Saturday, August 30, 2008

TOD: Who are those characters and where do I know them from?

Some astute readers have certainly noticed relationships between Tournament of Death and several other of my stories.  Crimson is the most obvious example, but I thought I'd give a brief run-down of the connections between this story and my other Blue Kingdoms work.  Sometimes, Iike Robert E. Howard before me, I feel like I'm tapping into a vast reservoir of stories from a world as real as our own, and I just have to wait for the right time for them to reveal themselves to me.  This project, written on the fly from very few notes, felt that way a lot.

BRAK - The basilisk (lizard-man) warrior appears in "The Blood Red Isle" in Zombies, Werewolves, & Unicorns (which appears in shorter/adapted form in "Court of the Blood Red Queen" in Blue Kingdoms: Shades & Specters).

CRIMSON - The main character in "Forever Crimson," a short story collected in Martian Knights & Other Tales.  Crimson also appears in an unreleased short story (I'm shopping it around), where she meets Captain Ali al Shahar, another of my ongoing BK characters (see Martian Knights & Other Tales and Blue Kingdoms: Buxom Buccaneers).

BARONESS LINDY GRIFFENHOLT - And the Golden Order appear in my unpublished novel A Reliable Dragon.  The Golden Order has also been mentioned in BK stories by other authors.

CAPTAIN HAMMACK - Is named for my old friend & game designer, Alan Hammack.  Al wrote "The Ghost Tower of Inverness," the first D&D module I edited (and wrote some of the background for).  With the tower setting for this story, I thought it would be a nice tip of the hat to mention him.  "Ghost Tower of Inverness" is mentioned in the 2nd D&D movie -- Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God -- which is a good film, much better than the first D&D movie.  He hasn't appeared before, but I wanted to give him props here.

MIDKNIGHTS - Uldred & Erisa are the latest in a string of Midknights (amoral, mercenary knights) to appear in my stories.  There's a trio of Midknights in "Shipmates," in Pirates of the Blue Kingdoms, and two more in "The Blood Red Isle" in Zombies, Werewolves, & Unicorns (which appears in shorter/adapted form in "Court of the Blood Red Queen" in Blue Kingdoms: Shades & Specters).

REX REGUS - Is original to this story, but Al Kabar have appeared in stories by Lorelei Shannon (who really nailed her portrayal of the race I envisioned) in Pirates of the Blue Kingdoms and Blue Kingdoms: Buxom Buccaneers.  I think there might even be an Al Kabar in Robert E. Vardeman's tale, and perhaps some others, in Blue Kingdoms: Shades & Specters.

- Is original for this story, but sirens have appeared in other stories, including "The Gift of the Dragons" in Martian Knights & Other Tales.

- Though Sir William hasn't appeared before, his "boss" Lord Avalard appears in the story "The Girl in the Mirror" from the upcoming Lilith anthology from Popcorn Press.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

TOD - Chapter 16 & Epilogue


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Baronette Brion Wilde’s heart raced as the surviving contestants materialized in front of the reviewing stand, and he cheered just as long and loud as everyone else in the crowd.

Most of the competitors who entered the Empyrian Tower had died, but a handful had survived, including his old friend Crimson. Watching images of the team’s fights in the magical brazier, Brion had become more and more convinced that the whole tournament was a sham—a meat-grinder devised for the amusement of the mob and the self-important wizard-prince. What better way to avoid giving away a valuable prize than assuring that none of the participants lived to collect it?

Now the wizard-prince’s promise would be put to the test, and a splinter of worry nagged the elf’s brain: Would Amontet keep his word?

The survivors had been beaten half to death. All of them were bruised, broken, and bleeding from multiple wounds. Crimson looked as bad as any still-living warrior that Brian had ever seen. Piro appeared worse. The orange-haired teen lay on his back, eyes closed, pale and motionless, looking for all the World-Sea like a corpse. Crimson had insisted that the boy still lived, but Brion saw little hope for Piro’s recovery.

Amontet stood atop the tall dais in front of his golden throne, a king surveying his vassals. “Bring me the gem,” he commanded.

Rogina, who had been working near where the team materialized, took the diamond from Pius and hurried up the stairs. She bowed and handed the glittering stone to Amontet.

The wizard-prince’s handsome, hawkish face broke into a measured smile. “You may go,” he told Rogina. She bowed and retreated back the way she’d come.

Amontet held the Empyrian Diamond at arm’s length and it caught the first rays of the sunset, spraying the audience with golden rainbows. “Behold the price offered for the ultimate prize!”

No, Brion thought. The price of your favor isn’t that glittering bauble. The price was the lives of those who competed in this tournament. He remembered those who had fallen just in the final stage: Roj Bond, Neilo, Orlando, the brutish Tarkon, and Amontet’s own man, Seth—whose headless body still lay on the ground at the tower’s base. Perhaps in the next hours, Piro would be added to the list of casualties as well. Had the price been too high? Clearly the wizard-prince didn’t think so.

Amontet raised the diamond above his head and the gemstone began to glow with a brilliant inner light. The diamond floated out of the wizard’s hand and into the air, glowing ever more brightly as it rose. A blinding flash enveloped the island, and when the light faded, the gem was gone. Again, Amontet smiled his measured smile.

“Now those who recovered my prize shall have their own rewards,” he said. “Let the contestants come forward.”

The bloodied survivors looked at the steep stairway leading to the throne, and their battered shoulders sagged.

“I hope you don’t mind if we take our time, Your Majesty,” Crimson said.

The audience tittered nervously, but the wizard-prince’s benevolent expression did not change. “By all means,” he replied.

Crimson looked into the stands, searching, until her pale blue eyes lit upon the baronette. “Brion,” she called, “come look after Piro.”

Heart in his throat, the one-hundred-and-seventeen-year-old elf left the stands and knelt beside the mortally wounded boy. Piro looked even worse up close than he had from afar. If he was breathing, Brion couldn’t detect it. “Be careful,” the elf whispered to Crimson.

“I know what I’m doing,” she whispered back.

Together, she, Pius, and Erisa hobbled up the stairs to the top of the dais and knelt before the wizard-prince.

Amontet looked at each of them in turn. “You have completed the tests, scaled the tower to its summit, and returned with proof of your heroism. Now, claim your prize.” His dark eyes focused on Erisa. “Midknight, what do you desire? Fabulous treasure? To have your wounds healed and live a long and healthy life? A villa of your own or a castle? Perhaps even an island or a fleet? Name it, and it’s yours.”

Trembling, Erisa gazed up at him. “My wounds don’t matter,” she said. “Wealth and land, neither of those things matter.” She took a deep breath. “Save my man. Save Uldred. Restore him and make him like he was. That’s all I want.”

The wizard-prince nodded and closed his eyes. His face became serene, almost beatific as he concentrated. Then his eyes flickered open and he said, “Granted. Go to him.”

Tears streaming down her face, Erisa bowed and hobbled down the stairway as fast as her wounded leg would carry her. She left the reviewing field and ran to the tents of the healers to find Uldred.

Amontet spread his arms wide and the audience roared their approval; even Brion was impressed, though not with the wizard-prince’s humility.

The ruler of Tet-Zhozer turned to Pius, the next in line. “Your turn, priest,” Amontet said. “Name what you desire as your reward.”

