the ice hole be?"

Viola looked at each dice before shaking her head.

"Look carefully," he said. "The odd faces have ice holes with swinub around them. The even faces don't."

She stared at the dice. Her gaze fell on each die, and soon, she began to see the small differences between each. Specifically, a very small difference at the center. Carefully, she picked up one of the dice and turned it to see the five side. The difference was still there, glaring in black ink.

"The middle dot?" she asked. "The even sides don't have one, but the odd sides all do."

Her father's smile broadened.

"You're on the right track, bambina," he said. "What's the next step?"

Viola turned the die she held on its original side and placed it back on the work bench.

"So, if there's no ice hole in the middle of the dice," she said, "does that mean they don't count?"

"That's right," her father said with a nod.

"And one doesn't count either, since there's no dots around the one in the middle, right?"

"Right."

"So, if I count the dots around the ice hole…" Viola looked at her father. "The answer is two?"

Her father burst into laughter and scooped her into a hug. She closed her eyes as she felt his strength and warmth. It was her reward, her prize for a job well done.

In the present, Viola opened her eyes and looked at Imogen and the box.

"How much more time have we got?" she asked.

Imogen shook her head. "Only a few more minutes."

"Fine," Viola said as she leaned towards her. "I think I might have it."

She gazed at the dotted boxes like a fortune teller into a crystal ball.

"The rose is the same as the ice hole," she said. "It's the dot in the middle. So…"

Her fingers reached out to touch the faces of the boxes. She pursed her lips as she looked carefully at what numbers with which she had to work: four, one, four, five, and three. A new number flicked through her mind.

"Six," she said. "Five and three. Four petals around the rose with five, and two on three."

"That's it?" Imogen asked.

"There's only one way to find out," Viola replied.

Her fingers hovered over the keypad. Something cold suddenly crept into her heart as she began to hesitate. A tremor shook her hand, and she found she couldn't press the button. She bit her lip as doubt entered her mind.

"Viola."

She looked at Imogen. Once more, her expression was soft, yet she still smiled as she nodded to her hands. Viola glanced at the device again to see not only her hand but Imogen's. The cold slowly faded into warmth.

"Thanks, Imogen," she murmured.

Then, her index finger fell on the six, followed soon after by the enter key. The latter clicked beneath her fingertip, and time froze. The timer stopped. The beeping stopped. Everything stopped.

For Viola, silence was a being. It hummed in her ears and sang with the beat of her heart. It filled her mouth and nostrils, suffocating her by closing off her throat as it solidified into a painful lump. It froze the room in its own, three-dimensional portrait. Nothing moved, not even Haunter as he stared down at the two humans from one of the chandeliers. Even the individual atoms throughout the room seemed to pause with anticipation.

Then, Imogen removed her hands from the roselia doll. Both women stared at it as it twitched back and forth on the spring in its base. It took what felt for the both of them several hours before it finally stopped. The silence continued for a while longer.

At last, Viola realized she was holding her breath. She didn't remember ever starting, but she knew she couldn't hold it much longer. With a whoosh, she exhaled as she watched Imogen gingerly place the box on the table. She didn't have time to inhale again before Imogen darted around the table and nearly knocked out of her what wind was left in her lungs by diving onto her in an awkward cross between a tackle and a hug. Although Viola was thoroughly shaken by Imogen's actions, what happened next added surprise to shock. She felt the hot dampness of tears soak through her shirt. Not another word between them was spoken as they remained like that: Viola slumped wearily in her chair and Imogen with her arms wrapped tightly around Viola and her face buried in the curve between Viola's neck and shoulder.

Neither of them saw Sebastian leaning in the threshold. He had been standing there for the past five minutes, yet even so, he couldn't bring himself to intrude on the scene. In the time that he watched Viola solve the puzzle, he struggled to figure out what to make of her. While she showed him that she had the brains of a Knight, he knew inside that there was far more to the Game than that.

At last, he shook his head and turned towards the main door. He said not a single word until he stepped outside into the cool night air. A sigh heaved from his lungs, and he tilted his head back to see the hazy moon and the velvet-black sky just beyond the aura thrown by the city lights. With his hands thrust in his pockets, he began the long walk home.

"Well, if she wants to be a Knight," he said to himself, "she'll have to deal with the Trio herself."

The words themselves left a sour aftertaste on his tongue.
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