Board Writing :: High Time :: Page 5
The soldier became swept away in a sea of rage. The rest of the day flew past his eyes as his mind still dwelled on that faithful day. Anger, determination, vengeance, hatred, a flood of emotions consumed him, but a solid resolve remained constant. The woman he once loved, the mother of his only child, was to be the greatest opponent he were to ever face and a wielder of the most devastating power any had seen. Far across the globe he had been taken, and nothing seen had come close to that raw destruction. He wanted her to pay, although he did not know exactly how he would manage the task. Before he could worry of such matters, a skeletal monstrosity lied in his way. Already out in the arena, the human combatant stood among the battle scarred sands. His vacant gaze was fixed upon the still smoldering corner of the coliseum his wife caused. His focus stayed even as his opponent was ushered into the ring.
A small battalion of knights scuttled through the far gate. They marched in a ring formation, weapons faced inward. They knew full well that their petty steel would do nothing to the one they encircled but still kept it raised. None desired to be made into playthings of the monster like on the night of unrest. Slowly, the undead abomination was lead into the fighting floor, and the guards were quick to disperse. The bone boogie had not been seen for a while as it was kept under watch as an attempt to avert any more sprees. The only thing they could do to keep the walking graveyard in check was hope and pray. The rotted freak limped to its position while dragging its long, gnarled arms on the sands behind it. It froze, stopped in the soldier's line of sight, breathing its fetid breath heavily. The combination of distractions shook the global gladiator from his deep thoughts.
"It's nothing personal," he told the twisted horror. "I wish I didn't have to fight you. It's her I want."
"I want her," hissed through the upside down skull, "and brother killer." The atrocity proceeded to beat its arms together violently in demonstration.
"Well," gulped the man, "either way, it looks like she'll suffer." The terror cared not for his words and only rocked on its heels awaiting the cue to battle.
"So, your Highness, you're sure we'll be safe?" coyly spoke the girl in a false sweetness. "These battles are getting all mean and scary." The king pleasantly laughed at her innocence, easily forgetting that she was the cause of the most damage seen on the arena floor.
"You have nothing to fret about, my darling," the regal figure assured. "We have procured even more wizards to secure the spectators, and their barrier is strongest around us. Nothing they do to each other will be able to harm you." She smiled lovingly while, inside, she sighed deeply in relief. She had exhausted herself in her last bout and was vulnerable to anything anyone of her enemies could try against her. "Now, my dear, would you like to pick the type of battle they will have?" She sparkled her eyes as if offered a wonderful toy. It did well to mask the sinister gleam she truly felt. There was one combatant she deeply did not wish to confront. Having made her choice, the king issued the order.
As the opponents waited for the start of their duel, the earth shook beneath their feet. The ground they stood upon rose up as did other select pillars of the floor. Across the battlefield, earthen cylinders rose to various levels. Once the platforms had reached their full heights, panels on the walls gave way and let forth powerful jets of water. The rushing streams worked fast to fill the arena up around the raised islands. The coliseum had been converted to a seafarer combat zone in less than a minute. The only thing missing were the boats.
The deathless monstrosity peered over the edge of its isle in curiosity. It gazed at its reflection with nonexistent eyes. Hissing at the wretched reflection, it lashed out at the image with a clawed hand. As its transformed appendage splashed against the surface, some of its decomposition melted away, exposing the bone further. The beast grunted angrily before turning face back to the soldier. The man was holding his composition about as well. Curled in a ball, huddled in the middle of his elevation, his teeth clattered against each other as he was almost too terrified to move.
"Ah ho ho , my word!" exclaimed the monarch. "That demon of death certainly is giving our hero quite a scare. I've never seen him so shaken."
"It's not the demon he fears," gleefully chimed in the young lady. "I don't think he can swim."
"Him? A world trekker? Scared of water? I never would have imagined," confessed the astonished king, "that one so well traveled would have such a simple fear."
"Who could have known?" The witch cracked a vicious smile, betraying her innocent facade.
Horns blared loud and from a safe distance; the battle had officially began. The graveyard golem threw its arms forward and summoned an attack from the buried layers of the grounds they stood upon. Columns of broken and dried bones rose from the waters and curved inwards to crush the soldier. As they sped to their mark, the death snakes lost their hold and collapsed from their own weight. The dry dirt that bound them had become drenched by the tidal transplant and lost its form. The melting whips sank back into the depths, unable to pull themselves back up. An annoyed growl came from their master while it raised and flexed its claws. It would have to get its hands dirty this round.
The whole man had collected more of his wits, recovering from the initial shock of his new situation. He was fortunate that his daze coincided with the ancient fiend's failed assault. He rose back to standing on wobbling knees using his staff as support. It had never been a problem for him to set sail as long as a barrel of ale and tankard were kept close by. It was another story when he had to confront the open waters. Struggling to regain his calm, his eyes shifted down to his brace, the old carved staff. His hands wrapped around it, deeply contemplating if the time had come. His grasped loosened as he reconsidered. Times were dire, and he could end it all but knew he would need his trump card for later, should it even come. He still possessed many items in his bag of tricks, collected over his years of travel. It was simply a matter of choosing which to use.
The gladiator rolled out of the path of a crashing mace. The undying dread had entwined a series of mismatched spines to give a clumped gathering of massive fangs and ribs further reach. The body joined its outstretched hand on the soldier's platform with a soaring bound. The skeletal links twisted and wound themselves back up the limb as the hellish freak readied to lash out again. The man had righted himself and held one arm into the sky. A dazzling brilliance shone from his hand and the immaculate white gem set in a silver ring. The glow was brighter than the sunlight alone could yield. Tumbling out of the way of the second strike, the living scarcely escaped the dead. With a deep gash on his left side, he was chased even closer to the edge of the island. The spiked ball did not retract but rolled at the man, tearing up the floor in its wake. He dodged back, clutching his side, in repeated hops to escape the chasing weapon.
