The sun had disappeared over the western mountains by the time Phearon Tome had finally emerged from the logging roads into the town, and Shelly Littleton had been waiting for him. He seemed to be mystified by the presence of the bright street lamps that lit up the road. When Shelly turned on the lights in her cruiser and sounded off her sirens for a moment, he almost jumped out of his skin.
“Are you Phearon Tome?” she asked, rolling down her window.
Phearon could only look back at her, dumbfounded. But after a moment, he regained his composure. “Yes,” he replied. “I’m here on business–”
“From the High Magus Council,” Shelly completed. Brad had radioed back to them hours earlier, when the man was just leaving Stone’s Mouth to travel up the road towards Dunsmith and apprised them of the situation. It was Boone who suggested that Shelly meet with him at the end of the logging road. “Yes, I know. Mr. Tome, I’m going to have to ask you to come with me.”
Phearon only stared back at her. “I’m sorry?” he asked.
“It’s nothing serious,” she said. “We just need to make sure you’re aware of the locals laws and regulations. A few moments of your time is all it will take, and we’ll put you up at the motel at the town’s expense.” She motioned to the back seat. “Just pull the little latch on the back door and climb inside.”
Phearon looked at the vehicle, then back to Shelly. His face was beginning to turn sour. “I don’t think you understand, miss,” he said, obviously trying to be polite. “I’ve got important business to tend to, and this is an unneeded distraction.”
“I don’t think you understand, Mr. Tome,” Shelly replied. “This isn’t a request. If you want to walk around free while you’re in Dunsmith, you’re going to come with me now.” Her tone left no room for alternatives. “Now, are you going to get in, or I am going to send you packing back up that road?”
Phearon glanced over to the logging road, then back at Shelly. His expression changed, and he wore a broad smile. “Yes,” he replied. “Yes of course.” He walked over to the back door, examined it for a moment, then pulled the door open and sat inside, throwing his pack down next to him.
“May I ask where you are taking me, miss?” he asked.
“It’s Constable,” Shelly said.
Phearon looked confused. “Pardon?”
“Constable. My name is Constable Littleton,” she said.
“A Constable? You’re part of a constabulary?” He seemed taken aback. “But you’re a woman.”
“And you’re a man wearing a dress,” Shelly replied. “Your point?”
“It’s a robe, actually,” Phearon replied. “I must apologize, I did not mean to offend. It’s just that I’ve never come across a female constable.”
“Well, you’ll find things work a little bit differently here than out there,” she replied. She sped down the road and turned the corner, heading towards the station.
“I’ve heard of this place only on the lips of fools,” he said. “I did not expect it to be so… different.”
“Yeah?” Shelly asked. “And what lips would those be?”
“Fools,” Phearon replied. “Fools and peasants. May I ask what you intend with me?”
“We just need to run over a few questions with you,” she said. “Make sure you understand a few things.”
“Of course,” he said. He watched out the window as the houses and buildings passed by, the lights within lighting up the ground outside. Phearon was studying them closely. “How is it that you can produce such light? This conveyance moves without assistance. It’s like an artisan’s craft.”
“It’s complicated to explain,” Shelly said. “Let’s just say it’s not magick and we’ll leave it at that.”
“Not magick?” Phearon said. He laughed. “Surely you’re jesting.”
The look on Shelly’s face was enough reply to shut him up. The rest of the ride went by in relative silence. Shelly finally pulled her cruiser into the garage at the station house, got out of her car, and then let Tome out. He squinted his eyes as he looked up into the florescent lights in the garage. Finally, Shelly took him through a door that led into a long hallway. At the end of the hallway, a flight of stairs led up into the office area.
Phearon looked around in alarm and wonder at the computer screens that sat atop the desks. A number of officers were still in the office, working late filling out paperwork. People spoke into phones and a cd player sitting on a window sill played an old Lynyrd Skynyrd tune. Shelly could tell by the look on Phearon’s face that he was growing ever the more alarmed.
Finally, she walked up to a desk and sat behind it, gesturing for Phearon to take a seat in the chair in front of her.
“All right, your name is Phearon Tome, correct?” she asked.
“Where are you from, Phearon?”
“Dey, the capitol city of Shavi.”
Shelly typed in the information. “Your birthdate?”
“Why would you need that?” he asked.
“This will go a lot quicker if you just answer the question, sir,” Shelly replied.
