The soldier stood upon the grit and dirt inside the arena. He knew that there were twelve others waiting to face the champion and over through that monster of a man, a monster that the people worshipped. Yes winning this tournment the man would gain the status of a deity. Staff in hand, the crowd raised a cheer as he stepped into the grounds to fight his first oppenent

Waiting in the wings, the young thief wiped his forehead with his sleeve. Although he refused to admit, even to himself, his nervousness, his racing heart and profuse sweating gave him away. The contenders awaiting him were skilled fighters, more experienced and driven by the allure of power and fame. This young man had none of that. He was relying fully on his speed and intuition, developed from years on the streets, and the faith he held in his ideals, and his reason for fighting this day. The sudden joyous roar of the crowd alerted him to his first opponents's readiness. Taking only a moment to focus his thoughts and ready his spirit, he grasped the familiar leather-gripped hilt of his light sword, and stepped into the arena

Thief and soldier met in the center of the arena. Two totally different warriors fighting for their own cause. Slowly they circled waiting for the other to strike first. The thief darted forward using unnatural speed and unsheathed his sword. Using all of his strength he brought his sword down upon his enemy. Just when the sword was coming down on the soldier, he raised his staff and blocked the blow. Surprised, the thief tried again and again the soldier blocked him. Now the soldier attacked. Expertly, he wielded his deadly staff and struck the thief in the leg. A loud snap was heard throughout the arena. The staff had snapped the thief's leg in two. Crying out in pain, the thief fell to the sandy floor in a fetal position. Cautiously, the soldier walked forward to examine the fighter. In the blink of an eye the thief pulled a throwing dagger out of his belt and hurled it aiming for the soldiers head. The soldier side stepped the knife but misjudged the length of the blade. As it whizzed past his head it cut into his shoulder ripping flesh from bone. Now with a limp arm it was harder for him to attack. The thief, using his sword as a crutch, stood up and laughed, "Ha, oldest trick in the book and you fell for it."

The solider tried not to let the words get to him but they did. They cut into his pride just as the knife had cut into his arm. Using what strength he had he picked up his staff and bashed the thief over the head with it. Like a puppet cut from its strings, he fell to the ground. The crowd cheered. The victor turned to the emperor to await his fate. He was given the thumbs up to the appeal of the crowd and exited the arena. The next fight would take place tomorrow. He needed time to rest.

In the darkness of the night, the thief got up from the arena floor dazed and enraged. Slowly, he limped out of the arena with revenge on his mind.

Outside the arena, a young girl paces the cobblestone streets for a decent shelter. Her black cloak and plum dress rustle with each hurried step; her minty green hair blew haphazardly with the wind. The girl held a long silver rod across her shoulder-an ancient, rustic rod with a smooth ruby mounted on top.

Yellow, square lights in the distance catch the girl's eyes. Enticed, she dashes across the street, and is lured to a cozy-looking white building. On a black chain dangles a sign with the crimson words "Rutherford's Inn: 50 Gold per Night." Ack-pricy, but the girl could afford it. She opens the oaken door and approaches the innkeeper at the counter.

"Aww, look, it's a little girl!" the pudgy man exclaims as she searches her pockets for coins. "Has the little girl lost her mom-" She rocks onto her toes and neatly deposits the fifty Gold onto the countertop. "-Oh. Uh, have a nice stay, kid."

The child nods and retreats up the creaky wooden steps. Her room awaited at the top, and though it was small, the bed appeared welcoming enough. She throws herself upon the billowing mattress, keeping her rod close to her.

Her eyelids flutter, but she couldn't possibly sleep. The girl's match in the arena was tomorrow...and she hadn't practiced yet...swiftly she sits upright and points her rod across the room, shooting a brilliant pillar of flames at the wall. FOOF! The flames decimate the wood, leaving a gaping hole.

"WHAT IN BLAZES IS THAT RACKET?" thunders the innkeeper from below. The frightened child leaps out the gaping hole without a minute's hesistation, lands safely on cobblestone, and darts across the streets...

Her accommodations over the night were not the best, but considering her actions, even the uncomfortable, granite arena benches were far from the worst she could do. In her mind, it was the innkeep's just deserts for charging such an outrageous price. The damage was far from what she was fully capable of, however, or at least what she thought the staff was capable of.

The little mage woke when the early rays of dawn and throngs of spectators crept into the coliseum. She rolled off the makeshift bed, rubbing her wide eyes, and gave up the seat to some overly eager patrons of the games. The first match of the day, and her first of the entire tourney, was not for a few hours yet -- too much for the fans, but not nearly enough for the fighters.

The roar of the audience was deafening. From the nobles in the inner ranks to the peasants crowding every spot there was to be stood on or hung from, they were made the same in their cheers. No fighting had yet occurred, but the anticipation was more than enough. The spellcaster meekly left the safety of the arena gates and into the open sands. She had thought about this moment before, but nothing in her short life could have prepared her. The emperor loomed above in a citadel-like structure, closest to the action but the furthest from danger.

The iron gate opposite her lifted, freeing the opponent she drew for the match. The shadows still concealed the combatant, but even from across the battlefield, the stench was unmistakable; it was the smell of death.

Meandering forth into the despised sun, a ghastly and gaunt brute approached. He was armored in strategically placed bits of bone, some worn as trophies, and others embedded into its rotting flesh. It wore the mask of a shattered skull inverted on its face. The walking graveyard clutched its right hand to the ground and summoned up the broken bones of warriors passed, collecting them into a vast, wicked mace that once was an arm.

The mage wasted no time with the monstrosity. She held forth her silver wand and closed her eyes, picturing her target only in her mind. A flash leapt from the crimson tip and created a magnificent explosion that enveloped the terror, much to the girl's and crowd's shared delight. Her mood soon faded as the wretched being walked out from its funeral pyre, its tawny hide only charred by the blast. Little left of this creation was still flesh. The blackened bones and dirt that composed the creature feared little for fire. At its command, a skeletal spire began to spring forth from the ground.

"Stop." The twisted tip was only a moment before the ill-prepared magician when the Emperor halted the fight. "There is still one more competitor to battle both of you in this round...

After his rest the soldier yet again walked out into the arena. To his surprise there was a little girl standing close to one gate. Close to her was a huge abomination made up mostly of bone and very little flesh. His staff was with him like always but this time he also carried a small lamp. He walked forward with such confidence that even the abomination was taken aback. Once he was fully in the arena the gate slammed shut and the emperor resumed the fight. The girl took her chance while the abomination was distracted to summon a huge tempest to finish him off. Again the attack did barely anything. This made the abomination mad, he hated thunder and lightning. He charged forward and thrust out his arm right toward the girl. As it hit the soldier casted a shield around her. She was untouched. Confused, the abomination turned to the soldier. He spoke slowly as if he was hit in the head too many times.

"Why help enemy? Why not kill it?".

The soldier laughed, "Who said I was helping?".

The shield started to get smaller as he spoke, confining the girl to a very tight space. He put down the lamp and started a complex summoning spell. Out of the lamp billowed a red cloud that got bigger and bigger until it looked roughly like a man. The cloud was a little bit taller than the abomination. In a flash it took the form of a man. The man had red skin and pointed ears. He had a single pony tail coming out of the back of his head that reached the bottom of his neck. He wore white pantaloons with a black belt. Attached to this belt was a large, shiny scimitar. He wore black boots that came halfway up his shin. The solider had summoned an extremely powerful afrit. He turned to the solider and bowed. "How may I help you master?"

"See the monster... destroy it so that it can never come back"

"It will be done."

He took his sword in his hands and evaluated his opponent. The afirt and the abomination collided and battled like two demons spit up from one of the deepest rings of hell. While the creatures fought the soldier released the girl.

"Now we fight."

He lunged towards her and attacked her with his staff. She jumped back and just like before sent another fiery attack at him. It hit his arm that was still wounded from his last battle. It scorched him but didn't do too much damage. They went back and forth, staff and magic, for what seemed like an eternity until a huge explosion flung both of them against the wall. In place of the afrit and the abomination there was now two piles of ash. The only way the afirt could have destroyed the abomination so that it would never come back would be to destroy himself. By doing this he is allowed to take one person down with him except his master.

The solider was the first to get up. He walked over to the girl but remembering what happened to him with the thief stood far enough away so that he could touch her with his staff and dodge any attacks. When he first saw her she reminded him of someone but he couldn't figure out who but now closer to her he realized that she looked like his daughter. He went numb, the last time he saw his daughter was three years ago before she died. A crazy thought went through his head. The girl was the right age and looked just like her, could this girl be his daughter? Could she have survived the explosion? Slowly she got up to her knees. When his daughter was little he gave her a locket he made for her birthday. It was unique, no one else could have one like it. He saw it around the mage's neck. He was about to call out her name when she shot a full power flux at him. She had won.

