Kimora sprinted to Headsplitter, faster than he had before in the loops made around the arena perimeter. It caught the smaller man off guard, not prepared for fisticuffs. Kimora’s gauntlet lurched under the bar of Headsplitter’s poleaxe and snapped his head up by the chin, but his enemy did the same with his halberd pole. The helmet flew straight up and glimmered in the air.
Headsplitter wasn’t as swift as he wanted to be with the arrow in his thigh, nor did he expect a man of such size, and in such heavy armor, to persistently dog him and attack in closer quarters. Without a good pace or two between them, Headsplitter’s fabled halberd was a heavy, awkward stick.
“Torrach!” Headsplitter shouted, sending out a palm. A faint, bluish veil appeared. Kimora knew it would either stop him or send him flying back, and sluggishly cartwheeled to the side, avoiding it.
“Waste of energy!” Kimora shouted, kicking sand at his foe and attempting a jump-tackle. Firm flesh, but flesh all the same, flexed and whined against the hard steel of his bulk. He had him. The killer had let go of his halberd, and could not possibly kick away a force quadruple his weight.
“Gurrendal,” Headsplitter said, exhaling with a bemused groan.
The third rank, Kimora thought. He knew it could create cold and darkness, but had never mastered anything beyond Vextrus. His armor immediately cooled, the sweat within the gambeson dropping beyond comfortable, then hardening. Headsplitter’s skin, too, was turning blue and slippery from growing sheets of ice.
“Who do you think will thaw first?”
Seeing no other options, as his limbs already refused to move, Kimora rolled away in the now comparatively hot sand as he regained control of his joints. It was hard to stand up, as if he had not oiled his suit in months, but Headsplitter was already recovering faster and had reclaimed his halberd. His eyes were black and baggy, the telltale sign of over-casting.
“You’re drained,” Kimora said, walking in a circle around him to regain his motion. “Let’s warm up. Leftivacus!” He sent a stream of blue flames that sent Headsplitter running left and right. He gnashed his teeth and grunted every time the heat got a bit too close.
With each rank of magic, the cost to the user’s vigor rose. Kimora could keep a stream of Leftivacus flame for a few more moments with ease. He hadn’t expected Headsplitter to have the raw vigor to throw fireball after fireball. That had been a genuinely thrilling development, before he had realized just what they were facing.
I don’t know your situation, but I don’t care, Kimora thought. This is how you end.
The crowd raged with suspense. The champion went left and right, seemingly hectic and desperate to avoid a persistent cone of flames. Then they saw Kimora fly backward, flipping in the air and landing on his head and knees.
Damn, he led me into that Torrach barrier he set up before! Kimora thought. The constant white stream of heat had made it hard to see.
Headsplitter rushed, screaming. Kimora shot out his hand to re-cast the flame, but it was too late. Headsplitter stopped, thrust his blade forward, and sunk the tip of the spear-end through the relatively thin armor of Kimora’s gauntlet, through the wrist, forearm, and elbow. Kimora withdrew his hand with a grainy, bloody jerk.
Then, from between the foes, a swarm of pebble-sized bubbles rushed upward and vanished. A pale creature stood around a pile of ashen dust that had taken the shape of Headsplitter’s weapon. Juxxa only held part of the handle now, and took a moment to register the change and jump backward.
The audience quieted. Claudia recognized the thing that had assisted Merrian—the Fey—but was more surprised by the King, who was on his feet in an instant. His voice was always amplified when he wished, but this time he lost control.
“A monster has intruded! Destroy that thing now!”
The entire ring of black stone shook. Everyone covered their ears, those who were able to, at least. Claudia bore the pain as best she could. As the echo copied his words ten times, a torrent of soldiers in toxic armor poured in from both open portcullises.
Soldiers formed an organized ring around the nude, pale creature. From so far away, Claudia could only measure its attitude by posture. One dainty hand glowed like a branding iron, as if it had annihilated the halberd just in time, while the other hand glowed a jade hue and was making Kimora’s wounds shine, ejecting beams of rainbow light before they presumably closed. The large man looked upon the damaged parts of his armor with surprise, and moved more freely than an injured man would.
Does that thing have Rat? Claudia thought.
The Fey’s rainbow wings warped into a fleshy, veiny black canvas, like those of a drake, and it rose halfway to the audience’s level in one loud flap, turning them back to buzz in place.
“Do not hurt the Chosen!” it said. When Sallith heard that feminine voice, he nearly split his lip in a grimace. He remembered it from over a decade ago. It spoke directly to Headsplitter, naively insistent, as if the fifty men with loaded crossbows were nonexistent. “You musn’t hurt the Chosen!”
It sounds so… young, Claudia thought.
“My loyal guards!” the King shouted, “that creature and Headsplitter’s other challenger are allied somehow. Slay them both!”
“No!” the unhinged screech of the Fey rang out just as loud as the King’s words. The audience, unclear about what was transpiring, knew at least that they were about to see more fighters at once than ever before, and responded with a jumping, sputtering approval. This changed as their eyes met the sky. It was reddening into a thorny meld of indigo and dark vermillion. The clouds were blacker than the King’s armor, and neither the sun nor any of their moons were anywhere to be found.
Down on the surface, the Fey twirled in the air like a nude swimmer and grabbed Kimora’s hand, but there was no result. It tugged and pulled, and the stunned Ozarian gained some of his sense.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to take us away! We have to go!”
“It can’t teleport! It works!” the King shouted, leaning against the wall with his hands planted high above his head. Facing away from his audience seemed to prevent the voice amplification. “The skymetal really does negate her powers!”
“Was it made to negate magic, my King?” Merrian asked, chin high and walking closer to Claudia.
“Yes, yes,” Sallith kept an excited hand over his mouth. “They truly gave me what I needed. They trusted me after all.”
The words from Claudia’s and Rat’s first meeting with Sallith then erupted in her mind. I will not allow you to bring monsters into the city. That was what the man had said.
She felt it awaken again. Her eyes were changing color. Jackal? Worm? No. There is no lowly creature in this world that describes your hypocrisy, Sallith.
“Now it’s time,” Merrian whispered into Claudia’s ear. She looked down and the dark woman turned a key to undo her wrist shackles. She jerked a leg in shock—those were free as well, she could move them, and they did not feel torn apart. A letter opener fell into her lap. It was hers. Merrian had it, somehow, although she had lost it after getting caught in Sallith’s treasure room.
What in the name of the Seers is this woman?
“All of the guards are devoted to this plan. Your mother is in the cells here, in the third quarter. Or you could also kill him here and now.”
Every heartbeat sent tearing heat through Claudia’s body. She felt far too alive compared to the state of her flesh, to say nothing of her mind. Merrian only smirked while returning to her place by the King’s throne. Sallith returned as well, excited to see the results of his trap.
Now she is setting me free? I can’t possibly move—
Now that she could try and move, she felt it: her bones were not broken, and while loose and pained, her joints were intact once more. She was sore like never in her life, but nothing felt cracked or separated. An unwavering force within was acting, far more than a sense of purpose or the numbness of trauma. Something told her it was the same force that kept her skin from ripping under the rack’s pressure or burning from candles.
She looked to Merrian, who had a single eye looking back at her. In the long-running breaths of this moment, she seemed to ask, Will you sit in that chair, or will you act?
When Merrian blinked, she saw Claudia leap off the platform and down the ramps of stone in a joint-cracking sprint.