Kings of the Hill
By: Jurixe Posted on: 1st May, 2018
It was time.
The first rays of dawn had barely begun to lighten the horizon as the stout Dwarf stumped through the gateway of the towering Matsuhama Arena. The chill of night hadn't quite dispersed yet, but the brisk air was welcome on his face as it awakened his senses. Today, he'd need them all on high alert.
Despite the early hour, the spectator stands of the historic arena already overflowed with people from all races and cities. Vendors hawked their wares loudly as he passed, and gold sovereigns clinked merrily as they changed hands for cold drinks, fresh fruits, and sweet treats in return.
The Dwarf stopped for none of these, however, as he made his way unerringly through the crowd to the arena staging grounds. A number of people were already here; some were heavily armoured and others wore only light robes, but all had lithe, muscled forms and wary expressions, marking them as seasoned warriors.
Most of them clustered together in small groups, strategising in low voices and giving their equipment a careful once-over. His eyes slid idly over them as he walked by, instinctively commiting the faces of his potential opponents to memory. Those who caught his gaze returned it with equal wariness.
"Irandir!" called a feminine voice, and he turned to see the group he'd been looking for in a corner. A female Human with close-cropped dark hair waved energetically at him, her eyes sparkling with welcome as she beckoned him over. Triani was always effusive - some would call that a peculiar quality in proper Mhaldorian society, but she didn't seem to care.
Beside her stood two tall Xoran men, one sandy and one dark, their postures similarly relaxed but alert. A huge red Dragon yawned luxuriantly, stirring up the dust as he stretched his wings, but the long-haired Tsol'aa leaning on the wall next to him was too absorbed in pouring liquid from one vial into another to notice.
"You're just in time! We thought you'd be late. They're about to start-" Triani began, just as a sonorous voice boomed throughout the firmament.
"We will commence the Year 770 Kings of the Hill tournament shortly! Captains and teams, gather round! I will be available to answer your questions in a polite and measured manner, unless you are Abeyan, in which case I will bring my most effective vitriol with me!"
Bemused, Irandir raised a bushy eyebrow at her, but she only shrugged. "Tharos and Bruyan were having a shouting match, and Abeyan said Bruyan was better."
He grunted at that. All knew Tharos' ego was legendary, second only to the size of his mouth.
The breathless exclamation made him turn abruptly to find a gangly girl staring at him in open-mouthed wonder. He frowned at her, slightly discomfited by her gawking. "What?" he demanded.
"Your -beard-," breathed the girl in awe. "It's so...BIG. I can't even see the rest of you!"
Irandir shrugged, his puzzlement fading to dismissiveness. Not a threat, therefore not interesting. "It keeps me warm."
"Can I...can I touch it?" asked the girl hopefully, oblivious to Irandir's growing impatience.
"No," he replied flatly, but the girl didn't seem discouraged, her amber eyes following the Dwarf intently as he brushed pointedly past her.
"I know, you gotta get ready. I'll see you later, beard man!" She hummed to herself as she wandered off, black robes swishing around her ankles, and Irandir heaved a sigh of relief.
"Got a new fan, son?" asked the Tsol'aa, smirking at him as Irandir drew close.
"Yeah," Irandir replied with feigned pride, pretending to strike a majestic pose. He knew his father well - Elwyn would never let him live it down, so he might as well own it. "She liked my beard."
"Uh-huh, 'beard man'."
He chose to ignore the jibe. "No draw yet?" he asked, more to change the subject than anything else.
"Nah. Probably now. Let's go." Elwyn pushed himself off the wall, the abrupt motion sending his robes fluttering as he stalked through the crowd with an easy grace. The others fell in line behind him, and together they made their way to Tharos.
The squat man - a generous term for one more mouth than anything else - strutted up and down one of the higher benches, clearly enjoying making people look up at him for once.
"Welcome, welcome!" Tharos declared, beaming as he spread his short arms wide. "The Year 770 Kings of the Hill tournament is about to begin! Six teams will join the fray - but who will emerge victorious?"
As Tharos began reciting the names of the participants, Citrix took the opportunity to assess their potential opponents. Earning bragging rights in the arena was all well and good, but the lucrative prize of twenty million gold sovereigns was really why they'd put this team together. There wasn't a chance in the Inferno that he'd let such a bounty slip through his fingers if he could help it.
They'd dismissed the Cyrenian team from the Vashnarian Shield as a non-threat, and viewed the Eleusian team in a similar light - though they were led by the veteran Wildguard Rakran, who couldn't be understimated.
Standing a few feet away were a gaggle of his Mhaldorian fellows in another team, with the Tyrannus at the fore. They would be a concern. Unsurprisingly, Targossas had also showed up with the former Dawnlord Ferawen in the lead. His green eyes flickered quickly over her entourage. Young, but with potential. Possibly concerning.
[No Ashtan team,] Irandir's voice echoed through the mindlink they all shared. [Disappointing, but good for us. They don't fight battles they aren't sure of winning.]
[I thought the Aegeans or the Babelites might have come,] said Elwyn.
[Too bad,] said Charion. [They used to have good fighters.]
Citrix almost missed the last group until a shift in the corner drew his attention to a knot of adventurers standing in the shadows. He smiled inwardly to himself. He'd faced many of those same Hashani in an ongoing crusade against Lord Twilight's shrines. They were unlikely to pose a problem, but it was good to see them participating nonetheless. One day they might be a force to be reckoned with.
He let none of his own thoughts show on his face as he returned his attention to Tharos. "...and now, your battles shall be determined by the order in which you signed up."
