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CHAPTER 6 – STAGE ONE: MIGHTY EFFORTS
YAN ZHIGONG –Wudan Initiate, Human
Master’s shaven head
Through cherry blossom curtain
Egg in a white nest
“Yan Zhigong, get down out of that tree!”
Reverend Master Pau’s face remained calm as ever, but the spark in his eye told Yan she’d tested his legendary patience almost to the limit.
“But master,” Yan said, “I can see the sky so much more clearly from up here.”
Master Pau sighed and ran one hand over his bald pate. “Perhaps, Student Yan,” he said, “but that tree is sacred, and intended as a home for birds, not for nesting pupils.”
“Yes, Master,” Yan replied. She flipped into the air and danced down the tips of the delicate branches until she reached the temple courtyard once more. Mist-filled mountains and tall forests surrounded the monastery. Yan felt their pull even now, but she forced herself to focus on her teacher.
Master Pau regarded her with his deep, liquid eyes; Yan, half a head shorter, smiled up at him. “Student Yan, you are one of our most promising students, but are you happy here at Wudan?” he asked.
“Of course, Master. I love the mountains, and the clouds, and the sky—when the cherry blossoms don’t block my view.”
“But the mountains, and clouds, and sky are not in the temple,” Master Pau pointed out.
Yan scratched her shaven head. “I see what you mean.”
“I think, Student Yan, that you are more at home among those things than you are within the stone walls of Wudan,” Master Pau said. “Perhaps, it is time for you to see more of the World-Sea, to discover where your heart truly lies.”
Yan bowed low. As always, the master was hard to argue with.
“I vow to practice my kung fu diligently until I return,” she said.
Master Pau didn’t smile, but his eyes glittered brightly as he said, “I’m sure you will.”
The waterfall leap was Yan’s favorite part of the tournament—at least so far. The sensation of falling, the cool mist of the water, then the sudden rush of hitting the pool at the bottom. She almost wanted to climb back up and try it again.
The stepping stones were a fun obstacle, too. She even enjoyed the fake stone that suddenly sank out from under her. Running across the surface of the water until she reached the far shore was thrilling, and well worth getting her sandals damp.
Yan’s heart almost skipped a beat when she saw the sliding line above the cloud forest. Zipping over the trees would almost be like flying. Not just the cloud running that all Wudan students learned during their training, but real flight, like a siren warrior or the Master of Winds.
Tingling with anticipation, she gripped the slide’s handle bars and pushed off over the tree tops.
Her joy increased when the first ambush arrow streaked toward her. She batted it out of the air using her left foot, then alternated hands and feet on the rest, sometimes clinging to the slider with her toes—though she had to remove her sandals in mid-slide to do that—until she reached the bottom.
Feeling exhilarated, she put her sandals back on and rushed up the final stairway. With the cliff on the right and a sheer drop on the left, the view from the stairs was amazing.
The first sword nearly hit her when it flashed out of the wall, but she turned quickly and caught it between the flats of her palms and forced it back into its well-concealed slit in the cliff face.
Yan stepped back from the crevice, observing as her masters had taught. Soon, the camouflage of the traps became clear to her trained eyes. From there, the obstacle became a game.
She dodged the second blade and chopped the third in half as it came out of hiding. The fourth she dived over, then snapped the sixth with a kick, and ducked under the seventh—which barely missed her green robes.
After breaking the eight and ninth and dodging the next two, she grew bored with the game and decided to run the rest of the way. When the next blade flashed out, she used it as a springboard and leapt onto the cliff wall.
Feelling the wind under her sandaled feet, as she had been taught, she sprinted horizontally along the cliff face, making sure to stay above the camouflaged slits that concealed the razor-sharp blades.
Running across the cliff face like a two-legged spider was almost as much fun as the rope slide. So much fun, in fact, that she nearly didn’t see the final blade, cleverly hidden on the opposite side of the top step.
The sword flashed upward as she set foot on the tread. Its blade measured nearly as wide as Yan’s body and was taller than she: two yards of deadly steel.
Yan sprang into the air, the blade brushed against the front of her robe, just at the breast. Then she twisted, tumbled, and landed past it, on the hill atop the cliff, unscathed.
The crowd in the grandstand roared as she sprinted toward the finish line, wondering what all the fuss was about.
REX REGUS – Al Kabar Warrior
Don’t go out before the Al Qiist. Don’t go out before the Al Qiist.
That was the single thought that flashed through Rex Regus’ mind as he crawled away from the burning bowls obstacle, flames licking at his tail.
The Al Kabar panted, his long tongue lolling out of his mouth and dripping hot saliva. Right then, he would have given almost anything for a drink. A moment later, he regretted the wish, when the magical silver trail ended at the top of a titanic waterfall.
What do they expect me to do now? he wondered. Fly?
