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CHAPTER 16 – REWARDS
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.
“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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