The Tournament 05: The Mysterybymadam_noe©
Copyright Nora Quick 2012.
As always, I welcome comments and feedback!
"Again!" Morrigan cried and I swiftly turned and brought my sword to my opponent's neck. Faster this time, he dropped his broadsword and cried mercy.
My goddess clapped. "Keelin, this is excellent!"
I was dripping with sweat. For two years I'd wandered and spent time training with weights, fighting strangers. This past year training with Morrigan was sheer hell. She should have been working with me since I was eighteen, but had been ten years late. I was now nearly thirty-one, and working to catch up.
There were five others gunning to kill me, to use an old expression, and I was quite fond of that. The short story of my life is same soul, different bodies, all the compiled memories of hundreds of lifetimes over nearly three thousand years rattling around my head. That was my power, my edge. The other five had theirs. We'd fight to the last, and the winner opened a portal and let their gods in to save the dying world. This latest life, I had to say, was the most complex.
"You've earned a break. Good show, Hugh."
I gave my opponent my hand and he took it, standing and smiling. I grinned back. In the past year, for the first time in years, I had a real home. We had clean water, sustainable food, and there were others. They didn't know about the tournament, it was against the rules, but they thought we trained to survive. Without paying my own bills I no longer had to trade time on my back or menial skills for money and could take lovers as I saw fit. Hugh was one, one of the only two men there not irked by how often I beat them in combat, nor turned off by the muscle I was gaining.
"I'll see you at dinner," I told him and he kissed my cheek and turned.
I watched him go and sighed at those broad shoulders and his shaggy strawberry blonde hair. My goddess sidled up and smiled. "I like him better than John."
"You're not just a war and death deity, you're also a fertility goddess. Shouldn't you be encouraging fucking?" I asked with my usual lack of grace.
"I wanted to be a goddess of destiny. I can't see John's future. My powers are weak but anyone can tell you Hugh is a good boy."
He was almost forty but we were both old souls and the term "boy" didn't bother us. "Is that all? I want a shower, a nap, and food. Maybe food first, then rest, and more food."
Laughing she squeezed my arm, grinning at me. She'd taken her maiden form, looking like she was eighteen and dazzlingly beautiful with pale skin, tumbling black waves, and bright blue eyes. Next to her I felt like a clunky Amazon. Oh, many lovers in my life had called me pretty, but she was astoundingly beautiful.
"Sounds good. I'll keep Neit busy."
At his name I flinched. Neit was a fellow god of war, her brother-in-law. When the gate between our dimensions had closed he'd remained on earth, abandoning his wife. Like Morrigan he was gorgeous in a god-like way, but due to his stay on earth he had even greater power than she did. He was there to watch her, but more than that he'd tried to pressure me into sharing his bed a time or two. If he didn't have a petty temper and the rest of the women in our group as lovers, I might have said yes. Morrigan was dead-set against it, wanting me to focus my efforts solely on training. It had taken hours of argument to get her t stop bothering me about John and Hugh.
Something had kept her from me for ten years I should have been training. When she'd finally arrived I'd been ignorant and unprepared, and in the middle of an illegal challenge by the Chinese champion where she'd saved me. Minutes later she'd been pulled back to her world where she was also immortal but not a god, and put on trial. She never told me what happened but ten months earlier she'd arrived, scooped me up, and brought me to this ranch. Neit was already there with more people, and I'd nearly swooned with joy to discover they shared my "gift" or prefect recall reincarnation.
Hugh, like me, could remember hundreds of lifetimes. I didn't have to watch myself around him, I could be myself, and it made training so much easier. If I didn't know there were five other champions and eventually I'd have to fight for my life, I'd be happy.
"Go on, Keelin. Go relax, have fun. We train hard, but I promise you, we have another fourteen months to do so. Take the night off, and for all of our sakes, spend it with Hugh."
A snack, shower, nap, dinner, and hot sex with someone who understood and accepted me. Hot damn, I knew fighting would save the world, but how I wanted it to wait.
