“Am I a monster? Do I seem harmless to you? Am I a pillar of compassion and kindness? Do you think I am burdened by ethical or moral limits of any sort? More importantly though, do you believe I should be?”– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame
I didn’t get to see what was summoned for the first few rounds of the second trial, but I heard what transpired all too clearly.
The first round had seen several teams knocked out of contention but relatively few deaths. The second round started off significantly bloodier. Of the first five teams that were “invited” to enter the smoke shrouded arena, all were composed of commoners and only one emerged on their own. For the others, the proctors were required to go into the smoke and activate the banishment spells. Then the medics were required to go in and bring out what was left of the applicants.
“How are so many of them doing so poorly?” Kelthas asked, shocked at the state of the seventh and eighth bodies that the medics hauled out.
“Bad luck on what’s coming through the rifts,” Mellina said without conviction.
If there were casters capable of opening rifts like a Reaving Storm could, it didn’t seem far fetched that they could also choose where those rifts went too, selecting worse monsters to fight the applicants they wanted to be sure washed out and easier ones for the select few who’d already purchased their passing grades. That we were likely to be on the worse end of that spectrum was something that probably wasn’t worth reminding Kelthas of.
“They’re moving the positioning on the banishment spells between each group,” Yarrin said. “The last pair that got out was lucky. They ran up one of the trees and stumbled on the spell when they were trying to get away from the monster.”
“You could see that?” I asked.
He nodded with his jaw shut tight and his eyes fixed on the arena.
Being able to magically collect information wasn’t always a fantastic ability to possess, even if it was likely to be critical in keeping you alive.
“Have they reused any of the hiding spots for the banishment spells?” I asked.
“Not yet. They keep placing the key triggers in different spots.”
“Can you describe where they are?” Mellina said. “I want to know where not to bother with if we don’t get paired up.”
Purely verbal descriptions of an area that we couldn’t directly observe weren’t necessarily helpful but it was better than nothing.
Right up until the moment when the twentieth team was called and Kelthas and Yarrin were named as its members.
“Good luck,” I said when they rose and started heading down to the arena.
“They won’t need luck. They’ve got Yarrin,” Mellina said before they were out of earshot, a sentiment which seemed to warm Yarrin a bit.
Once they had departed, I turned to her and threw a questioning look in her direction.
“They should do fine. They’re a near optimal setup for this trial,” she said.
I shook my head.
“How are you at finding hidden things?” I asked.
“I’m better at hiding, than finding,” she said. “That said, I’m better at finding than fighting Reaving Beasts.”
“Can you hide from them?”
“Yes.” No uncertainty. No hesitation. And so I believed her.
Rift beasts could possess all manner of senses, but Mellina knew that and knew her own powers.
“We have our roles then,” I said.
“Do we? Can you handle the monsters in there on your own?”
“It’ll be easier if I can think of myself as being solo,” I said. Because then I wouldn’t need to hide so much of what I could do and what I was.
“From what Yarrin described, searching shouldn’t take long, so you shouldn’t have to hold out forever.”
“If they switch back to using one of the places he described though, I expect it’ll take a while longer.”
“I’ll call out if that’s the case,” Mellina said.
“Don’t. You’ll find it when you find it. Until then it doesn’t matter how long its taken or is going to take,” I said. “We’re going to live or die based on your success. Calling any attention to yourself is going to swing that towards dying.”
“For me. For you it might improve things.”
“It won’t.” I didn’t owe Mellina anything. We’d known each other for only a few hours. We were associates of convenience more than friends.
And yet I still wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.
It was possible I’d wired my brain up incorrectly, but I suspected my problems went deeper than that.
From the arena, massive booms shook the ground and rattled my seat. That was worrisome.
I heard Kelthas’ yell and the sound of metal on metal. That was disturbing. Rift beasts could be anything but clad in metal armor was unusual and the sign of something outsized for the sort of foe we were capable of handling.
Just as soon as the battle had begun it was over though.
I waited to see if the proctor’s would head in to manually trigger the banishment spells, but before they could, Kelthas and Yarrin came marching out of the smoke and were escorted to the winners area.
That was reassuring but I didn’t have long to ponder their win before Mellina and I were called as the next team.
“Just find the banishment spell,” I said as a last minute instruction to a teammate who might be forming her own plans. “I’ll keep you safe from the beasts.”
Mellina met my gaze and nodded in response.
The proctors pushed us into the smoke and I was alone.
Which meant I was free.
Except, Yarrin was able to see through the smoke.
And the proctors could see where the banishment spell triggers were hidden.
And the medics knew where the bodies were laying.
All of which meant that if I cut loose I’d be giving myself away just as Doxle had predicted I would.
So I held back.
