“The key to a successful team? Don’t have me on it. Or anyone like me. Or really anyone at all. Yes. That is definitely it. The key to a successful team is to limit its membership. If there’s anyone else on the team beside yourself, then I’m afraid at the most critical moment of your grand enterprise, someone will reveal themselves to be a turncoat, someone else will crumble under the pressure and, for the rest, general panic and mayhem will ensue. The only hope of avoiding a complete catastrophe is to do it all yourself.”– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, three sheets to the wind with a liver in full mutiny against the abuse it had suffered.
It wasn’t just the smell of blood that drenched the arena. All the myriad aromas of death were present.
But that didn’t make sense.
We’d only just been allowed in and from how the crowd was moving, no one was plucking random bodies out of it to be slaughtered indiscriminately.
But the scents were fresh.
The arena, and I was being charitable calling it that, wasn’t a permanent structure. The beams of the walls had been cut no more than a week ago, and the joins between them were made for easy disassembly. It hadn’t been the site of countless battles before this.
I racked my brain to think of why it smelled like an abattoir and was still struggling to figure it out when we exited from behind the stands to see the fighting pit. It wasn’t as large as I’d imagined it to be. Maybe a hundred feet long by fifty feet wide and filled with rocks and trees and a surprising amount of ground clutter.
Basically inconvenient for me to the greatest extent that it could be.
Larger and I’d have been able to play Hide and Shred. Smaller and I could have skipped straight to the “Shred” part of that equation. A flat and open arena would have meant no obstacles to closing the distance with our attackers. The broken and cluttered terrain meant a charge or any other effort to close to melee range would be delayed significantly. If they offered us our choice of weapons like Doxle had I could select a ranged option, but since I hadn’t trained with them I had to imagine my performance would be substandard at best.
“That’s not a good sign, is it?” Yarrin said, pointing back into the arena as we climbed the stairs up to the fourth row of the stands.
I glanced where he was pointing and noticed at last where the smell of death was coming from.
The many splashes of blood which were splattered over the arena at chaotic intervals.
“Looks like some of the late applicants survived though,” Kelthas said, nodding towards the opposite side of the arena and a group of young people who were standing slightly apart from the crowds which were still filing in.
“Late applicants?” I asked, noticing the haunted, yet grimly determined expressions the odd group all wore.
“A lot of people can’t afford the application fee,” Mellina said. “They have the option of showing up here and being ‘processed’ before the trials begin.”
“And the processing has an unreasonably high mortality rate?” I asked, not needing to guess much on that point.
“The late application exam is supposed to be more challenging but it’s not supposed to be more dangerous than the rest of the trials,” Kelthas said.
“That’s the official story,” Mellina said. “In practice it varies year to year. This year we have a bumper crop of applicants, so…”
So the numbers need to be thinned.
It didn’t make sense to me. How did the Empire benefit from killing off any caster? Non-fatal tests to determine aptitude would leave them with so many people who could contribute to all the easier yet still vital tasks required to maintain the Empire’s basic existence, like recasting the Soul Kindled Wards that protected us from the Reaving Storms. Those broke far too often and the excuse was always the same, ‘there are only so many Imperial casters to go around and they are stretched very thin.”
We took our seats in time to see the first group of applicants take the field.
“That’s Nelphas Lightstone’s group,” Yarrin said. “They’re guaranteed to make it in.”
Because High Lightstone was the strongest of the Great Houses and could afford to purchase safety for their scions? Greyfall wasn’t a weak house either though and somehow Yarrin didn’t rate that expenditure.
When the opposing forces from the Imperial Regular Army took the field there was only the barest pretension that the trial was meant to be anything like an actual fight.
The starting positions were assigned ‘randomly’ the proctor explained, and the objective was simple; destroy the enemy’s flag.
For the battle the flag of Zamashash, the Empire’s age old enemy to the east, was flown from a ten foot tall pole in the center of the arena. Lightstone’s forces were deployed twenty feet from the flag while the Regulars were stationed fifty feet back at the edge of the arena.
A whistle was blown and the Regulars charged forward. No run, however valiant, could have prevented Nelphas from casting a bolt of corrosive poison he tossed at the flag, which proceeded to melt it, pole and all, into a runny sludge.
The whole “fight” took five seconds, if that, and yet the crowd still erupted in cheers when Nelphas called out “Ever the Empire’s Enemies Fall!”
With their victory secured, Nelphas and his team were ushered to the quarter of the arena which had been kept empty when the crowd was brought in.
“That’s not much space for winners,” Yarrin said.
I met his gaze and nodded. It was possible the proctors would reuse space as it was cleared, or they might intend to eliminate two thirds of us in the first trial. Of those two possibilities, I knew which one I felt safer placing money on.
The next five groups were also scions of the Great Houses and while the positioning of the teams and the new flags did change somewhat, the overall positioning remained largely the same. The applicants had a clear advantage over the Regulars, and what advantages the Regulars did possess they never pressed into service.
“Darrowwood,” the proctor called out, bringing the next team forward.
“I don’t know them,” Yarrin said.
Because they weren’t associated with one of the Great Houses.
Which was also why the random placement of the flag wasn’t quite so favorable towards them. Instead of it being closer to the applicants than the Regulars, ‘purely random chance’ had placed the flag at the far end of the arena with the Regulars between it and the team of doomed young people..
