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CHAPTER 4 – STAGE ONE: THE GAMES BEGIN
SIR WILLIAM – Human Knight
William of Avaland had never been more proud in his life. This was better than the day he'd first become a page in Lord Fairchild's service, better than the day he'd been accepted as a knight in the service of Lord Avalard, better than the night he'd married his lady wife, Morgan, better even than the day he'd actually saved Lord Avalard's life.
Of course, this day would never have come without that earlier rescue, since today's honor was in recognition of William's previous heroism. But, by the All-Seeing Eye, what an honor! To be presented by Lord Avalard to King Otus himself!
William strode down the red carpet in King Otus's audience hall, nearly overwhelmed by the grandeur—the gold and crimson tapestries, the towering marble pillars, the sixteen crystal chandeliers, each glittering like all the stars in the sky. Only pride kept William from fainting with joy, pride so immense that it nearly burst the seams of his ceremonial armor.
"Keep your chin up, boy," Lord Avalard whispered, apparently mistaking William's adrenaline shakes for nervousness.
"I'll make you proud, my lord," William whispered back.
They approached the ivory and gold throne reverently, with Avalard only a step in front of his charge.
King Otus, resplendent in his white, gold, and crimson robes, squinted as the afternoon sunlight streamed in through the high, narrow windows. A smile creased his wizened face as the lord and the knight approached. Avalard knelt at the foot of the throne, and William knelt beside him.
William looked up at the king. He's smaller than I imagined, William thought, though he said nothing.
"My king," Avalard began, "I bring before you Sir William, who saved my life from an iron ox during my recent hunting trip. The beast was wounded and gored my horse. My steed fell, and I would have perished had William not pulled me out from under my dead mount."
The king nodded, though—to William—he looked slightly sleepy.
"Did you slay the ox, Sir William?" the king asked. His voice was soft and tremulous, and he had a slight lisp.
"No, Sire. Though I was able to shield my wounded lord until the archers in his bodyguard could finish the beast off."
"And damn lucky he did, too!" Avalard blurted. Then, more softly added, "Sorry, my liege. Deuced lucky, though!"
King Otus pretended not to notice the breach in etiquette. He stood, trembling slightly, and held out his hands. A page appeared with a sword clad in a crimson and gold sheath. The king took it and held it out to William.
"For your service to our kingdom, we present you with this gift. Take it as gratitude for saving the life our servant, Count Avalard."
His hands shaking—from actual nervousness this time—William took the sword and bowed.
"Remember," King Otus said solemnly, "you now carry with you the honor of both the County of Avaland and the Kingdom of Temprania."
"May I take your sword, sir?" the gnome woman working at the starting line asked.
"No," William replied. "I will carry it with me."
"Hold still," Rogina, who was prepping the competitors, told him. "I need to put this on your forehead." On her fingertip, she held a tiny silver triangle.
"What is it?" William asked, suspicious.
"A slight bit of magic," Rogina replied, applying the triangle to the center of his forehead. "It will allow you to see the course boundaries. You'll see it as a magical line to follow. If you stray too far off the course, you could be disqualified—or worse. So don't do that."
William nodded. "I understand. For the honor of the County of Avaland and the glory of King Otus of Temprania, I will not fail."
"Right," Rogina said, scratching a notation in her book. "Just hand your sword to Violet and you can get started."
William puffed out his chest. Clearly this strange woman had not understood. "I lay down my sword for no man—or woman—save for my lord and my king," he explained patiently.
Rogina frowned at him. "Really, you won't need a weapon on the beginning of the course; it will only get in your way. There's a pickup zone near the end of the test, so you'll have it for the final obstacle. We'll carry it there for you."
"We'll take good care of it," Violet, the gnome, said. "Promise."
Wililam looked away deliberately. Who were these people that they didn't understand honor and commitment? "I've given you my answer," he said.
"Okay," Rogina replied with a slight shake of her head. "Suit yourself. You can start. Remember to follow the course. Good luck!"
"Thank you," William said. Clutching the unsheathed blade in his hand, he raced past the starting line. "For the glory of the king!"