His path took him over the ledge. His feet slid across the water; its surface froze solid as he passed over it. The peaks and waves held their place as the course he carved over the artificial sea branched out further in jagged crystals. The crawling claw stopped short in its next lunge, having reached its limit. It had no choice but to rewind and give its quarry time to catch his breath. In his panic, the warrior had nearly forgotten about his Ring of Winter Body. With the safety the artifact offered, his fears slowly quelled, but he remained ever vigilant.
"Astounding!" professed the ruler of the land. "That is a handy trick that man has learned. I wonder from where he got such a boon?"
"A gift," the tiny sorceress grunted, "from someone who wasn't thinking at the time. The bewildered king took his eyes from the battle to lend the girl a puzzled glance. "But I don't think that will keep him safe enough."
The bone built brute finished reeling in its infernal weaponry. Its foe was safely resting on the far end of the frozen pathway sculpted into the reservoir. Whether in rage or cold calculation, the abysmal giant crashed its hands onto the floor, severing the connection anchoring the frosty walk to base. The icy trail was now adrift, and the weight of the man at the far end tipped the balance. The one with blood fell into his fear, erupting a violent splash. The crowd gasped as they witnessed their hero vanishing into the blue. Silence consumed them. Nothing stirred once the ripples died down. It seemed that the match was ended, but, beneath the tranquil surface, the soldier was in a frenzy as he drifted deeper down into the flooded arena and madness. He struggled frantically in a loss of rational thought at the tomb of ice that had grown around him, the only thing separating him from his hated element.
His air supply was running short as were his nerves. As he was about to become overwhelmed, the frosted coffin stirred. It did not feel as though it hit the bottom of the basin as he could feel himself still moving, upward at that. Shortly, he could feel himself falling back downward. In a rough landing, the casing split into icy shards that littered the exposed island surface. Still consumed by hysteria, the man's wild eyes darted about to gather what had just transpired. He saw his opponent standing not too far away from him and, rising from the water, a collapsing tower of bone. His adversary had saved him, and he wished it had been from a change of heart. No, the beast had none. As he stared into the dank pits that were its eyes, it was as though the truth was spoken to him. The hellish horror wanted the privilege for its own. It wanted to be what ended him, not suffocation or an accident. It wanted to be the sole reason for his demise, and it wanted to be able to see the fear and anguish in the eyes of its brother's murderer for each long, painful moment it exacted revenge.
The gaunt giant spared not time. Its spined arm unraveled as it sped toward the renowned militant. Biting through the pain of his side, he dove to escape the lashing limb. As he passed from its path, he snatched up some of the broken splinters that laid scattered about. As he and the winding weapon danced about one another, the jagged pieces were thrust into mass. When his supply of icicles ran out, the man retreated out of the range of the fetid flail, forcing it to be retrieved before deployed again. In its absence, the soldier collected more of the shards, fast melting under the noon sun, and repeated the process. The walking crypt was more pestered than concerned with the actions and only acted out more furiously. The duelist's plan was slowly going into effect, unbeknownst to spectator or participants. When the wicked mace was drawn back for another strike, the man relaxed his stance, encouraging the attack. Enraged, the grave golem hurled forth its weapon straight on. No attempt was made to avoid the oncoming blitz. One hand held his staff high while the other was outstretched with the relic ring beaming bright. As the malicious limb passed over the reactivated freezing aura, the melt from the pieces lodged in the arm froze it solid, leaving it more than vulnerable to the staff that lied in wait. The cane was pulled down onto the approaching cudgel, bursting it to spray of debris. The deathless being wailed like a banshee over its shattered part as the opportunity to act was seized by the soldier
Swiftly, the soldier sent his staff into the skeletal horror. An audible crack could be heard as its screams -- laments for its lost limb -- came to an end. Dust and shards of bone exploded from the walking graveyard's gaping wound; its ancient armor had been removed, but the frightful foe remained unmoved. Further and more forceful, the fighter pushed his weapon, but he only succeeded in drawing the monster's ire. A wide swipe with the grim golem's remaining arm was narrowly dodged by the global traveller -- an outcome neither he nor the corpse creep had anticipated. Its heavy, unbalance body spun about in the air over the soldier, slipping on the thawing bits which once were the fetid fiend's opposite arm.
The traveller shot his cane between the undead's uncontrolled legs. With all his strength leveraged against the surface of the isle, the crafty combatant was able to force the freak off its feet and face-first into the growing puddles below. The adventurer ran along its prone back, notched his pole into the base of its spine, and vaulted himself high above. A quick twist returned his carefully honed sights to the skull of the prostrated abomination -- rightside up for the first time the man had seen. The falling fighter brought all his weight and a huge overhead smash onto the head of the rotting construct, ending its short attempt to stand upright once more.
The soldier stepped back, catching his breath as the bony behemoth struggled to support its mass less a limb. No fool, the fighter, lay in wait with his pole poised for a devastating thrust. The man watched for the mark he made to show again; the head and appendages did little to stop the abomination, and so -- assumed the traveller -- the core was its weakness.
The colossus raised up its deathly mask, which now crisscrossed with fractures. Its filthy flesh and black blood dripped down the cracks in thick, muddy trails. Finally, its dark, hollow gaze found the gladiator, followed soon by an otherworldly screech. It lunged forward, flinging an empty shoulder and melting, rotten bits at the duelist; its empty mind had already forgotten about its loss and was now at the full mercy of its opponent.
And he hesitated.
The graveyard golem was quick to correct its mistake and quick to strike with the arm that existed in more than just its own meager thoughts. Although the adventurer was able to block the abomination's assault, the punch's power pushed him back several paces. From there, the man did little more than stay on the defensive, fixing wide eyes on the brute but making no actions.
"Tell me," started the soldier to the confused creep, "how much do you want her to die?"
