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Crude rock walls amplified and echoed back their nervous breaths as Alden, Lalaine, Braden, Jincra, and Grath stood waiting in the tunnel

Sunlight filtered through the thick rib bones of the hunter’s gate. Dusty sand crunched under hide boots. Leather breastplates, vambraces, and greaves chafed the hunters in the sweaty heat of tension. Screaming cheers echoed strangely throughout the oval arena and filled the ears of the four nervous youths.

Grath cleared his throat. “Don’t think of the audience. They’re here to watch whether we win or lose. If we die, they’ll enjoy it just as much.”

“That’s barbaric,” Lalaine said.

“Yes,” Grath agreed. “They’re here to be entertained. When they get bored, people are not much better than the beasts they hunt.”

“It’s hard to see these mighty beasts reduced to mere entertainment,” Lalaine said. “Every creature holds a spirit and deserves our respect. We hunt the giants for survival and defense, but these arena trials are just slaughter.”

With a glance over his shoulder, Alden nodded at the huntress. “I agree with you, Lalaine, but we’re not in a position to change the capital’s politics. We need to play their game of death, as distasteful as it is.”

The blonde huntress’ plump lips pursed into a hard line, but she said nothing else.

“Take a wedge formation,” Alden ordered. “We should be able to handle just about anything that way.”

His band’s voices rang out in acknowledgement.

Rattling bone chains signaled the start of the fight. With lurching movements, the hunter’s gate rose into the air. Alden waited for the ribs’ points to rise above head height before leading his band under the gate and jogging into the arena. Braden was the last one out. Once the Trickster passed through the portal, the gate slammed back down.

No matter what happens, Alden thought, we’re sealed in.

Jincra took point on their formation. He’d wound his long black hair into a braid to keep it out of the way. His heavy shield thumped into the sand as the Guardian entered a defensive stance and rested the shaft of his spear atop the bone barrier.

Grath hefted his enormous greataxe and stepped to Jincra’s right. The Aibeck’s crystal horns glittered in the bright sunlight. His hulking muscles rippled under his purple velvet fur as he stretched.

Lalaine took up her position on Jincra’s left. The blade of her long glaive rested in the sand, and the rosewood shaft rose several feet above her head. Her high ponytail, tied with her emerald maiden’s ribbon, spilled down her back in a golden cascade. The long tips of her hair bow flicked back and forth in the light breeze dancing through the arena.

Braden sauntered into the arena and took up his position behind and to the left of his twin sister. The blond Trickster twirled his two roped sickles with casual nonchalance.

Alden placed himself behind and to the right of Grath on a line with Jincra. He held his gleaming metal greatsword at the ready as he stared at the beast gate across the arena.

Ahken’s voice rang out, and Alden could hear the announcer clearly even over the deafening roar of the crowd. “Sacram tribe is taking a wedge formation! This one is more adaptable than the diamond, but not as easily defended. Let’s hope they don’t face some sort of charging creature.”

Moxi spoke into her shell, and her squeaky voice was also clear to Alden. “This is a new team. Their village hasn’t fielded a band in the tournaments for sixty winters after the Scourge wiped out most of their hunters. Now they’re back, and they’ve got one chance to show us what they’re made of!”

Alden gritted his teeth. Sandy dust billowing up from the arena floor ground between his molars.

“Wow!” Moxi yelped. “Is that a metal blade? How did Sacram get one of those? I can’t wait to see what that beauty can do!”

“Hmm. Maybe I shouldn’t have bet against Sacram this round…” Ahken muttered, though his voice was crystal clear.

The audience laughed.

Alden ground his teeth again.

“Let them laugh,” Braden called from the other corner of the wedge. “End of the day, it’ll be us laughing. Let’s show them, Sacram!”

The five hunters let out a cheer and dug their feet in. Alden felt his spirits lift.

Metal-laced bone chains surrounding the beast gate rattled and clanked, and the rib bones lifted from the sand.

The audience up above fell deathly silent.

“What’s it gonna be?” Moxi whispered into the quiet arena.

From the tunnel entrance came the eerie scraping of claws on stone. Harsh, snuffling breaths echoed in the stillness of the arena.

Alden tightened his grip on the plush red leather hilt of his sword.

