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CHAPTER 14 – STAGE THREE: BATTLE IN THE CLOUDS
“Keep climbing!” Crimson called to the other five remaining contestants as she pulled herself up the ice cliff.
The rest of the group followed in the red-haired girl’s wake, using the handholds she cut in the ice and carefully following her path. Stuck in the rear of the group—and hating every moment of it—Tarkon sneered.
He knew the others admired this red-haired woman, but for the life of him, the Vortex Gladiator couldn’t figure out why. Yes, she was attractive—in the way that all chattel were—and yes, she had some skill in combat. But her puny muscles could not compare with his sea-hardened ones. Used to resisting the pressure of the depths, he was much stronger than any of these fools—despite his dearth of climbing skill. He was also more effective at killing, having slain far more of their enemies than anyone else had—at least, until the last obstacle.
That fact vexed him. Crimson had somehow killed all the lightning creatures after Orlando fell. The priest, the flame-haired boy, the half-elf, and the Midknight had helped—apparently—but the red-haired girl had slain the most, at least, to hear the others tell it. Tarkon, having crossed the void successfully—it had been child’s play to do so—had missed the fight entirely. He hated that. Just as he hated the fact that the others seemed to admire Crimson more than they admired him.
Did they not understand that he, Tarkon, was superior: a king among his people? Had they never heard of the Vortex Gladiator race, future masters of all the World-Sea? Were the vey words “Vortex Gladiator” not respected and feared throughout all the Blue Kingdoms?
Yet, the other followed this slip of a girl as though she was the natural leader, when, in fact, the only advantage she had over Tarkon was that she climbed well. Climbing was unnecessary beneath the sea or in most war raids, so Tarkon had less skill in it. Which was how he found himself in the humiliating position of bringing up the rear as they climbed, rather than leading.
At the head of the group, Crimson yelled something, but Tarkon couldn’t make out the words through the building wind. The Midknight girl, climbing in the middle of the group, turned and relayed the message, shouting, “Hold tight! Something’s coming! Could be elementals!”
She turned away, giving the Vortex Gladiator a generous view of her lightly-armored buttocks. The undersea warrior frowned, unable to decide whether he admired the Midknight’s boldness—for wearing so little protection—or whether she was just another surface fool, too dumb to realize that in battle, every advantage should be taken.
Silently cursing himself for being distracted, Tarkon used his grieve knives to gouge out deep hand and footholds in the icy cliff face. Then he drew his immense sword and waited.
The others were braced as well by the time three cloudy, whirling elementals reached the frozen escarpment. The flame-haired boy threw fireballs into the creatures as they arrived, softening them up for the rest of the group. Tarkon admired the tactic, but the boy annoyed him. Back home, such a youth would either have been killed or, at the very least, had his tongue cut out.
Though weakened, the elementals kept coming, one choosing to attack Crimson, the second the half-elf, and the third the priest.
“Cowards!” Tarkon bellowed. “Attack me, if you dare!”
If they heard him, the elementals didn’t have time to respond. The others worked together like an experienced raiding party: Crimson and the boy vanquishing one foe through a combination of fire and steel, the half-elf and the Midnight slaying the other with well-placed cuts of their magical swords. The priest spoke some kind of spell, and the third elemental vanished entirely. Before any of the enemy even reached Tarkon, the fight was already done.
Then and there, Tarkon decided he would deal with Crimson in the same way he’d dealt with the annoying flying girl.
Father Pius V. Corpus extended his hand to Crimson, who pulled him up over the edge of the ice cliff. “Thanks,” he told the red-haired warrior. As she helped up the next person in line, Pius adjusted his white and purple tunic and wiped the sweat from his brow.
He was glad that Crimson had taken the lead on this last obstacle, and not just because she was a good deal easier on the eyes than Orlando had been during their climbs. May the gods cleanse my impure thoughts!
With the acrobat dead, the only other choices to lead the group were Seth, the Midknight, or Tarkon—all of whom were completely unsuitable for the roll in the priest’s eyes. He, of course, did not want to draw undue attention by assuming such a position.
Crimson was a natural leader and had defeated the cloud monsters—which she called lightning elementals—almost without assistance. Her strange, silver-traced sword seemed to suck the life out of the beasts. And those she didn’t kill directly she slew by reflecting their own lighting back at them with her blade.
Seth, Piro, and Pius himself had tried to help, but the father held no illusions: Crimson had been responsible for the victory.