"That means Team Intrepid will face the Southern Shield in the first battle. Team Rabid Rabbits - I hope that's not literal - will take on the Dark Defenders. And the Incandescent Inquisition will fight the Servants of Evil!" exclaimed Tharos.
[Shouldn't be difficult,] Ronas growled.
Citrix thought the same, but felt it invited disaster to express overconfidence. Well did he know how results could go awry.
[Probably,] Elwyn agreed. [Let's do Koros first. Remember the plan?]
[Yeah,] rumbled Ronas. [You and Irandir run for the flag and the hill.]
[We run faster and kill faster than them,] chimed in Charion, who'd been largely silent until then.
[You got this!] Triani said, her youthful enthusiasm nearly palpable through the link. [Don't worry, I'll have towels and refreshments for you when you come out!] She was their backup in case of emergencies, but it was likely she'd have no part in the battle, so she'd appointed herself the team manager instead.
"Intrepid! Are you ready?" boomed Tharos, pointing a chubby finger straight at them.
Silently, Citrix drew his wicked scimitars from their jewelled scabbards, savouring their familiar weight in his hands as his clawed fingers closed around their metal hilts.
He was always ready.
Elwyn didn't look back as he stepped forward, knowing that his team would be right behind him. The excited crowd parted easily for them, clapping and cheering as they arrived at the swirling portal. He couldn't help but feel his spirits lift, buoyed by their excitement.
It'd been years since he'd fought alongside Irandir and Ronas. Decades since the golden age of them leading Eleusis to victory together in raids, skirmishes, Capture-the-Flag events and other bloody engagements. He was looking forward to fighting with them again.
It helped that the two warriors from the Nelmdar family rounded out, in his eyes, a highly competent side. After all, Citrix commanded the dread legions of Mhaldor as their Lord Marshal, and he'd tussled with Charion enough in fey Annwyn to know that the keen Xoran hunter was dangerous with his flame-touched blade.
Confidence surged within the Tsol'aa as he regarded his Cyrenian opponents. The Shield had made a genuine effort to advance the state of Cyrenian combat, but training drills in a neutral city were still no match for the experience granted by real, bloody battles - and that, the Intrepid had in spades.
They had this.
He smiled at the beautiful Siren in the lead. The Shieldlord was an old friend of his, and he was pleased that she had come to fight, even as he regretted that his team would be the one to halt their advancement.
Only slightly, though.
"Good luck," he offered politely.
She returned a wry smirk, glancing at his fellows arrayed around him. "Thanks. We'll need it."
"Let the tournament begin!" cried Tharos, the deafening boom of his voice carrying the announcement to all corners of Sapience.
The crowd roared their approval from the stands, bright flags and scarves a riot of fluttering colour in the morning light. The large portal blazed to life in swirls of gold and silver before their eyes, beckoning them onwards to danger, to bloodshed...
And to glory.
When the fog cleared, Ronas found himself deposited alone upon a golden desert of shifting sands. His teammates were nowhere in sight, but Ronas wasn't worried. They had time to regroup themselves, and he had fought with Irandir for so long that they may as well be two parts of a whole. An unremarkable earring set in his ear meant Irandir was never far away from him, and he now dipped his draconic head to set a claw to the tiny trinket.
He fixed the profile of the bearded Dwarf in his mind's eye as the earring warmed beneath his talon, transporting him to Irandir's side through a powerful enchantment. The others were already there in the forest clearing, calling up magical and physical defenses as they awaited the signal to begin.
Ronas clawed restlessly at the ground, leaving deep gouges in the soil. He'd been asleep a lot lately and hadn't truly fought in some time, but Elwyn had made them practice some strategies aboard the privacy of his ship the month before. Ronas had been pleased to find that all his old knowledge and reflexes remained intact; it was just a matter of recall.
"Citrix?" he rumbled, not seeing the sandy Xoran with them.
"Runing the area," responded Irandir, busy stoppering some fluids in small phials for use later. He'd be deprived of his favourite Mayology serum this time - it was a banned substance in games like these - but Ronas was certain he wouldn't miss it too much. Besides, he thought, the point was -not- to die in this competition, which was the inevitable outcome for any Mayology user.
But Ronas had his own preparations to make. Heat blazed behind his eyes as the red Dragon gathered his strength, summoning flames deep within his gut. Anticipation washed over him. He was impatient to kill. It had been too long. He'd missed the thrill of battle.
Abruptly, Citrix was right beside him, hastily tucking away a long sketching stick as he drew his blades. Not a second later, a gong sounded in the distance and two images shimmered into view before them: one, a large furled flag upon the grassy floor of the forest, and the other the entrance of a cave with a rocky, mossy overhang.
Irandir vaulted onto the back of his loyal ashen tiger and took off in a flash, racing ahead to secure the flag. A corona of light shimmered around Elwyn, resolving into the ephemeral image of a many-headed hydra before the Tsol'aa dashed in the other direction, and Ronas lumbered ungainly after him. Dragons might be graceful in the air, but they had a lot of bulk to haul on the ground.
Elwyn set a gruelling pace as the Intrepids crashed through a silent forest and clattered over a cobblestone road, intent on reaching the hill before their Cyrenian opponents came in sight. Their haste was rewarded when they rounded a corner and the cave in question loomed abruptly into view, devoid of other presences.
Stick in hand, Citrix set to work tracing the intricate patterns of the wunjo and nairat runes upon the ground in every direction, a defensive measure to stall and transfix unwary opponents. Beside him, Charion lifted his hands and pointed a ring at the four cardinal directions. Great walls of ice split the ground asunder as they rose to pierce the sky, boxing them into a small but protected space.
