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CHAPTER 5 - STAGE ONE: FIRST BLOODED
NEPTOS – Triton Starwatcher
The "burning bowls" obstacle took a lot out of Neptos. Living underwater most of the time, the Triton was especially sensitive to heat, and though he cleared the peril's first jump, he missed the second and activated the trap.
The flames left his pale, bluish skin red and irritated, and made his forehead's magical star tattoo—which allowed him to breathe out of water—ache.
Fortunately, the next obstacle turned out to be a waterfall. The triton's body tingled with anticipation, and he hurled himself into the water joyfully.
The plunge downward was exhilarating but all too brief. Neptos lingered in the pool at the bottom of the falls, letting his gills breathe without magic, and allowing his scorched body to recover.
When he surfaced, he found winged monkeys hovering around the pool, apparently waiting to see if he had drowned. Neptos smiled. The organizers of this strange tournament were clever, but apparently they weren't all-knowing. That lifted his spirits.
Neptos climbed out of the pool, following the silver line of the course into the jungle beside the winding river below the falls. Swimming had left the triton refreshed. The starwatcher magic made living out of the water possible, but for most of his kind, spending extended periods on land was never actually pleasurable.
As he exited the jungle, he spotted the next obstacle—stepping stones, widely placed, across the rapids. Laughing, Neptos threw himself into the water and swam to the other side. As he cruised under the river surface, he noted that some of the stepping stones were not solid, but merely floating replicas chained to the bottom. A clever trick to catch a human, perhaps, but no problem for a triton.
Again when he surfaced, the flying monkeys hovered—like simian vultures—above the river. "No carrion for you today!" he called as he pulled himself out of the water.
Leaving the shore, Neptos ventured across the grassy plain until he reached another gorge. It was far too wide to leap and deep, filled with a thick canopy of trees. Fortunately, a line with a handgrip slider had been strung across the gap. Cloudlike mist clung to the tops of the trees below, and Neptos realized he was still a long way above sea level. The thought sent a chill down his spine, but he shook the worry off and seized a firm grip on the sliding device's handlebars.
Taking a deep breath of the warm, moist air, Neptos ran forward and leapt over the treetops.
The wind rushed past his face, whipping his green, seaweed-like hair into streamers behind him. It felt wonderful—not as good as the waterfall or the rapids, but as close as any terrestrial sensation could come.
But something unexpected disturbed the serene whistle of the wind, a hissing sound, like the exhalation of a whale. To Neptos' right, one of the canopy clouds swirled up as something slender and fast burst through it. Then another hiss and another swirl of mist, to his left this time.
With horror, Neptos realized he was being shot at; crossbow bolts were streaking upward from some diabolical mechanism hidden in the canopy below.
Briefly, he wished he had his trident or shield. But could he wield them and still hang on to the slider? Already his hands were slick from sweat and the humid summer air.
He dodged one missile by swinging his body to the side. A second passed just beneath his legs when he pulled his knees into a tuck.
But the next shot grazed his side, sending searing pain through his entire body. The distress slowed his reflexes, and the following bolt hit home, sinking deep into his left shoulder.
Gasping, he lost his grip on the slider and fell.
As he crashed through the treetops, Neptos hoped the flying monkeys were still nearby, watching his descent.
MAX & ROGINA
A warm, sensual voice disturbed Max's sleep. For a moment, his mind drifted back to happier times—before his fall from grace—and he forgot all the trials he'd endured since. Then he became aware of the bright crimson glow on his inner eyelids—sunlight filtering through a red silk tent—and he remembered where he was: Shumakai, the Lost Island . . . the Tournament Maximus. His tournament.
"Boss?" the soft voice said.
Max opened his eyes. "Rogi? Is there a problem?"
"Not really," Rogina replied. "But there's a situation I thought you should know about. We have a new contestant."
Max sat up, annoyed at being woken. Sleep was difficult to come by in an event like this and, therefore, precious. Surely Rogina knew that. "Is that worth waking me for?" he asked.
"For this contestant, I think so. It's Seth."
Max rubbed his head, unsure he'd heard correctly. "Amonet's bodyguard?"
"Seven devils, why?"
"I have no idea."
Max rose, casting aside all thought of returning to sleep, and paced the tent.
"Do you think the wizard-prince is up to something?" Rogina asked.
Max shook his head. "We'll find out soon enough, I suppose."
"I don't like it."
"Neither do I," Max said. "Maybe one of the obstacles will take him out."
VALARD GOLDENWING – Siren Gladiator (Saikur)
"Come to bed my love." Perigrina's voice was a soft coo in the darkness of the aerie.
"Soon," Valard replied. "Soon, I promise."
Perigrina sat up in their nest-like bed, leaning on one elbow, and gazed at her husband. She was lovely, her naked body still firm and trim, despite bearing him two children—youngsters now nearly grown and ready to fly from the nest.
"is it that accursed poster you found?" she asked.
"No," he replied. "No, it's not that. It's just that ever since I retired . . ."
"I know," she said gently. "I know that nothing can compare with the glory of the arena. That's where I fell in love with you, after all."
Valard smiled, remembering. He'd first seen her in the stands, her red and blue wings shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. He'd taken a bad cut on the shoulder because of the distraction, but come back to win the match.
