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CHAPTER 11 – STAGE TWO: STRAYS
FINAL TEAM: BRION WILDE, CRIMSON, PIRO
"Not another stray!" Piro moaned as Brion Wilde and the rest of his team paused at the edge of the forest. "How many of these losers are we going to stop for?" Frustrated, the flame-haired boy set a piece of driftwood afire and chucked it into the plesiosaur-filled bay they'd just crossed.
"We're not stopping, we're just adding another hero to our epic quest," Brion told him wryly—though the boy didn't seem to get the joke. "It takes virtually no time to help someone out."
"And more people makes a stronger team," Crimson added.
"Not if those people are losers!" Piro complained.
Brion shook his head indulgently. The youngster had been complaining ever since their group found Neilo Finnek cowering in a tree four obstacles ago. The elf had managed to kill one frost leopard, but its two companions cornered him at the top of a tall baobab. The cats' deadly breath couldn't reach the elf, but he couldn't get away, either. Luckily for Neilo, Brion and company had happened along just then.
Some clever swordplay from Brion and Crimson—and a few well-placed bursts of flame from Piro—had driven the leopards off. For Brion, the encounter confirmed Crimson's recommendation of the youngster, but now the baronette was beginning to wonder. Was Pirokles one of those people who just liked to complain, or would his groaning affect his performance in future challenges?
Since being rescued, Neilo had proven himself a brave and competent swordsman. Not innovative, but someone a team could count on in a pinch. With Crimson and Brion leading—it was hard to keep the red-haired warrior woman from taking the fore, and Brion saw no reason to resist—Neilo was an effective team member. Yet, Piro was still going complaining about him.
Perhaps he misses Yan, Brion thought. She's more his age than the rest of us are. He must feel very alone in a group like this. Brion missed the girl from Wudan, too, but there was no sense in trying to chain her to the team. Clearly she had her own path to follow. The question was, would this new contestant they'd just discovered make Piro even more unruly?
Crimson walked over to the muscular warrior sitting on a log at the edge of the forest and offered him a hand up. Roj Bond looked at her as though the proffered hand might hold a concealed weapon, and then let her help him to his feet.
"I didn't give up," he said. "I was just restin'." He didn't look like he'd been resting; he looked beaten up. Brusies, scratches, and sweat covered his taut skin. He was breathing hard, and his eyes looked haunted.
"Sure," Crimson replied, without any race of doubt or criticism. "How far did you get into the forest before coming back?"
"You sayin' I turned tail?"
"Nope," she replied. "A smart warrior knows when to beat a strategic retreat and re-think his plan. You look like that kind of smart guy to me."
"Yeah. That's me," Roj agreed. "All brains."
Brion marveled at Crimson's confident ease with people. Perhaps she was older than she looked. Nearby, Piro turned to Brion and mouthed the word "Loser!" Brion shook his head disapprovingly.
"So, what did you find in the forest?" Neilo asked, looking slightly nervous.
"Damn thorns," Roj replied. "Livin' plants. They drop down from above and try to wring your neck. Got some kinda poison on 'em, too. Makes you numb."
Piro snickered, but Bond didn't notice.
"I was . . . lucky to get back out," the big warrior said. "I wouldn't take that path if I was you."
"Good thing we've got two more to pick from, then," Brion said. After every challenge, the silver paths converged briefly before branching into three choices again. Here, at the edge of the forest, lay one such choice. "Are you with us, Master Bond?"
Roj glanced at Crimson—looking fine, as always, in her maroon tunic and mail. Then he stretched and flexed his huge muscles. "Yeah. Sure. I guess so," he said. "Why not? Doesn't matter how many we reach the finish line with, does it." He made it a statement rather than a question.
"Excellent," Brion said. "Let's get going then."
"About time," Piro opined, his flaming hair blazing brightly. "I've got a thing or two I want to show those plants."
"I think she'll be all right," Crimson said as she carefully brushed the last of the poisoned brambles off of Umira. The triton's big eyes fluttered open, but she looked weak and disoriented.
"See?" Piro said. "She'll be fine. I told you we could have let the monkeys take her."
"I s'pose should let 'em take you, too, kid, if you get caught," Roj said.
"You bet," Piro replied. "Ain't gonna happen, though. I'm no loser."
"If we stick together," Brion said, "we'll all pass this stage."
"Only to fight each other in the next," Roj added.
"Maybe," Brion said. "We'll cross that canal when we come to it."
"Maybe we won't have to," Neilo offered hopefully. As the others had been tending the triton, the younger elf had gone to scout the burning brazier and silver torches nearby. "All the tests so far have pitted contestants against the course, rather than against each other."
"Neilo's right," Crimson said. She draped the still-wobbly triton's arm over her shoulder and helped Umira to walk. "We stick together on this and we'll get through. If we start stabbing each other in the back, we're screwed. There's only one more obstacle, and there's strength in numbers."
Roj Bond nodded. "An' after that, it's every man—or whatever—for himself."