Shaking, Pius gazed into Amontet’s eyes and said, “Your death!” In a flash, the priest’s hunting knife sprang into his hand, and he lunged for the wizard-prince’s heart. “Die, heathen monster!”

Quick as thought, Crimson interposed herself between Pius and Amontet. The priest gasped, too late to stop his blow, and his knife stabbed through Crimson’s shattered armor and lodged deep in her side. Her lips drew into a pained grimace, but she didn’t cry out.

Pius yanked the blade free, but before he could use it on Amontet , the twin snake-like bands on the wizard-prince’s arms sprang to life, transforming into black cobras. The snakes lashed out, sinking their deadly fangs into the priest’s neck and shoulder.

Pius gurgled in pain, his outburst cut short by foam bubbling up from his throat. The snakes’ venom spread quickly from the bites, turning the priest’s flesh a moribund purple. Still entangled with the fatally wounded Crimson, Pius sank to the floor of the platform.

Even before they fell, Brion was sprinting to help his friend. He reached the dais just in time to hear Pius’ final whisper.

“Girl, what have you done?” the priest said. “Don’t you know he’s a demon?” Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he died.

Brion pushed the priest’s corpse away, knelt, and scooped Crimson into his arms. He gazed down into her pale blue eyes. “Crimson!” he said, tears welling.

“Hey, Brion,” she replied weakly. “Don’t worry about this. This is how it was meant to be.”

Brion glared at the wizard prince and cried, “Save her!”

Amontet, whose serpent armbands had returned to their original form, regarded the dying warrior dispassionately. “Is that your wish, woman? Is that what you desire as your prize?”

“Tell me something,” she said, blood bubbling from her lips. “The boy, Piro . . . Does he get his prize. Can he wish to live?”

“No,” the wizard-prince replied. “He had no hand in surrendering the diamond to me. He was merely baggage.”

Crimson took a ragged breath. “Then, my wish is that you heal him,” she said, “not me. Save Piro’s life.”

“Crimson, no!” Brion blurted. “You’ll die!”

A slight smile tugged at the corners of her bloody lips. “No kidding.”

Amontet nodded and almost smiled. “Then your desire is granted, woman, and these games are at an end.” With a crack of thunder, he vanished from the platform.

“Crimson . . .” Brion said, his heart breaking.

“Sorry . . . Brion,” she replied, coughing. “This is the way it has to be—the way it was meant to be. You told me so yourself.”

Now confusion battled with Brion’s sadness. “What are you talking about? I never . . .”

“Sure you did,” she said. “You just don’t remember it . . . yet. I need to tell you something . . . I’m unhinged in time. You’ll ask me what that means the next time we meet, and I’ll tell you. It’s your future, but my past.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’ll get it next time. And I won’t be gone long; like a bad penny, I always turn up.” Her eyelids fluttered, but she managed to wink at him. “Why do you think I look a little different each time we meet? Next time will be in Venitcia, harvest time, and the wine is very sweet. I’ve already been there, but . . . you won’t go for several months.”

“But I’m not going to Venitcia,” Brion protested. She was rambling, almost incoherent. “They don’t even like me there!”

“You’ll go, and I’ll meet you by the water. That’s where you tell me how the tournament turned out—how I died, but saved Piro. We saved the girl, too, this time, despite Tarkon’s interference. I guess that’s something. I guess that means our fates aren’t always written in stone.”

“Crimson . . . you’re not making any sense.”

She stroked his cheek with her bruised and bloody hand. “I know,” she said, “but you’ll understand next time we meet. And the time after that, we can start afresh.”

“Yes,” he said. She was babbling, of course, but that was only to be expected at the end. The best thing he could do was comfort her. “Yes, of course. You’ll get better and we’ll go to Venitcia in time for the new wine festival.”

“Nice try,” she said. “But you’re a terrible liar. I know I’m dying. But I’ve been blessed by the gods—or maybe cursed—and, for me, death isn’t forever.”

He didn’t know what to say.

A grimace of pain flashed across her battered face. “See you next time, in . . . Venitcia.”

And with that, she died.

Brion clutched her to his chest and cried until his tears ran dry. Eventually, he felt a gentle touch upon his shoulder. Looking up, he saw Piro, healed but looking very confused.

“What happened?” the flame-haired mage asked. “Did we win?”

“No,” Brion replied. “Everybody lost. Even Erisa.”

Piro looked forlorn. “How did Crimson . . . die?”

Brion gently laid her body down. “She . . .” he began.

But something strange had happened. Instead of the dead body of his friend, the corpse on the dais belonged to an entirely different woman. She was almost the same height and build as Crimson, but flatter in the chest and not nearly so trim and muscular. Her features weren’t the same, either. The face was similar to his friend’s, but more angular and less pretty; this woman didn’t even have red hair. Her clothes had changed, too, from Crimson’s red tunic and armor to the black and white garb of a Seatopian barrister. The warrior woman’s weapons and gear had vanished as well. Only the corpse’s terrible, fatal wounds remained the same.

Brion’s jaw dropped. “By the gods!”

“Where did she go?” Piro asked. “What happened to Crimson?”

Brion shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, “but perhaps, come harvest time, I’ll find out.”


The sun had set, the stands had emptied, the bodies had been buried, and Max was feeling the usual post-games depression. The Tournament Maximus had been a rousing success, despite the rather strange finale. The Midknight had won, lots of contestants had died, and there had even been an exciting assassination attempt at the end. What more could an audience ask for?

And that, of course, was what worried Max. What would he do for an encore? How would he ever top this? He strode through the makeshift tent village on the shore of Shumakai’s bay, thinking. Around him, spectators were breaking down their pavilions, captains were packing up their ships, and the camp-followers had already sailed to new ports. Even the grandstand was gone; the contract for the engineering-magic that constructed it had expired an hour after the games ended.

Rogina found Max amid the post-games chaos, but instead of looking happy, she looked worried.

“Boss . . .” she began.

“I know, Rogi, I know,” he said as she fell into step beside him. “It always depresses me, too, the swirl and chaos coming to an end, even after a good show—a great show, I daresay.”

“Boss, that’s not it,” Rogina said. “Have you noticed?” She pointed to the Empyrian Keep, towering over where the grandstand had been.

Behind the tower, clouds swirled, forming into a massive thunderstorm, but that was not what had drawn Rogina’s attention. What had caught her eye, and now caught Max’s as well, was the tower itself—the brilliant white spire which now looked almost . . . transparent.

As Rogina and Max watched, the Empyrian Keep faded into nothingness.

“I think,” Max said, “that’s our cue to leave.”



My life is often confusing. Being unhinged in time, I never know when or where I’ll be reincarnated next. Sometimes it’s in one world, sometimes another. Sometimes I know the place like the back of my hand, sometimes I wind up in some oddball backwater ruled by intelligent mice or big blue flowers. Usually, my succession of lives flows along in a clear, linear progression in from the past to the future, just like everyone else in the multiverse.

But every once in a while, Chronalos and his god buddies pull a fast one on me, and I end up looped back in time—if not precisely into my own timeline, then into the splices between my many lives.

As you might imagine, living in a non-linear order makes it hard to build or maintain relationships. Worst, is when I meet someone who knows me, but I don’t know them yet because I’m going to meet them in my future, which turns out to be their past. There are all kinds of confusing variations on that theme, too, but I do my best to avoid such entanglements. Heck, I try not to even think about them.

