Challenge of the Zodiac

October 1, 2011
By Muffinlover, Jackson, Ohio
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Muffinlover, Jackson, Ohio
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Author's note: I've always wanted to write something about the Zodiac, but I never knew how to handle it. Early this year, while everyone was in hysteria over the 'sign change', I decided to use Ophiuchus to my advantage and twist the situation around a bit. This is my unfinished product.

Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, and Capricorn.


These twelve, simple words control our universe, culture, and our lives in general. You could almost say that every person's astrological sign is intertwined in their DNA: The sign is you, and you are the sign. This spiritual and internal bond has gone on for centuries--since the beginning of time. I believe that a particular sign chooses you--even before you exist--and picks out a birth date that suits you best. The connection between a sign and a human being is one that can never be broken, even after death.


A Zodiac sign is like a loyal, guardian angel: It predicts what will happen next in your unknown future and never leaves your side. I wouldn't call it a friend, because even something so powerful and universal could never hold such a title. A friend keeps you company through your short life, while an astrological sign just persuades your actions... and your abilities.


Besides giving you a complex personality, the sign also determines your unique abilities. One person's skill is like no other. They may be similar, but none are exactly alike. God, our creator and ruler of the Zodiac signs wouldn't want any of his children to be the same. We are all different, whether a person likes it or not. Our abilities are built from the sign which chooses us before we are created. For example, a human with the sign Scorpio might be able to communicate with a scorpion, speaking to it in hushed tones when no one else is looking. The insect, despite its humble size, would understand the human and refrain from doing he or she any harm. Or maybe the person could turn into a scorpion, transforming his or herself into a giant, indestructible being who could paralyze someone with a single flick. Our abilities range from harmless to lethal. It all depends on what your sign has in store for you.


Then there are the sections of our world, Zodiac, we live in: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. I live in Jupiter, because my sign is Sagittarius. Once again, the section – or union – you live in is determined by the sign you end up with. Jupiter is the ruling planet of Sagittarius, so therefore all the humans with my sign must be recruited to that area. If your parent was, let's say an Aquarius, the child would have to be transported away from the section Uranus once they turn 13 years old. If the mother was an Aquarius and the father a Taurus, they could choose either Uranus or Venus to raise their child in until their coming of age. Once a person is married they may choose one of their spouses' sections to live in. Once again, everything is determined by a person's sign. You can't ignore or avoid it.


Once a child turns 13, they are expected to act like a proper adult and they're treated like one. They must find jobs that relate to their sign, or be sent off to train for the most important competition in our universe: Challenge of the Zodiac. This is a long and painful journey that lasts a total of twelve months, or one year. Teenagers from all over the world may choose to participate in the first round of the competition, where only twelve of them – all with different signs – will be chosen. These winning twelve will embark on the journey, where they must prove themselves worthy to work by God's side. The journey ends at Heaven's Staircase. The only problem is that no one knows its location, for the winner of the competition is forbidden to tell once they have found it and climbed to heaven. This competition takes place every twelve years, and once it's someone else's turn to work with God, the winner returns to Zodiac and they are forbidden to speak of their time spent in heaven--with our creator and our signs. Once this occurs, the competition and journey start all over again.


I just happened to enroll myself for the first round of the Challenge yesterday. The first round begins in two weeks, where twelve teenagers from all over the world will be chosen by their wits and abilities. This time around, thankfully, the first round is located in my section.



Despite the hardships I know I'll face, I hope my sign – Sagittarius – will pull through for me and I'll be able to prove myself worthy enough to live by God's side for twelve years.


Wish me luck!


~ Fay, Sagittarius


I finished the last s on my journal entry and retracted my ink-smothered brush from the paper. Scanning the wet page, I involuntarily smiled at my progress. Keeping a journal about the competition was a wise idea. That way, if I ever made it to heaven, I could share my experiences and culture with many other beings from different universes. The thought amazed me – I could barely even imagine the creatures I would meet in such a perfect place.


My fingers found the binding of my journal book as I blew softly on the damp page. I cautiously tapped the drying text, and much to my relief, the words didn't smear. Grabbing the book, I tied the new entry inside its leather cover. Once everything was in the right place, I outstretched my arms and grabbed the journal to take a good look at my progress.


The outside of the book was simple, really; poorly scripted text reading 'Astrological Adventure' was scrawled across the front, giving it an unwanted, childish feel. I tried not to scowl at the title. What state of mind I was in while creating the book, I may never know. I'm 17 years old and my ideas seem as though they come from a child no older than five. I flipped carelessly through the blank pages, and I found myself becoming pensive about what I would write about next. From the first round of competition to the twelve month journey, I knew that the journal wouldn't be empty for long.


Sighing, I pushed the book aside and let my eyes wander around my cramped cottage. It's a one room house with only a bed, a table with two chairs, a desk, a sink, and various decorations and trinkets. Making and selling bow and arrows to the citizens of my region doesn't get me far. Certainly not enough to pay the bills for my house in general and the new water system I had installed. I wondered how I even get away with such serious matters. Perhaps it's because I'm not even 18 years old yet, and the elders pity me. I find that very hard to believe, though, because in this society, as soon as your parents kick you out, you're expected to do anything an average adult does in a regular day.


I snorted. 'If only I were mature enough to do so,' my mind decided to add. I absentmindedly glanced at my pocket watch, and realized with much dismay that I should probably head to town. Grocery shopping is an essential thing, and I of course haven't done so in weeks. The little change I get from sculpting arrows and bows is barely enough for a few loaves of bread. Trying to push away the thought of poverty, I got up from my desk and made my way to the front door.


I froze in mid step, catching my appearance in the nearby mirror. Wrinkling my nose at what I saw, I realized that I didn't look the best. My light, auburn hair was tied back in a messy bun at the top of my head, making me look as though I had just crawled out of bed. The bangs didn't help, either, for they were cast to the side of my face, sticking up in all directions. Gray bags settled under my emerald eyes, creating a ghastly glow around my cheeks. The brown frock I wore only added to the monstrosity that is me. I glared at the clothing in disgust, making an irritated mental note about doing laundry soon.


Before I had barely even grazed the knob with my fingers, the door swung open suddenly by another force. I involuntarily wobbled back, surprised at the unusual action.


“Hi, Fay! I was hoping you'd be home. I was wondering if you could – ”


Ugh. I put a hand over the child's mouth before he could continue any further. I didn't even have to look down to know what annoying rat had arrived at my doorstep. It was Torf Sanders, the neighborhood boy who finds it necessary to pester me about almost anything. He'll come over to ask me to play war, or make me 'attempt' to show him how to use a bow and arrow. The worst incident was when he forced me to play leap frog in the middle of the street. This game ended in me hurling him into the grass before we got hit by an oncoming carriage. Since then, I've made a point to stay as far away from the road as possible.


I stared down into his blue orbs, trying to ignore the fact that a sticky substance was currently smeared all over his cheeks. Perhaps he would be tolerable if he wasn't always covered in filth. Shaking his dark, shaggy hair, he tried to talk through my hand. It took all my will power not to shut the door in his face. Realizing that the muffled sounds coming from behind my palm were more annoying than his regular voice, I uncovered his mouth.


Torf, the boy no older than 8 years old, glared at me in return. “What was that for?” he demanded in his usual, whiny tone. “All I wanted to ask was if – ”


“Look, Torf, I can't play with you right now. I have to get to the market and buy some supplies, otherwise, I won't have food for a while. This also means that I won't have any snacks available for you,” I tried to explain exasperatedly, attempting to get around the young child. Why did he have to show up now? I needed to stock up for the competition!


“But I didn't come over to play,” he surprisingly replied.


I stopped my useless attempts to get past him. Wait a second, he actually came over for something else? Even so, his presence was still a nuisance. I glanced at the busy streets in front of me with longing, wanting to get out into the market already. “You didn't?” I questioned. “Then why did you bother to stop me?”


Torf proceeded to twiddle his thumbs and look every where but in the direction of my face. Lovely. He does this when he wants something, and that wasn't a good sign. “Well...” he began, taking a particular interest in one of the nearby, untrimmed bushes in my yard. “I was wondering if you could tell me more about the Challenge of the Zodiac.”


My facial expression changed from confused to caught off guard. I tried not to smirk at my own stupidity. 'That sneaky brat,' my inner voice spoke for me, 'he knows he has your attention when the Challenge is brought up.' So Torf had a new way of getting me to talk, huh? It should have been expected; he always comes up with reasons to converse with me.


He continued, “You know I'm an Aries--” 'No, duh, it's written all over your face,' my mind put in, “--and I'm just really curious about it. Once I'm 13 I plan on training for the journey, like you!”


I ceased from trying to find horns sprouting from his bushy head and brought my attention back to his level. How this child planned on surviving the Challenge — as an Aries — I'll never know. Aries is a rather pointless sign, and the person who possesses it usually just has ram-like characteristics and horns. I wondered silently why God had to make Sagittarius and Aries both fire signs. The thought of working with a useless animal during the competition disgusted me. It was unavoidable.


“Why don't you come back some other time and I'll explain it to you, okay? I'm really busy.” My excuses are always futile with Torf, and I prayed to God that it would actually work this time.


Torf hung his head, and dark locks spilled over his eyes. “But I really want to know,” he mumbled, staring down at the sidewalk.


'No,' the voice in my head said sternly. 'Don't fall for it again.' The irritating boy always does this, moping around until I finally give in to his every wish. Despite how tempting it is, I'm not a mother who takes pity on small children.


“Some other time, perhaps?” I tried to sound somewhat promising. I needed to get into town.


“But you won't be around for much longer!” Torf suddenly exclaimed.


I froze at his words. Turning my gaze from a hurried passerby on the street, I noticed tears brimming at the corners of his eyes. My own eyes widened at the sight. My mind went to the thought of the absolute loneliness I would undeniably experience soon. Although I hate to admit it, I'm quite alone without any parents or friends to talk to. This boy, standing in front of me, is the only person I have. Suddenly the Challenge didn't seem as exciting as before – the thought was terrifying. The image of myself, abandoned by my teammates and cowering in the dark made me rush past Torf.


“I-I really have to go,” I croaked, knowing that there was no way that he had heard me. My hands found my pouch of money, and I clutched it tightly for support.
______________________________________________________________________________


I exerted as much force as I could on the change purse, hoping that all of my anxious energy would disappear. Trying not to think about Torf or the nearing competition, I delved deeper into the eighth region of Jupiter. There are thirteen total regions in my section, and the eighth is undoubtedly the worst. My town is always smothered in grime and trash from careless citizens. Shops are kept untidy and the prices are unbelievable. I hear that the ninth region is much more appealing, even though the distance from here to there is no more than a week's worth of travel. The thought was both frustrating and promising – Despite the fact that I didn't live there, perhaps my journey around the world will be just as nice as the ninth region.


Rounding a corner, I quickened my pace toward the market square. I didn't want to shop for long knowing that Torf might still be moping on my doorstep. As much as the child annoys me, I couldn't leave him there crying for the rest of the evening. His parents are never to be found, and sometimes I wonder if he even has any. Due to this, I can't just leave him alone when he's in such a strange mood.


'Don't worry yourself sick,' my head warned. 'You need to stay focused for the first round. It's only in two weeks, you know!'


I rolled my eyes internally as I continued my trek. My conscious was right, though – I do need to remain calm and undistracted. If I was going to win, I needed to arch as much as –


Without warning, someone rammed themself straight into me. My heart leapt at the action, and before I could process what was happening, I lost all balance. Tumbling to the rough concrete below me, I flailed in a pitiful attempt to catch myself. The situation only grew worse when the person fell right on top of me.


“Ooof!” was the strangled sound that escaped my throat. The air that remained in my lungs diminished at that moment, for I was being crushed by the unknown figure who had bumped into me. My eyes caught the items that had been dropped during the impact, and I realized that they were scrolls – ancient scrolls that teach humans how to better understand their sign. Not only that, but with the knowledge scripted inside, it's possible to increase your astrological power by ten fold. Greedily, I found myself struggling to reach for the rolled parchments under the person's weight.


“Oh God, sorry!” the person shrieked, and from the shrill sound of the voice, she was female. My arm returned to my side in an instant, for the sudden sound of another voice startled me. The girl bounded off of me immediately like a frightened cat. Much to my dismay, she retrieved the ancient scrolls and pelt away from my laying form.


I coughed, sucking in as much air as I could. Shakily getting up on my knees, I started, “Watch where you're – ” My voice quivered and stopped abruptly as I took in her features.


Horns sprouted from her blonde locks of shoulder length hair.


An Aries.


The girl eyed me worriedly, as if concerned for my health and physical well being. Her eyes were a piercing blue, much like Torf's, and their bright color really brought out her hair. The horns that were exposed on her head were a creamy white, and they almost appeared to be... beautiful. A baggy, blue shirt hung from her frail body, making her seem weak and somewhat childish. A matching skirt ran past her knees, and if she shifted her weight, I noticed black stockings as well. I furrowed my brow at her white ballet shoes, wondering why they were covered in a mass of gray powder.


“Aries,” I acknowledged slowly with a hesitant nod. My eyes involuntarily returned to the scrolls tucked under her arm. How did a teenage Aries, of all signs, attain such rare pieces of scripture? I've been searching for such things for years, and it angered me to no end that someone else was able to locate them.


The Aries girl studied me closely, and after a few moments of silence, she returned, “Sagittarius.”


A look of bewilderment crossed my face, and my mouth opened slightly.


How does she...?


“You have the concentrated look of a skilled archer,” she told me as if it were obvious. The corners of her mouth lifted into a nervous smile. “And you're just like me – we were both in a great hurry to get some where. We're both fire signs, after all.”


“How do you know for sure that I'm a Sagittarius?” I found myself saying in reply. 'Perfect example of a stereotypical Sagittarius,' my mind decided to comment.


I ignored the loud mouth voice in my head as the Aries girl said, “If you weren't a Sagittarius, you wouldn't have used that comeback.”


As expected, I already hated this random girl.


“Never mind our signs,” she continued, waving her free hand in the air to demonstrate. “People seem to care about them more than our actual names, don't they? It's ridiculous.” Without warning, a pale hand was suddenly distributed to me. I stared at her outstretched arm like it was a very contagious disease. “My name is Elle. Elle Willow.”


Elle, huh? Well, it was certainly perky enough for her appearance. I stared at her blonde hair wearily before returning my attention to her hand. Trying not to gag, I gave her the handshake she wanted before crossing my arms. “I'm Fay Larke,” was my mumbled reply. I know first impressions are important, but everything about Elle screamed complete and utter Aries. With that title comes an annoying personality and a tendency to be positive all the time, two aspects I'm not fond of.


“Fay,” Elle tested the name, as if to determine whether or not it was acceptable. “It's very feminine, especially for an archer.”


I gritted my teeth and hoped that she didn't notice.


“It's pretty, nonetheless.” She turned to look behind, studying the people rushing from one end of market square to another. “Where were you headed, anyway?” she wondered.


Dangling my pouch of money, I murmured, “I'm stocking up.” My eyes returned to the scrolls, and I noticed that she held them a little tighter. “The question is... where were you planning on going with those?”


Elle smiled in return, and if I looked hard enough, it appeared to be turning into a smirk. “My, we only met minutes before and you're already demanding answers. We haven't even had a proper conversation yet! How about we go over to your place and discuss this encounter?”


“What makes you think that I'm going to let some random Aries on the street waltz into my house and gorge all of the remaining food?” I shot back, starting to get fed up with this pointless meeting. Who does this Elle Willow girl think she is?


'She must be quite the person to get a hold of those scrolls,' my head reminded me in a sing song voice.


I glared into space as she replied, “Well, as fellow teammates in the Challenge of the Zodiac, I believe that we should get to know one another.”


My train of thought shattered once she was done speaking. How did she know that I'm participating in the Challenge? Unable to reply, I scanned her appearance once again. She looked young, possibly no older than 16 years. Which means...


“Oh hell no,” were the only words I was able to say. Elle raised an eyebrow as I continued, “There is no way I'm working with you to get to Heaven's Staircase. You know why? Because you won't get past the first round, no matter how hard you try!”


Silence.


'Harsh,' was all the voice in my mind could say.


I expected a punch in the face, or a stab to the eye with a rather sharp horn. Instead, I received another smile. It was almost sickly, as if Elle knew that she was irritating me to no end.


“Anything is possible with signs on our side,” she told me, her voice void of any amusement. Turning on her heel, she prepared to leave me standing in the middle of the alley.


Before I could control it, the word, “Wait!” came out of my mouth. I eyed my outstretched arm wearily, which was beckoning Elle to stay. What was I getting myself into?


“Yes?” The Aries' grin grew, and her horns almost seemed to glitter in the setting sun. She was enjoying this way too much.


I let out a sigh of defeat, knowing that I had given in. Not all Aries are smart, but this one definitely is. Reverse psychology appeared to be her forte.


“You can come to my house,” I began, and her expression turned smug, “if!” I gestured to the scrolls still tucked under her arm. “If you let me take a peek at those pieces of parchment.” The scrolls were taunting me, for I could not see the wisdom-filled words that lied within.


“Done!” Elle was back at my side a split second later, and I stared in horror as she stuck out her free arm to lock our elbows. “Lead the way,” she practically ordered, pointing in the direction in which I came.


Trying not to inflict pain on her, I hesitantly agreed. I smacked myself internally as we began our walk to my cottage. So much for shopping.
______________________________________________________________________________



“Whatever you do, don't touch anything.”


“There's not much to touch.”


“...Are you implying that I'm poor?!”


“Why would do such a thing? Your home is... lovely.”



I tried not to roll my eyes at Elle's pathetic attempt to compliment my house. It was an ignorant idea to let her follow me here, especially since she was now putting her grubby fingers on every item in the room. She was like an insect I couldn't catch, and she flew from one antique to another. After her awkward statement, she decided it was necessary to grab a hold of something that is very dear to me.


“Don't –!” I began, lunging for the item she clasped in her palms. My plea was cut short when she pulled it out of reach, stretching her arms high in the air so I couldn't get to it. Looking up into her amused face, I realized with dismay that she was about an inch taller than me.


“Relax, Sagittarius,” Elle told me, and she grinned at my fuming expression. “It's just a little...” She furrowed her brow, bringing the trinket back to her eye level. “What is this, anyway?”


I snatched it back almost immediately, hugging the polished glass to my chest. I turned my gaze to my hands, where a neatly painted fish figurine lay snug between my fingers. Touching its textured gills lightly, I replied, “My mother's a Pisces. She made this for me when I turned 13 years old, so I could take it with me to this section. And this...” I groped behind a jeweled box on the shelf, and pulled out a similar figurine, except it resembled a golden crab. “Was a gift from my father.” I smiled at its poorly painted eyes. “He's not as good at sculpting as my mother, as you can tell from its quality.”


Elle put a finger to the crab's glass claw. “I don't think quality matters if it's a gift from the heart,” she declared.


That was the problem. I'm not sure if these gifts were made to express my parents' love for me, or just as a required farewell present. Since they placed the two glass figurines in my palm, I haven't spoke to them since. I remember gazing down at the fish and crab, admiring their simplicity. Then my mother and father disappeared, leaving me with a ruck sack and a week's supply of food. The pressure I had been feeling was overwhelming, especially since I was only a child of 13 years. I winced as I recalled the many nights in which I didn't sleep, and instead sobbed until my throat burned.


Elle's hand moving back and forth across my line of vision brought me back to reality. I found her staring down at me with a look of utter confusion written on her features. “Zodiac to Fay, do you come in?” she tried to joke, cracking a pearly white smile. When my hard expression didn't change, she asked, “Are you all right?”


I began to place the glass figurines back in their proper spots, wanting to look as though I didn't just have a painful flashback. “Yeah, I'm perfectly fine,” were the unconvincing words that I came up with. Straightening up the rest of the shelf, I continued, “I'm just thinking about how the Challenge is going to turn out.”


The Aries girl pondered for a moment, then gestured to the unfinished arrows across the room. They were spread out on my writing desk, still in pieces. “Well...you're an archer, right?”


I raised my eyebrows high. “Are you stupid and blind?”


Elle jutted out her bottom lip, pouting like a small child who never got their way. “No! I'm just... Ugh! The point is, you're an archer, and usually Sagittarius humans are amazing at handling bows and arrows.”


She was correct. Most people born from the sign Sagittarius were unbelievably talented with arching weapons. I happen to be one of them, for I've handled such tools since I was old enough to stand on two feet. I started out just learning myself, practicing shooting in the yard when I wasn't learning out of schoolbooks. This usually resulted in me producing a wound or destroying a neighbor's property. Even through all of that, I was able to become a skilled archer on my own. As a stubborn child, I couldn't learn from masters and other fellow people of the sign Sagittarius. I couldn't handle critique or someone studying my every move. Instead, I would take spare fruits and other breakable objects out of the house to practice in the dead of night. Thinking back on it now, I really was an ignorant person.


“Where are you going with this?” I wondered. She was only stating the obvious, and it wasn't getting us anywhere.


“You seem like you have a lot of potential,” Elle finally spit out. “I mean, you even walk like a successful apprentice! You shouldn't have any problem getting past the first round and surviving the journey.”


