Shift World I Book II Chapter 13
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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A garishly dressed man stood in the center of an arena with a thirty-meter circumference. Red and black scales covered his cloth robe and glistened with every flowing movement. Spectators watched from three-story-tall grandstands. Most wore cloaks to block the early afternoon sun.
The empire held a royal tournament every five to seven years at the royal family's behest. During the competition, the Crossroads opened the Burned Gate, Iron Gate, and Clay Gate to allow influential lords to send servants and countrymen to watch the festivities. For most citizens, an invitation to participate was their only chance to visit the Crossroads. The festivities centered around a two-part spectacle, with artisans and vendors sprawled outside.
The first round was a four-part melee, where a quarter of all entrants fought at once. The warriors fought with blunted weapons and wore regular steel instead of the varying colored metals found throughout the Shift World. This tradition was started to ensure equal ground between combatants of different social standings, as the fights were meant to find the most skilled warrior and not the richest. Throwing an adversary from the rink, knocking them out, or disabling them resulted in a win, but killing someone disqualified the murderer. Spectators, competitors, and sponsors also hated crippled limbs, so fighters customarily avoided inflicting permanent damage to arms and legs, but accidents still happened.
Eight participants ringed the arena and watched the circle's center. The garishly dressed man walked between contestants who were dressed in leather and regular steel. The man watched the grandstands as he spoke.
"Here at the royal tournament, we search for not only a new champion of the empire but a warrior to fight with pride and bring renown to the royal family, who has given them everything. Many have striven for that honor, oh so many, but only eight remain. These brave men and women fought hordes of other contenders in melees, and each became one of two standing at the end of the brawl. Some won through sheer physical strength and size."
The barker motioned to Rong the Turtle.
"Some won through ruthlessness, cutting down every threat." The barker pointed to Krath the Sea Urchin, and boos echoed from the stands.
"Most warriors won through exceptional fighting prowess." The barker swept his hand over Baln the Coral Snake, Bron the Hawk Tamer, Nordic the Shark, Tan the Wyvern, and Tark the Demon Scorpion.
"One warrior even won rather unconventionally." The crowd laughed as the barker pointed to a hunched-over graymane propping herself up with a wooden staff striped with steel supports.
"This next round will prove who deserves to be the empire's champion! All contestants have already proven to be warriors capable of proudly wearing the mantle, but there will be only one champion!"
Krath the Sea Urchin and the graymane fought in the first bout. Krath wore leathers with a steel breastplate covering her chest and back. Individual steel plates covered The Sea Urchin's thighs and biceps. Krath held an S-shaped steel bow with blunted practice arrows designed to stun targets without causing lasting damage. The graymane leaned on her steel and wood weapon with both hands, struggling to stand erect. A light tan travel cloak covered her body and face except for a tuft of white hair. Her demeanor is what identified the elderly woman.
The carnival barker strolled through the rink, eyeing the audience, and they returned his looks.
"We're moving on to the first round of the finals, and what a match of polar opposites! We have the winner of the fourth melee, Krath the Sea Urchin, versus Lar, an unnamed graymane and winner of the first melee. The Sea Urchin's stingers have been blunted, but she has dispatched her adversaries with shots to the knee. They've limped away as they fled, or wallowed in place. We haven't seen such cruelty since Dron the Serpent cut hands and feet from his opponents until otherwise brave warriors fled!"
The audience booed both Krath and the shadow of the tournament's shame, The Serpent.
"Here we have an unnamed graymane, Lar, whose victory was nothing short of miraculous. She waited at the edge of the fighting while the young, spry combatants fought in the center. Contestants flew out of bounds, passed out, or fled from outmatched opponents, but she just quietly and unassumingly watched. Near the end, fighters worn out from engaging more serious opponents could no longer ignore her presence.
"The combatants charged but were so distracted that they left themselves open to being waylaid. One by one, they fell at her feet while opportunists removed the competition. When only five combatants remained, two fled from the shadow of The Turtle. Forn the Hammer charged the graymane and tripped on the elderly woman's staff, falling out of the rink." The barker and the audience laughed at the climax of the story.