Ronas felt his earring warm as Irandir and his tiger appeared. The Dwarf leapt off the panting big cat and hastened over to them, carrying a large flag in one hand. Without ceremony, he thrust it deep into the soil at the cave's mouth and held it firmly there as the magic bonded it to the hill.
Five seconds passed, and Irandir let go as the flag fluttered triumphantly in place. The Dwarf expressed no satisfaction as he turned away, but Ronas knew he wouldn't; failure was never a possibility in Irandir's mind, and success an expectation. Like father, like son, he supposed.
Charion closed his eyes and Ronas felt the feather-light brush of the black Xoran's mind as he extended his awareness to the entire area. "All clear," he reported. Citrix stowed his stick away once more and set down his pack to pull out a tall, heavy totem, which he strained to heft upright in his arms.
Impatient, Ronas threw his head back and unleashed a thunderous roar of challenge, punctuating his taunt with a gout of flame loosed airborne. Elwyn grinned at him, the expression fierce with adrenaline and confidence, and the ghostly hydra's heads around him bared razor fangs in a feral mirror of his anticipation.
[Just like old times,] the Tsol'aa whispered to him, and Ronas rumbled his agreement.
"They're coming!" warned Charion as his dark eyes snapped open, drawing his gleaming sword in one smooth motion. Instantly, everyone tensed. Grips turned white-knuckled on weapons and bodies crouched into attacking stances.
The battle was about to begin.
Calling it a 'battle' might have been overstating it, thought Charion as he sheathed Withering Eel and looked around at the blood-soaked field. In reality, it had been a whitewash.
The Cyrenians had mounted a valiant effort against them and even managed to kill two Intrepids, but that was where the positives ended. Their uncoordinated attacks and slow reaction times exposed a glaring lack of practice and experience. Too many mistakes were made for survival to be possible against the seasoned Team Intrepid.
The black Xoran shook his head as he recalled their first incursion. They'd stumbled laboriously through his field of enchanted runes, stubbornly trying to push past the transfixing magic as Team Intrepid waited patiently.
Then Irandir had had the bright idea of attempting to displace them one by one into their icy stronghold; before long, Cyrenian after Cyrenian tumbled out of the etheric fold at their feet, each meeting a swift, ruthless end at their hands. Charion felt almost disappointed. Hadn't the Cyrenians ever been taught to counter an alchemist summoning with monolith sigils?
The hill and the flag were enchanted to shift every few minutes, preventing any single enemy from entrenching in a spot too long. It made no difference to the Intrepids, of course; they were just as happy to be on the move as they would be in a fortified defense.
Unable to keep up with their efficiency, the Southern Shield were forced to adopt the role of aggressor - truly an unfamiliar situation for the peace-loving citizens of neutral Cyrene - to try and score points. But facing a competent team with territorial advantage meant that that hope remained only hope.
By their third or fourth attempt at an attack, Charion could tell that the Cyrenians were learning caution. Their strategies were beginning to show some creativity and their executions were becoming more coordinated. Once, their leader Koros even employed a dangerous retardation vibe to slow time down, but the experienced Intrepids merely tumbled agilely out of the room, methodically killed all the survivors, and slew Koros last.
Charion grinned ruefully. All that practice fighting in indestructible retardation vibrations had paid off, thanks to the Lady of Nicator's Crossing. The Targossan champion enjoyed fighting in the effects of slowed time so much, the Staff of Nicator had further bolstered her power there by rendering any retardation vibration she spun unbreakable. She'd brought the Staff's power to bear against Mhaldor a number of times. What was a regular vibration to him now?
The quintet fought with a speed and efficiency Charion hadn't experienced since the days of Hexan and Xent, and he was thrumming with the sheer exhilaration of good synergy. It'd actually gotten to the point where they decided to forgo their ice walls to give the Cyrenians a fighting chance.
"Nice work," he called over to Citrix, who'd just pushed an impaled corpse off the end of his blade. The body fell unceremoniously to the ground with a solid 'thump,'blood pooling quickly beneath in a dark stain. Behind them, the flag snapped and waved gaily in a slight breeze, unheeding of the storm of conflict that raged over its posession.
"You too," came the reply.
Without warning, their time was up. Gold and silver swirled into existence as a portal opened in front of them, sucking them unceremoniously into its depths.
When Charion felt solid ground underfoot once more, he opened his eyes and found himself standing with the rest of his team on the spectator stands of the Matsuhama Arena. The roar of the crowd washed over him like rolling thunder.
"Team Intrepid wins the first round, a thousand points to none!"
Perched on a spectator's bench, Elwyn sipped from a glass of iced water as he watched the carnage unfold beneath him. The Eleusian team had defeated the Hashani team in a somewhat more even match than theirs. He wasn't surprised at the outcome, as Rakran was a veteran warrior of many centuries and the Hashani were relative newcomers to battle. It'd taken longer than he'd expected, though, but that might be due to the suboptimal composition of Rakran's team.
Inwardly, he shrugged. Eleusis had once had the pick of the realm's best fighters. But they'd driven them away with their jealousy and short-sighted. Now they would pay for their lack of faith. He thought he'd come to terms with that years ago, but his heart was still bitter with sheer disappointment.
The bout between the Servants and the Inquisition had been more interesting - and indeed, very close. In a personification of the age-old struggle between Good and Evil, both teams had jockeyed tirelessly for both the flag and the hill, which switched hands often. However, it was the Targossans that managed to hold possession just a little longer and a little more often than the Mhaldorian team, and the final score was a respectable one for both sides.
Triani popped up beside him, holding out another glass of water to him. This one had a lemon slice stuck on the rim. "More water?" she asked cheerily.