Sighing, Phearon said, “Dectra the fifth, in the Nine-hundred and eighty-second year since the Signing of the Pact.”
Shelly wrote the information down, then leaned back in her chair. “Now, Mr. Tome. I’m wondering if you could clear up some confusion,” she said. “I understand that you’re here on behalf of the High Magus Council to retrieve a criminal? Is that so?”
Phearon nodded. “It’s true. I come in search of a young girl. A Geomagi who travels with an Elemental.”
“And her name?” Shelly asked.
“Boas,” Phearon replied. “She calls herself Arie Boas.”
Shelly nodded. “And what is it exactly that she did, Mr. Tome?”
“She is wanted by the Council,” Phearon replied.
“That’s not good enough for me,” Shelly replied. She leaned forward. “Unfortunately for you, Mr. Tome, Arie Boas is now a citizen of this town. And as such, she’s been granted the rights and privileges afforded to the rest of us. It just so happens that we can’t arrest her on your behalf, or anyone else’s unless she’s committed some kind of crime.”
“I’m not asking you to arrest her,” Tome said. “I’m asking for you to produce her so that I may do so. She’s committed a crime against the Council. That should be all the information that is needed to bring about her arrest.” He leaned forward. “If she’s not produced, then I will be forced to report to the Council of your unwillingness to cooperate. You would not want that, I assure you.”
“Why don’t you let me tell you what I don’t want?” she asked. “What I don’t want is people coming into our town and causing a disturbance. What I don’t want is one of our citizens being taken against her will, without being charged for a crime. You should know, Mr. Tome, that’s called kidnapping, and you will be held accountable if you try and take her against her will.”
Phearon only stared back at her. His face was beginning to sour again.
Shelly leaned in and looked the man in the face. “You’re not to even breathe in that girl’s direction, Mr. Tome,” she said. “If I catch so much as a whiff of you around that girl, I will take you in myself and lock you up so tight, you’ll never see the light of day again.”
Phearon frowned, looking back at her. “You’re making a grave mistake,” he said. “The Council will hear of this, and you will regret your words.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see about that, won’t we?” she leaned back and typed a little bit more information. “You’re free to go, Mr. Tome. The motel is straight down the hill, it’ll be a big blue building on your right-hand side. You’ll find a room’s been prepared for you.” She looked at him again. “But you damn well remember what I’ve told you. You go anywhere near that girl–”
“Yes, yes,” Phearon said, standing up. “I’m quite aware of how you feel about it. Still, if I were you, I would reconsider acting contrary to the Council’s wishes.”
“Noted,” Shelly said. “Goodbye, Mr. Tome.”
Phearon simply huffed as he turned around. It took him a moment to locate the exit, and Shelly watched as he walked down the road, out of sight. She didn’t expect him to do as she’d told him, but that was obvious. It just meant that they would have to keep a close watch on Phearon Tome while he was in Dunsmith. She stood at the window a moment longer before turning back to her desk and sitting down.
She read through the information she had gotten from him, making minor edits here and there. Once she was satisfied, she started to flip through a small notebook that listed the names and phone numbers of important townspeople.
Picking up the phone, she dialed a number. It rang.
“Hello?” came a female voice from the other end.
“Lily Rasmussen?” Shelly asked. “This is Shelly Littleton at the RCMP…”
“This is preposterous!” Nalya exclaimed, bursting into Liass’ tent. “Can’t you do something?”
“Like what?” General Liass shot back. “What do you expect of me? Turn my men against the El’Dar? You would incite a race war to take back a single man? All the tribes of El’Dar would band together against us.”
“He’s right,” Cale said. “As much as I hate to admit it, Ryan dug his own hole.”
“You’d say that after all he’s done?” Nalya said. “After how hard he fought for you when you were in shackles?”
“Look, I don’t like it any more than you do,” Cale said. “But our hands are tied.”
Nalya threw her arms up in the air in frustration. “We can’t just let them take him!”
“Indetae, Murphy and Dalon will return unharmed,” Liass said. “After the contest. When that happens, we must think about another route through these lands. We may outnumber the El’Dar, but I would not tempt them. We don’t know their numbers. It could very well be that they could destroy us easily.”
Nalya shook her head. “But we must do something!” she exclaimed.