He walked through empty streets lamenting how the dust of ages touched his expensive leather shoes. Once this town had been filled with pirates, and it had never lost its touch of inequity through war or peace or hurricanes, but when the great war came it had been too close to one of the bombs and abandoned by those who could flee. The desiccated skeletons of those who could not remained as testament to the greatest battlefield the world had ever known.
Ares closed his eyes and pictured it. It was the end of the era that had delivered him from earth, the era of the one god. However there wasn't truly one, and the crawling monkeys had somehow realized this. Their arguments over which was real and which wasn't (sadly they all were quite real) had led to war. Human greed and corruption fueled it.
The monkeys' records were lost but Ares knew; it was this land, once a country, that had launched the first of eight bombs. Most of the monkeys had died, some instantly, some slowly. Those left scrambled away from the fallout, too few to have real war, just skirmishes. Oh, how he missed the heat of battle.
"Reminiscing?" A deep voice chuckled behind him.
Slowly Ares turned. "Luke, fancy meeting you here."
"It's Lucifer. I don't do nicknames," the other man said.
They were of equal lofty height, but Ares was pure burly muscle, his curling black hair close-cropped, his face clean shaven. Lucifer's light blond hair sparkled in the faint sunlight, tumbling over his shoulders, and his goatee and mustache were combed and frozen in place.
"What are you doing here?"
"I never left. When my time passed I stayed. As long as there is sin and vice I have power, even if no one worships me. Care for a drink?"
Ares looked at the shells of buildings around him, inhabited only by human and animal skeletons. "Perhaps we should go somewhere else."
Lucifer laughed and snapped his fingers. Instantly the square they stood in cleared of debris, a table and chairs righted themselves, and two cups appeared. Bemused, Ares wandered over and sniffed. "Coffee? You call this a drink?"
"I don't do alcohol. Turning anything into wine is a party trick, not my style. Have a seat." Lucifer pulled a chair out and sat, straightening his suit jacket.
With a sigh Ares sat as well. "Got anything to eat?"
His companion chuckled and snapped his fingers, calling up a basket of little fired dough. "They're called beignets, monkey food. Like the coffee they were once served here in happier times."
Ares tried one and raised an imperious brow. "Not bad."
Lucifer sipped his coffee daintily. "How goes the tournament?"
"Not too shabbily. If you and the other guy had been willing to play ball you could have had an in."
"You know he likes to pretend there's just one of our clan. The way he tells it me, Michael, and Gabriel are just minions."
Ares smiled. "Nicely played, calling you the bad guy."
"I did always have a penchant for vanity, seducing virgins, and exploitation. To my shame. One night out with he-who-I-won't-name hunting virgins and he gains cult status."
They laughed for a minute and passed another few in silence, eating the fried dough and drinking their hot coffee.
"You know our champion is strong. We have a place for you, if you join us."
"Until Zeus himself tells me he'll bow to me, I won't accept your offer. Thank you, Ares, you've been a good friend, but I am eternal. I'll always be immortal, and I'll always feed from vice, sin, and misery. The nature of monkeys ensures that I will be long well fed."
"Nice trick. Maybe I should have stuck around. That last war would have powered me for centuries."
"The big guy always hated competition. So did the other two. You know you can stay. No matter who wins, if it's not your boy, there will be more humans, war once more. Like me you can live like a king."
Ares looked around and smirked. "Nice palace, o great king."
"I mean it. Why go back to your dimension?" Lucifer stroked his beard.
"Because mine has more to it than yours. Boring clouds and lakes of fire...no thank you."
Lucifer shrugged daintily, looking as always as if he were a painting. If it weren't for the beard Ares might mistake him for a girl he was so damn pretty.
"Whatever happened to the big guy anyway?"
"He's back to those clouds and fire. Let him tend it all. I find it so terribly boring. I rather like what the humans have done. They believe in strength in numbers and up north in this and they have these enclaves. Thieves and arms deals, prostitution and brawls. It's a work of art really."
"Charming," Ares drawled dismissively. "You can keep it."
"Still banking that your boy will win? Where is Jase anyway?"
