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CHAPTER 2 – THE CALL
Brion Wilde, Baronette, took a deep breath, enjoying the clean, cool air of Seatopia. The lunch at his favorite bistro had been exquisite, as usual, and the serving wench was one of his favorites—providing a nice visual counterpoint to the oceanfront panorama.
All in all, life in the Blue Kingdoms was good for the one-hundred-and-seventeen-year-old elf. His fortune was secure, safely invested in long-established banks. He had his health, and his good looks remained undimmed—despite years of frightful adventure and perilous combat. He was even well known and admired throughout the world, save in the most bluenosed societies. If not for the lack of a long-term lover, Brion's life would have been—for all intents and purposes—complete.
But Brion was working on that single "flaw," always working on it, and enjoying every moment of the chase. So, if the fetching waitress had once again turned him down—though less earnestly this time, he thought—then perhaps the handsome acquaintance he was meeting later would prove more pliable.
He rose and placed several golden Seatopian sovereigns down on the waterside table. The coins were worth far more than his bill, but Brion hoped that an outrageous gratuity might further his romantic intentions the next time he dined there.
Pleased with his stratagem, Brion strolled away from the waterfront and toward the white-spired center of the canal-ringed city, intending to take in the sights at the Cathedral of Toth.
He'd only crossed the first two canals, though, when he ran into his friend Winstone Whitting on the third bridge. Winstone was a scholar working at the Grand Library downtown, and while he was a clever man, he held no romantic possibilities for Brion. For one thing, Winstone was pale and out-of-shape from spending all his days indoors. For another, he had no sense of style, resembling nothing so much as a shaggy puppy enshrouded in an oversized, brown great coat.
Still, the man was a great conversationalist, full of interesting facts and gossip, and Brion enjoyed his company immensely.
Winstone's face brightened and he waved vigorously when he saw the elf. "Hey, Brion!"
Brion smiled in return. "Winstone, my friend! What news from the library?" The two men hugged warmly, then moved to the bridge rail to admire the gondola traffic.
"We have a new collection of scrolls from the Far Reaches," Winstone enthused. "Pre-Third Wizard War, really priceless stuff."
"I'll have to see them on my next visit."
"Oh, we won't have them catalogued for a month," Winstone said, "but any time after that. . . . How did your duel with Count Davies turn out?"
Brion's blue eyes twinkled. "I convinced him to call it off by showing him the same favors I showed his wife."
Winstone laughed and playfully elbowed Brion in the ribs. "You dog! Good for the hen, good for the rooster, eh?"
"Just so." The two of them paused for a moment to watch a stunning young woman walking down the sidewalk at the edge of the canal. Off to some midday rendezvous, no doubt.
"Winstone," Brion said, "I wonder if you could tell me something."
"I don't know who that girl is or where she lives," Winstone replied.
"No, not that," Brion said. "These posters I've been seeing around town this morning. What are they? Where did they come from? Do you know?"
"You haven't read one?"
"Never got the chance. The city guards keep tearing them down before I get close enough."
"No one knows much about them," Winstone explained. "They just appeared overnight. The authorities are having a devil of a time getting rid of them. Public nuisance, they say—spoiling the city's natural beauty. But every time they take one down, another appears. Powerful magic, obviously. They're advertising some contest—the Tournament Maximus."
"I think so, yes. Why?"
"He was a gladiatorial editor at Colossa," Brion said. "One of the best before he fell out of favor."
Winstone shuddered. "Gladiators, brrr! Beastly business. Don't know why you cultivate any interest in it."
"I knew this man. . . ." Brion sighed wistfully. "But never mind about that. If Maxumus is back in business, that would explain the posters. He always did have a flair for the dramatic. I wonder who's backing him."
"Prince Amontet, according to the flyer."
"Really?" Brion asked, surprised.
"Yes , the . . . Hey! You there! Pick that up!" Winstone scolded a youngster who had cast a food wrapper to the gleaming white deck of the bridge. "Children these days," he said to Brion. "No respect for the city."
"You were saying?"
"Oh, the prize is supposed to be a favor from the prince himself."
"Really?" Brion replied. "That's something that might be worth having."
Winstone, who'd gone back to leaning on the bridge's marble railing, frowned. "You're not thinking of entering this barbaric contest, are you?"
"It might be fun."
"Fun? If your idea of fun is trading sword blows with beefy sweating warriors of dubious lineage."
Baronette Brion Wild smiled. "Winstone," he said, "you've convinced me."
"Is that all you've got? Come on! Show me what you've got!"