Even on his mission, the thief was swept up in the games. The little wizard would have special interest in this particular match, thus making this the moment to strike. Prying his eyes away from the action, the youth slinked in the shadows, out of the view of the spectators, the guards, and his prey. The prized skills which had changed him from a simple urchin to a member of the thieves guild carried him close to the royal perch without notice -- almost.
"The task mages have been ordered to give extra protection for this bout," announced what the thief had believed to be an unwary guard. The Dorovanite turned to face the not-so-hidden youth. "You could wait until they drop their barriers after the fight, but I doubt she will be so vulnerable then."
"And who says I need to sneak up on a li'l girl?" the thief tried to defend. "A coward like you? Someone who wasn't even man enough to enter this tournament?"
"If I had not took leave then, I would have eventually," returned the knight and returned his gaze to the battle below. "Those two are destined to meet in the arena; I could not oppose such a grand design, and neither should you."
"She's responsible for my brother's death!"
"As well as his daughter's," retorted the warrior, "and heaven only knows how many others." The thief only answered with silence. "Oh, yes, I know," assured the armored one, turning back to the one who stood heads shorter than himself. "For as much as our friend has traveled the world, there are many more places to go, tales to earn with a life as long as hers."
"B-but how could you...?" the rogue stuttered.
"A tournament in Dorovan," the knight explained, "to find an heir for our childless crown."
The fighting filcher's interest was piqued. "I heard of no such tournament."
"Before your time or mine, son. I recognized her from a painting commemorating the event -- her wand, actually. The woman from that tournament was quite a bit more aged, more fit for combat. Not nearly as talented magically, either, according to my kingdom's history. I doubt she meant to become quite this young and this fragile; she cannot stop herself from taking more lives, more youth. Her hunger for power is clouding her better judgment, which is just why she has not simply abandoned this entire tourney."
The thief's eyes rolled up the winding passageway, weighing whether to try his luck or hear more. "Why the tournaments? What does she have to gain by winning them?"
"She doesn't win them," answered the armored man, "but she does get her own prize -- a new, strong husband to raise a new, strong family." The knight's lips curled in a fierce snarl. "A family that invariably suffers a terrible fate.
"Even at this young age, she is still seeking out her next suitor, her next victim. With however long she has been alive, this grotesque cycle must be the creature's habit. Eventually, she will be too powerful to be stopped." The warrior's watch drifted down to the battle that raged across the aquatic arena. "She is young, frail, and soon to fight one of the victims -- one she didn't kill. An almost poetic end, destined to be or else... perhaps never to end at all."
The knight suddenly changed from distant and thoughtful to confused, focusing on something below. The thief approached and peered into the continuing combat. It took the less experienced filcher a moment to notice what the Dorovanite had, but he, too, was a fighter, and as such, was always aware.
"He's in the water?" realized the rogue. "What happened to his ring?"
Deep beneath the waves and surges of their struggle, the soldier clung for his life. While true that underwater, he would soon lose his breath, to him, letting go of the graveyard golem's arm would be as certain a doom as staying and drowning. The undead's last limb shook violently in an attempt to rid it of the unwanted passenger, pummeling it against the pillar; nothing remained but a wicked web of bone and the frightened fighter.
The man's lungs began to ache. His own heavy arms felt as though they had suffered the same punishment as his opponent's. His fingers slowly traced the lethal ladder that led out of the false lake. Finally, the fighter could feel the breaks against his face; he could see the sunlight at the other side of his eyes. That meant the monster could see him as well. The soldier's breath was a drink; the abomination plunged him back into the chilling tide. Darkness swirled in the man's mind. The traveller began to let go as death took hold. Everything became bright, and the pain subsided, but then he saw that face again. He could not forget his daughter, the others who had suffered throughout the centuries.
The freak slowed, stooping over the water, and the struggle ceased. It waited for the ripples to calm. Its stripped, fleshless skeleton could no longer sense if the soldier still was there, and through the shaken surface, it could not see. The abomination and the audience both waited anxiously. Their answer came in the form of a staff, disturbing the sea once more with an explosive strength and skewering the walking cemetery through its mask. It reeled back -- head and rod both -- in agony, flinging out the fighter who held fast on the other end. The half-dead traveller tumbled across the pillar, still distracted with drowning even now in the open air. His blurred but returning sight shook as he choked back to life, only witnessing an approaching darkness. The staff bearer struck the brute's legs, catching only the shadows he saw with his weapon and a crushing blow with his body.
Several jabs struck the creature's claws true in a vain attempt to free himself from beneath the graveyard's grinding fist. It lifted its leg, ignoring the piddle attacks, and sought to pulverize the rest of the trapped traveller. As its foot came down, the soldier brought his staff up. Braced against the land, the step force the freak backwards. The fighter was now free, but the fiend had fallen safely into the middle of the isle. Luck played too large a part whenever the man had managed to take the grim goliath off-balance; he would now need to make his luck.
The warrior waited attentively. He dodged a simple swat from the prone bone giant; the duelist needed more. The rotten titan stumbled to firm footing and readied its heavy hand. The thing threw a haymaker into the poised point of the adventurer's pole. With their combined strength, the soldier was able to spring across the waves and onto a far away island. He rolled into a hard landing but looked up to his foe -- battered, bloody, yet alive and out of reach.
The undead destroyer made its anger known to all within a lengthy earshot. Its final arm flailed about the misty air overhead. The demon retreated an appropriate running start before taking off after the traveller. High into the sky the skeletal enemy soared, eclipsing the sun with its enormous size. The trekker readied his rod, tensing his grip for the exact, precise moment to make his move. Faster and faster, the fetid fiend fell. The weapon flicked forward, over the ledge and into his other adversary -- the water. The adept flipped heels over head, sending a spray up all around. Had the abomination another arm, the duelist would certainly be dead, but barely, he had evaded the attack and did not stop. The entire island quaked beneath the brute, and in short time, it too found itself heels over head. The tomb titan tumbled back inexplicably -- until it touched the tide. Ice crawled out to catch it, but the golem was far too heavy and shattered the growing glaciers.