Surviving. That was a key word I didn't like to think about.


I decided to let my rare, kind side show by replying, “Well... you seem like you've got some power. Would you mind letting me see what you're capable of?” I eyed the scrolls, which were now sitting on my bed comforter, still rolled and unread. Elle's horns were the only details that showed that she was a Aries, so... what could she do? I tried not to laugh as I pictured her running people over like an insane ram. Now that I thought about it, she had done something similar when we crossed paths near market square.


“Are you saying that you want to fight me?” Elle wore a bewildered look on her face. Her blue eyes were wide with astonishment, as if she couldn't believe I wanted to do such a thing.


I shrugged as if it wasn't a big deal. “You could put it that way, yes.”


Elle continued to appear shocked for a few moments, but then the look was replaced by a strange calmness. She strode over to the other side of the room where the scrolls were located. Touching one of them lightly, she decided, “I guess it wouldn't hurt. After all, we're future teammates, right? Fire signs are always grouped together.” She turned her head, and a devious gleam was visible in her eye.


Giving her an uneasy glance, I started, “Right – ”


Before I could continue, I was pushed up against the nearest wall. My back slammed into the shelf behind me, causing me to wince with pain. Boom. My eyes darted to the glass cups which had fell to the floor with a crash, and their pieces glittered in piles on the hard wood. A blow to my shoulder brought my attention forward, where Elle stood with her nails dug into the fabric of my shirt. She butted her head to my arm again, and I realized that she was stabbing me with her horns. The stinging sensation reminded me of a knife jabbing itself into soft flesh.


'What are you doing!?' my mind shrieked. My confused and cloudy head tuned in to listen. 'Are you just going to let her beat you up like this? Go to your weapons!'


Elle lunged for my bleeding shoulder again, but I managed to pull myself together and duck out of the way. I sprinted for the far corner of the room, where my best bow and arrows lay. Their hiding place is behind my bed's headboard, that way if Torf started snooping, he'd never find them. Grappling blindly behind the mattress, I saw Elle rushing toward me again. She looked like a choleric bull, storming at the nearest human who irritated her the most. I silently thanked God that she isn't a Taurus as I felt the weapons brush my fingertips. I fumbled with the bow and arrow before leaping onto my bed. Elle thundered right into the wall where I had stood, leaving a noticeable hole where her horns struck.


Scowling at the damage, my mind put in, 'She's fast, but once she gets going in a certain direction, she can't stop.'


Elle grinned up at me, and yanked the tips of her horns out of the wall. Fragments of plaster followed this action, and they fell gently to the floor below. What was this girl's problem? One minute she seems like a kind teenage girl, and the next, she has a lethal look in her eye.


'Bipolar, perhaps?' my head suggested.


Instead of pondering on this particular thought, I aimed for Elle's left shirt sleeve. I couldn't bring myself to harm her, but I could slow her down. If I shot it just right, then the sharp end of the weapon could pin her to the wall by her clothes. As soon as she inched toward the foot of the bed, I slung the arrow in the direction of my desired target. My mouth dropped open as the Aries girl caught the weapon in her hand with inhuman speed. In denial, I studied her fingers closely for any wounds. There were no visible cuts. I clutched my shoulder, feeling the sticky, warm blood there.


Impossible. People of the sign Aries are never this quick and skillful. It takes all my concentration to stop an arrow from piercing me, so Elle –


My thoughts were cut short as I remembered the ancient scrolls that Elle had promised to let me read. They were still laying on the far side of the bed, untouched by our sudden 'battle'. Suddenly, I had an idea as to why this random girl is so strong.


As Elle threw the useless arrow to the floor, I dived for the scrolls on the opposite end of my bed. I tore open the nearest one, scanning the text with a determined intensity.


'Rewjentkinwehwqvnqandkgsnf,' the parchment read.


I knew I must have looked comical as I put my face closer to the cream-colored paper. Squinting didn't help decipher the letters any better, so I reached for the next three scrolls. Each held the same form of gibberish. Although each scroll had different text written on the inside, none of it made any sense. “What the hell?” I said aloud. My gaze turned to Elle, who glanced back at me out of the corner of her eye. Her mouth was set into a firm line for a moment or two, before she burst out laughing.


Letting the papers fall back onto the comforter, I screeched, “What?!” I whipped my head back to the nonsensical scrolls, which still donned the strange letters. “I don't understand this! It isn't amusing!”


“Y-You... I...”, was all Elle was able to say before she was overcome by another wave of giggles.


I jabbed a finger in her face, and her laughter barely ceased. “Listen here, Aries,” I spat, making the sign sound like an insult, “if you don't tell me why you're acting like a bloodthirsty mental case, I'll – ”



Knock, knock.


We both grew silent as the sound of a fist pounding on wood resounded throughout the one room cottage.


I gave her an icy glare and she shrugged. “Not my house; not my door to answer,” she replied simply.


Twisting up my face, I started, “You don't – ”


Before I could finish, the front door swung open on its own. Our heads turned at the sound, and I tried not to scream in horror as I saw who made his way into the room.


Torf.


Not looking up, the 8 year old boy started apologizing to the floor. “Fay, I'm sorry for asking about the Challenge of the Zodiac earlier. I just wanted – ” He stopped as his eye caught Elle, who was still standing awkwardly beside the bed. I studied myself, who was in a frozen position surrounded by scrolls and stiffly pointing at the Aries girl. I felt warm blood continue to make its journey down my arm, and realized with dismay that we didn't appear too well.


I quickly clasped a hand over my wound, praying that by doing so, Torf would somehow forget it was ever there. Without thinking, I blurted, “Torf, it's not as bad as it looks. I can explain every – ”


“Awesome horns!” The annoying boy shouted, rushing to Elle's side. He grinned, and poked one of them cautiously. “You're an Aries, too?”


“You have got to be kidding me,” I said through my teeth. Even though I was bleeding, weapons were scattered about the room, and a stranger was in the house, Torf still paid no attention to his surroundings. This day was just getting better and better.


Elle's expression brightened at his enthusiasm. “Yeah!” She bent down to ruffle his hair, as if they were close siblings. “Looks like you're still a bit too young for your horns, though, huh?”


The Aries boy puffed out his chest, as if he were the toughest person around. “I'm not young,” he argued. “I'm probably going to get a different trait that resembles a ram, instead of – ”


“Sorry for cutting in on this wonderful conversation, but I'd like to point out something.” I faked a smile and continued, “Didn't you two meet, oh, I don't know, twenty seconds ago?”


Elle offered me a hand and I reluctantly let her pull me down from the bed. “It's okay, Sagittarius. People like us,” she gestured to her and Torf, “get excited when they meet one another.”


I crossed my arms. “It's fun to meet other archers and all, but I don't start talking to them like we're old friends. Especially in another person's house.”


“You're a pain in the butt, you know that?”


Torf frowned at her statement. “I don't think she is. She's really nice to me,” he said.


I stared at him blankly, unphased by his compliment. “You want something, don't you?”


“...Can I spend the night?”


Groaning, I relived the last 'sleepover' we had in my head. Torf had insisted that singing was necessary in the late hours of night, and he didn't shut his mouth for several hours. “Absolutely n – ”


“Oh come on, Fay, it'll be fun!” Elle decided to pitch in.


“Since when were you welcome to stay?!” I hissed. “In case that you've forgotten already, just a few minutes ago you sliced my shoulder with a ram's horn.”


She waved a hand in the air, as if it wasn't a big deal. “I was showing you what I was capable of, just as you asked! Besides,” she pointed to the scrolls, “I let you look at those.”


“They make no sense!”


“Here's where you're wrong,” Elle told me as if I were redundant. “They're written in a code. If you let me stay here for the night, I'll explain everything that is written inside the scrolls.”


I glanced back at the scrolls, which still had the gibberish inside them. Why would the knowledge be written like that? “They're coded?” I repeatedly slowly.


“That's what I said,” she said cheerily.


It was possible that she was just pulling my leg again by saying that the random letters meant something. The Aries girl probably just wanted a place to stay, and free food to eat whenever she pleased. However... I eyed the cream-colored paper again, and with a sigh, I agreed. “Fine. But!” I stuck my pointer finger in the air. “Only one night! Both of you! All right?”


Elle nodded in understanding. “Fair enough.” She turned to Torf, who had been unusually silent. “What about you?”


“I think it's a good idea,” Torf said in return.


“Excellent!” Without another word, Elle strode back over to my bed and slipped under the covers. Pulling the comforter past her chin, she looked strangely at home.


I stared at her grinning form, wondering if it was worth it to kick her ass or not. 'After what you've been through today? Not a chance,' my mind decided.


I let out a long breath, blowing my bangs away from my face.



These next few weeks were going to be quite enjoyable.

2 Weeks Later...




I woke up to something sharp poking at my arm. Swatting at the spot where it had touched me, I merely rolled over and clutched my pillow tighter. This didn't affect the object, for it ignored my hand and continued to jab at me. “Not now,” I groaned, placing a hand over my face.


A nearby voice giggled. “I don't think you'd want to miss the first round today, Sagittarius.”


At the words 'first round', my eyes flew open and I shot upright. Whirling to face Elle, who had one of my arrows in her hand, I shrieked, “That's today?!”


The Aries girl flinched at my tone, but nodded nonetheless. “That's why I'm not letting you sleep in 'til noon! The competition starts in an hour!”


“What?!” I flung the covers off of me, and struggled to escape the cacoon of sheets I was in. It was like someone had trapped me in a mess of blankets in the middle of the night. “Dammit, Elle! Why didn't you wake me up earlier?!”


Her expression turned innocent. “I tried,” she told me. “You didn't react to this,” she pointed to the dull end of the arrow, “until a minute ago.”


Me being a heavy sleeper didn't help anything, it seemed. Pulling the final tangle of sheets away from my leg, I hissed, “You could have punched me! That would have woken me up, despite the pain!"


“Even that probably wouldn't have stirred you,” Elle said, and I could tell that she was failing at hiding a smile. She merely wrung her hands, pretending to look interested in something else.



When my feet were finally free, I quickly hopped out of bed. I attempted to make my way over to my wardrobe, tripping over an empty plate from the night before. I glared at it, as if it were the cause of this horrible situation. Kicking the round object, I spat, “It doesn't matter, because we're going to be late, anyway!”


“No, we're not, because I'm not going to let that happen!”


Flinging open my wardrobe, I scanned the clothing that was revealed to me. A green shirt and matching pants caught my eye as I replied, “And how do you plan on doing that?”


“Simple!” I could practically feel the grin on her face without turning to look. “We're going to leave right now!”


I froze with my hand suspended in mid air. “What?”


Before I could process what was going on, Elle grabbed my arm and started dragging me toward the front door. Realizing what had just occurred, I frantically darted my eyes around the messy, unkept house. “What the hell?! I still have to – ” I began.


“Nonsense! You look fine as it is!” was the Aries girl's well thought out response.


My gaze lowered to my night clothes as we bounced down the sidewalk. It looked like a servant's uniform that had been vomited on and washed in dirt. Scowling at the disgusting brown colored fabric, I squawked, “But we haven't eaten any – ”


“I'm sure there's breakfast available there!” Elle glanced back to tell me before continuing our sprint across town. She swiftly dodged a couple holding hands, and I was pulled along in that direction. “Besides, we haven't gone before! You never know!”


“Yeah, like they're going to choose a girl dressed like this to win the – ” A carriage decided to roll by at that exact moment and its wheels splashed a puddle of water in my face. Elle thankfully stopped her insane run to look back at my soaked form. She put a hand over her mouth, but laughter still escaped her palm. “Don't say a word,” I barked, glaring down at my newly wet appearance.


The Aries girl continued to giggle and took ahold of my wrist once more. “You look great. Let's just walk there.”
______________________________________________________________________________


Since the day I had met Elle, she hasn't left my side. Even though I griped about her sleeping at my cottage for only one night, it turned into a permenant stay. I tried asking about her parents, but every time I brought it up, she'd change the subject or pretend to be focused on something else. Does she even have a house to return to? Where was she headed with those scrolls the day we crossed paths? Wasn't she supposed to be residing in the Mars section until the Challenge? So far, all I have accomplished is learning some techniques out of the coded scrolls from Elle. Other than that, I've found out nothing about the mysterious Aries girl who just appeared out of the blue two weeks prior. I thought back to a particularly boring night that we spent working on our astrological skills.


“No, no, no!" She had shook her head and wildly lunged for the bow and arrow in my hands. "You're not concentrating correctly," she had told me.



I donned a comical expression, baffled. "And what, may I ask, is the correct way to concentrate?"



"What I mean is, you're not concentrating in a proper manner," she had said matter of factly. "You always look so angry when you're arching. How about you calm yourself a little bit? Think of something happy while holding the bow and arrow, perhaps."



I pursed my lips, trying to hide a sardonic smirk. "Okay, then." I closed my eyes, and then with the biggest grin I could muster, I sneered, "I'm thinking of Elle falling face first into a pile of shit."


I released the arrow, and a moment later I heard it hit the target across the room.


Opening my eyes, my expression brightened at what I saw.



The arrow had landed in the bullseye.



Elle sputtered, putting one of my bed's pillows on her head. "B-But how did you even...? That's not..."


"Problem?" I raised an eyebrow, failing at hiding my triumphiant smile.


Her face fell, and she removed the pillow from her hair and promptly launched it in my direction. "You're so mean, you know that?"



"Who said I was being mean?" I said with a straight face, hugging the pillow tightly to my chest.



Elle stared blankly back, her expression void of amusement.



Sighing, I left my bedside to go retrieve the arrow that had successfully landed in the middle of the target. The target, which was located above one of my several shelves, was high up and I cursed my height for what seemed like the billionth time. Feeling like a weak child as I stood on my toes, I replied, "Look, Elle, I've let you stay here for the past five days. Not only have you been eating my food and taking up space, but you've been occupying my bed as well. Wouldn't you classify this as me being a nice person?"



Her voice was quiet from the other side of my house. "Well...yes, but your attitude could use a little improvement."



Finally clasping the arrow in my hand, I yanked it away from the target and returned to my normal height. "My attitude, hm?" I questioned absentmindedly, poking at the arrow's sharp end.



"Yes. I mean, what if we both win the first round of the Challenge and we have to work in the fire group together? I don't think your bitter attitude would get us through any mountain passage or dangerous lake. And what about the Leo we would have to work with? He or she would probably get fed up with--"


"Stop," I hissed, tossing the arrow into my messy pile of weapons. It clattered to the floor, resting where the other arrows laid. I put a hand to my hand, checked my pocket watch, and glared at the late time. "Just...stop talking about this, okay?"


Elle, who was standing stiffly by my bed, looked back at me with wide, blue eyes. Her gaze quickly darted to the floor, in an almost...fearful way. "Sorry," she whispered, appearing distracted by the wooden texture there.



Silence.


I sighed once more, taking a seat at my only desk in the cottage. Tracing a piece of paper with my finger, I replied, "I know people of the Sagittarius sign are supposed to be optimistic about life, but...I don't know about myself sometimes. I try really hard to be happy about things, like I'm supposed to, but it's hard. I'm 17 and I have to pay all these bills and juggle training all at the same time. I want to win the Challenge of the Zodiac with all my being--it's almost become an obsession--but it's really hard to focus with all these other problems going on in my life."


The Aries girl remained silent, and I took that as permission to continue.



"I hate talking about my emotions and dwelling on the past--just like any other Sagittarius--but sometimes that's all I can think about. I often wonder where my family is and if they still care about me. I feel like the idiotic kid next door is my adopted son, and unfortunately I can relate to him a lot because his parents seem nonexistent, too. I just...I don't know. I'm sorry if I seem like this massive bitch, but I haven't had a real friend since I was 13."


What was I doing? I thought. I never talked about how I felt, or about my parents, for that matter! As soon as my confessions left my mouth, I immediately regreted talking about anything at all. I cautiously peeked at Elle, who surprisingly, looked sympethetic to my words.


Her face softened and she slowly made her way over to where I sat. Once she reached my corner of the room, she almost nervously put a comforting hand to my shoulder. I focused on the scattered papers around me rather than her face.


"Hey...It's okay, Fay," she said, using my real name for what seemed like the first time. "I...I understand. And," I heard the smile in her voice, "you actually consider me a friend?"


Feeling ashamed for what seemed like no reason, I nodded slowly, keeping my gaze on the desk below me.


Without hesitation, the blonde ruffled my tied up hair. "Well then," she started, grinning at my unpleased reaction. "Perhaps my friend and I should look at the constellations together. It's a clear night, and maybe we'll be able to see Sagittarius and Aries while we're out there."


I turned to face her. She stared kindly back, and I knew that she sincerely wanted to spend time with me. After a few moments of silent communication, I stood up from my chair. "Y...Yeah," I managed to say. Trying to hide my wavering voice, I finished, "I'd really like that."


Elle brightened at once, and as usual, she yanked me by the arm and began to drag me toward the front door. "Great! The sky is amazing today, you know. It's really bright and full of--Oh! Have I ever told you about how I believe we become one with the stars once we die? It's an awesome theory I've been..."


I merely tuned her out, smiling at the thought of having someone who cared about me.


Now, as Elle bounded us through the busy region, I looked back to the many misadventures we managed to have over the past two weeks. The bubbly Aries had been proven to be a loyal friend, no matter how many times she drove me crazy a day. I focused on her determined, happy expression as we ran, smiling unconsciously at her strange attempts to make me feel better about myself. Maybe...just maybe...she would be powerful enough to join me in the competition. I thought about how she would probably talk my ear off for the next year, keeping me up at night and making our most deadly situations comical. Oh, wouldn't it be interesting if we made it to Heaven's Staircase in one piece. I quickly shook my head at the thought. No. That would probably never occur, especially now, donned in my 'unique' clothing that a carriage was nice enough to design. I would be surprised if the elders even considered passing me through the first round.


"Hurry up, Sagittarius! Why do you keep stopping in the middle of the road? If you keep this up, we really will be late for the first round!" was the voice that cleared my confused thoughts. I snapped my head up from the cobble stoned ground to see Elle's concerned face staring back at me.


"Crap! Maybe we should speed up, then!" Letting go of her hand, I sprinted ahead, rushing past the few remaining signs of the city as we grew closer to the arena where the teenagers were supposed to gather. I heard the Aries girl's voice behind me, urging me to slow down so she could catch up. I promptly ignored her, focusing on the clattering of my worn boots on the road below me. I remained in a full blown run for the next five minutes, noting that I probably had a chance at escaping falling rocks or an animal that threatened to devour us whole if we made it to the journey part of the Challenge. People who were walking by stared strangely at us, quickly manuvering out of the way as we zipped past them. At one point I managed to knock someone's groceries out of their arms, but instead of stopping to help, I merely shouted a faraway apology. I had no time to pause and catch my breath.


And then, from what seemed like no where, the massive arena appeared in the distance.


It was beautiful, really, carved from the finest gold in the world. There were a few other arenas like this located around the planet: a couple for every element of astrology. Despite my region's filthy atmosphere and city life, we did have the previlege of hosting the first round nearby. We were asked to use our arena--its purpose is usually only for training--this time to hold the first round in the Challenge of the Zodiac. When I actually went to town the other day to gather food and supplies, I tuned into people's excited conversations about our popular arena. It was an honor for the 8th region to be chosen this time, and I had never seen people so thrilled about our training facility finally being put to good use.


As we grew closer, I caught sight of the familiar astrological statues lined neatly on the path to the arena's main entrance. I grinned through my lack of breath and strength, pusing harder toward the wonderful place. Each statue was made out of gold and stood at least ten feet tall, towering over the visitors who walked past them. People who were either participating in the competition or merely coming to watch, stopped by the statue and admired their unique craftsmanship. Almost reaching the path to the front doors, I glanced over my shoulder. There Elle was, staggering behind and clutching her chest, much in need of breath.


Feeling strangely sympethetic, I slowed down, finally coming to a full stop. "What's the matter, Elle?" I grinned, my positive energy returning for the first time in months. "I thought those scrolls of yours were supposed to make you stronger and faster?"


The Aries girl continued to wheeze, stumbling over to the neatly carved path to the arena. She wrapped her arm around her back, patting the backpack that laid there. "You just shut up and keep walking," she breathed, a smile wanting desperately to reach her face. "These scrolls," she pointed to the backpack once more, "will definitely come in handy if we make it past the first round."


I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, well, we'll see about that." I caught sight of the statues once more, and my expression brightened immediately. "Hey, Elle! You ever seen these before?"


I rushed over to my undoubtedly favorite statue, the Sagittarius, and my friend was forced to follow slowly behind. My sign was portrayed here as a half horse half man figure. He stood on three hooves, while one was lifted up from the bronze base. His muscled arms held a giant, glittering bow, while one hand held back an arrow that was just as magnificent. His expression was concentrated, staring faraway at something that wasn't there. His golden hair was long as well, falling a little past his shoulders. I smiled proudly at the piece of art, appreciating how my people were depicted here.


