Short Story – The Crossing of the Sun
Her shield raised before her, Annetta rushed forward. A war cry escaped her lungs, helping project her towards her target, her keen blue eyes peering from beyond the small opening she had left between her face and the shield. Resistance found her seconds later when the shield met with its target, an elongated foam and sand-filled pillar that stood about seven feet tall. Grunting from the effort of having to apply further pressure, she kept pushing, feeling how slow she was going, despite having run at full force just seconds before.
This was but a small part of what life after school in Q-16 consisted of for her, though training in the arena was perhaps one of the most vital parts. The training grounds, or arena as they called it was a large room with a clearly-drawn field on a concrete floor, resembling a basketball court. To either side, wooden benches and bleachers could be found. The walls were glass, made of Calanite diamonds, a material which was able to absorb most magic and psychic fire attacks.
“Arm tucked in closer, Annetta. We have been over this a hundred times,” Puc instructed from the side of the arena. “If your opponent were to push back into you, then you could lose balance. Use your whole body. If not, they will use it against you.”
Annetta looked over to the side of the area where the mage stood. A slight smile formed in the corner of her lips. Focusing her telekinetic abilities, the pillar flew a few feet to the far side of the arena as though it had been nothing more than a beanbag tossed by a child.
Puc watched dispassionately as the pillar came to a stop, his feral blue eyes meeting Annetta’s. “Miss Severio, I understand full well your capacity to use psychic abilities on the battlefield. However, this exercise is meant to strengthen your physical ones, else you might find yourself deprived of any means of defence.”
“It was still kind of funny,” Jason commented from the side.
Black hair gliding across his shoulders, Puc turned to regard Jason, who had also been training on the same technique beside her. A broad, slightly-smiling tanned face with ruffled brown hair and green eyes regarded the mage with no malice. He was a head taller now than when Puc had first met him, and stockier in build due to all of the training he was undergoing every day. The same could be said of Annetta, he thought. Both had undergone changes due to their current situation and the future that awaited them as the defenders of Earth and the leaders of the Four Forces. It made him feel much older as he realized this, not that the mage was young in years.
“I suppose it was somewhat entertaining,” Puc admitted after a moment. “But it does not make what I said any less valid. Neither of you should rely on your abilities alone.”
There came the faint sound of someone walking through the Lab. The closer it got, the more it resembled the sound of hooves on the steel floors. Annetta and Jason looked over at one another in confusion. Had Link let one of the horses loose when he was changing their horseshoes? It had been the reason for his absence from their training today, after all. The mystery was solved, however, when the faint outline of a massive beast with the head of a bull came into view with the smaller form of Link at its side. It was a Minotaur, a messenger from the city of Morwick, from what Annetta and Jason could tell by the blue tabard that it wore. “We have a visitor,” Link said in greeting, before turning his attention to the Minotaur. Coming fully into view, the great creature bowed fluidly before them.
“Lady Severio and Lord Kinsman,” The creature addressed them with a deep and proud voice. “I come on behalf of Lord Ironhorn with an invitation of the most spectacular kind.”
Before either Annetta or Jason could ask, the messenger brought forth a black stone tablet about the size of a paper and presented it them, lowering his head as he did so. Annetta accepted it, admiring the chiseled words that had then been painted over in a golden ink to make them stand out richly against the black. It then occurred to her, however, that the words made no sense to her.
“I… uhm.” She stared at the table.
Seeing this, Puc quickly interjected, reaching over for it. “May I?”
Not arguing, Annetta handed it over without second thought, then looked over at Jason questioningly. Had they always been unable to read Minotaur?
Puc read over the document quickly, before turning to the messenger. “Tell Lord Ironhorn that we will be most honoured to attend The Crossing of the Sun.”
“Thank you.” The messenger bowed his head. “I shall go tell him at once.”
As quickly as he had come, the Minotaur then turned and left.
“Crossing of the Sun?” Jason asked, looking over at Puc, who still held the tablet in his hands.
“It is when Aerim, the Minotaur homeworld completes its journey around the sun and begins anew,” Puc explained.
“So, New Year’s, then?” Annetta chimed in.
