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The last few rays of the evening sun gleamed off the mountainside, falling finally on Thorn’s broad shoulders, warming his skin. Stripped to the waist, his body adorned with countless runic motifs, he stood calmly in a large stone ring. Crowds of Wolfkin surrounded the ring, talking quietly to each other as they waited for Elder Havva to announce the challenger. The old Wolfkin looked up at the sky, his eyes cloudy, lost in thought.

That afternoon, after agreeing to the fight, Thorn had been led away by Elder Havva to prepare for the ritual challenge. Behind the village there was a small hollow with a short waterfall and a deep pool. Ice cold water streamed down from the snow-capped peaks that surrounded the village.

“Please wash yourself. I will return with your garments for the trial. It may take a little longer than normal, as I don’t know that we have anything in your size. Your clothing is currently being made.”

“No problem.” Thorn waved his hand as the elder shuffled off into the forest. On the way over, Elder Havva had explained how the ritual combat would work and the various rituals that had to be completed before the combat could start.

Wading into the pool after stripping down, Thorn washed himself. The water was so cold that it stung, but Thorn’s physical resistance made it bearable. After cleaning his body, Thorn dried himself off with a large towel from his inventory and, wrapping it around his waist, sat down to wait for Elder Havva, who had not yet returned.

As he waited, Thorn thought carefully about the plans that he had made. While the first half of his plan for the valley had gone well, Thorn knew that the real challenges were only beginning. According to the message that he had gotten, Mina and Akira had almost finished mapping the valley, and Thorn was starting to think about how he was going to make sure he kept control of it. Velin’s source in Ragnarok said that the Crimson Snakes were on their way to the valley, which did not give him much time to prepare defenses. Still, if he could recruit the Wolfkin, Thorn would have a decent fighting force.

“My apologies for making you wait, sir traveler.” Elder Havva approached, two female Wolfkin behind him. “We have procured clothing that will fit you.”

“Um, thanks.” Taking the pants and sash from one of the ladies, Thorn was very glad that Nova Terra had an option for instantly equipping gear.

“Once you are dressed, please sit so we can draw the holy runes.”

It was only now that Thorn realized that the other lady was holding a tray with various brushes and pots of pungent paints as well as a stone glowing with a pale light. Curious, he equipped the pants and sash, tossing his oversized towel into his inventory, and knelt down. Even kneeling he was almost as tall as the two Wolfkin women. Elder Havva took a brush from the case and dipped it into one of the pots on the tray, picking up the glowing stone with his other hand. Tapping the end of the brush on the stone, a sliver of the pale light slipped from the stone to shroud the brush’s bristles.

The old Wolfkin shuffled around Thorn, his blurry eyes scanning Thorn’s body. Silence returned to the edge of the pool, the only sound the soft splash of the waterfall. Realizing that Elder Havva had stopped behind him, Thorn opened his eyes. The elder was frozen in place, his eyes fixed on the tattoos that ran across Thorn’s left arm and chest. Curious, Thorn looked down, his own eyes widening in shock.

At some point, the barbaric-looking but meaningless tattoos that he had added at character creation had changed. Among the lines of the tattoo were figures woven together in a wolf and moon motif. A full moon with the silhouette of a howling wolf dominated his chest, sitting over his heart. Moving left, the moon could be seen in various stages, surrounded by hunting wolves. The wolf tattoos were dark but held a metallic shimmer, reminding Thorn of Hati’s fur, while the moons were a pale silver, almost glowing.

It took almost ten minutes before Elder Havva started moving again. When he did, his first action was to put the brush back on the tray and pick up another, thicker brush. Closing his eyes, Thorn waited for Elder Havva to begin drawing, completely missing the looks of shock in the eyes of the two women behind the elder.

The drawing of the runes took almost three hours to finish, completely draining the glowing stone in the process. When Thorn finally stood up, they covered his whole torso, so tightly drawn that they looked like a solid mass from a distance.

“What are these drawings for?” Thorn asked as he examined himself. In retrospect, he realized that he should have asked before the runes had covered his body.

“They signify your status as the Greymane and call for Hati to bless the winner of the challenge.” Elder Havva coughed. “They use the power of the moonstone to call the favor of Hati. Were you a Wolfkin, they would strengthen your abilities.” His figure hunched even more than before, it was as if he had aged years in the last three hours. After a moment of rest, the old Wolfkin shuffled through the woods, Thorn and the women trailing behind him.

