The Tournament 01: The Reincarnatebymadam_noe©
Copyright 2012 Nora Quick
Author's Note: This is the first of 10 stories set in the future after World War III. They are very short (8-10 pages double spaced in MS Word each), non-erotic, and follow a few POVs. It deals with polytheism heavily and there is a lot of violence and fighting. I hope you enjoy these stories, they are being developed into another project soon. As always, I welcome comments and feedback.
You would think that after almost three thousand years with humans I would be sick of them, but yet in all that time I couldn't figure them out. I only knew I was different, not fully human, yet I was all too mortal. I was only a little stronger and faster than average because of my size and build, having an athletic frame for a girl and having learned how to be scrappy at an early age. It wasn't anything like that that set me apart, it was the fact that my spirit couldn't die.
Oh, it was unfashionable to believe in a soul but I knew I had one. At the age of thirteen the weight of dozens of lifetimes had descended like madness. I knew what it meant truly to be good and evil, I knew in intimate detail as an adolescent how bloodlust could turn into something sexual and violent in the heat of battle, and I knew what it was to bring a new life into the world.
After several years locked away due to these "delusions" I'd left to find my own place in the dying world. There was one woman from every lifetime I knew, and I sought her out. I didn't know her name, and sometimes she was young and perfectly beautiful, sometimes middle aged and fierce, and sometimes old and stoop-backed but it was the same woman, and she was the key. In every life she had appeared, guiding me in one way or another, but in this lifetime she had yet to appear.
I found myself giving up. I was twenty-eight and never had she waited so long, and so I felt abandoned to some mysterious fate that had never materialized.
Like many my age I had no real skills or education and so I drifted north in search of clean land and people to help me make my way and survive just one more day. When there was work to be had I took it, mostly menial labor for low pay, often times just for a meal and dry place to sleep, not even gold. That night I pulled up to a roadhouse, the closest thing to an outpost here in the wild north. After the wars there were few cities left standing and most of the world retreated to these small groupings of temporary quarters designed to be abandoned as the fallout drifted in inevitably.
The roadhouse was a complex of buildings, the largest four stories high, all of it raw wood barely weather-beaten and shoddily constructed. Inside would be a pub, some vice shops, a hotel and the brothel. The outer buildings were better more expensive rooms to rent if you were staying longer than a night, the common shops, and the crammed apartments of permanents.
There wouldn't be much work to be found in the dead of night and I was lucky enough to have enough gold for a room and a meal, maybe even a cheap beer if the brewer was any good. If the inside was nicer than the outside and prices were higher, well, I wasn't above taking my turn at the brothel to earn money. I didn't do it regularly not because of any moral objection, but because I couldn't stay in any one place long enough. Somebody starts talking about some event their great grandparents went to and you correct them on the details since you were there...it gets dicey, the voices in my head take turns speaking, and I got driven out of town for it all too often.
Inside it wasn't bustling, but it was past three, the witching hour. Religion may have been a thing of the past but for those of us who'd survived the wars superstition was strong. It was shame; mirrors were few and far between and there were no more black cats. Sad on the cats, in my lifetimes I'd owned nearly one hundred. I didn't miss the mirrors however, the pale girl with the shadowy eyes and stringy red hair was always something of a shock. Sometimes I'd expect an old, wizened man, or a young girl with blonde braids. I was all that and none.
I found my way to the bar, for bartenders were the closest thing to a mayor of these little burgs. The one there was as grey and rundown as the ramshackle scavenged furniture, but his clothes were all new and good quality, even if they were mostly lightly tanned leather.
"What can I do ya for?"
"How much for a room, small one, and a meal?"
"Five gold pieces, Union standard."
I winced as the chorus of selves in my head echoed that in terms they all knew better. A cow, or three pigs not in season. Ten hides large. Eight hundred dollars, American. Fifteen hundred dollars, American, half a century later.
"Brothel need any help?"
He looked me up and down and it wasn't flattering. I was no great beauty, not many curves to speak of, but out here any woman not tainted by radiation sickness or mutation was a welcome sight.
"Got experience, girlie?"
