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CHAPTER 10 – STAGE TWO: STRENGTH & SPEED
FOURTH TEAM: ORLANDO, ROJ, ERISA & ULDRED
“We will help each other,” Orlando the Acrobat said, “but we will not lose for each other. Is that clear? If one falls, the rest will go on.”
To the Midknight named Erisa, Orlando looked more than a bit absurd in his tight-fitting, colorful outfit. But the acrobat’s face was deadly serious, and despite his clothing, Orlando seemed very competent; he’d survived the first stage with very few wounds, which was why Erisa and Uldred had agreed to team up with him.
“Got it,” Roj Bond grunted, though Erisa wasn’t sure the muscular warrior was capable of getting much of anything.
“Wouldn’t want it any other way,” she agreed. Uldred nodded.
Orlando smiled, showing his perfect teeth. “Good. Let’s get signed in and start, then.” He walked toward Rogina and her gnome assistant.
“Faerie,” Roj whispered as he went.
“If you don’t like him,” Uldred said, “why’d you agree to work with us?”
Roj flexed his muscles, puffing up his body almost to the size of a half ogre. “Strength and speed,” he said. “That’s the name of this game. I got the strength, and he’s got the speed.”
“What about us?” Erisa asked.
“You got a bit of both, so that’s good, too.” Roj turned and followed the brightly dressed acrobat.
Erisa cupped her hand and whispered to Uldred. “If Orlando’s speed, and he’s strength, then that must make us the brains.”
“As usual,” Uldred said with a smile.
Orlando stared down at Roj, who lay panting on the shore of the bay. The muscle-bound warrior didn’t seem to have been harmed by the sea monsters, but he didn’t look capable of continuing, either. “We can’t wait for you,” the acrobat said.
“Yeah,” Uldred agreed. “That was the deal.”
“I just need a minute,” Roj insisted. “A minute to catch my breath.”
“You can catch up with us, then,” Erisa countered, annoyed at the delay. “You’ve been lying there for twenty minutes now.”
“Just another minute,” Roj said. “One more.”
“You said that ten minutes ago,” Uldred noted.
“All right, then, go!” Roj barked, the veins standing out on his ox-like neck. “See if you can do it without me! You can’t! I’ll be identifying your bodies for the tournament officials in the morning!”
“Right,” Orlando said smoothly. “Nice knowing you, then. Good luck with the final obstacles.” He turned and walked into the forest.
“Jerk,” Erisa muttered as she and Uldred followed.
“Do you think anyone else has made it this far?” Uldred asked, picking the remains of the strangling vines off his armor as he, Erisa, and Orlando left the jungle.
“No way to tell,” the acrobat said. “This stage has three paths, remember? They only converge here, at the end of the course.”
“I don’t see anyone ahead of us,” Erisa said. “That has to be a good sign, doesn’t it?” As it turned, out, Roj Bond had been right—getting past the vines had required a combination of strength and speed. Too bad the muscleman probably wouldn’t make it through the forest on his own. Erisa grinned at the thought.
“Sure,” Uldred agreed. “We’re aces. Just one more obstacle to go.”
“Let’s not count our basilisks,” Orlando warned. “There’s a pretty big blood stain on the ground here, and no way to tell whether the person who made it survived to go on. Being first doesn’t matter—just finishing. And besides, I’m sure this last test will be a corker.”
Ahead of them stretched a tall cliff with a narrow path snaking up the side. At the bottom of the escarpment stood a burning brazier, with a row of unlit silver torches next to it.
As the three challengers approached the fire, words appeared in flaming script above the brazier:
To complete the test, bring a lighted torch to the finish line. One torch per group.
The burning letters hung in the air for a few moments, then vanished.
“That seems straightforward enough,” Orlando said, taking a torch and lighting it.
“There’s gotta be a catch,” Uldred said.
“There’s always a catch,” Erisa observed. As Orlando began climbing the winding path, she whispered to Uldred. “Do you have any magic left?”
“An expanding net,” he said. “You?”
“Two fireball gems and an invisible snare. Do you think Orlando has any more tricks up his billowing sleeves?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” Uldred replied. “He seems to like you.”
“Of that faerie? Ha!”
Erisa chuckled and the two of them hurried to catch up with the acrobat.
They were halfway up the cliff face when the wind hit. It began as a slight breeze, but built with each step they took until their torch was guttering and in serious danger of going out.
Orlando turned his back to the wind, protecting the torch’s flame with his body. “I can walk backward,” he told the Midknights, “and keep the torch from going out, but you’ll have to alert me for impending dangers. One of you should go in front of me, the other behind.”
“I’ll go first,” Erisa said, carefully navigating around the acrobat to take the lead.
The strategy worked, keeping the precious flame safe as the trio made their way up the snaking trail. As they went, the path narrowed until it was barely wide enough for two to walk abreast, even if their strategy had permitted doing so.
The gusts built to near hurricane force as the team climbed. They struggled to walk without being blown off the side of the cliff; the wind howled like a thousand tortured souls.
Without warning, a ghostly shape appeared in the gale, directly in front of them.
