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CHAPTER 7 – STAGE ONE: FINAL FINISHERS
ERISA & ULDRED – Midknights
Uldred stood atop the reviewing stand, nearly motionless. Other finalists, those who had survived the first stage of the Tournament Maximus, surrounded him, chatting with each other and enjoying their victories. They were a strange crew that included a green-clad teenage girl, a titanic Vortex gladiator, a surly red-haired woman, an armored priest, and a man who looked like he belonged in a circus. It was an honor just to be here, a hard-won honor for the midknight.
Though the tournament’s healers had worked on Uldred, he still sported numerous cuts, bruises, and burns—souvenirs of his run through the course. But none of his injuries were of any importance to Uldred; only one thing mattered now.
He kept his eyes fixed on the brazier between the finisher’s platform and the grandstand. The magical fire blazing high, showing the tournament audience images of the course and the contestants still running through it. It was those images that mattered to Uldred, and one particular contestant.
Erisa was struggling. She’d completed the sliding line, but taken a crossbow bolt in the thigh during her descent. At the bottom of the sword stairs, she’d cut off the arrow’s tail and pushed the shaft clean through, but she was limping, the wound slowing her ascent.
“Come on, baby!” Uldred whispered quietly. He knew that she couldn’t hear him through the magical fire—the connection only went one way—but whispering encouragement made him feel better that just sitting and watching with the others.
Uldred didn’t care how many finishers there were; he didn’t care how many warriors had to face in the next stage. He only wanted Erisa standing on the podium next to him. If she made it this far, they could sort out the rest later. And if the final contest came down to them fighting each other for the prize . . . well, maybe they could hold that match in their bedroom.
On the stairway, Erisa parried another mechanical sword and stepped past it. Almost immediately, another blade sprang from the cliff wall. That one she fended off with the metal bracer covering her left wrist. Only two dozen steps remained between her and the top of the cliff, but Uldred knew those steps were the most dangerous—containing nearly as many blades as treads.
Erisa looked very vulnerable in her brief armor. Blood from the arrow wound and numerous small cuts covered her bare arms and legs. For once, Uldred wished that the two of them had chosen to wear heavier protection. Instead, they’d opted for quickness, flexibility, and fashionable amount of skin. Somehow, style didn’t seem so important with his lover’s life hanging in the balance.
He held his breath as Erisa took the next dozen steps, and cringed as one of the blades caught her wounded leg, leaving a long cut as a gory counterpoint to her arrow wound.
“C’mon, baby!” More a breath than spoken words.
A half dozen more steps, Erisa’s body shuddering with every parried blow, her breath coming in short gasps, her skin slick with sweat.
“C’mon. . . !”
Her feet pushed back nearly to the edge, over the open air, slipping, skidding.
Erisa had no magical protections; she and Uldred couldn’t afford them. If she fell off the side of the cliff, the flying monkeys wouldn’t have time to catch her. And a fall from that height would surely be fatal.
Uldred tried one last, futile cheer, but no noise came from his parched throat.
And then she bulled past the last of the swords from the cliff face. Only two treads remained, and hidden on the top one, the deadly left-hand blade. Uldred hadn’t spotted it, and only the lucky positioning of his left arm guard had saved his life. His bracer still bore a thick gouge from the impact; better it than him.
Erisa stepped forward, oblivious.
Uldred sprang to the front of the podium and leaned over the rail, shouting at the flickering image of his lover. “Look out!”
Suddenly she stopped and smiled. Then she used the tip of her sword to activate the final trap while standing well out of range of the blade. As the trap reset, she stepped through, unscathed.
The other first-stage victors assembled in the stands chuckled at Uldred’s outburst.
He didn’t care. As Erisa limped from the final obstacle toward the finish line, Uldred leapt from the platform and raced to meet her.
BOTAX THE MIGHTY – Dwarf Warrior
“If my ax isn’t where you promised it will be, I’ll take you both over my knee and spank you!” Botax warned as he handed over his weapon.
Rogina, standing near the starting line, fought down a smile; next to her, Violet the gnome looked amused. It was not that Botax didn’t have an imposing physique and splendid armor, it was just that he wasn’t very tall—even for a dwarf. He was shorter than Violet, in fact, and dwarves generally tower above gnomes.
“I assure you,” Rogina said, somehow keeping a straight face, “your weapon will be at the start of the final stairway—assuming you get that far.”
“Of course I’ll get that far!” Botax roared. “Haven’t you ever heard of Botax the Mighty—tamer of the fire-breathing puma, slayer of the crab-men of Icthon, rescuer of the Princess Anthracite?”
As a matter of fact, Rogina had not heard of Botax before he showed up on Shumakai demanding to participate in the tournament. Additionally, she’d never heard of any of the other people, places, or things the dwarf mentioned as bona fides either. Not that it was impossible those things existed. In the Blue Kingdoms, islands, and even whole empires, drifted in and out of existence—witness Shumakai itself.
