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CHAPTER 9 – STAGE TWO: TEAM PLAY
SECOND TEAM: GRIFFENHOLT, BRAK, JAZT
"Move it!" Baroness Lindy Griffenholt barked. "We don't have time for stragglers!" She'd picked her other team members for their combination of strength and magical ability, but she was starting to think that perhaps she should have factored in speed.
Brak, the basilisk, had proven himself capable of quick movement during combat, but in the parts of the course between ambushes, the lizard-man liked to take his sweet time.
Serves me right for working with non-humans, Lindy thought.
Hu Jazt, the wizard, was even more of a problem. Lindy had thought that his prodigious shape-changing ability would make him swift as well as powerful, but that wasn't working out, either. Every use of his magic seemed to take more out of him. Between bouts of combat, he was either gasping for air or gulping down one of his magical potions.
Lindy was starting to believe that Jazt's handsome face and slender figure were just another of his shape-changing disguises.
I bet he's really fat and overweight, she thought. "Let's get going!" she called to her partners. "This cliff isn't going to climb itself!"
"A moment, dear lady," Jazt said. "Just a moment."
"Not a race," the lizard-man grunted. He'd taken to drinking from his waterskin every time they stopped. If they hadn't been able to refill after defeating the river elementals, surely he would have run dry by now.
"Well, I'm starting before the next group catches up with us," Lindy said. She wiped the leopard blood from her sword, sheathed it, and jogged to the cliff face. The magical silver line delineating the course headed straight up, and the top of the escarpment was at least forty yards away.
Lindy found her first handgrip and began to climb, Brak and Jazt following just behind. To the west, Lindy could see a flight of winged monkeys, watching and waiting. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. Those beasts won't lay hands on me today, she thought.
The cliff proved difficult, but she'd climbed trickier back in her homeland while hunting griffon eggs. The lizard-man was keeping up, barely, and Jazt had transformed himself into something that seemed to be half man and half spider.
Lindy blanched at the sight. Disgusting!
Despite his new form, the wizard was still struggling as he climbed. His breath came in ragged puffs and his limbs trembled as he crept up the cliff.
A prickling sensation on the back of Lindy's neck made her turn, and she drew her sword just in time to slash the head off a cloudy-white snake diving through the air at her. "Sky serpents!" she cried as more of the sinuous creatures swarmed in.
Lindy had experience in fighting while climbing—she'd once fended off a flock of blood shrikes during an egging expedition back home—and apparently the basilisk knew how to fight while climbing, also. Brak easily clung to the cliff face with one hand while cutting down flying snakes with his saw-toothed sword.
Jazt, on the other hand, was having trouble. Holding on to the cliff face with his spider-like rear limbs, he'd transformed his arms into snakes to counter the sky serpents' attacks. With each moment, though, the flying swarm snapped closer and closer to the wizard, and Lindy and Brak were both too far away to help.
Realizing his predicament, Jazt began to change again. His head became leonine—the head of a chimera, Lindy realized—and breathed fire. The serpents attacking him withered in the flames.
"Keep climbing as you fight," Lindy urged, knowing they'd each have to make it to the top on their own. She cut down two more serpents and headed for the apex of the cliff. Brak felled three of the cloudy-white snakes and climbed as well.
Jazt opted for a different approach, and batlike wings started to sprout from his back. This final transformation must have been too much for the shape-change magic he was using, though, because before the wings were fully formed, the wizard's body began to bloat. Expanding like intestines dropped in boiling water, Jazt swelled to twice his size and then, suddenly, burst.
Dead before he could even scream, Jazt tumbled back down the cliff face with the swarm of flying snakes trailing after his body, nipping at the streamers of gore.
Lindy and Brak gained the top of the cliff; neither one spoke or looked back. Before them lay a grassy plain. Both the human woman and the basilisk broke into a run, anxious to reach the next challenge.
Soon they reached a broad chasm, much too wide to jump. A swath of rope netting, clearly laid down by the tournament organizers, spanned the gap.
"You first," Brak said.
Lindy nodded. Her years of climbing had left her with no fear of heights, even when only a few strands of hemp stood between her and a fifty yard drop onto jagged rocks. Sheathing her sword, she took her first few steps upright before dropping on all fours to scramble the rest of the way across. Brak sheathed his saw-toothed sword and crawled tentatively onto the net.
When Lindy reached the halfway point, the ropes began to tremble out of sync with her own movements or Brak's. Looking back, the baroness saw a half-dozen nearly transparent spiders crawling swiftly across the netting toward Brak.
"Move your tail!" Lindy called back to the lizard-man. "I'm not waiting for you!"
Brak snarled an answer, but if the words were a human language, Lindy couldn't make them out. She scrambled as fast as she could toward the far edge of the chasm; the lizard man followed, but he was slow and clumsy in the mesh.
As Lindy neared the edge of the net, two crystal spiders raced to meet her, casting webs as they came. The arachnids were each the size of a serving platter, and Lindy knew she wouldn't be able to stand and fight them with her sword.