Cale could only shrug. “What can we do?” he asked. When the El’Dar had appeared, Cale was visiting the temporary latrine that had been dug out by the soldiers. He’d caught very little of what had happened, but as he understood it, Ryan had challenged one of them to mortal combat. If, by some miracle, he won, he would be returned and the Halish forces granted permission to travel through the El’Dar territory. The speaker for the El’Dar, who called himself Tsukona, had given his word that if Ryan were to lose, the rest of them would be left unharmed on the condition that they returned in the direction they came at once. Almost immediately after Ryan had issued the challenge, Tsukona gathered him and three others, Corpus, Terra and Bayne to embark on a short journey to their settlement nearby. A seasonal village home they called Gau.
Nalya had been left unaware of the entire situation, having been fast asleep in her tent. When she finally awoke, the others were gone.
She felt the frustration well up inside of her, unable to be released. They had taken Ryan, possibly to his death, and the worst part was that Nalya hadn’t been able to say goodbye.
Since the night at Hillside Downs, Nalya had been distracted by her duties, not to mention any number of other things that cropped up between then and now. She hadn’t had a chance to talk to Ryan further about their conversation. The truth was, however, Nalya wasn’t really sure how she felt. She definitely thought of Ryan warmly, but he could be so stupid sometimes.
But now that he was gone, it was different. She’d already almost lost him once, and a miracle brought him back to her. But this time was different. This time, he would be facing against an El’Dar warrior. There was little she could do, but the need to do something was overwhelming her. Her heart ached every time she had the thought that she would never see him again.
“I’m going after him,” Nalya said.
“That wouldn’t be wise,” Liass said. “They might kill you the second they notice you’re following them.”
“I don’t care,” Nalya said. “I can’t let them do this.”
“Don’t be stupid, Nalya,” Cale warned. “Let’s not turn a small situation into a larger one.”
“Well, what do you suggest, then?” Nalya exclaimed.
“You see?” Liass said. “This is why I don’t agree with women in positions of command. Far too emotional.”
Nalya shot him a scathing glare.
“Nalya, you need to calm down,” Cale said, sighing. “I understand what you’re going through, but you need to keep a cool head about it.”
“Finally, someone who makes sense!” Liass exclaimed. Nalya shot him another glare.
She let her shoulders slump a little as she leaned up against a stack of crates against the wall of the tent. “Constable, there must be something we can do,” she said.
Cale shook his head. “Ryan knew what he was getting into,” he said. “He’s a smart kid, he’ll figure something out. Other than that, all I can really suggest is to pray to whatever gods you might have that he makes it through okay.”
Nalya only looked back at him, expressionless. She turned her head away, looking off into space for a moment and clenched her eyes shut. Cale could see a single teardrop rolling down her cheek.
The Azure Dream was high in the night’s sky by the time they had arrived at the El’Dar settlement of Gau. Both Ryan and Terra were surprised when they saw how the place had been constructed, from bamboo-like branches and paper. It was a structure reminiscent of something back on Earth. Like a feudal era Japanese dwelling, except super-sized.
The El’Dar had been very quiet during their short trip, choosing to carry the four humans on their backs in order to make haste. Tsukona had been the only one to speak during the trip, and even then, only to point out the El’Dar that Ryan was to fight. A twelve-foot powerhouse named Joku. The way the other El’Dar deferred to him only served to show that he was a force to be reckoned with.
Now that the trip was over, Terra was glad to be back on solid ground. She’s almost never gotten motion sickness from cars, but riding on the shoulders of an El’Dar was a different matter. Her stomach swam with discomfort, and it took her a few minutes for the nausea to pass. Almost immediately after they had arrived, she, Corpus and Bayne had been taken to an area closed in by bamboo-like fencing. All around them, other El’Dar were beginning to arrive. Many eying the three humans with distrust, suspicion and even malevolence. Others still merely ignored them.
“What the hell are we going to do?” Terra asked Corpus.
Corpus only shook his head. “There’s little we can do. El’Dar are well known for tradition. You’d have an easier time talking them out of their tusks than you would having them turn their back on tradition.” He gestured to the ring. “Battles like this have probably been fought many times before, in this same spot.”
“It is true,” Tsukona said, coming up upon them. He regarded the three humans for a moment. “This is an age-old tradition. Trial by combat. He who is most deserving of the rewards shall reap them.”
“Most deserving?” Terra asked. “This is a little unfair. Look at the size of you compared to Ryan. He’s tiny! He’ll be crushed.”
Tsukona nodded. “Yes, I’ve no doubt of that,” he said. “I find it strange that you speak of fairness, when your hunters and poachers will swarm upon us and kill us to possess that which only we are born with.”