But there’s something wrong about that girl, Pius thought. Something unnatural. Some deviltry. Something that puts me on edge. She feels . . . out of place, among ordinary people. Still, he had to admit that she was both a good leader and an amazing warrior. In a fair fight, she might even give that brute Tarkon a run for his money. “Crimson Death” I heard some of the other contestants call her. Now I know why.
Crimson extended her hand to Tarkon, the last of group up the cliff, but the gladiator merely glared at her. Crimson laughed and walked away; Tarkon pulled himself up.
Erisa, the Midknight, scowled at him. “I think you’re failing to grasp the situation here, big guy,” she said. “This isn’t a competition. One of us isn’t getting the prize; if we finish, we all get the prize.”
Tarkon grunted noncommittally.
The look on his helmeted face would have stopped most people dead, but Erisa had clearly put up with enough of his attitude. “Didn’t you hear what Max said?” she continued. “We’re supposed to be a team. This isn’t a winner-take-all tournament.”
Tarkon laughed, his boastful voice harsh and grating. “Life is winner-take-all. You soft-skin surfacers better get used to it.”
Erisa shook her head and turned away; Pius and the others ignored him.
“What’s next?” Piro asked. Though he had displayed his fiery temper in bursts during the fight, he’d been much more sedate since Neilo died.
The six of them were standing on a shelf of ice near the top of the mountain. Icy mist filled the air around them, giving the whole area a strange, bluish overcast. The silver line of the course ran from the shelf up a narrow path to the very pinnacle of the mountain. Where it went beyond that, none of them could tell.
To Pius, the entire scene felt vaguely unreal—as though they’d stepped into an incomplete painting where the artist had merely roughed in the sky to finish later. Everything around them seemed primal, only partly formed. At the same time, though, the place seemed almost . . . heavenly.
“We go up,” Crimson said. “Follow the path until it ends.”
“And keep fighting, I’m sure,” Erisa added.
“Life is struggle,” Tarkon said.
“If you’re a jerk it is,” Piro whispered, seeming to momentarily forget that he no longer had Neilo to share his jests with.
“Easy, lad,” Pius cautioned. Then, more loudly, he announced, “Let’s go. It’s not getting any warmer.”
Without further discussion, they marched up the ever-narrowing path, tracking the magical silver line. Crimson went first, followed closely by Tarkon—who was eyeing her in a savage way that made Pius uncomfortable—then Pius, Erisa, and Piro with Seth bringing up the rear. Trailing behind them all came the eerie, disembodied eye of Amontet.
When the group reached the pinnacle, the obvious trail stopped, though the enchanted line stretched out, over the cloud tops, toward a distant mountain peak.
“How are we supposed to get over there?” Piro asked. “Fly?”
“Too bad we don’t have anyone with us who can fly,” Crimson said, glaring at Tarkon.
Pius felt sure that she was referring to the girl from Wudan, whom Tarkon had put out of the competition for reasons the priest couldn’t fathom at all.
Seth reached over the edge of the peak and prodded the nearest cloud with his sword blade. “This almost seems solid,” he said.
“What do you mean, ‘almost?’” Erisa asked.
“He’s right,” Crimson agreed, pushing into the white fluff with her hand. “It feels like soft peat with mud beneath. If we move across the clouds quickly, we should be able to make it to the far side.”
“And if we don’t move quickly?” Erisa asked.
“Then I’m guessing we sink through and fall to our deaths thousands of feet below,” Crimson said matter-of-factly.
“But there are gaps between the clouds,” Pius pointed out.
“Those we jump,” Crimson said, “just like we did in the cloud cavern.”
“Do you think there are more of those creatures—the lightning elementals—here?” Piro asked.
Crimson cast her pale blue eyes over the cloud tops. “I don’t see any,” she said.
“Too bad,” Piro put in, and blue flames danced around his fingertips.
“But I’m sure there’s something equally dangerous between here and there,” Crimson added.
Pius swallowed hard. Even with the string of ropes to guide him and keep him from falling, he hadn’t liked the crossing in the cloud cavern—and not just because Orlando had died there. This obstacle, with no solid ground anywhere, was far worse. Remember the mission, he told himself. The order is counting on you . . . the World-Sea itself is counting on you to see this through to the bitter end. His throat felt very dry as he asked, “Who goes first?”
“I will,” Piro said. “I’m the lightest, so it only makes sense.”