"Huh. No, I believe I haven't," Elle eventually replied, her gaze seemingly distant. She reached out to touch one of his hooves, and continued, "From where I come from, we don't--"


Suddenly, she stopped herself. I stared at her, expecting for more words to escape her mouth. Instead of going on with her previous statement, the Aries girl sputtered, "H-He's quite attractive. Maybe we'll find you a nice horse man today, eh, Sagittarius?" The smirk that appeared on her face didn't quite reach her eyes.


"Er, perhaps," I said awkwardly in return.


We stood there for a few moments, looking up at the statue in silence.


"Hey! Let's go find the Aries statue before we go inside!" She then grabbed me by the hand again, dragging me along the rows of gold. I furrowed my brow as she nearly yanked my arm off, finding her sudden mood change a little odd. Then again, it was Elle. She made absolutely no sense and she refused to tell me anything about her. I wondered where in the world she came from, because she certainly wasn't supposed to be stationed in Jupiter.


Before I realized it, I was shoved in front of a statue that depicted another handsome man. He stood shirtless on two, furry legs, posed in a fighting stance. His sparkling hair was messy, nearly covering his blank eyes. Two horns much like Elle's sprouted from his head, curling inward at the ends. An almost cocky smile graced his lips, giving him an attitude that was similar to my friend's.


"This guy's attractive, too," I told Elle, whistling for affect. "It looks like we might find you a nice man as well!"


She shook her head, giving me a playful shove. "I didn't come here for a date, Sagittarius. My mind is elsewhere, mainly on getting to Heaven's Staircase."


I nodded, for my intentions were the same. "Right. Let's go inside, then, and see if we'll be able to accomplish such a thing!"


We started to jog again, and I realized that we probably had to get in the arena soon to tell the elders our name, age, and where we originated. It was strange to see so many people of different signs casually walking around. The majority of the people here were Sagittarius, along with the stray parents and children of different signs. And then there was Elle, who had shown up in my life two weeks before the first round. She certainly didn't look like she'd just arrived--She was waltzing around with those scrolls like she owned the place. How had she been here so long without anyone questioning or even noticing her presence?


As we sped walked toward the entrance, I noticed a small sign resting beside the end of the row of statues. Curious, I swerved closer to it, hoping to read the text scrawled upon it. I squinted, trying to see the words while in motion at the same time. What reached my eyes was:


Reserved For the One They Call Ophiuchus


Ophiuchus? What the hell was that supposed to mean? I slowed down, and Elle nearly rammed into me.


She yelped in surprise, pushing herself away from me. "Watch it, Sagittarius," she said with a confused look. "Why are you stopping all of a sudden? We need to get inside!"


Almost mechnically, I raised my arm to point at the sign. "Read that."


Putting her hands on her hips, she reluctantly raised her gaze to the sign. "Honestly, we have no time for reading useless signs. Why, the only things we should be reading is..." she trailed off, finally taking in the words that were revealed to me only moments before. She turned slowly, lifting her face to see my own. "Er, what's an Octopus?"


I put a hand to my head. "...Octopus? Did you seriously just call it that?"


"Well, yes. I have no clue how to pronounce it."


"It's O-few-cus, I think."


Elle wrinkled her nose. "Sounds like 'mucus'!"


"Only you. But in all seriousness," I stared back at the sign, "what in Zodiac does it mean? And why is the sign located out here?"



The Aries girl shrugged. "Maybe its an elder with a really interesting name. Perhaps they're making a statue to honor him or her!"


"Perhaps..." I tilted my head, as if by doing so I would learn the sign's real intention. When no luck was brought onto me, I continued, "But I highly doubt it. No elder has been honored like this before. And it seems to be a sign reserved for a statue being made, like you said. Why would they make a statue for an elder?"


"We'll find out some other time. Let's just hurry on inside! We're gonna be late!"


Elle dragged me away from the sign, but I still couldn't pry my eyes away from the sight. The bold lettering bore into my eyes, and I couldn't look away. It had to mean something important, otherwise it wouldn't be located outside for any passerby to see and inspect. There was something strange about it, too--Of all the times I had visited the arena, a sign like that had never been out in the open. What was its purpose? But most of all, what was its true meaning?


My thoughts were so clouded by the mysterious sign I didn't realize that Elle had led us inside the arena. I snapped my head up from the now sand covered ground, allowing my eyes to scan our location. The inside of the place was familiar to me: an oval shaped building with a roofless top, with rows and rows of seats for audience members to sit in. I had came here many times to practice arching by myself, and if I was lucky, there would be fifty people in the audience come to watch other teenagers and adults they knew. But now...


There had to be at least a half a million people that stared down at us.


I sucked in a breath at the enormous numbers. I didn't think this many people would show up to watch twelve teenagers get chosen out of...out of...


I continued to look around me, and noticed that there were thousands and thousands of competitors present as well. I looked to my right, and, noticing the picture sewn onto her shirt, I realized a Libra was standing beside me. Two golden scales were stitched onto the fabric of her brown frock, shimmering back at me as I stared. The girl glanced at me out of the corner of my eye, giving me a strange look. As I expected, the look wasn't disgusted. She merely studied me for a moment, then became focused on her surroundings again. Huh. It was hard to tell what a Libra's ability could be, especially when their sign is two scales used to weigh objects. To my left stood a boy, who didn't have any obvious features about him that could give away his sign. I snorted. It must be hard to be a Virgo when you're male, because as soon as you're born, you're bound for an eternity of mockery. I would hate to say, 'Hi, I'm a Virgo. My sign is of a woman who is a supposed virgin.' I smirked, silently thanking God that He had made me a tough Sagittarius. Signs like Virgo and Libra often don't have powerful abilities, so most of them don't participate in the Challenge. If they do, though, they usually have no option but to fight with weapons and their fists.


Feeling someone poke my back, I whirled to face Elle. She seemed anxious by all the teenagers surrounding us, especially since they all weren't Sagittarius and Aries. "Hey," she said quietly. "It looks like we're getting closer to where the registration is held!"


I turned my gaze directly in front of me, standing on my toes to see the front of our line we had subconsciously formed. As I studied the area, there appeared to be ten other lines. There were only about twenty people ahead of us, for most of the teenagers seemed to be smart and had arrived at the arena early. I narrowed my eyes. I would have been one of them, if a certain annoying Aries had woken me up at a decent time.


"Yeah, it looks that way," I replied, trying to hide the disgust in my voice. I wanted to get within the arena as soon as possible, and run around the free space, dashing through the sand and shooting whatever comes in my direction. As I thought about it, my excitement grew, and suddenly I could barely wait any longer for the Challenge to start.


Within the next five minutes Elle and I had reached the front of our line, where three different elders sat at a marble table with a feathered pen in each hand. They appeared nervous and already worn out, for the number of teenagers pouring into the arena was really unbelievable. "Next," a female elder squawked, motioning for Elle, me, and a few other people to step forward. I cautiously drew nearer, noticing that the elder had to be a Capricorn, for her hands held a sickly blue hue. She looked up at me boredly, her specticles appearing as though they would fall off her crooked nose at any moment. "Name, please," she demanded in the same voice she had used before.


Suddenly feeling more nervous than before, I stiffened and sputtered, "F-Fay Larke."


She seemed unimpressed by my words. "Fay, you said?"


"Yes, ma'am."


"From whom were you conceived?"


"Er...my parents were Dacius and Elysia Larke."


The female elder quickly scrawled what I said on a piece of parchment in very tiny print, under hundreds and hundreds of other names. The other two elderly men merely stared at me, looking displeased by my messy appearance. I smacked myself internally.


"Where were you raised as a child?" was the next question posed to me.


"I was raised in the section Neptune; my mother was a Pisces, and my father was a Cancer."


She didn't look up. "And your sign?"


I quickly looked to Elle, who grinned and pulled out two arrows from her massive backpack. I smiled in return, taking the weapons in hand. Pointing to them, I replied, "I'm a Sagittarius."


"Hm. Interesting. Next!"


Before I was forced off to the side, I was given a badge that read 'Sagittarius'. It glittered when I held it to the light, and the small piece of bronze held a symbol that represented my sign: An arrow with a line dashed through the middle. I grinned at its simplicity, and walked farther into the arena as I was told. Rather than leaving my friend behind, I waited until Elle's questioning session was over. All I caught was that her parents names were Viktor and Nessa Willow, and that they were of the signs Scorpio and Taurus. She seemed more anxious than I was as the female elder asked her general things, as if she were hesitant to reveal them. Unfortunately, I didn't hear her say where she grew up, and the elder looked unimpressed as she stuck the Aries badge to my friend's shirt.


Elle marched over to me, inspecting her new badge as she did so. "These things are really pretty," she murmured to herself, studying the swirly symbol that was displayed upon the bronze.


"Yeah, and now we'll be able to spot out our competition quite easily," I said, smiling deviously. I turned my head, and immediately saw a boy run past with a Sagittarius badge. "See? Another Sagittarius just flew by us!"


"You're right about that. But..." The Aries girl looked around, studying the open area around us. "It looks like we'll have to split up for now. Look."


She gestured to the numerous archways located around the inside of the arena. Each one held a sign's name above its opening, and at once I inferred that we had to go our seperate ways into different rooms until the first round started. Suddenly, I felt a pang of lonliness at the thought of being on my own again for a little while. I furrowed my brow. No. 'What's wrong with you?' my mind asked. 'You'll probably only be in there for twenty minutes at most.'


Studying the archways thoroughly, I slowly nodded. "It appears so." Almost hesitantly, I offered my hand to Elle. "See you on the other side, all right?" I said, wincing as I noticed that my voice wasn't all that reassuring.


Elle took my hand in her's nonetheless, shaking it in reponse. "All right," she grinned, her face bright and full of new enthusiasm. "I know we're gonna kick some major butt."


"I certainly hope so."


With those parting words, we turned in opposite directions toward our designated tunnels. I had to jog across a long expanse of sand in the middle of the arena, pushing past other teenagers who were frantically trying to get to their spots before the competition started. It was difficult not to bump into them, for space was limited. I felt like a million eyes were on me as I made my way to the arch that had 'SAGITTARIUS' scripted across the top in huge letters. Feeling uncomfortable and out of place, I quickened my pace, hoping to get there faster.


And then, as if the world was against me, a boy nearly rammed himself into me.


My arrows fell to the ground at the close impact, for my hands had decided to experience a miniature panic attack. I whipped my head to the sand, staring at the arrows, and then my gaze immediately snapped to the person who had caused me to drop my weapons. A rather hairy teenage boy looked back at me, his expression stunned and his hands frozen in mid air. Brown eyes stared wide into my own green ones. His hair was ruffled, sticking up in different directions and whisping in the strangest ways. Dark stubble took up much of his face, lingering down half of his neck. Chest hair was visible even through his shirt, and I noticed that his arms were covered in a hairy mass as well.


I didn't have to think to know that he was the definition of a Leo.


I was definitely fed up with running into odd people. If he was going to be anything like Elle, I didn't want to associate myself with him, especially since I was running out of time until the Challenge started.


He began to bend down toward my arrows. "Sorry. Do you need help--" he started in a deep, rough voice.


"Thanks, but no thanks," I replied quickly before he could finish, retrieving the weapons myself. Once they were in my arms, I whipped back into a standing position as fast as I could, and straightened myself up. Before the mysterious Leo boy could say anything else, I made a note to get the hell out of there. I weaved my way through the last wave of people, keeping my head low so the boy couldn't follow after me. I didn't need another annoying mouth constantly beside me.


I breathed a sigh of relief as I finally entered the appropriate archway. It was much cooler in the dimly lit tunnel, and it felt good to be in the shade again. Hundreds and hundreds of eyes stared back at me as I walked inside. There were a good number of seats there, but since there was so many teenagers, a lot of them were forced to sit in the sand, inspecting or fixing arrows. Some of them even had the lower body of a centaur, the animal that often represented our sign. I even saw glempses of horns as I awkwardly seated myself at the opening of the room. A part of me is thankful that I don't have horns or any other animalistic features, because knowing Elle, I would probably be the definition of annoying. Seeing other people like me made me nervous, especially studying their expressions. They were hard and blank, concentrated on their upcoming round. Would I be able to beat out these teenagers, who seemed like they knew what they were doing? I bit my lip while on the ground, keeping my gaze low. The thought only made my stomach churn even more.


"Nice outfit," a girl nearby snorted in my direction. She donned horns much like Elle, and she was sharping her own arrows with a knife. Her back was against the wall, slumped into a lazy position.


I put on the best sympathic expression as I could. "Nice face. What happened?"


Other Sagittarius teenagers around us snickered, nodding in agreement with my simple comeback. Fortunately for me, the girl merely turned away hautily, seemingly more interested in what was to come than picking a fight with me.


'God, I hope if I make it onto the journey part of the Challenge that I don't have deal with people like her,' I thought silently to myself.


I didn't have to sit there long before the sound of an instrumental horn rang throughout the entire stadium. The people in my tunnel immediately silenced themselves, coming at attention at the sudden noise. I sat upright, directing my gaze to the open area outside. Scooting myself closer to the tunnel's opening, I cautiously peeked around the corner. The audience was silent as well, and no one dared to move a muscle. The horn had been blown, which signaled that the competition was about to begin.


I grinned to myself, hardly able to wait for what was about to come.


"Friends!" A deep, strong voice boomed from the highest point in the arena. An elder stood still on a balcony, a horn pressed to his mouth. The object helped increase the volume of his voice, otherwise, the million citizens seated in the place wouldn't have a clue what he was saying. He continued, "People of the world Zodiac! People of the sections Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Pluto! Even people of the Sun signs! I welcome you to the 5,869th...Challenge of the Zodiac!"


The whole stadium roared. The people inside my tunnel shrieked and yelled, allowing themselves to become encouraged by the elder's official words. They danced, high fived, and smiled from ear to ear. I found myself joining in, unable to hold in my excitement any longer.


"As you know, this competition is held every 12 years. The first round--which is taking place here, in the 8th region of Jupiter--determines who will continue onto the 12 month long journey to..." The man paused for affect, and then finished, "Heaven's Staircase!"


Hundreds of thousands of people screamed once more. Thinking of the white, sparkling marble staircase gave me goosebumps. I had only seen the wonderful steps depicted in artwork, for those who had actually seen it weren't allowed to describe or draw what it looked like. I imagined the steps sparkling like stars, a velvet cloth stretching across the marble and the sky, dotted in rose petals...I sighed. My version was beautiful, yes, but I'm sure it doesn't compare to the real thing.


The elder raised his hands for everyone to calm down. Once they settled, his loud voice continued on, "Thousands and thousands of young adults have gathered here today to find out if they will be elegable to venture out into the world. The journey to Heaven's Staircase is a long one, and if reached, the winner will be able to rule by our almighty God's side, the creator of the stars, our world and the heavens above, for 12 wonderful years. Once this day is through, only 12 teenagers remain."


People talked amongst themselves despite the elder's speech still going on, for they were far to anxious to listen to what they already knew. I was beyond jumpy, playing with the sand on the ground as I listened to what the speaker had to say. Unusually, the elder paused for several moments, looking around the arena in interest.


He began again, "This time, however..."


I leaned closer out the tunnel. A boy near me looked amused by my action.


"What?" I mouthed, wanting desperately to hear more.


"There will be 13 teenagers that will remain on this day."


Complete and utter silence.


It appeared that the entire arena was in shock. My mouth was agape, for I was stunned by this new information. Sagittarius boys and girls around me murmured in hushed tones, discussing their own opinions on the matter. "This is bullshit!" "If I ever get my hands on the guy who decided this, it won't be pretty." What? Why 13? Wasn't that breaking the ancient rules created by our long ago ancestors? It was always 12 people. No more, no less. I furrowed my brow, suddenly feeling very angry about the situation. More competition was all I needed. What sign was marvelous enough to be able to have two teenagers represent its people? Oh, God. I squeezed my eyes shut. If it was an Aries, I would kill myself.


"It's not what you think," the elder continued on to attempt and calm the displeased crowd of people. "No sign is superior to the other; there will never be two chosen from the same sign to represent it."


I felt myself relax a little. But this still didn't explain the strange matter.


What could it be?


"There is in fact, as we stand here as one today, another sign among us."


Silence.


Oh, God. My eyes grew wide. Could it be...?


I watched intently as the elder stepped out of the way on the balcony. Another man pushed past him to the front.


I twisted up my face in confusion.


The horn still pressed to his lips, the elder hollered, "Ladies and gentlemen of the Zodiac, I am honored to introduce you to the 13th sign of the astrological Zodiac: Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer!"


My thoughts immediately went back to the notice Elle and I had seen earlier. This time the letters in my mind cut deep into my consciousness, taking over my senses as I sat frozen.


The dark-green cloaked man stood tall on the faraway balcony, looking down at his massive audience. His hair was a midnight black, flowing a little past his shoulders. It hugged his slim, pale face, giving it a shadowed look. Even from my spot on the other side of the stadium, I could see his hollowed cheeks. His eyes, too, pierced back at me: they were a mystic, neon yellow. Like a serpent's. A shiver ran up my spine as I noticed a good sized snake coiled around his arm and shoulder, nodding its head back and forth as it studied the people in the arena. The reptile certainly fulfilled the image that represented this...this...


This new sign.


I tried to imagine Elle's reaction to what was going on and failed miserably.


I whirled to see the other Sagittarius teenagers' expressions to what had just occurred. Much to my surprise, they seemed...fascinated by the sight of the mysterious man. Some of them even had stunned grins on their faces, looking as though they loved the idea of a new sign appearing out of the blue.


Shaking my head at the sights, I was in denial. There was no way this could be happening.


"This is the only recorded Ophiuchus on the planet," the elder suddenly said, jolting me out of my clouded thoughts. "We discovered his existence only days ago, for he came to us."


The Ophiuchus man, who looked to be 19 years of age, merely looked around, not paying any attention to what the elder had to say about his new appearance.


"Don't let his simple title fool you. This man has a much greater power, one that could be compared to an ability that some Scorpios and Leos are blessed with."


I knew what was about to happen. My heart rate quickened, and I hugged my knees closer to my chest for comfort.


"Would you mind giving us a demonstration?" The elder questioned, turning to look at the pale man.


The new man of the sign Ophiuchus shrugged, mumbling something in reply. The elder looked pleased by his reaction, and stepped farther out of the way. The crowd, at this point, seemed too fascinated and anxious to speak to one another.


Suddenly, the man climbed on the balcony's railing, coming to a full standing position on top of it. His snake promptly slithered off his arm on its own, resting itself on the railing as well.


My eyes widened, wondering if he would fall to his death below.


Instead of doing so, he transformed into a giant beast and dove off the balcony.


He was a serpent.


Rather than falling hard on the sand and breaking all the bones in his body, the now Ophiuchus snake merely landed gracefully, his body curling into a soft, rounded heap. His new scaly form had to have been at least fifty feet long, and the width must have been just as impressive. As his green skin glittered in the hot morning sun, he simply just stared ahead, his tongue forking in and out of his mouth every so often.


And then his bright yellow eyes locked with my own.


I was frozen in my spot on the sand.


"Ladies and gentlemen, your new 13th astrological sign, Ophiuchus!" The elder yelled to break the unsettling silence.


Much to my dismay, the people that sat in the arena cheered and roared for the terrifying snake.


"Since he is the only one of his kind that we know of, he will automatically be inducted into the journey to Heaven's Staircase! Congratuations, Nexus Wander, for being the first Ophiuchus to participate in our Challenge of the Zodiac!"


And at that moment, I knew that things were going to be a hell of a lot more interesting than I once thought.

After the noisy elder's congratulation statement toward Nexus--the acclaimed man of the sign Ophiuchus--it seemed as though my life was beginning to spiral in a whole new direction that I never thought would occur.

Apparently it was indeed possible for a new sign to immerge and take hold of a born human.

The thought kept me still in my frozen, curled position on the cooled sand. What was this? I glanced back to Nexus in the middle of the arena, who was still a snake and was currently slithering his way out of view. In the beginning, God had made 12 signs of the astrological Zodiac. Before I turned 13, I attended school where I learned about our planet's history and culture. From the text I was told to read, I found out that our world couldn't be more than 7,000 years of age. If that was so, then God created the Zodiac six millenniums ago--when the universe itself came into existence--and since then, those dozen signs haven't changed or altered in any way. Why now, of all times to create a new sign? There seemed to be nothing special about my generation. From what I've inspected, it's not that exciting at all. All of the wonderous tales of battles and magic took place far before my time, when Zodiac was still young. That's when God should have created a new sign, when things were epic and serpents were needed to fight in chaotic situations.

Why now?


I glanced about my narrow tunnel again, and my fellow Sagittarius teenagers were beginning to calm down. While the sight of a massive snake was certainly stunning, I wasn't impressed. Instead, I was terrified. The simple thought of possibly having to face this unbelievable beast on the journey made my skin prickle and a cold feeling creep through my veins. And those yellow eyes. I thought about those slit pupils boring into my own, staring at me with an eternal creepiness as the snake lunged toward my flesh, sinking its fangs into--

"Now that the announcement is over with, let the Challenge of the Zodiac officially begin!" The elder's booming voice jolted me out of my disturbing thoughts, and I lurched forward in surprise. A nearby girl stared at me as if I had just created fire with my fingertips.