The knight's annoyance at the women fell quickly away as he ran through the jungle to the crest of the first hill. The magical token made his path clear, a glittering silver stripe cutting through the foliage.
He grabbed rope waiting at the hilltop and swung into the gorge, easily clearing the piranha-filled stream. He landed on the far bank, his weapon at the ready. He and the other contestants had been told there were no predatory creatures in the first stage—aside from these deadly fish—but William didn't entirely trust that. Surely the knavish "Black Max" was not above such tricks—especially not if it would entertain his heathen patron.
The magical line led up the grassy hill beyond the stream, and William charged up yelling, "Avaland!"
The first rolling boulder nearly caught him. It appeared suddenly over the crest of the hill and cascaded directly into his path. He dodged the rock, which was nearly half his height, but he barely yanked his sword out of the way as the stone rumbled past.
He spotted the second boulder in time to change his course and avoided it cleanly. The third came faster, and William had to flatten himself on the ground as it bounded toward him. As he lay prone, the rock sailed over his head and missed his toes by inches before crashing to the earth once more.
William scrambled to his feet. Running as fast as he could, he reached the top of the hill before Clockwork's diabolical machine reloaded to roll a fourth boulder at him. Panting, William dashed past the contraption, his mind already on the next obstacle.
"Temprania!" he cried rousingly as he brandished his sword in a circle above his head.
The third obstacle loomed: another gorge, but this one without a rope to assist in crossing. The far side lay five yards away; jumping seemed the only way across.
I will need every iota of speed I can muster, William thought. He ran faster, ignorning the burning in his legs and the ache in his lungs. His boots pounded across the grassy hillside, jolting his entire body. He tightened his grip on his sword and leaped.
For several long moments, the far side of the ravine loomed large in his sight. He saw the silver line running across the hillside and beneath the bows of the graceful trees beyond.
And then he was falling, the far edge of the gorge rising up too fast. He slammed hard into the gorge's side, the fingers of his left hand barely catching the rocky top of the ravine. He groped with his right hand, still clenched tight around the precious sword.
The gravel beneath William's left hand started to slip. If he dropped the sword, he could catch hold and pull himself up.
If he dropped the sword.
"Temprania!" he cried as he lost his grip and fell.
FELICE DELNEGRO – Al Qiist Magician
Felice Delnegro's cat-like senses made her acutely aware of the flying monkeys: flying monkeys ahead on the course, flying monkeys behind. She hated them, and not just because their presence meant the failure of other contestants. Something about the combination of bird and simian put her Al Qiist nature on edge.
She had made up her mind before the competition started to do everything possible to avoid the monkeys. That meant not making any mistakes on the course and not getting injured or killed. So far, she was succeeding brilliantly on those fronts.
The rope swing had been kitten's play for her, though it was hard to resist the temptation to snatch a few fish from the water. Perhaps she could come back after finishing the tournament for a snack.
The bounding boulders had proved little more difficult. She'd cast a reflex enhancement spell on herself before starting the course, and it made the rocks seem as though they were moving in slow motion. Felice had no trouble dodging around and hopping over the huge rocks. By the time she reached the top of the hill, she was barely breathing hard.
The gorge jump presented no problem either—aside from the distraction of the flying monkeys at the bottom, apparently cleaning up some kind of mess. She landed lightly on the ravine's far side and kept moving.
As she dashed across the wooded hillside beyond the gorge, a spike-covered ball nearly bashed her brains out. Fortunately, her feline senses warned her in time to duck. After that initial surprise, the peril became a game; she played dodge with the rest of the balls, and enjoyed every moment of it.
Next came leaps over two bowl-shaped depressions. These were wider than the gorge jump, but Felice still cleared them easily. She had trouble imagining what the trap in that obstacle might have been.
Reaching the top of the next rise, she felt pleased with her progress. She had anticipated this phase of the competition being tougher. Her magical strength was charms—which she had hoped would help in the contest. But machines had no minds to persuade or seduce. Fortunately, her natural Al Qiist abilities had served her well so far, even if her magic had not.