Shadows flickered within the tunnel as a hulking form shuffled forward. The shadowy beast stood at least forty feet tall. Sunlight caught in tangles of shaggy red fur as a long snout filled with razor teeth emerged from the tunnel. Next were glaring eyes, piercing red irises with black sclera. Long, pointy red ears stood up from a canine skull. The body which followed looked like a hulking ape. The beast had long hind legs, like a rabbit, and a thick, whip-like tail at least twice the length of its body.

“It’s an ifara,” Jincra breathed.

“It’s an ifara!” Moxy’s voice boomed throughout the arena.

The crowd howled in approval.

Alden’s heart pounded in his chest. He’d never heard of an ifara. “Jincra, what do we need to know?”

The Guardian didn’t take his eyes from the beast as it wandered into the arena and took huge sniffs of the air. “Ifara hail from the jungles down south. Predatory and highly aggressive, they live in families, like apes. They mostly hunt jungle hogs. Watch out for the–!”

The beast’s powerful hind legs launched it high into the air. It hurtled toward the hunters and landed right in their midst with an earthshaking spray of sand. The Sacram band barely rolled out of the way in time to avoid being crushed.

The ifara towered over Alden. The stench wafting from its filthy, matted hair made the young hunter’s lunch rise into his throat, but he choked it back down. The monster’s black-and-red eyes focused on the gleaming sword in Alden’s hands.

“Bad news,” Moxi said. “All that metal is attracting the ifara’s attention! These beasts are kept hungry for the fights, and as everyone knows, metal is every giant beast’s favorite food!”

Jincra bashed the ifara with his shield to get its attention. Without taking its eyes from Alden’s sword, the beast swatted at Jincra in response. The Guardian dug in his heels and his tattoo flashed green as he used his spirit power to absorb the blow, but the huge fist drove Jincra back twenty feet through the sand.

The ifara leaned down and lunged toward Alden. Its razor-sharp teeth dripped ropes of saliva.

The strike was fast, and Alden knew he didn’t have time to dodge, so he held the metal greatsword out in front of himself and braced his other hand against the flat of the blade to absorb the blow.

Time to test what you can do! Alden thought.

But as he was bracing for impact, the sword bucked in his hands of its own volition.

The ifara’s snout crashed into Alden. The blade deflected most of the beast’s teeth, but a few still scraped bloody gashes in his arm. The hit threw Alden twenty feet through the air. He landed hard and rolled across the sand. Grainy particles scoured his flesh and left burning abrasions.

“What a weak defense!” Ahken cried. “Even a fresh hunter should have seen that one coming. What is Alden doing?”

The Siki judges in the government box shook their heads and made notes with chalk.

But the ifara wasn’t done. The monster reared back to snap at Alden again as he lay exposed on the sand.

Suddenly, the beast snarled in pain.

Behind the ifara stood Lalaine. Blood dripped from the blade of her enormous glaive as the huntress sliced into the ifara’s right leg a second time.

“First blood!” screamed Moxi. “Finally!”

The beast howled and whirled around to face Lalaine. But instead of attacking her directly, the ifara launched into a frenzy of movement. The predator dashed across the arena and leaped against the wall, then pushed off and launched itself back at the band. Its huge front paws smashed into Jincra’s shield. The impact and the weight of the monster flattened the young hunter into the sand under his shield.

The Guardian’s arm muscles bulged as he struggled to prevent the edge of the shield from crushing his throat.

“The ifara is squashing the life out of Sacram’s Guardian! Isn’t anyone going to come to his rescue?” cried Ahken.

As the monster pinned Jincra, Grath leaped at its shaggy flank. Before Grath could land a strike, the beast swatted the Aibeck from the air. Grath flew fifty feet before crashing into the sand.

Black-and-red eyes focused on the metal greatsword again, and the ifara lunged toward Alden. As the predator shifted its weight forward, Jincra screamed from the effort of holding his shield edge away from his throat.

Alden saw the razor-filled maw coming and drew his sword back behind him in a two-handed grip. The weapon seemed determined not to take a hit protecting him, but perhaps a parrying strike would work.

