The Tournament 10: The Risingbymadam_noe©
Copyright Nora Quick 2012.
As always, I welcomecomments and feedback!
"I have bad news," the goddess Morrigan said.
I stopped whittling the little statue of a horse I was trying to make to glare sullenly at her. "What now? Three thousand years ago it was 'come and be the greatest warrior the world has ever known. Oopsie, we let a Japanese god take a part of your soul so he could stalk you lifetime-to-lifetime.' Then it was 'Train my champion fighting to save three worlds? Fuck that shit, I have unusually pretty gods to seduce.' Then came 'Remember that piece of your soul? It's now in the man you must fight to death. Both of you will die, as in forever and ever, but it's okay, it'll save the world.' Every time you open your mouth you spell my doom."
"Don't be so melodramatic, Keelin." Belying her point Morrigan took her third form, transforming from young maiden into an old crone. This was the guise she wore best as a goddess of death, when she chose who would live and who would die.
"Pot. Kettle. Black."
"I know that tune," John said behind us.
No humans were supposed to know about the reason for my existence, a tournament of eight champions fighting for one place, to the death. The winner would open a gateway between our world and the one inhabited by immortal beings we charmingly called gods, and they would come and heal the dying earth. Yes, it looked great on the brochure, one of the reasons John had read it. The gods had fucked up every single step so far, so what was breaking a rule and allowing my lover to help me train, plan, and discuss the Tournament?
Like me John's soul had been reincarnated continuously into his body with the lovely gift of fully remembering his past lives at the age of thirteen every time. I'd never run into him in past lives, though to be fair of the ten others made by Morrigan and the war god Neit I'd only regularly met about six. In this incarnation John was my lover, my friend, my stable rock. I'd normally include him in our talks but since I found out I was bound to die no matter what, I hadn't shared much with him.
"Can we get a moment alone?" I asked with a bit more of a snap than intended.
His dark eyes wide he looked to the old woman now and she nodded. "Fine, I'll go see what Fiona is up to. It's about time to pull the tomatoes anyway." He smoothed his long black hair back, gave me a regarding look, and left, letting the screen door slam. He said he loved me, but I'd outgrown the concept of love a dozen lifetimes earlier.
Stuck alone in the bunkhouse with a goddess of death was not high on my list of things to do. Still if I stayed on my training ground Tanaka could not challenge me. It was down to me and the Japanese champion and we were bound. As much history as we had, dealing with idiot gods, a little sex, and a lot of hurt feelings, he had been eager to fight, and then the gods had bound us together. Now whenever we would fight we would both take the final, ultimate big sleep.
"Spill the beans, oh great death goddess."
"Sinead is returning, and you will have to fight her to the death."
"We've done all we can."
Ares looked to Mars and rolled his neck. "You know at this point, I really do hope it ends soon. All the secrets, all the plotting...I'm sick of it. I just want to go home, stop worrying about worship, and spend my time getting massaged and drinking."
Mars raised one imperious brow. "You are a most...unusual god of war. We have done well. Neit is secure?"
"I've got the traitorous bastard locked up where he can't do anything. Can you believe he thought he could take me? Me, who made it possible for Alexander of Macedon to become Alexander the Great, conqueror of worlds?"
Mars yawned. "Try fighting wars on seventeen or so fronts, then we'll talk about greatness. Who's guarding him?"
"Why, we are, of course."
"What!?" Mars nearly shouted. For a war god his temper was small, Ares noted.
The Tournament was under threat. Mars had done some snooping and found the Aztec clan, out of the running, had wanted to highjack it. They believed the ensuing end-of-all-worlds would be the chaos that would have them rise once more. The other gods of the five now-dead champions were keeping them under lock and key until the final battle played out, and their little apocalypse passed them by.
In the first Tournament to select the eight, the Irish champion had nearly died. As such Neit of the Irish pantheon had created his own champion, one he wished to fight in place of Keelin. Both men knew Neit had been more diligent in training his charge, but Morrigan, the official Irish trainer, had been kept from Keelin by Neit's trickery.
"Why are we just sitting here? We should be beating the living hell out of the Aztecs, right now, cousin! The others should be guarding blondie, not us!"