In his hospital bed the solider lay there thinking about the young mage. Was she his daughter? He would have to wait until he was healed to find out.

That night, the young mage found herself dining in the Emperor's palace. The walls were coated in gold, the dinner table blanketed in red velvet, the plates and cutlery composed of sterling silver. She sat at the far end, alone, of the ridiculously long table, where she could see all the rich ladies and gentlemen. Ach, all those pastel silks and stiff, long coats...the girl especially loathed the way they talked to each other. So delicate, so modest, so...fake.

And the food...bland, and tasteless! She didn't even know what half her dinner was called, but she heard names back and forth across the table: "caviar", "hors d'oeuvres", "shitake", "asparagus", always follwed by, " simply delicious! Don't you agree?"

"What do you think, little girl?" The mage twisted her head upwards to see the Emperor towering over her chair. "You could be a proper lady someday, too, if you win the tournament. I could invite you into my palace, and you wouldn't have to live on the streets like a trashy gypsy. Would you like that as a prize?"

The sorceress vigorously shook her head, much to the tubby man's discontent. Now, gypsies..."No? Well, maybe you'll think about it, little lady. Pretty, young women like you shouldn't be wasting their good looks in the arena!"

Was that supposed to be a compliment? When the Emperor turned his pudby back on her, the girl inconspicuously pointed her wand at his crimson, kashmir robe...



In the cover of the Emperor's square, trim hedges, a hooded man in black pressed his scythe harder against the nobleman's neck.

"Don't make this worse," the assailant warned. "for both of us. Just answer my questions, and you'll avert a painful death. Understand?"

"Uh, uh..."

"Come on. I haven't got all night." With his free arm, the assassin unsheathed a pointy knife from under his robes. The nobleman glimpsed this second glint of steel and started sobbing uncontrollably. "Okay, okay! I'll tell you anything!"

"Of course you will." With a hidden smile, the hooded man withdrew his knife. "Now, hold yourself together. If I can't hear you, you're as good as dead." His victim trembled and bobbed his head, the golden curls on his head bouncing. He spastically choked up sobs, but it was apparent he was trying to steady his nerves.

Eventually the assassin spoke again. "Alright, then. Tell me, sir: did the soldier with the staff win the tournament?"

"N-no!" As the nobleman spat up the word, he broke into another steady cry. The assailant pressed his scythe harder, and his victim's eyes streamed with tears. "A-A little girl won, wi-with magic powers!"

"Good, good. You're doing a good job. So, who will compete against the girl?"

The nobleman turned stiff, and his skin went pale. "I...I don't-"

"Answer me!" Steel pierced the victim's neck, and blood trickled from the fresh cut.

"I-heard-a-rumor-about-a-knight-from-Doravan!" The nobleman blurted the whole sentence out at once, and the assassin relaxed the blade. "He wears the b-best armor in the land and wields the finest b-blade ever crafted, or s-so the people say."

"Better. Much better. Now, this is a very difficult question: if someone were to, theoretically, enter the arena in place of one of the two, how would I-they do that?"

"Uh...I've heard t-t-talk of an underground passage to the arena. Th-they say there's a lift there, that takes you right into the, the...the place where they fight."

Underneath his hood, the black-garbed man beamed. "Amazing! I honestly didn't think you'd know that one. What a good informant you've been. For being so honest, I have a special prize for you." From a pocket in his robes, he pulled out a minute flask of green, gelatinous liquid and popped its cork with his thumb. "A little victory drink for a gentleman."

The nobleman, still trembling and pale, reluctantly opened his mouth and allowed the stranger to pour the gooey substance down his throat. Finally, the sickle was lowered and put away, as well as the flask. "Happy trails to you, friend. May the Brotherhood of Theives forever be in your debt." And with that, the hooded one parted the hedges and departed from the garden.

So the nobleman stood there alone, shivering in the shadows. Would he suddenly fall over and faint? ...No? He began to chuckle a little, then even more so. The wiry man then laughed in earnest, loudly and clearly...

...and spit up a ball of yellow-green slime. He turned rigid, then found his own feet melting under him, into the same substance! Wildly he looked at himself, with his arms spread-now they, too, were dripping with slime! It was squirting out from his own flesh, devouring his body.

"! Help me! Someone help-b-bb-b..." His lips sealed together, and when he tried to speak, bubbles were made across his slimy exterior...

The assassin hurried his pace toward the village, not once looking back while others flocked to the scene. "There has to be a better life for me," he muttered, walking briskly to the shabbier side of town. "Anything but this..."

The child of arcane lifted her arm, thinking better of it. Although the old coot was getting annoying, he was the Emperor, and more imporantly: old. There was nothing to gain from his death, as of yet. There were far more pressing issues at hand, like tomorrow's match, and that fool that calls himself a soldier. If he ever found out the truth about his daughter, it could all be ruined for her.

"Well my little dear, it grows late and probably past your bedtime, you wouldn't want to be drowsy during your match tomorrow, would you?" the tubby man said as he turned around to address her in front of all the nobles, causing some to chuckle. With a small curtsey she left for the bed chambers with her head down, hair blocking her seething eyes.

. . . . . . . . . .

Morning would tell of two matches, the first didn't start until it was already over. The crowd was restless as they waited for the bald monk to make the first move upon the archer, who boasted with a swing of his golden locks, that he would kill his oppenent as soon as they moved. That, was an hour ago.

"C'mon, ya ol' shiny head! Did you waste all yer energy waxin' yer cranium?" Taunted the rather bored hunter. Arrow fixed to fly through the brown robes and to the heart of his opponent. Who unsurprisingly did nothing. Easing the arrow down, the shooter picked up a stone and held it up for the crowd to see, before he started to wind-up. "I'm gonna make a pretty lil' dent in yer forehead and then see if I can't hit the same mark with m'arrow."

The stone flew, but missed even the hood entirely as the monk ducked down to be almost paralell to the ground, and then shot of at the assailant. Shocked, but not stupified, the archer notched and loosed an arrow at his oppenent. Those eyes... those youthful luscious lips...that meant-

The monk's foot landed from its first bound, and the pious hands pulled the cloak of and twirling in front of the body, catching and snagging the arrow from its flight.

Cursing, the sharpshooter readied another arrow, this no feeble old man that he fought, but a rather prime, and strong female; so strong that at this rate she had two more strides before she'd be within arms reach.

The fabric continued to swirl off the woman as she moved forward, sagging yet another arrow next to the first as yanked the cloth up in a long rope to swing above her head. As her foe grabbed another arrow, she whipped her arm out and the cloth followed suit as the arrows found their new home in the archer's eye sockets.

As the man twitched and screeched incoherently, the monk adjusted her robes, and then knelt down next to her enemy, muttered something no one from the stands could make out, and kissed him on the cheek. Immediately the archer stopped and sat up. Even when she removed the arrows, he did not so much as whimper. Helping him up, she looked to the Emperor, who gave his approval, and the crowd was not too slow to follow

The soldier strained his sore muscles to see who entered his quarters. It was the resident healer.

"Oh, fit enough to turn your head now, are we?" he questioned with an edge to his voice. "I wonder why you weren't fit enough to beat a little girl." He seemed to be a little bit bitter against the gladiator. "You were the fan favorite, you know, to face the champion," told the doctor as he gave a rough examination to his patient. "Does this hurt?" The answer was already known. "Some of us had big money riding on this tournament. Guess that's all gone now since, you know, you were defeated by a girl." The healer was very adamant about this point.

"I was defeated, true," admitted the trooper stiffly, "but I'm far from out of the contest." The medic's interest piqued. "That foolish street urchin was my qualifying round, so my advancement onto the second round of eliminations was already guaranteed. I only entered that last round as a bonus hazard. Don't you know the rules?" The doctor did know the rules but, like most people, got so swept up in his emotions that they blinded him. As one of many possible hazards, the victor of the previous round can choose to enter the current bout to tempt fate. They can use this opportunity to cause severe damage to their future opponents at the risk of their opponents doing the same unto them.

"Oh, where is my head these days," humbly begged the physician, bowing. "I am so greatly sorry, sir. Truthfully, I am one of your biggest fans. Allow me to make it up to you." Turning about to a table, he clashed about some vials. "I have a very special recipe for an elixir that will make you fighting fit in time for your second round. It takes a very rare herb, so I normally never give it to anyone outside of the high nobility. In your case, however, I'll make an exception." Turning back, he held out a cup of thick, black fluid to the soldier. Accepting the raunchy mess, he quaffed the sour contents and immediately began to feel better, aside from the immediate nausea. "I believe you'll still be able to make the second match of the day. You need to know what you will be facing," pleasantly informed the healer with a smile that seemed almost too sincere. Concerned but ultimately determined, the soldier stood, braced upon his staff. His eyes grew, amazed that he could even walk this soon. With a nod, he thanked the kindly doctor and was off. The medic chuckled as his patient left. The potion truly was a powerful remedy. That was no lie; however, it was also not the entire truth. A good portion of the serum was Furies' Blood. The next time the militant became enraged, he would be thrown into a violent frenzy. This was just the healer's way of stacking the odds in his favor.

