Thursday, June 25, 2009

Moderation of the Community

Reading this interesting article set my world-building engine into overdrive. This is a small side-story in that universe written for The Friday Challenge.

Tucked away in a corner of the econet, far removed from the national cities, ringed by protective swathes of Nifforest interspersed with Dronelands and Nephilim Wastes, lies an obscure chain of mountains. There a narrow, unobtrusive path winds its way through treacherous passes until it suddenly opens upon the verdant Vale of Cyterra. At the expansive valley’s further end, atop a ridge halfway up the great mount that overlooks Cyterra, stands a temple remodeled from a former biogenetics plant. Within the temple lies a grand hall with a raised dais. In the hall, Cyterrans and three outsiders kneel before Kythara, the goddess of fertility.

The fore of the outsiders hastily pushes himself up from the ground, his greasy brown locks swaying as he shrugs off the Cyterran hands that had kowtowed him before their goddess. He spits.

“I told you, I ain’t gonna bow before any other human. I am a free man!” He glares defiantly at the goddess reclining on her celestial devan. “Who made you Queen of the Econet, huh?” Behind him, his companions likewise rise rebelliously to leer at the sufficiently comely woman.

A Cyterran interjects on the behalf of his deity. “Without the goddess, the Vale would lie desolate as the surrounding lands, and all would starve.”

“Gracious Kythara blesses the seeds that they might grow and kisses the flowers that they might produce fruit,” speaks another.

“She opens the wombs of our women so that they might conceive,” nods a man.

The outsider with the greasy locks snorts. He raises his hands to gesture about the grand hall. “What is this, an old Cytex Systems plant? So you’re, what, a former lab technician turned community admin? What sort of command system do you use to make these people so gullible?”

“You’ve caused quite a stir in my community,” murmurs Kythara softly, ignoring the questions. Her brown eyes appraise the outsiders. “Who are you? What do you want? Why have you disrupted the peace of Cyterra?”

“I’m Phynx,” the man thumbs toward himself. “My buddies Drodabbabob and Klizz and I know more about the econet than ten of your Cyterrans put together.”

“All your base are belong to us,” adds the big man behind him with a sardonic smile.

“Ah,” remarks the goddess. “Renegade Five Channers here to trouble the people for their own amusement or gain.”

“You filthy whore!” exclaims the third man to the shock of the Cyterrans. “You know nothing of us! You’re probably so busy up here spreading your legs for fertility rites that if your drones hadn’t dragged us up here you’d still be bumping uglies.”

“Shut up, Klizz,” hisses Phynx. “Don’t insult your host—not when she’s stripped you of your pistols.” He grins up at Kythara. “Please forgive my excitable friend.”

Kythara swings out her legs to sit upright on the cushion. “On the contrary, I knew the moment you stepped foot in my valley. And now I’ve seen your nature for myself. I zealously protect this community.” She stands. “You will leave the Vale of Cyterra immediately.”

“Like hell we will!” growls Klizz. “Have you seen what’s outside this little paradise, or were you too busy humping to come up for air?”

“Rude as he is, Klizz is right on this one,” intercedes Phynx. “The econet is a free place.”

“I shall speak slowly, so as to be sure that you understand. You will leave today,” enunciates Kythara.

Phynx spits. He glares at Kythara. “You’re despicable. Holding the germination codes over these people’s heads, just so you can parade yourself about like a fertility goddess.”

“That means you’re a whore,” explains Klizz.

“And how would you have it?” asks the goddess. “Without me, these people would die.”

“Pshaw!” cries Phynx. “Dro here is a wizard. I’m sure he could crack the Cytex seeds and I know the nanopros offer no challenge to him. In fact, I ordered him to dismantle your firewalls and hack your zombies’ wifi ports.” He glances over his shoulder. “You done yet, Dro?”

“I’ve set her up the bomb, Phynx,” nods Drodabbabob.

Phynx grins smugly at Kythara. “There’s gonna be a change in the pantheon for the Cyterrans.”

Kythara suddenly doubles over, her body shaking. She then rises with tinkling laughter and extends her arms over her worshippers. “The people of Cyterra serve me out of gratitude for my blessings. I removed their diodes long ago.”

Phynx turns his wide eyes to Drodabbabob. After a few moments, the wizard gives a frustrated nod: “Empty pings.”

“I guess we’d better go then,” mutters Phynx. He motions for his compatriots to move toward the door. But as he begins to leave, his forearm compartment opens, dropping a throwing knife into his hand. In a single, swift motion the Channer pivots to arc the blade toward Kythara.