Finally processing what the elder had screamed into the horn, I whirled to face the other teenagers around me. They scrambled up from their seats, lunging toward their arrows, knives and compartments that stored the weapons. Girls struggled to tie up their hair, wrapping the strands in woven rope. Those that had the body of a centaur straightened up their fur, making sure it was down and looked proper enough for the competition. I, however, really couldn't do much. Standing up, I stared wearily at my appearance. The most I could do was brush the excess sand off my shirt and pants, and tuck loose hair behind my ear. I retreived my arrows off the ground as well, storing them in their rightful place on my back. I made sure that the strap around my stomach was securely tightened. And then there was my bow that never seemed to leave my grasp. Its design was intricate, full of carvings of ancient-looking Sagittarius archers in battle. I glanced around for a mirror. Unfortunately, there wasn't one. I blew hot air from my mouth. Lovely.

People began to file out of the tunnel slowly at first, but then the rush became more frantic. I luckily got out of there as soon as I could, for I couldn't do anything else to help my messy appearance. I tried to stand tall, my shoulders back and my chest out like a confident, ready warrior. I certainly didn't feel how I looked, but I hoped I seemed powerful. Walking steadily out into the arena, I studied the thousands of teenagers that piled out of their own archways. We all looked like tiny ants, scurrying to the middle of the stadium where the first round would begin. I caught sight of many horns, furry bodies, claws, fish-like skin, strange eyes, and of course, countless weapons. It was strange to see so many of us in one place, and at that moment, I became evident of the number of people I had to face.

I swallowed nervously as I followed behind a girl with peculiar horns.

"What a turn out! I've been told that exactly 245,689 teenagers have enrolled themselves into the Challenge, and..."

The elder's voice became mute to my ears as I continued on. I didn't want to hear about how many people I was up against. Finally, after what seemed like a century, the crowd stopped moving. One by one we were forced to stand still, unable to go any further. The 200,000 some people had reached the middle of the arena, and we couldn't go on.

"...Alright, here's where things get interesting: Line up according to your sign. Aries, form straight rows in front of the balcony I stand on, and once you've filled up a spot, Taurus will follow after and so on. Once Pisces has finished, the battle for a place in the 12 chosen teenagers begins."

The people of the sign Aries quickly followed his command. I stood on my toes, hoping to get a glempse of Elle, but all that met my eyes was countless bodies that blocked my view. It took quite some time for our formations to take shape, and by the time Sagittarius was called, it felt like hours had passed. I took my place in the nearest line, standing tall and staring straight ahead. My stance faultered as time went on, and I felt like sitting on the ground for a nap when the Pisces teenagers were finished.

Silence.

"You all know what comes next," the elder nearly whispered into the horn, and I could hear the excited grin in his aged voice. "Turn to face the person behind you. People of Aries, merely turn forward."

I sucked in a breath. Almost hesitantly, I turned to face a Scorpio boy in front of me.

The first round always started like this. You fought the person directly in front of you until they were unconscious, and then you move onto the person who stood behind them. This system usually only lasts for two fights, and then things get beyond hectic. People get confused, and rather than following what they were told, they lash out at the nearest teenager. These battles last for hours, and I've been told that they've lasted several days before. I shook my head. It's okay. I was prepared for such a thing. I could survive.

The Scorpio boy's dark hair was spiked, and it only flowed in one direction: toward the right of his head. It stood up like tall grass, drooping and falling at random. His eyes were a shadowed brown, and they almost appeared black at first glance. He didn't wear a shirt, and instead bare, very defined muscles stood in its place. That wasn't the oddest detail, though.

The boy's lower body was that of a scorpion.

I winced at the sight. His torso down was a sickly purple color, continuing all the way to the tip of his tail, where I was sure the poison was held. He lacked legs, and I inferred that he probably just slithered around like a snake in this form. I looked back up at his face, and the expression I got was filled with disgust.

"What are you looking at?" He asked in a low, hissing tone. Spatting at the ground, he wiped his mouth with a hand.

I raised an eyebrow.

"Your clothes look like you bathed in shit."

"Thank you," I replied in a monotonous voice. My calmness seemed to anger him, for he bared his teeth and flicked his tail at my response. "At least I wear clothing.”

A low vibration rumbled through his throat. A growl? “You look like an easy opponent. I’ll knock you out as soon as the battle starts.”

“I look forward to seeing you try.”

See, this is why I’ve never had a boyfriend. When men actually try to be nice to me, I respond by acting tough, letting them know I’m not inferior to their gender. This usually turns them off. Most of the time, though, they act exactly like the Scorpio boy in front of me. They look at me once and see nothing, so they treat me like any other dirty male.

Before the scorpion could punch me in the face, the elder spoke through his horn again, “I’ve given you time to study your opponent. Now the battle will begin.”

My ‘enemy’ and I shared heated looks.

“At the sound of the horn, you will begin to fight. 3...”

I pulled an arrow from my back.

“2...”

I placed it into position on my bow.

“1...”

I gently pulled it back on the string.

The horn’s low sound vibrated throughout the arena.

Complete chaos.
`
I released my arrow at once, and it shot in a dizzy spiral through the air. The Scorpio, despite his lower body, was quick. He seemed to flop over on his side, slithering like a snake as the weapons whirred past his ducked head. I furrowed my brow and dodged a nearby Sagittarius that almost ran into me. The giant scorpion, now on the ground, crawled over to me like the insect itself. He lashed out his tail swiftly, hoping to catch my feet and stinging me with a deadly poison. I, however, got lucky and managed to jump out of the way. He repeated this several times, and at one point he accidentally hit a Capricorn instead. The half-goat half-fish screeched in pain, and he fell to his knees, the black poison already bubbling up his legs. My eyes widened at the sight.

The tail whipped at me again, and this time it hit my faded shoes. The fabric merely tore, but the poison didn’t reach my skin. I didn’t have time to sigh in relief, and instead dodged to my right again. I pulled another arrow out from its storage case, and fumbled with the bow. Jumping over the Scorpio’s tail, I shot the arrow at him again. It flew past his shoulder, barely grazing the skin there. A small cut formed, dots of blood appearing in the spot. The scorpion just blinked, baring his teeth at me again.

This time I reached for my knife, and I made a mad dash behind a nearby Libra. The Scorpio’s tail flicked again, and unfortunately it hit the Libra boy instead of me. He screamed, clutching at his back as the posion rose to his neck and made him curl into a fetal position. I flinched as I watched. ‘Sorry,’ my mind whispered for the wounded boy.

“Damn, stop moving!” the scorpion boy cursed, slithering after me once more. I ran past more and more teenagers, noticing that a good bit of them were already on the ground, clutching at bleeding flesh and possibly broken limbs. They certainly didn’t last long.

“Make me!” I said in a particularly sing song voice, grinning after the struggling Scorpio. If I kept up my cheery act, it would possibly intimitate him and slow down his attacks.

When he came close enough, I hopped over his tail and shoved the knife within his sickly purple torso. He hissed in pain, his tail violently lashing out as I dug the weapon deeper into his odd skin. His tail thankfully hit my shirt sleeve, and the action only made me stagger backwards at the impact. I snapped my gaze back down to where I held the knife, and I noticed blood pouring from the wound I had created. Ripping the weapon out of his flesh, he roared at the sensation it caused. He clutched the gaping hole with one hand, and with the other, he punched me squarely in the jaw.

I stumbled, falling over onto a teenager behind me.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going!” the girl shrieked, scrambling up to face her opponent once more.

I followed suit, attempting to return to my feet. I clasped my cheek as the Scorpio boy covered his own wound. The pain must have made it hard for him to move his tail, for his stinger merely twitched and lopped back and forth as it struggled to lunge at me. He shot another punch in my direction, but I knew to duck this time. I saw his attack coming. I grappled for another arrow behind me, placing it roughly inside the bow’s string.

That’s when he grabbed my leg.

I wobbled, trying to stay steady on two feet as I pointed the arrow in his direction. My leg shook as I struggled to keep my balance, while he tried to pull it out from under me. Grunting, I managed to shoot the weapon at his tail.

He screamed in pain.

This time, though, he literally fell over, digging his large fingers into his strange flesh. I took this to my advantage and stood over him, towering over his body now that he was on the sand. I retreived another arrow from its place behind my back, and settled it inside my bow.

“No,” he hissed, writhing on the ground.

“I’m afraid so, big guy,” I said with a sardonic grin. “No journey for you.”

And then, at random, the scorpion managed to move. He flicked his tail around, and, much to my surprise, he darted away from me, scuttling off toward the other side of the arena.

My mouth gaped. I blinked at his retreating form, wondering why he had left. You weren’t allowed to do such a thing.

I let the arrow go limp in my bow, allowing it to fall to the sand.

My first battle was a failure.______________________________________________________________________________

I didn't have the heart to chase after the cowardly Scorpio.

Instead--now that people were starting to turn on one another--I merely attacked the nearest person. The orderly way the first round had started was shattering, and people were punching whoever came their way rather than moving in front of them. It seemed to always work out this way, though, and the elders controlling the arena didn't seem to care. They just wanted 12 conscious winners at the end of the day. 'So be it, then,' I thought to myself, bringing down another Gemini. This one had been able to clone herself, so it was especially hard to harm my real enemy. Her counterpart fizzled and poofed away as she fell, becoming apart of her limp body again. 'If I have to take down every person in this arena at random to win the first round, I'll do it.'

I bumped into a Leo--who, unfortunately, could turn into an actual lion--and spent the next ten minutes trying to take him down with my remaining arrows and attempting to shove a knife in his flank. He was stronger than the Scorpio, though--he acted just like a real lion would: roaring manically, thrashing his paws in all directions as his mane followed. His fur was almost stunning, a glittering gold mixed with a chocolate brown. Even though his animal form was beautiful, I still had to remember that it was my job to defeat him. In our heated battle he managed to give me a slanted cut on my cheek, and as I continued to go after him with my knife, I felt the stinging, oozing blood trickle there.

"Dammit, be a good kitty and let me knock you out!" I shrieked, taking a fist full of his mane and practically jumping on his back. He growled, trying to naw away at my fingers as I tried to get ahold of his massive, wrigging body.

"Fay!? Is that you?"
`
Losing focus at the sound of my name, I had to look up.

Elle was stumbling nearby, fighting off a Taurus--who was literally a bull--that appeared to be trying to run her over. Her face was covered in sand and grime, and spots of blood lingered at her skin. I breathed a sigh of relief over the Leo. Thank God she was still in the round. It was good to know that she hadn't--

The lion decided that now was a great time to scratch me across the hand.

I howled in pain, shaking my fingers in the air to ward off the stinging sensation. The Leo continued to try and chomp at my hand, as if my action only fueled his desire to devour my entire arm. Despite his attempts, I found myself grinning at Elle's nearby form, glad that she too was still standing. More than half the stadium had been wiped out, and thankfully only an hour had passed. I've heard of first rounds lasting far more than that, even over 24 hours. My generation seemed to want to get it over with. I didn't blame them, though. The first round was time consuming, and our real intentions were to start the journey. We were focused on that more than anything else.

"It's nice to see you alive and well!" I shouted awkwardly over the chaos, shoving the lion aside once more. He roared, displeased.

My Aries friend managed to smile over her attempts to agitate the Taurus. She had pulled a red cloth from her giant backpack, dangling it in the bull's face as if it were a chew toy. I rolled my eyes. Leave it to Elle to have something like that stashed away, ready for use. It certainly worked, though, and the bull snarled and shook his head at the sight.

"I could say the same about you!" She screamed, holding the cloth over her head as the Taurus thundered past. His action reminded me greatly of the time Elle had tried to stab me with her horns, and I had to surpress a laugh, even with the lion snapping at my limbs.

Tired of the lions pestering actions, I shoved my knife into his side. He roared, tumbling over into the sand, leaving a dust cloud as his body hit the ground. Blood mixed in with his fur, making a matty mess. Just to make sure he didn't get up, I grabbed an arrow and jabbed it into his flank.

I glanced around as I tried to ignore the Leo's howls. There weren't many Sagittarius teenagers left; they were merely scattered around the stadium, either clutching bows and arrows or donning a centaur's body. Huh. Grinning at the sight, I realized that there weren't many remaining people of the sign Sagittarius. Perhaps I really could win.

"Nice one, Sagittarius!" I heard Elle's perky voice even through all the screams and shouts. She had managed to get the bull dizzy, and he was stumbling around her in a confused daze. "You're doing great!"

My friend's words seemed to fuel my remaining energy, for I merely smiled and went after a nearby Aquarius. She was fumbling with a pot of water, lashing it out in streams of ice that she created with her bare hands. I didn't hesitate to attack her.

Maybe we would win. Together. Just maybe.__________________________________________________________________________________

Another hour passed. The arena was only dotted with teenagers now, and I knew there only had to be around a thousand remaining. As time went by, it seemed that people's energy was starting to disappear completely. They were starting to fall from wounds at a faster pace, as if they no longer had the will to continue after all the constant fighting. Fine by me. Their lack of stamina was helping me take them down easier.

I merely danced around my many opponents, dodging their weak attacks with ease and sending them down to the sand with one blow. I only had a few arrows left, but with the lack of will I was seeing, it didn't really matter. My knife could wound them just as easily. Despite the couple of hours that had passed, the crowd remained on the edge of their seats, curious as to who would been the twelve remaining teenagers at the end of the day. Our audience was served drinks and food, as if all this was a show to them. I snorted through the fighting. It was much more than that, and I hoped they understood.

Nudging a particularly annoying Cancer off my arm, I made sure to stab her in the claw before I continued on my circular trek around the arena. The competitors jogged and ran with a strange limp now, as if all their energy was being drained our of them by the second. They swung their weapons lazily and lunged with the drowsiness you'd see in a small child before going to bed. People were being knocked down in hordes now; they wobbled to the ground like dummies, falling over like they were participating in a very large game of dominos. They fell in piles, laying on top of one another as though they were...dead.

I shook that uncomfortable thought out of my mind. Killing someone in the first round was strictly forbidden, but once you got on the journey there were no elders or judges to tell you what to do. If a situation on the twelve month journey led to murder, there was no one to stop you. I've heard stories about people losing their minds during that time, eventually not caring if they killed someone on their way. Heaven's Staircase is almost like a prize, and the twelve teenagers that participate in the journey will do anything to reach it.

Even if that means getting rid of a close friend.

'Crap,' I thought, scanning the area of motionless and crawling bodies. 'this is becoming more like a maze as time goes on.'

And it was. I had to climb over the piles of bodies and attempt not to hurt the fallen teenagers any further. Some of them were unconscious, and others failed to lift themselves up. Their wounds were sickly, and I often had to turn away from the gruesome gashes and tears.

If I wasn't careful, then I'd surely--

At that moment, someone decided to grab my ankle and pull me down to the sand.

I made a quite unattractive noise as I fell on my front, sending a miniature dust cloud of sand up into my face. Coughing frantically, I tried to wipe the dirt away from my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt. As I attempted to scramble up from my laying position, my unknown attacker clutched my arm this time, yanking off me off the ground instead of letting me do it myself.

I whirled to stop a punch to my face, gripping the person's fist in my own hands.

Shaking with the force of the person's arm, I managed to get a good look at my attacker.

It was a girl, and she...she...

I bared my teeth in disgust.

She had to be a Pisces.

God. If there was any worse beings on Zodiac than Aries, it would be people of the sign Pisces. Sure, people of the sign Scorpio and Cancer were irritating pests as well, but...

I looked into the Pisces' face once more, remembering why they were so annoying. No, it certainly wasn't their looks. This girl had short brown hair, and it bobbed and curled near her ears. Her eyes were a bright blue, like the sea that she surely loved. She had a slight tan as if she had been lying on the beach for a while, but it was still...pretty. Although her face was twisted into a scowl, I unfortunately knew that she quite beautiful behind her current anger.

People of the sign Pisces often depend on others, one trait I'm not especially fond of. Some of them are overly sensitive, crying and being overdramatic even about the simplest situation. Not only this, but the signs Sagittarius and Pisces usually don't agree on anything. So naturally, the very presence of this girl brought immediate hatred upon me, and I didn't want to be seen with her any longer.

"Move," I hissed, shoving her away from my grasp. She did just as I told her, prancing a few feet away from me. She fingered at her low cut skirt and pretended to look interested in her maroon bathing suit top.

"What's the matter, Sagittarius?" she said, smirking at me in a way that reminded me of Elle. But the way the Aries girl smiled at me was much different--I could always see the teasing look in her eye. But this Pisces girl appeared as though she sincerely wanted to make me mad, and I could tell her agitation was just starting. "Get annoyed by a little fish, do you?"

"I have no interest in the ocean," I replied, lifting my chin high and watching her closely. It was only a matter of time before she made the next move. "It's only a nuisence with travel and contains useless creatures whom I never wish to associate with."

She faked a sigh. "Pity. I was hoping you'd go for a swim with me."

Drawing my knife once more, I twisted up my face in confusion. "What the hell are you talking about?"

The Pisces girl shrugged, as if everything about the first round was casual to her. "I just thought I'd invite you to have some fun." She ducked a flying weapon, and her calm facial expression remained. "Perhaps you should give it a chance, hm?" she suggested, closing the distance between us once more.

I took a step back. "What are you--"

Without warning, she lunged, grabbing at my shoulders and pulling me down to the heated sand. A dust cloud immediately followed our tumbled action, billowing up into the air and around my face. I squinted, baring my teeth and trying to pry the girl off of me. I stared in horror as she merely grinned down at my frustrated appearance, pushing harder at my limbs so I stayed immobile below her. I couldn't reach my arrows or use my bow. Bashing at the ground with my fists, I attempted to wriggle out of her grasp.

And then the ground below me suddenly felt noticably colder.

And wet.

At that moment, we seemed to plunge downward into a whole new setting. Our bodies were ingulfed by a cold atmosphere that was heavy and...and...

We were underwater.

My eyes widened, suddenly realizing where we were. The Pisces girl was still above me, gripping my arms and pulling me farther down into the endless abyss. I couldn't breathe, of course, but I knew for a fact that this fish out of water could. She smirked at my breathless and struggling expression, enjoying my lack of air. She even had the nerve to kick me, allowing my body to spiral down into the new world she had created with her mind.

"Bitch!" I tried to say, my speech blocked by the watery mass around us. My statement merely came out as a gibberish howl, sending bubbles up into her face. As if she understood me, she laughed--a real one that you would hear on the surface, not contained by the water. I furrowed my brow, not quite understanding her ability to do such a thing.

"Need some air, Sagittarius?" She spoke in a clear, loud tone, still gripping at my wrists.

I gave her a look of pure confusion.

Barely able to process what was going on, the Pisces girl pulled me back to the surface, yanking me away from my watery prison. I gasped for air, flapping my arms pathetically in the puddle that now laid at my feet. As I glanced around between gulps of breath, I noticed people giving me strange looks as they continued to fight off their opponents. I looked from the Pisces girl's triumphant face to the small pool of water below me.

Of course. She had managed to somehow shrink the water level to make me look like an idiot.

"You--!" I shrieked, splashing around and reaching out to grab her ankle. Strings of matted hair were in my face as I tried to get ahold of her limbs.

Before I could get a good grip, the water level rose once again and I was pulled under.

This time she had the nerve to push me farther down into the abyss, allowing the freezing water around us to take hold of my flesh like an icey blanket. I struggled, cursing at her in my mind as I swatted uselessly at her hands. She smiled, enjoying my pathetic attempts to harm her. She whistled casually, as if it were a normal thing to do underwater.

With all the force I could muster, I pulled one arm away from her and reached for my knife in my pant's pocket. It floated easily into my palm, and I gripped its cool handle there. Twisting up my face, I dug the weapon into her forearm, slicing a bloody red line down her skin.

She screamed at once, freeing my other arm to clasp her newly developed wound. The blood shot up into the water like powder, allowing a dark cloud of red to mix around us. Rather than going for me again, she headed to the surface by herself. I followed, keeping the weapon tight in my hand as I swam upward.

Once I reached open air, I only felt the cool puddle below me for a second before it was replaced by the familiar sand. Sitting there, I knitted my eyebrows. What had just occurred? I turned my gaze to the Pisces girl. She was standing upright, clutching at her bleeding arm. Oozing blood trickled down her flesh, eventually meeting with the heated sand beneath our feet. Her expression was no longer taunting and playful. She was utterly enraged by what I had done. Her eyes burned with a terrifying intensity behind her soaked hair.

"What?" I said, shrugging and unable to hide a smile. "You didn't think a centaur could beat a fish in its natural habitat?"

She shook her head, beads of water following her action. "You haven't won yet."

Her arms were suddenly circling in the air in some strange motion. I stared, hunching back, knowing that something horrible was about to take place soon enough. She kept her gaze on me, and it was a blank, completely unamused look. Then, at once, water began to rise from the sand below us. Rather than engulfing both of us again, it merely rose, higher and higher above her head as she continued her motions.

And then a giant wave was present above us, towering over the entire arena.

Oh, shit.

She smirked another time.

Swooping her arms downward, the massive wave followed her command to move in the same direction.