The ring where the trial would take place was located in front of the statue of Hati at the center of the village. Twenty five feet in diameter, the stone ring was slightly depressed, sitting about four inches below the rest of the village common area. Thorn could not tell if that was by design or if time had caused the ring to sink down into the earth. The ring itself was not completely flat, but it was clean and showed signs of having been swept that very morning, giving testament to how often the ring was used.

Standing on the cracked and uneven stone ring, Thorn idly wondered what stories the ring might be able to tell if it could talk. It had undoubtedly witnessed a large part of the history of the Wolfkin race, weathering the sunshine and rain of the changing eras, to mention nothing of the blood and sweat of those who practiced atop it.

At the far end of the ring stood the village altar. Made of dark, stacked stones, it was four feet high with soft edges, worn by the wind and rain of countless seasons. Atop the altar stood a statue of Hati made of the same dark stone, meticulously polished. The statue was surprisingly lifelike, exactly matching the image Thorn had in his head of the giant wolf god.

After a few moments, the murmurs fell silent and the crowds parted, revealing the large Wolfkin, Gelish. Dressed in a pair of loose pants with a green sash around his waist, Gelish was well built and would have been imposing if he had not been standing across from a Titan. Seeing the Wolfkin warrior pad into the ring, Thorn stepped forward, standing a full head above his opponent.

“The ancient law grants the Temple Elder the right of trial by combat.” Elder Havva’s blurry eyes stayed on the sky, his quivering voice carrying over the silent crowd as he recited the rules from memory. “As the laws command, the trial of combat is a trial of skill, not a battle to death. As such, using any weapons but those that Hati has graced us with shall constitute defeat. The victor of the trial shall be the combatant who incapacitates their opponent. A combatant who kills or cripples their opponent shall be executed according to the law.

“As the laws grant, the Temple Elder will pass the right of trial by combat to their eldest disciple. I, Havva, Moon Temple Elder, hereby claim my right to contest for the position of Greymane. I will engage in combat by proxy, nominating Gelish, Head Disciple of the Moon Temple, as the combatant in my stead. This trial shall be held under Hati’s all-seeing eye.”

As his voice faded away, the Temple Elder turned to the statue of Hati atop the altar and bowed, chanting a prayer under his breath. For a moment, nothing happened, and the crowd remained frozen in place. Just as Thorn was about to scratch his head, the statue’s eyes glowed silver, casting a pale light over the stone ring.

“The great Walker of the Night, Hati has agreed to stand witness to this trial. Should the rules be violated, Hati will punish the offender. May the challenger come forward.” Shuffling out of the ring, Elder Havva stood next to the altar as he waited for Gelish to enter the ring.

“I, Gelish, Head Disciple of the Moon Temple, accept the honor bestowed on me by the Moon Temple Elder. I enter the ring of combat to challenge…” Here Gelish stopped suddenly, realizing that he did not know his opponent’s name. He had been so caught up in denying the traveler’s title that he had never paused to ask.

“Thorn.” Thorn’s deep voice rumbled out encouragingly.

“Uh...Thorn, the current Greymane, for the title of Greymane.” Gelish tried to finish strong, but the verbal stumble in the middle of his challenge had sucked the momentum out of it. Around him the murmurs grew again as the crowd began to whisper to each other. Taking a step forward as the now familiar excitement began to build in his chest, Thorn spoke, his rumbling voicing silencing the crowd as it echoed around the fighting ring.

“I, Thorn, Lord Greymane, the Moon Wolf, accept the challenge.”

Fifteen feet apart, Thorn and Gelish stared each other down, the tension in the air growing thick. The large Wolfkin flexed his fingers, his sharp claws glinting in the last vestiges of twilight. Like Thorn, his furred torso was covered in dense runic lines that glowed silver in the fading light. As the sun finally slipped below the horizon, the clouds faded away, revealing the bright silver moon in its full glory.

The light from the moon landed on the ring, bending around the two combatants, chasing their shadows away. The setting was barbaric, but there was an elegance to the picture as well. Two rune-covered warriors engaged in a contest of strength, using nothing but that which their god had granted them.

For a moment, Thorn considered attacking, but then he recalled the words that Elder Havva had spoken as they walked back from the pool. The elder had assured him that he would know when the fight was to start and that he must restrain himself until that point.