"On a ship over here. This seems the pace to be, what with the Japanese boy training here, the Irish girl as well. The Roman's on his way too as far as I know, and three have died here already. The Egyptian should be on his way."
"I hear tell Francesco dispatched him already."
The war god shrugged. "Another one bites the dust. Five remain. I like my boy's odds better and better."
"Why aren't you training him right now?"
"I'm taking a break. I hate boats. You know Poseidon always liked to cramp my style on water."
Lucifer chuckled and refilled their cups by magic. "So tell me, if your clan wins, how will you reshape this world? Will it be like that empire your chosen humans had before it fell and the Romans took up the mantle only to lose that to the world at large?"
For long seconds Ares gave him the look he reserved for facing other war gods over human strategy. Lucifer just smiled and smoothed his tie.
"No. Our first priority will be cleaning the world, then Aphrodite can go about getting them to fuck as much as possible and make more little monkeys. When they're grown we'll use war to prevent any segments from growing to large and powerful. This can never happen again, for the sake of all of our worlds.
"Tell me, those clouds and fiery lakes are disappearing, aren't they?"
With a dainty shrug Lucifer grabbed his cup and saucer. "Not my problem. I've gone native."
The war god snorted. "It should be. We're not all of us equal."
"You know, I went to war with the last guy to say that to me."
Smiling Ares sat back holding a beignet between this thumb and forefinger. "See the problem is how naïve some of the clans are. You know what happens when you give the monkeys too much free will and think they'll all be pacifists? This." He crushed the beignet and then popped it in his mouth.
"Oh, you war gods have the best metaphors," Lucifer chuckled out. "It's not so dire. You fear the Shinto because they're too peaceful. They fear you because you prize knowledge and war equally. You both fear the Romans for being too militaristic and organized, hell bent on letting a select few rule all, and everyone fears the Irish because they don't understand them."
"Do you think this funny? We're fighting here to save all the worlds, all three, our two realms tied to this monkey-filled mud ball."
"I think it's hilarious, Ares. Fear." The blonde's nostrils fared as he inhaled deeply. "That's my true realm."
"You had the one thing we all wanted, the one thing my clan once came close to having. The world. And now you wander, feeding off dark emotions. Why keep tabs on the tournament?"
"Ares, do you think I am evil?"
That stopped the god. "What?"
"Have you fallen so easily in to trap of a smear campaign, like some lowly monkey? Listing to all the lies they told?"
The god set his cup down on the table and stared at the devil. "You tell me why they said that."
Lucifer loved nothing more than telling stories. Lies and truth woven together, like all stories, he thought for a long moment. "My world is younger than yours. We were born many thousand earth years after your two worlds. Unlike both your worlds, we were few. The old man, me, Gabriel, and Michael. That was it at the start. Poof!" He threw up his hands and showy sparkles fell. "There we were, floating in clouds endless and white, the sky only a little paler.
"The old man tested powers and tried to make more, but they were lesser...weird. Some had no shape, some had too many. Tentacles." With that he wiggled his fingers, encased in soft gloves. "Ugly things, freaks. So I tried my hand and the ones I made were better. I figured out how to borrow shapes from this world, before the humans came, and used the wee beasties as templates. They weren't pretty, not like us, but they had power almost as great. The old man got jealous.
"While you and your kind were mulling babies not ready to rule, we went to war. The old man made the realm of fire by our clouds. Our argument was who should be in charge. Obviously I had it, but the old man persuaded Gabriel and Michael to his way. So we fought and I decided, what the hell...no pun meant, but I would take over the fire. My boys got their power from it so it seemed the right choice.
"So time passed and the old man and I got to be friends again, going out for drinks and discussing work, you know how it is. We found the gateway and started coming over here. Only he came more than I did, got himself a cult going, the bastard. Never told me. You do realize he feeds off chaos even more than me, yes? It's not me who took your place and wanted to make all the wars, it was him. Two sides of thousands each praying to him...he was like a monkey crack addict seeking the next big hit.