Another touch to my nose lengthened it just enough to scale my sense of smell up to where I could make out everything in the arena. A little work on my fingers recast them as talons. I shifted a few joints for greater flexibility and strength but I knew that wasn’t likely to make much of a difference.
And I was right.
The beast that emerged from the smoke out massed me by a factor of ten and and was easily as fast as I was.
But it was a beast.
And unlike a certain disturbingly impressive daughter of the Ironbriars, not capable to casting spells to catch me by surprise with.
Most of what occurred next happened faster than I was consciously aware of. I didn’t understand what I was doing, or why, in the moment, I just followed my instincts since that was all I had to keep myself alive with. Thinking back though, I believe things played out something like this.
The Reaving Beast they’d summoned to kill Mellina and I was the size of a rather large carriage. It was quadrupedal, with a head that looked a bit like the pictures I’d seen of male lions from Yentarum, except instead of cat’s ears it had giant sized human ones.
It’s maw was anything but human though, with nine or ten rows of teeth, each coming to a sharp point and shining with a glass-like sheen.
I’d given myself talons, but it’s toes ended in claws that put mine to shame.
I got to see those up close as it leapt and made a swipe intended to take off the front of my face. I responded to that, I think, by diving forward and rolling under the beast.
It cut its leap short, but not before I grabbed onto its left rear leg and swung myself around and up onto its back.
It wasn’t a great place to be.
Before I could let go of my grip, the beast tossed itself backwards, intending to slam me onto the ground and crush me with its sheer weight.
Since I was a fan of my ribcage and the organs within it, I opted to pass on being squish and kicked off, slamming into the ground without a giant beast crushing me.
Of the two of us, I was the faster getting back to my feet, but it didn’t present any solutions to my problems.
I could run, but there was no chance I was faster than the Reaving Beast.
I could start slashing away, but it was going to take me a lot more cuts to disable the beast than the beast would require to disable me.
My only real choice was to play for time, but even that didn’t present great odds.
The Reaving Beast had none of those concerns. The moment it was back on its feet it howled in rage and hunger.
And kept howling.
I snapped back into conscious thought processing there.
It wasn’t speaking a language I knew.
But I could smell pain and panic spilling from it in broken, stuttering waves.
I listened to its howl.
I watched how it coiled up and readied itself for another attack.
It wasn’t enraged.
I let my fight or flight response go.
This wasn’t a fight. It wasn’t a battle to death, or a terrible monster being fed a pair of innocent victims.
The creature I was looking at was the victim and it was terrified.
I shifted. I didn’t care who saw me. This was more important than keeping some vague secrets.
I didn’t spend a lot of time on my new form. Just enough to have the right external body shape and movement patterns.
Then I bowed to the Reaving Beast.
Or rather to the Felnarellian. In mirroring the beast I learned quite a bit about it, including how to communicate with it.
I’m sorry. You’ve been stolen away from your home. You and I are not enemies, and I will not hurt you. I said with the swishing of my tail, the lowering of my head and the extension of my forward paws.
This hurts. It is death to be here. I want to leave. I want to go home. Cathoas, the Felnarellian, said, speaking with the set of his muscles and the low rumble in his chest.
Yes. I will help, I said. Can you smell home still?
No! It didn’t come as a sound but it was a wail of despair nonetheless.
May I scent you? I asked.
He shied back at that, but bowed to me in agreement after a moment of consideration.
I approached him slowly, sniffing the air as I went, searching for the aromas that were his native ones and not the twisting foulness the rift had left on him.
We were nose to nose by the time I finally caught hold of the scents I was looking for and he was taut with apprehension.
I nodded to him, the Felnarellion equivalent of a smile and stood to sniff the air around us.
“Over here,” I said and turned my back on him.
He didn’t jump on me and kill me.
Which was nice. That let us get back to the rift he’d been pulled through with a minimal amount of fuss.
This is the path back home, I said.
I can’t smell…oh there is it, Carthoas said. But it will hurt. The edges tore at me before.
He wasn’t wrong. The rift was not a smooth tunnel. It was a crawlspace through razor blades.
It will again, I said.
I couldn’t fix that for him.
But I could make it better.
Knowing that it was going to be a miserable experience didn’t lessen the fact that when I grabbed onto the edge of the rift and began tearing it further open I felt like I’d dunked my hands in lava. The pain was bad enough that I had to give up before I got it as wide as I wanted it to be, but it was at least a space Carthoas could walk down rather than crawl through.
Thank you, he said at the edge of the rift, before turning and daring the path back home.
He didn’t need to thank me. I knew exactly what he was feeling and I remember wanting more than anything for someone to save me from it.
I’d been lucky enough to find that someone and I owed it to her memory to do the same.