“I have no doubt you’ll finish this stage,” Rogina said seriously—though she noticed Violet covering a giggle. “And Violet will have your ax ready when you require it.”
“She’d better,” Botax said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve paddled gnomish rump—or human rump, either, for that matter.”
Again, it took all Rogina’s self control to avoid laughing. “You may start whenever you want, Sir Botax.”
“Botax the Mighty,” he corrected.
“Sir Botax the Mighty.”
“Humans!” Botax mumbled to himself as he trudged into the jungle toward the first test. They were such trouble! Or maybe it was just women. Women of other races never seemed to take him seriously; though back home he had more women attending him than he knew what to do with. Ah, home. . . !
“No time for that now,” Botax said, not caring that no one heard. “There’s a tournament to be won.”
As he reached the summit of the hill, a pair of flying monkeys were re-hitching the swinging rope to its starting post.
“Get away from there, you!” Botax said, running forward and waving his hands. The monkeys howled at him and took to the air, retreating thirty yards and then hovering; they left the swinging rope tangled near the top of the pole.
“Trying to sabotage my run, are you!” Botax snarled. He reached for the rope, but it remained several feet above his hand.
“Foul creatures!” he cried. “Saboteurs!”
He jumped for the end of the rope, twice, but couldn’t snag it. He shook the pole, but the line didn’t come loose. Spotting some nearby scrub, he decided to cut a sapling and knock the rope down. For a moment, he felt proud of his clever solution; then his spirits sank.
“This is why those humans and gnomes took my ax!” he rumbled. Clearly there would be no cutting of saplings on this part of the course.
Summoning all his strength, he wrapped his hands around a good-sized sapling and pulled.
The shrub didn’t budge.
So he picked a smaller one and tried that. And then the next smaller one.
Finally, after seven fruitless attempts, he found a bit of scrub with shallow roots and a long stem that yielded to his efforts. Sweating from head to toe, Botax thrashed the rope with the uprooted sapling until the rope fell.
“Finally!” he gasped.
The dwarf hero seized the line and swung out over the river, aiming for the other side. But his perspiration-slick hands betrayed him, and five yards from the bank, he fell, butt first, into the water.
The piranha swarmed in. Only then did Botax remember how little armor covered his backside; being a noble warrior, he never turned his back on an enemy, so rear armor seemed a secondary consideration; bottomless armor was much more flexible.
Yelping with pain, he dashed out of the river and brushed off the piranha clinging to his buttocks. “Gods-cursed fish!” he cried.
Still grumbling, he stomped up the hill, following the magical silver stripe to the next obstacle.
He wasn’t expecting rolling boulders. The first one to appear over the ridge nearly flattened him, but he dodged aside at the last instant. He avoided the next one as well, but had to throw himself to the ground to escape the third.
Before he could stand, the fourth boulder hit him square on his shoulder guard and sent him tumbling down slope. He finally stopped rolling at the bottom of the hill, landing squarely in the piranha-infested shallows. After fighting off the fish again, Botax mounted the hill once more.
Luck was with him this time, as the flying monkeys were busy reloading the mechanism that rolled the boulders downhill. No more falling stones came to vex the mighty warrior.
“Conspiracy,” Botax muttered as he followed the silver pathway to the next obstacle, which turned out to be a wide gorge.
“Am I supposed to jump that?” he asked. He looked around, but found neither rope for climbing nor bridge for crossing. Peering down into the crevasse, he saw flying monkeys cleaning up the bottom of the chasm. Clearly, some contestants had not completed the jump.
Botax swallowed hard. While he feared neither man nor beast, he had never been the best jumper. He had only two options: either jump—and possibly die—or turn around, admit defeat, and be forever labeled a “quitter.”
Clearly the second wasn’t really an option.
He backed up a dozen yards, and then, with an incoherent war cry, he hurled himself across the gorge.
He almost made it, missing the upper lip of the chasm by a scant handspan. His armored body slammed hard into the side of the gorge and began to slide downward.
“No, by Torgard!” he cried, digging his fingers into the crumbling side of the ravine. Botax’s people were Irdro dwarves, masters of earth, and his native skill served him well now. His steely fingers clamped down and the soil yielded to his will—refusing to give way. Inch by painful inch, Botax pulled himself back to the top of the defile.
Standing on the edge he thrust his dirty hands into the air, cried, “Triumphant!” and nearly fell back down the gorge. A squad of flying monkeys hovered nearby, looking hopeful.
“Vultures!” Botax said, shaking his fist at them once he’d regained solid ground. “You’ll never take me!”
Panting and puffing, he trotted off to the next challenge.
Beneath the trees, he spotted the first of the swinging spiked balls and deftly avoided it—but not the second. That one clouted him solidly in the chest, and only his armored breastplate saved him from fatal injury.
He landed hard on his back, and yelped as his piranha wounds flared up once more.
“Seven devils!” he cried. “Can’t a dwarf buy a break in this accursed place?” The flying monkeys keeping pace with him did not answer.