Amid the halting waves, the thing squirmed and sundered its frosty fetters. Now even its arm attracted the cold, freezing fast to the pillar and what waters had surged up there. The giant cracked open its prison but only allowed more moisture to take its place, growing out the size and strength of its bounds. The rotting freak snarled and grunted and writhed but could do little else, yet even still, the soldier was cautious. At the greatest distance his staff allowed, he smashed its arm -- the one thing keeping the creature afloat. The undead drifted out unsupported. Its Winter Body encased it, restricting its every movement and now its cries as well. There was nothing left but ice, and soon, even that vanished into the dark, fearsome deep.
The soldier lay outstretched, heaving laboriously but at rest for the first time in what seemed like months. The graveyard golem was not content with such a victory, but it was the most the man could hope for. Even as the emperor declared the victor, the fighter could not be calm until he was back on real earth.
A medic supported the fighter on either side, leading the limping man out from the coliseum. The Dorovanite, as he was charged, made haste to meet the victor, although none feared his actions in this condition. The traveller broke away as soon as he laid a tired eye on his guide, falling over the knight. The broken man pulled himself by the now reddened cape, peering past those regal eyes with a strange stare.
"Did you see it?" the gladiator gurgled the words along with blood. The armored one returned only a raised eyebrow for several reasons. "I cannot forget it," he continued in delirium, finally collapsing to his knees. "He never said. The letter never said. Could he not know?" The fighter's glazed gaze lifted from the ground only as the medics set him back upright. "Could she not know?
An entire week was given for the warriors to rest and word to spread. Both had been considerably drained in their respective match-ups, and their next meeting -- possibly their last with each or any other -- guaranteed to be no less spectacular. Injuries did not hold the soldier back, however; he was still under heavy guard for what he had done during his ill-timed fury. The global traveller now only paced around his room, more like a cell, burning the nights away. The emperor's troop was instructed to watch over him, to protect his people: Only the witch did his edict actually protect.
The false youth did not know which opponent she would have preferred -- the vengeful monster or the giant vengeful monster. Although the mini-mage had overcome her husband once before, this time would be different -- in more ways than just her opponent's mentality. For the first time in this tournament, the girl would be facing a single opponent in a match-up. Every time prior, she had always faced two, one who invariably defeated the other for her. And every time, she had been at her opponent's mercy at some occasion. At least the soldier could burn, unlike that rotten wretch, and come daybreak, he would.
A grand feeling crept across the kingdom come the morn, bringing bright hopes and anticipation for the history they were being privileged to witness. Although today was not the end of the tournament, it was in many spectators' eyes. The final fight against the champion was nothing more than a formality; the was no question whether the winner of this match would lose that one, but rather if they would forfeit the tournament or their life.
It was many years ago that the reigning warrior was given a bye straight to the final round. Not only did he pose too great a hazard to his opponents, dwindling the number that even dare enter the event, but that living statue also proved to have no competition during all the decades of his domination -- never showing any age or mercy, if he even had either. The arena went unfilled for the moving mountain's matches, luring only the most avid fanatics. It was not blood sport, and certainly not sport of any sort. Indeed, more time was needed for the massive man and his challenger to meet from their respective gates than for the massacre that ensued.
Even being granted the opportunity to face this granite-like guardian was enough for the people to consider a competitor the victor that year; those brave or suicidal enough to accept would earn legendary status surviving just a single blow. These martyrs earned their own marble memorials not atop the coliseum with past champions, but to mark their graves.
One was all anyone had ever endured.
The thought of the following fight was on neither of the current competitors' minds, either. While the land would earn a new hero to celebrate, the staff-bearer and the sorceress fought for so much more than fame. The little one's long life was at stake, and to ensure her horrid existence, the soldier's, too, was at risk. The tournament was by no intention mortal combat, but then, this match had nothing to do with the tourney. Ever since he had discovered her true identity, this confrontation was inevitable. Whether or not it was sanctioned, the traveller would seek vengeance; in this environment, the witch could at least prepare and defend herself.
In the hidden stretch of corridors beneath the coliseum, the surrounding stonework could to little to silence the thunderous cheers from above. The multi-colored magic-user did her best to block it out, hearing only memorized incantations in her mind. She threw forth her ruby wand and empty words, careful to conserve her strength for the actual combat. So lost was she in practice and thoughts that the wizard had barely heard the horns, demanding a hush but heralding only more from the audience. She rushed to the already gaping, gargantuan gate, lifted on silenced chains.
Little could the girl see upon emerging from the shadows, but as her wide eyes adjusted to the light, she gained a growing sense of overwhelming. Row after row packed with people came into focus. Aisles and steps disappeared beneath the masses; only the sky marked the end of the audience since the highest arena walls, too, were filled with those who arrived too late but had traveled too far not to see the battle.
Cautiously, the conjurer continued to the center of the coliseum. The increasing cheers were lost in a tangible hum, felt by the false youth more than it was heard. Carefully, she scanned the far reaches of the sandy floor, searching for any number of the enemies she had made in her short time here; she found naught but dirt, blood, brick, and soot -- serving as a reminder of just what she was capable.
"Didn't expect to see you here," the adventurer admitted as he made the long walk to his respective gate. The once golden archer waited against the walls. His glimmer and arsenal were gone, following his loss and incarceration for interfering. His look and locks were dingy; his dull eyes pierced through these uncharacteristic strands and straight at the soldier.
"Give 'er hell," the hunter simply ordered.
The fighter nodded in acknowledgement and turned to the other guest who had come to see him off.
The boy stood with arms crossed, poorly hiding his anger; if he had his way, the witch wouldn't be in this fight -- or even alive for it. "You're travelling light," told the thief.
The soldier sent an eye to the lonely Dorovanite hovering at his side. "The emperor's troops have more important things to worry about than me today," the traveller quipped.
"Not him," the rogue returned. "Where's your staff? The one that broke my leg that first match."