Elwyn smiled at her, the ice in his glass clinking as he gave it a shake. "I'm good, but thanks." He looked up to see the fighters stepping out of the portal, the Targossans looking tired but elated, while the Mhaldorians wore grim expressions on their faces.
"That was a close match, wasn't it?" asked Triani as she followed his gaze.
"Yes," Elwyn acknowledged, pushing dark hair out of his eyes. "We've only got a space of 500 points to win the round robin matches in, so we've got to go in fast and hard."
Triani made a small fist and thumped it on an imaginary desk. "We're the best team here. If anyone can do it, you can!" Her high voice rang with conviction.
The Tsol'aa grinned at her and carefully set his now-empty glass aside. It would be his turn soon. Rising to his feet, he shuffled along the bench with difficulty as other spectators made way for him to get out.
"We'll win if you cheer for us!" he called back to her.
She waved a pair of bright pink silk ribbons at him in answer. "That's what I'm here for!"
Seated astride his ashen tiger, Irandir waited for the countdown to begin with a tense anticipation. He'd learned of Targossas' strategies from the Servants, his defeated citymates, and he'd shared it with the rest of the team. Together, they'd devised a counterattack from what they'd been practicing beforehand. He was looking forward to the challenge.
High above, the familiar boom of the gong thrummed through the air and Irandir strained his eyes as the image began to form. He recognised the location of the flag even before the image had fully coalesced and sprang into action. With a touch of his heels, the massive predator beneath him leapt forward with a roar.
The wind rushed in the Dwarf's ears as he raced across the cobblestone road on tigerback, the beast's muscles bunching and flexing tirelessly under his saddle as they crossed the forest into a barren desert. The tiger had been his companion ever since his earliest days in Eleusis. They'd developed an almost intuitive understanding of each other over many years of hunting, fighting and riding.
So it was that the tiger didn't slow a second as they approached the furled flag, lying on the sands beneath an enormous Dragon ribcage. Gripping the saddlehorn tight with one hand, Irandir leaned sideways and deftly scooped the flag up as the tiger pounded past, quickly pulling himself upright again.
No time to stop. The flag must get to the hill. Dwarf and tiger raced on.
"Kill the priest fast. Their strategy depends on him."
That had been Charion's task this round: dispatch the Xorani priest with Irandir while the other three slew the bard.
They'd been surprised at how easy it had ended up being. The priest had crumpled quickly as Irandir wracked his sanguine humours and Charion scored slashes that bled freely all over his body. The bard hadn't fared much better under the combined onslaught of Dragon bites, runewarden doubleslashes and druid hydra snaps, crumpling like a heap of matchsticks in the first five seconds.
Deprived of their priest, the Targossans couldn't strip their anyone's blindness in time. Their strategy of transfixing their victim and bludgeoning him to death had fallen apart.
Ferawen had travelled alone to their hill again and again, clearly intending to use the enchanted earrings to bypass their rune and sigil hindrances via instant transportation. Such was the ferocity of Team Intrepid's attacks, however, that they brought her a hair's breadth from death within seconds of her arrival - and without her, the Incandescent Inquisition was an influential person down.
Charion had enjoyed the variation of strategies, at least, even if they hadn't worked. There was always pleasure in besting a skilled opponent. He wondered if they'd face the Targossans again.
"Team Intrepid takes the win again! Five hundred to nothing!"
The round robin portion of the tournament meant that they would also face the Eleusians to determine the final two. Ronas felt a peculiar mix of anticipation, resolution and longing as he looked over at his opponents on the other side of the stands. Rakran had taken him into his family and taught him how to fight. For years, he'd fought and bled for them. He'd defended the forests against Mhaldorians and believed that they were abominations upon earth.
How strange now, to be on the other side instead of standing with them. To challenge for glory in the name of the Lord he'd used to curse. To face his erstwhile family and home with the Master's escarbuncle branded on his forearm.
As if sensing his thoughts, the weathered Grook looked over at him and smiled. [Greetings, son.] His deep voice echoed in the private recesses of Ronas' mind.
[Hello, father.] Ronas kept his tone pleasant, neutral.
[You and Irandir are doing well in the tournament. It's good to see you still fighting together.]
[Where he goes, I go. As it has always been.]
Across the room, Rakran gave him a tiny nod. [So when are you coming back to us?] he asked conversationally. As if it was an inevitable outcome.
Ronas growled under his breath. [When Eleusis stops being a village of imbeciles.]
[If you came back, the ratio would get better,] Rakran pointed out reasonably.
[And do what?] Old frustration flared up in Ronas' chest, and he fought the urge to lash his spiked tail. [Chafe under their ridiculous restrictions and fight stupid arguments on the boards instead of with swords. I tried, father. It didn't work.]
Rakran only sighed. [Home is where you make it, son. Growth is not always an easy process. Nature knows that. Life flourishes despite the hardships.]
[Or it gets choked to death by parasites,] Ronas replied mercilessly. [I know you will not leave, and they are lucky to have you. But do not ask me to return to that life.]
[Very well,] Rakran murmured, and Ronas hardened his heart against the palpable disappointment thrumming through the mindlink. [Fight well, son.]
[And you.] Ronas watched as Rakran stepped through the portal and growled low in his chest, scarce more than a faint rumble.
Beside him, Irandir was silent, but a quick glance of understanding was all Ronas needed.
They'd chosen their paths and burned their bridges. There was nothing more to be said.
Charion frowned as his deathsense tingled with the fall of Irandir, slain at the hands of the Eleusians. [Irandir's down.]
