The Tournament 07: The Set-Upbymadam_noe©
Copyright Nora Quick 2012.
As always, I welcome comments and feedback!
"It is time," Morrigan said to me. A battle goddess of war and death, she was my trainer. We should have had fourteen years to train but had only gotten two. Still I bore her gift, the ability to reincarnate continuously over almost three thousand years, and remember it all. It did give me a certain edge.
I was one of now four champions fighting to save the world. Our combat was simple; one on one, we typically fought with swords, but any weapons were allowed, just not firearms. Each of us had a war god or goddess training us, and whoever won the final combat opened a gateway between our world and that of the gods. The winning pantheon would come and cleanse the earth of radiation and save humanity. That was the party line.
"So who is it?"
"Keelin, it's Tanaka."
I felt a frisson of fear. I'd met the Japanese champion once before, just over two years ago when he'd saved me from a horribly slow death at the hands of the Aztec champion. He claimed he didn't challenge me then because of honor. I'd known another Japanese champion long ago and honor seemed to be big with those guys.
My special circumstances meant the past two years had been without challenge. Before my training I'd survived three battles. In the first challenge Morrigan had saved me, the second I won fairly, and the third was where I'd met Tanaka who'd saved my ass. Of all those who would wait for the very minute, the very hour my moratorium was up he was the last I expected. And, having seen him fight, he was the only one I worried about.
"How does this go?"
"You must leave training grounds. He will issue the challenge and allow you to pick the time and place, it is his way. Choose wisely, and remember he draws power from the earth."
"Great, so I say we fight in a thousand years when someone figures out how to contact the lost lunar colony so we can fight on the moon?"
"Smart ass," she said and tucked a glossy strand of black hair behind her delicate ear. She was in her maiden form, a buxom eighteen year old death goddess with bright blue eyes. Next to her I was a hulking giant of athletic muscle, a disappointing lack of curves, and fairly stringy red hair.
"No, just challenge him closer to the settlement seven miles out. Pick full dark so you can back him onto concrete, close to cars."
"Hard to believe for so many years your followers associated you with nature. Cars are metal. Concrete is rocks. It's all earth."
"Well, you figure it out! You're the champion!"
"And you're one of the few supposed to save this world if I win. God!" When I cursed like that as Raymond, my self from the twentieth century, so often did it irritate her.
She had three forms, maiden, mother, and crone, and each had its own special way of irritating me. She was still better than lecherous Neit, her male counterpart, brother-in-law, and babysitter here on Earth.
"Just go and set the appointment. No fighting today."
It was all I could do not to wet my pants, which I had done the last time I saw Tanaka fight with blinding speed I could never match.
When Morrigan had brought the news she sent Neit inside, my five companions out to trade and make money in the nearby town. We had a compound of sorts and the five with me were fellow reincarnates, existing solely to help me train. They were not to know of the tournament, but the two men who'd remained when three others left upon my arrival, were my lovers, and one knew about the tournament and had once fought the Greek champion years ago. Neit had spilled the beans drunk to one of the women but John refused to tell me who.
I was shaking, damn it. Sometimes it was hard to be me. Inside my mind I was hundreds of people, their voices talked to me all the time, but it was my voice too. I couldn't explain it, but times like this, me, Keelin, felt separate from all the men and women I'd once been who fought in grand wars and killed by the thousands.
I walked slowly away from Morrigan, between the two west buildings of the compound where the little road was. I walked in the grayish sunlight of late afternoon which was cool enough I wasn't sweating in my leather. I'd taken to wearing good old fashion boiled leather, it was good basic armor, and when I fought I had metal plates that attached easily to it. This had been my standard garb in many lifetimes and felt familiar and comforting.
Tanaka stood right at the property line. On our home grounds we could not be challenged but in space and time he was toeing the line. He was still a strikingly handsome man, tall, slim, broad of shoulder, and looked dramatic with his back hair flowing in the wind along with his grey trench coat. When he fought it swirled and danced and distracted. A romantic vision if you didn't have to worry about losing your head to his sword.