“We’ve never hunted you,” Terra said. “We’ve never poached your tusks. You can’t blame all humans for that!”
“You are a daughter of man,” Tsukona said. “I would not expect you to understand, but I did not expect that you would deny your crimes.”
“Crimes?” Terra asked. “Hold up there, Babar, you take that back. Me or my people have done nothing to you. We’re not even from the Pactlands!”
Tsukona regarded her for a moment, then closed his eyes. “Yes, I can tell,” he said. “You smell of strange things I cannot identify.”
“Great, so what’s the big deal?” Terra asked. “Why did you goad Ryan into this? Why not just call it off?”
Tsukona looked at Terra as though she had three eyes and a third arm sprouting from her forehead. “You would ask me to forsake a thousand years of tradition, daughter of man?” He shook his head. “No, I cannot do that. You should have known better than to ask. It is far too late for that.”
Terra threw her arms in the air once again. “Then you expect us to just sit and watch while you kill our friend?” She furrowed her brow. “That makes you just as bad as the men who hunt you!”
Tsukona looked at Terra, taken aback. “Silly human,” he said. “You really do not understand. It is your kind that has done this to us. Sent us into hiding in these forsaken, ruined lands. We once stood alongside men as equals, now our numbers dwindle. Our population shrinks with every passing season. We fight for our very lives!”
“Look, I’m sorry to hear that,” Terra said. “I really am. But killing Ryan isn’t going to make up for all that!”
“Killing him?” Tsukona remarked. He seemed to be deep in thought. “We are not killing him,” he said. “He has a chance to defeat Joku, in which case you will all be allowed to continue on your journey.”
“Where is he now?” Corpus asked.
Tsukona pointed with his snout to a large building nearby. “He is being prepared for the battle. My daughter, Ukyou, is tending to him as we speak. They will be out shortly.”
Corpus looked over to the building, watching it carefully. Finally, he turned back to Tsukona. “He’ll be allowed a weapon?” he asked.
Tsukona nodded. “He will,” he replied. “But Joku will be armed as well.”
Corpus looked to Terra. “He may have a better chance than we think,” he said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Terra asked.
“I’m not sure,” Corpus said. “But I’ll find out when you do.”
“You smell of interesting things,” Ukyou said as she ran the tip of her snout across Ryan’s forehead, painting it with what she called the mark of Azura, a traditional warpaint design. “Things I’ve not smelled before.”
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “I get that a lot.”
When Ryan had been brought into the large building, he marveled at the sheer size of things. Even the chair he sat upon was high up off the ground, and it left his legs dangling, casting shadows from the flickering light of the over-sized oil lamp that lit the room. When Ukyou introduced herself, he’d been surprised at how humanly female she sounded. Unlike the male El’Dar, her voice wasn’t deep and booming, but rather sweet and tender. She also seemed a bit friendlier than the others, making conversation, and even laughing with him, as nervous as he was, as she applied the ceremonial war paint.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” Ryan asked.
“Not at all,” she said. “It’s not often that I have a chance to speak with humans. The tribe keeps our lands clear of them, and I am not allowed outside the village unattended for fear of poachers.”
“Well, since I’ve arrived here, I’ve met Tyl and Featherclaw. Neither of them seem to be able to speak with humans very well. But so far every El’Dar I’ve met seems to be able to speak it.”
“It is not only man’s language you speak,” Ukyou said. “But ours as well. Featherclaw and Tyl are unable to speak with man’s tongue because it is not their nature.”
“But it’s yours?” Ryan asked.
Ukyou smiled, the corners of her lips curling up behind her trunk. “Our natures are very similar to man’s,” she said.
“Yeah, I figured,” he said. “We’ve got elephants back home, but they walk on four legs, and they definitely can’t speak.”
Ukyou regarded Ryan with curiosity for a moment. “Elephants?” she asked.
“They look kind of like you,” he said. “But different. It’s hard to explain.” He pointed at her hands for effect. “They don’t have fingers and toes like you guys do. They’ve just got really flat feet.”
“Interesting,” Ukyou said. “And where is your home?”
“Earth,” he said. “It’s a different world than the Pactlands. Far different.”
“You speak in strange terms,” Ukyou said. “When you say it’s a different world–”
“I mean exactly what I said. It’s outside this world. Hell, we’ve never even heard of the Pactlands until about two weeks ago.”
