The Tournament 06: The Perilbymadam_noe©
Copyright Nora Quick 2012.
As always, I welcome comments and feedback!
It would not happen again, Tanaka thought to himself. He was one of now five champions left fighting to save the world. One by one they would challenge each other and fight to the death. The last one standing would open a portal between dimensions allowing their gods to reclaim the Earth as their own and save it. It was dying, destroyed three generations ago in the Great War, the bombs that had killed off most humanity now poisoned the earth, water, and very air. Only the gods could save them.
For eighteen years that was the only world he knew. His father had left the family long ago, and his mother had succumbed to poisoning when he was thirteen, leaving him alone in a harsh landscape. The island of his people was long gone, but he'd found an enclave of them in the woods of his homeland, and deep in there he had slowly become what he was today, a champion of humanity.
When the bald man had introduced himself in those woods as Hachiman, the name had meant nothing. Over the next seven years they had trained, a war god and his champion. Then one year ago something strange had happened. He'd gone to sleep in the woods of his childhood but awoke in a roadhouse hotel room in a strange town with no memory, and suddenly a god named Bishamonten had appeared, telling him he was replacing Hachiman.
The entire incident weighed on his mind, but Bishamonten gave him no time to ponder. The last year had been spent training, hard. It would pay off, he hoped, as he entered the cave. It was dry and deep, and Francesco had set up several torches illuminating abandoned temporary camps of those who had passed through. The deeper he went the more he lost the scent of the ocean, which was comforting, though it did not aid his special powers at all.
Each champion was given a special gift by their gods, and his was to draw power from the very Earth itself. Francesco, the Roman champion, had a special kind of photographic kinetic memory. Anything he read he mastered, be it cooking or a martial art. As his gift was with him always he had agreed to let Tanaka have his edge, so they agreed to fight deep in the Earth in this ancient cave.
The Roman champion stepped from the shadows as if summoned. Like Tanaka his clothes were clean, formal, pressed. His trench coat hung from the break in a support pillar holding up the cave ceiling and his broad sword was naked in his hand.
"Tanaka." He bowed, and Tanaka smiled. His first fight was to progress with honor, the trait Hachiman claimed had been strong in his charge at birth. "I'm glad you came."
He stripped his coat and withdrew his katana. "Francesco. I'm glad you waited." The challenge had come days before on Thursday, but they had waited to find a place of mutual agreement and then for the other humans to leave. It had taken four days.
The Roman lunged and the fight began. Francesco's speed was impressive, but no match for Tanaka. However the Roman was taller by a few inches, his olive skin stretched over bulging muscles. Driven back Tanaka began to circle as their swords clashed again and again until they'd made a half circle turn. His back to the rear of the cave Tanaka swiped his sword at his opponent's side, expecting a block, but Franesco's grip loosened and their swords struck the broken beam, knocking the top off the base.
The Earth began to rumble and they stopped. Closing his eyes Tanaka called upon his connection to the Earth and realized it was no cave but an ancient mining shaft, and it was about to crumble.
"Run!" Tanaka screamed. Dropping his sword he shoved Francesco back just as rocks began to fall. Scrambling back himself his temple was struck and he fell to his back. Crab walking awkwardly as the entire cavern shook Tanaka hit a fallen boulder sized chunk and felt fear as dust and rocks covered his sword.
It felt like ages but was only seconds when the rumbling stopped and the cavern stilled. Putting a hand to his temple it came away wet. When he licked his hand he tasted coppery blood. "Francesco!?"
There was a rumbling muted reply but it was completely dark. Finally he heard a muffled but clear response of "Yeah?"
On his knees Tanaka felt a sold wall of debris before him, all around him. He was trapped in a small pocket not big enough for him to stand or lie down. "I'm trapped, can you get out?"
Seconds passed and then a panicked reply came. "No!"
He closed his eyes and forced his heart to slow, wondering how much air he had. "Keep calm, our gods will come. They have to."
There was no reply.
I was exhausted, happily for once. Life as the Irish champion wasn't all fun and games. The other champions had seven or more years of training under their belts, I had one, though I'd survived three challenges, only one without help. At least now I had a permanent home, companions, and my goddess the Morrigan training me.
"Keelin, what are you thinking?" John asked, laying beside me in bed, naked as well. He ran a tanned finger over the very small slope of my breast, teasing my nipple.
I sighed and stretched, but didn't evade his touch. "Already?"
He leaned down and kissed my neck. "Always."
Of my two lovers, I knew I should walk away from John, but I just never could. Most of those there were like me, tall, pale, and muscular, many had red hair like me. John was different, there was darker blood in him giving him a perpetual tan and pure black hair which he wore long over his young face. I was thirty-one and he was only twenty-seven, but his dark eyes were old like my blue ones.
Morrigan hadn't just made our souls immortal, reincarnating for nearly three thousand years, she'd made us more. Every life at thirteen our memories came back in full of all past lives. It allowed us to become masters at many things, and while I was the champion, John, like my other lover Hugh, and three others, had been reincarnated to help me train.