"Tanaka." I stopped on my side of the property line. Last time we'd met he'd been a man of honor, but it had been two years. People could change.
"Keelin of Thorpe."
I inclined my head and waited for the challenge to come, but he just stared at me, searching my face, for what I did not know. Finally he sighed and spread his hands out, palms to me. "I do not challenge you today, I come with a question."
I couldn't help but start. "What?"
"Did you kill Francesco, the Roman champion?"
He seemed truly confused, perplexing me. "No, you did. When news of the fight reached us I was here. In two years they have not let me leave. Those who help train me come and go but I am stuck in this sanctuary." I said the word harshly, hoping he understood.
"I have traced whoever killed him to this place. We fought in a cave and there was a collapse. Before I could be dug out someone came to him and killed him, like a coward."
I can't say why I trusted him, but I did. Maybe the pretty face did me in, or maybe it was that he didn't mention my wet pants from our last meeting. "If that's true I would bet anything Neit has something to do with it. He's here to keep Morrigan, my goddess, in line but he's jealous of her, and frankly a slimy bastard."
"If I can meet him, perhaps I can tell."
Maybe I wanted Neit gone. Oh, hell, of course I did, the damn lech. So I found myself inviting him into the camp. The others were gone to town for the day getting supplies and trading, it was just me and the gods.
I walked him to the one unused eastern building, our overflow building for stores. Like most we didn't have overflow, we were always a little wanting. Inside was just a few old mattresses we sometimes laid down for wrestling.
I lit the little gas lamp and asked him to sit, explaining it would be a few hours. To his credit he looked comfortable, unruffled. He was groomed like a man who was never ruffled, and next to him I felt, as usual, dowdy.
"Our gods have transgressed," he said as we sat.
"All know of your goddess but mine...Hachiman took over my body. It was him who faced Carlos that day and saved you. He used great power to bring me there and fought as me. He saved you."
This shocked me, but explained his earlier searching look. He was trying to recognize a woman he'd never seen. I had a history with Hachiman back to my first life, but nothing to explain his intervention. Once I had saved his warrior's life and he had saved mine, that was all.
"Is she in your head?"
That shook me. I'd only ever spent time with one other champion, Stellan, the Norse champion who I had killed in fair combat. It had been a few years since I could so openly talk shop, and I nodded. "When I sleep, she's there. In all my past lives she's there. In the chorus of voices that are my old selves...she's the loudest."
Suddenly he was up, then kneeling beside me where I sat on the lumpy pile of mattresses. His fingers slowly reached for my face and I forced myself not look away or flinch. "He saw something in you. He's gone but he's still...here." He used his other hand to tap his temple. "Your spirit, he finds it..." he trailed off into something in a language I didn't know, and then to my shock he was kissing me.
I kissed him back because I found him beautiful. I put my hands on his body because I was lonely, even then, and he understood what I was going through because he was sharing it. I let him put his hands on my body because sex was no issue to a woman with a 3,000 year old soul. I took him into my body and we sought our pleasure together because I knew the traitor was one of my lovers, and I would lose one today.
After we lay together but did not touch, lost to our thoughts. Had Tanaka the man seen in me whatever it was Hachiman the god had?
"It was John," I said at last, and turned to face him on my side. He had such a nice body, all lean muscle, not the bulk of the men around me. "He told me he knew of the tournament. Neit was drunk and told some woman, he overheard. It was then he realized a man he fought once was Jase, the Greek champion. It has to be him."
He turned, dark eyes on mine. "What about the woman Neit confessed to?"
"He fucks anything. I doubt it was one of the ones with me. It could have been anyone."
Tanaka rose onto an elbow, solemn. "Why are you so willing to help me?"
The pulling interest I felt towards this beautiful young man was dangerous. He was an always would be my enemy, until the end. "Maybe it's Hachiman who needs my help." With that I rolled off the pile and began dressing. He watched me pull my clothes on and it was such a hard stare I blushed.