"Don't think I'll need it," shrugged the staffless-bearer. "I plan to do much more than simply break her. I plan to do just what she has throughout her wretched life." His voice took a sinister tone, matching the growing rage that lined his face. With the utmost resolve, he went forward. The others had disappeared from the fighter's concerns; the portal had not even lifted yet. He just stood and stared through those prison bars, out at that bright speck amid the distant sands. It looked so small and harmless, but he had witnessed firsthand the extent of her power -- and there was no bound to the horrors of which she was capable.
The gate raised just enough for the warrior to stoop below, and he headed straight toward his wife. The duelist did not run but methodically stepped forward with a solid stance. His intensity penetrated the barrier with which the task mages separated the combatants; the colorful conjurer questioned the invisible protection and prepared to retaliate at the slightest motion. The staredown become all the more intense as an artificial silence washed over the crowd -- work of the wizards to allow the emperor's announcement. The formalities meant little to the filicidal vampire; she instead took the opportunity to gain a mental advantage.
"Why, hello, daddy," the twisted tot toyed in a sickeningly sweet voice, secretly praying for the safety the emperor's mages provided. She managed to feign a smile through her fear until she, too, noticed, "Where's your staff?" Knowing her husband the way she did, the reason would do her no good. To her surprise, the gladiator grinned back and proceeded to unsheathe a small, ornate dagger. Some intricate pattern adorned the handle, forming a golden dragon with what looked to be a pearl for an eye. The blade itself was of notable workmanship and design, etched with an unfathomable language from hilt to tip. The witch turned her head slightly, sending a confused, sideways glance to the man. "You can't fight with that," she knew.
"You're right," the combatant confirmed, unfurling more of his devious smirk.
"And so," boomed the emperor to finish his announcement, "let the third round of the tournament commence at my signal!" Although the mages' power remained in effect, no spell was needed. All of the crowds remained in complete suspense, barely able to breath let alone scream. The ruler raised his arms high in his lofty perch, ready to give his word and seal one of the competitors' fate.
"No," echoed the soldier over the silence. Wondering whispers were unheard but visible across all faces, including his opponent's.
"What is the meaning of this?" the fat man finally sputtered. "Why should this match not begin?"
"Because," the adventurer answered, never losing his look of malicious joy, "the hazard is not yet in play."
The previous confusion paled in comparison. "A hazard? In your own fight?" the emperor was able to speak for the uncountable masses in attendance. "This is unheard of!"
"The rules of the tournament are simple," the expert strategist explained. "Winning a match-up entitles one declare a hazard in any future fight. It matters not who competes or who invokes this right."
The royal tower was swarmed with wisemen and advisers, imparting what knowledge they held as not to hold up the games any further. "Very well," finally conceded the emperor, "it is at your own risk and life, but you are indeed allowed to choose a hazard for your victory in the second round.
"Therefore, what say you? What shall be the hazard?"
The girl waited in as much anticipation as the others. Even the Dorovanite and company looked on eagerly from the sealed gateway. Most of the spikes had been destroyed; most the animals, slain. Even the water reservoirs would require more time to be completely refilled. Any choice the man made would have wildly different implications than when they appeared before.
"Oh, I have no want for any hazard," the soldier continued to stun, drawing even more muted screams, protests, and bewilderment. "It seems a victor from the first round of the tournament had never used the hazard entitled. It seems that now, it will make good on it."
A throng of the royal guard backed out of an open tunnel, weapons drawn and aimed inward. Others pulled heavy chains that dragged through the sands before arching up to their prisoner.
No matter how many times spectators thought it had died, the graveyard golem kept coming back. None had even known about its survival -- except, it would seem, the soldier.
"This is madness!" the round ruler accused, leaning from out his high perch as he screamed. "That competitor has already been eliminated!"
"This hazard was never about winning or losing, but rather inflicting as much damage as possible to the other entrants," the duelist went on. "This thing had earned the right; it cannot be denied."
The monarch mumbled overhead. "Young... thing," he searched for the words, "is this true? Do you wish to partake in this battle?"
"Want kill brother killer," it grunted from below its fractured mask. "Want kill girl." Such was as eloquent an acceptance as the abomination could form. The men dropped the links and retreated, leaving the rotting freak in the middle of the arena. The protective veil could not block its putrid stench, which wafted over the witch. Her little hands fanned away the insidious air, attempting to find fresh thoughts as to what her husband had planned; the monster wanted just as much revenge on him as her.
The ruler resumed the commencement of the match now that all competitors were present. Again, the emperor raised his arm, filling the whole stadium with more suspense than the first time. There were no further interruptions, however, and the signal was given. The barrier dropped, and the fray began.
The little wizard quickly aimed at the adventurer; her fiery magicks had been of no use against the golem. However, the undead intruded on her target -- not defending him, but clumsily making its own offense. The witch retracted her wand; her small nose scrunched at the missed opportunity. She made her way around the giant for a clear shot, taking the chance to fall back as well, gaining a safe distance from her opponents.
The corpse construct unleashed an unholy roar, thick with fetid fumes. Its deadly body had recovered, too, in the waiting week, or at least had been rebuilt. It was now wound in chains, too, giving the bony beast yet another weapon in its already abominable arsenal. While the heavy metal whips moved as slowly as their wielder, their combined strength could do untold damage; the duelist desired it remain that way.
Two lethal lashes closed in. The soldier somersaulted forward, squeezing between the narrow space separating the iron. The links flew on with no target, giving the gladiator time enough to cut the creep. His knife wove in and out of the filthy flesh, and he continued even as the brute bore down with both clubby fists. Pinned, the hero had to reach for a wayward shackle; pulling the chain with all his might only unbalanced the monster a little, but enough for the warrior to roll out over the sandy surface. The knife fighter wasted no time flipping to his feet and running up the rotten wretch's lurching limbs. He leapt straight for its torso and continued carving. The walking cemetery swatted away the man and reeled back its other unbound arm. The traveller looked up through the dust cloud and saw a more immediate danger.