"And now... Oh my! Now we don't even know if she can fight, and her opponent is Krath the Sea Urchin! Krath's greatest challenge might be not killing her!"
The audience howled with laughter.
"You may start the match, and the finals, once I leave the circle!" The barker motioned as he walked, and the audience obediently cheered.
The moment the barker's foot stepped from the rink, The Sea Urchin notched an arrow and shot it at the graymane. The elderly woman gingerly slid her staff across her body and knocked away the arrow. Boos had followed the arrow's flight but changed to uproarious applause when the graymane swatted it away.
The exacerbated Sea Urchin notched a series of arrows. One by one, the graymane knocked each shot away without moving. The Sea Urchin drew a dagger and charged. The audience gasped as she hacked at the graymane. Krath swung, and the graymane slapped her hand away. Krath countered by striking her bow at the graymane's ribs. The elderly woman absorbed the blow with her weapon positioned at her side. The Sea Urchin raised her bow, and the elderly woman raised her staff and smashed Krath's stomach, and Krath reeled backward.
The audience cheered, and Krath threw her dagger onto the arena's dirt floor. A small wooden crossbow loaded with a blunted steel bolt appeared in The Sea Urchin's hand. Krath circled the graymane and lowered herself to place the crossbow on the ground. Periodically, A new crossbow appeared in her hand, and Krath similarly dropped it. She likewise arranged another dozen, encircling the graymane at relatively even intervals. A shining gray stream of lines poured from Krath's bow.
Krath leaped to slash her bow at the graymane but pulled away at the last moment. A crossbow behind Krath disengaged, and a bolt released with a clinking sound. The graymane sidestepped just in time for it to tug her travel cloak but miss her body. The Sea Urchin circled back to the spent crossbow, bent down, and the bow instantly reloaded. Krath circled in front of the old woman and moved to strike, and this time, she completed her swing, and the blow bounced off the graymane's block.
The Sea Urchin immediately withdrew, and two more bolts shot at the graymane. She sidestepped one and knocked away the other. The Sea Urchin reloaded and circled her prey. A silver glint shone from Krath’s left hand, and she circled back to attack the graymane, who was slowly looping her staff through the air. Krath focused on the weapon's end and saw a glinting gray line. The graymane jerked her hand, and a crossbow fired just as The Sea Urchin arrived. A bolt shot past the graymane's side and smashed into Krath's chest. The graymane swung across the stunned Sea Urchin's helm, and the headgear skipped across the floor as Krath fell unconscious. The crowd cheered, and the barker approached.
"We have our answer! She CAN fight! With age comes experience, and she won the match, barely making a move. What will happen when she fights The Coral Snake or The Demon Scorpion? Standing still won't work against them!"
The tournament barker strolled through the combat area while watching the stands in stoic silence. The barker passed Rong the Turtle, a massive hulk who wore steel full plate. A steel ring rose over his head and rounded his neck, giving him the look of a turtle pulling its head into its shell. Rong faced Baln the Coral Snake. In order to not kill The Coral Snake, who only wore leather with steel plates, an elongated soft yew mallet replaced Rong's metal hammer. On the other hand, The Coral Snake carried two small steel hammers instead of blades, as Baln could hack at Rong's armor for hours with weak edges and still never pierce the steel. The barker shattered the audience's tension once he was satisfied that everyone sat on pins and needles.
"…and now we wait to begin the second round of individual matches! In the melee, Baln the Coral Snake slithered between competitors and bit each warrior! They fell without even knowing their affliction. Waves of fighters crashed against The Turtle's shell, and he never broke. Some tried to dodge, some hid, but only those who fled the arena themselves were spared from the mallet's blow! Who will win this round? Will stealth carry the day? How far can brute strength go in the finals? Let's see!"