“In a manner of speaking, yes.” The mage nodded. “Minotaurs do not celebrate the New Year as humans do. In fact, their calendar system is far different from ours due to the axis and rotation of the planet. They count their years by the amount of winters they have. While the planet is overall colder and there is always snow, they experience what they call a true winter, when there is more snowfall and temperatures drop much lower. In the span of each Crossing of the Sun, there are twenty-four true winters. If a Minotaur is the equivalent of one Earth year old, then he is one true winter old and so on.”
Annetta and Jason nodded, attempting to grasp the mathematics of it all, but both shelved it for later. Math was not a strong suit of theirs.
The girl found she was curious of another issue that had just arose in the scheme of things. “Uh… so… were we never able to read Minotaur, or is that some special language on there?”
Puc looked down at the words on the piece of stone before turning to the girl again. “You were never taught to read Minotaur, nor write it. It is one of the reasons Orbeyus appointed me as his advisor, though later in his life he did learn to read and write all the languages of the Four Forces out of his own free will. Your next question, I am sure, is how you are able to understand what is being said by any of the races, and that has to do with what happens when one portal travels. While I am not certain of all the science behind it, from what I did learn, it is a chemical shift that occurs in the brain which allows one to do this. Scientists have tried to study this, but no conclusion has ever been reached. One hypothesis suggests it is a survival mechanism instilled in all living brains to allow for existence in any world a given organism finds themselves in.”
“Talk about intelligent design.” Jason raised an eyebrow.
“I’ll say.” Annetta agreed. “So… what exactly do we need to do for this Crossing of the Sun celebration?”
“No way…. absolutely not!” Annetta’s voice boomed as she crossed her arms across her chest, fuming.
She stood with Puc inside one of the guest rooms in Q-16 which customized itself to a person’s needs when they scanned their hand on the device beside the door. The mage, stern face ever present, held a ball gown before him.
“This is not a request, Annetta. This is a requirement for the evening,” Puc stated.
Annetta’s nose wrinkled as she regarded the dress. It was a lavish piece, more so than any of the dresses she had seen worn for prom or other formal events on Earth. The upper half of the gown was a navy blue silk with long open sleeves and a somewhat closed-off modest cut for the neck. This darker fabric spilled into cerulean for the fanned-out skirt and finished off with navy lace at the bottom of it. It was not a garish garment by any means, just not something Annetta would ever consider wearing. Despite this quick thought, she continued to glare at it as though she were a child forced to eat her greens at dinner.
“If it is the colour that offends you, I can perhaps arrange for some shade of rose instead,” The mage spoke again.
The girl cringed further at the thought of the dress in pink. She then exhaled in defeat. “Fine, I’ll wear it… though I don’t see why I need to dress up for this Crossing of the Sun thing, or what’s so special about it. My armour always sufficed in the past.”
Puc noted the distress in the girl’s voice. “I understand this is out of your comfort zone, but it is one of their customs, and we cannot alter them. I am certain also that it is not the first time you have had to dress for an occasion. Surely you have had to wear a dress before.”
Lowering her head, Annetta was forced to recall her eight grade graduation in her mind’s eye. It was the only other time she had been forced to wear a dress. She could still picture it: sleek, dark red and going all the way down to the floor. It was the only one she had managed to find that she liked when her mother took her out shopping. Despite this, when the time came to put it on, however, Annetta could not help but feel out of place in it when she had to walk around, stumbling occasionally on the heels she had been forced to practice in beforehand and trying to stand up straight whenever someone had wanted to take pictures. Other girls had no problem at all, but she could not help but feel odd. It had all felt wrong and looking at the gown before her triggered all of these memories yet again.
“Yeah,” She muttered. “But I never liked it.”
Puc sensed the unease of the girl when she spoke the words and nodded. “I was never one for pomp and ritual when I was your age. I can understand your outlook.”
“What changed?” The girl asked. “Because I would never have guessed it.”
A light chuckled escaped the mage. “It was on one of the diplomatic missions I took part in when I served your grandfather. I was still a young mage then, fresh out of the Academy with my nose upturned further than it had a right to be. I believed the Water Elves were far more superior to any race I would ever encounter, that everyone else was primitive compared to us. Orbeyus showed me otherwise.”
Annetta frowned, still not sure what Puc was getting at, but let the mage keep going nonetheless.
“He was able to see the value in all life no matter how great or small,” Puc continued. “Orbeyus respected everyone as equal to himself. It did not matter where they came from. His true dream for the Four Forces was to create an alliance built on mutual respect, not just a combining of armies to take on a greater evil.”