"Are you sure you do not wish to compete?" attempted the Emperor one final time. He was desperate to get her to compete again. The girl forced a smile and shook her head. She knew, especially from her match-up, just how dangerous trying to control one's own destiny could be. "Very well. You do not have to battle this time and will get the honor of watching the next bout with me." She began to reconsider her choice. "However, we still need something to make this next fight... enthralling. Please, my dear, select one." A servant, appearing from no where, knelt before her chair and unraveled a scroll for her. On it were rows of black pictures, each representing a possible bonus hazard for the arena. The images were simple, but their meanings were easy enough to understand. The wavy lines were water for flooding the stadium, and the fanged jaws represented releasing wild animals. There was one she could not make out, though, the vertical lines. With her selection made, the Emperor smiled and signaled out from his high enclosure. Many of the arena's guards were scattered, running to cranks on walls. Turning them in unison, patches of the coliseum floor began to rise as points broke through the sand. The audience loved it. Spikes meant blood and usually death. The iron spires were locked in place just as the recovering soldier managed to get to his reserved seat, and the new combatants made their way out

Accompanied by the beat of heavy drums and a blare of trumpets, a feral, thick man bounded out from the gate, hunched over onto all fours like an animal. Skins were shrouded over his displayed back as well as a clumsy-looking stone axe. The brute weaved throughout the protruding spires with his unique run in an impressive display of agility for a man his size, although his girth narrowly managed to fit between the razor edges. The savage leapt and clasped onto a central spike and waved to his jeering fans. The music died, and only the audience's dislike of the wild one filled the stadium air. A sharp, grimy smile was hidden by his unkempt, grizzled, black beard, although its original color could only be guessed. His dark eyes beneath his wild brows scanned over the crowd, the crowd that came to see him fight, even if they only wanted to see his defeat.

"Shut up!" the berserker shouted in a loud, coarse voice that showed his unfamiliarity with the spoken word. His order only begged louder boos. "I 'ould like ta introduce my opponent," he barely barked out, "in 'is last fight of the tourney!" The savage had elicited even more hatred from the coliseum, and his expression clearly showed he was satisfied with what he had done. "Y'all about ta see me beat this-" the detested combatant began until the heavy, metallic clanking of chains drowned out his voice. The opposite gate slowly cranked up, taking the attention of both participant and spectators of the fight.

The early afternoon light trespassed little into the east gate. There had been many rumors surrounding the entrant of this round; the crowd hushed in anticipation to which ones were correct. A vague shape appeared in the shadows. Filthy, clawed feet first appeared as the mystery emerged. The legs were bent in a stooped gait and also covered in white plates and spikes of their own. Another slow, choppy step brought the giant's gnarled fingers to light and illuminated his skeletal armor. A confused hush swept the crowd when a familiar face, that dismal mask of death, was revealed.

"Impossible!" the rainbow mage sputtered in disbelief. "That thing was destroyed!"

"A graveyard golem was defeated by the afrit, true," the emperor told with almost too much pleasure, "but not this one. The soldier killed its twin, and as you can imagine, it was none too happy about it."

"You mean to tell me that both of these... these things were enlisted in the tournament?"

"Well, no," admitted he, casting down his eyes sheepishly. "The original entrant went missing, and it offered to fill the spot."

The girl stared on in wide-eyed disbelief. "But, that means-"

"Yes," concurred the fat man, "and if you want to keep that out of the tournament, try telling it yourself." The young mage shrank back into her posh seat uneasily.

The berserker wasted no time. He unstrapped the heavy blade from his back, which fell with a dense thud. A wild yell escaped his lungs as he tugged on the knotted handle, finally managing to lift it from the dirt. Momentum built as he whirled the axe around, breaking the tips off several of the hazards in the process. The vengeful undead still made its steady advance, even after the savage released the frenzied weapon. It spun through the air, shortening all spikes in its swath, before breezing past the gaunt giant. At first glance, it seemed unaffected, until its right arm plummeted to the ground. The thing's shoulder and chest now bled maggots, and the wretched stench actually worsened. It gazed down to its fallen member coldly before returning the black stare of its unforgiving skull mask to its foe and beckoning his approach.

Another feral scream emitted from the mountain man. He charged forth with his huge arms forward. One locked with the abomination's only attached arm; the other pushed away the twin's body and jagged armor. The barbarian could feel his strength overpowering his opponent, but the nightmarish fiend reversed his efforts, and now the human moved headlong toward the sharp edge of a spire, like a sword piercing the ground. The berserker squeezed tighter onto the thing's hand, dusting some of its older bones, and kicked up against the razor edge. He pressed a rebound from the hazard, cutting through his boots and soles in the process but keeping his life, and flew at the freak with surprise force. The wild man strangled and pushed all his weight onto the walking graveyard, knocking it backwards. He guided its head perfectly onto an unseen spike that ripped through the vacant eye in the upside down skull mask.

The savage rose himself and his arms in victory to mixed reaction from the crowd. Feelings were the same as the monster slid itself back up the pole, trailing a black, viscous slime on the instrument thought to be its destruction. Enraged, the berserker raised his fur cloak, completing his transformation into a beast. The lumbering bear-like monstrosity roared at the dead one and rammed it. Both were carried through the metal spires that appeared to snap with ease until the coliseum walls were met with a thunderous crash. The golem suddenly vanished from its foe's grasp. From all across the field, towers of bone took shape and chased after the shapeshifter. He powered through wave after wave, suffering no more than mere cuts on his thick hide as the columns sundered. The nightmare itself finally reappeared, erupting from the earth to high above, brandishing a spinal spear trained on the grotesque ridges on the bear's back. He rolled out of the way. The golem instead stuck another spire, this one breaking off into its chest. It turned to find a sweeping paw that struck true the side of the freak's head, knocking it clean off its cursed body. The decapitated form stood motionless, leaking all sorts of maggots and dust.

The bear rose up, this time a few yards into the air, propelled by a pointed skeletal structure. None could see how much of the sneak attack pierced the savage's husky form, but when the attack relinquished and the beast was left to the spiked pit below, the impact was painfully obvious. Though far too late in the match to save him, the emperor called the winner. The severed head rolled side to side in denial, and the fiend continued its destruction; no guard dared to stop it.

The graveyard golem raised its arm victoriously in the air with its other arm when nothing was left of its opponent. The audience had not come to see this sort of blood sport; many had left as the colossus continued to mutilate its foe's corpse. All during the dismemberment, the loose head of the monster was fixed on the soldier, who looked down from the ranks as a spectator this time. Two matches remained in this level of the tournament; during the second level, these two would have their grudge match

"Hey! Someone stop that man!"

The thief manuevered swiftly through the ambling crowd of peasants, his prize twinkling all too radiantly. Cursing to himself, he stashed it in a dull, olive pocket of his garments, praying that no one spied it, and began to slow his pace. With an inconspicuous stride, the fighter turned down a narrow path.

Apparently he had turned onto the slums of the town, for shabby and collapsing huts flanked his sides. The thief walked down the slums for a minute, and started casually whistling. He blew a most deliberate tune, random at no means at all and embedded in the thief's mind.

He had looped though the ditty three times over when he heard a lower harmony accompany him at the refrain. Upon the last note, the thief stopped whistling and walking sharply, and he was met by silence. Suddenly a blur of black leapt from a clay rooptop, directly in front of the thief!

"There you are," he addressed the black-robed figure in front of him. "I just swiped this baby off a rich lady." Eagerly he whipped out from his pocket the exquisite golden chain, with its cobweb-like patten of diamonds dangling downward.

The other man paused for a moment to pull the hood off his head; long, dark blonde framed his gaunt face and gray, cold eyes. His slender fingers caressed the centerpiece of the necklace. "Fair cut," he stated dismissively, and, yanking the chain away from the other thief, held the diamonds up against the sun.

Dots of rainbows covered the two young men as they stared at the glittering gems. "It's genuine, right?" impatiently asked the jewel robber.

"Absolutely." The black one offered the prize back to his partner. "However, the diamonds are scratched in a few places, and that'll cost us around 45 Gold."

"Scratches?! Aww, geez..." Moodily the thief grabbed the necklace and stuffed it back in his pocket. "Well, that's not my fault. Stupid lady..."

The assassin paced quietly beside his companion; he had to look down to speak to the thief, being nearly a foot taller. "Will you attend the match tomorrow?"

A grin stole across the shorter man's features. "I'll find a way," replied he, insinuating evil intentions. "Man, why didn't you want to sign up in the first place? You've nailed me so many times..."

The unhooded one didn't reply; he only lowered his head and walked toward the busy marketplace. "Just be there. I'll be sneaking in tonight.