“No!” Tarkon boomed. “A warrior should go first—and that warrior is me.” He looked at Crimson, as if daring her to challenge his primacy.
She bowed without taking her eyes off the big warrior. “Be my guest. But remember, you have to keep moving, no matter what.”
“I am no chattel for you to command,” Tarkon said. And with that, he turned and stepped onto the cloud butting up against the edge of the precipice.
Pius almost felt disappointed when the gladiator didn’t plummet to his death. Instead, as Crimson had suggested, he began to sink slowly, like a man standing on thick mud. Tarkon took another step, and the sinking stopped. Then he leaped, as he had in the cloud cavern.
That nearly proved his end, because when he landed, he sank into the clouds up to his thighs, and had to exert considerable effort to pull himself out and get moving again.
“We’ll need to be careful when jumping across the gaps,” Seth commented.
“I’m next,” Piro asserted. “If the clouds hold that anvil-skull, they won’t have any trouble with me.”
“Never complain when someone else volunteers to be bait,” Erisa said. “That’s an old Midknight saying.”
Most of the group smiled. “I’ll be right behind you,” Crimson assured Piro.
“Then me,” Erisa said.
“Do you want to go next, priest, or last?” Seth asked.
Neither, Pius thought, but found himself saying, “Next.”
“Get going, then, kid,” Erisa told the flame-haired teenager.
Piro nodded and made his way across the cloud tops, walking briskly at first and then skipping along lightly.
Crimson smiled at the rest. “See? Nothing to it.” She stepped onto the clouds and followed the boy. The others trailed after, leaving a reasonable gap between each contestant, hoping—and in Pius’ case praying—that the clouds would regain their firmness between crossings.
In the meantime, Tarkon had leaped the first two gaps in the clouds. On the first he landed lightly, recovered, and quickly moved ahead. On the second, though, he plowed into the cloudbank and sank nearly up to his waist.
As he struggled to extricate himself, Piro pointed and cried, “Look!”
A formation of triangular, nearly transparent fins cut through the clouds heading for Tarkon and the other competitors.
“Spirit sharks!” Crimson called as the torpedo-shaped beasts burst through the cloud cover and soared into the air. “Don’t let them bite you! Try to reach the other side!”
Pius barely heard her warning; the mention of “spirit sharks” had sent a chill to his very soul. He’d heard of them before, of course, probably every holy man in the Blue Kingdoms had. They were creatures of the outer planes, caught between heaven and the sea, searching for lost souls to devour.
Among the living, spirit shark attacks caused paralysis. A bite to an arm or leg would rip the flesh’s vital energy away, rendering the limb useless; a bite to the head or body could kill instantly. Worse, the sharks were immaterial, and could pass through armor and even thick walls. Normal weapons did not affect them; Pius prayed that his mace and some of his holy powers might.
“Father, keep moving,” Seth warned from behind.
Pius realized he had been sinking as he stood stunned at the thought of the sharks. He pulled his feet out of the cloudy mire and kept walking, though not so swiftly as he had been.
Ahead, Tarkon plowed forward, his huge sword at the ready as the sharks moved in. He struck at the first one as it swerved out of the sky, but his enormous blade passed harmlessly through the creature’s sleek, seven-foot long body. Tarkon grunted and stumbled as the shark bit his leg. When he rose again, that leg was rigid, immobile.
Piro, still a long distance behind the gladiator, seemed to be having better luck with the monsters. His fireballs made the ghost fish turn away, and his frenetic fighting style kept him out of the path of the sharks’ flashing teeth.
Crimson moved quickly and methodically across the cloud cover. She looked confident, but she was only at the first gap, and the sharks hadn’t reached her yet.
Pius glanced back, but there seemed little safety in the lonely mountain peak they’d come from. Besides, Seth—his curved blade drawn and at the ready—was already on the warrior-priest’s heels.
As Crimson leaped the first gap, Tarkon limped onward. He turned and cut at a nine-foot-long monster trying to attack him from behind. Again, the gladiator’s huge sword chopped at the creature’s neck, but it was like cutting fog. The spirit shark struck Tarkon, and if it had been a real fish, it would have bitten him in half at the waist.
“Argh!” Tarkon roared, falling face first into the cloud bank. As the two sharks attacking him arced through the sky, angling for another attack, the gladiator struggled to his feet.