She continued to look at the dress for a moment longer before taking the hanger from the mage. “Do I have to like… do the whole hair and make-up and shoes thing too?”
“In order to complete the outfit, yes,” Puc replied.
Another deep breath escaped Annetta’s lungs as though someone had cauterized an open wound. She looked down at the dress then up at the mage again. “Well, at least it’s not every year.”
The day having arrived much faster than she had wanted, Annetta was forced into the ball gown. She was then submitted to the tortures of having her hair pinned up and make-up done by Sarina. She did her best not to protest. She did, however, almost give the smaller girl a black eye by accident when she had pulled her hair at the wrong angle, sending Annetta’s fighter instincts ablaze. Thankfully, no such thing came to pass and with the task completed, both Sarina and Annetta left for the stables where the others would be waiting, carrying thick fur cloaks to put over themselves for the journey there.
Annetta watched from the corner of her eye as Sarina walked beside her. She was dressed in a deep green gown with a lower collar and black lace embroidery that was used to give it the effect of being in multiple pieces rather than one ensemble. Her ample hair was done up in a bun, with a few loose curled strands at the front and a silk choker necklace with a matching emerald gemstone adorned her neck. She appeared to hover in the gown with the fanned out skirts swaying from side to side slightly. She was graceful and at ease with the dress, as though she had been doing it since the day she was born. Annetta, on the other hand, worried if she would survive the next step without tripping on her underskirt.
“I have no idea how you do this,” Annetta muttered, stumbling on her heel that had caught in her underskirt again. “I feel ridiculous.”
“You look fine,” Sarina assured her. “Just stop looking down so much. It makes you hunch over.”
Annetta growled in response to the comment, doing her best to look ahead, even if every instinct inside her screamed to look down to prevent certain death. Thankfully, it did not take them much longer to reach the stables where Puc, Jason and Link waited.
Both of the boys were dressed in three piece black suits that were fashioned in the Water Elf style with long tailcoats, fitted gray vests with white shirts underneath. Their pants were tucked into knee-high black boots and the only spot of colour on their outfits were the silk ties they wore: Link in blue, and Jason in green. They also both had thick leather gloves that they carried loosely in their hands as they spoke with one another. Beside them stood Puc in a similar outfit with his staff, which hit the girls as strange, seeing as he was almost never seen in anything but his mage robes. It almost made him seem human.
The girls didn’t have much time to contemplate, however, for upon both of them coming into view, Jason gave an obnoxious wolf-whistle, prompting Link to start chuckling.
“Is that really you in there, Anne?” Jason laughed. “Or did they send out your evil alternate ego instead?”
“Can it,” she growled, bustling past him to get to Firedancer and almost tripping from hooking her heel into the uneven cobblestone of the stable road, causing him to snicker more.
Furrowing her brows in further frustration, she threw her cloak on, and arriving at the horse, realized she had no idea how to get on it in her current state of dress.
Seeing as neither of the boys were going over to help and Jason was still in stitches over Annetta’s gown, Puc rolled his eyes. He then smacked Jason in the back of the head with the leather gloves he held in his free hand and went to assist her, only to get there as she teleported into the horse. Eyeing him, Annetta then nudged Firedancer to begin the trip to the portal. The mage sighed. She wasn’t going to forgive him for this anytime soon, despite their talk.
Crossing the portal to Aerim from the Eye to All Worlds, the companions crossed the frigid landscape, snow crunching below the hooves of their mounts. It was much colder than their previous visits to the Minotaur lands, which Puc had explained earlier as being a trait of a true winter. Daylight was already dimming and a few of the more prominent stars already twinkled on the darkening sky. Puc led the group, his knowledge of the landscape being more thorough than the rest.
Behind him, the youth kept in close proximity to one another, huddled under their thick cloaks. Despite the movement of their horses and the multiple layers, all four displayed some form of a chill across their half-covered faces, Annetta more so than the others.
“Remind me, whose idea it was to make women wear dresses?” she grumbled in discontent, wrapping herself tighter in the cloak, hoping to find more warmth if she did this.
Before anyone could respond to her, the great black monolithic walls that held the city of Morwick could be seen on the horizon. They seemed shorter than they remembered them, snow having swallowed parts of the walls to give them this effect.