"You're still my champion," she said. "Even without the arena, you always will be. There may be some snow on your golden wings, but the fires still burn strong in your heart. Now come to bed. I have something I want to give you."
"Yes, my love," Valard replied. But his eyes lingered on the sword and shield hanging on the bedroom wall, reminders of his days as a Champion of Colossa.
Valard dodged to the left as a crossbow bolt streaked up from the forest below. He folded his wings to avoid a second and momentarily lost altitude. The flying monkeys hovering nearby watched him intently, waiting to take him out of the competition if he strayed too far from the course.
But though he was not using the sliding rope, Valard was keeping very close to the magical silver stripe that marked the path to victory. He could see the end of the rope at the edge of the forest below, and the path leading from there to the final obstacle: a stairway winding up a tall cliff.
Of course, being a siren, he could have flown there directly—nothing could have been easier—but that would mean leaving the course and being disqualified, and Valard Goldenwing had not come all this way to be disqualified.
Another bolt streaked past, missing his body but snatching a tuft of fine, hairlike feathers from the back of his head.
Too close, Valard thought, chiding himself for carelessness. He folded his wings and dived, building speed nearly all the way to the bottom of the cliff. Only when he'd passed the last of the crossbow shooters did he back air with his wings and land.
His right calf twinged as he touched down, and he found that one of the bolts had come closer than he'd realized, drawing blood. Unnoticed wounds often happened in combat, but now that he was on solid ground again, the full toll of his weariness began to sink in. He'd made it this far, passed every obstacle set by the tournament organizers, but the price had been high.
Though he was loathe to admit it, his stamina was not what it once had been, and he'd had precious little time to train before coming to Shumakai. For a brief moment, Valard wished he had stayed home with Perigrina and the fledglings. Then he steeled his resolve and marched resolutely to the bottom of the final stair.
His sword and shield were waiting for him, just as the gnome woman promised, and he gladly reclaimed them. Their familiar heft renewed his confidence, though he remained wary. If the organizers had not thought weapons or shields necessary for the crossbow test, what traps might they have laid now that he was armed?
The first sword blade sprang from the wall after he'd climbed ten yards of the winding stair. Valard's arena-honed reflexes saved him, and he brought his sword around to parry without thinking. The trap blade retracted, and he stepped around it, only to be slashed at by another blade two steps further up.
He parried that as well, then switched his sword to his left hand and his shield to the right, since the cliff face from which the blades sprang was on the right. Fortunately, he had become used to ambidextrous fighting in the Great Arena at Colossa.
Valard made his way up the stair cautiously. He used his shield to fend off the majority of blade attacks and parried the rest with his sword. As he climbed, though, the assaults become both more frequent and more powerful.
Soon, every blow was forcing him toward the edge of the stairway. Sweat glistened on his skin and matted his feathery hair to his scalp. His breath came in ragged gasps. Everything would be so much easier if he could only fly!
He decided to chance it. When the next blow came, he stepped back, off the stairway, and spread his wings. Though being airborne lifted his spirits, he was still incredibly weary; his body felt heavier than he ever remembered it feeling. He began flying upward, keeping close to the stairs, trying not to stray too far from the guiding silver stripe.
But apparently the in-course tolerance was less on this part of the challenge, for no sooner had he left the stairs than the flying monkeys began to close in. They swarmed toward him in a great foul-smelling flock, their feral eyes gleaming with anticipation at his capture.
For a moment, Valard thought about fighting them; even in his weakened state, he could have felled a dozen or more. But was attacking the monkeys a violation of the rules? Would it disqualify him even though he was so near the finish? Valard didn't know.
Deciding not to chance it, he landed on the stairway again, and an instant later had to parry the worst sword cut he'd faced. The trap's blades were getting larger as well as more powerful the farther he advanced, and this new blow sent a shudder through his entire body.
He slipped off the edge again, but doing so gave him an idea for a new tactic. Using his wings to hold him nearly weightless, he danced across the edge of the stair, parrying as he went. Sometimes he floated above the enemy blades; other times, he stepped back out of the way. The winged monkeys loomed close when his feet left the ground, but backed away when he touched down once more.
Slowly dancing, leaping, and floating, he made his way to the top of the cliff. Sweat poured from his body and his muscles burned with the effort. The final stair loomed ahead. He made a final parry, twisted into the air one last time, and lunged for it.
But as he touched down, a sword flashed up from the final tread—not on the cliffward side, but from the left, crossing the open air in which Valard had been hovering. The wicked blade bit deep, slashing through his left wing near the shoulder.
Valard screamed in agony and collapsed at the top of the stair, watching helplessly as most of his wing—now ownerless—spiraled back, down the cliff face: white and gold, white and gold, finally disappearing into the misty clouds near the treetops.
The siren champion's blood stained crimson the hard ground at the top of the cliff. The silver stripe delineating the course ran straight ahead, the finish line within sight. Valard heard the roar of the crowd even above the pounding of his heart.
He could see his goal, but he no longer cared whether or not he reached it. Perigrina had been right: he should have stayed retired.
Would she ever forgive him?
THE TOURNAMENT CONTINUES . . .
UP NEXT: Yan Zhigong, Tarkon, Botax the Mighty, and more.
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