So, when I wake up in a new place, reincarnated into the body of someone who’d wasted their own life, the first thing I usually do is look aground and get my bearings—trying to figure out not only where I am, but when I am as well. Waking up in Shakespeare’s London is a lot different, for instance, than waking up in the London of World War II—not that either of those examples probably means anything to you.

This time, I woke up in a back alley of Venitcia. Venitcia is the capital of a small country with a big ego in a part of the World-Sea known as the Blue Kingdoms. Waking up there was good; I’d been in Venitcia before. It’s always easier being reincarnated in a place you know.

That said, Venitcia isn’t my favorite island in the multiverse. The canals are nice, but the politics would confuse Machiavelli, and let’s not even get into the religion. But, despite all that, Venitcia is still beautiful and it’s also home to some very nice bistros—assuming my new incarnation was taking place after they’d actually been built. Given that possible complication, is it any wonder that I prefer eateries and inns with a long, well-established history?

Being famished, as I often am after coming back to life, I was hoping that the White Swan would still be open down by the seaward edge of the Grand Canal. Nice place the White Swan, good vegetable pies, fresh sausages, and great wine if you manage to get there in the right season.

This incarnation, I got lucky. Not only was the Swan actually there, but I’d also arrived during the wine harvest festival. Perfect timing.

I was walking toward the Swan’s front door to order my breakfast, I noticed an old friend sitting at a table by the waterside.

“Brion!” I called, delighted to see him. Elves are some of my favorite acquaintances because they live so long. A long life means I can maintain a friendship with someone like Brion Wilde despite the time-jumping nature of my existence. Running into an elf friend is like visiting the Pyramids of Tet-Zhozer: stop by ten, twenty, or even a hundred years later, and not a lot is going to have changed since the last time you visited.

Brion rose and embraced warmly me as I came to his table. “Crimson,” he said. “Good to see you. You look . . . different.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” I said. And, really, I hadn’t. Mostly I look the same when I’m reborn, right down to my clothes and weapons, but there are always some variations. That’s what comes from living out parts of other peoples lives; I tend to resemble the raw materials from which the time gods assemble me.

“I honestly didn’t think you were going to show up,” Brion said.

Uh oh. Things were starting to look complicated. “Have you been expecting me?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“How long?”

“Ever since you died at the Tournament Maximus.”

Tournament Maximus? I didn’t remember that. Maybe it was in my future. Great. Or not.

“Mind if I take a seat?” I asked. “I think I have some explaining to do.”

“Be my guest,” Brion replied, smiling and pulling out a chair for me. “And I have a quite a story to tell you, too. But first, I should order some wine.”






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TOD - Chapter 15


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Supernatural cold stabbed through Erisa’s body as the flying lion’s paw slashed across her exposed abdomen. The Midknight gasped and staggered back, realizing nearly too late how close she was to falling off the stairway. The heels of her boots dipped over the edge and she reeled, trying to both recover her balance and defend herself against the beast’s follow-up attack. Only a few dozen of the spiraling stairs remained to reach the top, but each nine-foot-wide tread had a three foot rise, making every step a climb rather than an easy walk up.

Erisa had no idea if she or any of her companions would live long enough to reach the summit. For a moment, as the cold pain shot through her, she wished to the gods that she had stayed on the island and never entered the tower on Shumakai. Then the memory of Uldred flashed through her mind. If he dies, I don’t want to live anyway, she thought.

Piro, standing six steps above Erisa, shouted, “Hey!” and threw a green fireball into the lion’s hindquarters. The creature reared, glancing back over its winged shoulder at the young mage. Erisa recovered her balance and lunged, thrusting her sword into the lion’s chest. The creature grunted and died, toppling over the edge of the stair and spiraling into the clouds below.

“Thanks!” the Midknight called, only then spotting the new lion swooping in behind the young mage.

Before she could shout a warning, the winged lion landed on Piro’s back, sinking its claws deep into his flesh. The fire mage cried out and crashed face first onto the stairway.

Erisa pulled herself onto the next stair, desperately wanting to help the teenager, but knowing she was too far away; there was no time to use her bow or her invisible snare, either. As she hauled herself up, the slashes on her belly sent stabs of cold pain up her spine.

The winged lion bared its fangs, preparing to sink them into the back of Piro’s neck.

Just then, Crimson hurtled down from above, leaping the gap in the curving stairway and landing on the lion’s back. Her sword flashed, severing the beast’s left wing. The flying lion roared and bucked, but, without its wing, it overbalanced and toppled over the edge of the stairway. Crimson leapt from its back and caught onto the edge of the tread by her fingertips. Erisa grabbed her hand and helped Crimson scramble up, and the two women went to assist Piro.

One complete turn of the spiral stairway above them, Seth and Pius continued battling two more of the flying beasts.

Piro groaned as the women lifted him. Deep gouges marked his back, his shoulders, and his legs, staining his flame-spangled jumpsuit with blood. “I’m all right,” the mage asserted weakly, though clearly he wasn’t.

“Help him,” Crimson told Erisa. “We’re almost at the top.” Without waiting for a reply, the red-haired warrior bounded up the stairway to help Pius and Seth.

Under other circumstances, Erisa might have resented Crimson’s presumption. At the moment, though, she was glad to hang back and recover her strength.

“I’m all right,” Piro repeated groggily as she helped him up the next flight. Erisa glanced skyward to check on the rest of the team.

Pius and Seth kept climbing as they fought, and before Crimson caught up with them, they reached the last stair. Seth was in the lead, facing a flying lion without a mark on its white coat. The beast slashed and dodged, wheeling into the air and then diving back down. Seth fended off its claws with his sword, but didn’t capitalize on small openings in the lion’s defense.

He’s looking for his perfect cut, Erisa realized. The idiot!

Pius had no such compunction. He stood back to back with the half-elf, fighting the wounded lion that had tried to take them from behind. The beast stood on the stair tread below the priest, its right wing flopping uselessly at its side. But though it was grounded, the monster’s claws and fangs remained sharp, and it flayed and snapped mercilessly at the priest. Pius’ defense was nowhere near as perfect as Seth’s. Deep slashes ran down the priest’s red and purple tunic, and blood dripped from his wounds onto the stairway. Pius deflected most of the monster’s blows with his spiked mace, but with each parry, his mace moved more slowly.

Crimson sprang up the final stairs, and her sword flashed across the hindquarters of the winged lion fighting Pius. The beast’s legs buckled, hamstrung, and it roared in pain. Pius seized the opportunity and bashed its head in with his mace; the snow-white body slumped to the stairs, dead.

“Thanks,” the priest told Crimson.

“Let’s help, Seth,” she replied, climbing over the monster’s corpse.

Pius glanced at the half elf, battling at the top of the stairway. “I’m not sure he wants our help,” the priest said.

Crimson cursed.

Erisa and Piro reached the hamstrung lion’s body just as Crimson and Pius mounted the top of the stairs.

A dozen yards ahead, Seth battled the remaining beast in the cloud tops. The half-elf wheeled and dodged, avoiding the lion’s claws and teeth, parrying and not taking easy opportunities to attack. “Keep back!” he called when he saw the others. “This one is mine.”

Crimson looked like she would rush forward anyway, but Pius put his hand on her shoulder. “Wait,” the priest told her. “It’s what he came for.”

“Fat lot of good that’ll do us if he gets himself killed,” Crimson countered, but she hung back anyway.