“Truly?” Ukyou said, standing back and regarding him.
“Then I regret that this should have befallen you,” she said, once again applying the war paint to his face. “I should have liked to hear of this place.”
“Well, we have a town,” Ryan said. “It’s how we all arrived here. Our entire town got pulled across to this world and just dropped in the Disputed Lands. It’s where we were headed before… well… before your father showed up and took us here.”
Ukyou nodded. “Tsukona is responsible for our people,” she said. “He does what he does not out of malice, but out of love for his people. Sometimes he takes his responsibility too far.”
“Then can’t you talk to him?” Ryan said. “Clear this up? We really mean you no harm.”
“Would that I could,” Ukyou replied. “But it is not our way. They would not listen, or worse. They would accuse me of crimes against our people, and it would be me in the ring facing Joku.” She sighed.
“This Joku, he’s tough, I take it?”
Ukyou nodded. “He is our best warrior,” she said. “He is poised to take my father’s place when he chooses to walk the Trail of the Dead.” She stepped back and regarded her work thus far. “Upon which time he will take my hand and declare us in soul-union.”
“Soul-union?” Ryan asked. “Is that like marriage?”
“In a way,” she said.
“You seem like you’re not too fond of the idea,” Ryan said.
“Truth?” Ukyou asked. “I am not. It is not that I do not respect Joku for what he is, but that I do not care for him in such ways. I could never carry his child, and that is most definitely what he wishes.”
“You don’t love him?” Ryan asked.
“Of course I love him,” Ukyou said. “El’Dar love all of their people. It is our way. It is only that I do not… wish to be with him. Not him.”
“What, like you’re not attracted to him, or–” he paused. “Christ, listen to me. Talking about relationships issues with a damned elephant.”
“El’Dar,” Ukyou said, correcting him. “Move your head to the left.”
Ryan did so, and Ukyou continued to apply the paint.
“You are correct, though. I am not attracted to him,” she sighed. “I shouldn’t be saying such things to you.”
Ryan laughed. “Not like it matters anyway,” he said. “If this guy’s as good as you say, I’m not going to last long with him.” He sighed. “I hope he makes it quick.”
Ukyou nodded. “Joku is efficient. He will not put unneeded suffering upon you.”
“Thanks,” Ryan said. “Not that it makes me feel any better.”
“Still, you are right. If you must meet Joku in battle, then the least I can do is share a secret with you. The truth is that there is another. Another that I… am attracted to.”
“And I guess he’s off limits for you, eh?”
Ukyou smiled. “It’s difficult to explain,” she said. “But yes… She is off limits.”
Ryan’s eyes popped open. “She?” He almost smacked himself in the forehead, but he would have smudged his paint job. Of course. A lesbian elephant. Why wouldn’t she be?
“Yes,” Ukyou said. “I’m sorry, perhaps I should not have said anything. It is taboo–”
“Not where I’m from,” Ryan said. “It’s actually borderline normal. At least now, anyway. Forty years ago and there might have been issues.”
Ukyou stepped back again and regarded Ryan. “Truly?” she asked. “There’s such a place where such practices occur outside of secrecy?”
Ryan nodded. “Yeah, all you have to do is walk through downtown Vancouver during the pride parade and you’ll notice how widespread it really is.”
“Pride parade?” Ukyou asked.
Ryan nodded. “It’s… complicated. But back where I’m from, you’d be known as a lesbian. At least, among humans. I don’t know if it’s the same for El’Dar.”
“Strange,” Ukyou said. “I should like to hear more of such things, but I believe our time grows short.” She continued to paint up his face, lathering on the finishing touches.
Ryan nodded. “Yeah, I understand.” He leaped down off of the chair and regarded himself in a giant mirror that seemed to make him look as though he were three feet tall. His face had been painted a multitude of colors, each one brighter in succession as it climbed up his face. Flenn’s sword hung at his side as he checked himself out. He looked back at Ukyou. “I guess we might as well get this over with,” he said. “I’d hate to keep my fans waiting.”
Ukyou closed her eyes and bowed her head. “Of course,” she said. “No matter the outcome, please know that it was a pleasure to meet you, Ryan.”
Ryan smiled. “Likewise,” he said. “At least you’re not all crazy.”
By the time Ryan had gotten to the ring, being led by Ukyou, there were dozens more El’Dar. Many having been woken up to witness the event, he assumed. Tsukona stood to one side with Terra, Corpus and Bayne. They were all looking at him expectantly. Terra seemed to be distraught, but that was to be expected.