Ares rolled his neck. "Neit made an offer and Morrigan accepted. Keelin fights Neit's would-be-champion and wins or looses, and Neit will admit to the entire gathering of clans the treachery."
The Roman shook his head. "I swear, some clans just become too human. What happened to glorious battles, death in the thousands, empires rising and falling? That is us!"
"No," Ares shook his head. "That is through their swords, cannons, planes. Without them we are nothing. It's why we can only save our worlds with their help."
Mars just kicked over his chair in the little room, swearing in Latin about monkeys.
Once humans made movies. There hadn't been one in nearly two hundred years, but I remembered them clearly from past lives. In them there was a hero and a villain, and the lines were clearly drawn. The tragic hero always felt death coming and had time to take stock, make amends. Life was never like that.
One moment I was striding from John's bunk with a satisfied smile on my face from a night well spent, and the next Sinead stood there in my path, sword drawn. Like me she was tall and muscled, unlike me she still had highly visible curves and her hair was so close-cropped her scalp showed, not my scraggly red mess.
"Fuck," I said by way of greeting, and I couldn't say which old self it was. All my past selves lived in my head like a chorus, speaking to me and through me time to time. She had the same thing and I had to wonder how she was trained. Did Sinead suppress them or use them?
My first training had come from another champion I later killed, and he taught me to sort and select my old selves. Now facing combat they organized; lone fighters in one group, long-range assassins in another, sword fighters from armies in another, flexible mercenaries in a fourth, statisticians in the fifth, and any not useful for combat melded into the background silently.
"Keelin, no sword?"
I dumped the pile of dirty clothes I'd been hauling towards the laundry area and showed my empty hands. "I was too busy fucking John."
She'd always favored John who was unusual for a reincarnate. We weren't monogamous, but he was, and he was mine, damn it. She'd always coveted him and now bitter jealousy twisted in her eyes.
Still she didn't fall for the taunt. "It must be with honor. Go and get your sword."
"I think not." I kicked at her feet and she hopped back as I'd hoped and I dove for the wood pile and grabbed the axe. In three thousand years I'd learned to handle nearly every weapon out there, and this was why I favored a large axe for wood splitting, not some dinky little hatchet.
Connor slid into my mind, a fifth century Celt who'd split skulls regularly with such an axe. When he spoke it breathed like magic across my skin. Twist it back for a side strike, he said, and automatically I did as she took a position with a high guard.
Shit. It was exactly what she should have done, and perhaps she had learned just as I did to treat the voices in her head as an unholy army. Behind her Morrigan appeared, a sad crone, wringing her hands. Fiona stood beside her, open-mouthed with shock. Knowing nothing of the Tournament she had no idea why Sinead was back, but she could tell this was a real fight.
I swiped at Sinead's head and she tried to slice off my arm. Keelin, me, I corrected, rather hated fighting, but the chorus loved it. Connor spoke to a few statisticians and they decided I'd do best with a shillelagh or my sword. I was taller than Sinead's five-seven by a full five inches and had greater strength; I needed weapons of brute force.
Morrigan nodded to me, one of the voices in my head, and disappeared. I swung the axe and sweeping chops, covering as much area as I could, driving her back and blocking her sword, but her own guard was so good I didn't get close.
The dance of thwarted death continued until Morrigan re-emerged with John in tow. He looked shocked and she whispered into his ear as his dark brown eyes tracked our clunky movements. In his hands he clutched an object that sent relief coursing through me. I caught his eyes while blocking and looked down to the club. Startled, he tossed it to me and I grabbed the shillelagh and twisted it as it spun around my fingers.
It was over-sized at four feet, almost as long as her sword, and I began to hack with the axe to draw off her guard and slam at her with the club. I got in one light knock against her chin, but it didn't faze her. Suddenly, Morrigan stiffened, and I felt it, fate coming to claim me.
My distraction cost me a swipe of the sword tip and my arm began to bleed even as I recovered and jumped back. "My sword!" I called to John who turned and fled for the bunkhouse where I'd left it.
I kept fighting though I tensed. It was here, the missing part of my soul. Standing behind me, ready to challenge the winner, was Tanaka. The time for my true, final death had come.