Thorn had been very confident going into this fight, but now, standing on the moonlit ring, facing Gelish’s razor claws and large teeth, Thorn was starting to get nervous. Along with that nervousness, burning excitement was building in Thorn’s chest, as well. Suddenly, a cloud passed over the moon, briefly blocking its light and, for an instant, Thorn imagined the moon had turned into Hati’s giant eye, blinking at him.

Just as swiftly, the moon’s gaze returned, and Hati’s majestic voice echoed clearly.

[Begin.]

Gelish, waiting for the signal, sprang into action. Brandishing his claws and baring his teeth, he dashed forward, slashing from the left. Thorn was no slower, settling into his combat stance and slapping out with a backhand to deflect the incoming blow. As their attacks connected, Gelish realized that going up against Thorn in a contest of strength would be a fatal mistake. Thorn’s power was beyond overwhelming, and there was no way the Wolfkin could confront it directly.

Jumping to the side, he slashed out with a low kick, cutting through Thorn’s pants and leaving a line of blood on Thorn’s shin. The giant responded by pressing the attack, stepping forward and launching a sweeping kick of his own. Ducking impossibly low, Gelish scrambled back along the uneven stone, trying to get out of Thorn’s attack range. Unfortunately for him, Thorn’s size made that almost impossible and, with a single step, Thorn had once again closed the distance. As Gelish jumped back, Thorn caught him with a glancing blow that sent the large Wolfkin flying, tumbling head over heels across the ring.

The Wolfkin stood, shedding dust, his fur bristling. Gelish was the head disciple of the Temple of the Moon and had never been so humiliated in his life. He could easily fight any three of his fellow disciples, but now he was struggling against a single traveler. No matter how large Thorn might be, he could not accept that he was having so much trouble fighting him.

With a growl, Gelish flexed his clawed hands and raised them toward the shining moon. Silver streams of light gathered around his fingers, causing the rest of the ring to dim for a moment. The runes along his hands and forearms ignited, burning with a flickering silver flame.

The flames glimmered dangerously, causing Thorn to tense slightly as he recalled the magic flames that Bluefire had used in their spar. Without any armor, Thorn had no defense against the magical flames. His worry was reinforced as Gelish jumped forward, his flame covered claws accompanied by a dangerous whooshing sound as the flames devoured the air.

Thorn would have liked to abandon the thought of blocking the blow, but his large size, which had just provided him with an advantage, now worked to his detriment. Knowing that he could not get away, Thorn abruptly surged forward, punching out with his large fist.

“Better to trade blow for blow and rely on my endurace,” Thorn thought as he struck out.

Thorn’s fist met Gelish’s flaming claws with a bang, the force of the blow sending a ring of dust and flame into the air. For a moment, their figures were obscured from view by the explosion, and the crowded Wolfkin could only wait with baited breath. As the dust and flames settled, the two combatants were revealed, their ragged forms separated by five feet.

Gelish looked like he had come out of the exchange on top. Though the flames on his hands had dimmed significantly, he was otherwise unhurt. He stood, gulping in huge breaths of air, his bloodshot eyes fixed on Thorn, whose figure looked much worse for wear. Thorn’s large body, still imposing, was fixed solidly where they had struck each other. As the dust cleared, a gasp rose from the crowd at the blood dripping to the ground.

Thorn’s right hand was a complete mess, the skin ripped to shreds. Deep cuts and charred skin gave testament to the ferocity of the blow he had blocked. The steady drip of blood beat a rhythm on the stone ring. At the sight of the blood, Gelish’s bloodshot eyes grew completely red, and he threw back his head to howl up toward the moon.

A thick sense of bloodlust seeped out from the large Wolfkin, and his figure swelled. Heavy, knotted muscle grew around his neck and shoulders, and his fingers, already wickedly clawed, grew longer and sharper. Watching him carefully, Thorn could see the awareness fade from Gelish’s eyes, and a faint sense of disgust grew in his heart as Hati’s voice echoed in his mind.

[See for yourself the corruption that has grown in my children. The influence of the Betrayer has hidden itself deeply in their hearts, twisting their thoughts until what was once known as an abomination is now treated as a boon.]

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If you've enjoyed what you read and are interested in reading more, please consider supporting me on Patreon where you can read all of Book #2 and advanced chapters from Book #3. Come explore the world of Nova Terra and help me determine where the story goes.

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WildCard

Bio: My name is Seth Ring and I am a writer. I create worlds and tell the stories of those who inhabit them. I love exploring these new worlds with other people. I post a chapter every Friday around 12 pm EST. To get advanced access to chapters you can support me on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/SethRing.

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