"So what's the last obstacle look like, Neilo?" Brion asked. He'd found the younger elf's confidence increased as he was given more responsibility.
"A message from the brazier said we're to take a lit torch up that path to the finish line," Neilo replied.
"So something up there is gonna try to put our torch out," Roj observed.
"Literally and figuratively, I'm sure," Crimson added. She took her arm from around Umira, who finally seemed capable of standing on her own.
"Who will carry the torch?" the triton asked blearily.
"I will," Piro said. "And I pity the fool who tries to put it out."
"Just hang on!" Brion called to the rest as the wind raged around them. He'd taken the lead when the path narrowed, and positioned Crimson to guard their rear. Bond, Piro, Umira, and Neilo made up the middle, with Piro working furiously to keep their silver torch lit, and the other three clinging precariously to the cliff face three-quarters of the way to the top of the path.
Two air elementals assaulted them—one in the front, the other in the rear. Neither were the strongest enchanted beings Brion had ever met, but with such a narrow ledge, they didn't have to be. Fortunately, Crimson seemed experienced fighting such creatures, too. The silver tracery on her sword blade sparked every time she struck the elemental facing her. As the weapon sparked, the wind died slightly, though the creature's wailing increased.
Suddenly, as if by telepathic agreement, the elementals' tactics changed. Rather than attacking the front and rear of the group, the windy beings simultaneously rushed up the cliff face and then blustered down on Brion and Crimson from above—intending to carry both warriors off the cliff.
Brion reacted quickly, speaking a word of power and sending lightning coursing through his sword. As the elemental crashed into him, he thrust the blade deep into the creature's shimmering outline. The airy monster dispersed with a final, wailing howl, but the wind of its destruction still pushed Brion off the ledge.
He grabbed on to the edge of the path, bruising his fingers on the stone, and dangled over the cliff side, trying desperately to hang on. At the other end of the group, he saw that Crimson was in the same predicament, though in her case, it seemed to have been a deliberate choice.
The elemental attacking the red-haired warrior had rushed past, and was now hovering in the open air, several yards from the team. Crimson had, somehow, thrust her stone knife into the cliff's edge, and was clinging to the weapon as though it were a climbing piton. Apparently, luring the elemental into the open was part of her plan. "Piro!" she cried. "Finish it!"
With a gleeful shout, the young mage flung a ball of green-white fire into the center of the remaining elemental. The creature screamed and disintegrated, the air around it exploding with a sudden "Pop!"
With both monsters gone, the wind on the path died down considerably.
Roj's strong hands grabbed Brion by the arms and pulled the elf back onto the trail. Umira and Neilo helped Crimson climb up, too.
"Now we're even," the muscle man told Brion.
"I didn't know we were keeping score," the baronette replied with a grin.
"Keep moving," Crimson urged. "We don't want those elementals coming back."
The group hurried up the narrow path quickly, but they encountered no more elementals.
As the six of them crossed the finish line, the entire grandstand broke into thunderous applause.
UMIRA THE ACCURSED
The Baronette Brion Wilde really knew how to live, and his tent on Shumaki proved it. After the group had completed the course, after they and the other survivors had been feted by the tournament organizers and audience, Brion had invited his team—the people he'd finished with—back to his tent. And what a tent it was!
To Umira, it looked like the tent of a king—with silken walls, pillows on the floors, plush camp chairs, and even a divan. Small lamps of intricate design held back the darkness of the Shumakai night. Like most of the others, Umira was relaxing in one of the cushy seats, drinking wine from Brion's private stock. Pirokles, on the other hand, was stomping around the tent, his hair blazing so brightly that Umira worried he would set the pavilion on fire.
"Yes!" Piro enthused. "We rule! We are the best!" He looked around at his fellow team members as if expecting them to share his enthusiasm.
Umira didn't feel nearly as confident as the young man, and, from the look of them, the others didn't, either. They picked at the fine foods Brion had laid out for them and looked thoughtful—even the muscleman, Roj Bond. Brion himself sat quietly in a dark corner, nursing his drink. The triton couldn't guess what the baronette might be thinking.
"Don't you guys get it?" Piro asked. "We made it! We're going to the final round! We're winners! We can get the prize!"
"You're the one who doesn't get it, kid," Roj said. "I'm happy to be here, but I lost my brother, Gil, in the first stage, yesterday. That kindof takes the edge off."
"I lost a brother today, as well," Neilo said. "And my other brother, Heilo, is still in the healer's tents, along with your friend Yan. They're trying to get all the water out of his lungs, but there's no guarantee he'll survive."
"I would be there as well, if not for all of you," Umira said. "Though I am glad to have survived. I am humbled as well."
"And those elementals weren't the last obstacle, kiddo," Crimson added. "There's another stage tomorrow."
"Yeah," Piro said. "But today, we won! Live for the moment, you know? Let tomorrow take care of itself."
Slowly, Roj Bond smiled. "It is pretty sweet," he said. "And my brother went out fighting. He'd have liked that." He lifted the jug of rum from Brion's camp table and took a big gulp.
