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CHAPTER 8 – STAGE TWO
As darkness fell on the throne room in far-off Tet-Zhozer, the Wizard-Prince Amontet let his concentration fade, and his Ba, which had been watching the Tournament Maximus, returned to his body.
He took a deep breath of the cool night air, and the scents of his beloved kingdom filled his nostrils. "Well?" he asked the hooded figure crouched beside the throne. "Will it suffice? Do we have the pieces we need?"
"Clockwork whirs, fates change," the sage rasped. "Fortune favors you, but who knows what awaits once the beasts are loosed?"
The wizard-prince rubbed his smooth chin and peered into the twilit gloom. "You know, Sage, though I suspect you will not tell—except in riddles."
"Those who see their own future too clearly may be tempted to change it."
"And is that not what we're doing, changing my fate by seizing my destiny?"
"Fate cannot be changed," the hooded figure said, "but destiny is what we make it."
Amontet rose from his throne and strode to the room's sole balcony. He stood at the rail and gazed out on Amon-Ka, Tet-Zhozer's capital. Below the palace, the city lights blinked on like glittering jewels in the darkness.
"In time," the wizard-prince said patiently, "even fate will become clear."
The day following the finish of the first stage, the remaining contestants stood on a slip of sand at the westernmost point of Shumakai island. Most of those assembled looked antsy, ready to get started with the new challenge—whatever it might be.
Yan Zhigong, standing next to Brion Wilde, showed no signs of nervousness. Indeed, looking at her, one might almost have thought she was preparing to go on a picnic.
"You look tired, Master Brion," she observed.
"I didn't sleep well, Yan," Brion replied. He had been more than a little surprised to find the youngster amid the returning contestants. Not only that, but Yan showed no sign of the cuts and bruises that all of the other competitors—even the Vortex gladiator—had suffered during the tests. Clearly the girl hadn't been kidding about hailing from the near-legendary Wudan Temple. "How did you fare on the first stage?"
"It was thrilling," she enthused. "Better than the training exercises back home. Do you think they'll let us do it again after we finish the rest of the tests, Master Brion?"
"I doubt it," he said, amazed that anyone would even consider such folly. "And it's just Brion. No 'master.' Master Wilde is my sister." He grinned to show he was joking; Yan grinned back.
Maximus and the other officials were still setting up, so Brion took a moment to assess the two-dozen or so competitors remaining in the tournament. Some he knew by sight: Baroness Lindy Griffenholt, Orlando the Acrobat, Seth the Swordsman, the three Finnek brothers, and Father Pious V. Corpus, a warrior priest in the order of St. Vardin. Other's he'd noticed before the field got thinned: a pyrotechnic young mage, a twitchy older wizard, a basilisk lizard-man, and the two young Midknights in their scanty, deep-blue armor. He'd noticed one other contestant as well—the red-haired warrior walking toward him through the crowd, a woman whom Brion thought he knew personally.
"Crimson?" he asked as the woman approached.
"Hi, Brion," she replied, her tone bright and familiar. "Good to see you again."
"You look different," he said. She was shorter, her face thinner, her cheekbones higher, and her nose more angular. But there was no mistaking her red tunic and mail, her silver-traced sword, or her pale-blue eyes.
"Same soul, different lifetime," she quipped. "You going to introduce me to your friend?"
"Crimson, this is Yan Zhigong from Wudan," Brion said. "Yan, Crimson."
"Pleased to meet you," Yan said with a bow.
Crimson bowed in return. "You, too. Wudan's a long way from here."
"Yes, it is."
Crimson turned back to Brion. "Nice job with the Stair of Swords," she said.
"Lucky for Max you were the last contestant. You made a hell of a mess."
"To tell you the truth, at that moment, I didn't much care."
"You should keep your emotions in check," she said jovially, "or they'll get you killed."
"And you would know about that?" Brion replied, annoyed at her presumption. "Puh-lease! I have at least ninety years experience on you."
A sly smiled tugged at the corner of Crimson's pretty mouth. "I'm older than I look."
Something about the way she said it made Brion believe her. "Just keep your wits about you if we have to face each other in the next round," he said.
Yan broke in, her dark eyes sparkling. "Here comes Master Maximus."
Brutus Maximus ascended the stair of the small official platform at the edge of the beach. With him came two people, one a small, wiry man, and another whom Brion recognized as Ilsa Gorvald, the woman who'd flown the hippogriff in the opening ceremony. Gorvald looked entirely too pleased with herself.
"She's got something nasty planned for this stage of the tournament," Crimson whispered, as if reading Brion's thoughts.
"Whatever it is, I hope it will be fun," Yan whispered.
"Congratulations, each and every one of you!" Max's magically amplified voice boomed across the desolate beach. "If you're still standing here, that means you've crossed through the most difficult obstacle course ever devised, and thereby made it to the second stage of the Tournament Maximus."