The clouds devoured the sky and seemed to thrive and grow from all the sunlight they blocked. Shadows played along the edges of the arena. The gates had opened long ago and no one had yet caught a look of the two combatants.

From the roof of the coliseum, the thief walked up to the assassin and offered him a drumstick, which was declined with a wave of his hand as he said "you realize that they've been laying traps and casting incantations upon themselves since you got bored and left. It really is quite marvelous."

"Ya know, I wouldn't wanna miss this for the world but I'm not going to waste my time doing nothing until the viewing enchantment is up." grumbled the thief in between mouthfuls "Not everyone has eyes like yours."

"Warriors it is time to show yourself briefly, before the viewing enchantment is cast for the audience to witness your battle. Step forward." Spoke the Emperor from his box.

The heavens opened up and shown upon a figure in silhouette. The shadows seeped into the X-shaped blade of the figure donned in complete white, not an inch of skin, not even part of the face was visible. Upon its back, six radiant wings full of alabaster feathers slowly moved to an unseen wind. The entire form seemed to glow, save the blade, which seemed to be forged from the night's air.

A blast went off and stopped just short of the angelic form. From the cloud a large black leather boot slammed down without a sound. Following up the large hairy mass of a leg a pelt and vest made from the fur of a black panther, which stopped short of the grisly arms covered with kanji and scars alike and each held an item. One: a double sided dagger that would have been an unbearable set of conjoined swords for any other man; and the other held a flask up to the behemoth's red beard as he drank from it, his eyes closed casually below the large horned cap that rested upon his flowing crison hair.

"Whaddya suppose that is that he's drinking?" posed the thief, "A beserk potion, adrenaline, some exotic venom?"

"Mead." answered the assassin, who was shot a glare, but never questioned.

The emperor sat down. "Task mages, bring forth the viewing enchantment," dozens of mages stationed around the stadium started chanting and audience's eyes flickered white, now able to see through the darkest tunnel or brightest sky; the fighters turned to the emperor and bowed, and again to one another "Let the battle commence!"

The clouds closed again a the viking leapt forward, his legs twin pistons, but the angel's own feet and six wings propelled it backwards to the wall to push off and rebound, back inches from the ground as it went under the colossus and snatching the alcoholic container and playfully shook it as if to mock the owner, who, as he was flipping off the wall, snapped.

The sack exploded as the angel pulled back, then slammed the combusting package back at the raider, who volleyed it into the ground and stomped on it, sending a burning fissure towards his opponent. The winged figure shot up into the air to easily avoid the attack, but the horned warrior stomped his foot sending a pillar of fire to engulf the rival, who hid safely covered with its wings.

Meanwhile the only one able to move among the crowd was the assassin. The sight enhancement was easier to control if combined with a stasis spell to keep the mass in place. Quite obviously this was tied in with only those with enhanced site, since the guards and mages still had their duties. Thus by shunning the aided viewing, the killer went to complete his mission.

The blades sent sparks across the field turn patches into glass as the two attacked each other. Finally their blades locked. Each went for a punch and connected fist to fist with the sound of a cannon. The pillager then went for a kick, but the holy one blocked with his shin and bowled the titan over. The Xsword came down open the foe's head just as the sea gladiator raised up. The resounding noise of the edge upon the helmet seemed to freeze the battle as the viking smiled. The uppercut was imbedded into the angel's face sending it skyward.

"Well well well...who do we have here other than 'Little Ms. Youth Stealer?'" The assassin now stood behind the young mage, who could only widen her eyes. "I could have told you that you couldn't stop. Yet after causing us grief for years, you ran off with one of our insiders to the empire and started a family. The perfect husband and baby girl." He stroked her hair as she could not even shudder. "Then she had powers of her own, didn't she? Great powers of a mage! Your husband was so proud. You were so jealous." A single tear fell from her eye. "She was going to grow up be such a powerful woman and you were again past your prime and growing old." The rogue bent down and whispered in her ear. "So you killed her, your own daughter, just so you would have that youth and power to yourself." He gleefully moved to look her in the face. "But it doesn't end there. Your husband who you left is indeed the man that you," he touched her nose, "you blasted your first match!" He didn't have enough to worry about after you ran off and then came back in front of him with his dead daughter's face. But that just how love goes, isn't it?" He pulled out his dagger with a sly smile. "I think I might even stab you twice."

Redness fell from the Angel as it spiraled upward, but it was not blood, but wisps of fire from its eyes. High over the stadium it crossed its arms to grab its open wings. Streams of its own feathers were thrown down at the viking, as deadly as darts and constantly replenishing. The raider blocked his face as the white daggers stuck in his arms, fur and the ground around him. Quite abruptly the white being let forth a single clear and angry note and his feathers exploded, his wings ablaze with holy fire. Dripping with blood the black coated barbarian's kanji glowed and absorbed the fire. With a roar that shook the stands he shot forth black fire. The angel's eyes flashed and shot twin beams of holy flame and the two energies met in the middle.

The assassin dropped to the floor, three arrows stuck through his back. Turning around, coughing up blood, he saw across the stands the hunter standing holding his bow, monk behind him with a hand on his shoulder. The sniper's sight had been restored by the enchantment...but how were they able to move? It didn't make sense. He looked up at the girl with hated in his eyes. She turned her head down to him and smiled a wicked smile

The battle between the angel and the Viking champion raged on. Back and forth they went across the arena. The people loved every second of it. No one saw the assassin fall to the ground. No one saw his body being dragged away by a mysterious monk. Still the fight continued. The angelic warrior grabbed his opponent around the waist in a bear-hug. With the Norse warrior in his grasp the angel flew straight up into the air and let his captive go. As he fell, the Viking took a stone trowing ax out of his belt and hurled at his enemy. The ax made its mark, plunging its self deep inside the holy guardians chest. The color drained from his face and his wings went limp. Together the challengers fell, the angel already dead and the Viking awaiting his death. Suddenly the ancient fighter had an idea. He grabbed the angel and put his feet on his back. Just as the were about to hit the ground the Viking kicked off of the angel as hard as he could and jumped backwards. He landed safely on his feet a few yards away from the dead fighter. The angels body was massacred from the fall and from the force of the old fighters kick. He had won. After the spell was lifted the crowed departed back to the city to wait for the next fight. The thief looked for his friend but he didn't see him. After he scoured the arena high and low, still with no luck , he found the blood stains. They were hard to find since they were mostly cleaned up. He followed the trail, with a knot in his stomach, until he found his friends body. It was in an alley, covered by a brown, tattered blanket. Alone he mourned his friends death. He searched the body to see if his friend had anything of use for him. He couldn't let anything go to waste. He didn't find anything until he looked in the front pocket of his robes. In it the thief found a letter with a instructions on the envelope:

Step 1: Kill evil mage girl without any mercy

Step 2: After cleaning up give letter to the solider from the first fight.

The thief, even though he hated the solider, vowed to give the letter to him. He also vowed to kill the mage in the most painful way he could think of. The thief took the letter and put it in his pocket. He reached down and picked up the body of his best friend. On the out skirts of the town the depressed thief dug deep into the ground for many hours. Finally he lowered the body into it and covered it. Placing a tomb stone at the head of the grave his task was complete. As a last goodbye he knelt on the grave and said a prayer for his friend. After his words of good bye he took a dagger out of his belt. With it he carved His friends name into the stone. Below it he scribbled a message for all to see; "Dying is brief, but death is forever.

Horns blared on the mighty arena walls. Crowds of people marched back into the stadium seating, packing it full to witness this last battle in the tournament's first round. It would be some time before they would see another as the fighters were given a brief pause to recuperate to their full potential. The prior combatants, save the dead, whether walking or not, were invited up to the Emperor's platform for the last qualifying match. His highness seemed preoccupied, barely acknowledging his guests as he feuded with a servant, shouting quietly at him. The mage girl, the archer, and the monk were seated to the Emperor's right while the three remaining seats were reserved for the soldier, the Viking, and the thief, who was running late to the event. The bruised warrior looked over the northern powerhouse, paling in comparison to his girth and might. He could not speak with the little girl, not now, so he decided to make conversation.

"I saw your battle," he spoke to the larger man. "It was very impressive. I hope that we will get the chance to face each other in the third round." He flashed an uneasy smile as the bearded brute only breathed out deeply as a response. Taking a swig of his flask, he let out a thundering belch and left the conversation at that. He was one for battle, not words, and the soldier could tell. Patiently, he waited for the match to begin.

"What do you mean, 'replacements'?" shouted the Emperor as quietly as he could.

"The enlistments," sputtered the underling, "they... they have been removing themselves from the tournament. They're... scared."

"Scared? Brave and mighty gladiators?" questioned the sovereign, rubbing his temples. "What could shake their bones?"

"Well, sir, that last match," the attendant answered. "Either one was deemed far too formidable, and, before that, there was the... graveyard horror... No one wants to meet the fate of that things opponent."