I nodded refusing to blush. When you can remember raping your way across an island sex lost all sense of shame, though you never did. "I'm twenty eight, radiation-free."
I reached into my vest, shifting my saddlebags. My bike was nothing great, but it worked and wasn't easily stolen, yet it meant carrying my few possessions in a hefty saddle bag that made me walk with an unfeminine swagger.
I handed the papers with all my check-ups and stamped by previous dictators of these establishments. "There's no other work you need done, any repairs, cleaning, moving kegs? I'm not a great cook but I've used a fryer before and I can wash dishes."
"Don't like the soft work, do ya? Sorry kid, but only work we need is easy and has you on your back. I'll feed you for free and throw in good, clean beer, but you leave your bags behind the bar and go on up and see Ruby when it's time to work."
I'd been expecting this but was a little disappointed. Hey, all the clients had to have the same papers to prove them safe and clean, and if he was young, good looking, and halfway decent I'd have a good time, but it seemed a waste. I had many skills acquired over many lifetimes but my best s fighting. There was a cage set up for it but all the posters had male fighters, and that was my problem. Women were might bit scarcer than men in these parts and they made much more money whoring than fighting.
Handing over my saddlebags I took a seat and waited as he put the bags into a cubby and gave me the ticket from it. He washed out a glass with a filthy rag and filled it with beer so light it made my piss look black, and my threatening depression deepened. If this was the good stuff, gold was hard-won and I might only make enough to cover the room, food, and beer with none left over. I had two gold pieces but expected to use them both to fill up my bike in the morning and head on to the next town.
I drank the beer with a sigh and turned around to watch people. There were balconies for the upper floors rimming the grand room, the hotel rooms on the top floor with a private stairway for any who wanted to avoid the whores. The second floor were the permanent whores decked out in ridiculously revealing outfits and painted like something from an ancient Halloween. The floor above them held the few women like me, those just passing through and in need of money. A normal woman might have wondered at why they, nay, we, were more popular, but having lived plenty of lifetimes as a man I knew the allure of innocence all too well.
You might think that that would make me desire women as well, but therein lay my quandary. I may be dozens of men and women over centuries, but equally I was Keelin of Thorpe, daughter of Jackson and Meghan. Sometimes it felt like I was a real, whole woman with too many ghosts in her head.
I was shaken from my reverie as a heavy body landed on the stool next to me. We were at the bend of one side, backs to the wall. Most patrons chose to sit closer to the center where musicians played and a few people danced amongst the scant tables, in line of sight of the few businesses open this late on the edges of the large room selling tobacco, hallucinogens, and other enticing luxuries to drunks.
It was a man and he wore a cloak with a hood. I got the impression of modest height a few inches below my own six feet but broad shoulders and sturdy arms straining the seams of the upper sleeves. He threw back the cowl and I was struck with shock. He was Asian.
I knew this because in past lifetimes, before the wars, planes and boats had let the world mingle. These days we knew the Asia Majora and Minora Unions existed, but you had a better chance hearing from a relative stranded on the lost lunar colony than any from the former Orient.
He looked at me and the look was hard, assessing. Perhaps I had my first customer already, but something about him told me it wouldn't be my idea of fun. I had no problem with his origins, it was just the hard look in his eyes which seemed to be a soulless, flat black.
"You're a hard one to find," he said with a thick accent sounding exotic to my ears.
"Excuse me?" No one was looking for me. In the modern world people disappeared all the time. I'd left the fringes to wander union territory as a nameless, faceless vagrant, one of thousands. The only one who might seek me was the strange woman, but for all her disguises, she was never a man, certainly not one like this.
"I am Li Bao-Zhi. My friends call me B. You may call me Death."
I rolled my eyes at that and took a swig of beer. "Does that line ever work on any woman?"
The bartender slapped down a plate of stew that theoretically contained actual fresh meat. He spit his chew into a tub on the bar to my left and eyed the newcomer. "This guy bothering you, Keelin?"
"You truly do not know me?" B, Death, whatever he wanted to call himself, said with a raised brow.
I wish I could say the world had gone in a good direction after the wars, but xenophobia made people do strange things. In this life all I'd ever seen were white faces. "I don't know you from Adam," I said before I could censure myself. At the archaic expression not uttered in nearly a thousand years I earned two puzzled looks.