The assembled competitors cheered, though less than they had the day before—and not just because there were fewer of them. Like Brion and everyone in the group save Yan, the rest seemed wary about what the next stage might bring.
"Looking around at your fellow survivors, I'm sure you will all be relieved to know that this next stage does not pit you against each other."
Brion certainly felt relieved, and Crimson looked as if she did as well; Tarkon huffed in annoyance, and Yan continued to beam, wide-eyed.
"Far from it, in fact," Max continued. "In this next stage, you are encouraged to cooperate with each other to conquer the dangers ahead."
Ilsa Gorvald stepped forward. "Today's challenges will be even more difficult than yesterday's," she said. Then added, "No offense to Master Herrin." She nodded courteously toward the thin man in the toga, who dipped his head in return.
"This time," Gorvald said, "you will not be facing mindless machines. The obstacles in this stage will be every bit as tough, ruthless, and cunning as you are. I do not expect that many of you will survive. Any not up to the test are free to leave now." She surveyed the crowd with her steely eyes, as if waiting for the first contestant to quit.
No one left, though about half the crowd looked nervous.
"Very good," Max said, stepping forward once more. "Your challenge today is to make your way from here to the main grandstand—again following the magical silver stripe that delineates the course. Unlike yesterday, though, you will see three paths to choose from. Attack the course alone or in groups, as you see fit. Those that pass this test will move on to the next stage and compete for the ultimate prize—a favor from the wizard-prince himself!"
That got the crowd roaring again, though Brion wondered, would the prize be worth the price?
Looking around at his fellows, no one else—not even Crimson and Yan—seemed to share his concern.
Brutus Maximus beamed. "Choose your teams and choose your paths. The first ready will be the first to enter the course. Go!"
FIRST TEAM: THE FINNEK BROTHERS – Nyarri Elves
Geilo Finnek glanced at the start of the three tournament trails and then turned to his two brothers. "We should pick the left-hand course," he said.
"No, the right," his brother Heilo argued.
"No, the left!"
"Let's just pick one and get going before everyone else starts," Neilo, the eldest of the trio, said.
"We're ready!" Geilo blurted, running up to the race organizer. "We'll take the left!"
"Just a moment," Rogina said. "This . . . gentleman is ahead of you."
Geilo frowned. "See, I told you we'd miss being first if we didn't pick!"
"Sir," Rogina said, looking at the first warrior in line, "are you sure you don't want to pick any teammates?"
Tarkon the Vortex Gladiator stared her in the eye, never blinking. "I don't need anyone," he said. "Surfacers are weaklings."
Rogina crinkled her nose. "All right," she said. "You can get going."
Tarkon put on his helmet, drew his thick-bladed sword, and stomped into the jungle.
"He took the left!" Geilo complained.
"We'll take the right, then," Neilo put in. "We take the right! We're ready to go!"
"If one falls, the rest go on," Heilo reminded his brothers. "That's the pact. Keep going, no matter what. Remember, mom's counting on us." He stuck his hand out and the other two Finneks put their hands atop his.
"Go!" they all cried.
"I guess you're ready," Rogina said. "Good luck."
The brothers took the right-hand course and trotted off into the deep green foliage.
"This is great!" Heilo raved after the reviewing stand had vanished from sight. "I thought we were going to have to fight each other, but instead we get to work together."
"Hey," Geilo interrupted, "someone's following us. Who was next in line?"
"I didn't notice," Neilo said. "Maybe that burning kid. He looked pretty hot to get going."
"Hot to get going!" Heilo snorked. "That's funny!"
"Look out!" Geilo yelled.
Thundering through the forest behind them came a nightmare creature. It had the body of a monstrous bear and the head of a giant insect. The creature hissed, and smoking saliva fell from its mandibles.
"Bugbear!" Neilo cried. As one, the Finnek brothers drew their swords and fanned out in three directions.
The bugbear went for Geilo, who had been bringing up the rear. It swiped its massive paw at the elf, but Geilo parried its claws with his enchanted longsword.
"Hey, ugly!" Heilo said, throwing a handful of glittering dust at the monster. The powder burst into green flames, setting the bugbear's shaggy coat on fire.
The creature shrieked in pain as flames licked up around its mantis-like head.
"Die, Monster!" Geilo said, thrusting his blade into the bugbear's heart. The beast shuddered and fell, nearly toppling on the elf. Geilo's sword got caught in its carcass.
"Why did you use the flame powder?" Neilo said to Heilo. "We might need that later!"
"I don't tell you when to use your magic," Heilo replied. "Don't tell me when to use mine!"
Without warning, three more bugbears burst from the forest. They fell on the surprised Geilo, still trying to extricate his sword from the corpse. With a swipe of one huge paw, the lead bugbear struck the startled elf's head from his shoulders.