"Then, what are we doing for the last bout?" the king demanded to know even though the battle was already commencing.

"Since the brave and great refused to partake," explained the servant, swallowing hard, "we took what we could find." His majesty stared on in dread. The first of the contenders was of a fragile frame and dark skin, like the bark of a tree. His hair was stiff and rigid, branching out and ending in leaves. A simple tunic woven from grass was all that he wore, and that much he seemed unaccustomed to. "He is like a nymph," continued the attendant, "but only a dude. He asked to participate so that he could not fight. By this, he hopes to show that violence does not solve anything. I am just glad we got him to agree to battle clothed." The second door had been open for some time but the challenger did not show. The dryad boldly took a seat, cross legged on the sandy floor, in deep meditation. He would not even appear to be in the act of combat. The roar of the crowd died down little by little as nothing happened. One fighter was sitting, and the other was no where in sight. A few jeers and chants of "boring" sprouted from various sections until it arrived.

"It" was the only word fit for the oddity. Short, gaunt, and covered in wart-like bumps, the hideous mutant bound out from the dark hallway with a haunting laughter that cut into the audience's ears. Its skin looked like diseased flesh, blighted with every aliment known to man. Its knobby, gnarled fingers and toes were bare and ended in grimy, sharp nails. A rusted pot was placed upon its crown to serve as a makeshift helmet, or that is what everyone assumed it to be there for. About its body, it wore a dusty, formless shape that looked a sack potatoes would be stored in. This assumption was confirmed as some of the tubers spilled out of its garment while jumping about the coliseum.

"Tell me," begged the Emperor, "where did you find this... this lunatic?"

"We did not, sir," apologized the steward. "The gate was left open to anyone brave enough to enter." He looked out again at the fool who was juggling potatoes off of his pan hat. "Or stupid enough." Knowing the battle was doomed to be a disaster, his highness ordered that not one but several of the hazards be unleashed. As the pits opened, the crowd cheered loudly, praying that one of the contestants met their end. The parting floors revealed ramps, unleashing hordes of starving, exotic animals into the stadium. Several traps were activated as spikes were lowered from the walls and trenches of fire carved dangerous paths. All of this still did little to enhance the battle as the leaping madman ignored its opponent, bouncing around and over most of the hazards unharmed. Meanwhile, the proclaimed pacifist mere sat still, calming any wild beasts that approached him.

"This is a disaster!" groaned the Emperor. "Do any of you wish to be entered?" No one spoke up. They did not wish to be humiliated with even the association to this joke. After seeing the refusal to assist the failing conflict, when he turned back to behold the fight, he witnessed the freakish oddity biting down on the rump of a zebra as it galloped about arena, trying to shake off the nuisance. The scent of blood had caught the attention of a starving lion, however, who rescued the striped steed. After mauling the bizarre being for a bit, the beast gagged and spat, leaving the kill uneaten. The spectators went wild. The end was well deserved.

As the king rose to finally call a victor, he saw that the he-nymph had also caught the attention of an animal, a hungry giraffe. Both contenders were slain, much to everyone's delight, and the match was ruled no contest. He went on to decree the lay of the rest of the tourney. Since the traditional format had been upset by the sixth place being vacated, the third round's three-man-elimination would be moved into the second round. The soldier would face the walking corpse, as previously scheduled, in a week, and then, the little wizard, the woman monk, and the martially dominate barbarian would square off for entry into the final round before facing the champion. The victor would be immortalized in fame, legend, and stone, earning a place along side last year's statue. All eyes turned to behold the wondrous work. The massive work of art stood high at the top of the arena, perfectly capturing the intimidating presence in ten feet of marble. The Emperor frowned a bit as all eyes laid upon it and motioned with his hand. The sculpture turned, walking to the right, to reveal the actual, ten foot statue of himself that he had eclipsed. The king wished everyone luck in the second round and reminded everyone that those matches would start in one week. The people filed out, eager for the fights as the contenders stayed behind, looking up at the challenge that awaited one of them. They, too, left eventually, all but the soldier, who stayed long after the champion departed.

"Do you want to speak with me?" the man asked the darkness. The thief emerged from the shadows.

"It is the last thing I would ever want to do. Trust me," grunted the rogue, "but I made a promise to my friend." He held up the letter and held it forward. "I hope it doesn't make you upset...

A motley crew was gathered about, half of whom stood silently and awkwardly in the unaccustomed, splendid presence. The emperor held the fights for the people, but it was these victory banquets he held for his own amusement. A relative peace had been kept across the countryside for some time, at least between the surrounding nations. Without any way or need for war, commanding these competitors was the only way he could feign any martial power in his people's eyes, and consorting with the competitors, he could even fool himself.

All who participated in this year's tournament were invited, and to fill out the fallen ranks, previous fighters that escaped with life were also in attendance. The rounded ruler was full of himself in such company, absorbing the praises of the local noblemen as much as he did the served, fine cheeses.

The small sorceress's tongue shot out in disgust. The foul yellow lumps smelled as bad as they tasted to her. She knew better than to pain her youthful stomach with the culinary catastrophes again. Whereas her attendance was required by the emperor, bearing his long-winded ramblings was not. Her time at the party was spent dodging about the other goers, always sure to keep a plump somebody between her short stature and the emperor's eyes.

"Hey kid," a smooth voice called out the distracted child. She turned to find the hunter, leaning nonchalant against a gilded pillar. "You okay?" The girl nodded her green head. "Y'know, I haven't seen you around since... well, you were attacked. Usually, savin' a life is something worth a 'thank you, sir.'" The golden archer stood, waiting, with an eager grin to the wide-eyed expression that gazed up to him.

"Ah, there you are, my dear!" a familiar and unfortunate voice rang from behind. The emperor waddled up to the mage, taking her hand and her from the conversation. She sent back a less than thankful stare to the slender one responsible for her capture.

"There is somebody I want you to meet," the hapless ruler went on. "I do believe you have a common acquaintance, a family member or some such thing." Harshly, the sorceress was brought face to knee with a gargantuan. A mask peered down to the little one, darkened more so by the chandelier light shining behind the golem's head. "Now, what was that story you were telling me, young ma... thing?"

"She shoot brother with fire," it simply grunted.

"Oh my," the witless emperor exclaimed. The rainbow mage sneered, growing tired with the antics of the fat man. "Well, I hope that's all in the past. Why don't you two talk? I think a saw a plate that still had food on it somewhere around here." The holder of the throne chased after yet another meal he could blame on any of the other attendants rather than his own expanding waistline, abandoning the fragile juvenile with the undead monster. Its body rocked back and forth, mimicking deep breaths it once possessed but now nothing more than habit. A few maggots and bits of dirt fell to the floor, which all of the less crude crowd noticed but dared not make any mention of. The walking graveyard parted its dried lips and finally let out a wretched breath to break the ice.

"Do you like ponies?" it heaved in a baritone stutter, much to the confusion of the girl.

"I'm not getting her out of this one if she's not goin' to say thanks," the archer muttered to himself at a distance, still at the same vantage point as before.

"It would be wise not to," an ominous tone crept from the shadows, followed by its cloaked speaker. "You have no idea what that young lady is capable of, and you probably wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"How'd you get in 'ere?" scoffed the hunter, more than ready to remove his concealed short bow to make shorter work of the intruder.

"Why, I was invited," the thief told with a smile. "I was once a competitor, after all, and eliminated, just like you," he went on, "although I was not nearly as pleasant about it as you. What is it? Some sort of enchantment she put on you?" A defiant grimace covered the golden archer's face, but before he could make a retort, the rogue realized the truth. "Ah, so you're just into bald chicks, huh? To each his own, I guess." The filcher was now met with anger and a little embarrassment. The hunter tried to hide his ruddy face, but he turned right into an awful stench, returning his pale complexion many-fold.

"Brother, is this woman problem?" the graveyard golem droned.

"No, brother. This little lady," the thief said belittling of the golden-haired archer, "and I are just talking. What happened to your new friend."

"My nose, brother," it growled. "She took it; won't give back," the undead monster explained in its own limited way. "You fix it, brother, can you?" The pilferer smirked and reached out a loose arm to the thing's mask, touching it lightly where a nose would be found on a normal person. It brought up its bony claws, caressing the empty with much delight. "Thank, brother," it hissed and began to lurch over.

"Now remember, real warriors don't hug," the cloaked one was quick to defend, halting the rotting giant. "Hey," he added lightly, "it looks like there is a roast over there that's almost picked clean." The freak stumbled off quickly to the carcass, giving the two little more acknowledgement. The hunter knew not how to react.

"What... was... that?"

"Don't be fooled; the poor thing is quite ancient," the thief spoke, wiping his filthied finger on a nearby tablecloth, "but whatever happened to it, happened when it was but a child. I was told that its mind just sorta stuck that way."