When the whistle blew, the Regulars didn’t charge. They didn’t have to. They simply took up their regulation Imperial rifles from where the guns had been laying on the ground and commenced firing immediately.
Darrowwood’s team had three members in it before the whistle blew. That dropped to one before the whistle’s echo faded. The two kids Darrowwood had brought with him were down, not dead yet but grievously injured.
Darrowwood made a valiant stand in front of them conjuring sheets of ice to act as cover as he turned and dragged his two teammates behind one of the rock outcroppings they’re been positioned near. The move would have protected them from further fire, except in the time it took him to drag them to safety, two of the Regulars crossed the distance to the ice wall, scaled it and shot him from the top.
The three were still alive when the medical crew gurneyed them off the field, but I had to wonder how much attention they were going to receive.
“The medics will stabilize them and pass the bill onto their families or sponsors,” Yarrin said without my needing to ask.
“That’s not going to be easy for them to pay back,” Kelthas said, looking more grave than he had when the victories look like they would all be easy ones.
“If they shoot me, don’t waste time trying to save me,” Yarrin said. “Just keep yourselves alive, and burn that stupid flag.”
“They’re not going to shoot you,” Kelthas said. “They’re going to shoot me.”
“I’m pretty sure they’ll have orders contrary to that,” Yarrin said. “Or at least to shoot me first.”
“Good,” I said. “Let’s use that.”
“No!” Kelthas said. “We’re not letting them shoot Yarrin so we can win.”
“Of course not,” I said. Why would anyone think that? Yarrin was flimsy. “If they have orders to shoot him though, that makes them predictable.”
“I’m confused,” Kelthas said.
“I’m not,” Mellina said. “We can definitely use their focus on Yarrin. I’ll handle him. Can you two take care of the flag?”
“I can take care of the soldiers,” I said.
“Fighting them is a bad idea,” Kelthas said. “They’re used to battle.”
I wasn’t, but they weren’t using magic so the number of tricks they could pull was manageable.
“You’ll need an opening to get to the flag,” I said. “I’ll make one for you. Destroy it quick though. They’re using basic tactics. We don’t want to give them time to switch to something complex.”
The next team up was noble led and the Regulars gave them more of a challenge than the others. Two of the four sustained disabling but non-life threatening injuries, while the other two lost a little blood but pulled through to win despite the ‘heroic effort’ required.
The following team was low born and five strong. They were good casters, managing to jam or shatter the Regular’s rifles and force the soldiers into melee where they held their own for almost a minute.
The soldiers superior coordination and stamina paid off though and as the team of applicants was forced back to the edge of the arena, their leader offered their surrender.
Surrendering disqualified them from progressing but the soldiers weren’t forced to carve them up, so in a sense it was a victory for everyone.
“Greyfall” one of the proctor’s called and we were up.
Despite Yarrin being affiliated with one of the theoretically most powerful Great Houses, the random placement for our positions came up in line with what the low born applicants had been given.
“Find cover before the whistle blows,” I said. It should have been safe to assume that’s what people would do, but after watching all the teams before us I’d come to the conclusion that safe assumptions were anything but.
We were eighty feet away from the flag with the Regulars only thirty feet from us when we got to our starting position.
I gave the area another scan, taking in the shallow trench that was just behind us, the mid-height tree stump to our left and the shrubs on our right. The Regulars were standing in another small trench, slightly deeper than the one we could fall back to. The ground sloped up towards them so they enjoyed a small height advantage but it wasn’t going to matter.
The whistle blew and several things happened in the same instant.
Shots rang out, as they always did, so no surprise there.
The ricochet sound however was new. I didn’t waste time turning to see what had happened, but I had a strong guess that Kelthas’ magic allowed him to summon armor like Idrina could summon weapons. He’d jumped in front of Yarrin as a shield and would likely be able to protect the smaller boy until the Regulars swarmed us and flanked around him.
Except the Regulars weren’t going to do that.
There was no point swarming forward to take out the target they’d been paid to kill when he wasn’t there anymore. I knew that because Mellina understood me, and I knew what she could do.
Also, the Regulars lost interest in shooting at Yarrin becuase there was a person running at them on all fours, her body stretching out exactly as human bodies are not supposed to.
It didn’t take them long to choose me as their target but Imperial rifles don’t have the fastest rate of fire and their accuracy against targets running in a fast zigzag pattern wasn’t the best.
Some of them still hit me, but it wasn’t like they or anyone else could tell that for sure.
All they saw was something that had left humanity behind twenty feet ago, was focused only on them, and wasn’t stopping.
They didn’t panic, or at least they didn’t break ranks. They did however fail to switch to their melee weapons fast enough.
That was fine with me. I was more than happy to draw a sword from the nearest one and a knife from his neighbor.
I didn’t stab anything vital, in part because I’d seen them gracefully accept the last groups surrender, and in part because they served as better meat shield alive than dead.
I was wondering how long that particular equation would remain true when a dull explosion came from a spot fifty feet away.
I dragged the soldier I had in a headlock back but stopped stabbing at the others as we all looked to confirm that, yes, Kelthas had used the window of opportunity I’d bought him to blow up the flag.