The announcer exited the circle, and the combatants converged. Baln moved with three quick steps for every heavy, crashing trudge that propelled Rong. The Turtle's mallet crashed into the ground, barely missing the dodging Baln. Baln smashed Rong's thigh with both hammers as she rolled, but the strike landed an inch off-center, so the blow bounced from the plate without causing damage. The Turtle pulled the head from the ground and turned for The Coral Snake. Baln spun to stay in The Turtle's blind spot and rained blows on his thighs, arms, stomach, and chest.
The Coral Snake feinted too far and landed at The Turtle's flank. He released his grip and swung his arm, connecting a backhand to the side of Baln's face. The Coral Snake stumbled away and then jumped back to avoid The Turtle's mallet. Baln straightened her open face helm and wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth. The Coral Snake hurled weapons at The Turtle, and The Turtle raised his arms in a defensive stance. The strikes bounced off his inner bicep, and he lost his grip on the handle, and it fell to the arena's floor. The Coral Snake retrieved her thrown hammers and returned to Rong.
Rong staggered under Baln's deluge. The strikes hastened, and Rong lost balance and fell to a knee. The Coral Snake threw her hammers at the staggering foe, and he faltered. The Turtle couldn't predict or stop the blows from the continuous strikes, but he caught himself and rose from one knee to standing fully erect. Baln brought more weapons from the Shift World, and the barrage increased.
Hammers dotted the sand, and Baln ran from weapon to weapon, hurling steel at The Turtle, who pushed himself forward like a man fighting through a blizzard. Maddening clanks crashed and deafened the whole arena. The Turtle slowed as he approached his mallet and reached to the dirt floor, finally grasping the handle. The Turtle twisted toward Baln's incoming hammer and smashed it midflight. The shot flew past Baln's head and embedded itself in a target board on the arena's edge; the board collapsed under the sudden blow. The Coral Snake watched in shock.
Baln caught herself gawking and turned back to her opponent just in time for Rong to bury his mallet into The Coral Snake's chest plate. The head cracked in the center and snapped from the handle. The Coral Snake flew into the air and sprawled out, collapsing onto the ground. Baln lay unmoving for a minute, and the crowd cheered. The carnival barker checked The Coral Snake's pulse and rose to face the audience. Silent spectators eyed the strange man and waited for his announcement.
"This match has ended in tragedy!"
Faces twisted in horror.
"Baln the Coral Snake is…knocked out, and the winner is Rong the Turtle!"
Laughs filled the air, followed by cheers, and The Turtle relaxed.
Bron the Hawk Tamer and Nordic the Shark faced each other while the barker spun with his arms outstretched. The Hawk Tamer wore a set of steel chainmail and an open face helmet. A red handkerchief was draped from one side of the helm to the other, blocking his mouth and nose, so that only his eyes peered out. The Hawk Tamer held a seven-foot-long polearm with a hawk etched into a jagged ax. He swung the polearm, and a whistle built into the blade's tip screeched like a bird of prey. The Shark wore studded leather with steel plates on his chest, biceps, and thighs. He fought with a pair of axes designed to resemble fins.
"We now begin the third match of one-versus-one competition!"
The crowd cheered.
"The Hawk Tamer is the last contestant from the fourth melee! As Krath the Sea Urchin disabled victim after victim, The Hawk Tamer cleaved all challengers with swings from his mighty polearm! The fourth melee turned into a battlefield full of injured and disabled. The Shark swam into the shallows of the third round and barely escaped with his head. Her Highness, Tark the Demon Scorpion, intervened as The Huntress stood over him, poised to deliver the final blow! Now, we'll see if The Shark’s win was just a fluke, or if he's strong enough to swim upstream!"
The barker left the arena's sand, and the match commenced. The Hawk Tamer sprung forward and swung his polearm with broad sweeping strokes. The hawk screeched and cawed as it approached. The polearm's blade swept within a foot of The Shark, and when the weapon had safely passed, The Shark jumped in toward The Hawk Tamer and brought down his twin axes. The Hawk Tamer blocked the strikes with his polearm's shaft. The Shark swam in, but Bron steadied his feet and threw Nordic back. The Hawk Tamer glared at his adversary and growled, "Remember..."