The duelist dodged to the side of the skull-masked monstrosity, not only avoiding a crushing, overhead swing but also forcing it to absorb the approaching fireball. The excessive flames engulfed half of the giant and exploded past it, but never touched the dark side in which the soldier lie safely. The brute was blackened, the metal burned bright, and soon, the adventurer caught the empty eye of the graveyard once more. It stepped out from the funeral pyre -- of no concern to it -- and summoned up a skeletal spire from the earth. So sensitive was the duelist that he detected the tremblings below, guiding a grasp to the point. The spike went into his hold rather than through his hands, serving only as a platform from which to launch a new attack. Bounding from the bone pile, the wanderer dug his dagger in deeper, tearing up the terror's carcass.
The thing's huge hands approached the assailant hanging from its neck. The chains that bound them still glew with the witch's fury. The links burned his tunic and seared his skin, but the soldier was relentless, sacrificing several cracked ribs to his seemingly futile cause. Finally, the gaunt goliath pried off its opponent and slammed him into the arena floor, keeping stretches of melted skin on its wicked weapon. Ignoring his agony, the gladiator sought out the other challenger, still biding her time and choosing the best spots for her spells. This was just such a moment as a magical dweomers drifted up around the man. Using his unbroken arm to right himself, the wounded warrior bounced his eyes between foes. Some evaluation of the golem made the adventurer suddenly depart, abandoning the abomination he had focused on for so much of the fight.
An inferno erupted where the man had lain, still knocking the knife fighter to his knees even from a distance. The cries of the crowd covered it, but the hero's face betrayed the fact that he had caught himself on his dislocated limb. His legs continued, undeterred, kicking up the sands behind him although the soldier no longer moved. At full force, he continued his sprint with surprising speed for one so injured. The duelist quickly closed in and threw his dagger and himself at the drained mage. She thought she had avoided the blade, but it found its true mark -- her cape. Stuck in place, she was easily tackled by her vengeful spouse.
Her silver staff was forced over her throat, choking her down to the ground even with only a single arm's strength. Her little feet kicked as hard as they could, like rain drops over the ocean considering the man's current condition. The fighter made no further move, only holding the mage in place. The traveller's eyes told his true, deadly desires, but he only sat and stared, overpowering her frail form more than easily without her magic. Amid her throes, the conjurer caught sight of her blaze, parting wide for the grim goliath -- blackened, but very much alive, or as close as it could get.
"Let me go!" she struggled with the soldier. "That thing will kill us both!"
"No," the adventurer assured without emotion, "it won't."
"I don't know what you expected that little toy of yours to do," mocked the magician with increasing unrest, "but it didn't work."
"That?" questioned the bloodied battler, shifting his sights slightly toward his arcane implement. "That is just a knife. A gift -- a very nice one from a king -- but still just a knife."
Her eyes grew wide with disbelief. "Then why would you-" the small sorceress sputtered in a panic. The demon howled, kicking back chunks of the arena with its claws and initiating an all-out charge. "You would sacrifice yourself to have your revenge on me?"
The fighter's facade cracked. Harder, he pushed her down, meriting a tiny wince from the witch. "I don't think I could do to you what you did to my daughter, our daughter. And that is what I see every time I look at you," the man almost laughed as their doom loomed closer with every heavy step. "From the moment I saw you, I could recognize my child's face," he babbled, completely breaking down. "Why couldn't you?"
The conjurer struggled with the soldier and his words. The false youth rolled her head to its side, facing the bone brute as it bounded closer. A bright light fell from off the freak, but its chains had cooled to their original wrought darkness. Intricate patterns of indescribable color burned in the thing's chest, increasing in intensity and clarity with each step nearer.
The mage had a new reason for fear. The symbol that lit the graveyard golem's body was seen once before -- in her last battle. That was when her husband, the soldier, had learned it as well.
It was the anti-magic rune.
The creature ripped the skies with an otherworldly shriek; the tearful mage cried out in defiance of the inevitable. The abomination's advancements came to a most sudden halt, as though it had run straight into a wall rather than empty air. Its flesh flattened, its bones shattered, and only its rotting core continued. Although paces away, the false youth appeared to be struck by the same invisible force, flying from out the soldier's hold and tumbling away.
The construct continued to compress, birthing forth some mud-matted mystery from its inner body. Outside, the filthy clump began to unravel. It slid out where the rest of the wretch could not follow, it was soft with skin instead of bone, and it had the form of no animal. It was human, and it was alive.
The thing twitched, obviously uncomfortable in this alien world. Layers of grime and maggots peeled off his young skin; dust and dirt was coughed out of his lungs as the air filled them for the first time in eons. The boy lifted his face -- that bewildered and familiar face he shared with countless brothers and sisters -- looking as though he had woken from a long slumber.
The entire audience knew not how to react. They were not even sure what had transpired. The soldier shared their silence -- not in confusion, but because it was finally over. The fighter looked back to a broken heap, pierced by what bones had not been pulverized outright. All those years she had stolen had been returned to their original owner. The spell was undone; she had nothing left. Her age had caught up to her in the most abrupt way, earning her an end she had evaded for an eternity.
With no other challengers left, the emperor had no choice but to declare the victor. Applause was slow to follow at first, but the spectators soon sent tremors through the coliseum. No one knew just how he had done it, but this one fighter had taken down two opponents at the same time, the same instance; it was a feat never witnessed before in the history of the tournament.
Toward the tunnel's entrance, the knight and the archer ran to catch the stumbling soldier, who supported the child despite barely being able to support himself. His tattered, bloodied, burned tunic now covered the thing that the others could not recognize from the outside. The rogue only stood back and watched the lad limp by, piecing the strange scenario together in his head.
"Death," the thief said only to himself, "is forever, huh?