[I'll get the flag.] Another corona of light temporarily blinded all as the image of the Condor overlapped Elwyn's form. Flapping his ephemeral wings, he soared into the air and glided swiftly off.
Charion watched the Tsol'aa vanish, wondering how the Eleusians had managed to pin the fleet Dwarf down. Probably with their annoying wildgrowth traps. They knew how to turn the environment to their ends too; in this Team Intrepid was well-matched. They'd have to be careful of that.
Not a few moments later, Elwyn's tense voice sounded over the link. [I've got the flag. Get to the hill.]
Charion was right behind Citrix as the sandy Xoran vaulted onto his golden wyrm and spurred it skywards, the wind buffeting him with every flap of the wyrm's wings. Ronas brought up the rear as the three swooped towards the Gaian forest. They had to get there first or it wouldn't matter that Elwyn had the flag.
The party crashed through the undergrowth and landed in a gloomy clearing, wan light filtering through the leaves above. Not a second later, a revived Irandir appeared next to Ronas as he dropped his fingers from the earring undoubtedly concealed in his beard.
"Traps," the Dwarf said, a succinct summary of his misfortune. "Elwyn?"
"Coming," Ronas rumbled.
Just then, Elwyn burst through the trees and alighted on the grassy floor, panting slightly. His grip, however, never wavered as the Tsol'aa plunged the familiar flag into place.
Charion closed his eyes and extended his senses, but he didn't have to look far to find his quarry. "Coming fast," he warned. Already they could hear crashing in the distance.
No time to set up. Charion watched as Citrix hastily sketched a single pair of his favourite wunjo and nairat runes on the ground. He drew Withering Eel and held it in a loose yet ready grip. This was going to hurt.
[Rakran will be tough, but Charion and I can deal with him,] Irandir said.
[Fine. We'll hit Morawi,] Elwyn replied, and Ronas growled in approval.
[Here they come.]
Elwyn was ready as the Eleusians crashed unceremoniously into their clearing, conflict erupting in an instant. He'd been the first target for most of their battles so far and simply accepted it as a compliment to the danger he posed.
This time, however, it seemed personal.
An arrow whizzed through the air and sank deep into his shoulder, the piercing pain made worse by the corrosive sting of prefarar venom. Before he could move, invisible fingers closed around his neck as Rakran clenched a fist before him, scowling at Elwyn as he attempted to cut off his air supply.
[You are a disgrace to Nature. You shame the Earthmother with your blasphemy. How dare you use the forces of Nature against us? Alongside -them-, they who seek only to harm it?] Rakran's outrage was a concussive strength all its own through their mindlink.
Fury flooded Elwyn's veins, giving him the presence of mind to take a deep breath and hold it. [You never spoke up for Lady Gaia when I was in Eleusis and She was aware. You allowed fear to lead the village astray from Her. So get off your high horse, Rakran!]
The battle raged all around them, yet Elwyn seemed trapped in time with Rakran, as though they were the only two people in the world. [What happened to you, Elwyn?] Rakran asked, almost sorrowful as he twisted his body to deliver a powerful roundhouse kick. [What happened to Gaia's Champion?]
The Tsol'aa dodged the kick neatly and sent all three of his hydra heads darting forward to clamp painfully down on Rakran's broad shoulders. [I grew out of pandering to idiots who only want power for show and denounce those that actually try to serve Nature. I should've left long ago.]
Anger blazed through the link. [Yes. Maybe you should have,] Rakran replied shortly, and launched himself at Elwyn again.
The nairat runes on Citrix's scimitars flared as he tightened his grip on them, feeling the cold blue flames wreathing the steel. Without hesitation, he yelled a battlecry as he charged at the eight-foot-tall Viridian in front of him.
A thorny vine lashed out and whipped him across the face, but he shook his head to clear it and redoubled his efforts. Crossing his scimitars, he lunged forward and slashed powerfully downwards at the creature. Frost trailed in the wake of each deep cut, spreading over a large section of vines that shattered into ice crystals with another blow.
Opposite him, the ghostly hydra heads around Elwyn snapped and tore at the Viridian's legs, mercilessly tearing more vines off. Ronas unleashed a blistering torrent of dragonfire that set the dry bark covering the Viridian alight, and heat and light flared for an instant in the confined clearing.
Then it happened. With an arch gesture from Irandir, Rakran stumbled forward, blood pouring from every orifice in his face, and Citrix recognised the deathly stillness that settled over Charion as he drew his blade. Rakran had time only to turn and face his fate as Charion gracefully swung steel through air, neatly carving through Rakran's body with the four fatal cuts that formed the broken star.
As the Grook's corpse fell in bloodied chunks to the ground, the Eleusian team lost their nerve. The stream of arrows flying in from parts unseen stopped, the Serpent undoubtedly fled; attacks turned to defensive manuevers as the survivors scrabbled to escape, but Team Intrepid would not be denied their bloody victory.
Another five hundred to nought result later, the Intrepids gathered with the crowds in the stands to watch the Eleusians face down the Targossans. The winner of this match would face them in a best-of-three final, so it was essential to find out who it would be.
Dutiful Triani had brought them iced water again, and the five warriors made a strange picture as they lounged on the benches, sipping from delicate glasses. Ronas, finding the drink impossible to manage in Dragonform, had resumed his Dwarven form during the interval and seemed happy to be a more compact size again.
"Who do you think will win?" asked Triani, watching the two teams tussling below.
"Targossas looks the stronger side for sure," remarked Citrix.
"Yeah," Irandir agreed, draping an arm over his sleeping tiger. "Ferawen's got the better side, even though her team is younger."