Erisa and Piro reached the top tread of the stairs. Ahead of them stretched a circular platform of clouds a hundred yards wide. The clouds were apparently solid, as Seth was standing atop them, rapt in his duel with the sole surviving winged lion. Purplish-white mist, gradually fading into opacity the higher it went, hung above the empyrean scenery. The gentle colors of a summer sunset suffused the landscape, though Erisa saw no source for the softly glowing light. If not for the deadly winged lion, the whole thing would have looked . . . heavenly.

Beyond Seth and the beast, in the middle of the cloud island, rested a small, marble dais. A seven-foot tall pedestal stood atop the platform, and atop that rested a diamond the size of a man’s head. The gemstone glittered in the orange and pink light, casting rainbow reflections across the clouds. Erisa gasped at its beauty.

“Wow,” Piro agreed, perking up.

At that moment, the remaining lion swiped at Seth with its left paw, putting all its weight behind the blow. The half-elf wheeled to the right as the monster missed, turning its back to the swordsman. Seth’s sword flashed in a semi-circle, severing the lion’s neck with a single cut.

The monster’s bisected carcass collapsed into the clouds, kicking up wisps of pink and white mist.

Seth looked at the corpse and smiled contentedly. “Perfect.”

Erisa and Piro cheered and hurried forward, along with Crimson and Pius.

The priest’s hearty laugh shook the clouds. “Well done, swordsman!” he cried.

A slight smile cracked Seth’s thin, handsome face. Then he turned and walked toward the gem atop the pedestal.

But as he set foot on the first step of the dais, twin fungus-white tentacles snaked out of the purple mist hanging above the diamond. One tendril seized Seth’s waist and the other wrapped itself around the half-elf’s neck.

Before anyone could even shout a warning, a sharp SNAP! echoed across the clouds, followed by a hideous popping and rending sound. Erisa, Piro, Pius, and Crimson watched in horror as one tentacle ripped off Seth’s head, and the other tossed his body over the side of the cloud platform. The gore covered tendrils then slunk back into the mist, taking the half-elf’s head with them.

Screaming with rage, the four remaining team members rushed toward the blood-stained dais. Erisa drew her bow and shot arrows into the purple vapor, while Piro, still unsteady on his feet, blanketed the air with a barrage of fireballs.

“Get the gem,” Crimson told Pius as more tentacles dropped out of the mist. Two, then four, then six of the pale tendrils snaked down toward the companions.

Crimson hacked at two, and the tentacles’ ends fell into the cloud tops, twitching. Pius crushed the tip of another with his mace, turning the limb into whitish pulp; the tendril quickly pulled back, into the mist. Piro burned two more snaking appendages out of the sky, though his aim was erratic and more of his fireballs missed than hit their targets.

Erisa put two more shots into the mist, guessing where the tentacle-creature’s body might be, then aimed her third shot at the remaining tendril. Her arrow pierced the limb a half-dozen feet from its end, but the tentacle kept coming. The tendril lashed out, whipping its pointed tip like a striking snake. Erisa dodged, but not fast enough, and the monster’s limb impaled her right calf, going straight through her boot and bursting out the other side.

A world of brilliant white pain exploded in Erisa’s brain. She screamed and dropped her bow, and her survival reflex caused her hands to grope for her sword. Before she could seize it, the tentacle yanked her upward, lifting her into the air by her wounded leg. The Midknight’s heart pounded and her head throbbed. Her questing fingers couldn’t find the pommel of her sword.

Then a streak of silvered steel flashed before her eyes, and she fell, crashing down amid the clouds. She looked up, the bright spots behind her eyes clearing, and saw Crimson standing over her, sword dripping purplish ichor.

“This is going to hurt,” Crimson warned, and—without ceremony—yanked the still-twitching tendril out of Erisa’s leg. The Midknight gasped and, for a moment, the world spun.

“Find your bow,” Crimson said. “Keep shooting. We need to draw this thing, whatever it is, out of the mist.”

Erisa nodded, unable to find her voice. The slashes on her abdomen had flared up again, multiplying the pain in her leg. Nausea swirled in the Midknight’s head, but she groped for her bow and, somehow, found it.

Crimson pushed forward, cutting down two more tentacles, chopping off sections as she went.

Erisa reached under the top of her armor, above her exposed midsection, and ripped off the clothing beneath. The armor would chafe now, she knew, but she needed the cloth to stanch her bleeding leg. As she wrapped her makeshift bandage tight, Father Pius reached the pedestal holding the Empyrian Diamond.

The priest grabbed the glittering gemstone in his left hand and pulled it down from its perch. His eyes went wide and he smiled, momentarily caught in diamond’s brilliant spell.

“Pius! Look out!” Piro shouted.

The priest wheeled and smashed his mace into the tentacle trying to snare him from behind. But the blow skidded off, and the tendril wrapped itself around the priest’s left leg. Pius let go of his mace and seized the hunting knife at his hip. But before he could cut himself loose, the tentacle squeezed and twisted, breaking Pius’ leg with a resounding CRACK!

Pius screamed in pain but managed to cut himself free as he fell. He landed on the bottom step of the dais, still clutching the gem as the severed tentacle writhed beside him.

As Pius fell, Crimson and Piro continued flighting the flailing tendrils. For every one they cut or burned down, though, another snaked from the clouds to attack. Piro fought bravely, though he looked pale and sweaty, and his fireball throws were not nearly so accurate as usual.

“Piro,” Crimson said, “throw as much fire into that mist as you can. Erisa! When the creature shows itself, shoot for all you’re worth!”

Erisa nodded, still woozy and unable to find the voice to reply. Crimson, Piro, and Pius lay two dozen yards away, and the Midknight felt glad for it. Apparently, the monster didn’t have enough limbs to attack both her and the rest of the group.

As Crimson cut down four more writhing limbs, Piro threw his hands skyward and shot forth a fountain of flames.

For a moment, the entire sky filled with fire, burning away the concealing mist. An instant later the blaze faded, revealing a huge pale orb, ten feet wide, floating above the pedestal. The creature had neither eyes, nor mouth, nor any other recognizable features. Its smooth surface was the color of fresh mushrooms. As Erisa and the others gaped, the creature absorbed its wounded tentacles and grew fresh ones. The huge, bulbous body showed no signs of having been harmed by the burning sky.

“What in the name of all the gods is that?” Pius whispered.

“Who cares?” Crimson replied. “Kill it!” Erisa fired her bow as the red-haired warrior leaped toward their revealed enemy.

Crimson soared through the air, higher than any normal human being could leap, but her jump still fell short. The creature lashed out as she came, attacking her with eight tentacles at once. Crimson sliced off six of the tendrils, but two got through her guard and smashed into her chest.

The impact hurled Crimson backward through the air, and she crashed into the cloud cover near the top of the stairs.

Erisa’s heart skipped a beat. Was Crimson dead, and could they survive without her? “Priest!” the Midknight called. “Summon your fire circle!”

Pius looked terrible: his face pale and sweaty, his body trembling, his shattered left leg unable to support his weight. The priest’s voice cracked as he spoke the words of power, “B-by Holy S-Saint Vardin, I invoke the Fire of Righteousness!”

As before, a circle of blue white flame sprang up around him. The questing tentacles which had been reaching toward Pius, recoiled into the monster’s blob-like body.