The Shark staggered back and stood gaping at The Hawk Tamer. The polearm swung near The Shark, and he stepped back. The swings continued, but The Hawk Tamer's blows kept missing their mark. The Hawk Tamer's anger intensified, and The Shark glided past each strike with a mocking smile. The Hawk Tamer snarled, "Last chance."
The Shark swallowed. The Hawk Tamer swung his polearm, and the head passed several inches before Nordic. The Shark flew back, landed with a thud, and sprawled out on the arena floor. The Shark slacked and closed his eyes. Several moments later, the carnival barker returned.
"Unbelievable! I couldn't even see the blow land, yet The Shark is out cold! Bron the Hawk Tamer wins!"
Quiet awe morphed from confused mumbles into awkward cheers before the spectators fell silent again.
The final match of the first round was about to commence. The carnival barker walked between Tan the Wyvern and Tark the Demon Scorpion. Tan wore treated leathers with steel plates embedded in the arms, legs, and chest. She drew a blunted steel short sword from a scabbard adorned with a spread-eagle wyvern whose tail wrapped down the length of it. Tark wore a regular steel facsimile of the royal family's distinctive jagged plate armor and carried a steel-lined whip with a blunt dagger tip. Angular steel hid Tark's body shape and size behind a demonic blur. The barker wound between the combatants to begin his prefight announcement.
"Now we begin the paramount match of the first round of the finals! The match that every citizen of the empire has waited decades to see! Tark, the emperor's first daughter, was revealed two years ago and has become a hero! So far, she's fought bravely in the melee! Enemies have fallen before every slash of her sword! Now we have the treat of seeing her famous whip in action!"
Tark held her whip aloft, and the audience gasped.
"Now, her greatest challenge is fighting her loyal servant, Tan the Wyvern! Most of the remaining competitors are part of the Dragon Guard, which means she was always going to have to face this pain! These fighters know each other's styles inside and out! Weaknesses, strengths, both! Will there be any surprises? We're going to find out!"
The barker moved to the edge and stepped outside. Tark dropped the whip's blade and threw it behind her. She shot her arm forward, and the strap lagged behind. The body lumbered at first, but the tip hastened the closer it drew to the strike's apex. The attack ended far off-target, and The Wyvern avoided it without moving. The crowd awkwardly mumbled as the combatants continued the fight. Tark lashed with sweeping motions that crisscrossed her body. Tan batted away the steel-lined leather's lethargic movements with light taps of her sword. The Wyvern stepped forward and swiped at Tark's incoming blade.
Tark's lashes swung widely and slowly as they passed by The Wyvern. The angle of attack never changed direction or speed as it flew in, and Tan sidestepped the strikes and continued forward. Tark pulled the whip, and it shot back, recoiling into her right hand. Tark switched the handle to her left hand and reeled the body into a coil. Tark leaped and slashed. The Wyvern parried each strike with her short sword. Tark intensified her slashes and forced Tan to defend.
Tark slashed toward Tan's neck, and she blocked. Tark looped the whip's body around The Wyvern's hand and pulled the line taut. She kicked Tan's stomach and yanked, which sent her short sword flying away. It crashed onto the arena's dirt floor. Tark leaped and stabbed at Tan's chest, but Tan belted Tark's hand with the scabbard she had pulled from her side. Her blade flew to the ground, and Tan raised her makeshift weapon to finish Tark off with a downward strike. Tark pulled the handle, and the end shot back into her hand. Tark swung up and connected with Tan's forearm under the protective plate. The Wyvern lost her grip on the scabbard and fell back as it flew through the air.
Tark threw the whip forward, and it shot past Tan. The Wyvern rolled back to dodge. When she came to a stop, she was lying out on the ground outside of the fighting area. The barker flew into a tizzy and stormed the fighting rink.
"Those are the skills that saved the empire from the followers of The Mandrake and harried The Horse Thief at every turn! We've been treated to see the world's best whip manipulator!"
