Jomo grips the side of the table as if something horrifying is unfolding before him. I can only imagine his agony because it’s never happened to me. You see, he just played his best card, and I’m about to claim it.
His eyes widen as I lick my finger to pry the top card from my deck. I know the placement of my cards by heart, so it’s no surprise when Orin the Destroyer is unleashed in all his awesome glory.
Jomo’s shoulders slump in defeat and he drops his face in his hands.
“Sorry, dude,” I say as I place Malden the Dark on the top of my pile of Conquests.
He peers through his fingers at the Arena spread out on the table.
“How did this happen?”
I shrug. Truth is Jomo is no match for me. His deck is vastly undeveloped. I’ve been building mine for years, strengthening my library card by card after each successful Battle.
The Food Court is filled with Dark Kingdom duelers. All around us, kids are locked in Battle. The concentrated silence is punctuated by the slap of cards on the vinyl tables and the groan of players on the losing end of the scale. The Mall is deserted at this time of the morning except for a cleaner mopping the floor and a couple of restaurant staff slumping to work. Inside the comic book store, the spotty owner is vacuuming the floor, preparing for the post-Battle traffic.
Jomo collects his remaining cards and hurries off, leaving his seat open for the next opponent.
I scan the room, but there’s no one waiting to take his place. I suck on my Slush Puppy loudly and lean back in my plastic chair. Someone will turn up eventually.
I’ve been coming to these Saturday morning tournaments for about five years, making me the most experienced player around. I know all the good players, the newbies, the guys with the best cards, those with the worst. Naturally I’ve won most of the good cards, but once in a while someone will find a gem in their Booster pack and turn up to lose it.
While I wait, I watch some of the Battles taking place. The usual suspects are here, mostly neighbourhood kids in hoodies and jeans. I see many familiar faces from previous Battles. I also pick out some beginner players stop-starting awkwardly. There’s nothing interesting going on in my kingdom that deserves my attention.
Or is there?
Something is happening at a far table near the McDonalds. Quite a few people are hovering around to watch the game, which can only mean one thing – a new player’s in town.
I saunter over, trying not to look too keen. I recognize Darren in the crowd, and shove my way in to stand next to him.
“What’s going on?” I ask, nodding towards the table.
His eyes don’t leave the Battle.
“Hitman,” he says.
My eyebrows arch in surprise. A Hitman is a player that arrives for Battle with an arsenal for a deck. I stare at the guy intently. He’s no older than me, fifteen at a stretch. He’s wearing a grey Jay-Jays hoodie with the Incredible Hunk scowling on the back. It doesn’t inspire dread.
He’s playing against Sally, one of the few girls into Dark Kingdom. She chews on her ponytail, which tells me immediately that the game is not in her favour. Everybody has a Tell, and she’s just shown hers.
I feel the tiniest bit sorry for Sally. I see the panic in her eyes, the tremble in her fingers as she places her Attack. I know her strategy well. She likes to keep her Sorcerer cards for the very end, for the big finish. The fact that she’s playing one now means she’s desperate. I close my eyes and feel the collective intake of breath around me.
I open them to see the Hitman counter Sally’s attack with an unlikely card – A Monk. It’s a simple move but brilliant. Monks are immune to Spells. He’s rendered one of Sally’s most powerful cards useless with one his weakest.
Sally is done now. Her next move will be her last.
I study the Hitman closely. He’s as calm as a cucumber as my Dad says. Usually you can tell what a player is thinking by their expressions, but this guy is a blank page. He watches Sally play her card like he couldn’t care less. It disarms her completely, and as I suspected, his next move finishes the game.
I can’t help but raise my eyebrows. You hardly ever see Hitmen at local Battles. They usually only come out for big Tournaments.
As Sally leaves the table sniffing into her cardigan sleeve, he catches me staring.
“You up for a game?” he asks.
I’m trying to sound cool, but inside I’m far from it. I’ve never played a Hitman before, and I could be in for a beating, but I’m trapped by his invitation. If I refuse I look like a coward.
He laughs, and starts to shuffle his deck. I’m not the only one that’s surprised by this simple action. He’s going to play blind. Most players base their entire game plan by the order of their cards in the deck.