Erisa shot again, her shaft flying straight into the pale monster, seemingly to no effect. Three more arrows and she would be out. Slowly, the floating creature bobbed away from Pius and toward her, forming a half-dozen deadly tendrils and extending them in her direction.

Erisa’s mind raced. Should she abandon her bow in favor of her sword? Could she even stand up to use it? And if she did, how many of the tentacles could she fell before they slew her? She fired her remaining arrows, severing two of the incoming tentacles, and then dropped her bow. But even as she did it, she knew she wouldn’t have time to re-arm before the wicked limbs grabbed her.

“Hey, ugly!” Piro called. The flame-haired mage had fallen to his knees after setting the sky ablaze, but now he wobbled to his feet and cast a fireball at the monster’s bulbous body. The fireball fizzled out as it hit, and though the monster wavered, it did not turn away from the Midknight.

Unexpectedly, Crimson appeared at Erisa’s side. The red-haired warrior’s tunic had been ripped away, revealing the shining red chainmail beneath, but she looked more angry than hurt.

Crimson cut down three of the tendrils snaking toward Erisa, and that gave the Midknight time to stand, seize her sword, and lop off the fourth. Erisa’s leg seared with pain as she chopped, and she dropped to her knees once more.

“Don’t ignore me, you freak!” Piro called, hurling more fire at the monster. Though the young mage still looked woozy, his fireballs blazed ever more brightly.

“Piro, no!” Crimson shouted. This time, the teenager’s ploy had worked, and the orb was now forming new tendrils to attack him.

“Help him!” Erisa gasped. “Don’t worry about me!”

Crimson sprinted toward Piro, but she had to skirt around Pius’ fiery circle, which separated her from the boy. Piro kept throwing fireballs, but, in his wounded state, he couldn’t match the monster’s ability to regenerate limbs. Before Crimson could reach him, a tentacle snaked through Piro’s defense and wrapped around his neck.

The mage’s eyes bugged out and a horrible SNAP! filled the air.

“No!” Crimson wailed. She leaped the distance separating them and chopped the tentacle from Piro’s neck before it could rip his head off or drag him into the sky. Piro slumped limply to the cloud platform, stirring up puffs of pinkish mist as he it.

Crimson’s face contorted with rage, and she hacked at the monster’s rubbery limbs, all of which now focused on her. She was fighting alone, with Erisa too far away to help and Pius passed out within his fiery circle.

Erisa tried to stand, but her wounded leg buckled under her, sending stabs of pain through her body.

The monster floated lower, focusing on the red warrior, forming more and more tendrils the closer it came. One got through Crimson’s whirling blade and gouged a chunk out of her left shoulder. Crimson grimaced, but did not cry out.

Is this how it ends? Erisa wondered. Taken one-by-one when we’re so close to finishing? By the gods, NO!

Desperately, she reached into the pouch at her waist and pulled out the one trick she had left: the invisible snare she’d been saving since she and Uldred arrived on Shumakai.

Gods, let it be enough! she thought. She uncoiled the magical, transparent rope, feeling its length with her hands, as more and more tendrils got through Crimson’s guard. Most of the tentacles rebounded from Crimson’s red mail, but some ripped jagged gashes in her skin and clothing.

Snare!” Erisa hissed, speaking the magic’s activation word. Then, from her knees, she hurled the transparent rope toward the monster. The line sailed unharmed over Pius’ fire circle and struck the thing’s bulbous body. As it hit, the snare wrapped around the monster’s circumference and then turned completely invisible.

Erisa pulled with all her might. The weight on the end of the rope felt like a rowboat filled with rocks, but the tentacle-orb floated toward her slightly. And as the Midknight’s muscles strained, the pulling got easier.

The creature flailed, seemingly unable to comprehend the force that tugged on it. Its tentacles flashed wildly, but didn’t sever the invisible line.

Erisa propped her healthy leg in front of her for leverage and hauled for all she was worth. With every tug, fire shot from her wounded calf and her clawed belly to her brain. She fought down the agony, refusing to give up. With one great, final heave, she pulled the monster into Pius’ wall of cleansing flame.

The creature made no sound as it hit the fire, but its tentacles thrashed in a staccato frenzy. It grew more tendrils, only to have them burn off and drop away. It did not die, though, but instead, pulled back on the rope, trying to escape the fire.

Erisa screamed as her muscles strained to keep the thing in the flames.

Just when Erisa thought she would pass out from the effort, Crimson appeared on the other side of the burning circle. The red-haired warrior’s clothes and mail hung in tatters; deep lacerations covered her skin and her face, but determination burned in her pale blue eyes.

She leapt into the air and brought her sword down in a deadly arc. The blade bit into the top of the monster’s bulbous surface and cut clean through to the bottom. Purplish ichor sprayed into the air and the monster flopped into the fire, dead.

Crimson touched down on the cloud platform and spat blood from her mouth. Then she grinned and said, “Perfect.”

Erisa would have laughed if not for the slashes across her abdomen. Release!” she whispered to her snare, but the line did not retract; the fall into the enchanted fire had destroyed its magic. Leaning on her scabbard as a crutch, the Midknight got to her feet and hobbled toward the fiery circle.

“Priest!” she called. “You can pull down your firewall! The fighting’s over.” At least, I hope to the Gods that it’s over.

A moan came from within the flaming circle, and Pius sat up, looking bleary. He whispered a counterspell and the blue-white fire died away. Neither the cloudy floor nor the dais had been scorched by his magic.

Crimson crouched beside Piro’s body on the far side of the platform.

“Leave him,” Erisa said. “He’s dead.”

Crimson shook her head, tears streaming down her lacerated face. “His neck’s broken, but he’s still breathing,” she said. “Dammit! This is not the way it was supposed to be!”

“There’s nothing we can do for him,” Erisa said. “Pius is a warrior-priest, not a healer.”

“Would that I were!” Pius moaned.

“If I immobilize Piro’s head and heck, he might be able to heal,” Crimson said. Already she’d begun to rig a makeshift brace using her scabbard, two knives, and strips of her shredded clothing.

Erisa put her hand sympathetically on Crimson’s shoulder. “We’ll never be able to carry him all the way back down.”

Crimson looked at her, and the Midknight saw the heartbreak in the red-haired warrior’s eyes.

“Maybe we won’t have to carry him!” Pius blurted.

Both women turned as the Eye of Amontet floated toward the dais, growing larger as it came. “Well done!” said the disembodied voice of the wizard-prince.

As the eye expanded, it grew brighter until it was so luminous that Erisa had to squeeze her eyes shut to avoid being blinded. The last thing she saw was Pius clutching the Empyrian Diamond to his chest, and Crimson holding tight to the body of Piro.

Then the light enveloped them, and—in the next instant—they were back on Shumakai, in the reviewing field next to the huge burning brazier.

As all three of them blinked to regain their sight, the packed grandstand burst into ground-shaking applause.

Erisa smiled wanly, but neither she, Crimson, nor Pius could muster the strength to stand. Piro lay on Crimson’s lap, pale and unmoving. We made it, the Midknight thought. We’ve won!

Everyone turned toward the royal box as the floating eye of Amontet—twin to the one that had followed the contestants into the tower—began to radiate brilliant golden light. The eye shrank to a normal scale as, around it, the glow expended into the shape of a tall, regal man.