He climbed through the railings of the bamboo-like fence and stood in the ring. Before he had a chance to say anything, Tsukona unleashed a loud trumpet, which was echoed around him by each and every El’Dar present. It was deafening, but he merely stood there, a stoic look on his face.
Finally, Joku had arrived on the opposite end of the ring, and the trumpeting began to die down. He climbed in, throwing his arms up in the air and shouting as the El’Dar that had gathered were applauding and chanting his name.
Tsukona let out a short trumpet, silencing all those around. He stood tall and spoke.
“We come under Azura this night to bear witness!” Tsukona said. “We bear witness to this man, who has challenged our people!”
A number of jeers and boos came from the crowd. Ryan almost had to laugh. It was like the audience of a sitcom, or a wrestling match. Too bad this one couldn’t be fixed.
“He challenged us for the right of passage for him and for his people,” Tsukona explained. “He will fight Joku!” Tsukona gestured to the El’Dar warrior with his trunk. “Should he win, his people will be allowed passage through our lands. But should he lose, they must leave, or face our wrath!”
The crowd cheered at Tsukona’s words, leaving no doubt in Ryan’s mind just who they were rooting for. Oh well, he thought. At least he still had Terra, Corpus and Bayne in his corner, but he didn’t spare a look at them. He couldn’t bear to.
“Joku, you are ready?” Tsukona asked.
“I am ready!” Joku said, raising his fists in the air once again. The crowd cheered even louder.
“And you, son of man. You are ready?”
Ryan looked over to Tsukona, spit on the ground and simply nodded.
“Both combatants have declared themselves prepared!” Tsukona bellowed. “Let the challenge begin!”
With that, he stepped back. Joku turned the corners of his lips up and stared at Ryan. Another El’Dar had thrown a large poleaxe into the ring, landing not for from Joku. He picked it up and wielded it, spinning it around in his hands.
“Go on, Dumbo,” Ryan said to himself. “Play it up for the crowd.”
It was then that Joku finally turned to Ryan, and began to slowly advance on him. Ryan carefully watched his footing, making sure never to take his eyes off of Joku. The two danced around, watching and observing each other for what seemed like minutes before the first move was made. Joku, brandishing his over-sized poleaxe swung hard. Ryan, unprepared for the length of the thing, frantically tried to jumped out of the way. He messed up his footing. It sent him sprawling face-first onto the ground, and the El’Dar’s weapon narrowly missed him. Ryan rolled onto his back and scrambled back a few feet.
This wasn’t going well. He’d almost been done in by the first strike, and already the giant being was readying himself for another attack. Ryan had to do something, he had to–
He rolled out of the way as the poleaxe came crashing towards him, slicing a foot deep into the hard soil mere inches from his head. He scrambled to his feet, trying to put as much distance between him and Joku as he could.
He needed time. Time to think, time to act, time to–
–listen? Corpus was shouting at him. His head buzzed, he couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he couldn’t allow himself to be distracted. He needed to–
“The sword!” Corpus exclaimed. “Ryan, draw the sword!”
Right! The sword! Rasshauer Flenn’s obsidian blade. It was his only opportunity, he just needed to get close enough to Joku to use it. Joku had extracted the poleaxe from the ground, and was now once again approaching Ryan. Ryan looked back at him, adrenaline pumping through his heart and veins.
Finally, he pulled Flenn’s sword from its sheath at his side, and held it aloft.
Suddenly, he found himself filled with a strange confidence. The roaring crowd around him seemed to grow silent. The world blanked out, and for a moment there was only him and the sword.
Joku lashed out again with his poleaxe, coming from the side, but this time Ryan was ready for it. He deftly dodged the attack, then used the opening he’d been given to close in on Joku, striking him hard in the stomach with the hilt. Joku was knocked back a few feet, obviously shaken, but he hadn’t dropped his weapon. Joku’s expression changed in that instant. It went from playful to serious in a heartbeat. He obviously hadn’t expected Ryan to even lay a finger on him, let alone knock him back.
Ryan stood with his sword, waiting patiently for Joku’s next move. When it came, he burst into action. The poleaxe once again came down from the top, and Ryan waited until the last second to move. When it struck the hardened dirt, he used the opportunity to jump on top of it, using his weight to hold the El’Dar’s weapon down. He lashed out with his sword, striking against the wooden pole as hard as he could. The sword cut clean through it. He hadn’t even felt any resistance. The poleaxe fell to the ground, useless.