The knife never reaches the goddess. A massive organo-hydraulic arm drops from the ceiling and snatches it mid-flight. The temple shakes as several tons of metal land on the ground between the dais and the outsiders.

Kythara glowers imperiously from behind the mechanical monster. “I was merciful before, but you have shown yourselves to be a threat to this community. I hereby permanently ban you from the Vale of Cyterra.”

Phynx spits. “Fine, you crazy cat lady, we’re leaving already.”

The goddess shakes her head. “You misunderstand. You are permanently banned. Moderator?”

A synthesized voice speaks from the mass of metal. “Yes, my goddess?”

“Kill these three trolls.”

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sneak Preview: Emissary of the Loa

For, as Irontoe put it, the eight people who will eventually read the full work of Saturna's history, here is a sneak preview of the battle sequence that will end Chapter 9. First draft version.

The sandstone walls of the Coliseum, constructed from monumental slabs laid one atop another, rise sixteen and a half Zandali spears above the jungle floor. Alcoves dug into the stone contain images hewn from the yellowish brown walls themselves: an homage to the mighty loa that had raised the Gurubashi into an expansive empire that had stretched fully across the southern reaches of Azeroth. At one end hangs Hi’Reek, upside down, wings spread in acceptance of her jungle tribes; at the other sprawls the eight legs of Shadra. Between these prowl the patient and wise Bethekk and the powerful striped form of Shirvallah. And in the center, gazing down upon those who enter the gate, flies the mighty wind-serpent of Hakkar, the new might of the Gurubashi Empire.

Higher still, in the upper terraces, symbols of the lesser loa are etched in relief, signs of power used by the mighty shadow hunters: Legba, Lukou, Ogoun, Dambala, Shango, and Samedi. Everywhere the hollow-eyed skull of Mueh’zala can be seen, and rightly so, for each time the Coliseum’s gates swing open countless souls meet death within its walls.

Drumbeats boom from the tops of the walls, tumbling down the stadium seating to whirl as if a tempest of throbbing sound on the arena floor below. The tropical sun burns brightly down upon the sand of the arena, but the audience is spared from its relentless gaze by canvas stretched over the seating area and held aloft by a system of ropes operated by accomplished Gurubashi sailors. Their nets, pulleys, and canvases tilt and swivel to not only block the sun’s heat but also capture the cool sea breezes and funnel them over the sea of spectators within the stadium.

And today, perhaps as never before, the grand Coliseum of the Gurubashi Empire is crowded beyond capacity. Trolls from every tribe of the Gurubashi have traveled to witness the challenge, overloading the stadium to the point where they have been forced to double up the rows, with some standing on the seats so that others might stand in the legroom to the seats’ fore. Young trolls ride the shoulders of their parents; a line of trolls perch atop the stone archway across the gate, their legs hanging off the edge; small trolls clamber up to sit upon the statuary; some trolls even hang from the nets of the awning (if not chased off by the sailors). Every nook, crevice, or hole in the wall has been seized by enterprising spectators looking to view the Battle of the Gods.

Seeing all of this, Zul’feriti is glad of the reserved seating earned him by his favored status as the sponsor for the Emissary of the Loa. He shoves his way through the packed crowd to his place of honor on the jin’apa. Here the various tribal leaders, witch doctors, and shadow hunters sat. Reaching his designated seat, he gazes out at the exuberant crowd of his people, every one excited at the prospect of blood and glory to be seen this day. The savage Bloodscalp with their scarlet-dyed hair, the ancient Zandalar bedecked with their fetishes and moss-woven hair, the powerful Skullsplitter in their dark blue hues, and the panoply of color that comprise the resourceful Darkspear: though gathered in pockets of their own tribes, for the most part all these are mixed together amongst the Gurubashi who had united them long ago.

Hanging across the stadium to the side of the main entrance, Zul’feriti’s eye is caught by the blood-red awning covering the jin’apa of the Atal’Ai. These sit apart from their brothers, holy and reserved in their devotion, marked by purple-dyed or white-bleached hair and flowing robes: an isle of green skin in the blue sea of the stadium. To Zul’feriti their separation seems all the more ominous in light of the events about to take place. Bethekk had warned him once of the danger of raising one’s self above one’s brethren.