Pounds after pounds of water smashed onto my helpless form, and who knew how many other people it trapped as well.

I tumbled and turned again and again under the new ocean that surrounded me, attempting to open my eyes to see where I was. As the water continued to pound against my body, bubbles blocked my vision and I couldn't swim back up to the surface. I struggled to see something, anything in my blinded state, whirling again and again under the massive weight above me. As I flipped, I could make out several shapes floating around me, seemingly in the same situation. Had the Pisces girl's power wipped out other people, too?

Continuing to flail against the strong current, I knew I couldn't remain like this and drown.

I had to win.

And I was going to beat that girl so hard that she would no longer be a problem for any of us.

I swam hard, pushing helplessly against the crashing wave above me. My continuing actions almost hurt, for the water weighed far more than I did. I squinted through the bubbles, trying to see and reach the air that I so desperately wanted. It was like I was trying to move a giant boulder that refused to move. My frustrations took ahold of me and I screamed: it was a drowned out sound, muffled by the water, but I'm sure the other shapes around me could hear.

"Damn!" I gurgled, pushing with even more force against the current. I was getting close, but I was also losing air. My arms were almost sore from the heavy weight I had to face.

God, help me!

And then, I broke through that final barrier separating me from the outside world.

I gasped as I reached the surface, splashing around as I regained focus of the things around me. The water level lowered at once, allowing me to wobble up into a semi-standing position. Waves still churned below me in a final attempt to bring me back to my knees, but I managed to keep myself firmly planted in one spot. There was the Pisces girl, only a foot or so away from me, her hands still dangling in a pathetic attempt to keep the water moving. I immediately bared my teeth like a wild animal as I noticed her. I stumbled over to where she stood, still breathing in labored wheezes.

"Damn fish," I hissed, nearly tripping over into the few feet of water below me. She didn't budge as I grabbed her by her bathing suit straps, forcing her closer to my face. I wanted her to see how angry I was. "T-This time," I continued, sounding as though I was drunk, "This time, I'm going to pound your ass so hard, that..."

I trailed off, taking note of my surroundings.

The fighting bodies that had stood tall only minutes before now lay scattered around the two of us. They were soaked, weak, and some of them didn't even move in the water below us. The ones that didn't have the strength to move, though, only twitched their fingers or arms, trying to drag themselves out of the massive wave pool. Their weapons were floating around, being tossed and turned by the uneasy water.

I stared in wonder at the sight, loosening my grip on the Pisces girl's top.

And then I noticed who remained.

A tanned, shirtless boy stood a few feet away from us, his black hair short and slightly spiked. He wore only brown pants that nearly matched his skin tone, and they had noticable holes and rips here and there. His eyes were dark from where I stood, and I inferred that they were some shade of brown. He had appeared angry at first, thrashing the water around him in an attempt to escape the watery prison. Now he stood tall, almost confused, as he took in the area as well. The massive, gold nose ring that he possessed immediately made me realize that he was a Taurus.

Two other competitors stood nearby, arguing like little school girls. One was a boy, though, and he had short, golden hair that went well with his green eyes. The girl was almost identitical to him--her hair was also a light brown that brought out her emerald eyes. They wore the same orange shirt and pants, which were soaked from the massive wave and the fact that they kept splashing each other. Their expressions certainly showed that they weren't pleased with their heated conversation, but they suddenly stopped when they too noticed the people who remained. Their similar nature, appearance, and clothing made me realize that they were Gemini: twins. They stood as one person.

Then there was a blonde haired boy, who appeared amused by the countless bodies that couldn't get up. His amusement, I could tell, wasn't harsh--he just found our whole situation funny. His brown eyes sparkled as he saw the few people who stood and his white grin certainly couldn't go unnoticed. He wore a gray outfit that was long sleeved despite the hot weather. Rather than hands, large claws sat in their place. They were a creamy red, covered in textured bumps that even met with his small wrists. This boy was definitely a Cancer, and his appearance gave it away at first glance.

And then I saw a familiar face: the Leo boy who had rammed into me earlier. He scratched his ratty hair and beard, as if by doing so he would figure out our strange situation. Claws that I didn't notice before sprouted from his fingertips, gleaming in the hot afternoon sun. He eventually saw me staring, and gave me an awkward smile and wave in response. I merely stared back at him with disgust.

There was a blonde girl beside him, who's hair was above her ear on one side, and below her shoulder on the other. I furrowed my brow at the sight. It appeared as though she had a really bad haircut, as if the person who was cutting her hair had a blindfold on at the time. Her blue eyes stood out from the distance, sparkling and matching the water that remained. She wore a purple low cut shirt and a skirt of similar color, but I couldn't tell what sign she could be. I dubbed her as a Virgo for the time being.

A red-haired girl stood behind her, patting her shoulder in a way that could have meant comfort. Her brown eyes were clouded with worry, possibly for the dubbed Virgo. The ends of her hair were tied by green beads, giving her a unique hairstyle. A green belly shirt matched these accessories, and pants went along with the outfit. The shirt, however, had a picture of two weighing scales on them. Definitely a Libra.

I almost screamed when I saw the next person: it was the rude Scorpio who had escaped from our battle earlier, and he had managed to stay conscious thus far. What were the odds of all these idiots surviving?! The stare he gave me wasn't a good one, especially since the majority of his face was matted with blood, water and grime. I rolled my eyes at his appearance, and he bared his teeth.

There was a kinder looking boy beside him, one that donned gray hair and a beard of the same color despite his young age. He was shirtless, much like the other boys who surrounded me and the Pisces girl, but he didn't appear like he knew he was attractive. He looked anxious by what was going on. He had teal pants, ones that certainly...brought out his translucent fins? Rather than hands, he had scaley looking fins, and dark horns sprouted from his head. There was no other definition for this boy but a Capricorn.

A girl with dark brown hair was brought to my sight, and the ends of it curled up into strange, spikey spirals. She had brown eyes to match, ones that were full of realization as she studied the silent arena. She wore a blue dress, clothing that was certainly unsuitable for fighting in the first round. Almost awkwardly, she reached down to gather water in the gray pot that lay snug between her fingers. I tried not to laugh at the sight. She was an Aquarius, one who didn't care about stealing a Pisces' water.

And then...

I saw Elle.

There she was rolling around in the water like an idiot, chanting quietly to herself. She appeared beyond happy, splashing the people that surrounded her and creating tiny waves with her hands. My heart swelled at the sight, for I was beyond relieved to see that my friend had survived not only the massive water attack, but other competitors as well. Catching my eye on her, she grinned and nearly squealed.

"We won, Fay! We won!" was what came to my ears. She laughed at her own words, as if they lifted her spirits even more.

Wait. What?

I looked around once more.

I pathetically counted.

There were ten people surrounding me, including Elle, and counting the twins as one person...and then there was the Pisces girl. I whipped around to face her, and she lowered her gaze back to me. It was blank, but she knew what was going on nonetheless. I grinned sheepishly, letting go of her bathing suit top and muttering an inaudible 'sorry'. There were eleven people counting her, and then twelve counting me.

And...

I craned my neck to view the faraway balcony. The elders were still there, even the one with the horn, who stood up in his chair and stared down at us with a triumphant grin. There was Nexus, the Ophiuchus, who's expression remained hard and emotionless as he studied the arena. Including him, there were thirteen.

Thirteen.

And I thought about it. There were thirteen of us, and we were all different signs.

I had won the first round.

And...so had Elle.

Suddenly, a loud, aged voice was heard over the stadium.

"Congratulations, remaining competitors of the Zodiac! Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Saggitarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces and Ophiuchus! You are the final thirteen teenagers of the world who have made it past the first round, and who will also go on the journey in the Challenge of the Zodiac!"

The words were almost foreign to my ears.

I couldn't believe it.

Taking a cautious step away from the silent Pisces girl, Elle and I exchanged looks again. This time, I grinned at her, suddenly more proud of my friend than I was of myself. Without warning, she suddenly got up from her miniature pool and dashed over to where I stood. Before I could protest, she pulled me in for a wet hug.

I hadn't been hugged for the longest time. It felt so strange.

Trying to breathe through her soffocating grip, I wondered what I should do. For a moment, I merely flailed in her tight hug. But, thinking about it, maybe...just this once...I'd hug her back. I hesitantly wrapped my arms around the soaking fabric of her shirt, patting her awkwardly there. I heard her giggle at my pathetic attempt to show affection. I rolled my eyes in response.

The cheers made by the remaining twelve people that stood in the sand were cut short by the elder speaking through his horn again, "Now, I'd like the winners of the first round to step below this balcony."

Exchanging glances, our small group of teenagers began to move slowly and quietly. It was as if none of us were able to register that we had won such a thing. Elle, unfortunately, found it necessary to cling to my arm as we made our way over to the elders. The Gemini twins argued beside us as we walked, repeatedly smacking one another upside the head.

"We won 'cause of me!"

"You? I was doing all the work!"

"Oh, please! I'm pretty sure you were asleep at one point!"

"Was not!"

"Were too!"

Ugh. I hoped to God that I wouldn't get in arguments like that on the journey. Knowing Elle...or...or...

I glanced over to the hairy Leo.

I smacked myself. This was definitely going to be interesting.

The thirteen of us--counting both the Gemini twins--subconsciously formed a straight line as we stared up at the elders. None of us knew what to say or do. To me, winning was overwhelming and I could barely comprehend the fact. All those years of preparing...Man, Torf was going to get a kick out of this! And my parents--

My train of thought suddenly came to a hault.

My parents. They didn't have a clue what was going on in my life, and I knew they didn't bother to come and see me win the first round. My thoughts about them were always cynical. I probably never crossed their minds. I pictured them sitting on the porch of our cozy little house, reading the daily newspaper and not giving my wellbeing a second thought. Narrowing my eyes, I tried to focus on what the elder had to say rather than picturing the two people who I missed most.

The elder wore a smile of pure pride, as if we were his own children. "Step forward, Aries," he bellowed in a much louder voice than before.

Elle gave me an anxious look. I gave her a supporting nod, letting her know that everything was going to be okay. She merely stared at me in response, then unlatched herself from my arm and did as the elder had told her. The Aries girl moved almost hesitantly, taking baby steps toward the looming balcony above us.

"State your name," the elder asked of my friend.

Elle wrung her hands, and she looked like she had trouble making eye contact with the elderly man. "E-Elle Willow."

He turned to another man standing beside him, gesturing to the piles of scrolls laying at his feet. The man--who was most likely an elder--nodded at once, retrieving a scripture that was closest to him. Once it was in his grasp, he opened it immediately, straightening his spectacles and reading what was written. The other elder handed him a feathered pen, and he marked something on the paper.

The first elder beamed and gave my friend a heartwarming smile. "Welcome to the Challenge, Miss Elle Willow," he said with a gracious bow.

The Aries girl responded with a slow nod, and wasted no time to dart back to my side. Her current mood was somewhat amusing, and I couldn't help the slight smile that reached my face. She grinned at the ground, a loss for words as she probably went over our situation in her head once more.

The remaining teenagers went through the same procedure: they told the elders who they were and their identities were marked off the scrolls. As this went on, I learned their names: The Taurus was named Farley Blevins, and I tried not to laugh at the way it sounded. It certainly didn't fit his mysterious and muscular appearance. The Gemini twins were named Odion and Apio Klerk. The Cancer held the name Kukah Alto, who continued to act ridiculous. He was a bit strange--He was constantly grinning, as if something invisible was amusing him to no end. Rolling my eyes, I figured he was probably the class clown back when we had to go to school.

Then there was the Leo who was still in my life even after we bumped into each other, and I learned that his name was Leonard Nilsen. For what seemed to be no reason, his scruffiness was starting to get on my nerves. Perhaps it was just because I was going over the fact that I had to team up with him soon. The blonde girl with the uneven hair came next, and I was right when I suspected that she was a Virgo. Her name was Ina Bosko, and her anxiousness certainly showed. The red-head--who indeed was a Libra--was named Livia Stavros. Much to my dismay, the rude Scorpio came next and I found out that his name was Klade Duff. We locked eyes as he walked away, and I tried not to vomit.

And then, it was my turn to step up front. I said my name with as much confidence as I could muster, pushing the thought of my parents and everything else far behind. The elder welcomed me in the Challenge of the Zodiac warmly, just as he had done with the others. As I trotted back to my spot beside Elle, I tried not to look at Klade or the annoying Pisces girl.

The Capricorn boy came after me, and his name was Jael Victor. He, unlike the other boys, still appeared nervous as the elder acknowledged him. The Aquarius was named Naida Torres. And then lastly, the Pisces girl who had caused us all sorts of trouble, was named Marina Eaton. She smiled with a proud air, for she knew that she had wiped out all the remaining competition with her massive water wave. I wanted to barf at the sight. On the journey, I would take her on for a battle any day.

"You are dismissed."

And like that, the first round was over.

Elle grabbed me by the arm once more, guiding me over to the arena's exit in an excited hurry. I couldn't hear her neverending babbles as my gaze caught the Ophiuchus guy named Nexus again. He was turning to leave the balcony with the other elders, but had paused to stare out into the crowd of Zodiac teenagers. He looked down at us like we were his prey, as though we were easy to catch and get rid of. And then, he finally turned his back to us and disappeared off the balcony. I shivered, uncomfortable with his eerie presence. I was brought out of my disturbed trance as Ina, the Virgo rushed past me as if she had to be somewhere important.

I sighed, continuing to tune Elle out. These next twelve months were upon me, whether I liked it or not.

Dealing with Elle after the first round was like looking after an extremely hyper child.

And it didn't help that Torf flew in the house shortly after we arrived.

Having two annoying Aries bouncing off the walls was hard to handle. They almost resembled hummingbirds, running around so fast that I could barely see what they were up to. Elle seemed geniunely happy now, giggling with Torf and shrieking continuous choruses of, "We won! We won!" over and over. Torf, too, appeared to be in a blissful state of mind. He was asking the Aries girl all about the first round, and about how difficult the competition was and what the overall atmosphere was like. I merely remained hidden in the background, unable to contain my grin as I sat and watched.

"Why, almost all the remaining competitors were wiped out by a giant water wave!" Elle exclaimed over dramatically. "We were all brought under a massive sea, unable to escape the water's tremedous weight!"

Torf's eyes were so wide that they looked as though they'd burst. He whispered his question, as though it were a deadly secret, "Was it a Pisces?"

"A powerful one, at that! She had the ability to bring forth an entire ocean, and--"

"Hold it right there." I got up from my desk chair, striding over to where my two Aries friends resided. They froze on the bed at my words, as if I had just said something unbelievable. "Marina wasn't that powerful, Elle," I tried to tell her.

"Oh, please," Elle replied, waving a hand in the air. "Without her water, we'd probably still be fighting back there! She was more help to us than anything else."

"Are you jealous, Fay?" Torf suddenly asked.

I stood still, narrowing my eyes.

Elle tried to surpress a nervous laugh, but she failed miserably. "Oh, boy," she giggled, holding out her arms in front of Torf as though she were protecting him. "That wasn't the best thing to say to ol' hotheaded Sagittarius."

I huffed. "I am not jealous. Period. You didn't have to fight her personally--she was an irritating fish who only wished to agitate me!" I paused momentarily, folding my arms and allowing a slow smirk to find my features. "However, she was pretty pissed when I sliced her with my knife."

"Hey! No language in front of children!" Elle protested.

Torf pouted, flopping on his stomach as though he were the fish. "I'm old enough! And I've heard Fay say things like that in front of me before!"

The Aries girl gasped as though I were an evil person. "Sagittarius! You're horrible!"

I sputtered, fed up with this conversation. "N-No! I never said it to him directly, he must have just snuck in and..."

They both stared at me, unmoved by what I had to say.

"Ugh. Just forget it."

The two annoying Aries 'children' burst into a fit of giggles, as though they were siblings simply enjoying one another's presence. After a few moments, though, Elle suddenly stopped and tapped Torf on the arm. He furrowed his brow, confused, and merely looked at her.

"Wanna hear something really cool?" She asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

Torf's blue eyes lit up, and he grinned from ear to ear. "Yeah! Yeah!"

"C'mere."

The Aries boy leaned closer in for a secret, and Elle cupped her hand around his ear. With an unpleasant sinking feeling in my stomach, I knew exactly what she was telling him. I tried to give her a signal to stop talking, but she simply ignored me. My unfortunate theory came true when Torf's eyes grew even wider than before, and his mouth dropped open in wonder.

"Really?!" he almost squealed, his hands coming up to his mouth in surprise.

Elle nodded. "I'm being completely serious with you. It was announced at the first round earlier today that there's a new sign among us."

I couldn't help but trot over to them, shaking my head at her statement. "Elle, please don't--"

"Relax, Sagittarius. There's nothing wrong with telling him! Besides, after today, the secret's out to the world!"

Our eyes remained locked, and I tried to give her a sign that talking about Nexus was probably a bad idea. Everything about him was creepy and strange, as though he didn't belong to our world. In fact, I'm pretty sure he didn't. In the beginning, there was only twelve Zodiac signs, and that's how the universe should have ended. Rather than taking my word, Elle continued to babble.

"The new sign is called Ophiuchus--they even have a spot reserved for a statue to be made of it! And you know what?"

"What?" I could hear the desperation in Torf's voice. He couldn't stand not knowing everything.

"Ophiuchus is called the serpent bearer!"

Torf gasped, as if the simple thought of a snake being apart of the Zodiac family was brilliant. "That's so cool!" Aw, man, why couldn't I have been an Ophiuchus?!"

Elle laid back on my pillows as though she owned the place. I tried not to fume at the sight. "Well," she continued casually, "There's only one Ophiuchus in existence right now, so he was automatically inducted into the Challenge. I believe his name is Nexus. Nexus Wander. And he totally had the power to transform into a snake!"

The Aries boy sighed. "Why couldn't I have been apart of this Challenge? You guys have the best generation ever!"

"Well, I wouldn't really say that. We don't have the epic and world-changing battles that our ancestors had when Zodiac was still young."

With complete seriousness, Torf replied, "Not yet. Maybe you guys will change the world again!"

I froze at his words. I know the innocent 8-year-old's statement was supposed to be naive and encouraging, but I couldn't help but feel...uncomfortable by the thought. Epic journeys? World-changing battles? Those terms seemed suitable for history books, not for our current generation. But then again...there was Ophiuchus. Our first round hadn't started out too normally. There was something strange about this year's Challenge of the Zodiac, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

Elle, though, remained oblivious rather than disturbed by his comment. "Perhaps!" she chirped with her usual positive flare, trying not to laugh. "But let's save the epic battles for later and eat some dinner, shall we?"

Torf, now distracted by the thought of food, abandoned the conversation completely and darted to the dining table. Elle winked at me and didn't hesitate to follow him.

Following them slowly and stiffly, I wasn't sure what to make of Torf's opinion of our generation. Would this new Ophiuchus sign change everything? Would we end up in history books after our year long journey?

As tempting as the fame and excitement sounded, I knew deep inside that it probably wasn't as amazing as it seemed. Things needed to be normal.

I certainly hope it would be that way.______________________________________________________________________________

I found myself surrounded by a mass of clouds, floating lazily through a entire sky of stars. That was strange. Clouds were never visible at night, not to mention that these clouds were lit by a heavenly light that seemed to be emitting from absolutely no where. The stars, billions of billions of them, were connected by a transluecent glow that made up pictures and characters that I recongized. Laying back in my heape of fluffy whiteness, I decided to point all of the shapes out.

Let's see...there was Pisces, the two closely tied fish, followed by Aries and then Taurus, and...

I continued to check off the members of the astrological Zodiac, including our heavenly ancestors, such as Orion and Zeus. They were all so bright, as if God Himself had polished them up just for me to see.

Then there was another picture, one that I hadn't seen before.

At first, all the connected stars merely looked like outlined shapes--I had only recognized some of them from years of study. Then, as I gazed on longer, I noticed that they were slowly gaining a definable appearance. This change was also occurring to the constellation I had never learned about before.

The stars formed a half naked man, only covered by a thin cloth around his thighs. In his overly muscular arms, he struggled with a huge serpent, one that was looping and slithering in all directions. The man's expression was concentrated, but not on his battle with the snake. He almost looked as though he were looking on into the large expanse of stars, like he saw something odd that lied within. Without warning, the snake and him turned their heads to stare at me.

And then I realized that this man was Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer.

Both the man and the serpent hissed at me, as if they were conjoined.

I slowly sat up, confused by their behavior, and then noticed that all of the Zodiac signs were staring at me in the same way. Even my own, Sagittarius, looked as though he weren't pleased with me. He whipped his horse-like tail from side to side, and his fingers idly caressed the bow and arrow in his grasp.

Before I could ask what was wrong, the image before me changed.

The Ophiuchus man paced back and forth in a brilliant room, one that was made out of gold and other precious stones. He certainly didn't look happy: although he was clothed with lovely robes and adorned with jewelry, his expression didn't show that these material things made him satisfied. Scowling, he stopped his wild pacing to shatter a nearby pot with his bare foot. The pot exploded at once, water flowing from its insides onto the once shining, polished floor. Muted words came from his mouth, and from his enraged face, I knew they couldn't have been kind. He glared up into the ceiling, as if he were yelling at the designs that formed there. Jabbing a ringed finger above him, he continued to lecture something invisible.