"So why does a thieves guild need to keep somethin' like that around?" posed the archer. "It hardly seems useful in any of your activity."

"Ah, the problem with keeping such a thing in our midst, too," the rogue chuckled. "There is no way to keep a brotherhood secret when a member doesn't understand what a secret is. As to why it is kept, it wasn't my idea," he told, switching to a darker tone. "It was my brother's, whom you acquainted with the tips of you arrows. Both of those monsters were of special interest to him, as was this tournament, as was that girl. Don't ask why; I follow orders, not question them, and they are the only thing keeping me from slitting your throat were you stand." The archer already had a witty retort knocked and ready to launch, but only managed a gulp when cold iron could be felt jabbing his back.

"Listen well: the young mage is not as young as she appears. She is old, quite old. Old enough to be my abominable brother's grandmother," the hunter unloaded. "Well, mother, at least. Do you wish to know how that cute little monster manages to keep her looks and vitality?" He stopped, as though goading an answer from his hostage. "She takes it. But not from anyone, no. She can only feed on the life that she's created." The shining eyes of the hunter widened white.

"Are you saying that innocent little girl kills her own children by... sucking the life from them?"

"I never said draining them is what killed them," the rogue said, pulling his blade away from the archer's back. "From what I've been told, that is a wickedness she adds all on her own. My brother told me it's 'cause she can't stand looking at them, after what she'd done."

"Why tell me all of this?" the archer finally breathed easily. "What use could it be to you or me?"

On the opposite end of the hall, the tall, heavy doors swung open at surprising speed. There stood the soldier, crumpled parchment in hand, a glare in his eyes.

"Because when the war breaks out," the rogue answered while drifting back into the darkness, "you should be on the right side.

The room fell silent, all eyes on the soldier who seamed to be a little bigger than the last time they saw him. You could see the fiery hatred in his eyes as they swept the room searching for the mage. The emperor, oblivious to the increased size and power of the soldier, walked up to him and laughed.

"Well, well, look who finally decided to show up. Would you like anything to eat or drink?" Food fell from him open mouth and on to the soldiers boot. Slowly he looked down at his feet. With a single hand he pushed the emperor out of his way.

"Does anyone know a little girl, about yeah high, green hair or some color close to it. Carry’s a silver staff. No one? Well than I guess I'll have to look for her my self."

The soldier walked towards the crowd of people. They backed up out of fear. He laughed and started to run. The potion of the doctor started to take control. The people turned and ran away, screaming, as if their life depended on it. Among all the chaos the mage slipped out of the palace. She thought no one saw her but the thief's freakish friend watched her leave. The soldier trashed the palace and killed its guards with no avail. He just couldn't find the girl. He saw the thief laughing in a corner.

"What’s so funny? You told me she would be here!" he yelled at the thief.

"Ohh but she was here, she just left a few seconds ago." he replied.

The soldier punched the wall out of anger, which crumpled into dust. "Why didn't you stop her? We could have had her!"

"Who said I saw her? All I said was that she left. My friend on the other hand, he saw her."

"And who is this friend of yours?"

"You remember the zombie guy you killed with your afrit? His brother..."

Later that night the soldier and the walking graveyard met in the arena. "So what you're saying is that if I beat you in a fight you'll tell me where she went?" asked the soldier.


"Fine, then let's go!"

The soldier took out his lance and leaped high into the air. As he was coming down on the monster a pillar of bones shot up from the ground and he smashed into it. The soldier fell to the ground and slowly got back up. The potion was losing it's effect. Just as he was about to attack again they heard foot-steps. Not just one person or two but an entire army. The emperor's warriors poured into the arena. The soldier turned to the corps, "How about we postpone this fight and kill these warriors? As a team."

"A team?"

"Yeah a team. Now lets get a move on or were dead. Or deader in your case.

From the spectator box the emperor's voice descended upon the ring with bitter judgment, unaided by the force of mages that accompanied him. "This is pure lunacy! You have one chance to answer to your treason before I sentence you to death!" The lumbering giant gazed up confused and slightly hurt, thus was added "I am dismayed that after you led such a exemplary life serving a higher cause not unlike the men you killed tonight-”

“Where is the girl? Are you hiding her?” The black sheep cut in.

“You have the audacity to interrupt me? Have you forgotten who you speak to and what you have done? Do realize if not for my good graces and the tournament, you would already lie dead where you stand!”

“No one is keeping her safe from me!” The soldier’s almost incoherent words ripped out of his maw as he took off towards the gilded ledge, preparing to vault as the troops raised their weapons to fight him off. Not twenty paces from the closest foot soldier, the madman brought his pole down and shook the earth as his entire muscle structure quite unexpectedly doubled in size. As it sucked back in the gladiator pushed off his stick and weakly crashed to the ground, his body convulsing as a mixture of blood and foam (and one could only guess what else) poured up from his throat and out his mouth and nose.

The emperor looked around at the wizards who mostly were on the verge of vomiting. “What is going on down there?”

”We don’t know, he seems to be…ill” commented a queasy caster.

“Get a healer in there immediately!”

“I thought he was to be sentenced-”

“His death shall only be by my will or by the hand of another combatant. The only way he will cheat death is if he defeats the champion, and that will be a slim chance indeed!”

The spellweavers all ran to reach the medical teams aside from one. “What should be done about…the thing?”

Looking down the emperor saw the army slowly leaving and widening the circle around the fallen soldier and the undead creature, the second whom had taken the staff from the ground and begun to draw a skull and rainbow with butterflies and tombstones. “…I’d just as soon leave him here if possible.”

“So that’s what he told me! I mean I couldn’t believe it! You’d never expect it from a girl that size that she’s such a horrid murderer!” The hunter retold his conversation to the monk. “I thought we were doing the world a favor-“

“By stopping an attempted murder of a little girl from one that has slaughtered so many? Most certainly we now know she was no better than her assailant but we acted accordingly given our situation. His act was one of cowardice.”

The archer nodded but objected. “Still we are at fault that she is still alive. I could have killed the assassin face to face, but we don’t even know what tricks she has up her sleeves and all you have is your body and that huge robe you wear.” He smiled. “Not that I’m complaining, but-“

The wise woman kissed her finger and put it upon his lips, silencing him quite effectively. “That’s all you saw. And all I let you see.” She slightly laughed as he grew another smile. “My arts should be more than a match for her arcane energy, yet I’ll let you know that arrows and men’s hearts are not the only things this cloth can catch.”

“Lemme see how that works.” The blond man pulled at a tuft resting on her shoulder.

“You’ll get to see just how it works when I beat her in the tourney.” She gently removed his hand with a widening smile.

From a nearby rooftop the rogue listened in to the playful conversation. The war upon the witch had begun, and not a single person was on her side. Sure she was hiding now; he didn’t really care, for she would have to come out for the tournament. The weak had been removed and this time around she luck would play no part to her battles. The guild was awake and watching the outskirts. There was no way out for her alive

The soldier was jostled awake from a sharp pain in his shoulder. A familiar sensation in a familiar location.

"Oh, were you asleep?" There was another familiarity, the tournament's assigned healer. "I was merely checking on the first injury you came to see me about," sternly stated the doctor through gritted teeth. "With your recent incidents, people are beginning to lose faith in your ability to win this thing, especially those who have a lot of money riding on the outcome." The medic lifted his hands. "I need these to work. They'll only break them if I'm lucky." The combatant was less concerned with the plight of the gambler and more focused on his own well being. Since this wasn't the physician's interest, the militant got up to leave. "Hey, now, where do you think you are going?"

"To fight," the man grunted. "Where else?" His words were met with laughter.

"Do you think you can just walk about freely? You murdered several of the king's guards in a violent rage while looking for a little girl," reminded the healer. "You are not allowed to do anything without an escort for surveillance." Eyeing the warrior up and down with a scrying gaze, he tagged on, "And control."

"Funny, the way I remember it," recalled the fighter, "I was drugged with Fury's Blood." He darted a cold look at the doctor, who sweated. "Oh, yeah. I've been around. The whole world, in fact. Got the souvenirs to prove it, too. And I know that Fury's Blood is contraband in this kingdom, as it is in most. So, if you would excuse me..."

"Your match isn't next," whelped the medic as the soldier limped towards the door. "You took the, er, 'tonic' rather hard. You passed out for a few days. The triple threat was moved head until you recovered. In fact, if you hurry, you may be able to see it start."

"Well, then, I better hurry." His eyes narrowed. "There's someone I want to speak to."

"... B-before you go," spoke up the healer, "could I interest you in another elixir-"

"No more potions!" shouted the contestant, still never facing the other man, as he stormed out the room.

"Going somewhere?" boomed a voice as the battler hobbled into the hallway. Grumbling, he cast his cruel stare in the direction of the calling to met a wall of steel. An image was engraved upon the surface with the greatest of detail. It was an eagle with a shield laid upon its breast that clutched a sword in each talon. The rest of the figure was not needed to be seen as this mark identified this man. "You'll have to take me," the knight of Doravan insisted.