"Anyway, my favorite thing was despoiling virgins. Kay, not my true favorite, give me an experienced woman or man any day, but that corruption of pious innocence...it tastes so sweet. He got a taste for it too, and then, wonder of wonders, he figured out how to make his form truly human and knocked up this chick. Married, not yet consummated. So she gives birth and for the first years he hung around her. The kid got older, not so cute, and back home he came. He gets drunk one night and comes back, sells his kid a line of bullshit. 'Do this and that, get some followers, and then the humans kill you, and you can come live me, okay?' Kid buys it, and it happens. The old man got followers.
"I tried it, you wouldn't believe some of the names I've been known under, but the old man kept coming back and selling this bull I was evil. So, what the hell, I took the role. I got way more power than him, so he upped it. Got a few of his stronger followers to come here and assume similar roles. Got wars going and everything. Word War One? That was me and Gabe. We knew about your tournament all the while but the old man used to brag we'd never let the world down, that his 'rule' was eternal and they'd never forget.
"Well, the monkeys showed him. He's back home now with the kid and his cohorts, nursing wounds and cut off completely. I stayed. Better than fire and while they stopped worshiping him, they never forgot me. See, he did so many rotten things no one could keep his name in line with good, but since he worked so hard to tie my name to evil, and evil persists, so do I. That answer your question, kid?"
"Don't call me that, I am a god." Ares wished for a moment he'd worn a suit. Not as flashy as Lucifer's number, but something to compete would be good.
The devil snickered. "Then act like one. This is your world, take it. I'm just a bottom feeder, all I care about is continuing the good life. Stop worrying about which pantheon to fear and just train your boy to kill all the others."
Ares looked off at the distance to the shell that had once been a great city. So many had fallen. The humans were chased to the edges looking to live just one more day of "the good life." On his own world the edges had faded, huddling the clans of gods into a small space.
"What would have happened if we didn't make this tournament?"
"That's the problem with you gods, always asking 'What if? What if?' Stop asking that. You know why you lost the humans in the first place, why the old man won them over so easily?" At Ares' blank look Lucifer smiled. "You began to doubt yourselves. You gave up your power. You worried too much over this question of good and evil and tried to define it. It left a void we filed nicely. See me and the old man know we're both good and evil, and you have to be both. That's what it takes."
Ares thought over that for a long moment, even as Lucifer's magic made the finery disappear, leaving the empty table and the accompanying chairs as run down as they were found, like an illusion fading.
"Why did you come here? Why did you find me?"
"To warn you." Lucifer stood and straightened his jacket. With flourish he produced a cane and spun it like a showman. "It's not the champions who lose, it's the gods. Lose faith in yourself and your champion loses. Belief is power.
"I'm not the only one watching this. If it goes south, the old man is waiting in the wings. He's all about the end of times, a last gasp. The fate of three worlds does indeed ride on this. Do not think for moment the humans know or can care. Just never forget the old man does, and he's been conserving power for one last pass-through into this world to bring about his little apocalypse. Take that message to the others."
"Is that some sort of promise?"
Lucifer produced a hat and sunglasses with magic and smiled enigmatically. "Call it a deal, I was always fond of that. That little cabal on your home world you made? Keep to it. Work together. No matter who wins it, back them. The worst possible clans have been taken out of the tournament, and yes, I've had a hand in that, and no one knows about it. It stays that way.
"In short, I have removed any evil, however unintentional from those clans, from the tournament and what is left are the best and brightest. Do not waste it. I have seen fate. A betrayal will come. Take this message and remind the others the fate of our worlds rests in their hands. When this betrayal comes only a clan not in the running can help. But choose carefully, for remember those already gone can not have a hand in fate. Adios."
With a flourishing wave of his cane Lucifer disappeared.
Ares sat there a long time. A betrayal. So many had happened already. The Shinto, the Irish...he dare not trust them. Implied was whoever was betrayed would be the winner, but it wouldn't be Jase. If Lucifer warned Ares he knew enough that he would play no role.
But just the devil said, he couldn't lose faith. Just why, Ares couldn't say. That was the mystery.