Zul’feriti’s ears prick at a shift in the drum-beats; a hushed silence falls over the arena. The drum players then bounce a drag, rolling it into a deep bass rumble, vibrating a humming throb into the air that Zul’feriti feels pulsing against his body and pressing in on his ears. Then the steady clanking of chains and groaning of wood break through the thrumming sound of the drums, and the multitudes burst into wild cheers as a flat cart bearing the Champion of Hakkar is rolled out into the arena.

Four Atal’Ai warriors heave against poles protruding from the sides of the heavy cart, the force of their exertions slowly turning the wheels across the sandy arena floor. From each corner of the platform a wooden stanchion rises thick as a tree. Chained to these stanchions is Atal’alarion, the Champion of Hakkar. The colossal troll bellows and strains against his bonds, so strengthened by the rage of the blood god that the stanchions bow and bend ominously against his supernatural muscle. Even the dark god’s detractors cannot deny might and the potency of his gift.

With a simultaneous boom, the drumbeats end, and the Atal’Ai warriors finish wheeling Atal’alarion onto the field. Once again a hush falls over the Coliseum as the everyone stares in awe at Hakkar’s champion; and for his part, too, the massive dire troll ceases his strainings and glances about in confusion at the sudden silence.

Zul’feriti gapes at the gargantuan beast. Even without the platform, the dire troll stands half again the height of a regular troll, and his immense girth expands as wide to the tips of his elbows as he stands tall. The muscles of his thick shoulders, arms, and legs ripple and bulge, their definition clear even from the jin’apa despite the monster having ceased straining against his bonds. His broad, bat-like ears extend horizontally like a female troll’s rather than vertically like a male’s, though any doubt to Atal’alarion’s sex is obliterated by the tremendous size of his tusks. Thick around as a troll’s arm, they project an unbelievable half-spear in length, bedezined in jeweled rings and tipped with gold.

An odd reddish brown tinges the moss on the dire troll’s body, and Zul’feriti surmises the blood of souls sacrificed to Hakkar has drenched the champion’s body and then caked dry. Over this, yellow paint has been used to mark mighty symbols and flames across the muscles of his arms and back. Lightning bolts are painted across his face.

The span from the stands to the arena floor condenses the lines of the four Atal’Ai warriors, rendering them faceless symbols of a troll and stripping them of any personal details that might grant them the sympathy of the audience. But the incredible size of Hakkar’s champion plays tricks with the misperceptions of distance, so that movements such as the flexing and unflexing of his hands in anticipation are yet seen with detail, as if only a spear-length away. Yet the bulge of his eyes, the heft of his chest as he breathes and blows spittle—this is all dissipated over the stretch between the floor and the jan’apa, leaving the image of Atal’alarion powerful and unreal, as though not forged of flesh but of stone animated by the gods.

The Atal’Ai warriors, looking like miniature cave drawings in comparison to the sharp detail of their monstrous charge, move as one to the end of their respective poles and face the platform. Behind Atal’alarion, the main gate groans as it begins to swing closed. With a simultaneous dexterity, each of the warriors seize the poles and hoist them upward; on the cart, the stocky stanchions suddenly drop partway beneath the platform’s surface. The warriors then pull backwards to free the polls, immediately turning and running through the narrowing gap at the gate. They dared not even look back: already the bloodrage of Hakkar is upon their champion.

The stanchions fall slowly outward, their descent retarded by the friction of the chainlinks, gaining momentum as they near impact with the sand of the arena floor. At the same moment they collapse into the sand, the chains come free. Atal’alarion seizes the links of chain that dangle near his palms (the ends still fused to the thick manacles at his wrists) and begins twirling the fetters as if a sling. In astonishment, Zul’feriti realizes that the irons which had restrained him from destroying his keepers were intended to double as a flail in the fight.

With surprising alacrity for his bulk, Atal’alarion leaps sideways from the cart and by a vertical arc of his arms converts the momentum into a two-handed overhead chop with his shackles. Splinters explode outward as the cart shatters in half. Appreciative cheers call down from the stands. The dire troll raises his massive arms in triumph and roars along with them. He makes his way over to what had been the front axel of the cart and, with a mighty sweeping blow of the heavy irons, cracks it in half. With continued encouragement from the spectators, he trudges around to the back wheels. Skillfully, the Champion of Hakkar slings the fetters, wrapping them around the rear axel and remaining wooden pieces. Using two hands, the monster hurls the weight, smashing it against the spiked arena wall. One of the wheels continues to hang in mid-air, held aloft by the black iron of a wall spike piercing through its side.