The final's second round began. The graymane and Rong the Turtle stood in the rink's center. The graymane was propping herself up, and The Turtle stood tall in his full plate armor, with a wooden mallet resting on his shoulder. The carnival barker had changed garb to shimmering sunshine steel outlined with dragon fire steel piping. The metal flashed streaks of red and yellow as the sun glistened off the scales.
"Lar exceeded everyone's expectations and beat Krath the Sea Urchin with her considerable experience! She used her enemy's strength to her advantage, but can she do the same against this mountain of a man, Rong the Turtle?"
Rong slid his mallet from the shoulder and let the head hit the ground. A chunk of earth burst into the air. The crowd gasped and cheered.
"What will come from this unfortunate match-up? Will the crowd's favorite beat the monster who knocks out entire groups?"
The barker waited for the viewers to settle down, and then he exited the fighting rink. The Turtle rushed the graymane. Rong swung and connected with the graymane's cloak, pinning it to the arena's floor. The Turtle missed the elderly woman's body and was left staring in her eyes. The crowd cackled and snickered at the embarrassing miss. The Turtle grunted, lifted his mallet, and attacked again, but the graymane stepped back in time for the weapon to whoosh past. Enraged, The Turtle hastened his strikes, but each swing missed the graymane, either hitting her empty leather or striking the ground.
The Turtle contemplated his next strategy. The graymane showed no signs of tiring, but she also exerted little energy in avoiding his strikes. The Turtle shifted from his plate armor into a loose brown leather tunic with a closed face leather and steel helm. His swing speed doubled, and the graymane retreated quickly to avoid the blow. The Turtle laughed from under his helm and pressed the graymane onto the defensive. She struggled to keep out of range. The Turtle raised his weapon above his head to lunge with a decisive blow, but the graymane shot backward, and he hesitated. Lar's cloak parted, and a small steel knife flew from the opening. The blade clipped the mallet's handle, and the hammerhead snapped from the base and fell onto The Turtle's head.
The Turtle stumbled forward, and Lar's staff cracked his visor and pushed the metal into his nose and forehead. Blood gushed from the facemask, but Rong pushed forward. He dragged his left foot and followed with his right, lurching. The graymane hesitated, unsure if another shot would kill her opponent. He fell forward, hit the ground, and didn't move.
The crowd cheered as the barker and a small medical team hurried to the downed warrior. The graymane hunched over and watched the team inspect Rong. The medical team motioned to the barker, and he faced the stands.
"We have the first finalist for the empire's tournament! Lar of the Grain Fort! She moves on to fight the winner of Tark the Demon Scorpion versus Bron the Hawk Tamer!”
The crowd cheered, and the graymane slowly pulled herself from the fighting rink.
The second match of the semifinals, between Bron the Hawk Tamer and Tark the Demon Scorpion, was poised to begin in the center rink. Bron swung his hawk polearm, and the whistle’s cry energized the crowd into a frenzy. The Hawk Tamer slammed the weapon’s base into the dirt, and the audience cheered. Tark unsheathed a barbed, jagged long sword. Tark’s real sword could render flesh and armor in a single stroke, but the blunted steel couldn’t kill a man or puncture armor. The barker walked the circle, shouting.
“Perhaps The Demon Scorpion isn’t taking this match seriously since she’s traded her stinger for a barbed sword. But now we have the final match of the tournament! The graymane showed wisdom in stalling her fight in the melee, cunning in tricking The Sea Urchin, and strength in besting The Turtle, but The Demon Scorpion and The Hawk Tamer are powerful! Fighters fall in the wake of their strikes, and they have a power that can’t be measured in sword slashes and polearm blows. We’ll see that now! Tark the Demon Scorpion, First Princess to the Empire, Heiress to the World, challenges Bron the Hawk Tamer, head of the Royal Guard and the most seasoned soldier in all the empire! Let the final showdown commence!”
