Val stepped into the arena and prepared to die. The crowd loved it. As her image appeared above the stage, projected as a fifty foot tall giant, cheers erupted and only intensified when her “time to mortality” odds finished calculating.
“Any last minute questions?” Kinslayer asked from behind the entrance door.
“Nah, we got this,” Val said, waving to the crowds and dancing along to the high energy musical number they’d picked for her “theme song”.
It was more than a little strange to be approaching a ‘battle to the death’ with neither fear nor animosity towards her opponent. If she’d been pressed, Val would have said that Kinslayer didn’t even feel like an opponent. From interviewing the other fighters, and from their discussion before the match, Val thought it would be more accurate to call Kinslayer her partner in the fight. Or maybe co-conspirator.
Not that the actual fighting part would be fake. Neither one of them knew who would emerge victorious in the end, but with the various safety systems in place and the frankly ludicrous levels of healing available, the narrative of the fight being a grim and deadly affair couldn’t have been farther from truth if they were actors staging the fight under the most carefully controlled conditions. Even pain and shock wouldn’t be an issue. Not with the various enchantments Val was carrying (and which Kinslayer had promised she had analogous methods of achieving).
Despite the trappings of gore and blades that littered the outskirts of the stage, Val felt like she was walking into the the best viewed pillow fight of all time.
Then Kinslayer made her entrance.
The crowd that had been pumped up by Val’s appearance, exploded when their local favorite appeared. From the poppy electric tune the Arena had selected for Val, the music changed to a heavy, grinding wail as the lighting shifting to dark blues and neon purples. A banshee wail rose from Kinslayer’s biggest fans and soon threatened to drown out both the music and the cheers.
Val held back a smile as Kinslayer climbed onto the stage but slashing through the ropes with a battleaxe nearly as big as she was. The battleaxe was only one of the many weapons Kinslayer was carrying where Val had entered the ring unarmed. It was part of making sure the fight was a fair one, but the crowd lost its mind when Kinslayer twisted the axe from the stage and began howling louder than they could. She wasn’t holding back at all.
Val finally smiled. The crowd had no idea what they were in for.
For all that the Grand Arena hosted spectacular blood sports, the natives of Castorvell were a surprisingly gentle people. Anna found herself weighing how much of a problem that was likely to be as she swirled the drink in her goblet.
“It’s not that we are unconcerned about your plight,” Careema said, slicing a paper thin wafer of meat from her steak. “The documentation you provided of the worlds which are aligning against your Earth have more than convinced us that your need is dire. Already however I have heard the opposition marshalling it’s counter arguments to the requests your are expected to make.”
“We tried to anticipate some of those and provide the data to prevent the ones that didn’t have any real substance from becoming an issue,” JB said. The salad on their plate was proving to be a delightful puzzle, with the flavor varying wildly based on the exact combination of components JB managed to skewer for each bite.
“That certainly helped,” Careema said. “At least to an extent. In knocking down the easy counter arguments, I’m afraid you’ve left behind only the difficult ones, and given those who don’t wish to provide you with any aid the time to refine their positions.”
“I imagine that they would have prepared their arguments around the more troubling aspects of our mission regardless of any warning we gave them,” Anna said.
“Our hope was to get those issues out in the open earlier rather than later when things might be a bit too stressful to think through them carefully,” Tam said. She’d joined them once Val left the locker room to head for the arena. Arriving in time for the third course of the evening had meant missing a few rounds of unusual cuisine but the later dishes had more than measured up to the earlier ones.
“I think you will find that, as on your world, diplomatic debates here are not always carried by the force of reasonable discussion,” Careema said.
“Self interest will always play a role,” Anna agreed. “The question is how many of those who will be meeting with us will be motivated by an interest in supporting the faction they represent and how many will define the ‘self’ in self-interest in a more personal manner?”
Careema was silent for a moment, evaluating Anna, before speaking.
“It varies,” she said. “All of the ambassadors will at least pay lip service to shepherding the good of Castorvell. A sizable number, though far from the majority, could be induced to support your position for the right sort of remuneration I believe.”
Anna chewed on the bite of mixed salad that she took, enjoying the citrus flavor and soft crunch of the combined components before responding.
“Those are the people we’re least interested in speaking with,” she said. “If it wouldn’t compromise your position, I believe our best path would be to speak with those who are opposed to a connection with us based on their principals.”
“That will not be a small audience I’m afraid,” Careema said.
“All the better,” Anna said. “If there’s a consensus on our world being too dangerous to engage with, then we can address that directly and perhaps convert a large number of them at once.”
“And if they have a bunch of individual concerns, we can hopefully show them how we adapt to different problems so that they can feel comfortable we can handle theirs,” Tam said.
“I’m not sure how adaptable you will be able to be in this case,” Careema said. “The principle issue my people have is that this is to some extent a problem you’ve brought on yourselves. The argument which seems to have the most weight is that you chose to upset the metaphysical balance between worlds, and in doing so kicked a nest of venom hawks. The peril you’re in now is a very obvious consequence of your actions, and one that is highly likely to spread to anyone else who becomes embroiled in your troubles.”