Then he saw that the course stripe snaked down through the waterfall itself, emerging from a pool at the bottom before tracing into the jungle again.
I’m no Al Qiist, afraid of the water, Rex thought, but—bountiful bosom of Kabree!—that’s a long way down!
Yet, he knew from whispers among the other contestants—who were all too far removed from the viewing brazier to see themselves—that his cat-like rival, Felice Delnegro, had made it at least this far. And if a cat could do it, the Al Kabar dog people certainly could pass this obstacle as well.
“Al Kabar!” he cried as he leaped off of the hilltop into the waterfall.
Then the whole world was falling, roaring, splashing, being thrust underwater, fighting for the surface, gasping for breath.
He’d made it! He crawled wearily from the pool at the bottom of the falls, his mantra running through his mind:
Don’t go out before the Al Qiist. Don’t go out before the Al Qiist.
He dashed through the jungle, wary of the next obstacle, but glad that the brief dip had cooled him down.
Reaching the riverside again, he paused a moment and assessed the new peril. The river moved quickly here, crashing over rocks—both visible and hidden—and roaring downstream. The path lay straight across the rapids.
Fortunately, a line of stepping stones formed a direct route between Rex and the far bank. Some of the stones were spaced far apart, but the Al Kabar felt sure he could dash across them.
With a growl of excitement, he hurled himself onto the first rock, then bounded to the next, and the next after that. The rapids roared all around him, and spray made the stones slippery, but he concentrated on his footing and clearing the gaps.
Six stones . . . seven. In the middle of the river now. Eight . . .
And suddenly the current stone gave way under him. It was a trap! Not really solid, but floating on the river surface.
He plunged into the roiling water, reached for a handhold, but found none. The rush of the river propelled him downstream, away from the course. He padded hard, trying to reach the far shore, but it was no use.
As the flying monkeys swooped in to gloat at his misfortune, one thought ran through Rex’s mind:
Don’t go out before the Al Qiist! Don’t go out before the Al Qiist!
TARKON – Vortex Gladiator, Human
Every obstacle of the course convinced Tarkon that he had made the right decision in keeping his armor and weapons. The officials, fearing his prowess, had tried to take them from him, but he refused. A Vortex warrior never gave up any advantage.
The rope of the first obstacle had snapped under his weight, but he didn’t even feel the ravenous piranha through his lobster-like metal plating.
Bulling aside the boulders of the second test proved simple for his undersea-trained muscles. Used to the pressures of the deep, he felt weightless on the surface world—even in full armor.
He sprang across the jumping gorge easily, and then let the swinging spiked balls dash themselves to pieces against his artificial carapace. The strange, scorched bowls, each ten yards wide, proved simple to leap as well.
Plunging down the waterfall, he sank to the bottom and his left foot became wedged between two rocks. It took Tarkon several minutes to extricate himself—not even long enough to use his armor’s built-in air supply.
The techno-magical rebreather did kick in as he walked across the river bottom on the next obstacle. Why debase himself by leaping from stone to stone—especially since some of the stones were obviously rigged to sink under his weight?
Gaining purchase on the rope slider proved difficult. His gauntlets were designed for gripping weapons, not such flimsy things as ropes and handlebars. The line dipped perilously under his weight, but the treacherous crossbow bolts, which sprang from cowardly ambush, bounced harmlessly off his armor.
“Is this all there is?” he cried as he reached the bottom of the final stairway.
Drawing his huge, cleaver-like sword, he stomped up the stair, unconcerned about the sheer drop on his left.
The first sword sprang from the cliff wall on his right and shattered against his armor. Behind his mask, Tarkon smiled. Finally, a challenge! He drew his sword and marched upward, smashing the attacking blades as he went.
As he reached the final step, an unexpected sword, as wide as Tarkon’s armored forearm, sprang up from the left. It flashed into the pit of his arm, between the joints of the armor, and stuck. The blade penetrated to the flesh—but not deeply.
Snarling with rage, Tarkon, wrapped his arms around the enemy sword and twisted. With a sharp “Snap!” the weapon broke into flinders.
Tarkon dusted off his armor and walked toward the grandstand, which burst into an appreciative roar. His wound was not even worth tending.
“Am I the first?” he asked the gnome who gave him a victory flower as he crossed the finish line. She looked similar to the gnome he’d talked to in the starting area. Perhaps she was the same one, but he never could tell such creatures apart.
The question was, of course, a formality. He’d seen no one among the other contestants whom he deemed either capable of worthy of finishing.
“Second!” the gnome blurted, pointing toward an area atop the officials’ platform.
On the platform stood a small, green-garbed slip of a girl. At least, Tarkon assumed it was a girl. The baggy clothing and shaved head made it difficult to tell—and Tarkon knew that surface men were often very feminine.
Spotting him, the girl waved.
Behind his techno-magical helmet, Tarkon frowned. Reflexively, his armored fist crushed his victory flower.
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