She was almost purring with pleasure, and then she saw the next obstacle: a waterfall at least ten yards high. She had come over the hill at the top, and the line of the course led straight down to a pool at the bottom.
Felice cursed. "Seven devils, no!"
It wasn't that she minded water. She knew some humans might think that, but they had obviously never seen a tiger swimming. No, it wasn't the water that bothered her; it was the height.
Jumping across gorges was one thing—she didn't have to look down when doing that. Same for swinging on a rope. Diving, though. . . !
Tail switching and ears laid back atop her head, Felice approached the precipice. Looking down raised the fur along her spine.
Then she remembered something helpful. Three years past, she'd taken a ride in a marvelous conveyance: a magical balloon that rose up into the sky. Sitting securely in the balloon's suspended basket, she'd felt no fear as the ground drifted away, nor as she settled back to earth, light as a feather. She'd been so impressed that she'd made the magician teach her the spell.
In the intervening time, she'd found neither the courage nor the opportunity to use the enchantment. Now, though, the magical balloon seemed a perfect solution to her problem.
Clearing her mind, she recalled the formulas, recited the words, and danced the motions of summoning. The hot summer air shimmered pink, blue, and yellow as the riding balloon solidified at the edge of the cliff.
Felice nimbly stepped into the basket and said, "Down."
The balloon drifted out, over the waterfall, and Felice admired the amazing view. What had she been afraid of? It was really lovely up here!
Below, a wide river snaked away from the pool at the bottom of the falls. The competition trail, magically visible to Felice even at this height, cut through the jungle and met the river further downstream. The path did not look especially challenging.
"Why is everyone scared of this tournament?" she wondered aloud.
Suddenly, the balloon lurched, shaking the passenger basket precipitously. Felicia hung on, digging her claws into the wicker sides of the container. It took her a moment to realize what had happened; the balloon was caught in an updraft from the falls.
Worse, her magical conveyance was now drifting south, away from the course. "Go down! Go down!" she commanded, but her concentration was shaken, and, at first, the balloon did not obey.
When it did begin to sink, it came down on the wrong side of the river, amid the tangled trees, far away from the rapidly fading silver stripe that showed her the way to the finish line.
I can recover from this, Felice thought. Once I land, I can get back on track and complete the course.
Then a strange, rank smell assaulted her nostrils, and her ears heard soft wing beats rapidly approaching from the rear.
She turned just in time to see a squadron of flying monkeys closing in on her wayward balloon.
ROGINA, MAX, & ILSA
Rogina looked up from her notes as Brutus Maximus and Ilsa Gorvald—both riding on the back of Ilsa's hippogriff—flew into the clearing that served as the tournament's starting area.
"Boss," Rogina said, smiling as the visitors dismounted, "how's the contest going? Any finishers yet?"
"Not even close," Max replied, gazing thoughtfully into the distance.
"The crowd is enjoying it, though," Ilsa said, "and Herrin is almost unbearably pleased with himself."
"So his contraptions are taking their expected toll?" Rogina asked.
"They've put most of the competitors out so far," Max confirmed. "Though Ilsa's fish have gotten three as well."
"Those and many other victims survived, though," Ilsa put in, "thanks to my darling monkeys."
"I noticed that some of the competitors are already dropping out before they start," Rogina said.
"That's fine," Max replied. "A certain amount of carnage is good, but audiences get tired of slaughter fairly quickly. More quality competitors is better for business.."
"If we do this again," Rogina mused, "we must figure out a more accurate seeding system. Reputation alone is clearly not the best measure."
"Let's get this tournament done before we start thinking about the next," Max cautioned. "Who do we have coming up?"
"No one we know much about, except for the siren Valard Goldenwing."
Max's eyes gleamed. "A former gladiatorial champion and a Saikur to boot! He should get the audience on their feet."
Ilsa Gorvald flashed a wicked grin. "My monkeys have already treed a cat," she said. "Perhaps they can pluck a pretty bird as well!"
THE TOURNAMENT CONTINUES . . .
NEXT UP: Valard Goldenwing, Yan Zhigong, and more.
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