He grunted in pain as he rose, and trembled though his body showed no visible wounds. He straightened up, his legs planted wide in a defiant stance, his sword at the ready. But the gladiator’s movements belied his posture; he looked like a marionette whose feet had been nailed to the floor. Pius feared that, at any moment, Tarkon might topple, never to rise again.
“A blessing, priest!” Seth called from right behind Pius. “A blessing on either Tarkon or his weapon! The sharks are unholy spirits, and the favor of the gods may deter them.”
Pius shook his head. “The power radiates from my body, and he’s too far away. If he were a believer, perhaps. . . .”
“For yourself and me, then,” the half-elf said, pushing Pius from behind. “And for the sake of your gods, keep moving! Do you want to sink?”
Pius picked up his feet, and it was like dragging them out of a bog. He’d been so worried about Tarkon that, again, he’d stopped in his tracks.
The warrior-priest prayed as they walked, and he soon felt the radiant power of the gods flowing through his heart. Her reached out with the power, encompassing Seth and even the Midknight Erisa. Gods forgive me for protecting such heathens and scoundrels! he thought. May it be to the greater good. Unfortunately, Crimson, Piro, and Tarkon remained well beyond his protective influence.
With his legs paralyzed, Tarkon had also begun to sink. By the times the two sharks swarmed in again, he’d already dipped into the cloud up to his thighs. Tarkon turned, trying to find an angle to cut at both creatures. It was pointless, though; he had no protection against the ethereal fish.
But before the insubstantial predators could strike, a barrage of fireballs flashed in front of them. Two struck the smaller shark, and it vanished in a puff of mist. The larger creature turned away, its caudal fin switching like the tail of an angry cat.
Piro came sprinting across the cloud toward Tarkon, fireballs blazing, driving the hungry spirits away. Far from looking happy, the gladiator brandished his sword at the boy.
“I don’t need your help, brat!” Tarkon growled.
For a moment, anger and sympathy warred on the young man’s face, then he shrugged and ran on toward the far peak.
The gladiator wrenched his body back and forth, as if trying to break free of the sharks’ paralysis. But despite his efforts, he continued to sink.
“What’s he doing?” Erisa wondered aloud. “Why didn’t he let Piro help?” Like Pius, she, too, had slowed to watch the awful spectacle unfolding before them; the priest and the half-elf had caught up to her.
Seven spirit sharks remained; three chased Piro toward the far peak, two charged toward crimson, three came for Pius, Erisa, and Seth—who were now moving together in a group—and the final two angled for the paralyzed Tarkon.
“A blessing for my arrows, priest,” Erisa said. “And maybe I can solve this problem before it reaches us.”
“Agreed,” Pius said, “but your first shot has to help Tarkon. I know he’s within your range.”
“He’s not worth it,” she said, “but I can spare one shot—if you and Seth protect me when the sharks attack.”
“Agreed,” Pius and the half-elf said together.
Erisa strung her bow and Pius chanted his blessing as the trio trotted across the clouds.
Crimson broke into a dead sprint. The first shark came at her as she leaped the second gap. Her silver-traced blade flashed striking head, dorsal, and tail, and the spirit burst into swirling fragments of mist. She tucked and rolled as she hit the next cloud, stirring up gouts of billowing moisture as she regained her feet once more. Crimson was close to Tarkon, now, but three sharks still prowled between her and the gladiator.
Erisa’s bowstring twanged. Her shot flew straight and true, passing through what passed for the gill slits of the pale fish nearest Tarkon. The shark twitched, bleeding mist, and spiraled down into the clouds and out of sight.
Pius’ heart pounded in his chest, and he prayed silently for the safety of his companions. Would Crimson reach Tarkon in time? And, if she did, would she help him or pass by—as Piro had? The priest knew Crimson was a friend of the fallen girl, Yan. Certainly, she had enough reason to hate the undersea warrior. Would she help him, or leave him to his grisly fate?
Erisa’s bowstring sang again, and the shark nearest to Pius and Seth fell dying—if such creatures truly died. The priest and the half-elf readied their weapons, knowing she would not be able to shoot again before the final two fish attacked.
Tarkon slashed as the monster facing him came in, but again his attack did no damage. The ghostly fish gulped down the full length of the gladiator’s sword arm, appearing for a moment to swallow the limb whole. Then the fish appeared again on the other side of Tarkon’s body and plunged into the clouds below.
The gladiator screamed as his sword tumbled out of his fingers and fell through one of the gaps in the clouds. His right arm slumped limply at his side. Only a hundred yards separated him from Crimson now, but a ten-yard-long monster fish soared between them—angling for the red-haired woman.