The Sagittarius I had seen in the stars suddenly galloped into the shining room, sliding over to the angry man in an attempt to stop his rampage. He held out his muscled arms to constrain him, also mouthing silent words I couldn't understand. Rather than calming down, Ophiuchus lashed out a hand and slapped my counterpart.

The half man half horse slowly rubbed his cheek, giving his attacker a dark look that certainly wasn't merciful. They shared heated stares, as if neither one could decide what to do. A few moments later, Ophuichus began to turn away, moving his lips in a sort of sneer.

That didn't make Sagittarius too happy. He lunged at once, grappling the serpent bearer by his silky robes, intending to give him a face full of fist. Ophiuchus raised his arm. But then he suddenly froze, his teeth bared and his hand outstretched to block the centaur's punch. Instead of going on with his defensive attack, he gave Sagittarius a strange, otherworldly expression.

And then, without warning, they both turned their heads to where I was standing.

"Get out," were the hissed words in my ear. "Get out now."

Suddenly, Ophiuchus transformed into a snake and started to slither toward me. Sagittarius didn't do anything about it; he merely craned his neck to the ceiling, staring at the invisible thing that hid there.

The scaley green serpent showed me its impressive fangs, which were already dripping with a deadly, oozing poison. Its neon yellow eyes flashed with an emotion I couldn't describe, and from what I could tell...it was seriously angry with me.

Licking its mouth with a forked tongue, it hissed again.

"Get out."

It lunged.

*

An unpleasant pain shot through my skull as I hit the hard wood floor. The unsettling image of the serpent slithering toward my frozen body was shattered as I was lurched awake. I cursed as I realized what had occurred, and made a note to rub my now throbbing forehead. Glaring up at the bed I had fallen out of, I irritatibly began to untangle the caccoon of sheets around me.

"Fay?"

I squinted across the room, attempting to clear my clouded vision. I could make out the blurry outline of Elle. She appeared to be sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by books and loose sheets of paper. The only light source came from a dim candle resting near her foot.

"Damn bed..." I kicked at the matress experasededly, pushing farther away from the spot where I had fallen. Clutching at my burning head, I pulled away at the blankets covering my torso. "What time is it?" I managed to slur.

Elle whipped out a pocket watch, which I knew had to be mine. I was too tired to lecture her about it. "A little past three in the morning," she replied sheepishly, as though the time were her fault.

I rubbed my eyes, allowing the room to finally come into focus. Now, I realized, the Aries girl held a look of worry on her face.

"Sagittarius...are you okay?" she wondered, slowly scooting herself across the floor so that she was gradually sitting beside me. "Your fall from the bed didn't sound too enjoyable."

"Yeah, I..."

I trailed off. My dream came rushing back to me, its realistic images taking hold of my mind once more. There were the alive stars, and the fight between Sagittarius and Ophiuchus. What possessed me to fabricate such nonsense in my sleep? Not to mention that the snake bearer was clothed with expensive looking jewelry and robes, things that certainly didn't match his attitude and personality. To me, he didn't seem like he appreciated any of it. And who was the person that both of them appeared to see? Looking back at Elle, I wondered if I should tell her about the odd scenes I came up with. Then again...it wasn't important. It wasn't going to help us in any way to talk about it.

"...I guess I just I had a bad dream," I finished. "But I don't remember it. Did Torf end up going home?" I decided to change the subject in hope of forgetting the dream altogether.

"Yeah, he walked out the door around eleven. He was mumbling something about how his father would be angry with him if he didn't return."

At once, I shot up into a sitting position in the pile of sheets. "Hold up. You mean...he actually talked about his parents? Er...his father, at least?"

Elle stared back at me like I was insane. "Uh...yes. He mentions his father every once in a while."

So Torf's parents did exist. Well, his father did. What about his mother? And...why doesn't he ever talk casually about his house or the people that live in it? I've never actually been inside, nor have I ever been invited to come in. It was like his parents--or father--simply dumped him on my doorstep at the most convienent time for me to take care of the little brat. Even at this hour, I narrowed my eyes. Some parent this kid has.

Becoming silent for a few moments, I eventually asked, "Why are you still up, anyway? We need to get as much rest as we can to prepare for the journey. It's only in...well, two days now."

My Aries friend once again held an expression full of embarrassment. "I was kind of doing some...research, if you will."

I raised an eyebrow. "Research? And what would this be about?"

"Well...you know how the journey is based off of the mythology of our signs, right?"

Indeed I did. The entire Challenge of the Zodiac journey consisted of hardships that related to how our signs came into being. No one spoke of these challenges, of course, since the ones who returned home weren't allowed to talk about it. Somehow the events leading up to Heaven's Staircase had something to do with the mythology of our signs--not that they were myths, but they were magical enough to be considered ones.

"Yeah, I do," I eventually returned.

"I decided to look up some of the epic events that took place back in our acestor's time. For example, you know the story of the golden fleece?"

"Of course I do." And I did. When a king named Athamus married his second wife, Ino, she was very jealous of the children that he had. One that she resented the most was his son, Phrixus. The mental woman came up with a crazy and devious plan to murder him, one that consisted of starving an entire people. Even though Phrixus's birth mother, Nephele, demanded that her son be spared, King Athamus agreed anyway. Before he could be sacrificed, he and his sister, Helle, were saved by a ram adorned with a golden fleece. Although Helle fell to her death, Phrixus was taken far away by the ram and remained in exile. He showed his appreciation by sacrificing the ram to Zeus, who guarded it safely. There are other stories about the fleece, and how a man named Jason eventually tried to steal it.

"Well, I'm thinking we're going to have to do something that deals with the fleece. Like, you know...locating a replica. Same goes for Sagittarius: Hercules killed Chiron--the centaur and archer--and we're probably going to have to accomplish something that deals with it.”

“Hercules was a bastard,” I said at random, most likely from my lack of sleep. “And I never understood why our ancestors thought that there were multiple gods. They were just...people."

“I think someone needs to go back to bed,” Elle giggled, patting me on the head as though I were a small child. “But you're right, our ancestors weren’t very...intelligent. Things were different before our signs came into existence. Not to mention that Hercules and everyone else were never--”

She stopped suddenly, sealing her lips and looking off into space.

I blinked. “Never what?”

Elle shook her head quickly, stumbling up onto her feet again. As she wobbled back over to her miniature work area, she answered, "Just...Never mind. I have no idea what I was going to say."

From my spot beside the bed, I merely stared after her. 'I have no idea what I was going to say'? That didn't seem right to me. For some bizarre, unknown reason, Elle had moments like this. She would begin to explain something--whether it be about herself or a general topic--and then stop abruptly without warning. What was her purpose for doing this? Was she...hiding something from me? Something worth hearing about?

Rather than questioning her about her behavior right away, I decided to return to her research area as well. The Aries girl remained silent as I approached, tucking her knees under her chin and staring intently down at the scribbled text on parchment. Sitting in front of the mess of papers, I squinted. The writing was too small to see in the candlelight, but I did make out some pictures. It appeared Elle had clumsily sketched out a Zodiac Circle, but this time it donned a different look--my friend had decided to add Ophiuchus to the bunch.

I couldn't help but feel a pang of disgust at the sight. "Why did you include him?" I wondered, pointing an accusing finger at the childishly drawn snake. Unlike the others, Ophiuchus didn't have a symbol to accompany its animal.

Elle stared at me as though I had just escaped a mental ward. "Because Ophiuchus is part of the Zodiac now? And don't call it a him; signs don't have genders."

"But there's only one, and it's that shadowy stuck up guy!"

She pretended to look interested in a particular sentence. "And what, exactly, do you have against this man, especially since you don't even know him?"

My Aries friend did have a point, and it was making me look rather unintelligent. I shifted uncomfortably, allowing my gaze to return to the messy Circle. The drawn serpent dully stared back at me. "Well, he...he doesn't seem like he belongs with us."

Elle chuckled as if I were a small child trying to explain a complex theory to her. "Really, Sagittarius? Perhaps it's because he's only been introduced into the Zodiac for a day? And why are you acting as though the Zodiac is a personal group? In fact, you sound like a little kid on the playground, arguing over who can and can't be involved in a silly club!"

My cheeks grew hot with annoyance. I wasn't going to put up with this. "That's not what I meant, Elle," I hissed in response. Jabbing another finger at Ophiuchus, I continued, "What I mean is, he doesn't seem normal. I mean, just think about his appearance! That...that thing isn't right."

"You're just angry because you know that there's even more competition you have to face with him around now."

I slammed a hand upon the wood floor, balling it into a fist and crumpling several sheets of paper in the process. "Shut up," I barked, glaring down at the Circle once more. My eyes snapped back to Elle. "Just shut up. You don't know anything about me. Nothing."

Visible through the candle's glow, Elle's icy blue eyes watered. "But I do know about Sagittarius."

I stared at her for a moment, my brow furrowed and my gaze hard.

'No,' the logical side of my brain finally said. 'Harming her won't do any good. She's your friend, remember?'

My only friend.

Releasing the crushed research papers, I exhaled loudly through my nose and got back on my feet. "Screw Sagittarius," I mumbled half-heartedly, mobilizing away from the Aries girl. "I'm going back to bed."

"Fay?"

I almost didn't look back. Sighing, I stopped pulling back my bed sheets to face Elle.

She bit her lip, staring back down at her writing. "Don't take your sign for granted, okay? If you keep this behavior up, you're not going to win the Challenge. Even if you think that you're not entirely like a Sagittarius, just remember that the sign is you, and you are the sign. Sagittarius picked you at birth for a reason, and it's going to help shape your future in the right direction."

I felt almost ashamed by her words. Only a few weeks prior did I believe the exact same philosophy, and I had written these thoughts down in a personal journal. Now the bound book lay hidden in a drawer, forgotten by my own internal frustrations.

Feeling sick to my stomach, I climbed back in bed and tried to shoo away the haunting image of a massive snake.

The remaining hours of that night were silent.______________________________________________________________________________

The next day held a sort of awkward air. I awoke to find Elle sprawled across the floor like an exhausted cat, lying atop her research work as though the numerous papers were a matress. Not to my surprise, she was snoring and it sounded like some sort of deranged animal. Taking this so called quiet time to my advantage, I got up and made breakfast for myself. Once Elle did wake up, though, she didn't say much and merely ate her food in silence. It was like we were almost afraid to speak to one another, as if the night before's event would repeat itself. We spent the day reading, training and avoiding each other in general. Torf never walked through my front door.

This day, however, was different. Elle had finally opened her mouth and started complaining about the lack of dinner food stored in my house. To shut her up, I agreed to take her to the market even though she knows that we're leaving for the journey tomorrow. I decided that while we were there that I could actually purchase some travel food and supplies to take with us. Thus, we left my house--which was currently a mess of books, parchment, and weapons--for the middle of town.

Of course, the market was crowded for unknown reasons--probably just because we wanted to go. Noticing this, it took all my will power not to turn around and head back the way I came. I pinched the bridge of my nose and whipped out the shopping list I had asked Elle to make for me. Cursing her horrible handwriting, I pathetically attempted to find the items scrawled down on the peice of paper.

"Hey, Sagittarius!"

Hearing my unnecessary nickname for the first time in a day was certainly strange. I tucked a loaf of bread under my arm, paid the merchant in front of me, and reluctantly turned to see what Elle wanted this time. Rather than pointing idiotically at a food like I expected, my Aries friend stood in a familiar alley looking brighter than before.

I sighed. "Elle, are you going to help me shop at all? What do you even want?"

"C'mere!"

I was definitely fed up with her bipolar personality by this point. Almost painfully, I made my way over to where Elle stood so she could hurry up and probably show me something pointless. When I reached the middle of the alley, I looked around and noticed nothing out of the ordinary. All that came to my sight was dirty trash, bricks and mud.

"Well?" I put my hands on my hips impatiently. "I don't see anything. What is it?"

Elle cracked her pearly white smile. "This is the spot where we met!"

My arms slowly slid back to my sides. The area did look like it had some sort of special purpose, and I was right. This alley is where I bumped into Elle a few weeks ago and where we encountered each other for the first time. For some reason, this occurrence seemed like such a faraway memory. It was as if the Aries girl was so high matenitence and memerable that it felt as though I've known her forever. Shortly after this event, Elle invaded my home and promptly decided that it was her permanent house.

And here we are, about to embark on the journey of the Challenge of the Zodiac.

"Huh. So it is," I mumbled, remembering how it felt to be crushed by the seemingly light Aries girl. And then rammed into a wall with her horns. "Where exactly were you headed with those scrolls that day, anyway?"

Elle's happy face fell. At once, all the color drained from her expression and she stood just there, stiff and silent.

I raised an eyebrow, taking a step closer to her. "Elle...Can you tell me?"


I was surprised to see her visibly shaking. For a moment, I thought she wasn't going to respond. But then she rubbed her arm almost nervously, and opened her mouth to speak. "I-It's...I...I-I was--"

At that very second, someone decided it was best to tackle me to the ground and Elle was cut off.

Unfortunately, this person weighed even more than my Aries friend.

"The hell?" I wheezed, trying to claw out from under the large body on top of me. Wincing, I managed to lock my eyes on Elle who looked as though she was trying to contain laughter.

"Oh, shit! I had no intention to do that!" came a rough voice from above. A man, I suspected, grunted as he struggled to get off of my coughing form. I caught a glimpse of hairy arms as he managed to lift himself back onto his feet.

Trying to control my breathing, I wobbled back off the ground. "I am so sick and tired of people flopping on top of me like its normal! I mean, God. This is the second time! Can't you just--"

Wait a minute.

I stopped in mid rant to get a good look at my 'attacker'.

It was the Leo from the first round, also known as the person who would begin to travel with Elle and I in the next day.

Snapping my mouth closed, I folded my arms and turned away from him. "Oh. It's you."

I heard him chuckle. "Hey, now. What have I ever done to you? In fact, we barely know each other at all!"

"Well, for starters, you just about killed me less than a minute ago. So I guess that counts as something."

"Maybe you should be nice, Sagittarius," Elle said, and she was suddenly in the conversation again. "After all, he's going to be our partner for the next year."

The Leo grinned, displaying two rows of very sharp teeth. "I like this one!" he declared, pointing a finger at my Aries friend. This gesture showed me that he didn't have fingernails, and instead had five claws on each hand. "What's your name again, Aries?"

"Elle. Elle Willow."

"Ah. In case you've both forgotten, my name is Leonard Nilsen."

"Yeah, we definitely forgot," I muttered.

Leonard smiled once again. "Not worth remembering, eh?"

"You could say that."

Elle stepped in front of me, putting a careful hand on my arm. "Sorry about her, Leonard," she apologized, and it took all my remaining energy to not punch her in the face. "I think your name is clever. Your parents must have had a good sense of humor. As for Sagittarius here, she's Fay Larke."

"I remembered her," the Leo boy replied almost proudly. "We ran into each other before the first round as well."

I narrowed my eyes, not phased by his comment. "Apparently you're not good enough for his memory, Elle."

Leonard put his hands up in defense. "Hey, I just said I liked her. There's no hate here."

"Sagittarius isn't in good mood right now just because she can't handle competition well," Elle said happily.

I spun to face her. "Are you asking for an arrow to the face?"

"Example A."

Our new partner laughed at our dysfunctional behavior. "Well, it certainly looks like you two are ready for these next twelve months."

Smacking myself in the face, I sighed, "I really have no clue how on Zodiac we managed to pass the first round."

"Destiny, perhaps?"

I knew his reply was probably meant to be lighthearted, but I took a moment to stop and think about it. Looking back to face Elle, she shrugged and smiled at Leonard's theory. Really, how did this Aries girl manage to win? Actually...how did any of us get through the first round? Even me, I secretly knew, didn't deserve to get a spot in the now remaining thirteen teenagers. I could barely keep a straight face as I remembered that our win had a lot to do with Marina's massive water wave, and without it, we would have probably been knocked out of the competition soon enough. So was this indeed destiny?

"It could be," Elle seemed to say for me as I continued to stare into space. "But who knows what's in store for us. We get twelve month to wander around the whole world until we spot something that looks similar to a floating staircase, and in my opinion, it wouldn't be that hard to find!"

"I doubt it's just going to be there in the open, Elle," I put in. "I imagine God being a bit more challenging."

"Not to mention that we have to get rid of the other groups in the process," Leonard reminded us.

Oh. Right. There was that. Somehow in the middle of solving riddles, challenges, and searching for a mythical staircase, we had to defeat the other remaining ten competitors. Or in this case, eleven, counting the second Gemini twin. I'm not really sure how it would be done--no one ever specified how the losers are knocked out of the competition. All that's said in our history books is when the challenge takes place and the past winners. The whole journey is one big mystery, and I can't help but be interested in it all. I'm determined to figure out the mysterious truths that are presented to no one--only the remaining competitors themselves. I bit my lip, pretending to look interested in a nearby pile of rotting trash.

Noticing the awkward silence, Leonard didn't hesitate to change the subject. "So, uh, where were you two headed before I kind of ruined it all?" he wondered.

"Well, we were going to get some supplies for the journey, but the only thing I managed to get was that." I gestured to the loaf of bread that had been knocked out of my arms during the impact between Leonard and I, and it now sat in a rather large mud puddle. I put a hand to my head. "But really, at this point, it isn't worth it anymore."

Leonard winced at the sight. "Sorry about that. But where did you come from? Do you live alone here or are you staying with some relatives?"

For some reason, answering his question was difficult. "I...I live alone," I finally managed to say. Rather than pondering that thought any further, I pointed at Elle. "And this one followed me home a few weeks ago and hasn't been out of my hair since."

Our Leo counterpart furrowed his brow as he studied Elle. "Really? Is it because you've traveled here from the Mars area and hve no where to stay?"

The Aries girl reacted as though Leonard had just offered her a great amount of money. "Yes, actually!" she grinned, looking at me as if to confirm her reply. I merely blinked. "Er, my parents live in a differeny section of the world, but I was sent to Mars to train. I just arrived here in Jupiter a few weeks prior to the first round."

I was still confused. "Why couldn't you have told me that before, Elle?"

She just shrugged and her eyes flickered to the ground.

"Well, regarding my situation, I'm from the Sun section and I've actually been here a while. My dad's a Sagittarius like you, Fay, and he owns a house here so I've been staying there. My mother and him, however, haven't been home," Leonard explained. "They're kind of like historians, so they travel around the world recording new discoveries."

I felt a pang of jealousy at his words. I'm sure he has seen his parents quite a lot since turning 13, considering they could visit him whenever they wanted. I, though...My parents haven't even tried to contact me since they dumped me on our front porch and told me goodbye.

Instead of pretending like I was interested in his family's worldly affairs, I turned toward the direction of my house. "Thank you for this...delightful conversation, Mr. Nilsen, but Elle and I really need to get back home. We still have to gather some things for tomorrow."

My Aries friend didn't hesitate to voice her opinion. "But Sagittarius--"

"No. We're leaving right now."

Before I could drag away the whining Elle, Lenoard spoke up once again.

"Hold on," I heard him say.

I turned from my protesting friend to look at him, giving him a hard glare.

Despite my current expression, he grinned a sharp smile. "Would you two like to stay at my place for the night? We have extra bedrooms and the house itself is certainly big enough for more than one person."

I just gaped at him. Elle, of course, remained oblivious and replied, "Oh, we'd love to! And it would be so much easier, considering we'd have to locate each other again--"

"No," I said sternly, whipping around to see the Aries girl. "I refuse to stay with some man--whom I barely know--in a mansion while his parents are away! Actually, this would be his perfect opportunity to try and have his way with us like the sick, hormone induced teenage boy I'm sure he is!"

Silence.

This noiseless moment was soon brought to a close as both Elle and Leonard burst out laughing. As they chortled like five year olds, nearly collapsing onto the filthy ground, I turned red with embarrassment and tried to get ahold of the situation.

I balled my hands into fists, looking from one idiot to the other. "What?! What's so funny about my theory?!"

After about a minute of nonsense, Leonard finally got a handle on his hysterical howls. He wiped an imaginary tear from his eye and strode over to me, putting an arm around my shoulder. "Listen, Miss Larke," he started, "I don't want to offend you in any way, but...that was probably the most unintelligent thing I've ever heard."

I slapped his hairy arm away from me. "How so? I'm just looking on the logical side of things, and I honestly think that's what you planned to do!"

"That was never my intention," Leonard tried to tell me. "As Elle said, it would be much easier to just stay in the same area for the night, that way we wouldn't have to wander aimlessly in search of one another again. I have some extra food that we could take on the journey and perhaps my mother's spare clothes could fit the two of you."

I continued to glare at him, silently considering his offer. If we went with him, we'd have free food in our possession, and we wouldn't have to spend any more money here at the market. We would also have the option of trying on some acceptable clothing, something I haven't been able to purchase in a while. Thinking back to the monstrosity I had worn to the first round, new clothing would be a good idea. And, if Leonard really did end up being a pervert, Elle and I would just beat his ass.

