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Supernatural cold stabbed through Erisa’s body as the flying lion’s paw slashed across her exposed abdomen. The Midknight gasped and staggered back, realizing nearly too late how close she was to falling off the stairway. The heels of her boots dipped over the edge and she reeled, trying to both recover her balance and defend herself against the beast’s follow-up attack. Only a few dozen of the spiraling stairs remained to reach the top, but each nine-foot-wide tread had a three foot rise, making every step a climb rather than an easy walk up.

Erisa had no idea if she or any of her companions would live long enough to reach the summit. For a moment, as the cold pain shot through her, she wished to the gods that she had stayed on the island and never entered the tower on Shumakai. Then the memory of Uldred flashed through her mind. If he dies, I don’t want to live anyway, she thought.

Piro, standing six steps above Erisa, shouted, “Hey!” and threw a green fireball into the lion’s hindquarters. The creature reared, glancing back over its winged shoulder at the young mage. Erisa recovered her balance and lunged, thrusting her sword into the lion’s chest. The creature grunted and died, toppling over the edge of the stair and spiraling into the clouds below.

“Thanks!” the Midknight called, only then spotting the new lion swooping in behind the young mage.

Before she could shout a warning, the winged lion landed on Piro’s back, sinking its claws deep into his flesh. The fire mage cried out and crashed face first onto the stairway.

Erisa pulled herself onto the next stair, desperately wanting to help the teenager, but knowing she was too far away; there was no time to use her bow or her invisible snare, either. As she hauled herself up, the slashes on her belly sent stabs of cold pain up her spine.

The winged lion bared its fangs, preparing to sink them into the back of Piro’s neck.

Just then, Crimson hurtled down from above, leaping the gap in the curving stairway and landing on the lion’s back. Her sword flashed, severing the beast’s left wing. The flying lion roared and bucked, but, without its wing, it overbalanced and toppled over the edge of the stairway. Crimson leapt from its back and caught onto the edge of the tread by her fingertips. Erisa grabbed her hand and helped Crimson scramble up, and the two women went to assist Piro.

One complete turn of the spiral stairway above them, Seth and Pius continued battling two more of the flying beasts.

Piro groaned as the women lifted him. Deep gouges marked his back, his shoulders, and his legs, staining his flame-spangled jumpsuit with blood. “I’m all right,” the mage asserted weakly, though clearly he wasn’t.

“Help him,” Crimson told Erisa. “We’re almost at the top.” Without waiting for a reply, the red-haired warrior bounded up the stairway to help Pius and Seth.

Under other circumstances, Erisa might have resented Crimson’s presumption. At the moment, though, she was glad to hang back and recover her strength.

“I’m all right,” Piro repeated groggily as she helped him up the next flight. Erisa glanced skyward to check on the rest of the team.

Pius and Seth kept climbing as they fought, and before Crimson caught up with them, they reached the last stair. Seth was in the lead, facing a flying lion without a mark on its white coat. The beast slashed and dodged, wheeling into the air and then diving back down. Seth fended off its claws with his sword, but didn’t capitalize on small openings in the lion’s defense.

He’s looking for his perfect cut, Erisa realized. The idiot!

Pius had no such compunction. He stood back to back with the half-elf, fighting the wounded lion that had tried to take them from behind. The beast stood on the stair tread below the priest, its right wing flopping uselessly at its side. But though it was grounded, the monster’s claws and fangs remained sharp, and it flayed and snapped mercilessly at the priest. Pius’ defense was nowhere near as perfect as Seth’s. Deep slashes ran down the priest’s red and purple tunic, and blood dripped from his wounds onto the stairway. Pius deflected most of the monster’s blows with his spiked mace, but with each parry, his mace moved more slowly.

Crimson sprang up the final stairs, and her sword flashed across the hindquarters of the winged lion fighting Pius. The beast’s legs buckled, hamstrung, and it roared in pain. Pius seized the opportunity and bashed its head in with his mace; the snow-white body slumped to the stairs, dead.