For a second time, the sword went into a waving frenzy in his hands. The struggle felt like wrestling a snake, and Alden gasped in surprise. The sword swung up into the air and lifted the hunter onto his tiptoes, leaving him completely exposed to the ifara’s coming bite.

“What is he doing?” cried Ahken. “Hey Alden, where’d you learn to fight?”

“Here it comes,” shrieked Moxi, “first blood!”

The crowd cheered in anticipation.

Alden’s breath whooshed out of him as Lalaine’s shoulder impacted into his midsection. The huntress’ tackle launched Alden clear of the bite and saved him from injury.

However, Lalaine was not prepared for the blow. The beast’s nose smashed into the Slayer and hurled her across the arena. She got her legs up in time to land against the stone wall, but the impact was too hard. Alden saw her ankle turn badly, and Lalaine crashed into the wall. She cracked her head and fell to the sand, looking dazed.

“Their huntress is down!” cried Moxi. “She saved her leader, but she’s out of the fight! What a brutal hit!”

“Get up! Get up!” shouted Ahken.

The ifara leaped from atop Jincra and landed close to Lalaine. The beast’s shaggy lips opened in a wide grin and lunged in for a bite.

But a sharp sickle flashed from nowhere and hooked the beast’s right ear. The rope attached to the sickle snapped taught.

The ifara screamed. Its darting face turned aside from Lalaine and smashed into the wall of the arena with a sickening crunch.

“Keep your teeth off my sister, you filthy animal,” Braden bellowed. The Trickster stood just to the side of the ifara but had completely slipped the monster’s notice.

“What a save!” Ahken yelled. “The Sacram Trickster Braden has saved his teammate!”

The ifara turned slowly from the wall. Its black pupils had dilated so severely that they were tiny pinpricks in a sea of red. Blood trickled from the beast’s nose.

The ifara snarled in rage and hurled itself at Braden.

Without hesitation, the blond Trickster ran forward and slid under the beast, then yanked on the rope again.

The ifara yelped and tried to turn to prevent its ear from being torn off. The abrupt maneuver caused the beast to flip over onto its side and skid through the sand.

Braden bared his teeth in a vicious grin and ripped the sickle from the ifara’s ear. A large chunk of ragged flesh was torn out and flopped into the sand.

The ifara screamed in agony.

Braden smirked. “Earrings weren’t your style, anyway.”

Alden wanted to run to help his friend, but the metal sword was still bucking wildly in his hands. He considered dropping the blade, but he hadn’t brought a spare weapon with him. He’d be completely disarmed in the fight.

Would that really make a difference right now? Alden demanded of himself.

The beast clawed at its mangled ear, then rolled to its feet. With a howl of fury, the ifara charged at Braden. The Trickster stood with his back against the wall, giving the ifara plenty of time to catch him if the Braden dodged left or right.

“Looks like their Trickster’s luck has run out!” Moxy squeaked.

Alden made a decision and let go of his sword.

The weapon stopped moving and flopped lifelessly into the sand.

The young leader dashed toward his friend to try and help, but the distance seemed vast. I may be too late!

Braden swung his sickles and launched them over his head in a backward arc. One sickle skipped harmlessly off the stone wall, but the other caught a gouge in the wall and held. The young Trickster hauled the rope taught and kicked off with his feet as the ifara lunged to bite him.

With only inches to spare, Braden cleared the beast’s maw. He actually stepped on the shaggy snout and then stomped on the ifara’s eye as he rose into the air.

The ifara tried to follow Braden, but the beast was going too fast. For a second time, the Trickster caused the beast to smash face-first into the stone wall.

The ifara collapsed into the sand and lay groaning.

“What an acrobatic feat! Did you see that?” called Moxi.

Braden was braced against the wall, holding onto his sickle handle. The blond hunter kicked off, whirled his sickles in midair, caught them both, and landed in the sand thirty feet away from the stunned beast. He dashed to where his sister lay in the sand and bent down to check on her.

“Looks like there’s more than one tricky vixen in the arena today!” declared Moxi.

“Hey!” Braden shouted up at the Siki. “I’m a boy!”

“Prove it,” Moxi purred.

Grath thundered across the sand toward the beast. The purple hunter skidded to a halt between the ifara’s two limp hind feet. A rapid flurry of axe swings tore through the hamstrings on both of the creature’s hind legs.