"Age doesn't mean anything. Some of those old Eleusians looked like they didn't know what they were doing," Triani said.
"They never do," said Elwyn, his voice deadpan, earning a few grins. If his smile didn't quite reach his eyes, no one seemed the wiser. "If they win, though, the tournament's as good as ours."
"They'll probably still claim victory either way," said Charion, yawning widely.
Triani thumped him on the shoulder, and he sat up with a grimace. "Ow!"
"No yawning," she said reprovingly. "You've still got two more fights! Stay awake."
"Well they should hurry up then," he grumbled, massaging his shoulder.
A loud cheer from the Targossan section of the crowd drew their attention back to the arena as the combatants filtered out. "There, Targossas got it. Wonder if they'll change their strategy against us this time," Elwyn mused.
"Well," said Ronas, stretching as he stood up.
"Let's find out."
Irandir took a deep breath, controlling his temper. Once more, he urged his tiger to lift his paws up and step forward. You can do it, he willed him. The big cat struggled to obey, but his best efforts yielded nothing more than a frustrated roar that reverberated around the cave. The golden tracery of runes on the floor described a rite of piety that bound both him and his steed to the earth by his faith.
An image shimmered through his mind of a silver Dragon picking up the flag and dashing away with it, and he grit his teeth. [Ferawen got the flag,] he said tersely over the link. [It was in a cave and they lay rites of piety on the only path to it.]
[That's fine,] Elwyn responded immediately. Irandir could almost see the wheels turning in his head. [We'll take the hill. Come to us.]
Allowing himself one more snort of annoyance, the Dwarf pinched his earlobe and felt the earring warm between his fingers as the magic pulled him through time and space to a lumbering Ronas' side. His tiger hit the ground running and adapted immediately, matching his powerful strides to the headlong dash of the group.
[They've taken up different skills for this fight,] Irandir reminded everyone as they came to a stop deep within the forest. [Ferawen is a Dragon, Itess is a water elemental and Abeyan is a paladin now. They might try to flush us out with a tsunami.]
No sooner had Citrix picked up and propped his totem than they heard the Targossans arrive adjacent. Irandir tensed and his tiger growled softly, but a second passed, then two, and still the Targossans hadn't moved.
[What are they doing?] rumbled Ronas in confusion. [Now they're going further away, but the hill is here.]
[I think they're trying to figure out how to deal with Citrix's totem,] replied Elwyn.
Silence for a minute, then - [Ferawen just left,] whispered Charion urgently.
A surge of excitement rose up in Irandir. It was an opportunity too good to be missed. [She has the flag. Let's charge the rest. She won't dare come help them.]
Split-second decision. No one hesitated. [Let's go.]
This battle had been the most intense so far, and despite the beginnings of exhaustion creeping up at the edges of his awareness, Elwyn was enjoying himself as he hadn't in a long time.
Seeing the startled faces of the Targossans as his team launched themselves at them had been very gratifying. Without Ferawen to give the orders, it didn't take long for the Incandescent Inquisition to crumble. To their credit, they put up admirable resistance, but the outcome was never in doubt; first the bard, then the two water elementals and finally the paladin all succumbed to Team Intrepid's systematic onslaught.
Just as Irandir predicted, Ferawen didn't appear to help her beleaguered teammates. The arena wasn't large, though, and she couldn't run far. Citrix flushed her out, Ronas ran her into the Modi River, Irandir wrenched the dripping flag from her limp grip, and Elwyn planted it triumphantly at the new hill of the moment - appropriately, a giant sun-bleached Dragon's ribcage within the desert.
A commendable team effort indeed.
The Targossans hadn't given up, however. After they regrouped, the battle resumed - and there had been some truly tense moments as the Intrepids found themselves scattered and slain. Elwyn himself had often been the first to fall. Irandir, however, always managed to stay just out of reach as he led the Targossans in a merry dance, harrying them with concussive compounds and monoxide gas phials to stop them from uprooting the flag.
Despite himself, Elwyn smiled at the thought, pride welling in him at his son's prowess. Irandir's disruptive tactics had proven effective. By the time the hill shifted again - Intrepid flag intact - Elwyn and the rest of the team had quickly secured it, and the Inquisition had to begin their efforts anew.
Ah, the song of battle was a sweet melody indeed. He glanced at the flag flapping in the breeze, then up at the scoreboard looming over the arena.
Not long now...
And so, Citrix thought, it all came down to this.
Flanked by the rest of the Intrepids, he looked at the Targossan team arrayed before them. Weariness showed in some of their faces, and even he had to admit the adrenaline high was beginning to subside. They'd been fighting all day, and the last battle had been more challenging than the rest - the final score of seven hundred to nought was perhaps just a tad unflattering for the Targossans.
This upcoming battle, however, could very well be the decider. If his team won, they would be crowned the Kings of the Hill and reap the dream bounty of twenty million sovereigns. But if they lost, then they would have to fight yet another match to decide the winner, and their hard-won advantage would be meaningless.
The din was deafening as combatants and spectators shouted themselves hoarse with taunts, cheers, encouragements and insults. He'd already been mentally innundated with well-wishes from supporters; he'd tried to thank as many as he could, but there were just so many.
He disliked suspense, and he'd never been one for all this fanfare - that was his mother's domain. It was time for action, not words.
A movement caught his eye and he turned his head as Ferawen stepped forward, extending a hand towards Elwyn. "May the best team win," the Xoran said solemnly.
Elwyn nodded, clasping her hand firmly as he flashed her an affable smile. "Good luck to you."
[Good luck, Lord Marshal,] echoed a chirpy whisper in Citrix's mind. Pelo, the newest addition to his family. Good kid, if a bit excitable.