Despite the cold, Annetta stopped for a moment to admire the stonework. The walls always seemed so perfect whenever she saw them.
Seeing her halt, Link too paused his mount and pulled up beside her. “Everything all right?”
“As good as it can be, I guess.” She shrugged, looking over at him. “You?”
“I’m fine, though I’ll admit I don’t have much practice in the kind of setting we’re about to enter,” the youth replied, looking forward and seeing the others continue to move ahead of them. “Ready for this?”
Annetta sighed, wanting to turn back. “No, but it’s now or never I guess.”
Link shook his hooded head in agreement and then extended his arm. “Ladies first.”
The girl glanced at his arm, not amused in the least bit. Link took the hint from her aggravated gaze and lowered it. A sheepish smile escaping him. “Well, I did warn you just now, didn’t I?”
Muttering something incoherent under her breath, Annetta flicked Firedancer’s reins and was off again, leaving Link to his own devices.
In no time at all, Annetta and the others found themselves greeted by an escort provided by Lord Ironhorn upon entrance into the city. Soon after, they were helped to dismount and their horses taken care of. In the whirl of all of these proceedings, they were then accompanied into Stoneberg castle, where the royal ball for celebrating the Crossing of the Sun was to be held.
The halls bustled with life as castle attendants moved back and forth through the corridors, preoccupied with various feast-related tasks. Annetta did her best to stay out of their way as she and her companions made their way to the great hall, holding up her skirts in order to avoid tripping on them. This, however, did not help and Annetta still stumbled a few times, causing Jason to snicker and her to shoot him a nasty look in return.
Finally, reaching their destination, Annetta was confronted by a most bizarre sight. She had expected to see the Minotaurs gathered there in all of their finery, which indeed they were, but what Annetta had not expected to see was what they were doing.
The tables that were filled with various food and drink had been lined up on the sides of the hall, and some of the Minotaur were seated at them on large ornate chairs, speaking in small groups. In the corner, an orchestra comprised of six Minotaur, four on woodwind instruments resembling various shaped flutes and clarinets, one on a set of drums and another on what looked like a mandolin large enough to be a bass guitar. For the most part, however, those present, both male and female Minotaur, were found at the centre of the room dancing.
It was not a stomping, primitive form of dance either, Annetta and her companions observed, but a highly coordinated ritual. It all seemed surreal, considering the lumbering appearance of the creatures. Their movements were fluid, coordinated, as though the whole thing had been rehearsed a thousand times before being performed at the ball. It resembled something out of a medieval banquet, the girl noted in her head.
“Lady Annetta Severio,” a rich voice greeted her from the side, startling Annetta out of her train of thought.
Doing her best not to jump, Annetta turned around to see Lord Ironhorn. The Minotaur king had traded out his chain mail and tabard for the night for more formal attire. It was a suit of white, tailored to fit him with accents of gold and blue embroidered into the stitching and cuffs. The pants of the outfit ended at the knees, in order to allow for easy movement, seeing as Minotaurs did not wear boots. An ornate axe of silver and gold was fastened to a wide golden sash beneath the coat of his suit for decorative purposes.
“Lord Ironhorn.” She did her best to curtsy, only to feel herself begin to tip over forward and quickly straightened up again in order to avoid falling.
Before she was forced to engage in further conversation, Puc, Jason, Sarina and Link joined her, also exchanging formal greetings with the king, allowing the girl some breathing room.
“It is wonderful that you were all able to make it.” The king beamed in delight. “I do see you are a few members short of your party.”
“Darius returned to Aldamoor to complete his studies to become a mage and Matthias is on a mission in space, seeking information about Amarok, whom he feels still lives.” Puc quickly filled him.
“Ah, I see.” Ironhorn nodded thoughtfully. “Well, no matter, it is good you are here.”
A female Minotaur then approached the group. Annetta had not had a chance to see many female Minotaurs, or at least she had never noticed the difference between male and female before. All Minotaurs regardless of gender carried themselves the same, wearing the same armour and clothing, but now it finally became apparent. The female was slightly smaller than Ironhorn, sleeker in her disposition, with smaller horns and with more finely-combed fur. She wore a burgundy dress, similar in style to the ones both Sarina and Annetta wore, but made to fit the creatures form. Despite her otherworldliness, Annetta almost thought the female Minotaur looked beautiful.