Morrigan didn't like him but as in past lives we'd almost never run into one another I couldn't say why. I certainly hadn't been very good for most of my lives, and John understood that better than Hugh. He knew my crimes and still was sweet, more than Hugh, winning over Keelin, the woman I was that was separate from my old selves. Acceptance was a heady drug.
"I need a nap if we're going to spar again."
"If I offer you a secret, will you let me make love to you one more time first?"
It was tempting, very tempting, even if I couldn't call the sex we had making love. It was fucking. Oh, nice and slow, tender at times, but love was a feeling I'd outgrown many lifetimes ago. "How good is the secret?"
Laughing he bent and gently placed my swollen nipple between his teeth for a moment. "You should ask how good the sex will be."
"That too," I said in a half-laugh, half-moan as he licked.
"Both are very worth it."
"Secret first," I demanded.
Leaning in close he brought his lips to my ear. His deep voice was a rumble when he spoke. "I once fought Jase, when he began training."
I couldn't help my startled body from jerking. "What!?" Jase was the Greek champion, the oldest, the best-trained.
"It's true. I didn't know about the tournament, I still don't know much, but I traveled, and he wanted someone to spar with. I will show you his moves when we spar."
My blood pumped and sleepiness left me. I wanted to know more, right then, and said so. Chuckling he brought his large hand around to my side and turned me into him. "Uh-uh-uhh, first the sex."
I couldn't say I minded.
"They have to come soon," Tanaka said to the wall. It had been almost an hour but no more rocks had fallen. He'd found a torch and had matches in his pocket, but lighting it would be dangerous, burning up more oxygen than he thought he could spare.
"Mars should come soon. He said he would come check at sunset."
"That's still two hours away, at least, "Tanaka replied.
"When our gods come, do we continue the fight? It was promising, but I think perhaps somewhere else would be a good setting. Is it just the caves that help you?"
For a long moment he thought on Francesco's question, wondering how much to reveal. At last he hedged. "No."
The reply was a booming laugh. "Fair enough. Not ready to give me your secrets just yet? I can tell you I have mastered many things I have read. That is my power; whatever I read I instantly master. Want to know all the various ancient treatises of sword fighting Mars has found for me?"
Tanaka didn't truly care. In their short fight he'd seen enough to know Francesco was good and knew many styles, but what Tanaka knew Hachiman had taught him, and assured him was not written down anywhere. "Ancient German and Nordic primarily," he said at last.
There came a pause. "Very good. I was given to understand the only opponent who might rival my intelligence was the Irish champion, but from what I've heard she's nothing."
"In that you are wrong." Frowning, Tanaka realized he was defending a woman he didn't know. Yet somehow he felt he did, and that was all the more puzzling. No one had known where she was until the Chinese champion Li had challenged her. Then Hachiman had told him she had killed Stellan, the Norse champion in fair combat. Now Carlos, the Aztec champion was dead and Hachiman had gone. Bishamonten told him she had killed the Aztec which showed strength as well as cunning. With two victories and three challenges accepted, she was the most experienced of all. "She's survived three champions, killing two of them."
Francesco was silent for a long moment, but when he spoke his voice was quieter than before. "Your power doesn't overwhelm you, make you insane, does it? "
Tanaka hesitated. A year earlier he would have said no, definitely not, but now he had a missing week in which he'd traveled three zones of the Union. In the weeks before he'd been holed up in a cave not unlike this one, hiding from roving bands of thieves preying on the area.
Did too much exposure to the earth overload him?
"So?" Francesco's voice was impatient.
"No. No, it can't. Why do you ask?" His voice shook with doubt.
More silence came from Francesco's side of the wall. Finally, when he spoke, he was calm, his voice dark. "Tanaka, you killed Carlos."
"Don't worry, you'll have Kelner and Fiona here," John told me with a smile, watching me dress.
"You tell me you know about...I can't even say the word to you, and then you tell me you, Sinead, and Hugh are leaving for the weekend?"
No other humans could know about the tournament, we were all forsworn, those of us who participated. He claimed Neit, Morrigan's brother-in-law, fellow god, earthbound babysitter, and all-around-lecher-extraordinaire had gotten drunk one night and spilled details, and it was only then John realized a man he'd fought had been the Greek champion.
"Somebody has to go and earn gold to buy the things we need."
I buttoned my pants and sat back on the chair facing my bed where he lingered. "I wish you wouldn't fight."
"Again, see previous comment. Come on, babe." He stretched like a cat and I couldn't help but let my eyes roam his body. It was so delicious. Suddenly a thought occurred to me.
"John, Neit wouldn't talk to you. As far as he's concerned you're a man and not worth his time. He must have been with one of the girls. Who else knows?"
"The less you know, the better, champion. Give me a kiss before I hop into the shower."
Petulantly I hesitated, but then got up and bent over the bed, kissing him the way some prince had Sleeping Beauty. Damn, he tasted good.
"Just be safe, you and Hugh, and keep an eye on Sinead. And if there's enough gold can you add black thread to the list? I need some."
"Sure, I'll let Sinead know. She's the money keeper. Hugh and I are the muscle."
"Don't fight Hugh, now." John had slight inclinations of jealousy over my other lover, whereas Hugh felt the way I did, that jealousy was as wasteful as pining for romantic love.
