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CHAPTER 13 – STAGE THREE: HEART OF ICE
Seth took one precise step to the left and the boulder sailed harmlessly past his head. The creature that had thrown the rock—a yeti from the look of it—ducked back behind the snowy ridge as Piro let fly with a burst of orange flame.
"Conserve your energy," Crimson warned, her pale blue eyes searching the landscape for the yeti and its companions.
The monsters had been popping up and lobbing rocks at them since the team finished climbing. It had grown suddenly cold as they crested the cliff; the landscape at the top was a vast frozen mountainside. The others were relieved to discover that the silver stripe marking their way did not continue up the mountainside, but rather meandered between the ridges of the towering peak.
"I didn't see this mountain from below," Pius had remarked.
"Laws of time and space don't apply. Remember?" Erisa put in.
Seth had little use for either the priest or the Midknight; they were too noisy, too willing to speak without thinking, too sloppy in their combat—as were Piro and Neilo. Orlando was better, very precise in his movements, but the acrobat knew how good he was, and his flashy costume made sure everyone else knew as well. Tarkon, while effective, was little more than a brute, lacking the subtlety of a true warrior. The late Roj Bond had suffered similar problems.
Of all Seth's companions, Crimson was the only one he had any respect for. Her often-glib tongue belied her considerable weapons and command skills. Yet, there was something strange about her, something that seemed out of place. Seth couldn't put his finger on exactly what felt wrong about the red-haired warrior, and that was why he'd decided to keep a very careful eye on her.
"There's another one!" Neilo blurted, breaking Seth's reverie.
Another yeti appeared holding a huge boulder. Before he could throw it, though, Crimson's bow twanged and the monster fell dead, an arrow in its eye.
"Nice shot," Pius said.
"Indeed," Seth added. Though he didn't trust Crimson, she did impress him—and the half-elf was not easily impressed.
"Keep—" Crimson began.
"Yeah, we know," Erisa said, picking up the thought. "Keep moving."
"I was going to say, 'Keep an eye out, there may be more of them,'" Crimson concluded.
"Yeah," Erisa said. "That, too."
They walked past the shaggy body and into a defile between two ice shelves, following the magical silver line.
Neilo looked at the furry white corpse a long time as they passed. "That thing looks something like a bugbear, don't you think?" the elf asked. "It's about the same size and shape."
"Now that you mention it," Erisa said, "a lot of these things we're fighting seem familiar. Like someone knew what we might be facing and used the preliminary rounds to prepare us."
"Well?" Pius demanded. "What about that, Seth? You're supposed to be Amontet's man."
Seth glanced at the Eye of Amontet, hovering nearby, following and watching. "My master sees clearly in many areas," the half-elf said. "He had some intimation of what the tower might contain."
"Which explains how you breezed through the preliminary rounds," Piro quipped. "Rigged!"
Seth resisted the impulse to cut the youngster in half. "I am not privy to all my master's knowledge," he said. "Nor was he privilege to my decision to join the tournament."
"But he let you compete," Crimson said.
"Of course," Seth replied.
"Then maybe he designed the tournament so you couldn't resist joining," Erisa suggested. "Maybe he knew you were going to participate even before you did."
"It is entirely possible," Seth agreed.
"And that doesn't bother you?" Pius asked. "To be manipulated by someone you trust?"
"Why should it bother me?" Seth replied. "Does it bother you that your gods may have fated you to die in this tournament?"
Father Pius reddened but did not reply.
"So, if you're not here to do your master's bidding," Crimson said, glancing at the hovering eye, "why are you here?"
"I'm searching for something."
"What?" Orlando asked.
"The perfect cut."
Piro smirked. "Let us know when you find it."
Seth looked directly into the flame-haired mage's eyes. "You'll know."
Walking at the front of the group, Tarkon turned. "There is no perfect cut," he said, his deep voice filled with disdain. "There is only victory—or death."
Piro shivered, despite his burning hair. They hadn't seen any yeti for an hour or more, and the snowy mountain defile had risen up and arced over them, becoming a steep-walled tunnel into the side of a glacier. The silver line ran straight into the heart of the ice.
"This sucks!" Piro complained. "First white monkeys throw rocks at us and now we're walking through icicle land. How much more of this is there going to be?"