"Geilo!" Heilo cried.
"Run!" Neilo said. "There's too many of them!"
As the three monsters fell to devouring their fallen prey, Neilo and Heilo turned away. The two remaining elves ran through the jungle as fast as they could, following the magical silver stripe of the course.
"W-we should have tried to help him!" Heilo complained.
"It was too late," Neilo replied. "Remember the pact: If one falls, the rest go on."
"I-I never thought we'd have to live up to it!"
A short while later, sweaty, tear-stained, and panting, they reached the river. The bugbears, apparently satisfied having one victim, didn't follow.
Neilo stopped and wiped the perspiration and tears from his face. "I know this place," he said as they stood on the riverbank. "We've done this obstacle before!"
Ahead of them stretched a course of stepping stones, spanning the river rapids.
"It's a cinch!" Heilo agreed. "Which stones are the ones that sink?"
"Nine, thirteen, and seventeen, I think," Neilo said. "And maybe one more near the far shore. I fell in before that."
"Yeah, I swam once I got that far, too," Heilo said. "Let's go." He leapt onto the first stone and began winding his way to the far shore. Neilo followed.
Seven stones in, though, the river suddenly rose up around them.
"What the. . . ?" Heilo gasped.
"Water elementals!" Neilo replied. "They added a trap to the trap!" He drew his longsword and slashed at the watery-figures reaching for them. The enchantment on his weapon disrupted the elementals it hit. The creatures splashed back into the rapids, but quickly reformed.
Heilo sliced the elemental reaching for his ankles, and it disintegrated into droplets of spray. "Keep going!" he said, "we have to reach the far side."
Slashing and hacking, with the elementals splashing at their heels, the two remaining brothers leaped to the next stone.
"Next one's a trap," Neilo warned. "Jump hard!"
Heilo leaped over the next stone and onto the one after. The stone was smaller, though, and there was no way both brothers would fit onto it at the same time. "I'll go to the next!" he called.
"Right!" Neilo said, slashing away at the elementals lapping at his toes.
The two elves leaped simultaneously, Neilo avoiding the trap stone, and Heilo jumping from the safe stone to the next.
But when Heilo landed, the new stone sank out from under him. He submerged momentarily, then resurfaced and shouted, "They changed the trap!"
"I'll help you!" Neilo yelled, looking around desperately for some way to reach his brother without being caught himself.
"No!" Heilo cried. "Remember the pact!" Then the elementals surrounded him and pulled him under. The rapids swallowed both Heilo and the creatures.
Weeping profusely, Neilo leaped over the trap that had claimed his brother and raced to the far shore. He nearly succumbed to another sinking stone, but noticed it swaying in the current just before he jumped, and leapt over it instead.
Gaining the river bank, he gazed back into the rapids, but there was no sign of his brother.
The silver stripe of the course headed on, across a broad grassland toward some broken trees and a line of tall cliffs beyond.
"I'll do it, brothers," Neilo said between sobs. "I'll do it for you both—and for mother."
Sheathing his sword, he began jogging across the savannah. As he went, regrets began to weigh heavily on his mind.
If only we'd kept going instead of fighting that first bugbear! If only we hadn't used up our fire powder before the elementals! If only. . . !
But it was no use. Their fates had been sealed the moment they came to this accursed isle—sealed because of their mother's condition, because only someone like the great Wizard-Prince could supply the cure she needed. But would she have wanted it this way? Would she have wanted Geilo and Heilo to sacrifice their lives?
A soft growl to his left snapped Neilo out of his reverie. Something was padding through the tall grass, stalking him.
Neilo drew his sword and lunged into the brush; today's events had put him in a killing mood. The creature leaped out of his way, its sleek black and white coat glistening in the morning sunshine.
"White leopard?" Neilo wondered aloud. It seemed very out of place in this tropical setting.
The creature landed three yards a way, turned, and opened its mouth as if to roar, but no sound came out. Instead, a billowing cloud of cold and snow crystals shot toward the startled elf.
Neilo darted aside at the last instant, but the icy blast hit the tail end of his scabbard. The scabbard slapped against his thigh and snapped in half; the cold of its touched burned Neilo's skin, even through his pants leg. He ran, remembering tales he'd heard of a mythical creature which dwelled in lonely, high mountains: the Frost Leopard. Worse, he remembered something more—frost leopards always hunted in packs.
The leopard behind him prowled back and fourth, waiting until its two companions joined it. Then all three lit out after the elf.
Neilo ran for his life, ran for all he was worth.
Again, a multitude of regrets cascaded through his mind:
If only they hadn't come to this island!
If only they hadn't wasted their fire magic!
If only his brothers hadn't died!
If only he could make it to those trees. . . !
THE TOURNAMENT CONTINUES . . .
NEXT UP: Piro, Tarkon, Crimson . . . More second stage contestants, more deaths!
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