Alden rushed down through the tunnels to reach the hunter’s gate. He spotted the Kilna team limping in through the tunnel and rushed over to them. There were no Druids in the room other than Alden and Filna, and Filna looked as worn out as Duarth did.
The bloody and exhausted members of the band looked up warily as Alden approached.
“Duarth, let me help.” Alden placed his hand on Duarth’s wounded shoulder and let his healing energy flow into the Kilna leader’s body. Duarth’s spirit drank in the healing energy and used it to remake his flesh into the proper shape, and the blood stopped pouring from his wounds.
Alden repeated the act on Duarth’s leg until it, too, was healed. Then the young Sacram leader stepped back.
Duarth looked at Alden, confused. The rest of Kilna band also looked perplexed. “Why help me?” Duarth asked. “You need your energy for your own battle.”
“I do,” Alden agreed. “But I’m not going to save my strength while others are bleeding in front of me.”
Duarth considered the spiky-haired youth with a critical eye. “You’re sacrificing your own chances to help your enemy.”
“Are you my enemy?” Alden asked.
Duarth held his eye for several heartbeats. At last, the young Kilna leader motioned to his band, and they headed to their section of the staging area.
Alden stood watching Kilna limp away.
“What’s one more gamble when you’re already risking your friend’s lives just to steal my power?” the ghost woman asked from behind Alden.
Alden angrily turned to where the ghost’s voice had emanated from, but she was already gone, and the rest of Sacram was just arriving. The band walked into the tunnel and readied themselves by the gate.
Alden walked to the head of the group and stood with his back to the gate. “When this gate opens,” the Sacram leader said, “I want us to take up a wide formation. Five equal points, Jincra on front point, Grath and Lalaine flanking, Braden and me in back. Be close enough to hear orders but far enough that we don’t get hit for clustering up again.”
The band called out their acknowledgements just as the chains rattled and the gate rose from the mouth of the tunnel.
Sacram tribe walked out from the dark tunnel into the semi-darkness of the nighttime arena.
Down in the pit, Alden could smell the heavy scent of burning wood carried on a warm breeze. Dense black smoke from dozens of fires stung his eyes and made them water. The roar of the crowd echoing down the stone walls from above was drowned out by the roar of flames and the snaps of crackling logs. Fires formed glaring blind spots in Alden’s view of the arena, which was a patchwork of blinding light and deep shadow. Up above, the three moons hovered in the sky amid a sea of stars. Alden fancied that Swollen Mother was watching the battle that was about to unfold.
Let us be worthy, he prayed to her, and let my friends survive. And holy Khanor, god of battle, grant us courage.
Sacram tribe took up their formation outside the gate.
“Here’s Sacram tribe!” Moxi called from above. Her amplified voice echoed shrilly against the stone walls of the pit. “After the catastrophe with the ifara, the hunters are keeping plenty of distance in their formation.”
“I’m glad to see it,” Ahken said. “It makes me hopeful that their leader, Alden, is learning from his earlier mistakes. Hopefully we can get a good fight out of these young hunters.”
“I can’t wait to see more from that boy vixen,” Moxi purred.
Braden shook his fist at the colorful Siki up on her wooden platform.
Moxi blew him a kiss.
Across the arena, the beast gate ground open, and the crowd hushed with anticipation.
“Jincra,” Alden said. “When you see what it is, call out the biggest dangers.”
“Understood,” Jincra replied.
Ruffling feathers echoed out from the beast tunnel. A lot of large feathers. The sound turned Alden’s arms to gooseflesh.
From out of the tunnel stepped a massive bird. The avian was easily forty feet tall at the crown of its plumed head. The bird was covered in thick plumage of vivid blue and green with a glossy sheen reflecting different colors in the firelight. Long, knobby black legs supported a deceptively small torso. A long, graceful neck rose from the body to support an enormous head, with a massive beak unlike any Alden had seen. The pale blue beak sloped down in a curve, much like a human nose, and ended in a hammer-shaped bill. A small hook on the end of the bill glinted dark red. Huge fangs descended on either side of the beak, and when the beak was closed the fangs fell past the bottom like tusks.
“A saber-tooth hammerbill,” Ahken cried. “I haven’t seen one of those in many winters! They aren’t even native to Veruscia. This is quite a treat, folks.”
Jincra began calling out warnings: “That hammer beak smashes prey. The bird will flap into the air to get leverage, then hammer down at you. And the legs kick just as hard as the hammer bill. The fangs are razor sharp and used for skewering. Hammerbills are highly aggressive, and very fast.”