"My girl will win," Neit crowed. Stroking his flowing blonde curls he knew all too well his appearance was angelic, nearly irresistible to women and many men. Too bad that bitch the Morrigan had saddled him with the two straightest male war gods ever made.
Both cousins Ares and Mars looked up from their little game and gave him equally bored frowns.
"This one whining too much?" The voice came at a flash of showy fire and then Lucifer was standing there in all his fine, purple frippery.
"Who invited you?" Neit sneered.
"Luke," Ares said with a smile.
Mars and Lucifer sighed and said "Lucifer," together. "What do you want, Lucifer?" Mars asked, setting down the little plastic piece that symbolized his army on the board.
"This one is too treacherous to live, but impossible to kill."
"And?" Ares hedged, knocking off Mars' western army piece with his own.
"If I bring him with me to my dimension he cannot escape."
Mars froze, still as a statue. "But the magic that would require...when our portal opens, yours closes forever. You'd be trapped."
"Not if you let Ares take Neit's place," Lucifer coolly replied, cleaning his smoked sunglasses. They all ignored Neit's shouts of outrage and threats. "Ares has greater magic, I can smell it. Ares, assume his place, gain strength, bring me back. The Celts need me."
"What about me?"
All eyes swung to Mars, his face a conflicted dance between disappointment and anger.
"Mars, like thousands of others like us you may remain on Earth or go home. I can only make this bargain with Ares."
Ares put up a hand to cut Mars off. "So sure this Keelin of Thorpe will win?"
Lucifer set his cane aside, unbuttoned his formal topcoat, and sat at their table. "I'm sure of nothing, but I always was a fan of making wagers..."
There had been no words, Tanaka just attacked. The second I dropped the club as my sword sailed through the air to my hand he ran. When I gripped the hilt the strike came...at Sinead.
Quickly I joined by his side and she fought our swords and my axe. When I got close Tanaka pushed me away, and I couldn't help but think back to my first life as Branna. Then I had fought with a Japanese champion at my side and honor had dictated all. Now anger skewed everything.
I was driven back as they fought and risked a glance to my compatriots. John held Fiona who had no idea what was going on, and Morrigan had stiffened, showing the whites of her eyes only. When she got that way it meant the portal between worlds was active and I had to wonder what fresh hell had come.
"Work with him!" Branna called inside my head.
Despite a hammering heart, just as I'd been trained, I gave my body to her. She gripped the axe differently and her attacks were higher, but soon she shadowed Tanaka. They moved in concert and I was there, my eyes with hers, and yet back inside with all my old selves.
We were all bleeding. Sinead knew the same tricks and whatever old self she had called up was a berserker of some kind. I had slashes across my arms and one worrisome one on my stomach, but the certainty of death kept me from caring. A strange sort of peace settled over me and the voices quieted. This was our twilight, our final glory. None of us would live on, but all we had known, seen, loved, or destroyed would come to be once again.
Finally I understood just what I was fighting for, and with that thought Branna yielded to me. My hands on the weapons paused, and Sinead attacked. Just as thousands of years ago I saw the deadly strike coming for the Japanese champion and he could not stop it. I stepped into it and her sword was deflected, but sliced into my neck.
It would be a slow death, and we froze. Tanaka looked to me, pain in his eyes, and he knew it as well. Quickly we turned and I stabbed her shoulder, his sword went to her gut, and she stumbled back, blood spilling from her mouth. An equally slow and painful death. Fate had come to collect from us three.
Shivering as my body cooled, I turned to face the last champion. His dark eyes on mine we bowed and took positions. I threw the axe away and gripped my sword with one hand. Behind Tanaka I saw my pantheon of gods and Tanaka's surrounding Morrigan, my human companions off to the side, dazed. On the ground Sinead lay dying, gasping, gurgling, and hastening her death with her own panic.
Hachiman was there, with sad eyes and a shinning bald head in the dim sunlight. Near Morrigan was a strange god, blonde as Neit and equally pretty, but dressed like Oscar Wilde's wet dream.