To his shame, even from the safety of the jan’apa, Zul’feriti barely keeps from trembling in fear. To think that the loa might have chosen him to face this behemoth! Certainly he would have been torn limb from limb by the might of Hakkar. Zul’feriti watches frozen in terror as the colossal troll whips the sand of the floor with his massive irons, scoring through the fresh sand to reveal gouges of blood-stained dirt beneath.

With a start, the witch doctor suddenly realizes that if he is no match for Atal’alarion, then how much more so the emissary the loa had chosen! These many weeks he had done what he could to teach her to fight in tandem with the loa’s blessing, and though she obviously had some experience with the subtleties combat, he knew that in an open fight he could probably defeat her himself—were it not for Lukou’s favor upon her. Her abilities might be remarkable for a zufli, but she lacks the raw speed and power of male warriors. What can she possibly do against the awesome might of Atal’alarion?

A murmur beneath the cheers of the crowd snaps him from his panicked reverie. He looks up to see the dark opening of the smaller side gate directly opposite the main and from it, walking steadily forth into the burning light of the sun, Saakesfonla, the chosen Emissary of the Loa. In one hand she carries a long-spear, ruining the chance for distance to hide the fact that she stands barely over a half-spear in height. Though not a shadow hunter, a ceremonial kaz’kah covers her face. From behind it two slender white ears rise and a tail of platinum blonde hair tumbles. The bright rays of the sun reflect a blinding whiteness from her frail, pale form that blots out any more details. But, despite her ears, it is obvious that she is a diminutive female.

At the sight of her, jeers begin bubbling up within the roar of the crowd, joined by more and more, until the entire stadium roils in derisive laughter. As the nearby tribal leaders share in this raucous scorn, Zul’feriti stares fixedly into the arena to so avoid giving any the chance to cast their ridicule toward he who named the loa’s emissary. A bead of sweat stings his eye and he wipes his hand across his forehead, smearing his ceremonial paint.

Atal’alarion is going to slaughter her. She will be slaughtered and then the Atal’Ai priests will choose his soul to sacrifice to Hakkar. Dismayed, Zul’feriti pulls on his tusk. Certainly she never had any intention of winning! She seeks to have herself killed at the hands of Atal’alarion, to finally find rest in Samedi’s embrace, and Zul’feriti would also die for her foolishness!

Then a sparkle of sand at Saakesfonla’s feet dances in his eyes, and he reminds himself that the loa will not abandon their chosen emissary. He remembers the words she had used to reassure him: “Why else would the loa allow me to challenge Hakkar’s champion, than to clearly demonstrate that by their power he was defeated?” He imagines Bethekk and Shirvallah prowling to either side in pace with her measured steps, the wisp of Legba darting about her feet, the cold grip of Mueh’zala at her hands, the life of Lukou beating in her breast, the calm of Samedi at her lips, and—though he cannot see them—the merciless gaze of Ula’Tek in her eyes. He chants a prayer to Ula’Tek, for without the crafty serpent’s help, how will she ever overcome the monstrous Atal’alarion? Too much weighs on the outcome of this challenge to fight only in the honorable spirit of Shirvallah. Valor has already been shown by entering the ring, and so no reason exists to handicap herself further in facing the bloodrage of Hakkar. If Ula’Tek wishes to take Hakkar’s place in the primal pantheon, then now is his chance to strike!

Still—and Zul’feriti rebuked himself for his lack of faith—he cannot help lamenting the absence of Ogoun. The potent venom of the loa’s dark magic might have evened the field between these two opponents, giving Saakesfonla an attack on Atal’alarion not dependent on physical contact. Or even Shango! But in the sky above the sun shines brightly, not a cloud in sight, and so the chaotic loa of thunder had not arrived to pour out judgment on Hakkar’s minion.

If it must be physical combat, then Saakesfonla’s victory depends on quickly gaining the upper hand by critically wounding her opponent in the first or second exchange—because clearly (Zul’feriti glances at the remaining rubble of the cart) if Atal’alarion lands the full-force of one of his blows on her it will spell her doom, Lukou or no Lukou.

If only she can—

Deafening cheers in the stadium jar Zul’feriti from his thoughts. The massive ball of muscle and the diminutive white speck are both charging one another! The witch doctor can see the dark void of Atal’alarion’s gaping mouth, though he cannot hear the monster’s bellow over the roar of the excited crowd. Plowing forward like a landslide, the dire troll raises high his left hand in preparation for a brutal strike with his flail. Without hesitation Saakesfonla sprints forward like a Stranglethorn raptor, the back of the spear her tail. Thanks to the telegraphing of his strike, she manages to side-step the crash of the heavy chain. Sand flies into the air and obscures Zul’feriti’s view of the clashing opponents. His heart pounds in his chest as he sees Atal’alarion’s other arm rise above the cloud and strike down quick as lightning.