"Tanaka, this was...we can't...look. We may have to fight to the death one day. We shared a physical experience, nothing more. Leave it at that."
"I will not fight you today, nor any other day."
We didn't know each other enough for him to say that, and I knew it was the god, which puzzled me still. "Why not? What happens if we're the last two?"
"If it comes to that we will face it. Until then I will not challenge you."
He didn't comment when I made no such promise. I knew at the moment Morrigan and Neit knew where I was and who I was with, and could only wonder at their absence. The gods often knew things we did not, which of course was part of what made them gods, but the fact they didn't share often brought about awkwardness.
"Stay here, I'll get us food."
Still naked and reclined, he nodded, and turned away.
Outside the sky had grown dim with evening spreading, and rain threatened. I hated the acidic rain, and wished Morrigan's babysitter was Bel, the sun god who could burn away the clouds.
Inside the chow house, before the door closed behind me, there was Morrigan. "Well, that was an interesting challenge. Who won?"
I refused to be intimidated and brushed past her to reach for bowls for the stew on the stove. "If that's determined by finishing first and more often it'd be me."
"If sex is a contest I'd say the one who brings the pleasure on the other is the winner."
I spooned out the chicken stew into the bowls and checked the warming rack for bread. "Well, then he definitely won."
"Keelin, this is foolish."
"As I just explained to him. He's here to find someone who killed Francesco." I told her his story and to her credit she listened, even she stole a biscuit from me which I had to replace. Her face crunched up adorably as she thought and I found I preferred the cool eyes and pursed lips of concentration on her mother form.
"So you really think it's John? If this is true I will have to alert the gods to Neit's loose lips."
"Hey, get them to send Bel. I hear he throws a great party."
"Ha ha. Keelin, this is serious."
"John is going to die. Thanks to you I know more of the cycle of life and death than any human except John, Hugh, Kelner, Fiona, and Sinead. Do you know in two of my lifetimes I asked my tombstone be engraved 'Be Right Back'?"
"Go and feed your enemy. When the others arrive I will gather them and call for you. I need to contact my home world."
I'm not sure just how she could make a long-distance phone call to her dimension. Hell, in this one phones with lines over twenty feet hadn't existed in a century. Shrugging I grabbed a tray and put on the stews, bread, spoons, and two glasses of water. She held the door for me and followed me out, heading to the bunkhouse.
Tanaka wore only his pants when I arrived, and sat up smoking a cigarette which he shorted upon sight of the food. I set the tray down on a crate and dragged it over, sitting next to him. He sniffed the stew and hesitated so with sigh I dug my spoon into his and ate a bite before turning to my own.
"Honor matters to us all," I said and turned to attack my food.
"Not all. Carlos. Li. These were not men of honor."
He seemed strangely conflicted, so I sighed and set my spoon down. "And they're dead."
We ate in silence until it was all gone. At last he broke the silence. "You've led a very hard life."
"We all have, the world is dying around us. We're the last humans, lucky if we're free of radiation poisoning. No one's got it easy."
"You've had it harder than most."
Before I could reply came the rumble of an engine. The others. I nodded to him and watched him dress, strapping his sword and sheath to his back before shrugging into his coat.
Outside Morrigan called me, inside my head, and we emerged to find my cursed compatriots gathered nervously, all eyes on Tanaka. Coward that I was I could not meet John's gaze and chose to look at my other lover Hugh. Tall, broad, and handsomely plain he looked as he always did, as if he didn't belong in this century or this place. Morrigan had tried to warn me that Hugh's fate was good and John's was muddy, but as usual I didn't listen too well.
Tanaka walked to them and Morrigan ordered them to stand still. Neit opened his mouth but one look from his sister-in-law and he shut it. My enemy lover walked up and down the line before coming to a stop in front of Hugh.
"You must be John." My jaw dropped open as John started. Tanaka drew his sword blindingly fast and the others scrambled away.
Hugh, like the others, had made money in "town" by fighting for prize gold. He was tired and sluggish, and drew his own weapon slowly. "You will die."