Turning back at Elle, she gave me a hopeful look. She really wanted us all to be together at his house.

I let out a long, annoyed exhale through my nose. Folding my arms, I asked as uninterestedly as I could, "Will there be arrows available at this establishment as well?"

Our Leo partner looked far too satisfied with himself. "Yeah, my dad has plenty of them lying around."

"Fine, then. But first I need to go fetch my own bow. I can't aim worth shit without it." And then I remembered something else. "Elle, do you want to take your scrolls along, too?"

My Aries friend thought about this for a moment, and then replied, "It couldn't hurt. Besides, maybe they could help us further if we run into trouble."

Leonard looked from me to Elle. "So it's settled, then?"

I hesitantly nodded. "I guess so. Lead the way, filthy rich boy."
______________________________________________________________________________

Before traveling to Leonard's supposed mansion, we made a pit stop at my own house. Afraid of what the Leo boy might have thought, I asked him to stay outside while Elle and I retrieved our belongings. The last thing I needed was more comments about my living style--especially from a person whose family was probably bathing in money. While I grabbed my lucky bow, Elle gathered her many coded scrolls and then we headed back to my front yard. I considered knocking on Torf's door to see if he was home, but something made me hesitant to do so. If he didn't want to say goodbye to me, so be it. He could wait another year to see my face again. Almost painfully, I turned away from his house and made my way over to Elle and Leonard. It was hard to believe that I wasn't going to see my neighborhood for a whole twelve months.

It actually took us about three hours to travel to Leonard's house by carriage--which, by the way, his family owned. The horse pulling the carriage belonged to him as well, but the man driving was merely a friend of his father's. The Leo boy's home was located in the middle of the Jupiter section, and the city it resided in was named Adonia. Despite it's long distance away from my town, it's close to Jupiter's capital, Platon, where we are supposed to meet tomorrow for the start of the journey. As I sat between Elle and Leonard in the carriage, I tried to think about the positives in this situation rather than listen to them babble on. It was far from easy.

The massive home was located in the middle of the city, and it certainly made the surrounding buildings look like pathetic shacks. The structure was made out of white bricks and light blue shingles accompanied it. It had two or three towers, and closed windows wrapped around each one. In fact, there were far too many windows on this house to count. They nearly covered the entire building, some decorated with curtains and others revealing objects and furniture inside. I counted two chimneys; neither of them emitted smoke and rested near the front of the house. The porch was my favorite. Giant, marble support beams kept it intact, giving it a clean look and enhancing the house's expensive air even further. Empty chairs and swings decorated the porch, colored to match the structure. Various plants and flowers, too, were particularly placed in this area. The front door by itself was magnificent: it appeared to be made entirely out of glass and from where we were sitting I could barely make out Zodiac signs inscribed into the material.

This impressive piece of architicture made my house look like a trash can.

"I appreciate you dropping us off here, Belen," Leonard thanked our driver, hopping out of the carriage first. Reaching into his shorts' pocket, he casually handed the man a few coins. "We'll be sure to contact you when the family gets back together."

I climbed out of my seat as well, followed by Elle, who had some trouble getting out. We gathered up our belongings quickly, stepping out of the carriage's way once we were done.

Belen the driver nodded his head in acknowledgement, giving us a gracious smile. Then he whipped the family horse and he was off again. The carriage clattered out of sight in no time, disappearing behind the full leafed trees.

"Do you always pay your ride that much money?" I scowled, recalling the coins' value.

Leonard merely grinned at me. "Sometimes, but Belen always gets extra because he'll drive me anywhere."

I continued to stare at him, unimpressed. Elle failed at hiding an amused smile.

Chuckling at my reaction, he said, "Come on, let's head inside."

A white gate surrounded the masion, and studying it made me think about what heaven would look like. People always talked about the possibility of a golden gate at the top of the Staircase, but of course, no one knew for sure but the winners themselves. This gate was marvelous and well polished, yes, but I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to bask in the presence of a heavenly one. I smiled to myself at the thought, lowering my gaze to the gate's massive keyhole.

Much like the money, Leonard pulled a silver key out of his pocket as well. As he did this, I wondered why he dresses so modestly, when it is clear that he most definitely is able to purchase whatever he wants. The boy just had a brown short sleeved shirt on and shorts to match, nothing special. It's a good thing, too, because if he showed up in that alley in a tuxedo and tie, I wouldn't have given him one chance.

He unlocked the gate with ease, pushing it open and emitting a rusty squeaking sound throughout the area. I cautiously stepped onto a path of stones that led to the front porch. The yard was nice to look at as well--it contained well trimmed bushes and plants, some of which were in unique shapes and represented people and animals. I noticed a miniature fountain as well, and grinned happily to myself as I imagined drowning Marina in it.

"Oh, Leonard, I love this door!" Elle squealed, rushing up to the porch much faster than the Leo boy and I. She pranced over to the glass door, touching its intricate designs with one finger. She was only there for a moment before her pearly white smile grin grew and she exclaimed, "I found Aries! Wow, I love his hair in this one."

I managed to not smack myself in the face.

Leonard laughed at her enthusiasm. "Yeah, my parents had that done several years back. Before I moved to the Sun section, I'd always sit out here as a kid and make up stories about the Zodiac characters on the door."

Elle lifted her head from the mosaic Aries man to look at the Leo boy. "Do you think your family will add Ophiuchus sometime?" she asked seriously.

I immediately tensed at the mention of that disgusting snake man. Glaring at Elle, I tried to make it known that I was tired of going back to this subject, especially since we were going to hear about it again tomorrow. In my opinion, Ophiuchus wasn't worthy enough yet to be included in any sort of Zodiac artwork, let alone be in the Zodiac. The Aries girl promptly ignored my heated gaze and waited for a proper reply.

"Maybe," Leonard shrugged, his smile not faultering. "But it's too soon to tell. For now, why don't you two find your rooms and settle down? We can discuss the day ahead of us once we're inside."

Much to my relief, Elle listened to his words and allowed him to unlock the front door. As it opened, we were welcomed with the slight smell of perfume and cleaning supplies. I awkwardly took a few steps forward, almost afraid to view what lied within. If the house itself and the yard were beautiful, what did the inside look like? My Aries friend quickly pushed past me, struggling to keep all of the scrolls in her grasp.

"Coming?" Leonard raised an eyebrow, holding the door open for me.

Looking around the area once more, I knew that I had to give up. I let out a sigh, stepping inside the house. "It looks that way," I mumbled.

As expected, the interior of the house was even more impressively styled and decorated. We were greeted by a rather large foyer that split off into seperate rooms and other hallways. The entire home had a dark blue tint to it, much like the outside foundation, and every inch of the walls and floors were lavishly occupied by expensive looking objects. Vases, paintings, sculptures, plants, furniture, fireplaces, mirrors, and almost anything you could imagine were brought to our sight. The artwork that adorned the rooms all had a nature or Zodiac theme. Leonard's family must take a liking to the Zodiac Circle, for there were many of those represented in different art mediums. Though their favorite seemed to be Sagittarius and Libra, for centaurs and golden scales repeatedly appeared. I couldn't complain about the Sagittarius artwork and furniture, though--I was always eager to see how my sign was depicted by different people. I looked up to see a sparkling chandelier, one that was casting a comforting glow throughout the crowded foyer.

Of course, Elle ignored the concept of manners completely and nearly skipped into the nearest room with furniture. I gave her a disapproving glare as she settled herself in a sky blue arm chair, sinking down into its cushions and looking as though she could fall asleep at any given moment. At least I knew she treated every home like this and not just mine.

I turned back to Leonard, who didn't seem to mind Elle's consistant rude behavior. He merely grinned after her, sticking his hands in his pockets as if this was a daily routine. I cringed at the thought of working with these two again. With their horrible, unhelpful personalities, we'll probably never get anything done.

"So, do you like it?" Our Leo counterpart decided to ask.

Studying his expression, he really did seem like he wanted an honest opinion. Just like any sterotypical Sagittarius, I replied, "Well...don't you think this is a bit much?" My gaze wandered to an indoor fountain, one that was built into the wall and was spilling water into a stone basin.

"Er...My family has a large fortune from the historian business," he said quietly as though it were a big secret.

I couldn't help the sarcastic edge to my voice. "Oh, really?"

Leonard shrugged. "If you're uncomfortable and don't wish to stay, you're welcome to leave. I'm not making you spend the night."

His offer only raised my irritation. What, did he think I wasn't used to big houses and they made me uncomfortable? Sure, my place looks like something you'd pull out of the trash, but back when I lived with my parents we had a decent sized home. I wasn't going to let this rich boy think I couldn't handle staying in a mansion like this.

"No," I snapped, gripping my bow tighter in my hands. Part of me felt like hurling the piece of wood at him and just sulking out of that prissy building. "Elle and I will stay here, and in the morning we'll all head over to Platon to start the damned journey."

He blinked, as if he wasn't sure what to say about that. After a few moments, though, an amused smile cracked through his serious facade and he whirled to face the long expanse of hallway. "Very well, then," he tried to say without laughing. "You and Miss Willow can pick a room whenever you please."

And like that, he casually waltzed away, disappearing around the corner.

I was really beginning to hate this guy.

As much as I hated to admit it, Leonard was right.

I was no where near comfortable in his five star house.

I tossed and turned in my queen sized bed that night, one that was covered in tassels and decorated with various dark colored shapes and designs. The room I slept in only contained the bed, a night stand, a rug, and a closet, but it still felt far too massive for my homely personality. Elle had picked a bedroom across the hall and Leonard stayed downstairs. Staring up at the detailed ceiling, the feeling of lonliness washed over my anxious body. Not only did I feel absolutely alone in this house, but my nerves were going haywire from the whirling thoughts and worries about the day ahead of me. I'd have to face the nine other competitors again, and...

Nexus Wander.

The damned Ophiuchus.

My stomach gnawed at my insides as I thought of that enormous serpent. He wasn't right, that man, and I was the only one who felt far from content around him. But now he was practically a celebrity, one that was looked upon with fascination and utter wonder just because of his utter existence. I clutched the bed's comforter within my shaking fists. I hate him. God, what is his purpose? Why did you bring him forth on this planet?

I clenched my eyes shut, making a face. Insomnia was upon me, whether I liked it or not, and if I kept these unsettling thoughts whirring in my head, there was no chance that I would ever get any sleep.

'I give up,' I thought with a groan. Putting two hands on either side of my head, I pressed them there, kicking the blankets away from my body. Whether I admitted it to myself or not, I knew that I didn't enjoy sleeping in a room alone. I needed Torf there, snoring like a baby, or Elle doing research on the floor by candle light. The presence of people comforts me, something I'd never admit outloud to anyone.

Sitting up, I looked wearily around the room. What to do? Well...It couldn't hurt to check a few things out at the library that also resided within this house. I tried not to roll my eyes as I remembered the room full of books that I passed on the way up here. This house had everything, from ten bedrooms to a personal library.

I then found myself wandering downstairs toward that very library. On my way there, I peeked into Elle's room to see how she was doing with sleep. Not to my surprise, she was out cold, making a noise similar to an animal's screech with her limbs sprawled out in all directions. I sighed, annoyed with her ability to become unconscious so easily. Perhaps I could try hitting myself with something hard and heavy.

I padded down the stairwell, trying to make as little noise as possible. Not really sure why, though: I'm sure these two teammates of mine could sleep through an avelanche.

The library was a circular, cozy room with a rather high ceiling. The bookshelves meshed with the shape of the room, causing almost all the walls to be covered by literature. There was one small space, though, and it was occupied by an arm chair and an end table to match. A long, standing lamp curved over these pieces of furniture, there to produce light for a late night reader. The massive rug below me was certainly eye catching, for it was adorned with galloping centaurs and other Zodiac creatures that fit into Leonard's family tree. Even though I'm not much of a bookworm, I felt at ease in this room, as if I belonged. It was a nice feeling after tossing and turning in my bed.

Almost cautiously, I put one foot in front of the other and stepped inside. I'm not absolutely sure why I was being so quiet; the only other two people in the enormous house were sound asleep on the second floor. It was as if the mansion was so massive that I felt like I had to be silent or else my action would resound through every hall. I trotted across the carpet, making sure not to ruin the intracate designs there. Perhaps reading one of the thousands of books surrounding my sight would lull me to sleep. If anything, I just wanted to rid my mind of anxiety and fear.

Haulting in the middle of the room, I scanned the high shelves. Where to start? From what it seemed, Leonard's family has been collecting literature since the beginning of time. Some spines were worn and torn at the edges, while others looked as though they had just been brought home new from a store. I kept my gaze far from the recent volumes. Forget the present, I'm more interested in the past. Our world's beginnings and early cultures fascinate me. I especially enjoy reading about how the Zodiac came into existence, and how God gave each of them their own place among the stars. I found myself smiling as I made my way to the ancient section of the library.

I plopped down on the floor beside the shelves, finding it useless to try and reach the sky high novels. My height isn't good for anything, except for maybe getting trampled on and losing a game of monkey-in-the-middle. Scowling, I placed a hand on the nearest book, pulling it out of its resting place.

"'Pure Zodiac Family Trees,'" I whispered aloud, flipping open the cover.

Oh, yes. I remembered then. Up until about 200 years ago pure blooded families were considered the norm in our society. This meant that most people believed that you had to have a child born in a particular month--one that would match its parents' Zodiac sign. For example, if two people were of the sign Libra, they were encouraged to marry and have a child of the same sign. This kept single Zodiac family trees going, or, how this book put it, pure blooded family trees. For some reason it was frowned upon if a family contained mixed signs. It was almost dirty to them, like racism. Now, however, it doesn't matter who you mate with and what your child ends up being. Everything's completely random, just as it should have been in the past.

Finding this topic boring and critical, I put the dusty hardcover back and reached for another one.

I stared at its tearing, nearly rubbed away cover.

'The Story of Ophiuchus, the Lost Serpent', read the faded title.

My eyes widened and my stomach twisted in agony.

Suddenly I felt very, very nosy, as if I shouldn't have been looking anywhere near that old book. My gaze flickered to the door as I held the novel, fearing that someone might have been standing there, looking down upon my actions. Then I was staring at the title again, practically feeling its letters burning into my eyesockets.

People knew about Ophiuchus before?

Impossible. If this were true, it had to have been centuries ago...far before anyone alive's time. And, if this were so, it was merely a well kept secret.

''Well kept secret'?' the voice in my head mocked me. 'Oh, please. If it was such a secretive subject, then why was it written down and published in a book?'

Perhaps the book that lied in my hands was one of the very few copies. Or...maybe it was the only one actually made?

Maybe it was a fictional novel.

Yes! Like a fairy tale. I grinned at my pathetic theory, pleased with it for now. Opening the cover, I was greeted with a drawn out picture of Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer.

The man was completely naked. The only thing that served as his 'clothing' was a massive snake that wove around his limbs, twisting and turning around his ridiculously depicted muscles. Ophiuchus' gaze rested on the serpent, as if fascinated by its presence. The snake, however, stared straight at me, the reader, its beady eyes looking into my soul and its tongue flickering out of its mouth.

I made a face at the image, disgusted by it. I flipped to a random page, hoping that this one didn't show me any other nude representations of Nexus. Thankfully, this fragile page was only filled with text. I leaned in closer to read a random paragraph, finding it hard to see the tiny letters.

'Ophiuchus was undeniably God's favorite creation of the Zodiac until he began to treat Heaven's members with disrespect. Blinded by his fame and adolation, he took his place for granted. He acted as though the angels were his servants and that the twelve other Zodiac dieties were intitled to do anything he pleased. The Zodiac feared God's wrath, so they did what Ophiuchus asked of them. In the end, however, Ophiuchus became greedy and wished for more than he already had. God saw this and tried to reconcile with the man, but the serpent bearer continued to--'

The rest of the text was rubbed away from age.

"What?!" I shrieked aloud, shaking the book with annoyance. "You've got to be kidding me. Why--"

"Had trouble sleeping, did you?"

At the sound of another voice, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Spinning around, I let the book fall to the floor and my eyes met with Leonard's amused gaze. He was leaning against the library's door frame, folding his arms and looking as casual as humanly possible.

"What's wrong with you!?" I hissed. Realizing the level of my voice, I lowered it to an angry whisper, "Were you trying to give me heart attack?"

Leonard shrugged, as if it wasn't late at night and me screaming at him in in his library was perfectly normal. "I dunno. You already looked like you were giving yourself one reading that book," he pointed to the limp novel on the carpet, "Your expressions were fun to watch."

A part of me hoped that my heated glare would burn a hole through his face. "You'd probably have the same reactions if you read this book as well." I paused, an idea forming in my head. "Or...have you already seen it before?"

The Leo boy left his spot by the entrance, striding over to where I sat on the floor. "Perhaps I could tell you if I actually knew what the book was," he suggested, the entertained edge to his voice still present.

"Go ahead, then," I muttered, shoving the ancient literature to his chest.

Without replying, he turned the book over in his arms to read the title. He lifted it closer to his face, most likely having trouble making out the letters just as I did. After a moment, though, his expression fell and he handed it back to me. "Oh," he said. "That."

"Yes, Leonard. That. And do you have anything to say about that?" I wasn't going to let him get away with not telling me about the book. If it was in his library, he had to know something about it. Not only that, but the look on his face told me that he certainly had an idea what it was.

He sighed, scratching the peach fuzz on his jaw. "Look, Fay--"

"Give me a straightforward answer! I'm being serious about this," I told him, my eyes returning to the book's hard bound cover.

"Alright, if you say so." He was suddenly sitting beside me, and rather than asking, he took the novel from my hands and pointed a clawed finger to the cover. "This book," he started, "is believed to be fiction by the majority of the people who actually know of its existence."

"Aha!" I nearly squealed, satisfied with myself. Folding my arms, I smirked. "I thought so."

"Don't fool yourself, though," Leonard continued.

"...Huh?"

"I said the majority of the people who know about it think it's just an old tale. If I remember correctly..." He stopped for a moment, looking off into space. "My father said that fifty or so people living today know of this book's publication. As time goes on, this story becomes more and more forgotten."

"What kind of people know about the book?" I wondered.

"Historians. Famous scholars. Travelers. My parents themselves are historians, and most of my ancestors were, and if I do recall this book has been passed down in my family since it was first written." A cocky smile made its way onto his face. "Little do these so called 'educated' people know that this story is a complete fact."

I froze.

Sitting there, I tried to figure out what was going on. So...what? Ophiuchus had existed at one time, loved and adored by God, and now he had come back for whatever reason?

This...this was ridiculous. I couldn't believe it.

My words were just confused sputters. "B-But...That's--It's not...O-Ophiuchus wasn't a known sign until the First Round!"

"As far as you and nearly six billion other people know, yes," my Leo counterpart shrugged.

"What...What are you saying?" My voice was quiet again, as if I was afraid that those 6 billion people would overhear out conversation.

"I'm saying that hardly anyone knows of Ophiuchus' previous existence and that's why everyone reacted the way they did during the First Round. I'm sure the elders didn't even have a clue about him," he replied.

I was still utterly lost. "So...What? Did they just find Nexus wandering around a week or so ago, saw him transform into a snake, and declare him as a new sign?"

"It's hard to tell. My parents probably have some answers, but I haven't spoke with them in a few months."

"How did you react when they unveiled Nexus?" I practically whispered, digging my fingernails into the carpet.

Leonard sat there for a moment, smiling to himself about the situation. "I was the very definition of shocked. As a kid, I was told the story of Ophiuchus many times. To me, it was just a bedtime tale. My parents would always tell me about how he had a glamorous life up in Heaven as a Zodiac member until he turned his back on God."

Until he turned his back on God.

"Wait. You mean like Lucifer? Like...Satan?" In my world, we try to ignore the existence of such a person. Talking and knowing about him wasn't necessary, anyway, since everyone in society already knows about God's power through the Zodiac talents he gave them. What I did know, though, was Satan was once an angel that believed he could become more powerful than God Himself. He turned his back on God and was soon banished to Hell, a place where he now resides for the rest of eternity with other evil beings from different universes once they die.

"Not exactly," Leonard continued uneasily. "He's not considered an evil being. Just...confused and greedy, I'd imagine. He, too, betrayed God, but not in that sense."

"But why?" I wondered once more. "Why did Ophiuchus betray God? He had everything in the world! Everything in existence, even! There was no reason for him to."

"Why don't you go ask God yourself?"

The room was silent. We just stared at each other, my eyes searching in his brown ones for more answers. All I received was a stern gaze, one that told me for sure that he was being serious about his suggestion. I really could ask God, that is...if I actually won the Challenge.

"Even God has His secrets, Fay," he said in a voice I didn't recognize.

I didn't say anything as my gaze flickered back to the ornate rug below us.

Silence.

"Well." Leonard was up on his feet again, turning to face the opened door. "I believe we do need our rest, don't you? It's already quite late and in a few hours we'll be up again to start the journey."

"I guess so," was the best reply I could come up with. Looking back down at the story in my arms, I decided to ask, "Do you think it would be alright if I kept this for a while?"