Drawing her knife from its bootstrap sheath, she plunged the blade into the abdomen of the first spider as it pounced. The creature's eight legs twitched and clawed at her, even in death. She twisted and flung it into its companion, knocking the second spider off the netting and into the chasm. Lindy rolled to her right onto the solid ground at the defile's edge.
She glanced back at her companion, still caught in the middle of the mesh. The basilisk was fighting valiantly against the spiders, but the nearly transparent monsters had stopped his forward progress. With each moment, more and more of the arachnids appeared atop the netting. With each moment, Brak became more and more entangled in silky strands of web.
"Sorry," Lindy called to the basilisk. "Try to catch up if you can."
She barely heard Brak's snarling, incomprehensible reply as she followed the silver line to the next obstacle.
Too much brains or too much brawn, she thought as she ran. That's why they failed.
From the spider chasm, the terrain sloped steeply downhill, becoming rockier as it went. Ahead, Lindy saw the western edge of the island's bay, glittering in the late morning sunlight. The silver trail ran in that direction.
I wonder what the obstacle at the bay will be, she thought. And is there another challenge in between?
As if in answer to her unvoiced question, a keening cry pierced the humid air.
She whirled, recognizing the sound, and her sword cleared its scabbard in an instant. She brought up her blade barely in time to fend off the talons of the diving griffon.
Her weapon deflected the beast's scythe-like claws, but didn't stop the creature's oncoming weight. The griffon slammed into her, knocking her breath out, and snapped at her neck.
Lindy twisted her head away; the monster's beak missed her neck and took a chunk out of her left shoulder, instead. She stabbed with all her might, driving her longsword through the gaps in the griffon's ribcage and piercing its heart.
The beast fell to the rocky ground, twitching but not quite dead. Lindy withdrew her sword and drove it through the creature's eagle-like eye.
But before she could pull the weapon out, something hit her hard from behind. Fiery pain coursed up Lindy's back as she heard the rending of her mail hauberk and felt the scrape of talons against bone.
The second griffon keened in bloodthirsty delight as it soared into the air once more. Lindy fell face-first onto the ground, her sword flying from her hand as she hit. The world around her became an agonizing blur.
It took all her strength and willpower to roll onto her back and face her enemy. The second griffon soared into the sky and wheeled for another attack run.
As she lay on the rocky slope, bleeding, Lindy Griffenholt wished to the gods that she had not left the lizard-man behind.
BRION WILDE, CRIMSON, & YAN
"So," Crimson said to Brion as they stood in the starting area, "do you want to team up?"
"Sure," Brion replied, happy not to have to face the second stage's obstacles alone.
Crimson smiled. "Just like old times."
"Ooh!" cooed Yan. "Can I come, too? I promise I won't slow you down."
"The question is, will we slow you down?" Brion asked.
"I heard about your run through the last stage," Crimson said to the girl. "I don't know that the 'old man' and I can keep up with you."
"If you can't, I'll just scout ahead," Yan replied.
"If you get ahead, you shouldn't come back for us," Brion warned. "Don't give up a chance to cross the finish line just to see how we're doing."
"I'm not too worried about winning," Yan said. "I'm supposed to be experiencing new things and meeting new people."
"Suit yourself, then," Brion said. This strange girl never ceased to amaze him.
"Would you mind a fourth?" Crimson asked. "I met someone earlier who I think could use some . . . guidance to survive this test. He's about Yan's age and quite skilled as a mage. We could probably use some extra magic in the mix."
"Sure," Brion said. "So long as it's not that flame-headed kid,"
Crimson smiled. "Well, as a matter of fact. . . ."
Brion sighed. "All right. But he's your puppy, not mine."
"Ooh!" said Yan. "He's a mage and a lycanthrope?"
THIRD TEAM: PIUS, SETH, UMIRA THE ACCURSED
Seth shook the sea-monster's blood from his sword and wiped the blade clean.
"That was bloody brilliant," Pius V. Corpus, the warrior priest, boomed. "Nicely done, swordsman. Oh, and you, too, triton."
"It was nothing," Seth, the swordsman, replied, not looking at the priest. "An unworthy cut. I will do better."
"Unworthy!" Pius said, laughing as he wrung out his white and purple tabard. "You'd think you killed such monsters with two strokes every day!"
"That's the point," Seth snapped. "Two strokes, not one!"
Umira the triton stood in the shallows at the edge of the bay and gazed at her own reflection. How could these two men argue about such things? Was it a problem to slay your enemy with two blows rather than one? What did either of these people have to complain about?
The triton starwatcher ran her webbed hands over the protruding gill slits on her neck, the rough blue scales of her skin, her fin-like ears. All these things as well as her shark-pointed teeth marked her as "accursed," not fit to dwell either above the waves or below. She lacked the human-like beauty of her triton people, or the half-human/half-fish grace of the "blessed" tritons that men called mermaids.
Instead, she was a horrible mix of the two, a freak—unwanted, outcast . . . accursed. Her fate had driven her to become a starwatcher, a triton who could live on land. But even here, she was outcast. How could the problems of these two preening dolphins compare with her trials? What reason could such accomplished humans have to want the tournament's ultimate prize? But for Umira, to be like other people, to be unnoticed . . . that was worth any price.