[Let's hope it won't come to that,] he remarked wryly to Pelo. Luck was a risky thing to bet twenty million sovereigns on, but then that was probably a single roulette wager at the Ace of Spades.
"This could be the final battle of the Kings of the Hill tournament!" boomed Tharos, positively bouncing with excitement. "Will Team Intrepid secure victory? Or will the Incandescent Inquisition make a comeback? I don't know about you, but I'm ready to find out!"
"Take your places, teams!"
One last battle. It was time to make it count.
Charion had never made it so far in a world competition before - indeed, this was the first he'd ever participated in - and their runaway success in the tournament had crystallised his ephemeral desire for a respectable showing into a diamond-hard resolve to settle for nothing less than victory.
He patted the sheathed blade at his side as he waited for the battle to begin. Withering Eel had served him well today. People made fun of it all the time, but he'd actually been inspired to keep it because of the ridiculous name. For a name was only a jumble of letters; it didn't change an object's nature. All that mattered was how it was used. It was always satisfying when he killed with it and the world marvelled that such an unfortunately-named blade could wreak such havoc.
Certainly Rakran would remember it today, he thought smugly.
His thoughts were interrupted as Elwyn spoke abruptly on the mindlink. [It looks like they'll try to cause as much damage as they can this time. Abeyan is a monk again, and Ferawen is a mage.]
[Like I said. We've just got to run faster and kill faster than them,] Charion said sagely.
Once more did the gong sound, and all ran like clockwork. Irandir got the flag and they planted it within a blood-soaked clearing, the air thick with the coppery tang of blood. Charion didn't mind the smell. It reminded him of home.
Citrix was straining again beneath the weight of a totem as Ferawen wandered in alone. A repeat of her earlier tactics? Charion wondered at her naivete as the runes on the totem flared, and she stood transfixed by them. Surely she wouldn't be so dense..
Without warning, Ferawen's eyes snapped back to clarity sooner than expected. With a defiant flourish, the Xoran thrust an olive branch into the air, and a bubble of shining serenity enveloped her whole person. Charion snarled and thrust his golden blade straight at her, but to his consternation, the bubble robbed all the force from his blow and he couldn't do more than poke ineffectually at Ferawen.
Momentarily confounded by the unexpected turn of events, they spent just a little too long attempting to break Ferawen out of the enchantment. Her teammates burst through the clearing and Elwyn gave a sharp cry as he was quickly overwhelmed. Charion tried to get to him, but abruptly found himself rooted to the spot as the Targossan bard stepped in front of him and began to dramatically declaim an epic tale of heroism to him. He didn't even know any of these heroes...but wait...that man was a legend! He'd done that? Really? How interesting it suddenly all seemed! But-
He never saw Abeyan come up behind him. Barely registered getting his body picked up.
In fact, he was still debating the virtues of Lucaine Pyramides and Lucius Errikale right up to the moment where the monk snapped his spine in half.
For the first time, the Targossans had managed to plant a flag against them, a blemish on their previously perfect record. When Team Intrepid reconvened on the banks of the Modi river, Irandir saw the same desire for retribution burning in everyone's eyes.
[Let's wait till the hill changes,] suggested Ronas. [Then meet them there instead.]
[Good idea,] he agreed.
When the image of the next hill shimmered into view, they pushed themselves hard and reached the duelling arena just a few seconds before the Targossans arrived too. Without hesitation, Irandir plucked a phial from his belt and flung it towards them. A loud 'BOOM' shook the ground as the phial exploded with concussive force, flinging at least one of the unprepared Targossans some distance away with a surprised yell.
With a roar, Ronas charged forward, seizing Ferawen in his jaws and crushing her bones as he shook her from side to side like a rag doll. Charion and Citrix dashed up on either side of him in a two-pronged attack, whirling and slashing in a frenzy of bloodlust. Elwyn had decided to morph into a wyvern for this fight and was blasting white-hot flames at opponents to incinerate them, while Irandir was wreaking havoc by throwing phials of potent formulas every which way.
It was a fierce free-for-all, and the Targossans fought just as bitterly as they did, but in the end the combined experience of Team Intrepid gave them the barest edge they needed to win. It was over within a minute, and when the dust settled, they had control of the flag and the hill once more.
[Let's play it safe. Don't lose the hill again,] Elwyn decided. No one objected, still smarting from their earlier mistake.
They dug in deeper than they'd ever had before, moving from one hill to the next with the fluidity of the Silverveil and fortifying each new location with as many defenses as they could muster. Again and again they repelled the Targossans, until Irandir could see the Inquisition's efforts beginning to flag, and knew that victory was within reach.
Then the unthinkable happened.
As Irandir flung another concussive phial towards the battling Targossans, a chance bat of someone's hand sent the phial careening abruptly back towards him. He didn't even have time to duck as the fragile glass vessel smashed at his feet.
He braced himself for the blast, but instead of the expected compound, a fine powder rose from the ground, drifting around his face. He knew a brief moment of relief, but-
Powder? Wrong vial.
Abruptly, the dust ignited in a blinding flash all around him, and he cried out in agony as the light seared his eyeballs. Crumpling to the ground, he pressed his palms to his face, his eyes stinging horribly as brilliant stars burst behind his eyelids. Luckily, the fight was some way away from him, so no one noticed his collapse.
Slowly, Irandir opened his eyes, but could see nothing but darkness. He turned his head this way and that, waving his hands in front of his face, and felt cold dread clench around his heart. He pressed a thumb hard against the mindseye tattoo he knew was inked on his forehead, but that, too, granted no clarity of sight.