The barker stepped from the rink, and the combatants shot forward. The hawk polearm screamed as it swooped for Tark’s neck. She ducked, and the blade flew over her head. Bron swung the ax head back toward Tark’s legs, but Tark jumped over the strike and landed close to The Hawk Tamer. Tark slashed at The Hawk Tamer, and he blocked the blow with his polearm’s shaft. Tark volleyed slashes, but The Hawk Tamer expertly knocked away the barbed sword. Tark refused to relent and kept Bron on the defensive by striking at his hands, knees, and shoulders. Tark slashed at The Hawk Tamer’s flank and kneed his chest when he brought his weapon to his side to defend.
Bron recoiled from the blow to his chest, but his armor prevented severe damage. The Hawk Tamer regained his composure and unscrewed the polearm’s lower section to create a full-length ax with a chain attached to the handle. The chain ended in a claw-shaped ball. The Hawk Tamer swung the ball and chain with broad sweeps that kept Tark from approaching. Tark wanted to close the gap again, but the chain’s irregular arcs and speed made predicting the oncoming trajectory impossible. Tark fell back on her heels and backpedaled to stay outside of the chain’s effective range.
The Hawk Tamer lunged and swung the chain. Tark lifted her sword to protect her upper body, but she misjudged his intentions. The hawk claw ball smashed her hand, sending her sword flying. Blood trickled from Tark’s gauntlet, and her arm trembled from pain. Bron drove her back with a flurry of chain strikes, pinning her at the rink’s edge, and defeat drew closer. Small knives appeared in Tark’s hand, and she threw one at The Hawk Tamer’s face. He swatted it away with his ax, and Tark jumped from the edge and scurried back into the center. Tark reached for her fallen sword.
The Hawk Tamer’s chain wrapped around Tark’s neck, and her momentum stopped. She clawed at the tightening links. The crowd cheered at the dramatic turn in fortunes. The Hawk Tamer pulled, and Tark rolled at his mercy, coughing and gagging while stumbling around on her hands and knees. Bron gloated and flung her toward the rink’s center. Cheers celebrated the haughty show, but then Tark rolled over her fallen sword. She grabbed the handle and chopped at the tight chain as she rose from the ground. A weak link snapped, and The Hawk Tamer stumbled back and fell on his rear.
Tark rushed to her disoriented enemy and kicked him squarely in his forehead. The strike’s shock blew The Hawk Tamer’s helmet off his head and bloodied his face. Bron writhed, and Tark watched to see if he was going to recover. The Hawk Tamer thrashed, attempting to rise, but he collapsed into a bloodied heap on the ground.
“Unbelievable! The Demon Scorpion won! One small obstacle, and everything’s over!”
The barker stood in the center rink, wearing a tunic covered in seashell steel scales. He moseyed over to Tark, who stood before a series of poles at the edge. A single melon sat atop each pole.
“Now we have a special treat before we begin the final match! In moments, we’ll have a new champion, but first, The Demon Scorpion will demonstrate her famous whip-bending skills!”
Tark raised a steel and leather whip tipped by a blunted steel dagger. The crowd cheered in respect for the empire’s princess and anticipated the demonstration of skill most people had only heard rumors about. Tark dropped the blade and swung the handle across her body. The tip floated near the leftmost column, circling in lethargic loops that seemed incapable of destroying a melon even after making contact. Tark twisted the handle, and the blade shot in the wrong direction, bouncing on the ground. Tark sneered and brought the strikes higher. She lunged forward to compensate for the shortened reach caused by the increased height.
Tark circled the whip one meter above the nearest melon and twisted the handle. The blade shot higher, and Tark pulled it down and hit the side of the center pole. The end wrapped around the pole until the knife’s edge hit the melon without damaging its skin. Tark reddened under her closed-face helm and glared at the barker. The startled barker caught himself and cleared his throat.
“Those are the skills that saved the empire and which will win this tournament!”