"Are you certain?" The soldier's gaze remained focused ahead. "It can be postponed. You can take another few weeks of rest," the Dorovian continued but saw his words had little impact on the determined combatant. "Even for the wrongs you did under that potion, the worst of punishments they could bring against would not be near the suffering you are about to be witness to."
"You speak as though I have already lost."
"Odds, history, are these not to be considered?" the foreigner mused. The man's stare finally broke from his target, peering deep into those of his fellow warrior.
"You know who I am, don't you?"
"I have heard much tales," informed the armored man, "and seen enough to know them true. Sadly, I had weighed these in my consideration." The knight turned and looked out into the arena. "I have also seen the champion in battle. One blow, one bout. All the feats in all your matches could not compare."
"Listen to the legends more than your eyes," enlightened the soldier before walking into the sands. "I've been lying."
The coliseum floor baked beneath the high, noon sun. A black speck stepped out onto the scorching white and approached the center. Opposite, a massive monstrosity of metal was already halfway there but started the trip long before. The seats were not bursting as they were for the previous match. Few had hope that their hero could best the reigning champion. More did not want to see him come to a grizzly end.
A shimmering curtain cut the field in half. It separated the combatants now but would later be turned to protect the arena -- the structure itself, not the inhabitants. At one tourney, such a precaution was not taken and delayed the next with reconstruction. The soldier reached his side of the barrier early. The goliath had barely moved since when he started his trek across the field. He used every moment to study his opponent. It was the closest he, or many still alive, had ever been.
"My, my, I wouldn't take this to be your sort of sport," chuckled the king with as much mirth as ever. The horrors and abominations witnessed throughout the tournament have done naught to tarnish his spirit. The Dorovian could not tell if it was sheer will or heartlessness but took his seat next to the figurehead regardless.
"If anyone has ever stood a chance," the knight rationed. "We may even see a third strike." The crown chortled at the grim comment, mistaking it as a joke. The bloated emperor went on in spouting out words which only were spoken to hear himself speak. The veteran tried to tune them out. Two more steps separated the giant from the bouts start. Fortunately, the royal banter was interrupted by a flash emanating from the center of the arena.
"What? The battle has not been commenced! Who is doing this?" The light waned to reveal the soldier holding his staff high above his head with a brilliant radiance pouring from his weapon. "Of course! Of all his treasures, of all his artifacts," the regal droned under spell of the light, "what splendor has he saved for this final hour?" The accompanying knight turned his head, but not his gaze, to the king. Both were too transfixed on the event to blink let alone look away.
"The most powerful by far," the Dorovian told. "Those others wonders seen have been mere trinkets. Across the man's many travels, in any realm, that has been his savior more than any of those objects."
The glow continued to wash over the empty stadium as a stunning awe kept the few in attendance longing in anticipation, leaning closer to the arena despite what harm it could spell for them. The soldier drew out his arms and, with them, his staff. More than twice the length it started, he twirled the weapon gracefully between his arms before smashing it into the sand. The gleaming aura was swept away and dispersed gently into the surrounding air. The onlookers at all levels waited and remained silent.
"... Is something wrong," broke in the crown. "Did he fail?"
"In what way?"
"The invocation. Something should have happened," ranted the emperor. "It should have caught on fire, split the earth, torn the stars from the heavens, anything. What sort of magic stick is that suppose to be?"
"Your highness, I believe you are mistaken," chuckled the foreigner. "There is no enchantment on the staff. If any, it was bound, and the stakes are too high for him to practice."
"He has been holding back," explained the knight. "He has been using the earlier bouts to hone his less refined skills. He was handicapped, testing his true mettle. Now, he's done toying. Now, they'll all see his true, legendary potential."
With still another step remaining, the champion's arm was already in motion, posed to strike the moment the shield dropped. The soldier, too, was fully anticipating the event. His hands sweatily gripped his unleashed stave. The weapon's head lay buried in the sand. A massive fist was already hurtling towards him. The stadium wizards waited for the foot to fall. The pillar touched the sand. The veil dropped and surrounded the arena. The staff raked across the ground. A new curtain of grains rose between the two. The punch followed through, striking against the floor hard. Sands were blown away to reveal the same glittering guard beneath as well. A shockwave ripped through the arena, raised a cloud of dust, and trembled up the walls as it climbed the barrier out into the sky.
"Death Blow," uttered the knight, "a reputation more than a name earned by that strike. Those struck who do not die immediately have no chance of recovery." A dusty haze still covered the field, but most had anticipated the outcome. Some began to abandon their seats, including the king. The formal proclamation needed made, but, as he cleared his throat, small flickers flared up out in the cloud. They were accompanied by savage grunts.
"You may have underestimated that man, your highness." As the dust settled, the fighter was unveiled and untouched by the fist. "That's one."
The champion's knuckles still ground into the floor; however, the soldier was wasting little time. His weapon was dealing furious blows to what parts of the living statue could be reached. Each strike decisively pinpointed a new area.
"This must be humiliating for him," grieved the portly emperor. "He's helpless, hopeless, and flailing." He grudgingly returned to his plush throne upon seeing that the match would take longer than he had thought.
"Your highness, if I may comment," bid the knight, "I do not see him as desperate. There is no force behind those strikes. They are not meant as attack but survey."
"A weak point?" the crown huffed. "One won't be found. Even outside the arena, no weakness exists." The king slumped his face into an open palm. He was already bored with the struggle.
The militant had shuffled his way around the gargantuan, and still it had yet to fully rise back up. He fled before the next attack could come. With his staff dragging through the sand, he bolted like a hare from a fox despite his opponent being more like a sleeping bear. The intricate weave was wasted. The giant looked on with its head scarcely following the complicated path. Its arm drew back and a metal wheel atop its shoulder began to turn.
"Final Strike," whispered the watching warrior. "Never has the champion needed any more after this to claim victory." The whirling hastened and soon the massive metal moved more than seen yet. It began to cycle its arm through the air while twisting its waist in full rotations. Its hand, a cragged mass, dislodged from the thick wrist. A braid of three chains still connected it to the arm. The behemoth hurled its arm forward, launching out the tethered fist at speed unsuited for such size.