Then out from the falling sand stumbles Saakesfonla. His heart lunges into his throat. Has she been hit?! No, merely off-balance from narrowly dodging the second blow! But her spear is missing! Has she landed a hit? Yes, there, the shaft extending sideways from Atal’arion’s knee! Not only has she dodged the deadly lashing of the flails, but she has pierced through the monster’s knee! The hope and relief causes Zul’feriti to nearly leap for joy.

Below, the bright speck of Saakesfonla continues to pedal backwards, Atal’alarion chasing her with horizontal swipes of his fetters. Even limping from his wound, the dire troll almost overtakes her with each step. He stops and allows her to skip away to a safe distance. Letting forth a deep, booming laugh, he reaches down to the spear shaft protruding from his knee and jerks it out. A plume of blood splatters across the sand. Gripping the spear from either end, Atal’alarion raises it high above his head and snaps it down over the same knee from which he had plucked it. The two halves seem like twigs in his massive hands, twigs which he tosses disdainfully into the stadium crowd.

Zul’feriti’s heart falls. Saakesfonla is weaponless.

Atal’alarion wastes no time in charging his unarmed opponent, raining down a flurry of strikes with his irons. A dodging game ensues, Saakesfonla dancing between the gouges wrought by Atal’alarion’s blows: forward, sideways, duck, sideways, back, sideways, duck, sideways, duck, sideways, back, sideways, forever sideways counter-clockwise to force the dire troll to pivot on his wounded knee. And still Legba only barely keeps her body beyond the reach of the champion’s fatal whips, each swing so close that Zul’feriti only knows it misses when her bright form continues to dance across the sand in revolution about the rotating Atal’alarion.

Zul’feriti can feel despair creeping in from the corners of his vision. The piercing of the knee had not sufficiently evened the odds between the two, particularly since it had disarmed Saakesfonla, so that now she was helpless against the colossal troll’s assaults. She can only continue to dodge, and eventually with fatigue her evasions will grow slower, while with time the trollish blood of Atal’alarion will knit back together the ligaments of his knee. With the relentlessness of the bloodrage, he will continue until one of her sidesteps proves just slow enough to be fatal.

Suddenly the dire troll leans back and sends forth a powerful kick with his wounded leg, but still the loa’s emissary sidesteps inward and avoids the blow. Zul’feriti has not even time to cry in surprise before the monstrous troll’s upper body whips powerfully inwards, delivering a forceful punch across his opponent’s chest. Saakesfonla’s body flies two spear-lengths before bouncing across the sand and coming to rest facedown. She lies still as though dead.

From the heights of the jan’apa, the voodoo master feels the weight of defeat pile down upon his shoulders as he watches Hakkar’s champion stomp over to Saakesfonla’s motionless form. He feels as if the sand of the arena floor were pouring down over him, burying him with dismay at the sight of Atal’alarion reaching down and pulling Saakesfonla up by her foot, the wooden kaz’kah falling away to the ground as she dangles limply from her ankle. Thin streams of blood drip from her nose and mouth, dotting the sand with red stains. With each successive blot, despair thrums against him like steady shovelfuls of dirt, each clodding down in a repetitive kal, kal, kal. He blinks as he realizes that the throbbing is actually the shouts of the trolls, excitedly chanting kal kal kal.

The spectators are calling for Atal’alarion to finish the match by kal—pinning the defeated opponent against the spikes of the arena wall. The champion of Hakkar hoists high his unconscious enemy, swinging her like a voodoo doll as he wheels to display his victory to the entire Coliseum. The crowd roars its approval and continues its call for kal. Atal’alarion turns and begins tromping over to the wall, Saakesfonla’s pale body flopping loosely in time with his lumbering gait as Atal’alarion draws closer to her doom.

And then suddenly she latches onto his arm and jerks her foot from his grasp. Her white form scurries up Atal’alarion’s broad forearm, winding upward to strike a blow at his face, not pausing to continue to flip over and dangle over his back, her hands gripping the back of his collar as Atal’alarion reaches upward to cover his face. The collective gasp of the audience is split by the dire troll’s pained howl.