“Watch out, priest!” Erisa’s warning cry came almost too late.
Pius spun, clouting his mace into the misty head of the shark attacking him. The blow struck home, and the shark began to disperse, but not before it sank its ghostly teeth into his side. Pius gasped and his knees buckled. His hand jerked open, and only his mace strap, wrapped around his wrist, kept his weapon from falling into the clouds.
He looked up and saw translucent jaws with sharp white teeth coming straight for his face. Then Seth’s blade flashed, slicing away the second shark’s head, and it dispersed before it could bite.
“Sorry,” the half-elf said. “Not my best cut.”
Pius shook his head, sweat dripping from his long, wavy hair. “I-it’s . . . Thank you.” His side felt frozen, though the sensation was already beginning to fade.
Erisa supported the priest, putting her shoulder under his arm and lifting Pius to his feet. “Keep moving, Father,” she said.
Pius nodded weakly, refocusing his eyes on the team’s goal. His group’s foes had been vanquished, but Crimson still faced the largest shark of the school.
The monster swam through the air between the red-haired warrior and Tarkon. Its caudal fin, nearly as tall as a man, threshed the atmosphere, stirring up the cloud tops as it passed.
Crimson charged straight toward it. The spirit shark opened its mouth wide enough to swallow her whole. At the last instant, she dived to the cloud tops, under the creature’s jaws. She rolled, landed on her feet, and stabbed her sword into the insubstantial beast’s throat.
The weapon traced through the shark’s body from tip to tail, bisecting it cleanly. The spirit disintegrated in a swirl of grayish fog.
Seth gasped. “Perfect!”
Crimson didn’t stop to admire her handiwork. She ran across the cloud to Tarkon, now mired up to his shoulders in billowing white mist, and extended her hand. “Come on!” she said.
“Never!” he hissed, his denial echoing across the sky. Hatred blazed in his eyes as the enveloping clouds reached his chin.
“Take it!” she commanded.
In response, his unparalyzed arm shot up toward her. His left hand opened and then clenched into a fist. In response, a long triangular blade flashed out of his grieve. He stabbed the knife at Crimson’s face.
Crimson snapped her head to the side, and the blade flashed through the billows of her red hair, passing within inches of her right ear.
Tarkon seized her flowing locks in an iron-like grip, trying to drag her down with him.
Crimson lurched to her knees, but her sword flashed, cutting through her scarlet tresses, freeing her.
Still clutching the handful of hair, Tarkon broke through the clouds and plummeted to his death. His scream of rage lingered long after he vanished from sight.
Crimson gasped, recovering her breath. But as she tried to rise, the cloud beside her erupted as the final, forgotten shark breached into the sky. It snapped at her, and Crimson rolled aside, barely avoiding its triangular teeth.
But her narrow escape had a price: she landed hard, sinking up to her waist in the clouds. She dropped her sword as she hit, and the weapon skittered away into the mist. The remaining shark turned and came at her again. Erisa shot, but the Midknight’s arrow flew long, arcing over the creature’s dorsal fin. Pius prayed, knowing that none of them could reach Crimson in time to save her.
Crimson groped for the knives concealed in her boots as the shark dived on her.
The monster threw its jaws wide just as an orange bolt of flame streaked through the sky. The firebolt struck the shark in the eye, and the spirit twisted away. Two more fireballs hit it, and the shark evaporated into swirling mists.
Piro skipped over the clouds and offered Crimson his hand. “You didn’t think I’d leave you for fish food, did you?” he asked with a smile.
Crimson took hold and he pulled her up.
“Thanks,” she said. “I knew there was some reason I wanted you along.” She smiled at the boy and he laughed. It took the red-haired warrior only a moment to find her sword amid the clouds.
With the spirit sharks vanquished, the remaining contestants reached the far peak without further incident. As they set foot on solid ground once more, all five of them collapsed, exhausted.
The Eye of Amontet, dispassionate as ever, hovered nearby, watching and waiting.
When the last chill of his shark bite passed, Pius found the strength to speak. “Where are we?”
Just then, the clouds shrouding the mountaintop parted, revealing a towering white stone stairway. The steps started at the mountain’s pinnacle and vaulted into the sky, spiraling up, unsupported, high into the clouds before vanishing from sight.
Crimson gazed at the impossible structure and whispered, “The final stairway.”
NEXT: The Final Stair
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