The force barreled down upon the soldier. The added spin made it sweep, meaning the spiked chain would shred him even if he avoided being obliterated. With no were left to go but up, he vaulted skyward on his staff. While he narrowly escaped, his back shredded as it passed beneath, his staff splintered to nothing. When the fist collided with the protected wall, the whole of the enchanted dome shifted with it. More than a few of the stadium wizards fell unconscious; the force was too much for their spell to withstand.
With no support, the man fell to the sand, still hard despite the cushioning. The wheel behind the champion abruptly stopped and started spinning in reverse. The braid of links rose out from the floor as the line was reeled back in. The withdraw was as fast, if not faster than, the attack, and the dazed warrior would have been flattened under the mass if he had not grasped onto the chain itself.
Against the rushing air, he struggled to hang on with one hand. The same blades that were a threat before now secured him on the chain. He could have dismounted at any moment but would risk being demolished by the flail arm. Along with his focus on calculated time, his other hand was rummaging through his belongings. His trip was short, and he needed to act fast, trusting touch as his eyes could not be spared. A brass vessel was quickly removed and tangled in the weave a flash before he catapulted from the line. The force of his ride catapulted him over his foe. A moment later, and he would have been pinned between the hand and the wrist, and he wanted to avoid that for more reasons than being crushed.
As the hand docked back into its socket, a fiery burst erupted around the hand. The wheel was blown off in a trail of smoke, and the limb began to fall to pieces. The ifrit that had served him well in an early bout had destroyed itself, but its abode was still in his possession. Much like the fire spirit, it housed an incredible power within. Once broken, this destructive force was unleashed, and the whole of it had just been unloaded inside the champion. The armor truly was impenetrable, but it could easily be taken apart from the inside.
"Two," gasped the king, "two is all the blows it ever dealt, all it needed. This mere man has survived more than the mightiest warriors of our and other lands."
"There is nothing mere about him," the Dorovian smirked.
Back on the field, the champion still reeled over the blow it suffered, let alone such a dishabilitating one. Its record was flawless, and now it only had one arm to defend itself with. Its opponent was as active as ever, still bolting about like a madman. Exhausted to the point of collapse, his body hung low and trudged through the sand. His hands dragged through the grains. In the end, his evasive trail amounted to nothing as he pulled himself before the giant. As if giving up, he knelt before the colossus. His head hung and his hands sank deep through the dune. The construct was less concerned with the reason behind the change in behavior and moved to end it. Its foot slowly began to rise.
"Why? Why is he doing this?" blurted the emperor. He was moved with such emotion that he almost rose from his seat. "He has been the closest to victory in generations, and he throws it all away? Or does he feel that surviving this long is the best any shall ever fare?"
"Your highness, you must know better by now," the knight reminded his unfortunate companion. "Has he performed a foolish move yet? His pawns have been dancing, distracting from his true intent. And now, the king is cornered. Like any good player, his entire game was already planned out." The analogy fell past the lack wit regal, but it was not of the foreigner's concern. He had only now caught onto the tactics employed in the arena. A faint glimmer was the only sign. "Sir, I think it is best that we depart."
"Are you mad? He may be doomed, but the bout is not yet finished."
"A fate is sealed, and outcome can already be seen," agreed the warrior, "but it is your safety I fear for." He fled the royal viewing room, dragging the king by the wrist.
The living statue had its foot raised, and still the soldier occupied the same location. He remained kneeling but was not idle. This became more apparent as his voice rose to a roar. It was needed for the range of his incantation. A faint gleam of light shone through the thinner parts of the dunes, particularly in the trenches carved across the arena. Then, the walls came down; the enchanted barriers fell to sparkling shards as their magic was drained by the rune that filled the breadth of sands. With no walls, there was no floor, either, and no support for the metal monster.
The floor collapsed. Countless chambers and tunnels that wound beneath the sands could not hold such a giant. Great stone blocks ripped through the dune. Everything upturned and pulled inward, crushing the champion. Tremors shook through the stands. Those few who dared to sit that near the action had already left their seats. The lower levels were broken off and swallowed. The final pillar to fall was that which held out the royal seating. In a single piece, it leaned out into the field and clattered into the growing pit of debris. The arena was transformed in mere seconds to an expanse of sand and jagged rocks. Nothing stirred out in the waste.
"This ... this is... this..." the dumbfounded regal stammered. "This is horrible! The stadium took a considerable part of the treasury to build. Now, it lies in ruins!" He stood at the edge of a broken platform as he surveyed the destruction.
"Your highness is welcome," muttered the Dorovian, "for having his life saved."
"What? Oh, yes. That. Consider that said on your execution annulled. Your actions were not as brash and intrusive as they seemed to be." His retraction became interrupted by a bloody hand, and soon another. Scraped and bruised, a matching body soon pulled itself up with them.
"The victor lives," exclaimed the knight. "I was not certain you would survive your own stunt."
"I questioned the same," the soldier coughed. "I believed the arena to be built more solid. I would watch the workers more closely next time."
"Next time?" The crown's pitch and brows raised with outrage.
"Why, yes." The combatant wiped away trailing blood from his mouth and straightened his posture. "Where else am I to defend my claim as champion?" A stern grimace quickly melted into a smile. The man could not be denied his rite, not after all the hardships he had undergone. The king raised the victor's hand for the crowd. What audience there was left let out an uproarious cheer.
"Many winters has it been, but a new champion is crowned today," joyously proclaimed the ruler. "The old champion at long last has been defeated. Today starts a new reign, one not of brutality but of wit that our kingdom can be proud of. Join me in praising the victor of the Grand Tournament. All hail-" The emperor froze, and his cheerful face twisted. He gazed upon the soldier as though they had never met before.
"... What did you say your name was again?
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