The barker glanced at the graymane and lowered his brow. The crowd awkwardly cheered and slowly clapped. The barker walked to the edge of the rink and exited. Tark lashed toward the graymane, and the blade lackadaisically floated. The graymane tipped her staff, and the leather body wrapped around the top of the shaft. Tark pulled tight, but it didn’t unravel. The graymane jerked, and the handle flew from Tark’s hand. Laughter erupted, and Tark looked around helplessly. The graymane hobbled to the fallen handle. On her arrival, the staff disappeared, and she picked the whip up.
Tark watched as the graymane shuffled to the side of the rink near the four posts holding melons. The graymane then threw the whip’s blade forward and turned the handle as it sped up. The attack shot laterally in a blur, obliterating each of the four melons in one shot. The weapon recoiled, and the graymane caught the tip with the same hand that held the handle. The graymane then tottered back to the center of the rink. Tark threw a knife at the graymane’s chest, and it sliced through the leather as it traveled across Lar’s cloak. The graymane reached for a clasp on her breast and unlatched the hook. The serrated leather fell to the arena’s floor, revealing not an elderly woman, but the body of a young woman.
The young woman stood in the rink wearing a steel chainmail hauberk over thick training leathers. Her closed-finger glove had steel plates on the back of her hand and between the knuckles. Similar plates adorned her boot’s heels and toes. A steel buckler was attached to her left forearm, with small indents along the edge. She wore a steel cuirass with a scorpion embossed on the right breast and an open coat pressed into the armor on her back. Karp pulled off her helm and dumped out a mixture of rabbit fur, horsehair, and light gray straw. Then The Scorpion replaced her helm.
The crowd hushed, watching the center arena. Mumbles poured from the stands, and a spectator shouted, “That’s The Horse Thief!”
The carnival barker panicked. “Lock down the stadium! Call the guard! Send in the Dragon Guard!”
Attendants barred the double doors that led to the warrior recovery and staging areas, and then they grabbed weapons on the arena’s sidewall and moved toward the rink’s edges. Bron the Hawk Tamer stood from his seat on the promenade. The stadium silenced at his shouts. “The final match must commence! Come victory or defeat, The Horse Thief goes to prison! She will not be free as long as the princess lives to command it!”
The attendants recoiled from the side of the rink but stayed poised to intervene. Tark shifted her jagged steel short sword into her hand and adjusted her stance to a defensive posture. Tark circled The Scorpion and waited for Karp to lash, but after several moments Karp hadn’t made any motion to attack, so Tark leaped forward and swung at Karp. The Scorpion dodged, though, and Tark ran right past.
Karp lashed Tark’s back with the blunted dagger, and Tark stumbled. The crowd laughed and cheered.
Tark regained her composure, and her sword disappeared, replaced by a case of daggers. Tark threw blunted knives in quick succession, but Karp knocked them each away with her buckler. An exasperated Tark then replaced the knife case with her short sword and charged The Scorpion. Tark slashed at Karp, but Karp rolled past the blade’s strike. Karp slapped the back of Tark’s head with rolled leather. The audience laughed as Tark grabbed her head.
Karp lashed Tark’s leg and ensnared her ankle, and then Karp leaped forward, rolled past Tark, and tugged. The tightened leather dragged Tark’s leg down, and she fell on her stomach. Karp rushed to the dazed Tark and tied her hands and feet. The dumbfounded audience watched the unorthodox strategy, cheering after the princess failed to free herself. Karp pulled off Tark’s helmet and threw it to the side. Karp stared into Tark’s eyes as she lay helplessly on the ground. The attendants balked, unsure if they should risk the princess’s life to intervene.
Karp pulled her arm into her body, and a sharpened steel blade extended from her buckler. The crowd’s continued cheering and laughing drowned out almost every individual voice in the group, but Karp clearly heard Bron the Hawk Tamer shout from his dais, “End it now! This is the only way to be free! Once she’s dead, you’ll finally be FREE!”
Karp reached for the princess, and the crowd silenced itself in shock. Karp extended her blade toward the princess’s neck, and Baln’s words echoed in her mind: “Kill the princess or save Nort.”
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