"Then I am a friend you have not met. I wish to pay for her food and drink and have the same."
"She's earning the food...friend," the barkeep said.
B's eyes drifted to the balconies scanning the shy virgins forced there by their families and the road-weary travelers like myself. "I'll buy a room as well and pay for the food." His voice was hard and then he turned that dead stare on the barkeep who swallowed and nodded.
"I'm not fucking you," I said plainly. I wasn't a fool, perhaps I could get the food, beer, and the room for another deal, so I didn't refuse it outright.
The bartender returned with a dirty glass of beer and a key. The stranger laid out a gold bar without batting an eyelash. "Clean glass, clean food, clean room, and stay out of our business."
"Yes sir," the barkeep said without looking at me, abandoning me to fate, and took the dirty beer away to clean a glass with a new rag. As the beer poured he put the gold bar into a lockbox already brimming with the night's take.
"I said I ain't fucking you." It was Raymond talking now. I'd lived his life five hundred years ago and he'd been a rover like me, though he'd made his money fighting. I'd been big and burly with a good reach and high pain tolerance, perfect for boxing, and he was always up for a fight.
The stranger didn't blink at my archaic word choice and took the clean beer, pocketing the room key after checking the number on it. "You and me are going to fight. Winner gets the room, in fact winner gets everything off the loser."
Warily I sized him up. There were rumors the Asian Union citizens had a special way of fighting. From past lives I knew it well; speed and directed force factored highly, and they kicked as much as punched. I'd studied some styles like that in past lives but as someone else. Just because I had the knowledge did not mean I still had the mastery. "How you figure that?"
"You have no idea, do you? I'm the first."
"First of what?" I dug into my stew and ignored the horrible taste of days-old meat and gristle covered up with too much salt and black pepper. One thing I missed in this lifetime were spices, good luck getting paprika on this continent.
"The first of seven. Do you even know what we're fighting for?"
I turned back to him and caught those dead eyes. Could be just a dark brown with a blown pupil. "Smoking something fun tonight, mister?"
Something like anger flashed through him for a moment. "We fight for the world. The winner opens the gateway and their gods return to save us from ourselves. I've studied you, you and all them. You're the reincarnate, you remember each and every lifetime."
A cold chill wound through that had nothing to do with the drafty room. I tried to speak but couldn't find my voice, my own eyes wide with shock.
"I have a power too, like you, but different. I can speak to my ancestors and they aid me. You and me, we are of the past as much as the present. Can it be you do not know? You do not know of me, the Aztec, the Egyptian, the Norse champion? Not even the Japanese or the Roman, even the Greek?"
He was using words no one else did, words for places and people that had died in our language decades ago. After the war no place remained the same and the world was carved up. The concept of nations no longer existed to these humans but they did to me because I was there at the birth and death of many. Hell in two lifetimes far apart I'd been teachers, one specializing in history.
"You do not know. Your goddess has not even found you. This will be easy. Tonight Keelin of Thorpe, you die." With that he stood quickly and brandished a sword from his cloak. It was long and sharp and shone under the dim lights for a moment.
With barely a conscious thought I grabbed my hot plate of stew and threw it at his face, scrambling back off the stool. I tied to run around him but he grabbed at me and snagged my leather jacket. Kicking out at him he guarded his crotch which I'd been aiming for and I twisted away.
"My saddlebags!" I yelled at the barkeep, but his eyes slid behind me as I ran, alighting on the stranger with the sword.
Chaos exploded around us as tables and chairs were overturned by people scrambling to get out. Life was so precious that weapons were almost universally illegal and the sight of one turned normal humans into mindless panicking cows stampeding.
The bartender scrambled with them and I vaulted the bar just as the sword slashed out at me and caught my jacket, tearing open a hole and grazing my skin through my thin t-shirt underneath.
He was fast, damn fast, and strong. I didn't know which cubby had my bags and even then it would take me long minutes to find my knife. I looked about for another weapon as the sword swung again and I ducked, though a few ends of my loose hair were sliced off. The thing was razor sharp.