The pair walked through the bustling city streets with little impedance. A bubble cleared to allow the two through. Many wanted to take a few steps back to behold the magnificent man of steel while others cowered in his presence. The man stood tall and full of honor. His proud, broad shoulders carried his long, flowing locks as well as a regal colored cape that gracefully swept above the dusty ground. Masterwork mail adorned his body, bearing only artistic engravings with no war scars, meaning this suit was specifically for show. As was signature of any Doravanite, a blade crafted by the finest smiths in the kingdom hung at his side with a iron gauntlet ever poised about its hilt.

"I don't understand," the combatant went over again. "I'm being watched by a knight of Doravan?" The valiant champion let out a hearty chuckle.

"No, friend. I was merely here," he assured with mirth. "The task was presented to many but none were considered worthy enough nor fit enough to accomplish the job. Since I had no matches, I volunteered."

"I can't believe that, either," additionally stated the soldier. "You dropped from the tourney, even after being given a bye to the second round."

"And I would have enjoyed testing my mettle against the noble participants," boldly informed the gallant champion, "particularly against yours. I know that the allegations brought against you are not your fault. That is why I agreed to supervise you. If anything, it would be an opportunity to get what I missed." A mischievous gleam shone in his azure eyes as he spoke. "However, a bout against a warrior such as yourself would have been commendable. Even in defeat, I would be proud. Now, however, this battle has been turned over to savages and monsters who maim and disgrace not only their opponents but the prestige once held by the games." The noble knight had drifted off in his speech but was snatched back into reality at its end. "Besides, I have had many chances to prove my might, and I plan on many more. But this, this is your chance to settle old disputes." The contestant wavered in his step, alarmed by the knight's implication. He only stood, dimly smiling, with an arm held out to the coliseum door. "The battle lies in there. After you."

Positions were taken as the start of the match approached. The magi assumed their positions for the required enchantments. The honored guests were ushered into their lofty chamber while the soldier was treated to a front row seat, surrounded by infantry. Deep within the underground tunnels, the young rogue emerged from a crevice. Although his plots of vengeance had been changed, he still planned to sabotage a match just the same. The contestants waited patiently at their respective gates. The monk honed herself, calmed by a deep trance. The witch worked out kinks in her spell casting that her young body imposed. The viking, who stood leaning against his gate, bending it inward, was not thrilled about competing against two women but still held no convictions about brutally murdering either. He was particularly unamused with the childish antics of the little girl, who had pestered him with mindless questions and annoyances shortly before being called away to the gate.

A cheer rose up from the stands, drowning out the loud grinding of gears that lifted the gates. The triad emerged, and, immediately, the Norse powerhouse began a straight line to the youth. Ripping his flask from his belt, he squeezed its contents into one mighty swallow. As he wiped away what spilled out, a considerable amount, he stared down the sweet innocent who only waved her fingers at his malicious gaze as if bidding him farewell. The northern raider then looked down to his arm and the color his swill had stained it. The girl was not just being a brat earlier. His thick, hardened knee crashed to the arena sands, sending out a quiver that the high seats could feel, before he keeled over entirely. The match had not even begun, and already one combatant was down.

"Oh, my," proclaimed the king on his plush chair, "these warriors are phenomenal. I didn't even see anyone strike the hairy one. They certainly move fast." The archer, the only one unfortunate enough to be stuck with his highness, rolled his eyes, knowing that if his sharp vision did not see it, it did not happen. "Hm, are we using the beast hazard again?" inquired the emperor between bites of the leg of some large animal. "I thought we just used them."

"Their cages were not ordered to be opened," assured the regal attendant as he witnessed more pitfalls and spears emerge. "I believe someone has broken into the operating room!" he quickly reasoned.

"Not so fast," the fat man ordered, stopping the servant cold. "Let this be. It will make for quite the spectacle. A-ho-ho-ho.

An unexpected spire emerged beneath the monk, snagging her loose garments on its rusty, blood-caked tip. The witch took the momentary distraction to charge a spell and end the entire match-up early, but a starved lion -- fed only potatoes and imbeciles -- had other plans. A last-minute correction to her aim sent a fiery bolt soaring past the beast, failing to do any more than singe its mane but succeeding in saving her life. She tried again to hone her talents, attempting to control the power she still had not mastered, to finish the feline off. A quick kick to the back of her head broke her focus, however, and a wrapping sleeve took her vision. The girl threw a tantrum not fit for her age but perfect for her disguise, all the while carving cryptic gestures into the air. Upon completing the spell, the witch exploded a whirlwind around herself, which easily carried away the monk and her formless robes. With her sight returned, the colorful conjurer directed her gale to the spike hazard. The shapeless, billowing warrior fell to the pit, spinning to a halt on the spear-like protrusion. The wild wraps floated down to reveal the devotee's fate. Her bare foot was perfectly balanced atop the point. Shining beneath her smooth head was a brilliant smile and determined stare as she beckoned the mage into the hazard.

The angry wizard waved her ruby wand, lashing out an arc of heat along the arena floor. The forest of thorns it cut through seemed unaffected by the attack until one by one, they slid from their bases. Some of the iron spires crashed in a sandy cloud; others cooled more quickly, freezing at various angles of descent. The monk struggled to keep her balance and remain above the still lethal and now smouldering environment below. Her support gave in, but her sleeves were fast to find some spikes on which to hold. With her opponent immobile, the mad magician prepared the final blow. The martial artist had foresight, however, and pulled in her outstretched arm with all her strength. The blade tangled within easily broke away from its root. Her opposite sleeve tore as it bore the all of her weight, which swung down and clinged to the pike. She brought the broken edge with her, too, only to be released mid-swing at the youth vampire. A streak flew from out her silver rod, reducing the spike to nothing but dust.

A menacing glow overcame the mage's eyes as her wand was lifted overhead. A crackling stream of energy leapt from it and danced among the falling forest. The monk had already hoisted herself into the air and now flipped overhead, watching the electrified hazard for a safe time to land. The sorceress was drained just as the monk had landed on a spike's slanted side, but another charge of lightning was soon to follow. Again, the fighter became airborne, this time training a kick on the wee wizard. The girl slipped her grasp to the bottom of the handle and clubbed at the formless fabric as it fell. Although brimming with power, the blows were soft and found no target among the robes. The martial monk, free from her garb, surprised the child from behind, both barraging her with kicks and strangling her with the garments.

Unbeknownst to either competitor, a feral animal charged. Most of the beasts were picked for their exotic qualities and presented no real danger to any participant; this one did. It was a bull elephant and, though young, larger than any present had seen before. The crowd gasped in anticipation of one or both of their ends. The woman's clean head turned too see the behemoth stomping its way closer, but her response was limited by fear and time. The giant fell before her, sooner than she could even flinch, protruding with arrows from every vital area. A universal groan of disappointment and confusion swept the coliseum.

"What is the meaning of this?" roared the Emperor, regrettably spitting out some of his current meal in the process. "You cannot interfere!"

"But, the haza'ds!" the golden archer told, pulling away another round he had already nocked. "They were n't s'posed to be used!" The roly-poly ruler would hear none of it, however, and ordered the guards to disarm the hunter. The former combatant looked dejectedly to the arena as he was pulled away; the woman he had just saved was already back in battle, unable to pause even a moment to thank him.

The warrior twirled about her cloth, lashing out at the witch while slowly slipping back into her robes. None of the girl's magics could be prepared between attacks, so she unsuccessfully tried fighting the fabric off. Her wand was readily caught and flung a distance away, clattering against the spike pit. Another sweep took the mage off her feet. The monk drew near; the crowd fell in a hushed awe. She thought that she felt the same way. All the woman could see is a prone little girl, sniffling and tearing, entirely defenseless. Again and again in her bald head, she repeatedly told herself that this little witch was a murderer of the worst kind, but some glimmer of compassion held her back.

The monk took another step closer, and again the little mage crawled away. She could not understand why the emperor had not called an end to the match which was obviously over. The pious fighter remembered not to underestimate the rainbow wizard; what she had witnessed in her own battle had told her that much. After much hesitation, she finally lifted up her leg, poising for a single, crushing kick to end it all. Again, she waited for the battle to be called, but no word came. Her gaze locked into the youth's welling eyes. The monk knew she could not look away, no matter how much she did not wish to see this.

The waiting was over; the faithful fighter had made up her mind. Her leg dropped.

The entire body of the monk flung forward, over the mage and spilling onto the fine floor. She tumbled a time or two more, propelled by the enormous ax that stuck from out her back.