“Thanks,” the priest told Crimson.

“Let’s help, Seth,” she replied, climbing over the monster’s corpse.

Pius glanced at the half elf, battling at the top of the stairway. “I’m not sure he wants our help,” the priest said.

Crimson cursed.

Erisa and Piro reached the hamstrung lion’s body just as Crimson and Pius mounted the top of the stairs.

A dozen yards ahead, Seth battled the remaining beast in the cloud tops. The half-elf wheeled and dodged, avoiding the lion’s claws and teeth, parrying and not taking easy opportunities to attack. “Keep back!” he called when he saw the others. “This one is mine.”

Crimson looked like she would rush forward anyway, but Pius put his hand on her shoulder. “Wait,” the priest told her. “It’s what he came for.”

“Fat lot of good that’ll do us if he gets himself killed,” Crimson countered, but she hung back anyway.

Erisa and Piro reached the top tread of the stairs. Ahead of them stretched a circular platform of clouds a hundred yards wide. The clouds were apparently solid, as Seth was standing atop them, rapt in his duel with the sole surviving winged lion. Purplish-white mist, gradually fading into opacity the higher it went, hung above the empyrean scenery. The gentle colors of a summer sunset suffused the landscape, though Erisa saw no source for the softly glowing light. If not for the deadly winged lion, the whole thing would have looked . . . heavenly.

Beyond Seth and the beast, in the middle of the cloud island, rested a small, marble dais. A seven-foot tall pedestal stood atop the platform, and atop that rested a diamond the size of a man’s head. The gemstone glittered in the orange and pink light, casting rainbow reflections across the clouds. Erisa gasped at its beauty.

“Wow,” Piro agreed, perking up.

At that moment, the remaining lion swiped at Seth with its left paw, putting all its weight behind the blow. The half-elf wheeled to the right as the monster missed, turning its back to the swordsman. Seth’s sword flashed in a semi-circle, severing the lion’s neck with a single cut.

The monster’s bisected carcass collapsed into the clouds, kicking up wisps of pink and white mist.

Seth looked at the corpse and smiled contentedly. “Perfect.”

Erisa and Piro cheered and hurried forward, along with Crimson and Pius.

The priest’s hearty laugh shook the clouds. “Well done, swordsman!” he cried.

A slight smile cracked Seth’s thin, handsome face. Then he turned and walked toward the gem atop the pedestal.

But as he set foot on the first step of the dais, twin fungus-white tentacles snaked out of the purple mist hanging above the diamond. One tendril seized Seth’s waist and the other wrapped itself around the half-elf’s neck.

Before anyone could even shout a warning, a sharp SNAP! echoed across the clouds, followed by a hideous popping and rending sound. Erisa, Piro, Pius, and Crimson watched in horror as one tentacle ripped off Seth’s head, and the other tossed his body over the side of the cloud platform. The gore covered tendrils then slunk back into the mist, taking the half-elf’s head with them.

Screaming with rage, the four remaining team members rushed toward the blood-stained dais. Erisa drew her bow and shot arrows into the purple vapor, while Piro, still unsteady on his feet, blanketed the air with a barrage of fireballs.

“Get the gem,” Crimson told Pius as more tentacles dropped out of the mist. Two, then four, then six of the pale tendrils snaked down toward the companions.

Crimson hacked at two, and the tentacles’ ends fell into the cloud tops, twitching. Pius crushed the tip of another with his mace, turning the limb into whitish pulp; the tendril quickly pulled back, into the mist. Piro burned two more snaking appendages out of the sky, though his aim was erratic and more of his fireballs missed than hit their targets.

Erisa put two more shots into the mist, guessing where the tentacle-creature’s body might be, then aimed her third shot at the remaining tendril. Her arrow pierced the limb a half-dozen feet from its end, but the tentacle kept coming. The tendril lashed out, whipping its pointed tip like a striking snake. Erisa dodged, but not fast enough, and the monster’s limb impaled her right calf, going straight through her boot and bursting out the other side.