Tanaka struck first. We did our dance with fatalistic hearts and quiet introspection. All that mattered now was which pantheon would rule better. His with ranks full of war gods, or mine, so in tune with nature? The answer to me was obvious, and with renewed strength I met his speed.
We danced in what felt like the greatest battle I had ever known. His forms were perfect, his speed quick, but my strength and determination drove him back again and again. Finally after long moments, he made a mistake, and I struck. My sword went in by his heart, and it would be a quick death.
His weapon dropped as he fell to his knees, pulling free of my blade. I tossed it to the grass and ran, sitting behind him to pull him into my arms.
"Tanaka, I go with you. You were a great opponent but fate has spoken. Thank you." It was all I could think to say as I turned his head.
Pale and wan, he smiled, too far gone for words. I kissed him, not out of love, but gratitude, and then he was gone, dead and empty in my grasp. I gasped, and felt my own body cool. "Morrigan!"
It was not her but Sinead who crawled to me full of mercy. In this last moment of life it figured the goddess of who died in battle would desert me, I thought bitterly.
Weak, bleeding, and gasping, Sinead raised her sword. "Neit said it would be a slow death. I can grant you peace." Her voice was for me but her eyes were for Morrigan, her judge.
"Yes," I said, and closed my eyes.
The blow was quick and then I was in darkness. For a moment all my selves stretched out beside me to me left, and on the right was Tanaka. Then they came crashing into me, Tanaka last, smiling.
What the hell was this? I was due a final death, not like the other times. Typical Celtic death was standing where you died when a river opened, until a swan came. You rode the swan to the land of the dead where you remained bored, thirsty, and hungry until you were reborn.
Suddenly in the infinite blackness Hachiman was there, and he bowed deeply. "The gods are satisfied, and they are pooling their power. It will drain them but the portal will open and restore your gods to full power."
"The our worlds can be saved?"
He smiled, strangely handsome with the expression. "Not without you."
My head still swam from the last hour, my final hour held as much wonder and worry as a thousand lifetimes. "Hachiman, I'm tired. I'm so tired. I want oblivion, I deserve that peace."
"There is no peace in destruction. Your gods will need worship. They will need a bridge between them and the humans. It must be you."
He stepped to me then and kissed me. Nothing could have shocked me more, and I sensed this was not a kiss of love or passion, but power. Then I felt it, a cold burning sensation, like swallowing an electric iceberg. Impossibly large it filled me to bursting and I opened my eyes to see strange blue light where our lips touched. It grew and grew until the blackness around us was eaten away and then he broke off, staggering and deflated.
Before I could say anything I blinked and I was back at the training grounds. It was full night and the entire pantheon I had worshipped all my lives stood there as if waiting for me.
"Keelin!" Morrigan ran to me and hugged me, sprightly in her mother form.
"Oof!" I caught her and realized I had no wounds. I felt...amazing.
On the ground only Sinead's body lay there, and someone, probably John, had cut her head off. I heard him shout and run and then my lover hugged me as well.
"Keelin! What? How?"
"I don't know!" I kissed him and my head swam with power. When our skin touched I heard his thoughts, and felt his emotions, so bright and pure and wonderful. I could taste them.
Morrigan pulled us apart as a strange god with long dark hair started for us. "Keelin, you are now a god. A goddess of wisdom and humanity, you will be the bridge between us and the world. Ares has joined us as well, to replace Neit."
I blinked and settled under John's arm. "And Neit? Where is he?"
The strange blonde materialized in a puff of showy smoke. "Locked away forever. I'm Lucifer."
"So we're to have a Hell now?"
He shook his head, jiggling his top hat. "My world is gone forever, that portal bled into yours. I'm the only one to remain here. Someone has to help punish the wicked and tempt the innocent."
"Tonight we celebrate our rebirth!" Essus cried and the gods took up cheering. I shook hands and wondered at my powers, but soon I grabbed John by the hand and lead him away.
"Where are we going?"
I smiled back at him. "I've risen from the dead, I am a goddess now. Saving the world can wait, I'm in the mood for a little worship."
Laughing he pulled me to him for a kiss. In the wake of death we celebrated life. The Tournament was over, I was humanity's champion, and we had a world to save. But first I had to remember just what made it worth saving.