Joku’s eyes widened in shock, but Ryan didn’t spare a moment. He moved with speed he didn’t know he had, closed in on Joku and slashed Flenn’s sword across where his head had just been. For his size, Joku was quick, but it still managed to catch him in the ear, cutting through it like paper. Ryan felt warm blood on his arms and face as the El’Dar bellowed out in pain. He quickly scrambled backwards, but Ryan was on a roll. He ran behind him, turned, then slashed against the back of his legs, making a deep, clean wound. Joku bellowed out once more as he fell backward, cradling his leg.
Joku was now helpless, and he looked up at Ryan as he approached him, slower this time. Ryan raised the sword up over his head, ready for a killing blow. Joku closed his eyes, bracing himself for the final strike.
“No,” Ryan said. He lowered the sword, then dropped it beside him. He turned to Tsukona. “No!” he exclaimed. “I’m not going to kill him!”
The shock on Tsukona’s face was evident. Even the roar of the crowd in support of Joku had been silenced. Tsukona looked from Joku to Ryan, moving his lips as though trying to speak, but finding the words could not come out.
“I’m not going to play your game anymore,” he said. “It’s over.” He looked down to Joku. “Kill me or don’t kill me. Just make a choice.”
Joku looked from Tsukona to Ryan, obviously unsure as to what he was supposed to do. He looked at the sword on the ground next to Ryan.
Ryan turned his back and started to walk away, towards Terra and the others.
“Ryan, look out!” Terra exclaimed.
Ryan whirled around to see Joku, Flenn’s sword held in his trunk. The El’Dar was attempting to strike Ryan down with it. He wielded it menacingly, closing in on Ryan quickly, before–
“Enough!” Tsukona bellowed. “Joku, you would attack him while his back is turned?”
Joku stopped dead in his tracks, regarding Tsukona with a look of confusion.
Tsukona climbed into the ring, walked to Joku and struck him hard with an open palm against his face. “You are honorless!” he exclaimed. “No enemy deserves such things! Ambush is the way of men, not El’Dar!”
The crowd watched in silence as Joku only stared back at Tsukona, a look of shock on his face.
Tsukona only stared back at him, challenging him to say more, but Joku said nothing. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I am sorry, Chief,” he said.
“Go and see to your wounds, Joku. I will deal with you later,” Tsukona said, then turned his back on him.
Ryan watched Joku as he stood up and limped towards the edge of the ring, the blood still freely flowing from his wounds. As he passed through the fence, he shot a menacing look towards Ryan, but after a few moments, disappeared into the crowd.
“I declare this challenge over! The son of man has won the right of passage, and we shall honor it!” Tsukona exclaimed. There was a brief moment of silence, but before long, every El’Dar present was cheering and applauding.
Tsukona walked over to Ryan. “I apologize for his zeal,” he said. “Joku is a gifted warrior, but sometimes he thinks with his heart too much. He feared the dishonor of losing.”
“You call that zeal?” Ryan asked.
Terra, Corpus and Bayne came flooding into the ring. Bayne and Terra almost knocked Ryan over as they piled on top of him, embracing him with hard slaps on the shoulder and bearhugs.
“Ryan, I can’t believe it!” Terra exclaimed. “You did it! I never knew you could move like that! It was amazing!”
“Aye, lad,” Bayne said. “I’ve never seen a man who’s barely wielded a blade of any sort handle one in such a way. You were using the blade as though it had always been a part of you.”
“Thanks,” Ryan said. “Believe me, I didn’t know I could fight like that, either.”
“It’s because you weren’t the one fighting,” Corpus said.
Ryan snapped his head over in Corpus’ direction. “What?” he asked. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Corpus said, a sly smile playing across his features. “That you weren’t the one fighting.” He pointed at Flenn’s sword, now laying on the ground. “He was.”
“He?” Ryan said, looking down at the sword. “He who? What?”
“Rasshauer Flenn,” Corpus said, smiling broadly. “I had told you that the sword chose you, did I not?”
“Wait, are you saying Flenn’s in that sword?” he asked.
Tsukona picked up the obsidian blade from the ground and handed it to Ryan. “This is yours,” he said. “You have achieved something today that will live forever in our memories,” he said. “An El’Dar never forgets.”
Tsukona could only watch in confusion as Terra and Ryan broke out laughing.