When the illumination faded, Amontet stood before his golden throne—and this time, it was no projection, but the wizard-prince in the flesh.

Amontet’s smooth tones resonated across the assembly as he looked at the surviving contestants and said, “Congratulations!”


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Saturday, August 23, 2008

TOD - Chapter 14


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“Keep climbing!” Crimson called to the other five remaining contestants as she pulled herself up the ice cliff.

The rest of the group followed in the red-haired girl’s wake, using the handholds she cut in the ice and carefully following her path. Stuck in the rear of the group—and hating every moment of it—Tarkon sneered.

He knew the others admired this red-haired woman, but for the life of him, the Vortex Gladiator couldn’t figure out why. Yes, she was attractive—in the way that all chattel were—and yes, she had some skill in combat. But her puny muscles could not compare with his sea-hardened ones. Used to resisting the pressure of the depths, he was much stronger than any of these fools—despite his dearth of climbing skill. He was also more effective at killing, having slain far more of their enemies than anyone else had—at least, until the last obstacle.

That fact vexed him. Crimson had somehow killed all the lightning creatures after Orlando fell. The priest, the flame-haired boy, the half-elf, and the Midknight had helped—apparently—but the red-haired girl had slain the most, at least, to hear the others tell it. Tarkon, having crossed the void successfully—it had been child’s play to do so—had missed the fight entirely. He hated that. Just as he hated the fact that the others seemed to admire Crimson more than they admired him.

Did they not understand that he, Tarkon, was superior: a king among his people? Had they never heard of the Vortex Gladiator race, future masters of all the World-Sea? Were the vey words “Vortex Gladiator” not respected and feared throughout all the Blue Kingdoms?

Yet, the other followed this slip of a girl as though she was the natural leader, when, in fact, the only advantage she had over Tarkon was that she climbed well. Climbing was unnecessary beneath the sea or in most war raids, so Tarkon had less skill in it. Which was how he found himself in the humiliating position of bringing up the rear as they climbed, rather than leading.

At the head of the group, Crimson yelled something, but Tarkon couldn’t make out the words through the building wind. The Midknight girl, climbing in the middle of the group, turned and relayed the message, shouting, “Hold tight! Something’s coming! Could be elementals!”

She turned away, giving the Vortex Gladiator a generous view of her lightly-armored buttocks. The undersea warrior frowned, unable to decide whether he admired the Midknight’s boldness—for wearing so little protection—or whether she was just another surface fool, too dumb to realize that in battle, every advantage should be taken.

Silently cursing himself for being distracted, Tarkon used his grieve knives to gouge out deep hand and footholds in the icy cliff face. Then he drew his immense sword and waited.

The others were braced as well by the time three cloudy, whirling elementals reached the frozen escarpment. The flame-haired boy threw fireballs into the creatures as they arrived, softening them up for the rest of the group. Tarkon admired the tactic, but the boy annoyed him. Back home, such a youth would either have been killed or, at the very least, had his tongue cut out.

Though weakened, the elementals kept coming, one choosing to attack Crimson, the second the half-elf, and the third the priest.

“Cowards!” Tarkon bellowed. “Attack me, if you dare!”

If they heard him, the elementals didn’t have time to respond. The others worked together like an experienced raiding party: Crimson and the boy vanquishing one foe through a combination of fire and steel, the half-elf and the Midnight slaying the other with well-placed cuts of their magical swords. The priest spoke some kind of spell, and the third elemental vanished entirely. Before any of the enemy even reached Tarkon, the fight was already done.

Then and there, Tarkon decided he would deal with Crimson in the same way he’d dealt with the annoying flying girl.


Father Pius V. Corpus extended his hand to Crimson, who pulled him up over the edge of the ice cliff. “Thanks,” he told the red-haired warrior. As she helped up the next person in line, Pius adjusted his white and purple tunic and wiped the sweat from his brow.

He was glad that Crimson had taken the lead on this last obstacle, and not just because she was a good deal easier on the eyes than Orlando had been during their climbs. May the gods cleanse my impure thoughts!

With the acrobat dead, the only other choices to lead the group were Seth, the Midknight, or Tarkon—all of whom were completely unsuitable for the roll in the priest’s eyes. He, of course, did not want to draw undue attention by assuming such a position.

Crimson was a natural leader and had defeated the cloud monsters—which she called lightning elementals—almost without assistance. Her strange, silver-traced sword seemed to suck the life out of the beasts. And those she didn’t kill directly she slew by reflecting their own lighting back at them with her blade.

Seth, Piro, and Pius himself had tried to help, but the father held no illusions: Crimson had been responsible for the victory.

But there’s something wrong about that girl, Pius thought. Something unnatural. Some deviltry. Something that puts me on edge. She feels . . . out of place, among ordinary people. Still, he had to admit that she was both a good leader and an amazing warrior. In a fair fight, she might even give that brute Tarkon a run for his money. “Crimson Death” I heard some of the other contestants call her. Now I know why.

Crimson extended her hand to Tarkon, the last of group up the cliff, but the gladiator merely glared at her. Crimson laughed and walked away; Tarkon pulled himself up.

Erisa, the Midknight, scowled at him. “I think you’re failing to grasp the situation here, big guy,” she said. “This isn’t a competition. One of us isn’t getting the prize; if we finish, we all get the prize.”

Tarkon grunted noncommittally.

The look on his helmeted face would have stopped most people dead, but Erisa had clearly put up with enough of his attitude. “Didn’t you hear what Max said?” she continued. “We’re supposed to be a team. This isn’t a winner-take-all tournament.”

Tarkon laughed, his boastful voice harsh and grating. “Life is winner-take-all. You soft-skin surfacers better get used to it.”

Erisa shook her head and turned away; Pius and the others ignored him.

“What’s next?” Piro asked. Though he had displayed his fiery temper in bursts during the fight, he’d been much more sedate since Neilo died.

The six of them were standing on a shelf of ice near the top of the mountain. Icy mist filled the air around them, giving the whole area a strange, bluish overcast. The silver line of the course ran from the shelf up a narrow path to the very pinnacle of the mountain. Where it went beyond that, none of them could tell.

To Pius, the entire scene felt vaguely unreal—as though they’d stepped into an incomplete painting where the artist had merely roughed in the sky to finish later. Everything around them seemed primal, only partly formed. At the same time, though, the place seemed almost . . . heavenly.

“We go up,” Crimson said. “Follow the path until it ends.”

“And keep fighting, I’m sure,” Erisa added.

“Life is struggle,” Tarkon said.

“If you’re a jerk it is,” Piro whispered, seeming to momentarily forget that he no longer had Neilo to share his jests with.

“Easy, lad,” Pius cautioned. Then, more loudly, he announced, “Let’s go. It’s not getting any warmer.”

Without further discussion, they marched up the ever-narrowing path, tracking the magical silver line. Crimson went first, followed closely by Tarkon—who was eyeing her in a savage way that made Pius uncomfortable—then Pius, Erisa, and Piro with Seth bringing up the rear. Trailing behind them all came the eerie, disembodied eye of Amontet.

When the group reached the pinnacle, the obvious trail stopped, though the enchanted line stretched out, over the cloud tops, toward a distant mountain peak.

“How are we supposed to get over there?” Piro asked. “Fly?”

“Too bad we don’t have anyone with us who can fly,” Crimson said, glaring at Tarkon.