“Elemental!” Erisa warned. She drew her weapon, thankful for the blessing that allowed the Midknights’ blades to affect such enchanted creatures. She hoped that Orlando’s magical staff would work against an elemental as well as it had against vines and sea serpents.
Orlando’s staff sprang into his hand, expanding to full-length as it appeared out of his billowing sleeve. But he still kept his back to the wind, protecting the flickering torch. Eldred drew his sword as well, though the wind nearly whipped it from his hand.
The elemental came at them. The wind of it felt like being hit by an ox; somehow, all three contestants kept their feet. Erisa slashed at the airy monster, but—despite the blessing—her sword had little effect. Orlando flailed blindly, nearly striking Erisa by accident.
“Out of the way!” Uldred shouted, pushing the acrobat to his knees and stepping around him to join Erisa on the front line.
The Midknight nearly made it, but the elemental suddenly rushed up the cliffside and then back down, barreling over the edge and taking Uldred with it.
For a moment, time froze as Erisa’s lover hung suspended in the air, his face a mixture of shock and horror.
And then he fell.
“No!” she screamed.
The elemental hovered in the open air, gloating in its victory over the fallen knight.
Erisa stabbed her hand into the pouch at her waist, found a fireball gem, yanked it out, spoke the activation word, and threw with all her might.
The gem soared into the center of the airy, non-human creature and exploded. With a hurricane wail, the elemental vanished, and the wind died down—though it didn’t cease entirely.
Stunned, Orlando regained his feet. “I-I’m sorry,” he said.
“Sorry my ass,” Erisa said, peering over the edge. “He might still be alive. We’re going back down to get him.”
“But the elemental may reform,” the acrobat countered. “And we all agreed—if one falls, the others keep going. We’re almost through the final obstacle. We can win!”
“I don’t want to win without him!” Erisa cried, her eyes filling with tears. “None of it matters without him!”
Orlando shook his head. “I can’t go with you,” he said. “Not when I’m so close.” He gazed at the torch, still flickering in the strong wind. “Go if you must. I’ll . . . I’ll wait for you at the top—at least a little while.”
Erisa’s eyes blazed with anger though her heart was breaking. “Fine!”
She found Uldred on the third switchback below where they’d fought the elemental. He was lying on the trail, bleeding, his body twisted at unnatural angles. Astoundingly, he was still alive.
She hugged him and kissed his face, but he didn’t respond.
So she found the expanding net amid his equipment and lashed it between their sheathed swords to fashion a rough liter. Gently, she rolled her lover onto it and then dragged Uldred’s body back up the trail.
At nearly the same spot on the path, the winds built again and the elemental re-formed.
“Screw you!” Erisa said, tossing her remaining fireball gem into the creature.
The burst of magical flame dissipated the elemental once more, and she and Uldred continued up the path.
When they reached the top, she found Orlando sitting by the trail, despair written across his handsome face.
“I-it went out!” he said. The silver torch lay extinguished at his feet. “I nearly got to the top, but the wind. . . ! I couldn’t keep it lit.”
“Well you could have come back and helped me, then, couldn’t you, jerk,” Erisa said. The acrobat’s predicament would have been comical if she weren’t scared to death about Uldred. He hadn’t woken in all the time it had taken to reach the top, and now his breathing had become ragged and irregular.
“Relight the torch and let’s get going,” she said.
“What?” Orlando replied, uncomprehending.
“That fancy magical writing didn’t say you had to finish with the same flame you started with,” Erisa told him. “Relight the torch and let’s get going!”
Orlando’s face brightened, then fell. “I don’t have any fire magic,” he said. “Do you, by chance, have any more of those fireball gems?”
His chin slumped onto his chest. “Then we’ve lost. Either that, or we have to go back and start again. And if we do that, I’m certain that elemental will have reformed.”
“Good thing I’ve got flint and tinder, then,” Erisa said. “Otherwise, you’d be screwed—just like you tried to screw us.”
Orlando looked up, his face showing a mixture of surprise and annoyance. “I didn’t try to screw you. We all agreed: if one fell, the rest would go on.”
“Yeah, right,” Erisa said, wiping the sweat from her brow. “Now help me carry Uldred to the medical tent before I take that torch and leave your sorry ass behind. And gods help you if my man doesn’t survive!”
YAN ZHIGONG & TARKON
Yan Zhigong wanted to stay with Brion and his friends, she really did—except they were all so damn slow! Even the cute fire mage didn’t move very fast. The girl from Wudan soon tired of circling back to find the rest of the group, or having to wait for them to catch up. In the end, as Brion had suggested, she struck out on her own.
Being on her own proved a lot more fun.
She played tag with the frost leopards, tied the sky serpents into knots, and tangled the webs of the crystal spiders. After that, she rode on griffonback until all the griffons were too worn out to play any longer.
Then she skipped down to the bay, where she noticed the undersea gladiator, Tarkon, struggling against some sea monsters. So she decided to help him out.
Dancing across the wave tops, as her masters had taught her, Yan soon reached the site of the battle.