He was blind.
[I...I can't see.]
[Ink a mindseye tattoo.] Elwyn's mental thoughts were curt, distracted. No doubt his father was fighting somewhere.
Irandir struggled to calm himself. [No. That won't work. A vial of phosphorus exploded too close to me.]
[What?] Ronas exclaimed incredulously. [You're completely blind? You can't see at all?]
[Yes.] His terse answer was met with a heavy silence. If Irandir couldn't see, he couldn't fight, and that meant they were effectively a man down with victory not quite assured yet. Once the Incandescent Inquisition knew he was handicapped, there was a very real chance of them turning the tide.
But they didn't know yet, and that might make all the difference.
[Irandir. Do you trust us?] Elwyn's voice. Calm.
[What? Yes, of course.] Irandir was irritated and anxious. Was this really the time for his father to be trying to bond with him?
[We'll be your eyes.] Suddenly, Irandir felt something large lumber towards him, the ground trembling with each heavy step, then settle to a ponderous stop a few inches away. He had to force himself not to instinctively back away from whatever it was.
Something seized him by the back of his robes, and Irandir yelped as he was plucked into the air. He was swung to one side, and without warning, he felt himself falling. Despite himself, a short yell of terror escaped his lips before - oof! - he fell onto something large, warm, and scaly.
[What...] Disoriented, he felt around with his fingers, outlining saucer-sized scales. [Ronas?]
[Yeah. Just hold on to me, if you can,] the fiery Dragon rumbled. [We'll tell you what to throw and where. You know your phials by touch?]
Silently relieved that he could still be useful, Irandir collected himself and sat up slowly, feeling around his belt. [Yeah. I think so. Each type of concoction is in a uniquely shaped phial, so they should be easy to identify.]
[Please make sure you know which one has the phosphorus this time,] said Charion drily, though without any real menace in it.
[Like I'm going to make that mistake again.]
And so it was, incredibly, that all five turned to face down Targossas' final, last-gasp assault. Devoid of sight, Irandir clung on as tightly as he dared to Ronas, hanging on as the great wyrm twisted to knock fighters down with his tail or trampling the ground to crush enemies underfoot. At the same time, the Dwarf tried to focus his mind on listening to his team's mental commands.
[Throw a concussive to your right, Irandir! As hard as you can!]
[Drop an incendiary arm's length, your left!]
[Straight ahead, hard - need an intoxicant!]
To Irandir, the battle raged on for what seemed like eternity. He'd never realised how much he depended on his sight and often he hesitated, taking a precious extra second or two to determine if the phial was in fact the right one. He couldn't be sure of how effective the ones he did throw were, but it was gratifying to hear screams after his phials shattered and recognise that they weren't from his team.
At least, no one had yelled at him for it yet.
How long had it been? Were the rest still alive? Did they still have the flag? He hated not knowing. It must be over soon, surely it must be done, they must be only seconds from victory now-
Finally, blessedly, great relief swept over him as he felt the familiar tug of the portal around his navel. He allowed himself a moment to slump in exhaustion as the magic drew him back towards salvation. Salvation and triumph.
It was over. They'd done it.
"Team Intrepid are victorious in not only this bout but the Kings of the Hill tournament as a whole, remaining undefeated through every single match!"
Listening to Tharos shout the news to the world, Elwyn could only wonder at how surreal it all felt. Fierce joy and pride thrummed in his veins as he grinned at his teammates. In the fading sunlight, they all looked distinctly the worse for wear - though Irandir's temporary true blindness had thankfully worn off - but their battered appearances only magnified the intensity of their jubilation.
He'd always known they could do it, but knowing something was one thing. Seeing it made real was another.
The squat man hastened over to them, motioning impatiently for them to stoop. One by one, they bent their heads as he gleefully looped ribbons of green silk around their necks, a heavy copper medallion dangling from the end above their sternums.
"Congratulations, men! You've well earned your reputation!" Tharos exclaimed jovially, shaking their hands energetically before turning to the crowd.
"Elwyn, Ronas, Irandir, Citrix, and Charion are thusly named Kings of the Hill, claiming the grand prize of twenty million sovereigns for their team!"
The answering roar of the crowd was louder than thunder and fiercer than a hurricane; for a moment the five, even stoic Irandir, simply stood there and smiled as the cheers and congratulations washed over them.
"Yayyy, beard man!" Elwyn couldn't smother a grin as Irandir whipped his head around at the shout, frowning deeply in the girl's direction. He suspected it was more for show than anything else.
Extricating herself from the grasping crowd, Triani bounced over to them and fairly squealed in delight as she saw them. "What did I tell you! You did it! You did it! It was the water that made the difference, I'm telling you, no other teams had a team manager to get them iced water."
He nodded agreeably. "You cheered for us, didn't you?"
She frowned in puzzlement. "Well of course!"
"Then that's why we won," he grinned. "Just like I said."
"Wow. I am -powerful-."
Next to them, the five Targossans smiled and came over to shake hands after accepting their own prizes. "Well fought," said Abeyan as he shook Elwyn's hand. "Class act."
"Thank you, you too," smiled Elwyn, the words heartfelt. After everything, Targossas had given them a good fight. One couldn't ask for much more than that.
"What will you do now?" asked Abeyan, glancing at the Mhaldorians standing around Elwyn.
The Tsol'aa shrugged. "Well, I'm a King of the Hill now."
"Seems to me that I'd best get started on finding a hill to rule. Take care, Dawnlord." With that cryptic answer, he tipped Abeyan a wink and sauntered away with the rest of his team, leaving the Xoran staring bemusedly after him.