The two froze, hands going for their weapons like a normal reflex only to find that they caught air before remembering that their weapons weren't with them.
"Useless," said the voice, and then the shadow stepped forward, and jumped off the pedestal. "You astral bodies can't harm me. In this world, I'm stronger than you guys are."The Walking Whisperer smiled at them. "Well, we need no introductions, do we?" she said.
Astrid Lansing smiled. Her blue hair was clearly obvious, with the light of the Core behind her glancing off it, and she was in Archaeryx's ensemble. The difference was that she had her sword with her.
"Astrid? Why are you here?" said Zack, startled. Then he gawked at her. "Wait, you're the Walking Whisperer?!"
The two of them stared at her as she smiled.
Not the careless smile Zack would have recognized. A calm one.
"I just thought it would be good to reveal myself, now that you two have met, and I know the true extents of your power," said Astrid. "You guys remember? The first time I fought you?"
Zack remembered; why she was eager to fight him even though they just met. Normally, people he only just met and whom he knew were Gladiators like him would first try to get friendly with him, and not right out ask for a Gladiator fight, the way Astrid did.
Sawyer frowned. “So this is why you were fighting me? When Euphoria attacked Synchron. You seemed to be happy to fight me. I'm more used to people backing away from me.”
"Well, why do you think so?" asked Astrid, grinning.
"You were curious about our ranking and powers?" said Zack. "To see if we're stronger than you or not?"
"Yeah, well, too bad I lost against both of you," Astrid huffed.
"Why'd you remove our weapons, anyway?" asked Zack. "I mean, it's not like we're going to fight-"
"I can't trust you two yet," said Astrid, cutting in. "Especially not while you two are really like beasts when you're fighting. I mean, you even blew the walls of the Synchron Organization with just your abilities as Gladiators. I wonder what you would have done when you were in that hall outside there; I was watching you guys the whole time, your reactions when you woke up."
Zack froze. "Well, my reaction was that I thought Euphoria had kidnapped me out of my sleep into this world, and took away Galadhar."
“Your predecessors, Rune Deatherage and Garrett Heaton, were really strong, aren't they?”
Zack almost flinched from her; Astrid was definitely not like her old self.
“But then – I heard Annika herself was as strong as they are, she could fend them off just fine,” Zack breathed.
“Annika is strong,” said Astrid. “But even though she is strong, and able to tie up against your predecessors, she's not strong enough to win any games against them. They were faster than she is at improving their skills as Gladiators and gamers.” Then she put on a face that seemed like she was looking down on them. “By the way, I'll be trying to beat you guys, too, just because I want to surpass her.”
Astrid's being weird, Zack thought. Then frowned. Weird? No, wait, Astrid is really being herself.
“Since you are of the Synchron Organization, you'll probably try to block my access to my power and the Core, won't you?” asked Sawyer; his voice startled them after his long silence when they almost forgot he was there. “Also since I'm an enemy.”
Astrid looked at him. Then sighed. “If I cut off your connection to the Core, Zack also has to be cut away from it. So I won't. Rather – I'm not going to make it a one-sided fight; that's not going to please Annika, as her successor. So I'll just let you guys go loose on your powers – even though I'm worried if you guys might even use them to destroy the world.” Astrid straightened, and waved her hand. “Here's proof that I'll let your two go all out.” Zack noticed Galadhar appearing back in its sheath, and Dragos returning to Sawyer against his back.
“You're surprisingly carefree,” said Sawyer, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword, “for a Core Gladiator.”
“Really?” asked Astrid with a frown.
“With this sense of responsibility, how can you two even still enjoy your lives playing Gladiators, when you know there's always the possibility that you could be killed by your opponent?” Sawyer frowned.
“Well, killed, maybe, but depends on the gamer you've been challenged with,” said Zack.
“Is that so?” said Sawyer.
Suddenly, his sword was drawn, and Sawyer thrust Dragos straight towards Astrid.
Zack had his sword drawn within seconds, but Astrid had waved her hand and a barrier stopped Dragos' blade from touching her neck in time.
“I said, in this world, while you're astral bodies, I'm stronger,” said Astrid. “I control over everything. You guys don't.”
“Even I can't?” said Zack.
“Yep,” said Astrid.
“I'm aware of that,” Sawyer snorted. “But its interesting; you moved faster than before.”
“It's because I'm going all out,” said Astrid. “And this place where the Core resides is the place I can control with a flick of my hand.” As if to prove it, Astrid waved her hand, and their surroundings changed to millions – or billions, it seemed to Zack – of coded data that glowed with a faint gold light.
“That's – way too much for me to be able to hack through,” said Zack, staring at the arches of gold digits scrolling past his eyes that he felt almost blinded – and dizzy. All of a sudden, he felt light-headed.
Astrid waved her hand, and the hall reverted to its original size. “Now, then, I didn't just call you guys here just to chat, since I'm guessing its boring you, Sawyer,” she said calmly. Zack whirled to Sawyer, and only noticed that he was about to drift off from them down towards the way they came from. Now, he stopped.
“I brought you guys here to warn you about something,” said Astrid, and now, her face expression was serious. As far as he could remember, Zack recognized that expression as the same that she always wore when she was working on a computer or a section of the Gladiators' virtual world.