The creatures Tarkon faced were like nothing Yan had ever seen before. They looked a little bit like dragons, but not nearly so noble or graceful or wise. They had big, turtle-like bodies—though they didn’t have any shell—and they had four wide, porpoise-like flippers for feet. A flat, triangular head, almost like a snake head, sat atop their long sinuous necks, and equally long snaky tails sprouted from behind their rear flippers.
Tarkon was clinging to the flank of one of the beasts, trying to climb up its side so he could cut off its head with his oversized sword. As he climbed, another of the three turtle-serpents surged forward to strike at the gladiator’s unprotected back.
Yan bounced off a wave crest, bounded over the monster Tarkon was fighting, and kicked the ambushing creature in the chin. The turtle-serpent’s head snapped back, its eyes rolled up, and its long neck whipped into the water. Before its unconscious body sank into the brine, Yan skipped over its body toward the third monster.
The snake-like head of the third turtle-serpent dived straight for the girl from Wudan, its jaws wide, its mouth full of rows of pointy teeth. As it struck, Yan jumped over it, putting her hands on the top of the creature’s skull and vaulting high into the sky.
She somersaulted, twisting in the air, and landed squarely on the beast’s humped back. The monster turned, but its neck wasn’t flexible enough for its head to reach her. Yan dropped into a spin kick and broke its spine, just above the shoulders. At the same time, Tarkon lopped off the head of the turtle-serpent he was fighting. As the body sank, he swam toward shore.
Yan danced along the wave tops beside him, amazed that he could swim in his heavy, lobster-like armor.
Tarkon scowled at her. “Who asked you to interfere?” he barked as he trudged ashore.
Yan shrugged. “It looked like you needed some help.”
“Well I didn’t,” Tarkon snapped. “Stay out of my way, girl.”
“Okay,” she replied, smiling.
Without looking back, Tarkon trudged into the jungle.
For a moment, Yan thought about turning back to find her friends. But they were probably still a long way behind, and the griffons were too tired to play any more. So she decided to continue on.
At first, she wanted to run across the treetops to the far side of the forest, but when she tried it, the silver course line disappeared and the flying monkeys began to swarm all around her.
Pulling feathers from the monkeys’ wings was fun for a while, but Yan soon tired of the novelty. Besides, it seemed to her that the monkeys weren’t enjoying the game nearly as much as she was. So she dived down through the forest canopy and found the silver trail once more.
Avoiding the stinging vines proved a considerable challenge even for the girl from Wudan. Several times, the brambles snagged the baggy sleeves and legs of her green robes. She twisted away from the plants easily enough, but it bothered her to think that they might have harmed the lovely dragon designs that Master Pau had embroidered into her garb.
As she walked, checking the silk patterns, the trees around her thinned out and the canopy raised up to a lofty height. For a moment, Yan admired the view. Then she noticed Tarkon, helmetless, hanging fifteen yards above the ground. A bramble as thick as Yan’s thigh had wrapped itself around his neck. Two similar-sized creepers had relieved the gladiator of his helm and his enormous sword and were dragging the items up into the concealing foliage. Tarkon struggled feebly, his face turning blue and his eyelids fluttering.
“That’s not fair!” Yan decided.
So when a thorny tendril as thick as her waist shot down to snag her, she avoided it and deftly ran up the vine’s length into the canopy. Reaching the underside of the foliage, she sprang toward Tarkon, ten yards away.
Her spin kick severed the vine holding the gladiator’s neck and he crashed heavily to the ground. Yan sprinted down the nearest tree trunk, concerned that she might have injured the warrior.
But Tarkon was already rising by the time she reached the forest floor. He grabbed a new vine snaking toward his neck and snapped it in half, then—without even a word of thanks—stomped out of the jungle.
Yan followed, more slowly than usual because the bare skin of her foot had brushed some poisoned brambles when she saved Tarkon, and her legs were feeling a bit numb.
I shall have to apply some of Master Pau’s healing salve once I get back to my tent, she thought.
She found the Vortex Gladiator standing at the base of a winding cliffside trail, next to a burning brazier and a rack of silver torches.
“Are you all right?” Yan asked.
“Of course,” he replied without looking at her.
“Sorry about your sword and your helmet. I could go back and get them if you like.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Tarkon said. “Winning is all that matters. And I am not weaponless in any case.” He flexed a muscle in his massive forearm and a long, triangular blade sprang out of his right grieve.
Yan’s eyes went wide, and she marveled at the concealed weapon. “Awesome!”
Tarkon turned and plunged the blade into her side.
Yan gasped as her blood gushed out, staining the green silk of her robes. Tarkon yanked his blade free, and Yan crumpled to the ground.
“When I need help, I’ll ask for it,” he rumbled. “And I never need help.”
As Yan lay bleeding, the Vortex Gladiator went to the cauldron, lit a torch, and started up the long trail to the finish line.
The girl from Wudan watched him go, unable to understand what had just happened.
Then her neck went limp, her head rolled back, and she found herself staring at the sky. It really was a beautiful day.
Oh look, she thought as the world began to fade. The monkeys are coming. Maybe this time, they’ll want to play.
NEXT UP: Stage Two Concludes – Brion & Crimson & Piro – Oh my!
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