An hour after they entered the Dome to Gladiate, the three of them found themselves back out again, Zack and Elian carrying their keys in their weapon form. In Elian's hand was a gold bow tipped with red on both ends, and a thin red drawstring.
"I didn't know how good Elian was as a Gladiator!" Zack laughed. "You're pretty good at shooting that bow."
Elian grinned. "But seeing how fast you moved, I need to brush up on my skills."
"Sheathe your weapons, you two! You look like barbarians!" Weston snapped. "And quit pretending to look all cheerful even though you both didn't like crowds and decided to leave the Dome. I don't get how Zack is comfortable only when crowds of people watch him, but not when he's among a crowd. You're not claustrophobic, are you?"
"I am, actually. A little bit."
They'd overlooked one thing when they entered earlier: the fact that there would be several other Gladiators in a hurry to reach Level-65 other than them, and that there was the possibility that their Dome would be crowded.
"And aren't you too negative about being kicked out of your own Dome for being too tough and unforgiving with other Gladiators?" said Zack. He earned himself a glare from Weston.
"At this rate, we won't be going anywhere," said Elian, looking at his phone. "We've got nowhere to go: all other Domes in this area are crowded."
"What does your phone do?" Zack asked, looking over Elian's shoulder at the phone.
"Oh, I was just looking at some events that are happening related to Gladiators.
"Well, it's about time that we went to see Mikey, anyway, so we'll figure out how to get to Level-65 in a while," said Zack. "Sky said to meet them at a doughnut shop! Doughnuts!"
"I think you're thinking more about doughnuts than what we're supposed to do," Weston sighed.
"Is it okay if I tag along? I've got nothing to do all day, except walk around the city looking for places to Gladiate, and hopefully, a not-so-crowded place," said Elian.
"Sure, why not? Let's go! Doughnuts!" Zack said.
"Hopeless, he's gone to Doughnut Land," Weston huffed.
Elian grinned back, though in the back of his mind, he wondered if the two might catch him as a spy. There was a possibility, but someone with Zack's personality didn't seem to be the type that caught spies. Weston, though, might, but maybe Zack was being a handful that he won't notice either.
The doughnut store that they were going to meet up at was one that Zack usually went to for doughnuts, so they found where it was easily, and when they arrived, Carter, Astrid, and Mikey were there, waiting for them.
Elian noted Carter giving him a faint nod as he stood behind Astrid and Mikey; from his angle, Weston didn't seem to have caught it, greeting Mikey, while Zack was already heading straight towards the storefront.
"I got you your doughnuts, so you don't have to go in again!" Astrid stopped him and handed him a paper bag.
"At least buy five of 'em!" Zack grumbled, after one glance into the bag.
"Five!" Mikey blurted. Even Elian had to stare at him.
"Baby birds eat a ton of food a fay - at least, that's what I compare to, according to Sky-"
"We don't need to know the size of your appetite," Astrid cut in.
"-and I digest fast, so don't worry. I"ll be back in a minute." Zack disappeared into the store.
Mikey just laughed.
"So we're also bringing an extra person along?" Carter inquired; he definitely looked displeased as he stared at Elian. Rather, with a look almost similar to loathing. Even though Elian knew that they were bound to run into each other, and that this act was just to cover them up more, he felt the urge to slink away. "Who's this brat, anyway?"
"Elian, this is Carter," said Weston. "And don't worry about him. He looks mean, but he cares very much about Gladiators. At least, as far as I know. You mind, Mikey?"
"Why not? The more the merrier! Otherwise, Gladiators won't be interesting!" Mikey grinned.
"What are we going to do, anyway?" Weston frowned. "Sky said to meet you, but that's all."
"It's just a pep talk, then I'll let you guys off after that," said Mikey. "Well, get in my truck and we'll go somewhere. It's a Dome I frequent more often than usual. You should drop by once in a while."
"it's not crowded, is it?" Elian asked.
"It's not! Hardly anyone drops by for a visit there," said Mikey. "But it goes to the same virtual world, has its own arenas, and depending on the mood of the Keeper there, he might let us walk into a battlefield." He pointed towards a black truck. "Get in, then I'll drive us there."
When Zack came out, they all got into the truck and Mikey set off. Twenty minutes later, they were driving along a road from where they could see the wide Atlantic ocean that surrounded Redwall. The truck turned into the parking of what looked like an abandoned building.
"There are abandoned buildings in a city like Redwall?" said Zack, frowning at the old place that loomed over them.
"It's not exactly abandoned," said Astrid. "The Keeper working here wanted this place to himself, so he keeps the outside looking like that."
"It sounds more like you made your Keeper into a janitor," said Zack. "I thought Dome Keepers moderate what happens in a Dome and solves conflicts. That seems to be what Weston does."
"In this case, our Keeper is the janitor himself," said Mikey. "You met him briefly, though, Zack. He's that guy called Chris."
Zack remembered that day he'd met Astrid. That other guy who had stood back as she fought him.
"He was a Gladiator?" Zack muttered.
Mikey led them in through what was probably the front door and into a dimly-lit halllway, where a few people were wandering around, chatting in low voices with each other.
"It really wasn't an abandoned building," Weston murmured.
Elian stared around them, wide-eyed. A lonely place hardly anyone knew of. It looked like an old factory, on the inside, though. Or a lab, with the several capsules that were the virtual reality portals to the world of Gladiators.
"Of course it's not, or else I won't be taking you guys here," said Mikey. "Get into a capsule and into a battlefield. Meet me up at the Blue Sector."
"Does that Keeper know were here?" asked Elian uncertainly.
"No worries, he'll track me down later," Mikey said cheerfully. Then he frowned at their group. "Say . . . since when did Zack go off?"
Elian perked up, startled. Zack had been walking right behind him with his doughnuts, which he'd intended to save until later; he didn't realize Zack vanishing behind him when he should have.
Mikey, though bewildered at first, sighed. "Well, maybe that guy just decided to randomly jump at his chance."
"Huh? Who are you talking about?" asked Weston.
"Nevermind, we'll worry about him later," said Mikey. "Zack's not in any trouble, not when he's here."
* * *
Zack found himself in what looked like a cave, in Galadhar's attire, standing alone, still with a bag of doughnuts in his hand. He'd been walking behind everyone and was checking out a group of three Gladiators who were chatting among themselves about how much they'd have to improve to get to Level-65 and didn't notice a patch of dark shadow gathering in front of him until he walked right into it.
Now, he was probably in the world of Gladiators. Clearly.
The cave opened out to some dim reddish light, and he crawled out towards it, and came out to burning ruins and fire.
Zack eyed the ruins. There were sounds of battle and fighting. Well, even though this Dome wasn't crowded, other Domes around the world were, and no matter how big a world the virtual dimension was, there would still be evidence that somewhere, a Gladiator was fighting in a battle.
"You're quite calm for a person who might have been kidnapped by the darkness and plunged straight into the virtual world without the use of a portal," said a calm voice. "Are you actually a normal kid? Or are you a weirdo?"