Pius felt sure that she was referring to the girl from Wudan, whom Tarkon had put out of the competition for reasons the priest couldn’t fathom at all.

Seth reached over the edge of the peak and prodded the nearest cloud with his sword blade. “This almost seems solid,” he said.

“What do you mean, ‘almost?’” Erisa asked.

“He’s right,” Crimson agreed, pushing into the white fluff with her hand. “It feels like soft peat with mud beneath. If we move across the clouds quickly, we should be able to make it to the far side.”

“And if we don’t move quickly?” Erisa asked.

“Then I’m guessing we sink through and fall to our deaths thousands of feet below,” Crimson said matter-of-factly.

“But there are gaps between the clouds,” Pius pointed out.

“Those we jump,” Crimson said, “just like we did in the cloud cavern.”

“Do you think there are more of those creatures—the lightning elementals—here?” Piro asked.

Crimson cast her pale blue eyes over the cloud tops. “I don’t see any,” she said.

“Too bad,” Piro put in, and blue flames danced around his fingertips.

“But I’m sure there’s something equally dangerous between here and there,” Crimson added.

Pius swallowed hard. Even with the string of ropes to guide him and keep him from falling, he hadn’t liked the crossing in the cloud cavern—and not just because Orlando had died there. This obstacle, with no solid ground anywhere, was far worse. Remember the mission, he told himself. The order is counting on you . . . the World-Sea itself is counting on you to see this through to the bitter end. His throat felt very dry as he asked, “Who goes first?”

“I will,” Piro said. “I’m the lightest, so it only makes sense.”

“No!” Tarkon boomed. “A warrior should go first—and that warrior is me.” He looked at Crimson, as if daring her to challenge his primacy.

She bowed without taking her eyes off the big warrior. “Be my guest. But remember, you have to keep moving, no matter what.”

“I am no chattel for you to command,” Tarkon said. And with that, he turned and stepped onto the cloud butting up against the edge of the precipice.

Pius almost felt disappointed when the gladiator didn’t plummet to his death. Instead, as Crimson had suggested, he began to sink slowly, like a man standing on thick mud. Tarkon took another step, and the sinking stopped. Then he leaped, as he had in the cloud cavern.

That nearly proved his end, because when he landed, he sank into the clouds up to his thighs, and had to exert considerable effort to pull himself out and get moving again.

“We’ll need to be careful when jumping across the gaps,” Seth commented.

Crimson nodded.

“I’m next,” Piro asserted. “If the clouds hold that anvil-skull, they won’t have any trouble with me.”

“Never complain when someone else volunteers to be bait,” Erisa said. “That’s an old Midknight saying.”

Most of the group smiled. “I’ll be right behind you,” Crimson assured Piro.

“Then me,” Erisa said.

“Do you want to go next, priest, or last?” Seth asked.

Neither, Pius thought, but found himself saying, “Next.”

“Get going, then, kid,” Erisa told the flame-haired teenager.

Piro nodded and made his way across the cloud tops, walking briskly at first and then skipping along lightly.

Crimson smiled at the rest. “See? Nothing to it.” She stepped onto the clouds and followed the boy. The others trailed after, leaving a reasonable gap between each contestant, hoping—and in Pius’ case praying—that the clouds would regain their firmness between crossings.

In the meantime, Tarkon had leaped the first two gaps in the clouds. On the first he landed lightly, recovered, and quickly moved ahead. On the second, though, he plowed into the cloudbank and sank nearly up to his waist.

As he struggled to extricate himself, Piro pointed and cried, “Look!”

A formation of triangular, nearly transparent fins cut through the clouds heading for Tarkon and the other competitors.

“Spirit sharks!” Crimson called as the torpedo-shaped beasts burst through the cloud cover and soared into the air. “Don’t let them bite you! Try to reach the other side!”

Pius barely heard her warning; the mention of “spirit sharks” had sent a chill to his very soul. He’d heard of them before, of course, probably every holy man in the Blue Kingdoms had. They were creatures of the outer planes, caught between heaven and the sea, searching for lost souls to devour.

Among the living, spirit shark attacks caused paralysis. A bite to an arm or leg would rip the flesh’s vital energy away, rendering the limb useless; a bite to the head or body could kill instantly. Worse, the sharks were immaterial, and could pass through armor and even thick walls. Normal weapons did not affect them; Pius prayed that his mace and some of his holy powers might.

“Father, keep moving,” Seth warned from behind.

Pius realized he had been sinking as he stood stunned at the thought of the sharks. He pulled his feet out of the cloudy mire and kept walking, though not so swiftly as he had been.

Ahead, Tarkon plowed forward, his huge sword at the ready as the sharks moved in. He struck at the first one as it swerved out of the sky, but his enormous blade passed harmlessly through the creature’s sleek, seven-foot long body. Tarkon grunted and stumbled as the shark bit his leg. When he rose again, that leg was rigid, immobile.

Piro, still a long distance behind the gladiator, seemed to be having better luck with the monsters. His fireballs made the ghost fish turn away, and his frenetic fighting style kept him out of the path of the sharks’ flashing teeth.

Crimson moved quickly and methodically across the cloud cover. She looked confident, but she was only at the first gap, and the sharks hadn’t reached her yet.

Pius glanced back, but there seemed little safety in the lonely mountain peak they’d come from. Besides, Seth—his curved blade drawn and at the ready—was already on the warrior-priest’s heels.

As Crimson leaped the first gap, Tarkon limped onward. He turned and cut at a nine-foot-long monster trying to attack him from behind. Again, the gladiator’s huge sword chopped at the creature’s neck, but it was like cutting fog. The spirit shark struck Tarkon, and if it had been a real fish, it would have bitten him in half at the waist.

“Argh!” Tarkon roared, falling face first into the cloud bank. As the two sharks attacking him arced through the sky, angling for another attack, the gladiator struggled to his feet.

He grunted in pain as he rose, and trembled though his body showed no visible wounds. He straightened up, his legs planted wide in a defiant stance, his sword at the ready. But the gladiator’s movements belied his posture; he looked like a marionette whose feet had been nailed to the floor. Pius feared that, at any moment, Tarkon might topple, never to rise again.

“A blessing, priest!” Seth called from right behind Pius. “A blessing on either Tarkon or his weapon! The sharks are unholy spirits, and the favor of the gods may deter them.”

Pius shook his head. “The power radiates from my body, and he’s too far away. If he were a believer, perhaps. . . .”

“For yourself and me, then,” the half-elf said, pushing Pius from behind. “And for the sake of your gods, keep moving! Do you want to sink?”

Pius picked up his feet, and it was like dragging them out of a bog. He’d been so worried about Tarkon that, again, he’d stopped in his tracks.

The warrior-priest prayed as they walked, and he soon felt the radiant power of the gods flowing through his heart. Her reached out with the power, encompassing Seth and even the Midknight Erisa. Gods forgive me for protecting such heathens and scoundrels! he thought. May it be to the greater good. Unfortunately, Crimson, Piro, and Tarkon remained well beyond his protective influence.

With his legs paralyzed, Tarkon had also begun to sink. By the times the two sharks swarmed in again, he’d already dipped into the cloud up to his thighs. Tarkon turned, trying to find an angle to cut at both creatures. It was pointless, though; he had no protection against the ethereal fish.