I swallow dryly and take a seat opposite him. I’m clutching my deck tightly, suddenly feeling very attached to my cards.
“I’ve heard you’re pretty good,” he says.
His eyes meet mine. “Yeah.”
He plays his first card, the Ghost Ship. Damn. It doesn’t matter what card I play now. Ghost cards are invincible to Attack. It suddenly dawns on me that the reason he shuffled his cards is because they’re all good. I fight the urge to run away. I can’t afford to show any weakness. It’ll jeopardize my Battle with the Hitman, but also affect my reputation with the other players.
In seconds our small table has become the focus point of the food court. Each and every player watches us, their own Battles forgotten. There are even a couple of non-players watching, probably attracted by the sense of excitement and curious to see what’s going on for themselves.
I pull up a Merchant Trader card, which is a neutral card, meaning it can neither attack nor be lost. I allow myself to exhale slowly through my mouth. We’re on equal ground with zero points each.
The Hitman pushes his chair closer to the table and leans forward.
“I’m impressed,” he says softly.
The game lasts a hundred years. The crowd watching us thins as people lose interest, then grows again as the intensity increases. Even the comic book store owner pops over to watch. I can’t afford to pay too much attention to what’s going on around me. All that matters is the Battle.
I lose two, three, four cards, but gain one of his. His composure fractures then smashes as I take another. A drop of sweat trickles down his cheek onto his collar.
It’s when my hand reaches over to claim his second card that I notice the crowd watching us cringe. At first I don’t understand, but when the Hitman throws down a Lightning Bolt that obliterates my Fortress, I see the truth. They’re all cheering. The other players want me to lose.
Out the corner of my eye I notice Jomo fist punch the air. Even Darren is grinning.
A mixture of anger and hurt threatens to bubble to the surface, but I swallow the emotions down and concentrate on the Battle before me.
I lose my Great Serpent card that I took from Kevin, the stuttering newbie; followed by the Stone Chariot that I swept away from Sally two Saturdays ago; and finally the Wizened Witch I won from Darren when we first started playing.
One by one, I watch helplessly as my entire deck of cards gets added to the top of the Hitman’s Conquests; all of which were once Conquests of my own.
I’m left with the two cards I scored from the Hitman. They’re not even great cards, but rubbishy ones you’d find in a Beginner’s Deck.
The cheers from the crowd sound like laughter in my ears. The Hitman stands up, and extends his hand towards me. I don’t want to shake hands, but I don’t want to be seen as the sore loser either.
I extend my hand grudgingly.
“It’s just business,” he says with a wink.
Once he’s gone, the Battles resume around me as if I don’t even exist. I stand there shell-shocked, until eventually Darren takes a seat opposite me and rests his head in his hand.
“What just happened?” I ask him, utterly deflated.
“I know. I was there.”
“You know why they call them Hitmen don’t you?” he asks, pulling his deck out of his jeans pocket.
“Because they show up to Battles with better cards than you? Who cares?”
Darren looks me levelly, and taps his deck with his free hand. “And where do you think they get those cards from?”
I look at his deck of cards on the table, which is a lot thinner than usual and the truth suddenly dawns on me like a giant cartoon light bulb.
“You took me out?”
He’s silent for a moment. “Not just me.”
“Everyone. You don’t play fair, dude. You take all the fun out of the game. Something had to be done.”
I run my fingers through my hair as I consider this. It didn’t register at the time, but thinking about it now I realize that Jomo’s cards were a lot crummier than usual.
“You guys gave up your best cards just to take me out? Seriously?”
A smile forms at the corner of Darren’s mouth. “You can’t make room for a new King unless you topple the existing one.”
I let his words sink in. He watches me carefully, waiting for my reaction. Finally, I grin and push myself up from my seat.
“It’ll take months for someone to beat my record. Years! I could probably work my way back up to the top by then.”
He gapes at me in surprise.
I lean forward and grin, my eyes gleaming. “Years.”
I walk past the tables of duelers, my head held high, my hands in my empty pockets. A couple of players watch me nervously, but I grin at them, even wave at a few. The truth of what just happened inflates my ego like a helium balloon. They know it. I know it. The King may have been defeated, but in his empty seat a Legend is born.
© S.A. Partridge