“Greetings and a blessed Crossing of the Sun to you all.” She inclined her head as she spoke to them, curtsying.
“A blessed Crossing to you as well, Lady Silversteel.” Puc greeted her back. “I am glad to see you safe and sound from your leave to the city of Darmoth.”
“And I to see you living, Thanestorm,” she replied, her eyes then turning to the others gathered. “And these must be the new defenders of the Eye to All Worlds.”
Puc nodded. “Yes, that would be correct: Annetta Severio, Jason Kinsman, Sarina Freiuson and Lincerious Heallaws.”
“Such lengthy names. It is little wonder that we Minotaurs only stick to one,” she said.
“My Lady, to each their own culture.” Ironhorn chuckled and then turned to the others. “You’ll have to forgive Lady Silversteel, she often speaks her mind in a blunt manner.”
“And I thought that was the reason for which you chose me as one of your mates.” Silversteel grimaced in a playful manner at the king, chuckling lightly after seeing she had gotten the better of him.
Annetta stood off to the side, somewhat confused by the exchange that had taken place. Puc noticed this and quickly filled her in. “Lady Silversteel is Prince Snapneck’s mother, but Minotaur do not marry as humans do. They prefer open relationships with multiple mates in order to propagate the species further and do not believe in coveting one mate for life, for they see it as selfish.”
The girl nodded subtly upon hearing this and turned her attention back to the rest of the group. Puc, Lord Ironhorn and Lady Silversteel were engaged once more in conversation, while the others stood quietly. The orchestra finished playing and the Minotaurs that had been dancing concluded their piece, dispersing for refreshments. All of a sudden, Annetta felt hundreds of pairs of eyes on her and could swear she heard whispers as well. She did her best not to look, however her eyes darted about nervously. She could see out of the corner of her eye that some of those gathered seemed to be staring at her and her friends, and she had to continuously remind herself that it was because they were Minotaur and she was human. There was no other reason to it. Her stream of thought was interrupted when something nudged her lightly.
“You’re slouching again,” Sarina said in a half whisper.
Annetta hadn’t noticed the shift in her posture, but did her best to adjust it. The band picked up their instruments yet again and prepared another tune to play. It was a lively piece and as soon as the music began again, the floor crowded with more bodies. The girl took a few paces back, only to get caught in the folds of the dress’s skirt and stumble yet again. She nearly took the contents of the table behind her to the floor, were it not for steadying herself with her psychic abilities. Her face flushed when two of the Minotaur males seated close-by chuckled at her.
“Unknown’s bane, Annetta,” Puc hissed. “Try to watch where you step.”
“Want to switch clothes for the evening? You seem more at home in flowing robes,” she snapped back at him, straightening the crumbled folds of her dress.
The mage narrowed his eyes upon hearing the comment, but did not reply. Lord Ironhorn stepped in before he had a chance to do so. “I suggest we move to the terrace if we are to get a good view of the Crossing as it takes place. This song shall be the last piece before my people shall begin to gather.”
“View of the Crossing?” Jason questioned. “How can you witness the crossing of the sun if the planet revolves around it?”
“It is in the positioning of the stars in the heavens,” Lord Ironhorn told him.
“Won’t that take a long time to see?” Link asked.
Lady Silversteel chuckled. “All will be revealed. Now come.”
Obliging, the group followed the two Minotaur. Leaving the room and moving up two flights of stairs, they entered a room with a clear, domed ceiling. The room itself was empty for the most part, all the furniture having been cleared out to allow for maximum accommodation. Prince Snapneck, along with a few other tiny Minotaur seemed to be the only other occupants. They were oblivious to the adults in the room, playing some game which involved head butting one another and driving the opponent into the wall by pushing them.
Annetta couldn’t help but chuckle, seeing the tiny beings struggle against one another. Her gaze then turned skyward and she took notice of the markings carved into the glass ceiling. They were symbols, similar to the ones she had seen on the stone tablet brought to them with the message. The lines formed the shape of an anvil, the kind she had once seen Brakkus use in the smithy in the Lab.
“Our countdown,” Lord Ironhorn explained. “When the stars in the Great Anvil constellation align with the markings, the Crossing will have been completed and the cycle shall begin anew.”
“This room is then only made to witness the Crossing?” Sarina inquired.
“The ceiling, yes but the room is normally a study,” Lord Ironhorn stated.