Blue fire blazed in Pirokles' palm and crackled around his fingertips. It built into a fireball and he hurled it at the closest stone warrior, a towering figure nearly seven feet tall. The ball impacted the creature's head and exploded, briefly outshining the moonlight and blowing off chunks of the statue's carved helmet. The fragments skidded across the courtyard's flagstones and tumbled into the surrounding shrubbery.
The warrior didn't cry out; it didn't stop; it lumbered forward, closing in on the young wizard. Its two fellows did the same, coming at Pirokles from every side. Simultaneously, all three living statues raised their stone mallets; the head of each weapon was larger than the youngster's skull.
Piro ducked under the first blow, dropped into a crouch, and shouted, "Fire strike!"
A bolt of flame darted out of his extended finger tips and smashed through the neck of the damaged statue, knocking its head from its shoulders. The figure fell, shaking the flagstones with its impact, and stopped moving.
"Yes!" Piro cried, and the short-cropped orange hair atop his head burst into enthusiastic flame.
One of the remaining statues rewarded his outburst by kicking him in the ribs. Piro saw the blow coming and rolled aside, avoiding the worst of the impact.
Ribs aching, he drew the magical golden rope coiled at his waist and whispered a word of power. The cord burst into flame. As the two remaining stone warriors turned to face him, Piro snapped the rope like a whip. The line flashed out, twining itself around the statues' legs.
Entangled, the pair fell, shaking the courtyard as their defeated comrade had.
Instantly, Piro sprang atop them, striking one statue with each palm. "Quake shock!" he cried. Waves of force spread out from his hands, shaking his stony opponents to pieces.
Piro rose from the rubble, dusted off his baggy, flame-decorated jumpsuit, and recoiled the magical rope onto his belt. The fire dancing atop his head died down. "I rule!" he announced, looking squarely at the contingent of wizards watching from the veranda next to the courtyard.
The foremost of the watchers, a siren woman called Nyssa Cloudrider, stepped onto the shattered flagstones. She was tall and thin, like most of her race, with an aloof, nearly human beauty. Her flowing white dress glittered in the moonlight. She held her rose-colored wings furled tightly against her back, and her arms crossed over her chest; she did not look pleased.
"You have conquered the test," she said, "but you still have much to learn, Pirokles of Otakos."
"What, are you kidding?" Piro asked. "Lian Fyre herself couldn't have done any better."
The siren wizard's face grew icier. "You know nothing of Carnelian Fyre. You are barely worthy to speak her name."
Piro's hair blazed bright once again, and his amber eyes flashed dangerously. "I know that she's dead, and I'm not. I know that, since she left to fight in the war, I'm the best fire mage on this whole island."
"Talented, but undisciplined," Cloudrider noted. "Lian's power was in her control. She would never be so foolish as to shout spells that she could execute silently. You would do well to emulate her, rather than taking her name so lightly. Until you can control yourself, I'm afraid there's nothing more we can teach you."
The flames on Piro's head flickered, as his emotions swerved between anger and shock. His stomach twisted in a knot. "Are you kicking me out? Are you saying I have to leave the Isle of Prophecy?"
A second wizard, the dark-skinned Keshite, Samel, stepped forward. His face was as stern as the siren's, and his deep purple robes made him nearly invisible in the darkness. "Perhaps it would be best for you to see more of the world," he said, "gain some experience before continuing your studies."
"I get it," Piro fumed.
"No," Couldrider said. "I don't believe you do."
"Go sit on your nest, birdbrain," Piro snapped. "I'm out of here."
The shimmering feathers on the siren's wings bristled, but she said nothing.
Piro turned and stalked out of the courtyard, through the conservatory gardens, and into the night. He stopped in is dormitory room only long enough to retrieve a few possessions and a strange poster he'd found a few days previous.
He looked at it, and his burning hair flared with enthusiasm. "Next stop, fame and fortune."
Erisa's jaw dropped. "It's a fake!" she moaned. "All that effort . . . nearly getting caught by the authorities half a dozen times . . . and we've stolen a fake! Gods of Wrath and Mercy!"
Uldred looked at the remains of the bird statuette on the floor of their room in the squalid boarding house. Bits of black enamel, enough to camouflage a supposedly jewel-encrusted figurine, lay strewn amid the broken plaster. Uldred had felt like an oaf when he accidently dropped the statue; now he felt like a complete fool.
The rickety bed in the corner creaked apprehensively as Erisa plopped down on it and put her head in her hands. "I knew this heist was too easy!"
Uldred's heart fluttered as she pulled off her black knit face mask and hurled it into the far corner of the room. Her dusty brown hair fell loose, framing her face in sensual waves. Even sulking, she was still beautiful. "We're warriors, not cat burglars," he said. "Maybe we should stick to fighting."
"With the economy the way it is, who's going to pay us to fight?"