"We should go," she said, her voice as silky as summer tide. A surface man had fallen in love with her voice once, and then run in terror as soon as he saw her.
"The triton's right," Pius said. "Time and the gods wait for no man. You'll have other chances for your perfect cut, I'll wager, half-elf."
"Of course," Seth replied.
The three of them left the bloodstained shore and hiked into the jungle, heading for the main grandstand. These woods were older than the bugbear forest at the start of Stage Two. The trees stood taller, and their canopies were thicker, blotting out the sky. The cool, green world of the forest reminded Umira of the kelp beds near her home.
When I return, they will admire me, she thought. They will say, "There goes Umira the lovely, winner of the Tournament Maximus."
Long vines dangling from the branches overhead swayed gently as the trio passed beneath. Just like the kelp, dancing in the gentle currents of the Mere Tritonia.
But there was no breeze in the forest, so what made the vines sway?
"Trap!" Umira cried as the first streamers snaked down out of the trees. The coils were thick and ropelike with spiny thorns along their lengths.
Umira drew the twin serrated long-knives from the holsters at her hips and severed the creepers as they flayed at her. Seth's slender blade cleared its sheath in a moment, cleanly slicing through a dozen green trailers at a time.
Pius swung at the vines, but his spiked mace had little effect, so he dropped it—letting the weapon dangle from its wrist strap as he drew the hunting knife strapped to his thigh. "Keep moving," the priest warned. "If we don't get out of here, they'll have us hanging for sure." He and Seth ran forward, following the silver trail, with Umira bringing up the rear.
The attacking vines grew more numerous as they went. Soon, the air was alive with snaking green tendrils.
Seth's razor-keen blade kept the group going, clearing a swath through the greenery more effectively than a phalanx of men with machetes.
Finally, the trio broke through the tangle of creepers, and into an area where the trees were older and taller, with the canopy twenty yards high.
"I see the end of it!" Pius called. "There's a break in the foliage ahead!"
As he spoke, a vine as thick as a man's arm snaked down toward the back of his unprotected neck.
"Look out!" Umira cried. Her sea-strong legs launched her through the air, closing the gap in an instant. She slashed with her twin blades, severing the deadly vine before it could touch the priest.
Pius and Seth turned as she landed, catlike, on her bare feet. "Behind you!" the priest warned—too late.
In saving Pius, Umira had forgotten to watch her own back. Now two vines, each as thick as full-grown pythons, seized her in their thorny grasp—one wrapped around her slender waist, the other encircled her right wrist.
As Pius leapt to help her, more huge vines snaked down from above. One seized the priest's left arm, and he howled in pain.
Umira felt it, too, though she did not cry out. The plants' thorns were covered in some kind of poison, stinging at first and then making whatever they touched go numb.
Pius hacked himself free as Seth felled a trio of vines trying to ensnare them. Umira managed to chop through the vine holding her wrist, but two more caught her. One wrapped around her leg, and the other seized her right arm. As she struggled, the vines lifted her into the air.
"By Holy Saint Vardin, I invoke the Fire of Righteousness!" Pius cried. Instantly, a circle of blue-white flames sprang up around the priest in a circle four yards wide. Seth, nearly caught in the burst of fire, quickly stepped back inside the perimeter. The attacking vines shriveled away from the priest and the half-elf.
"Triton!" Pius called, reaching for Umira.
But she was already five yards off the ground and being drawn higher by the moment. More vines grabbed her arms and legs, pulling them tight, limiting her movement. She kept her grip on her long-knives, but couldn't summon the strength or leverage to wield them.
"Immobilus!" Pius cried, pointing toward the nearest creepers and speaking a Word of Power.
Instantly, the vines entangling Umira ceased moving, though they still held her spread-eagled ten yards above the ground, looking down on her former companions. Though the vines were now motionless, their numbing venom still coursed through the starwatcher's veins.
"Triton!" Pius called, but the poison numbed Umira's vocal cords, and she couldn't reply.
"Why didn't you use your spells earlier, priest!" Seth said accusingly.
"The scourging fire does not move," Pius explained. "I didn't want to hem us in. And I couldn't use the word of immobilization while being assaulted."
Seth brushed some broken brambles off of his silk robes. "Unfortunately for the triton."
The two of them gazed up at Umira, dangling ten yards overhead. Though the plant's venom had numbed her body and she could not speak, Umira's mind remained alert. Looking at the men's faces, she knew what was coming next.
"I'm no climber, and I've no powers that can help her at this distance," Pius told the half-elf. "How about you?"
Seth looked away from the dangling girl. "My alliance with the triton was one of convenience only."
"If you're suggesting that she's not worth our necks to rescue, I'm afraid I must agree," Pius replied. He cupped his hands and called up into the trees. "Sorry, starwatcher! There's nothing we can do! We'll try to send the flying monkeys for you once we reach the finish line."
And with that, the ring of fire parted and the swordsman and the priest walked out of the jungle toward the final obstacle.
They left Umira the Accursed behind them, hanging.
THE TOURNAMENT CONTINUES . . .
NEXT UP: Midknights, Tarkon, & Yan
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