"You killed Francesco, you dog!"
The fight began as we all backed away. Morrigan grabbed Neit who was trying to slink off, proving his guilt. John found his way to me with panicked eyes. "Why does he think Hugh is me?"
"Because I told him you killed Francesco."
"I am Hugh of Granger, fool!" Hugh announced to Tanaka as their words clashed again and again.
"Why?" John ran his hands through his long dark hair and drew my eyes to the rapid pulse at his throat. Beyond us the fight continued with Tanaka's speed being so far deflected by Hugh's pure, brute strength, though Tanaka was backing him up steadiy.
"You knew about the tournament and said you fought Jase!"
He grabbed my arms them and forced me to face him, blocking the fight Tanaka was now winning with ease. "I lied. I heard Neit drunk one night with Sinead. He was telling her about it and said one his 'his boys' had fought Jase. I- I wanted to impress you. I'm sorry!"
I threw his hands off and stalked away just as Tanaka's sword went flying through Hugh's neck. The beautiful strawberry blonde hair gleamed in the lamplight as his hit the ground and his body crumpled.
Tanaka whirled to me. "You lied! After all we've shared, you lied! I will not challenge you, Keelin of Thorpe, but I do pray it is us, we two, left last. And on that day, I will kill you."
He was already stalking back down the road. I tried to follow but Morrigan reached out and snagged me. "Let him go, it's for the best. We have business here. Everyone gather!"
Slowly they came close to the two gods, Neit struggling to escape Morrigan's grasp, shirt caught in her other hand.
"It's clear now that under Neit's guidance Hugh interfered and killed the Roman champion illegally. He has risked everything, everything! To interfere with a challenge is to end the tournament and doom our worlds! For this, Neit I banish you. Those of you in his cabal will go too!"
She let me go and I stepped back to grab Hugh's sword as everyone stared to one another.
Neit tried to kick Morrigan and I ran, placing the sword tip beneath his neck. "You may be immortal and perhaps I cannot kill you, but I can make you hurt. A lot."
"You go with the clothes on your back and are never to return!" Morrigan was angry, morphing into the mother in front of our eyes, then into the crone. In this form she was the one who chose who lived and who died. Fear sailed through everyone, myself included, as power rolled off her like a storm. Now a stooped old woman with white hair her blue eyes were pale like pure flame, and burned across our faces. "Who will go!?"
I looked to John and held my breath. She'd been wrong. I'd been wrong. Was I to lose all my lovers this day?
Sinead and Kelner walked to Neit and stood behind him. "We will go," the quiet man said.
I glared at them, hard. We all of us here were supposed to be wise, how had we been so easily fooled? Even at that thought Fiona and John walked to stand behind me.
"Go then, now," John said with a growl.
Neit backed off my sword slowly, glaring at Morrigan.
"You will be punished when the time comes. For now go, and never interfere again." She called forth amazingly more power and the wind began to blow. The force of her rage was palpable and drove them back. The four of us watched until the three disappeared into the shadows of the dark road.
Morrigan began to chant in old Gaelic, the language of my first few lives, and I knew it was a protection spell. Where the power came from in the weakened goddess I could only guess, but a battle had commenced, however small, and death as well. It seemed to fuel her and suddenly around the camp a ring of light flared for a moment.
"They cannot cross it," she said, and fainted dead away.
I dropped the sword and caught her and the others helped me bring her to her bed, then followed me out.
"What do we do with him?" Fiona nodded to Hugh.
"We bury him," I said curtly.
Two hours later he was buried deep enough no scavengers would come. Fiona claimed the bath first leaving me alone with John. He gave me a look of disgust and stomped off towards the gathering house.
Alone in the dark I pulled out my rare tobacco and rolled a cigarette, lighting it and watching the smoke for a long moment. Nothing had been resolved truly that day. Neit had been training his own people to fight as champions, but I had been chosen. To what end I could not say.
All we knew was that he had set us up, but the why was a mystery I knew would come back to haunt us. All I could do was train and train hard, and wait for that fateful day.