"You can always turn back," Orlando said wryly.
"I'm sure the 'white monkeys' would be happy to see you again," Erisa added.
"At least no one got killed fighting those monsters," Neilo said. "Or the spider-things, either."
"I wouldn't count on that trend continuing," Pius said. "Unlike the tests on the island, there are no flying monkeys here to take the wounded to hospital."
Piro rolled his eyes. Why was the rest of his team always so gloomy? "Okay, I give up," he said. "Neilo's right. It's not cold and we have nothing to worry about. We've gotten this far because we're the best. We're supposed to win. That's why we survived the preliminaries. That's why Mister High-and-Mighty is going to give us a fortune. That's why—"
"Shh!" Crimson hissed. She stopped dead, listening. Tarkon and Seth, on point, had ceased walking as well. Ahead, the ice tunnel stretched into darkness.
"What do you hear?" Orlando whispered.
The red-haired warrior shook her head. "I don't know," she said. "Echoes."
"I'm sure it's nothing," Neilo whispered to Piro. The elf was trying to sound reassuring, but a slight tremble gave him away.
Piro appreciated it. Despite his bravado, he'd been feeling nervous since they entered the ice tunnel. Confined spaces gave him the creeps, and, being a fire mage, cold enclosed spaces creeped him out even more.
"The tunnel opens up ahead," Tarkon said.
"Yes," Seth agreed. "I can hear it, too. But what's that other sound?"
"More spider-cats?" Pius suggested.
"No way to know," Crimson said. "No sense speculating, either. Everyone be on your guard."
"As if that needed saying," Piro added. Neilo flashed him a smile, which made Piro feel a little less nervous. His heart had been pounding, though he was doing his damndest to conceal it..
"Let's get going," Orlando said. "The course doesn't end here."
As the group walked, the ice tunnel's walls widened out and the ceiling fell away, forming a frozen cavern so immense that none of the travelers could see the other side. Gigantic icicles dangled from the barely visible ceiling, and titanic spikes of ice thrust up from the slick floor.
A vague moaning—seeming to come from some remote distance—echoed through the huge space. There was another sound as well, a strange clicking, like claws on stone or pebbles tumbling down a cliff face. The silver trail led straight through the cave into the darkness.
Tarkon led the way, marching into the cavern as though he didn't have a care in the world.
"Look at that guy," Piro whispered to Neilo. "He thinks he's invincible."
Neilo grinned, his face creasing into craggy lines. "Maybe he is invincible," the elf suggested sarcastically.
Piro smiled. He admired the way Neilo had soldiered on since their horrible encounter with the sirocco. He seemed like a dope at first, Piro thought, but he's pretty brave. He and Neilo brought up the rear as the group marched across the cavern.
The moaning grew louder as they went, and though the volume of the clicking sound did not increase, the noise became more frequent. Soon they came within sight of the cavern's exit: a gaping maw in the side of the ice cave. Blue-gray light—Daylight, perhaps?—filtered in through the opening.
"No sweat," Piro said, more relieved than he wanted to admit. "It's a snap." He snapped his fingers, casting sparks.
Just then, snowflakes began drifting down from the frozen roof high above. Neilo looked up, a smile breaking across his withered face.
"Enemies!" Crimson cried, dropping into a defensive crouch. The rest of the team tensed as a swarm of tiny creatures swooped down from the ceiling.
The things looked like foot-high people made out of pieces of cracked ice. Their skin was blue-white, they had pointy, wicked-looking faces and small, frosty wings on their backs. They flew in great, swirling arcs, opening their tiny mouths and spouting blasts of icy breath.
"Priest!" Seth called, barely avoiding a frost cloud. "Your fire circle!"
"I can't!" Pius replied, smashing one of the monsters with his spiked mace. "We can't fit everyone inside!"
"Protect who you can, then!" Crimson said. "But don't worry about me! I've fought ice sprites before." Already, her silver-traced sword had cut down six of the creatures. Her maroon tunic and mail showed no sign of frost damage; the monsters hadn't even touched her.