As the others continued to talk about the Crossing and ask questions, Annetta found herself studying the markings and the stars. Her feet were beginning to ache from the shoes she wore and the constant reminders to stand straight weren’t helping, either. She couldn’t wait to be back in her sneakers and jeans. Beyond these Earthly pains, however, her mind wandered, reflecting on everything that was going on. She had only ever witnessed the Minotaur when they were on the warpath, a force to be reckoned with in the heat of battle. She had never thought them to be capable of producing intricate systems of counting or of having things like balls or dances.
The music down below seemed to finish and soon after, more Minotaur began to pour into the room. It did not take long for it to become crowded, and part of Annetta was thankful that they had arrived earlier as per Lord Ironhorn’s instructions. She was certain the she would have been trampled otherwise. Attendants rushed through, providing those present with refreshments, and from down below a new melody, lighter in tone than previous pieces could be heard playing.
Annetta gazed up again, seeing there was still some time left before the stars lined up with their paired markings, but also made note of how fast they seemed to move when there was something to measure them against. Back on Earth, she had always thought the night sky to be static for the most part, never really changing. She did not have time to contemplate further, however, as Lord Ironhorn made his way to the front of the room, a large silver goblet held in one hand and Prince Snapneck sitting on his other shoulder contently.
The room fell silent as the Minotaur king regarded those gathered. Clearing his throat, he began his address. “My friends and esteemed guests, I thank you all for gathering here tonight to give witness to the Crossing of the Sun.”
Those gathered clapped, but were soon silenced as Lord Ironhorn raised his hand, holding the goblet as he continued. “Many of those of us gathered here tonight have witnessed more than one Crossing and know of its significance. It is the end of an era, and the beginning of a new cycle. Death and rebirth. Change and moving forward, never back. While we do look back on the past and never forget it, this room with the markings etched into ceiling remind us that time only moves forward, and so must we. Our previous crossing prepared us for the coming and renewal of the Four Forces, an army only heard of in stories by all of us by our great grandparents some of who fought alongside Lord Orbeyus Severio. A figment of our childhoods, and here we stand today, united amidst those who have done so. At my last crossing, the first I witnessed as your king, I hoped for the return of heroes long gone. The dream came to pass, and so in this Crossing I can and do hope for a continued peace. For growth and prosperity of all the Four Forces. I would have you now all join me as we witness the crossing into a new age.”
Annetta looked up into the sky once more, hoping to see something significant occur. On Earth, fireworks were the norm at large celebrations of the New Year, but nothing happened. There was a twinge of disappointment that she felt in her stomach, but knew there was nothing she could do that would remedy it. In fact, there had been no mention of anything that would occur when the Crossing would take place. Perhaps this was just their way. Looking down, she then noticed it. Where the shadows of those gathered did not fall, the floor lit up in a brilliant silver light. It was like walking on water, the way it rippled beneath her feet. It was magnificent, unlike anything Annetta had seen. It blinded like the light of the sun, and yet at the same time she did not have the urge to look away, because it did not hurt her eyes. It almost seemed unfitting to have been created by the Minotaur, she thought. She then remembered what Puc had told her about her grandfather when she had refused to wear the dress. Was this what he had seen and wanted others to see?
Clapping and cheering rang out as the whole room was illuminated by the silver light as it grew stronger, removing any shadows that had been present in the room moments before, bringing Annetta back into the present. She too joined in the clapping, though still absentmindedly enthralled by the sight around her.
“Not bad for a New Year’s celebration,” Link cut in, speaking directly into Annetta’s ear from beside her amidst the celebrating.
Annetta looked over at the youth. He had been abnormally quiet the entire time they had been in Stoneberg, almost so much that she had forgotten he had been standing beside her.
“Yeah, it’s not half bad,” she replied. “Though I can’t wait to be out of this dress.”
Link chuckled. “Well, for what it’s worth, you cleaned up nice, and I only saw you trip a few times.”
Annetta felt her ears go red as she turned away from him. “Thanks. And…you were keeping count?”
“Maybe just a bit. Jason bet me it would be over a dozen before the evening was over,” he admitted.
Shifting her stance, the girl felt her dress get caught on her heel and pulled it free, grabbing hold of Link’s shoulder to steady herself as she did so. “You may want to brace yourself to lose, then. This evening is far from over yet.”