Piro smiled. "That's what I mean," he said. "We took all comers today, and we kicked their ass. We had more people in our group coming out of the tournament than we had going in. Who else did that? Nobody! We rule!"
"Pirokles is right," Neilo agreed, brightening. "We made an amazing team. And if I'm right, we'll get to keep playing as a team during the next stage."
"And if we do, who's gonna stop us?" Piro asked. "With Brion and Crimson plotting our moves, we'll get through whatever Max's goons have cooked up for us in a snap!" He flicked his fingers and sparks flew.
"Except that I won't be competing tomorrow," Brion announced from his dark corner. Everyone turned and stared at him.
The enthusiastic flame on top of Piro's head died away. He looked as if someone had just punched him in the face.
"What are you talkin' about, elf?" Roj said. "It's like the kid said, we're a team! A damn good one!"
Brion rose and surveyed the room, looking at each of them in turn. "If that's true," he said, "then you'll take my advice and get out of this competition now. That's what I'm doing."
"But . . . why?" Neilo asked.
"I'm surprised you need to ask that, Master Finnek," Brion replied. "I only have friends—including a very brave girl—in the healers' tents; I haven't lost any relatives on this accursed isle. I've seen enough of this tournament, though, to know that whatever the prize is, it's not worth it. It's not worth your brothers' lives—either of you—or anybody's. It's not worth the life of that brave girl from Wudan, and it's certainly not worth the life of anyone in this tent."
"It wasn't the course that nearly killed Yan," Crimson said, her lips drawn tight. "It was one of the other contestants."
"That Tarkon brute you mean," Neilo said. "Yes, that's what I heard, too."
"What?" Piro said, his hair blazing up again. "Why would he do that? How come nobody told me?"
"Guess you didn't have your ears open when we were mixing with the spectators, hothead," Crimson said fondly. "You should pay more attention. You'll live longer if you do."
"But . . . why?" Piro asked, still stunned.
"Some people will do anything to win," Brion explained. "But I am not one of them. That's why I'm getting out now, while I've still got my skin, and why I'm urging the rest of you to do the same. I'm going to stay here, in camp, and try to help Yan and the other victims of this . . . entertainment."
Neilo shook his head and went to stand by Prio. "Sorry, your lordship, but I'm continuing. I have my reasons, and they're good ones, believe me," he said. "My brothers would want me to go on."
"Yeah," Roj agreed, joining the younger elf. "Mine, too. Quitting now would be like Gil died for no reason. You know? What about you, Red? You chickening out, too?"
"Nope," Crimson said. "I'm in this 'til the end."
Brion's face fell, and Umira's heart felt heavier as well.
"Sorry, Brion," Crimson continued. "I have my own reasons to see this through. I can't back out now."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Brion told her.
"Don't be," she replied. "I've been through tougher things than this tournament, believe me. I'll see you again. Count on it."
Brion slowly nodded. "I'll hold you to that."
She smiled at him. "Please do." She crossed the tent and stood next to Neilo, Roj, and Piro.
"And you, Blue?" Roj asked Umira.
The triton starwatcher stood and moved to Brion's side. "Brion is right," she said. "Whatever the prize, the cost is not worth it. I thought it would be, but I was wrong. I will withdraw from the competition as well."
"No sweat," Piro said. "We can do this without either of you."
"I hope you're right," Brion said.
"You bet I am," Piro replied.
MAXIMUS & ROGINA
Rogina pulled back the tent flap and found Max lounging in his padded camp chair. The organizer's eyes were closed, and the lights in his custom pavilion were dim. He seemed to be enjoying the quiet of the cool Shumakai night.
"The elf's not competing," she announced. "He's dropping out."
"Which elf?" Max asked, not opening his eyes. "The one with one brother in the medical tent and the other one in the morgue?"
"No," Rogina said. "The Baronette Brion Wilde."
Max sat up, surprised. "Really? After finishing so brilliantly? After leading the rest through the jaws of death and rescuing three other contestants? That doesn't make any sense."
"I can't explain it," Rogina said. "Seems like he had an attack of conscience or something. He spent a lot of time in the medical tent with that girl—the one who claimed to be from Wudan."
"So he's gone soft."
"That's a pity," Max said. "He would have made a good team leader for the final stage. Any other bad news?"
"The triton's dropping out, too."
Max frowned. "What a pitty. Fine figure on that one, and I hate to see it go to waste. If she'd won, Amontet might have been able to do something about her skin condition—and fixed her teeth, too."
"Boss, that's cruel. People can't help how they look—not unless they're wizards."
"My point exactly," Max said, taking her hand. "Amontet is willing to shell out a lot to get what he wants—nearly anything, so far as I can tell. And as everyone here can tell you, he can do just about anything."
"Yeah. I get that," Rogina said. "Though I still don't get why he's got us doing his dirty work."
"Do you care?" Max asked.
"Not as long as I'm with you."
"Come to bed then," Max said. "In the morning, we'll send the survivors into the tower."
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
NEXT: The Final Stage Begins!
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