Botax regained his feet and managed to make it through the rest of the spike swingers nearly unscathed. Unfortunately, a spike on the last of them caught his rump as he hurried onward, causing the dwarf to cry out in a most undignified manner.
Next came another pair of jumps, wider than the first, over two bowl-shaped depressions. Once, the craters must have been filled with lush grass, but now only scorched strands and twigs remained.
Botax thought that must mean something, but he couldn’t figure out what.
Though the twin bowls were wide, they were not very deep, certainly not the same class of hazard as the gorge. Even though there were two of them in a row, they didn’t seem as dangerous to Botax as either the ravine or the spike swingers.
Feeling confident, the dwarf champion ran and leaped. He landed on the far side of the bowl, about two thirds of the way up. The impact knocked the wind out of him, and he lay on the side of the hazard for a moment, catching his breath. Then he smelled something burning.
Looking back, he saw the first bowl rapidly filling with fire, burning in a circular pattern from the center outward.
Cursing like a Barbarossan pirate, Botax scrambled up the side of the bowl, the flames licking at his heels. The heat singed his backside as he rolled over the top of the rise. In the clear, he lay on the damp green grass between the bowls to finish catching his breath.
Then a horrible thought occurred to him. What if the second bowl were, even now, filling with fire, too?
He sprang to his feet and, sure enough, a small orange flame had already sprung up in the center of the bowl ahead of him. Summoning his courage and all his remaining strength, Botax hurled himself toward the far side of the second obstacle.
He landed hard, again, but this time he landed only about half way up the slope of the bowl. Already, he could feel—and hear—the flames building behind him. Knowing he couldn’t afford to catch his breath, Botax clambered as fast as he could for the top of the bowl.
The fire quickly caught him, heating his armor to scalding temperatures and crisping his unprotected backside.
Howling with pain, Botax streaked through the jungle, trailing smoke and flames, but still following the silver path. Heedless of the danger, he hurtled off the hilltop and into the rushing waterfall beyond.
The water seized him in its raging grip, tumbling Botax head over heels, spinning him around, and sinking the heavily armored dwarf deep into the pool at the bottom of the falls.
Eventually, the winged monkeys found Botax, burnt and half-drowned, lying by the edge of the waterfall. Cackling gleefully, Ilsa Gorvald’s flying simians returned the insensate dwarf to the tournament’s medical tent.
Maximus’ healers patched him up as best they could, though some parts of the hero were so tenderized as to never be completely whole again.
And so, for ever after, all across the wide World-Sea, the once-mighty dwarf competitor was known as “Botax the Bottomless.”
But no one ever called him, “quitter.”
BRION WILDE – Baronette, Elf, Bard
The top of the final stairs seemed miles away and Brion Wilde felt more tired than he’d been in ages. The obstacles wouldn’t have been too terrible had he been at his peak, but living the cushy life of a Baronette in Seatopia had definitely dulled his edge.
Nothing worked the way he wanted. His timing was off, his jumps fell just short, and his entire body ached from the exertion. He’d also received more than his expected share of cuts and bruises. And now, to top it al off, an endless stair of swords.
Fortunately, Brion had kept up his on fencing. Being rakish, one never knew when skill in dueling might come in handy. But the fiendish engineer who’d designed this final test had made sure the obstacle would wear down all but the fittest swordsman.
I wonder what the next stage will be? Brion thought, and immediately regretted it as a sword flashed past his guard and traced a painful scratch down his calf.
“Those were my best pants!” he quipped. Not true, of course, but they were the best pants he had brought on this trip.
Somehow, the destruction of a pair of fairly ordinary pants pushed the century-old elf’s temper over the edge. It was just one last bad thing in a day of bad things. Brion knew that many competitors had been badly injured or lost their lives today—all for the amusement of a wizard-prince, a ruthless promoter, and a bloodthirsty mob who called themselves a sporting audience.
Well, Brion was no longer amused, and he thought it high time end this farce.
Summoning the ancient formulae and tracing the sigils in his mind, he focused magical energy into his sword. Immediately, the runes along the thin blade began to glow, and the edge of the steel crackled with blue-white energy. Brion had used gentler versions of this spell on numerous playful occasions, but at the moment he felt neither gentle nor playful. When the lightning came to his call, he loosed its full fury.
As the next ambush blade sprang from the cliff face, Brion met it with his sword. Arcane electricity leaped from his weapon into the trap and cascaded up the cliff wall. Lightning coursed through the timing mechanisms, and into all the remaining blades on the stairway.
The machinery driving the swords exploded, blowing holes in the cliff face and spraying rubble across the stairs. This left a huge mess for Maximus and his people to clear up, but Brion didn’t care.
Wary lest he had overlooked any final traps, he walked to the top of the stairs and then to the finish line.
As he went, two thoughts lingered in his mind. I’m getting too old for this, and, What next?
NEXT UP: Stage Two.
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