“They’re not wrong,” Anna said. “But their view is incomplete.”
“If there is more to see than this High One who opposes you, many will be even more resilient in their refusal to become embroiled in the conflict,” Careema said. “I thank you for sharing the details you have of your battles with him, but to be honest, they terrified many of us with what sort of damage our world might incur.”
“We did manage to stop his rampage,” Tam said. “Even his worst hit only wound up causing him problems.”
“But you didn’t stop him, did you?” Careema asked. “He still sits on his world, his followers convinced that he can do no wrong, and from each defeat or setback he is capable of learning.”
“That is one of the reasons why we have come here,” Anna said. “It’s not just him either. It’s the Pure Ones, and a half dozen other tyrants, each with the power to end all life on our world.”
“But we’ve stood against all of them,” Tam said. “And together we can do more than that.”
“You’ve stood against them for now,” Careema said. “How many times can you find tricks to survive though? And what will the cost of those tricks be? Or do you think the High One and his ilk will stop? Do you think there’s a limit to his hate? Or that he will see the light if you simply hold out long enough?”
“No,” Anna said, shaking her head. “The High One will never run out of hate for us.”
Kinslayer didn’t waste any time on spectacle. The moment the fight was joined she went for a killing blow.
Battleaxes the size of car doors, as a rule, aren’t meant to move at speeds that rival high velocity bullet fire. That didn’t stop Kinslayer from hurling he first weapon at a velocity that put sniper bullets to shame.
Had the axe hit Val it would have split her in two evenly and painlessly. She wouldn’t even have finished the downstroke of a blink in the time it took the axe to complete its flight.
Instead, because it was an evenly matched battle, Val snatched the weapon out of the air and swung it in a wide arc to release it right back at Kinslayer. On her arms blue runes blazed to life, setting her aglow bright enough that even the people stuck in the cheap seats could make her out just fine.
The rapid exchange was too fast for most of the crowd to follow, but everyone understood what the two sonic booms, one from Kinslayer’s throw and the other from Val’s return meant. It was exactly what they’d hoped to see, even if they could only really see it on the smaller instant-replay projections that were broadcast near their seats.
Kinslayer drew a pain of daggers that burst into flames and squared off against Val but Val responded with a massive hand clap that released a wind with enough force to douse the flames and blow Kinslayer back to the edge of the ring where a pit of acid awaited to claim her.
There was no physical mechanism which would have allowed an attack like that to work. Two human sized hands couldn’t capture enough air to move that volume of air. The sorcery that Tam had tied into Val’s breath however cared not in the slightest about trivial matters like “physical laws”. Castorvell was far more forgiving of breaches in the “immutable constants of the universe” than Earth was and Tam had taken full advantage of that.
“Beautiful move!” Kinslayer said as she slammed into Val with her shoulder.
Both women went for headbutts at the same time and the resulting crash shook some of the people in the front row out of their seats.
“You move wonderfully!” Val said, breathless in appreciation rather than from a lack of stamina. “I expected more force but less speed, but you move like your light as the wind!”
They parted by the barest fraction of an inch and both went for a wicked punch to chest. Their fists met and produced a flash of light from the compressed air that blew them back a handful of body lengths away from each other.
“Wow! You matched me!” Kinslayer said. “I was afraid your body weight would limit how much force you exert.”
“Yeah, Tam cooked a few tricks into the strength spells,” Val said. “It’s some of her best work really. Normally I can’t go all out like this without a lot more wind up.”
Kinslayer drew a pair of spiked clubs and slammed them into the ring’s floor causing a vast shower of stone shards to fly in a fan towards Val. Before the shards could reach her though, Kinslayer was there, leaping over the wave to bring both clubs down on Val’s crossed arms.
If it was possible to win a “ring out” victory by knocking your opponent out through the bottom of the ring, Kinslayer could have claimed victory then. She didn’t so much knock Val through the floor though as blast a crater into the arena which punched through the ring and into the carefully setup “lava stage” that had been rigged up beneath the main ring.
As the lava stage rose so that the crowd could view it, they heard a titanic booming within an ever flowing geyser of bright orange molten rock.
With a whirl of earth-shattering clubs, Kinslayer spun geyser away from inside the center of it to reveal that she’d hammered Val down to her knees.
A close up view from the projection showed that both fighters had sustained considerable “battle damage” but the joyfully grins on their faces were impossible to miss too.
“Oh this is the best!” Kinslayer said. “I can’t believe we get to fight on the lava stage! No one’s usually able to hold up long enough to carry the fight here.”
“I can see why,” Val said with a laugh. “That was a hell of an attack sequence.”
“I know you’ve got some more tricks in your bag though,” Kinslayer said.
With a mighty wind-up she slammed one of the clubs down and destroyed all of the “safe” portions of the lava stage in one hit. When the smoke cleared though, it wasn’t Val who rose and pushed the club away.
With arms of gleaming steel, Jen stood from spot where Val had been and unleashed a kick that knocked Kinslayer back fifty feet and submerged her completely in the bubbling lava.
“Yeah, we’ve got a few tricks left,” Jen said.