"By Holy Saint Vardin, I invoke the Fire of Righteousness!" Pius said. Immediately, a ring of blue-white fire sprang up around the priest. It protected four of the group, but Crimson, Seth, and Neilo remained outside the perimeter. Piro was caught in the middle of the blaze, but he merely laughed at the flames and stepped outside to continue fighting.
The ice sprites who had been flying near the circle screamed and darted away, some of them melting into nothingness as they fled.
Trapped within the fire, Tarkon bellowed in frustration. "Let me out, Priest! Or by the gods of the deep, I'll slay you and walk out on my own!"
"Use a ranged attack," Orlando said, pulling a sling and a fistful of silver shot from his billowing sleeve. Erisa strung her bow and quickly nocked an arrow.
"Vortex Gladiators have no need for such cowardly attacks," Tarkon replied. "We kill our enemies face-to-face."
"Then make your face useful and throw rocks at them!" Erisa snapped.
Way to go, sexy! Piro thought as he waded into the enemy. He'd been waiting for an opportunithy to show off his powers since they began this stage. With ice creatures like these, he could really cut loose. He tossed fireballs right and left, red and orange, yellow and blue, sizzling sprites out of the sky. The frosty imps fled from him in terror.
"Piro! Watch where you're throwing!" Crimson called from the far side of the circle as a partially melted ice stalactite crashed down close to Seth.
"Hey, sorry, Red . . . Whoops!" Piro yelped as his feet skidded out from under him. Apparently, some of his pyrotechnics had hit the floor, melting it. Skidding on the wet spot, Piro toppled onto his back. He landed hard and the air rushed out of his lungs.
Immediately, the ice sprites rushed him, blasting with their icy breaths. In an instant, Piro was chilled to the bone and could hardly move.
"Get back!" Neilo cried, springing between the sprites and the boy. His enchanted longsword flashed and several of the creatures shattered into frosty shards.
Neilo flashed a smile at the fallen youngster, but as he did, the sprites changed targets. A half-dozen of the foot-high creatures barreled into the elf, knocking him away from the boy. As Neilo staggered, more sprites swarmed in, circling like a whirlwind, spitting their icy breaths, slashing with their tiny claws.
Piro wanted to scream, he wanted to help his friend, but his body remained stiff and uncooperative.
Seeing Neilo's predicament, Crimson and Seth rushed to help, their swords flashing wide arcs of death.
Before they could reach the elf, though, the sprites broke away, leaving Neilo alone. The elf stood blue and motionless, frozen like a statue of pure ice. As Piro and his companions watched in horror, another icy stalactite—weakened by the young mage's stray fireballs—crashed down from above and shattered the elf into a million pieces.
Incoherent rage built up within the fire mage, burning away the effects of the sprites' icy breaths. NO!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs, and all the terrible fury of his rage burst forth.
"We're lucky he didn't kill us all," Erisa muttered, glancing toward Piro who sat bleakly at the side of the chasm with his head in his hands. After Neilo died, the young man's tirade had destroyed the ice sprites, but nearly brought the ceiling down on the rest of the team a well. The group had been forced to flee the cavern, only to come to a precipitous stop at the obstacle lying just beyond the crumbling exit.
"Cut him a break," Crimson told the Midknight. "He didn't mean to cause that cave-in."
"Aye," Pius agreed. "He slew the beasties, and no more of us died. That's a blessing, at the least."
"The elf might not have died either if you hadn't penned me within your ineffectual fire circle," Tarkon grumbled. The rest of the group ignored him.
Orlando felt torn between sympathy and anger. Who was really to blame for the deaths of Neilo and Roj Bond? Certainly the group had made mistakes, but the victims had made mistakes of their own, too. And it wasn't the either the team or its deceased members who had sent the group into this strange deathtrap.
The acrobat looked at the eye of Amontet—hovering impassively nearby—and then at the half-elf, Seth. How much did the swordsman know? And, despite his protests, was Seth, even now, doing his master's bidding?
Brought up in the stratified society of Venitcia, Orlando had been trained from birth to see conspiracies everywhere. Doing so was a survival trait in his home city. But were the acrobat's suspicions real in this instance, or just paranoid fancy?
Concentrate on the job at hand, he told himself. A mantra he'd repeated often during his fabled career.