The Leo boy nodded his head halfheartedly. "Yeah. Though I'm not sure what good it would bring you--the tale doesn't go beyond Ophiuchus' betrayal."

"I don't care. And...And you never know. Maybe it'll serve some purpose within these next twelve months."

"Your choice," Leonard reminded me, heading back toward the door with his hands in his pockets. "I'm going to bed. G'night."

I didn't answer as I returned to my feet, making sure the book was tucked safely under my arm. Then we silently parted ways, and...I hated to admit it, but a small piece of me began to respect Leonard Nilsen. ______________________________________________________________________________

Ever since I was old enough to understand the Challenge, I always told myself that I'd sleep well before major journeys and events.

Well...things don't always go the way you said they would.

I found myself stumbling downstairs at 7 AM, my mind so disorientated that I almost fell flat on my face. I got two hours of sleep, if any. I spent the majority of the night staring at the wall, thinking back to what Leonard had told me about Ophiuchus. Then there was the part of me that was still clinging to the dream I had the other day, and the very thought scared my remaining exhaustion away...until morning brightly revealed itself through the bedroom's window, of course.

Now, as I struggled to make it down the stairs and to where ever the kitchen was, my sleep deprivation caught up with me. I felt like beating myself with my quiver and all the arrows that layed inside it. 'That's all the way by the front door,' the voice in my head groaned, and I decided that it wasn't worth it to journey that far in the house.

Once I was back on stable ground, I tried to look around even through my foggy vision. It was quiet, and the only noise that reached my ears was the steady tick, tick, tick of a grandfather clock nearby.

Thump, thump!

Never mind.

Before I could run away, Elle flew at me at full force and yanked my arm toward the direction of what I guessed was the kitchen.

Of course she slept well.

"There you are, Sagittarius!" She greeted me even though she had already violated my personal space within two minutes of being downstairs. "Leonard and I have been up for about an hour or so making breakfast while you continued to sleep through it all. We have to eat early in order to get to the capitol on time! We don't want it to be like the First Round, do we?"

"I guess not," I managed to mumble while being dragged through the house. "What time does Leonard plan on leaving this torture chamber?"

"Nine? I dunno. How long does it take to get there, anyway?"

"What? You don't--"

We stopped abruptly, and I blinked to see that I was standing beside a rather nice kitchen table. There was Leonard, hovering over a granite countertop making eggs and bacon. I didn't know how to react as I noticed an apron tied around his waist, one with frills and other womanly-like features.

My first instinct, of course, was to laugh.

"W-What...What the hell do you think you're wearing?" I tried to say through my amused chuckles. He looked absolutely ridiculous, serving breakfast like some house maid.

"Fay!" Elle chided, giving me a warning look.

Leonard just shrugged. "What? I like to cook. And my mom used to use this all the time when I was younger." Without hesitation, he went back to work. "No big deal."

I suddenly felt stupid. No, really stupid. Ashamed of what I had said, I sunk into the nearest seat and patiently waited for food. The kitchen, like the library, was also unnecessarily massive. The dining table was in the middle of the room, and from its size, I guessed it wasn't the main one. It was unusually clean, as if it hadn't been used in quite a while. The room was painted a bright white, one that could wake anyone up from a deep sleep. As for the stove and other kitchen appliances, they wrapped around the room to form one giant rectangle. Elle silently sat across from me, continuing to stare at me as if I were the idiot.

"So what time are we leaving?" I finally asked, more concerned about our journey than meals.

"Probably..." Leonard paused to look at the floor. "Around eight-thirty? It takes about an hour to get to Platon and we'll want to get there early. That's where they officially split us all up into groups and inform us what we are to do first."

"Aries," Elle whispered to herself, a smile forming on her face.

"If they do go in the Zodiac order, then yes. We're going to have to do something that deals with Aries. And it'll be really challenging considering fourteen people will be trying to accomplish the exact same task at once."

Sitting there, I pictured all of the remaining competitors fighting for God's side like a pack of wild dogs. We'd be attacking and pouncing at each other, clawing 'til the bitter end. It was a frightening image, yes, but...we wouldn't really act like that, would we? We're all civilized young adults headed toward one major goal. Our journey will require some competition, but hopefully nothing of that kind of degree.

"Then they just release us out into the world without a clue, right?" were the next words to come out of my mouth.

Leonard looked up from his work and Elle stopped grinning at the table to give me a serious stare. People don't think about it much, but...yes. The elders in charge of the Challenge just throw us out into the first section with nothing else but just the things we showed up with.

"You can put it that way, yeah," the Leo boy replied quietly.

I eyed the sizzling bacon he was poking with a spatula, and realized that my appetite was no longer present. "Hey, um...I'm just gonna go get ready. You guys can eat without me."

Leonard glanced at me as if I were insane. "Are you sure?"

"What happened to getting proper nutrition before the journey?" Elle wondered, repeating my earlier philosophy as if it were a rule.

"I'm not that hungry. They'll probably have stuff there to eat, anyway."

Feeling much more ill than before, I wobbled up the stairs to my guest room, not taking the time to look back.______________________________________________________________________________

I wasn't in my room for long. Soon I found myself looking through Leonard's mother's clothing, paying no attention to the lingering thought of being nosy. There was so much to find, for his parent's attire was spread out between drawers, dressers and walk in closets. His mother had an unhealthy obsession with fancy dresses and skirts, it seemed, so I spent a little longer than necessary searching through the mountains of fabric.

There was one outfit, though, that I found at the bottom of a pile that looked suitable for hunting and fighting. I raised the green, sleeveless shirt to my eyelevel and examined it further. The ends of the sleeves held strips of white fabric, or at least, they were once that color. Now they were faded and stained with what had to be mud and outdoor grime. The collar was high and split down the middle, and a zipper was present to make the shirt easy to get off and on. There were matching knee-length shorts, ones with multiple pockets that would be great for storage. Digging deeper in the closets, I located long, brown boots and pads that could protect my elbows and knees. I was nearly estatic when I found expensive looking archer's gloves as well. This was perfect.

I continued to add to my adventure outfit, and once I got it all on I decided that I looked like I just jumped out of an old fairy tale. Good. That's exactly what I wanted; the image of an ancient champion.

As I posed idiotically in the mirror, Elle chose that particular moment to walk in. I froze in my stance, appearing as though I had just shot a nearby enemy with an arrow. The Aries girl stared in the doorway, blinked, and then just lost all composure.

"It's not funny!" I tried to tell her, but even I had to admit that I was being ridiculous. My gaze found the new belt of knives tied around my waist. "...Okay, maybe it is. But I need these things!"

Elle covered her mouth and strode over, her shoulders still rising and falling with giggles. "You don't really need them, but I guess they'll do." She peered down at the mess of clothing I had made. "Hmm. What should I wear?"

"Well...I really don't think you can fight in a skirt," I said, gesturing to her current attire. "And stockings? Ballet shoes? Have you ever seen a warrior wear those?"

She huffed, sticking a hand into the sea of fabric. "All right, so tell me. What does a warrior wear, exactly?"

I pointed to her entire profile. "Not that."

We spent the next ten to twenty minutes searching. Elle ended up agreeing on red clothes, for the color is known to attribute to Aries. The shirt was short sleeved, and a thin, flowy jacket fell over top of it. Since she apparently has a thing for skirts, she chose red leggings and a material much like the jacket to lay over top of it. No matter how many times she denied it, she was still wearing a skirt, even if it was shorter than her horrid blue one.

Once deciding that our choice of clothing was acceptable, we headed back downstairs to catch up with Leonard and to see what he had chosen. He donned another tan colored outfit, and the collar of his shirt was high and slightly poofy. Some sort of shaw, I guess, wrapped around his shoulders and would probably serve as warmth when we needed it. A thick belt covered his waist, adorned with shining knives and sheths ready for battle. A backpack was slung over his shoulder, one, I hoped, that was filled with necessary supplies. His sleeves were short but long, leather gauntlets made up for that. Holes were cut in the fingers, revealing his disturbingly sharp claws. He would certainly need those. His brown pants were simple, much similar to mine.

Well, he's definitely showing off his riches now, my mind huffed with dissatisfation.

The Leo boy grinned, displaying two glimmering rows of pointy teeth. "You two look nice," he merely said.

Elle returned a polite 'thank you' while I promptly ignored his compliment and asked, "Can we leave now?"

He opened the lavish front door and gestured to the yard and road beyond. "Belen is parked just right outside. Ladies first."

For whatever reason, his attitude was getting on my nerves. Yes, Elle's oblivious nature and constant optimism drove me nuts, but Leonard...it was almost like he was saying these things on purpose. Like he knew it would irritate me. Well, then. So be it. I raised my chin high and gave him the best hollow expression I could manage.

I heaved my quiver of new arrows over my shoulder, grabbed my bow, and left the mansion with the clothes on my back.______________________________________________________________________________

The ride to Platon was certainly not enjoyable. Though it was shorter than our journey from my town to Adonia, the constant jabber coming from my two teammates was hard to bare. They always thought of something to talk about. I heard all about Leonard's family, and about how they'd been to almost every region of the world so far. Well, good for them, but I didn't care enough to listen to the details. Elle, as usual, was very submissive when questioned about her own relatives. I'm pretty sure the only fact I got out of their conversations was that her mother owns a store and her father is a business man. Once she revealed this, she remained quiet for a very long time.

I felt like I had reached Heaven's Staircase when the glittering towers of Platon came into view. Before this, I had visited the capitol of Jupiter only once--when I was 15, some acquaintances of mine had told me that the very best Sagittarius archers resided here. My adventurous side got the best of me and I actually traveled to Platon without a second thought. Unfortunately, when I did come in contact with the archery masters, I couldn't handle their critique and they informed me that I wasn't good enough for their teachings yet. Since then, I haven't bothered to speak with any archers other than the ones that buy my bows.

My heart sunk at the thought of their gnarly, wrinkled faces staring down at me with disapproval. They will undoubtedly be here to see the thirteen competitors of the Challenge, and with my luck, they'll remember my face...and my temper.

"I've never been here before," Elle whispered in wonder, sitting up in her seat to get a better look at the bright buildings straight ahead.

"Be prepared for some nasty traffic," I muttered exasperadedly, noticing the number of carriages we were closing in on.

Leonard smiled to himself, as if he was in his own little world. "Belen can get around them."

Sure enough, we were out of the jam in no time as Belen weaved around the carriages while giving a number of signals to the drivers. Somehow they knew our presence was important, for they let us out with no problem. I was instantly relieved and knew that we'd get to the opening of the Challenge on time.

Platon's size has always been overwhelming--its excessive stores, businesses, training centers, and just general structures are impressive compared to the other regions of Jupiter's atmosphere. I hear that the Sun section's capitol is the most massive, but I find it hard to believe. As we rolled into the main streets, we started to get the stares I expected. A capitol's population is mostly made up of the signs that particular section represents. For example, if I went to Neptune, I would probably see a plethora of Piscians walking around. So, in this case, I saw far too many Sagittarius people to count. Although they looked at me in confusion, their gazes lingered on Elle and Leonard a little bit longer. After all, horns and claws and sharp teeth aren't common in these parts. The only logical explanation is that we were either tourists or we were part of the surviving thirteen. I'm definitely going with the latter.

I awkwardly smiled back at my fellow Sagittarius people, hoping they didn't think ill of me. Most of them returned my friendly action, silently wishing me luck in the upcoming journey. The last winner of the Challenge twelve years ago was a Gemini, and I recall that he could create thousands of clones. A Sagittarius hasn't won in quite a while, so I could see the hope on their faces. It's a great honor if someone of your sign happens to win.

The streets were crowded with hustling people, and I guessed they were all headed to the opening ceremony. It isn't a ceremony, really--we just kind of show up and run in opposite directions headed toward the same goal. Nonetheless, it's a major event and what occurs at it will undoubtedly show up in the history books in a few years.

We had to stop a few times for hurried pedestrians, but despite that we made it to the ceremony's location rather quickly. On the way, I noticed the city's banner, which has hung in the middle of the square for quite some time: 'Platon, Jupiter: Children of the Bow'. My heart swelled with pride for my race, and I hoped this sudden feeling would help me in the long run.

"Haven't they ever seen a girl with horns before?" Elle tried to joke, apparently still uncomfortable with the looks she was getting.

"Some of these people have never been outside the capitol," Leonard explained before I could open my mouth. "Non-Sagittarian citizens are rare here and it's strange to see us."

"Well, they're bound to flip when they see Nexus."

My hand subconsiously tightened on the edge of the carriage. Oh, yes. I have to see him again...and the reactions here won't be light. There was certainly an uproar at the 8th Region's arena, so I can't even imagine the praise he'll get at Platon. News travels fast, so they probaby already know, but seeing him will be different. I closed my eyes. Somehow I'll have to find a way to deal with it.

Belen quickly looked over his shoulder. "Hey Lenno, is this the place?"

Lenno? I wrinkled my nose at the silly nickname. Even though Belen was practically family to our Leo teammate, it was still a strange title to use.

"I do believe so. Is it alright if we park over there?" Leonard said in reply.

The next few minutes consisted of careful parking and me trying to get a good look at our surroundings. A cleared area had been formed at the edge of the city, where citizens and vistors stood behind closed off rope in the shape of an oval. They held noisemakers, signs, and some of them even went through the trouble to paint themselves. I think the most interesting person was a man that painted his entire face to look like a lion. Elders hustled and bustled in the middle of the closed off space, holding clipboards and exchanging notes as they went. The Challenge was always a giant chore for them, hovering over their heads for twelve years and then hitting them full force in the mouth. They were responsible for setting up all the tasks and making sure everything was in order, so it was a great honor when someone of their sign reached Heaven's Staircase. As the remaining thirteen competitors started to arrive, they were immediately grabbed by the arm and ushered away.

It was loud. I could barely hear myself think as I climbed out of the carriage and gathered my belongings. Belen desperately tried to hand us our things and make sure that we were all ready to go. I felt like we were some kind of celebrities, trying to avoid the crowd and the attention as quickly and quietly as possible. I didn't think of us as famous--we were just competitors, hardly even young adults just participating in a worldly contest. I never liked it when spectators made it such a big deal when they weren't even involved.

Elle shot me a worried glance as we left Belen and squeezed through the large numbers of people. She looked almost comical trying to get between visitors with that giant backpack slung over her shoulder. I returned something close to an exhausted smile, trying to push past the endless amounts of people as well. Leonard was beside us, mumbling about how this was the worst part of the Challenge of the Zodiac and that he hoped it was over already.

"Oh, great, you're here," an elder gushed, sounding out of breath as he came up to us. He was wearing a maroon robe with images of sillouetted women all over it. I tried not to laugh: he was a Virgo. "We've been trying to get all of the remaining thirteen in one spot. The ceremony will start soon. Do you mind standing over there?"

He didn't let us reply as we were guided over to a corner of the closed off space, where those of us who had arrived were getting ready to leave for the journey. I noticed Farley, Marina, the twins, Ina, Kukah, Naida, Jael, Klade, Livia...Actually, the only person that wasn't present was Nexus.

"Hey there, Horsey," Marina smirked, leaning against the rope closing off the area we stood in. She gave me an almost mocking wave, wiggling her fingers like a self-obsorbed princess.

I stared at her, my gaze hollow. "Hello, Shark Bait. How's life at the end of the food chain going for you?"

"Absolutely luxurious," she replied, as if she knew what I was going to say. "Still picking fleas out of your mane?"

Leonard decided that it was best to step in at that moment. "Ladies...honestly. Is this bickering really going to start at the beginning of the journey?"

The Pisces girl smiled at him, putting a light hand over his arm. "What made you think that?"

For some reason that really irritated me. She has no right to act like that, especially since she has no idea who he is. Stepping in between the two, I changed the subject, "Does anyone know where Nexus is?"

As if on cue, the crowd of people in front of us split to reveal the Ophiuchus man himself, practically getting attacked by citizens who wished to know more about him. Rather than appearing uninterested as he did a few days ago, a pleased smile painted his pale face. He hadn't changed from his sickly green robes, and a beaded necklace layed against his chest. When people approached him, he kindly waved, and even conversed with some of them. Much to my dismay, that pet snake of his was still present, weaving around his left bicep. Vistors even liked the serpent, and the reptile didn't seem to mind when they patted its head.

I made a face as the rest of the competitors stared at Nexus with adolation, an emotion I knew I'd never feel for him.

"Let's go fetch the guy," Kukah said nearby, gesturing for his teammates to follow. I hadn't really thought about it until now, but I guess Marina and Klade are apart of a trio with him. They're water signs, after all, and--

Wait.

I stared after them, puzzled, as they made their way over to Nexus. Let's go fetch the guy? Why would they need him?

As if he sensed my confusion, Leonard leaned toward my ear and mumbled, "I was always told that Ophiuchus was a water sign through stories. I bet those guys were told after the First Round."

"So, what? They get an extra teammate?" I sputtered, my mouth agape with bewilderment. "That's...That's totally unfair!"

And it was. Ophiuchus came into our posse a tad too late, and in my opinion, he didn't deserve to be included on our elemental teams. He could probably do just as well on his own.

"Team Air has an extra teammate, too, you know," Elle told me as if she were defending him. "Both the Gemini twins."

"Yes, but that can't be helped. They're Gemini, they've always been with us. But Nexus...he..."

I looked on as Marina, Klade and Kukah welcomed Nexus with open arms. Of course they did. He's powerful, and we all know it. They know it. Marina and Klade are hardcore fighters--I don't know about Kukah--and they'll take anything that might make winning the Challenge easier.

Elle gave me a pat on the shoulder. "I think you should try looking past Ophiuchus' new acceptance. He's apart of the Zodiac now, whether we like or not, and we should treat him as such."

I pulled away from her touch, not replying. Leonard gave me a look as if he agreed with our Aries friend, and I tried to ignore his silent signals.

I didn't have to fume for long, though, for the elder from the First Round thankfully silenced the busy area.

"Friends!" he boomed even without his precious horn. His voice was strong and deafening on its own. He stood on the other side of the rope, where a natural landscape was just waiting for us to explore it. "Welcome," he paused for dramatic effect and to smile warmly to the audience, "to the opening ceremony of the 5,869th Challenge of the Zodiac!"

The crowd roared, blowing on their noisemakers until their cheeks turned red and waving various signs in the air. Some of them even jumped around and danced, thoroughly excited at the thought of seeing this rare event again. This was almost like a precious sport to them, one that only came around every twelve years...all the more important it was, I guess.

The elder gestured to our little group of fourteen young adults. "I think our participants deserve another round of applause, what do you think?"

People went wild once more.

I managed to crack a smile, their cheers lifting my heavy spirits.

"And how about Nexus Wander? His new presence is bound to make things interesting, don't you agree?"

The audience nearly died. I tried to hold in my irritation as their endless love for Ophiuchus continued. Nexus grinned, revealing two sharp fangs. He even bowed, showing his pet snake to the citizens. Marina and Klade looked fairly satisfied with our onlookers' reactions, while Kukah just beamed. If I was going to like anyone on Team Water, it would have to be Kukah. He's the only tolerable one.

"Quite the surprise there," the elder chuckled. Changing the subject, he said, "Now, let's begin the Zodiac Oath."

Oh, yes. The Oath. When a person participates in the Challenge, they are required to state a few setences that promises that they will do everything in their being to serve God if they win. We learn the Oath as infants, and the age-old words are pounded into our heads so much that everyone could probably recite it in their sleep.

The crowd grew silent at once. They knew that this part was important.

The elder motioned for us to come forward. We did as we were told, inching toward him until we were mere centemeters away from the rope that separated us from the outside world. This was it. These were our final moments as simple teenagers before we became official competitors fighting for God's side.

Almost involuntarily, I placed two fingers over my heart. It was a symbol of loyalty to the Zodiac, and to our creator Himself. Sometimes it was used in school when greeting teachers, and in training, when coming in contact with a master. The words rolled off my tongue with ease:

"In the name of the Challenge of the Zodiac, let my journey of knowledge and honor begin. I release my soul upon the stars, for our ancestors to watch over it. I give my strength to my sign, in hope that it will guide me. I grant my wisdom to Zodiac, in order for us to grow. I lay my loyalty at God's feet, where He will lead me through hardships. May the signs watch over me and lift me to Heaven's gates."

As the Oath came to a close, I glanced at Nexus out of the corner of my eye. He was speaking the words with ease. How in the world did he know them?

Once we finished, the area was silent, as if we were all reflecting on what we had just promised.

Then, with a proud grin, the elder simply said, "Go."

There was not a moment of hesitation as all fourteen of us ripped at clawed at the rope, until it was nothing but a shredded piece of pathetic string. The Challenge had begun with just a word, and not one of us took the time to stick around. Once we were released from our barrier, we leaped out into the open land before us.

And I just ran. Ran away. Ran toward the rest of the world, which had been patiently waiting for me all along.



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on Sep. 22 2014 at 3:03 pm
Icestar649 BRONZE, Woodstock, Virginia
3 articles 0 photos 2 comments

Favorite Quote:
"If at first you don't succeed quit and find something your good at."~ Ed Boyden

Read the summary souned amazing. The i read the book and was blown away. Keep up the good work.




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