He leaned up and grabbed me, pulling me down for another kiss before I left. A bad feeling settled in the pit of my stomach. Something bad was going to happen, but I couldn't say what. And of all my hundreds of lifetimes, not a one had given me powers of prophecy.
Maybe it was just something I ate.
"Mars told you all that?" Tanaka was amazed. The tale was that the Aztec champion had gone seeking the Irish champion, but Tanaka got to him first. Francesco had claimed he heard it was a short fight.
His first challenge, he had won...and he didn't remember a single moment. With Hachiman disappearing he had a sinking feeling that the challenge had been sullied by his god's hand, and his memory stolen to prevent his knowledge of it. Shame suffused him.
"Yes. Although since then Mars has been acting strangely."
"My god returned to their dimension and sent a replacement," Tanaka nearly whispered. "I don't remember a fight. I thought this was to be my first."
There was a pause. "Put nothing past our gods. They don't love us, they're not our friends, we are their weapons."
"But if- if Hachiman had anything to do with that challenge the tournament is forfeit!"
"Listen to me, Tanaka, do not say anything. It's in the past! Do you hear me? The gods must have struck an accord. We cannot abandon the challenge or the world is lost. Do you understand me?"
Tanaka thought long and hard about his next words. "You have to kill me, Francesco. My honor...it is something very important, more important to me than anything other than the tournament. When we are freed of this rubble, kill me!"
"Oh, I will kill you, but I too am a man of honor. It will be a fair fight, you will give it your all. You and I have figured this out. One of us must die so this knowledge resides with only one. I will not fight you unless you give it your all."
His words were insistent but Tanaka was lost to reverie. "You don't understand. Hachiman...it's like he's a part of me. If by some chance I live, it will drive me mad."
"Oh, I know. I feel like Mars is in my head sometimes."
"No, no, you don't understand. If it's a bond between trainer and champion, Hachiman should be gone, and Bishamonten should be the presence in my head. But it's not my current trainer who seems to ride shotgun in my head."
Another pause, and a cough. "Well I feel Mars isn't close. So if you don't feel Bishamonten...does he know to look for you?"
"Yes, I told him to seek me by midnight if I didn't return."
"What time is it?"
"I have no idea."
Francesco laughed, a rich booming sound. "Stupid question, I guess. Wait a minute, I hear someone. It's not Mars, it must be Bishamonten come early."
Tanaka stood and brained himself on the lowered ceiling. "Ow! Tell him I'm alive, to get us out. We'll fight again, but not today."
"Promise me it will be a real fight. We both deserve that."
"I swear it!" He felt himself growing excited and groped around for his sword before remembering it was lost. Escape was at hand, and then he would demand answers from his new god.
"Hey you're not-" Francesco's voice was cut off and then there came a panicked cry. The sound of scrabbling fingers along rock came and then the scratch of metal along the rock wall.
"Francesco? Francesco!" There was no reply. Suddenly he heard the sound of poking at the rocks between him and the Roman. It was hard an insistent. "Bishamonten? Mars? Francesco? Who's there!?" Desperately Tanaka began to search for his sword in the dark, praying for it to be there, praying he could pull it free. His connection to Hachiman fared in his soul crying out that something was afoul.
Something compelled him to place his hand on the rock wall, and power flared. The flavor of Hachiman roared through him and for a mad moment the entire rock wall glowed blue. Suddenly the poking stopped, and a deep voice cried out as if thrown back.
"Francesco?" There came no reply and he knew somehow the Roman was dead.
"Tanaka? Tanaka, are you here!?"
At the fevered words in ancient Japanese Tanaka opened his eyes. He must have passed out. Feeling his body he felt no blood, no wounds. The earth had healed him, but that strange blast had knocked him out. Hachiman was gone from his mind.
"Tanaka, answer me, damn it!"
"Bishamonten? I'm here!"
There came a rumble and suddenly rocks flew away, leaving a gaping hole. His god, clad in ancient armor, stood there. "The Roman is dead, and not by your hand, nor any champion."
Tanaka ignored his hand and climbed through. Daylight filled the cave and dappled onto the body of Francesco. His throat was slit and he could tell from the angle of the cut it had come from someone standing behind the champion.
"Someone must die for this. He was a good man and did not deserve such a death. He heard someone coming...and we thought it was you."
"Something...blocked me. No champion did this, but some god was involved. I will not rest until we find out who."
"I kill the human," Tanaka growled.
Bishamonten nodded. "Something weighing on your mind?"
Under new questions the old ones sat back in his mind. He needed water, food, rest, and then vengeance. "You and I will talk later. I need to find safe shelter by a river and while I rest you can track whoever did this." After he had rested and retrieved his sword, then he would ask why his mind was still connected to Hachiman, and just what the he hell had happened during that missing week.
"Whoever did this is crafty. Tanaka, take care. Hachiman taught you to follow your heart but I am here to teach you to follow your head. Do not run from one challenge headlong into another. It could be a trap."
Tanaka smiled and quoted his old master. "Without peril there is no merit in gain. Let's go."
For the first time he lead, and his god followed.