The ifara wailed and struggled to rise, but couldn’t summon the strength.

“That should put an end to all the jumping,” Ahken announced.

Jincra arrived beside the ifara’s head and bashed it with his shield. Teeth and blood flew, but the creature snarled defiantly. Jincra bashed again and again, ravaging the beast’s face with his bone shield. With every smash, the ifara’s shuddering grew weaker and weaker.

“Hit him again! Show me the blood!” shrieked Moxi.

“Whoa, girl,” Ahken said. “Getting a little into it, huh?”

“Sorry, darling. I’m a lady of intense passion.”

Grath leaped onto the monster’s back. With a mighty thump, the Aibeck buried his axe in the beast’s spine at the base of the skull.

The huge, shaggy body shuddered one last time, then went still.

“Sacram tribe is victorious!” Ahken shouted into the sudden silence.

The audience went wild with whistling and cheering.

“Lots of points are gonna be taken off! These mistakes may cost this young band the tournament!” Moxi said.

“Not sure what happened with their leader. He sure didn’t do much to help them,” Ahken said.

Alden stood in the sand and watched his friends pull themselves together.

Grath was covered in ifara blood and didn’t look pleased.

Battered and bruised, Jincra fell to one knee as his chest heaved with panting breaths.

Braden knelt beside his sister, who struggled to sit up.

Alden started to walk over to heal Lalaine, but she waved him off. Not knowing what else to do, Alden walked back to where his sword lay in the sand.

“I guess that fancy sword didn’t do much in the end, did it?” Moxi’s high-pitched mockery battered Alden’s already wounded pride as he bent down and picked up the sword.

Grath stomped up to Alden. “What happened, Alden?”

Alden stayed kneeling and inspected his sword. He couldn’t meet his mentor’s eyes. “I don’t know.”

Jincra walked up. “Something went noticeably wrong with your sword, Alden. What was that?”

Alden shook his head. “It felt like the sword was fighting against me.” The young leader ran his hand over the blade and stared at it in consternation.

Across the arena, Braden bent down and scooped up Lalaine. The Trickster hefted his blonde sister in his arms as he strode across the arena to Alden. “Whoa, Lala, you’re getting heavy.”

“What did you just say?” Lalaine shrieked. “You can’t say that! You’re just teasing, right? Right? Jincra, don’t listen to him!” Lalaine’s cheeks were flaming red, and her eyes promised death. The huntress flailed and kicked in her brother’s arms as Braden struggled to keep hold of her.

Alden was still inspecting his metal sword as Jincra watched the two squabbling siblings approach.

“Is she... trying to bite him?” Jincra asked.

Alden glanced at the twins before looking back down at his sword. “Yes.”

“Alden,” Grath said. “I warned you about that weapon. There’s something wrong with it. You bought it from a crazy man, which should have been warning enough. Now it may cost us this tournament.”

Alden clenched his teeth together. “I know, Grath.”

“So what are you going to do about it?” the Aibeck asked.

Alden stood up and dropped the sword into the sheath on his back. “I’m going to find a magic expert. And if I can’t fix it, I’ll get rid of the sword.”

“I will accompany you,” Jincra told him.

Braden finally arrived with Lalaine, who looked sullen. She glared at Braden through narrowed eyes as he set her down on the ground, but at least Jincra’s close proximity caused her to stop trying to bite her brother.

“Let me take a look at your leg now, Lalaine,” Alden said. The Shaman dropped to one knee in the sand beside the huntress and inspected her ankle.

Lalaine sighed in relief as Alden’s warm healing magic coursed through her body and eased the pain in her leg. “Thank you, Alden.”

“No,” the young leader said. He stood up and placed his hand on the huntress’ forehead to apply his healing magic to the mild concussion he sensed there. “I owe you my thanks, Lalaine. You took that hit for me.”

Lalaine looked serious. “You’re my friend, Alden. I’m not going to let some beast hurt you.”

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AdamLaneSmith

Bio: Author, ghostwriter, author coach, retired psychotherapist, husband, and father. I've written 25 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and scored a couple #1 Amazon bestsellers in my various categories.

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