Atal’alarion grips his face with his hands, stamping his feet and yowling in apparent agony. Saakesfonla flaps back and forth across his swaying back, then continues her momentum at the apex of a swing to land nimbly on the distracted troll’s shoulder. She vaults and swings herself across a forearm, then quickly slides down a dangling chain. As soon as her feet touch the arena floor she ducks between the giant’s legs and circles to wrap the chain about Atal’alarion’s foot. Feeling her beneath him, Atal’alarion slams down his foot to trample her, but the sudden tension in the irons jerks his hand from his face, causing him to lose his balance and stumble forward as Saakesfonla runs out from behind him.

With Atal’alarion still struggling to kick his foot free and rebalance himself, Saakesfonla skids to a halt four paces away and spins back around. Sand kicks up behind her as she sprints and leaps onto the dire troll’s expansive back. With one hand still latched over the left side of his face, Atal’alarion bucks from side to side to shake off the pest, to no avail. As he twists in his efforts, Zul’feriti catches a glimpse of the slick shine of blood on the fingers covering his face. Roaring in frustration, Atal’alarion grips the chain of his free hand and whips it over his shoulder, lashing his own back. Saakesfonla barely eludes the chain by releasing the grip of her right hand to swing out of the way. The dire troll responds by whirling into the direction of her dodge, but instead of losing her grip Saakesfonla, certainly aided by the deft Legba, grabs the bottom of the collar with her loose hand, thus allowing the momentum to wheel her upward and over the dire troll’s pointed head, smacking down to straddle his right shoulder. As Atal’arion jerks his head sideways to look at the annoyance on his shoulder, Zul’feriti can see the thin serpent of Saakesfonla’s arm strike forward and pluck out Atal’alarion’s right eye.

Again the gigantic troll howls in pain and claps his palms over his face. His elusive opponent uses this chance to fall sideways down his back, her left hand seizing again Atal’alarion’s collar to swing herself to the other side of the troll’s body and snake across the opposite shoulder. Seizing the freely hanging irons, she leaps like a monkey in the trees, the chain her vine as she flies between the troll’s massive limbs. Falling into the void between Atal’alarion’s crooked right arm and his elephantine tusk, the fetter catches across the ornamented tusk and swings her back up to the troll’s left side, where she reaches out to drape an arm over his bulging bicep, the other quickly wrapping the loose end of the chain once, twice, three times about the dire troll’s left tusk before dropping to the ground and rolling away from any possible retaliatory strikes by the colossal brute.

But Atal’alarion only stands with his palms over his eyes, still bellowing in pain. At a safe distance Saakesfonla raises high her hand to display the right eyeball of the Champion of Hakkar. The crowd explodes into cheers of astonished approval. Zul’feriti feels his chest swell at this chance for victory. By blinding her opponent, the Emissary of the Loa has evened the field between herself and the enraged dire troll.

The voodoo master watches as the bloody orb flies up and falls down once, Saakesfonla tossing it to gain a feel for its weight. Then she pivots and launches it at howling hole of Atal’alarion’s mouth. His yowls are choked off as the slimy sphere lodges in his gullet. The giant troll’s hands move from his eyes to his throat, revealing the empty socket and bloody mess where his eyes had once been.

Zul’feriti is distracted from the sight of Atal’alarion spitting out his own eye by a commotion and noise in the crowd near the main gate. He looks over to see the last of of Atal’alarion’s keepers dropping down into the arena and running toward the two combatants at the other end. The audience hoots in amusement at this new turn of events: just when the diminutive fighter for the loa has gained an advantage, now her opponents will also play dirty.

Alerted by the calls of the spectators, Saakesfonla turns and faces the oncoming Atal’Ai warriors. One of the trolls outstrips his brethren in the sprint across the arena, his knife ready to bite down into the flesh of the loa’s emissary. Saakesfonla runs forward to meet him, dipping into the swipe of his knife and then rising up to catch the troll’s lanky arm, seizing it across her shoulder. Zul’feriti sees the flash of the blade as it spins away; she disarmed him!

Saakesfonla yanks back on the warrior’s arm while lifting up a leg to deliver a kick across the troll’s chest. As the Atal’Ai stumbles backwards, she rolls away toward the spot where the knife had flown moments earlier. Up and running, the Emissary of the Loa begins sprinting back toward the colossal form of Atal’alarion, the recovered warrior and his companions in hot pursuit.