A world of brilliant white pain exploded in Erisa’s brain. She screamed and dropped her bow, and her survival reflex caused her hands to grope for her sword. Before she could seize it, the tentacle yanked her upward, lifting her into the air by her wounded leg. The Midknight’s heart pounded and her head throbbed. Her questing fingers couldn’t find the pommel of her sword.

Then a streak of silvered steel flashed before her eyes, and she fell, crashing down amid the clouds. She looked up, the bright spots behind her eyes clearing, and saw Crimson standing over her, sword dripping purplish ichor.

“This is going to hurt,” Crimson warned, and—without ceremony—yanked the still-twitching tendril out of Erisa’s leg. The Midknight gasped and, for a moment, the world spun.

“Find your bow,” Crimson said. “Keep shooting. We need to draw this thing, whatever it is, out of the mist.”

Erisa nodded, unable to find her voice. The slashes on her abdomen had flared up again, multiplying the pain in her leg. Nausea swirled in the Midknight’s head, but she groped for her bow and, somehow, found it.

Crimson pushed forward, cutting down two more tentacles, chopping off sections as she went.

Erisa reached under the top of her armor, above her exposed midsection, and ripped off the clothing beneath. The armor would chafe now, she knew, but she needed the cloth to stanch her bleeding leg. As she wrapped her makeshift bandage tight, Father Pius reached the pedestal holding the Empyrian Diamond.

The priest grabbed the glittering gemstone in his left hand and pulled it down from its perch. His eyes went wide and he smiled, momentarily caught in diamond’s brilliant spell.

“Pius! Look out!” Piro shouted.

The priest wheeled and smashed his mace into the tentacle trying to snare him from behind. But the blow skidded off, and the tendril wrapped itself around the priest’s left leg. Pius let go of his mace and seized the hunting knife at his hip. But before he could cut himself loose, the tentacle squeezed and twisted, breaking Pius’ leg with a resounding CRACK!

Pius screamed in pain but managed to cut himself free as he fell. He landed on the bottom step of the dais, still clutching the gem as the severed tentacle writhed beside him.

As Pius fell, Crimson and Piro continued flighting the flailing tendrils. For every one they cut or burned down, though, another snaked from the clouds to attack. Piro fought bravely, though he looked pale and sweaty, and his fireball throws were not nearly so accurate as usual.

“Piro,” Crimson said, “throw as much fire into that mist as you can. Erisa! When the creature shows itself, shoot for all you’re worth!”

Erisa nodded, still woozy and unable to find the voice to reply. Crimson, Piro, and Pius lay two dozen yards away, and the Midknight felt glad for it. Apparently, the monster didn’t have enough limbs to attack both her and the rest of the group.

As Crimson cut down four more writhing limbs, Piro threw his hands skyward and shot forth a fountain of flames.

For a moment, the entire sky filled with fire, burning away the concealing mist. An instant later the blaze faded, revealing a huge pale orb, ten feet wide, floating above the pedestal. The creature had neither eyes, nor mouth, nor any other recognizable features. Its smooth surface was the color of fresh mushrooms. As Erisa and the others gaped, the creature absorbed its wounded tentacles and grew fresh ones. The huge, bulbous body showed no signs of having been harmed by the burning sky.

“What in the name of all the gods is that?” Pius whispered.

“Who cares?” Crimson replied. “Kill it!” Erisa fired her bow as the red-haired warrior leaped toward their revealed enemy.

Crimson soared through the air, higher than any normal human being could leap, but her jump still fell short. The creature lashed out as she came, attacking her with eight tentacles at once. Crimson sliced off six of the tendrils, but two got through her guard and smashed into her chest.

The impact hurled Crimson backward through the air, and she crashed into the cloud cover near the top of the stairs.

Erisa’s heart skipped a beat. Was Crimson dead, and could they survive without her? “Priest!” the Midknight called. “Summon your fire circle!”