Heart hammering I grabbed a bottle and shot up, planning to break it on his face before he could pull his arm back, but he was fast and balanced. His return swing brought the sword length-wise against me and it cut through leather and cotton to slice open my forearm. I dropped the bottle and dashed back before the tip could catch my throat.
I slammed into the shelves and he didn't miss a beat, vaulting the bar. I scrambled sideways and tripped over my own feet, sprawling on the floor. His eyes twinkled now with malice as he raised his sword with both arms like an axe, preparing for the death blow.
In that moment eternity stretched before me and I made peace. I'd come back, and in fourteen years I'd remember this life too, and then I could figure this all out, if the world was still alive. The fight went out of me and I closed my eyes, ready for the short oblivion before rebirth.
Metal rang out like a song and I opened my eyes to see a strange sword blocking his.
The stranger looked shocked and before he could move he shimmered...and disappeared.
Slowly the rushing blood in my ears subsided and I heard the screams and shouts around us as the dozens of people fled to the two exits. The pain in my arm bubbled up to screaming pressure and on jellied knees I rose, peeking over the bar to see who the new threat was.
It was the woman, the middle-aged warrior of my past lives. She was tall and sturdy, feminine in her curves and beautiful with a long tumble of black hair around her heart-shaped face, bare grey at the temples only adding character.
"Keelin, come with me, there's not much time."
Her voice had an accent many of my past lives did, one that called up a green island that for all I knew in this lifetime had sunk into the ocean.
Dumbly I stared at her even as my saddlebags shimmered into existence on top of the bar. Stupidly I watched as her sword disappeared and she leaned over the bar and grabbed the little lockbox of gold. "Come on," she repeated, and began walking calmly to the door amidst the running flow of panic.
I climbed over the bar slowly, wincing. My arm was bleeding profusely and the adrenaline rush had left me weak. In the chaos no one paid me much attention and I slipped out the front with the herd. In the confusion she found me and dragged me to my bike at the far edge of the lot, away from the crowd.
She flicked her fingers and the light above us went out, leaving us in shadow.
"Who are you?"
"I'm the Morrigan, the Macha. I am the Raven, and you are my champion."
Most off the words made sense individually but strung together in such a way taxed my mind as all my past selves seemed to argue. The older ones knew Macha Morrigan very well, a goddess of death, blood, women. Sometimes of sexuality and wealth, she was a triumvirate goddess, and the mother was before me. There was the crone and the maiden, and all these jibed with my memories. If souls could exist so could goddesses, I supposed.
"Supposing I believe that, what the hell just happened?"
Setting the lockbox down she reached for the saddlebags over my shoulder and grabbed it, making me wince as my arm was brushed. "Ow!"
"You are wounded. Blood is a gift. May I?"
A normal person would have thought it an offer to heal or inspect, but intrinsically I knew what she was asking and, dazed, I nodded. She set the bags across the back of my bike and stepped to me. Appearing quite tall I realized it was an illusion, for standing next to me she was half a foot shorter, average height. Cradling my forearm in her hands she raised it to her lips and licked the blood, her expression ecstasy. It burned like demon fire and I cried out, biting my lip at her sharp, reproachful look.
I pulled back when she dropped mye arm and it still burned, but looking at it I saw the wound was closing. For all the magicks I'd seen that night that was the one that made me want to faint.
"No, stay with me Keelin of Thorpe!' She grabbed my other arm and steadied me as I swayed. "I have failed you, and too many years have passed. I have violated the agreement tonight and they will pull me back to my plane, so you must listen carefully.
"I made you, gave you the gift of shared knowledge of all your selves. They'll pull me back and you will be left alone, but not in ignorance. The world is dying."
I began to laugh with madness, even as the voices in my head argued for my patience, willing me to listen, to give meaning to all their lives. Of course the world was dying. Rising temperatures had begun to sink coastal areas around the world, shored up only by the nuclear winter that covered many areas of the planet now. Radiation fallout drifted leaving only pockets of humanity unaffected, and like many I had raced my way closer and closer to the arctic circle to escape it and stay pure. In two more generations there would be no crops, no fish, no livestock. After two generations more of cannibalizing we'd die out, having taken the earth with us.