"Nay, dolly," coughed out the viking, standing and stained with some awful fluid around his vibrant beard. "If anyone's gonna kill 'er, it'll be me." A vile, wild, and crazed demeanour contorted the giant's grimace. "Kid, I've dranked harder stuff when I was yer age. What else ya got?" The sorceress scampered for her wand, but she met a thick boot instead. The tiny thing was rag-dolled through the air, landing hard but slipping safely into the now glassy floor of the spiked pit. A furious scream filled the entire arena as the massive man bounded after the magician, never even minding to recover his ax.

The spires shattered in the rampaging raider's path to revenge. The youth stealer's slight body handled the blow poorly; consciousness was returning, but her vision was a blurred mess. A black splotch grew rapidly larger, and on instinct alone, she rolled out of the way. Metallic debris rained upon her -- still a better choice than facing the one-man stampede. The burly, hairy hands of the sole remaining opponent reached out to slow himself, which was difficult on the smooth surface. Several more rows of the hazard were leveled until the pillager was finally able to spring off of a spire instead of rushing through it. At full force, the viking returned even faster than before, entirely unhindered by the demolished pit.

The mage was at long last reunited with her weapon and threw out a fireball at the fur-covered fighter. Although engulfed by the blaze, the drunkard simply laughed it off and ran through the fiery wall. His red head lowered, aiming the wicked horns atop his helm blindly at the magician. A swift levitation allowed the witch to dodge the ramming raider and rain down an enchanted blitz from the sky. With heavy feet, the barbarian raced about the open arena floor, avoiding the death from above. He wove a confusing and intricate pattern over the battlefield, often running into a destructive bolt rather than away from it.

The soldier looked on with some interest. The knight from Doravan was perplexed as was most of the audience, but the traveller had heard of such symbols -- powerful runes that carried magic in their very existence. He watched the viking work intently, not yet certain what end the pillager sought. After one heavy stomp to correct a crater caused by the girl's casting, the spell ceased, and only the girl fell from the sky.

The knight was still just as confused, but the soldier just chuckled softly. "An anti-magic rune," he thought aloud.

An enormous punch sent the already bloodied girl skyward again before she had even touched the ground. She soared with such force -- as the viking was unaccustomed to fighting a foe so small -- that she cleared the glyph dug into the ground below. A dust devil set the half-dead mage on the opposite end of the pit. She coughed up unhealthy amounts of blood and shivered, cowering against the iron peaks behind her. From one side, the savage raider stepped out, once again brandishing his battleaxe. The colorful and crimsoned conjurer climbed to her feet in order to escape, but the waiting jaws of a panther greeted her. The pillager stepped closer, ready to make himself a new vest if big cat moved in on his kill.

Caught in the middle and with no where to retreat, she fell to her knees. She lifted her wand and lost herself in the burning ruby set on top. She did not want to lose control -- not again. But she had worked too hard to master these new powers. It could not end now, not after all she had sacrificed. The gem began to glow, brighter and brighter and then white hot. Never before had the mage tried to cast this spell intentionally, but with ruthless animals on either side of her, never before had the long-lived girl been in such dire need.

The knight covered the soldier, dragging him to the floor. Even those audience members far from the inferno hid, although only one side of the arena was actually touched by the flames. Brave heads peered over the charred seats before them, gazing down to the entirely demolished arena -- all but the Viking's rune. Among the ash lie the mage and nothing else, not even the bones of her adversaries.

"By all in heaven," the Doravanite began, "and in hell, have you ever seen anything like that?"

Like most in attendance, the soldier's face was entirely white, save what was sullied by the soot. The words took a moment to reach the staff-bearer, who was affected by the situation more than others, and not because he could possibly face her in the next round.

"Yes," he finally answered the knight, "I have.

The world fell from the soldier's feet as his mind dove into the past.

His axe split yet another log as his daughter came skipping out of the house. "Daddy, wha-cha do-in?"

The happy father laid the axe down wiping sweat off his brow with a slick arm. "I'm getting wood ready for the fire, dear."

"But daddy, dinner isn't for HOURS" neatly stated the little one as she cocked her head at the weird act "an' it’s not cold at all an' we got pluny wood inside!"

The grand man kneeled down in front of his little angel and ruffled her hair. “I know, but we'll still need wood for the rest of the month, and trust me, daddy will be VERY hungry if he doesn't eat, and you know when daddy is hungry he gets GRUMPY AND WILL EAT ANYTHING!" Giving the tiny girl a head start he roared with a smile as he stomped after the screaming and giggling toddler who ran around the side of the house.

"Arrrgh I'm gonna eat ya!" He jumped out from the corner.

"Are you now?" Countered his wife, with a sly look on her face, who had been hanging up the laundry. His little girl giggled from behind the clothes basket. He stalking up to the small child as his wife rolled her eyes. "It’s been a while since you've chased me around like that." Her husband stopped and whirled, around still hunched over, and clearly taken by surprise. "You're always out working or playing with our daughter. I thought the reason we left our lives behind us was so we'd have more time with each other."

Her husband looked at her, eyes deep in thought as he stood up straight, still the man that she had ran away with. She subconsciously batted her eyelashes but turned her head down and away from him. "Dearest, you know I love you" he said as he walked up and placed his hands right above her hips.

Slowly her long hair slid across her dress as she looked up at him and held him behind his neck. "I love you more."

"Prove it." the words made almost no sound once they escaped his lips, they were so soft that they just lingered between the two of them, yet there was no question she heard the challenge. She leaned closer as a slow smile opened and he watched a gentle light glow ever brighter in her eyes.

Yet she stopped. "Behind you." At first the words were the equivalent of sweet nothings, but he watched his lover's mind fall from him to something else, going somewhere he'd never seen. Turning his head he saw his child playing a ball of fire about her hand, stopping it once it was balanced atop her index finger. Slowly she pointed straight at the ground yet the flame stayed fixed. As she touched all five fingers together the light grew brighter and as she spread out her hand once more she had five small orbs that now danced about her hand, pulsating to the rhythm of her wrist. He looked back to his wife to find she had left his embrace and was already walking towards their child like a sleepwalker.

Nothing was making sense. His wife knelt down and she too now had orbs of energy circling her hand and cycling through the color spectrum. Her daughter watched and followed the example exponentially greater. "What's...going on?" He asked, yet it seemed no one had heard him.

"She's...blessed with The Art," his wife turned to look up at him, still washed with a childhood stare of curiosity that he was surely mirroring "but she's so young." The statement renewed the initial shock.

"Then-" the father stumbled for words to aid him, "how many orbs should she be able to make?" He watched the spectacle of his daughter who was now conducting the fluctuating orbs like a string of beads to her elbow then weaving through her fingertips and latching the flames together as a loop spinning rapidly above her hand. Bringing her other hand up she stretched and compressed it until finally shaping it into a peach sized orb that hovered in place as she suddenly pulled her hands away, smile wide on her face. Her jubilant eyes reflected its light as she ever so slowly brought her hand back up to it, touching the sides with her middle fingers, causing to implode in a sparkling display. She brought her fingertips to her palms as she scrunched up and started a giggling fit.

The couple still started in awe of their child. "I've never seen her do this before, have you?"

"Surely not, else I surely would have told you. How many orbs can you make?"

"She's surpassed me in her first day."

Suppertime finally arrived and was surprisingly calm and quite as usual despite the afternoon spectacle. The soldier graciously complimented his wife on the night's meal; his daughter following his example, then took out staff out to the front of the house to practice, as he did every night. He knew the rod not as a weapon or tool but as an extension of his body. As he started his nightly regimen, he started to think about his daughter. He considered his family to be well off, at least for now, but down the road she'd have to be sent to an academy.

"Daddy, I wanna show ya-" his daughter started to say behind him but his wife interrupted.

"Shh, your father is concentrating very, very hard and he's going to be a long while. Come out back and show me and you can show him later."


He never acknowledged them, but smiled to himself. She was still his little girl and these decisions would still be down the road. No matter what her powers granted her the ability to do, she was still his little angel he tucked into bed every night. His mind moved to his wife and the conversation they had. Had he really been ignoring her? It wasn't on purpose. Yet now looking at it, she seemed to be right.

The stars were starting to light up the darkening sky as he finished up, the start of a lovely evening. Maybe he'd put his daughter to bed early so he and his wife could spend the night outside, stargazing. Turning around he met the sight of an unnatural glow behind his house. Wondering what they were doing, he decided to walk around the side of the house, but then it seemed that the sun had erupted from the earth.

He came to practically blinded and temporarily deaf, splinters imbedded in his limbs. Raising his head he looked out upon his land. What remained of his house was strewn about the smoothed ground as little burning shards. A slow breeze blew the ash around the acre of scorched earth. All traces of his wife and child were gone. He cried out their names before he again fell unconscious.

His dreams were haunted by last images of his family playing infinitely through his mind, just as his mind now was as he raised himself up from where he was watching the fight in the charred arena. He stared down at the girl's body breathing slowly as the medics carried her off the field. "I'll never forget it." The words shot coldly through his teeth

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."

"... 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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