That job now consisted of crossing a wide chasm by jumping across a series of pillars to reach the other side. It was similar to the stepping stone challenge in stages one and two, but instead of water, a seemingly bottomless pit gaped between the "steps." Icy mist hung in the frigid air, and small clouds floated aimlessly over the void. The moaning they'd heard within the cavern had been distant wind, blowing over the mountaintops high above.
Crimson studied the abyss and the stepping-stone plateaus. "Another trap your boss foresaw?" she asked Seth.
"So it seems," the half-elf replied.
"Any tips for getting across it?" Erisa asked.
"Don't fall in," Seth replied.
"All right," Crimson said. "I'll go first."
Orlando stepped in front of her. "No," he said. "This job seems made for me. I have years of experience in situations like this. I should be the one to tackle the obstacle."
"You might be better at acrobatics," Crimson said, "but you have less experience in combat than me or Tarkon. I'm sure there must be a trap here. Let one of us go first."
Before they could argue further, Tarkon stepped to the side of the abyss and leaped. His armored legs propelled him easily to the top of the first icy pillar, then the second, and then the third. He moved so quickly that his passing stirred the mist, and pulled along the small clouds in his wake.
"See?" Orlando said. "Nothing to it." He didn't mind being subservient to the red-haired warrior-woman occasionally, but he thought now a good time to show the others he was just as capable—at least in this instance.
He pulled his collapsible staff from his belt and expanded it to its full length. Then he ran to the edge, planted the end of the pole, and easily vaulted to the next plateau. His staff, enchanted to always return to him, didn't fall into the void but vanished and reappeared in his belt.
"Toss me a rope," he called. "I can secure it as a safety line for the rest of you." Crimson tossed him a long coil, securing one end on her side of the span.
Orlando fastened the proper length of rope to the top of the pillar, curled the rest over his shoulder, and vaulted to the next plateau. By then, Tarkon had reached the far side of the obstacle; Orlando couldn't even see the big man's armored form amid the clouds and mist.
"Well?" the Vortex Gladiator's voice echoed back to the rest. "What are you waiting for?"
"Waiting for you go grow some manners, ox," Erisa muttered. Piro, his eyes still red with tears at the loss of his friend, looked up and smiled slightly.
"Come along as you're ready," Orlando called. "I'll keep laying guideline." He fastened the new line and then vaulted to the next plateau.
As he landed, he saw Crimson bound over the first gap.
Doesn't she fear death at all? Orlando wondered.
He fastened the next rope and jumped again, and then again, and then twice more.
Don't let your ego get the better of you, he told himself. One competition here is enough. Concentrate on the course and the obstacles.
He was near the center of the chasm now, with the mist and small clouds making it difficult to see either side.
But why were the clouds moving? The gladiator sat waiting on the far ledge, but the clouds were drifting back toward the middle of the abyss. Yet, Orlando felt no breeze.
The hackles stood on the back of his neck.
The tiny clouds—each about the size of a man—moved faster now, scudding straight for him. Orlando looked back, but he was too far away for his companions to help.
"Come back!" Crimson shouted, seeing his predicament.
Orlando drew his staff and vaulted back, with the moving clouds following close behind.
He reached the next platform, reactivated his staff, and vaulted again. By the time the discarded staff reappeared at his belt, the clouds were even closer.
Vaulting with the staff is slowing me down, he thought. I'll have to jump without it.
He leaped, and as he did, lightning crackled from the nearest cloud behind him. The fine hairs on his back stood up and he felt the prickle of sparks dancing along his spine.
His body jerked reflexively, and he undershot the plateau, slamming hard into the side. But his fingers caught the edge, and, body aching, he pulled himself up.
"Orlando!' Erisa shouting this time, concern in her voice.
And Piro. "No!" And a sizzle of fireballs, petering out before they came anywhere near the encroaching cloud creatures.
Orlando staggered to his feet. Measured the distance to the next plateau, and jumped.
Lightning crashed into him in mid-leap, and his body went rigid.
Then he was falling, short of the next platform . . . far too short.
Falling . . . and no net to catch him.
Falling . . .
Falling . . .
THE TOURNAMENT CONTINUES . . .
NEXT: The Long Climb
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