Zul’feriti tilts his head, straining to hear against excited shouts of the stadium crowd. He thinks he hears a piercing cry. Atal’alarion has turned to face the mice scurrying towards him. Saakesfonla’s body is flying through the air, arms raised. She sinks the knife into his belly and hangs from it, drawing down a bright red streak. With a furious yowl Atal’alarion plunges his arms down to seize her. Although his right hand finds its mark, the fetters on the left snap taut across his tusks and jerk his head around, causing him to lose his balance. A thunderous crack sounds out above the roar of the crowd, echoing across the arena walls. He wheels, stumbles backwards, and then falls, sending up an incredible spray of sand.

Out flops the dire troll’s arm, sending two white shapes tumbling away from the colossal beast’s right side. One is Saakesfonla—and the other, one of Atal’alarion’s gigantic tusks! Saakesfonla’s body skips across the arena floor, leaving a successive line of impact points until skidding to a halt three spear-lengths away. Running in her wake is the dark figure of an Atal’Ai warrior. He is alone. As the sand settles, the figures of two others are seen on the far side Atal’alarion—but what of the fourth?

A squirming at the dire troll’s side guides Zul’feriti to the answer: the legs of the one Saakesfonla had disarmed are trapped beneath the bulk of Hakkar’s champion. The troll slaps against Atal’alarion’s side, struggling to free himself from the crushing weight of the dire troll, but furious and in pain, Atal’alarion instead grants release through a shattering blow with his elbow. The long arms of the Atal’Ai warrior twitch once and then cease their movement.

Zul’feriti snaps his attention back to Saakesfonla and the other warrior. She is up and circling with her opponent. The clang of metal upon metal ricochets up from the arena floor. The warrior’s swipes with his sword flash out in bursts like lightning; Saakesfonla manages to deflect the thrusts with the dagger, but is losing ground against his relentless speed. Another serious of strikes—Saakesfonla stumbles backwards! As she staggers, a spreading stain of scarlet appears on her leg. One of the Atal’Ai’s attacks has struck true. Wasting no time, the warrior presses forward again, but the Emissary of the Loa eludes him and begins running—Zul’feriti can see a limp in her motions—back toward Atal’alarion.

The Champion of Hakkar is regaining his feet. He bellows in a rage and rapidly twists his immense frame to send his chains swinging in deadly arcs about him. The other pair of warriors give him a generous berth as they circle to intercept Saakesfonla. Atal’alarion continues to windmill his fetters, stomping blindly in search of his opponent. With the Atal’Ai swordsman right behind her, Saakesfonla avoids a chop of the sword by diving into the circle of death wrought by Atal’alarion’s sweeping chains.

She lands on her belly and rolls sideways as the links of iron pass only feet above her body. Drawing up into a crouch, she leaps between the colossal pillars of Atal’alarion’s legs. The warrior chasing her likewise ducks and dodges through the scythe-like sweeps of the chains, determined to finish her. Zul’feriti loses sight of her to the other side of the dire troll. One of the trolls on the outside of the chains’ circumference throws a spear. An instant later it spins harmlessly away, knocked aside by the arcing irons. The spearman’s companion slips into the dangerous zone of flying fetters.

Zul’feriti cannot understand how anyone could avoid the deadly swinging chains, much less three all locked in mortal combat. His view of Saakesfonla is still occluded by Atal’alarion’s bulk. Suddenly the dire troll jerks down his hands, then repeatedly bashes his fists downward. Drops of blood fly into the air.

Then a pale, blood-speckled form can be seen moving from the monster’s side. Her arm reaches out toward Atal’alarion’s calf and the titanic troll flinches. He roars in anger and twirls around, revealing the limp corpse of an Atal’Ai warrior behind him.

The other warrior, the swordsman who has wounded Saakesfonla, also emerges into view, and launches himself in an attack on his quarry. Again the sound of blade upon blade rings out into the arena air. Incensed at the sound of his enemy fighting so closely to him, but unable to determine her exact position, Atal’alarion begins to whip the arena floor randomly, trying to smash the Emissary of the Loa and the Atal’Ai warrior alike. Saakesfonla darts forward into her adversary, ducking beneath a swipe of his sword—and throws him! The Atal’Ai flips into Atal’alarion’s legs. Enraged, the dire troll stamps downward with his feet, sending up a cloud of sand.

Screeching loudly, Saakesfonla immediately charges the last Atal’Ai. She twists out of his attempt to seize her in a hold and breaks away, still screaming. The warrior turns to follow when she skids to a sudden halt and turns back to face him. He pauses. Her knife wobbles in an unsteady arc in the air toward him. He side-steps to dodge the blade, then regains his balance. Suddenly his body flies to the side as the swipe of one of Atal’alrion’s chains catches him across the neck. He tumbles end over end before coming to a rest.