"There's always a war somewhere," Uldred replied.
"Somewhere far away and expensive to get to," she said. "And how much money do we have? Hardly enough for this smelly flophouse. I thought that joining the Midknights would bring us respect—that once we donned the armor people would cower in fear, but look at us! Respect and fear my ass!" She pulled off her black cat-burglar top and cast it after the mask.
"It's still a very nice ass," Uldred said, stripping the burglar outfit from his muscular frame as well.
She smiled wearily at him. "Flatterer. Sometimes I think the whole Midknight thing is just a scam. I mean, what has it gotten us? Just a sponsor skimming twenty percent off the top. So far, we're actually losing money on the deal."
"Maybe we would have gotten the real jeweled bird if we'd been wearing our armor instead of these absurd thief costumes." He knew that wasn't true, but he wanted to see Erisa smile in earnest, and his quip obtained the desired result.
"You look good in tight black clothing," she said.
"And better out of it," he added, sitting down on the bed next to her.
She lay back on the rough sheets. "What are we going to do?"
He reclined next to her. "Well, I thought. . . ." he said suggestively.
"Not now," she said. "I mean afterward. What are we going to do to scare up some coin? Even this rat hole costs money, you know."
"I don't know. I don't know what we're going to do." And at the moment, he didn't care; being next to her—no matter their circumstances—was enough.
"Have you seen those posters? The ones that appeared around town a week ago?"
"The Tournament Maximus? I've seen them."
"Maximus used to be a big promoter, back when we were at the arena."
"I thought we left those days behind," Uldred said.
"Mmm," she mused. "Me, too. Prince Amontet's very rich, though—and very powerful. His favor would be worth winning. And I heard some gladiators are chartering a boat to go and compete. It wouldn't be too expensive—not much more than we're paying here."
"A cheap ship is more dangerous than a cheap flophouse."
Erisa crinkled her nose in a way that Uldred found very alluring. "What do you think?" she asked. "Should we go?"
"Probably everybody and his inbred brother will be there."
"Assuming they can find the place."
"Assuming our cut-rate captain can."
"So what are you saying?"
Uldred sighed. "I say, what the hell, let's give it a shot. It's not like we have anything else to do."
Erisa arched her eyebrows at him and brushed her dusky hair out of her eyes. "We have at least one other thing to do."
Uldred wrapped his arms around her. "Let the good times roll."
The dimly-lit undersea tunnel smelled of blood, sweat, and fear. Water trickled down the rough walls, making the footing treacherous.
Tarkon the Vortex Gladiator slammed his armored left fist into his opponent's chest. He felt the metal of the man's chestplate crumple, crushing the ribs beneath. The man gasped and staggered backward, but Tarkon gave no quarter. He lunged in, putting all his considerable weight behind his right fist.
This time, his spiked cestus sundered his enemy's breastplate, tearing through the ribs and into the soft flesh beneath. Tarkon felt a satisfying warm gush on his arm as his opponent's blood spurted out of the wound. The man groaned briefly and then the death rattle filled his throat.
Tarkon lifted the corpse like a rag doll and threw it against the side of the submarine tunnel. The body slumped to the damp stone floor, and the crowd cheered. The dank passage thundered with their cries: "Tar-kon! Tar-kon! Tar-kon!"
Tarkon spat in disgust. "Is there no one left to challenge my supremacy?" he roared. "Is there no one below the waves even worthy enough for me to don my Vortex armor?"
"None, my liege," replied a muscular man named Daphon. "Either below, or above the waves."
He handed a rough gray towel to the victorious gladiator, and Tarkon smeared the blood from his cestuses. "Go, all of you," he commanded the spectators. "Everyone but Daphon."
Quickly, the other Vortex warriors cleared the tunnel, leaving their chief and his lieutenant alone.
When everyone had gone, Tarkon said, "I weary of this, Daphon. The slaves we capture present no challenge, and the other Vortex chiefs will not face me in single combat. If our people's numbers were not so few, I would wage submarine war and force all the rest to pay me tribute."
"We are few, but the others dare not attack us for fear of you, my lord," Daphon said.
"What am I to do, then?" Takron asked. "Without a true challenge, I shall die of boredom."
"I hesitate to mention it my lord, but one of the slaves we captured on our latest raid possessed a scroll that may contain a solution to your dilemma."
"How could any piece of paper help me?" Tarkon scoffed.
"It announces a tournament, my lord. The slave we took it from said that all the best champions in the World-Sea would compete there. Perhaps among them, you could find a challenge."
"All the best?"
"Above and below the waves?"
Tarkon folded his arms across his massive chest. "They may think they have the best, but they have never seen the like of me!"
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
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