But before the insubstantial predators could strike, a barrage of fireballs flashed in front of them. Two struck the smaller shark, and it vanished in a puff of mist. The larger creature turned away, its caudal fin switching like the tail of an angry cat.

Piro came sprinting across the cloud toward Tarkon, fireballs blazing, driving the hungry spirits away. Far from looking happy, the gladiator brandished his sword at the boy.

“I don’t need your help, brat!” Tarkon growled.

For a moment, anger and sympathy warred on the young man’s face, then he shrugged and ran on toward the far peak.

The gladiator wrenched his body back and forth, as if trying to break free of the sharks’ paralysis. But despite his efforts, he continued to sink.

“What’s he doing?” Erisa wondered aloud. “Why didn’t he let Piro help?” Like Pius, she, too, had slowed to watch the awful spectacle unfolding before them; the priest and the half-elf had caught up to her.

Seven spirit sharks remained; three chased Piro toward the far peak, two charged toward crimson, three came for Pius, Erisa, and Seth—who were now moving together in a group—and the final two angled for the paralyzed Tarkon.

“A blessing for my arrows, priest,” Erisa said. “And maybe I can solve this problem before it reaches us.”

“Agreed,” Pius said, “but your first shot has to help Tarkon. I know he’s within your range.”

“He’s not worth it,” she said, “but I can spare one shot—if you and Seth protect me when the sharks attack.”

“Agreed,” Pius and the half-elf said together.

Erisa strung her bow and Pius chanted his blessing as the trio trotted across the clouds.

Crimson broke into a dead sprint. The first shark came at her as she leaped the second gap. Her silver-traced blade flashed striking head, dorsal, and tail, and the spirit burst into swirling fragments of mist. She tucked and rolled as she hit the next cloud, stirring up gouts of billowing moisture as she regained her feet once more. Crimson was close to Tarkon, now, but three sharks still prowled between her and the gladiator.

Erisa’s bowstring twanged. Her shot flew straight and true, passing through what passed for the gill slits of the pale fish nearest Tarkon. The shark twitched, bleeding mist, and spiraled down into the clouds and out of sight.

Pius’ heart pounded in his chest, and he prayed silently for the safety of his companions. Would Crimson reach Tarkon in time? And, if she did, would she help him or pass by—as Piro had? The priest knew Crimson was a friend of the fallen girl, Yan. Certainly, she had enough reason to hate the undersea warrior. Would she help him, or leave him to his grisly fate?

Erisa’s bowstring sang again, and the shark nearest to Pius and Seth fell dying—if such creatures truly died. The priest and the half-elf readied their weapons, knowing she would not be able to shoot again before the final two fish attacked.

Tarkon slashed as the monster facing him came in, but again his attack did no damage. The ghostly fish gulped down the full length of the gladiator’s sword arm, appearing for a moment to swallow the limb whole. Then the fish appeared again on the other side of Tarkon’s body and plunged into the clouds below.

The gladiator screamed as his sword tumbled out of his fingers and fell through one of the gaps in the clouds. His right arm slumped limply at his side. Only a hundred yards separated him from Crimson now, but a ten-yard-long monster fish soared between them—angling for the red-haired woman.

“Watch out, priest!” Erisa’s warning cry came almost too late.

Pius spun, clouting his mace into the misty head of the shark attacking him. The blow struck home, and the shark began to disperse, but not before it sank its ghostly teeth into his side. Pius gasped and his knees buckled. His hand jerked open, and only his mace strap, wrapped around his wrist, kept his weapon from falling into the clouds.

He looked up and saw translucent jaws with sharp white teeth coming straight for his face. Then Seth’s blade flashed, slicing away the second shark’s head, and it dispersed before it could bite.

“Sorry,” the half-elf said. “Not my best cut.”

Pius shook his head, sweat dripping from his long, wavy hair. “I-it’s . . . Thank you.” His side felt frozen, though the sensation was already beginning to fade.

Erisa supported the priest, putting her shoulder under his arm and lifting Pius to his feet. “Keep moving, Father,” she said.

Pius nodded weakly, refocusing his eyes on the team’s goal. His group’s foes had been vanquished, but Crimson still faced the largest shark of the school.

The monster swam through the air between the red-haired warrior and Tarkon. Its caudal fin, nearly as tall as a man, threshed the atmosphere, stirring up the cloud tops as it passed.

Crimson charged straight toward it. The spirit shark opened its mouth wide enough to swallow her whole. At the last instant, she dived to the cloud tops, under the creature’s jaws. She rolled, landed on her feet, and stabbed her sword into the insubstantial beast’s throat.

The weapon traced through the shark’s body from tip to tail, bisecting it cleanly. The spirit disintegrated in a swirl of grayish fog.

Seth gasped. “Perfect!”

Crimson didn’t stop to admire her handiwork. She ran across the cloud to Tarkon, now mired up to his shoulders in billowing white mist, and extended her hand. “Come on!” she said.

“Never!” he hissed, his denial echoing across the sky. Hatred blazed in his eyes as the enveloping clouds reached his chin.

“Take it!” she commanded.

In response, his unparalyzed arm shot up toward her. His left hand opened and then clenched into a fist. In response, a long triangular blade flashed out of his grieve. He stabbed the knife at Crimson’s face.

Crimson snapped her head to the side, and the blade flashed through the billows of her red hair, passing within inches of her right ear.

Tarkon seized her flowing locks in an iron-like grip, trying to drag her down with him.

Crimson lurched to her knees, but her sword flashed, cutting through her scarlet tresses, freeing her.

Still clutching the handful of hair, Tarkon broke through the clouds and plummeted to his death. His scream of rage lingered long after he vanished from sight.

Crimson gasped, recovering her breath. But as she tried to rise, the cloud beside her erupted as the final, forgotten shark breached into the sky. It snapped at her, and Crimson rolled aside, barely avoiding its triangular teeth.

But her narrow escape had a price: she landed hard, sinking up to her waist in the clouds. She dropped her sword as she hit, and the weapon skittered away into the mist. The remaining shark turned and came at her again. Erisa shot, but the Midknight’s arrow flew long, arcing over the creature’s dorsal fin. Pius prayed, knowing that none of them could reach Crimson in time to save her.

Crimson groped for the knives concealed in her boots as the shark dived on her.

The monster threw its jaws wide just as an orange bolt of flame streaked through the sky. The firebolt struck the shark in the eye, and the spirit twisted away. Two more fireballs hit it, and the shark evaporated into swirling mists.

Piro skipped over the clouds and offered Crimson his hand. “You didn’t think I’d leave you for fish food, did you?” he asked with a smile.

Crimson took hold and he pulled her up.

“Thanks,” she said. “I knew there was some reason I wanted you along.” She smiled at the boy and he laughed. It took the red-haired warrior only a moment to find her sword amid the clouds.

With the spirit sharks vanquished, the remaining contestants reached the far peak without further incident. As they set foot on solid ground once more, all five of them collapsed, exhausted.

The Eye of Amontet, dispassionate as ever, hovered nearby, watching and waiting.

When the last chill of his shark bite passed, Pius found the strength to speak. “Where are we?”

Just then, the clouds shrouding the mountaintop parted, revealing a towering white stone stairway. The steps started at the mountain’s pinnacle and vaulted into the sky, spiraling up, unsupported, high into the clouds before vanishing from sight.

Crimson gazed at the impossible structure and whispered, “The final stairway.”


NEXT: The Final Stair


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