The crowd bursts into exhilarated applause. The Atal’Ai warriors have all been defeated, and now it once again comes down to the Champion of Hakkar and the Emissary of the Loa. The trolls whoop and cheer at the amazing spectacle. In the ring, Atal’alarion continues to stomp blindly about and swing his fetters in deadly arcs.

Saakesfonla keeps her distance, moving cautiously and quietly in a circle about him. She reaches down and picks up Atal’alarion’s broken tusk, then continues to move behind him. The audience roars in appreciative anticipation of her next move.

She dives once again into the scything chains. Rolling, she comes up with the sword and punches it into the small of the dire troll’s back, which arches in agony. Atal’alarion howls. Saakesfonla has already jumped upward, using the hilt of the sword buried in her opponent’s back as a step upward. She brings the gold-tipped tusk of the dire troll high, preparing to jab it into the back of his skull. The crowd cheers.

Atal’alarion reaches backwards over his head and seizes her by the hands. He whips her forward and releases. For a moment time seems to move in slow motion as her body arcs through the air. She slams into the arena wall. Now time seems to stand still as she hangs suspended, until Zul’feriti realizes that she has been skewered by a wall spike. A triangle of deep vermillion extends downward from where the iron point protrudes from her shoulder; another tip can be seen poking through a scarlet circle on her calf. She struggles weakly to free herself.

The crowd roars at this, yet another upset. Atal’alarion continues to sweep in the middle of the ring, unaware of what has happened. Once again the crowd begins to chant kal kal kal. Finally realizing what has occurred, the Champion of Hakkar raises his arms in victory. The Gurubashi multitude cheers loudly, continuing their chant of kal kal kal. Atal’alarion begins to make his way over to the wall, but apparently his spinning has disoriented him, because he approaches a section several spear-lengths over from where Saakesfonla hangs impaled upon a spike.

As Atal’alarion feels his way along the wall, guided closer and closer by the calls of the trolls in the stands, Saakesfonla finally wriggles herself free and falls down to the sand below. She barely stumbles out of the way just as the massive dire troll stomps over. The crowd erupts into a deafening roar. Misinterpreting the sound, Atal’alarion slows his progress and carefully feels amongst the spikes, thinking his adversary to still be pinned in front of him. Behind him, Saakesfonla picks up the broken tusk and raises it over her head. To the exultant cheers of the crowd, she drives it deeply into the back of Atal’alarion’s knee.

The damaged knee buckles beneath the colossal bulk of Hakkar’s champion, sending him toppling forward into the arena spikes. Spikes impale him at his waist and puncture his chest, but his hands pushing against the arena wall prevent him from falling completely. The metal point of a spike hovers inches from his empty eye socket. He strains to push himself away from the wall; unsuccessful, he reaches down to grab the metal skewering his midsection.

Behind, Saakesfonla is racing towards him. She leaps and brings both of her feet up, slamming into Atal’alarion’s back. The dire troll’s head snaps forward in whiplash from the impact, transfixing his head onto the spike before him. Saakesfonla collapses between his legs.

The clamor erupting from the Coliseum seemed paralyzing. Zul’feriti brings his hands up to cover his ears. The stadium boils and froths with the excited cheers and arm-waving of the multitudes. A tumult breaks out on the far end near the Atal’Ai’s jan’apa, with masses of bodies sliding forward and receding as if waves across the sand of the seashore. The clangor of metal can be heard. Zul’feriti realizes that the emotionally-charged troll masses, impassioned by outcome of the match, are now attacking the Atal’Ai priests. He can barely maintain his senses over the din.

A line of Atal’Ai stand bravely against the feverish crowd, directing powerful juju at their frenetic masses and fighting with the vicious bravery distinctive to trolls. However, their opponents, too, are powerful troll warriors, and multitudes threaten to sweep over the Devoted Ones. A large contingent of Atal’Ai begin streaming out through the main gate in retreat.

Zul’feriti strains to catch sight of Saakesfonla. Whooping spectators have dropped into the arena below and are converging upon Atal’alarion’s inert form. Zul’feriti panics that she has overcome her foe only to be slaughtered by the unruly mob. Moments later they raise high the alien, bright form of the Emissary of the Loa: limp and slick with blood. The exultant mob carries high her ragged body, celebrating and honoring the Loa’s victory against the Champion of Hakkar. Zul’feriti smiles grimly at her insensate body held aloft by the teeming masses; perhaps in freeing the Gurubashi from the grip of Hakkar she has also finally found rest.