Pius looked terrible: his face pale and sweaty, his body trembling, his shattered left leg unable to support his weight. The priest’s voice cracked as he spoke the words of power, “B-by Holy S-Saint Vardin, I invoke the Fire of Righteousness!”

As before, a circle of blue white flame sprang up around him. The questing tentacles which had been reaching toward Pius, recoiled into the monster’s blob-like body.

Erisa shot again, her shaft flying straight into the pale monster, seemingly to no effect. Three more arrows and she would be out. Slowly, the floating creature bobbed away from Pius and toward her, forming a half-dozen deadly tendrils and extending them in her direction.

Erisa’s mind raced. Should she abandon her bow in favor of her sword? Could she even stand up to use it? And if she did, how many of the tentacles could she fell before they slew her? She fired her remaining arrows, severing two of the incoming tentacles, and then dropped her bow. But even as she did it, she knew she wouldn’t have time to re-arm before the wicked limbs grabbed her.

“Hey, ugly!” Piro called. The flame-haired mage had fallen to his knees after setting the sky ablaze, but now he wobbled to his feet and cast a fireball at the monster’s bulbous body. The fireball fizzled out as it hit, and though the monster wavered, it did not turn away from the Midknight.

Unexpectedly, Crimson appeared at Erisa’s side. The red-haired warrior’s tunic had been ripped away, revealing the shining red chainmail beneath, but she looked more angry than hurt.

Crimson cut down three of the tendrils snaking toward Erisa, and that gave the Midknight time to stand, seize her sword, and lop off the fourth. Erisa’s leg seared with pain as she chopped, and she dropped to her knees once more.

“Don’t ignore me, you freak!” Piro called, hurling more fire at the monster. Though the young mage still looked woozy, his fireballs blazed ever more brightly.

“Piro, no!” Crimson shouted. This time, the teenager’s ploy had worked, and the orb was now forming new tendrils to attack him.

“Help him!” Erisa gasped. “Don’t worry about me!”

Crimson sprinted toward Piro, but she had to skirt around Pius’ fiery circle, which separated her from the boy. Piro kept throwing fireballs, but, in his wounded state, he couldn’t match the monster’s ability to regenerate limbs. Before Crimson could reach him, a tentacle snaked through Piro’s defense and wrapped around his neck.

The mage’s eyes bugged out and a horrible SNAP! filled the air.

“No!” Crimson wailed. She leaped the distance separating them and chopped the tentacle from Piro’s neck before it could rip his head off or drag him into the sky. Piro slumped limply to the cloud platform, stirring up puffs of pinkish mist as he it.

Crimson’s face contorted with rage, and she hacked at the monster’s rubbery limbs, all of which now focused on her. She was fighting alone, with Erisa too far away to help and Pius passed out within his fiery circle.

Erisa tried to stand, but her wounded leg buckled under her, sending stabs of pain through her body.

The monster floated lower, focusing on the red warrior, forming more and more tendrils the closer it came. One got through Crimson’s whirling blade and gouged a chunk out of her left shoulder. Crimson grimaced, but did not cry out.

Is this how it ends? Erisa wondered. Taken one-by-one when we’re so close to finishing? By the gods, NO!

Desperately, she reached into the pouch at her waist and pulled out the one trick she had left: the invisible snare she’d been saving since she and Uldred arrived on Shumakai.

Gods, let it be enough! she thought. She uncoiled the magical, transparent rope, feeling its length with her hands, as more and more tendrils got through Crimson’s guard. Most of the tentacles rebounded from Crimson’s red mail, but some ripped jagged gashes in her skin and clothing.

Snare!” Erisa hissed, speaking the magic’s activation word. Then, from her knees, she hurled the transparent rope toward the monster. The line sailed unharmed over Pius’ fire circle and struck the thing’s bulbous body. As it hit, the snare wrapped around the monster’s circumference and then turned completely invisible.

Erisa pulled with all her might. The weight on the end of the rope felt like a rowboat filled with rocks, but the tentacle-orb floated toward her slightly. And as the Midknight’s muscles strained, the pulling got easier.

The creature flailed, seemingly unable to comprehend the force that tugged on it. Its tentacles flashed wildly, but didn’t sever the invisible line.

Erisa propped her healthy leg in front of her for leverage and hauled for all she was worth. With every tug, fire shot from her wounded calf and her clawed belly to her brain. She fought down the agony, refusing to give up. With one great, final heave, she pulled the monster into Pius’ wall of cleansing flame.

The creature made no sound as it hit the fire, but its tentacles thrashed in a staccato frenzy. It grew more tendrils, only to have them burn off and drop away. It did not die, though, but instead, pulled back on the rope, trying to escape the fire.

Erisa screamed as her muscles strained to keep the thing in the flames.

Just when Erisa thought she would pass out from the effort, Crimson appeared on the other side of the burning circle. The red-haired warrior’s clothes and mail hung in tatters; deep lacerations covered her skin and her face, but determination burned in her pale blue eyes.

She leapt into the air and brought her sword down in a deadly arc. The blade bit into the top of the monster’s bulbous surface and cut clean through to the bottom. Purplish ichor sprayed into the air and the monster flopped into the fire, dead.

Crimson touched down on the cloud platform and spat blood from her mouth. Then she grinned and said, “Perfect.”

Erisa would have laughed if not for the slashes across her abdomen. “Release!” she whispered to her snare, but the line did not retract; the fall into the enchanted fire had destroyed its magic. Leaning on her scabbard as a crutch, the Midknight got to her feet and hobbled toward the fiery circle.

“Priest!” she called. “You can pull down your firewall! The fighting’s over.” At least, I hope to the Gods that it’s over.

A moan came from within the flaming circle, and Pius sat up, looking bleary. He whispered a counterspell and the blue-white fire died away. Neither the cloudy floor nor the dais had been scorched by his magic.

Crimson crouched beside Piro’s body on the far side of the platform.

“Leave him,” Erisa said. “He’s dead.”

Crimson shook her head, tears streaming down her lacerated face. “His neck’s broken, but he’s still breathing,” she said. “Dammit! This is not the way it was supposed to be!”

“There’s nothing we can do for him,” Erisa said. “Pius is a warrior-priest, not a healer.”

“Would that I were!” Pius moaned.

“If I immobilize Piro’s head and heck, he might be able to heal,” Crimson said. Already she’d begun to rig a makeshift brace using her scabbard, two knives, and strips of her shredded clothing.

Erisa put her hand sympathetically on Crimson’s shoulder. “We’ll never be able to carry him all the way back down.”

Crimson looked at her, and the Midknight saw the heartbreak in the red-haired warrior’s eyes.

“Maybe we won’t have to carry him!” Pius blurted.

Both women turned as the Eye of Amontet floated toward the dais, growing larger as it came. “Well done!” said the disembodied voice of the wizard-prince.

As the eye expanded, it grew brighter until it was so luminous that Erisa had to squeeze her eyes shut to avoid being blinded. The last thing she saw was Pius clutching the Empyrian Diamond to his chest, and Crimson holding tight to the body of Piro.

Then the light enveloped them, and—in the next instant—they were back on Shumakai, in the reviewing field next to the huge burning brazier.

As all three of them blinked to regain their sight, the packed grandstand burst into ground-shaking applause.

Erisa smiled wanly, but neither she, Crimson, nor Pius could muster the strength to stand. Piro lay on Crimson’s lap, pale and unmoving. We made it, the Midknight thought. We’ve won!

Everyone turned toward the royal box as the floating eye of Amontet—twin to the one that had followed the contestants into the tower—began to radiate brilliant golden light. The eye shrank to a normal scale as, around it, the glow expended into the shape of a tall, regal man.

When the illumination faded, Amontet stood before his golden throne—and this time, it was no projection, but the wizard-prince in the flesh.

Amontet’s smooth tones resonated across the assembly as he looked at the surviving contestants and said, “Congratulations!”


NEXT: Just Rewards!


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