“Stay ready to move, band,” Alden called.
The bird spotted the hunters and let out a piercing chirp. Thick black avian toes kicked off from the sand and launched the bird into a run. True to Jincra’s warning, the bird was fast, and its powerful long legs ate up the distance in a flash.
“Jincra, absorb the charge!” Alden called. “Slayers, be ready to strike immediately after the clash!”
Jincra, Grath, and Lalaine called out in acknowledgement seconds before the bird arrived.
As Jincra had said it would, the bird launched itself into the air. Its charging momentum carried the avian forward through the air as its small wings flapped to add leverage to the coming attack. The bird leaned forward and slammed its beak down in an arc toward Jincra, who rose to meet the blow.
The Guardian planted his feet and received the hammer strike on his upraised shield held horizontally above his head. Jincra’s Guardian tattoo glowed bright green and reflected against the underside of the shield. A resounding crash rang out as the beak connected with the bone shield. Jincra’s knees bent under the force of the strike, but he held firm.
The bird staggered upon meeting an unmovable force. Splayed black feet hit the sand and dug in as the hammerbill reeled, trying to regain its balance.
Grath and Lalaine followed Alden’s orders and counterattacked before the bird’s feet had even touched the sand. Grath’s axe scraped along the bird’s beak and left a deep gouge but drew no blood. Lalaine’s glaive carved along the edge of the beak and into the feathers along the bird’s face and neck. Blood spilled out and stained the plumage around the wound.
The bird let out a shriek and flapped its wings. They weren’t large enough to carry the body weight of the creature for true flight, but the bird was able to hop into the air and propel itself back away from the band. The wings scattered campfires everywhere, and the Sacram hunters had to dodge burning logs. By the time the bird had settled back again at the other end of the arena toward the beast gate, most of the smaller fires in the arena had been smashed up along the walls of the arena, leaving most of the center in darkness lit only by multicolored moonlight.
“What a great start for the Sacram tribe!” Ahken called out. “Solid coordination. Let’s see if they can keep it up.”
The Siki judges were chattering excitedly and pointing at various spots on the field.
“Front line left,” Alden called out. “Back line right. Move and engage carefully.”
Jincra, Grath, and Lalaine swept along the left side of the arena, while Alden and Braden stalked along the right side. Alden waved his metal sword in the firelight. The reflecting light shone in the bird’s eyes and drew the beast’s attention. The massive head and hammer beak swung in Alden’s direction.
“Here we go,” Braden said. “Flashy, just the way we should be.” Even in the darkness, Alden could hear the grin in his friend’s voice.
With a shrill cry, the bird launched into the air again. Sand sprayed as the hammer beak smashed down beside Braden, who rolled out of the way at the last second. The bird attacked Alden next, smashing the sand over and over as he dodged.
Braden threw his sickle and hooked the bird’s delicate nostril, then yanked on the hide rope connected to the blade.
The giant blue-green bird screamed and yanked the other way. The sickle tore a bloody wound in its nose. The hammerbill shrieked and charged after Braden, landing a flurry of blows which pounded craters into the sand all around the evasive Trickster.
Alden could see his friend’s grin was gone, which meant Braden was having a tough time keeping up with the attacks. The young leader raised his sword to charge in, but once more he felt the sword yanked up over his head. The weapon lurched to his left, then his right, trying to shake his grip.
“Not this again!” Moxi cried. “Alden, learn to use your sword!”
Alden had crushed the sword’s hilt in a death grip and resolved to hold onto it…. when suddenly the ghost woman’s face appeared inches from his own. The brunette was holding the hilt of the sword, too. Her ghostly hands faded in and out between Alden’s hands.
The shock of seeing the ghost so abruptly and so near caused Alden’s grip to weaken, and the ghost woman tore the blade from his hands. The brunette in the white and blue dress slid her feet into an attack stance and lunged forward with the blade already swinging down toward Alden’s head.
Alden barely had time to dodge before the sword cut the air where he’d been standing. The black-haired hunter rolled across the sand and reached up to draw his bone greatsword from his left shoulder. Bone rasped on leather as he drew the weapon out.
“I don’t want to fight you,” Alden said.
The brunette attacked again. Her thrusts were quick and low, more from the hip than the shoulder.
Alden batted the thrusts away with his greatsword.
“What in the holy name of Khanor is going on down there?” shouted Ahken. “Is Alden fighting his own sword?”
Moxi sounded confused. “I’ve… well, I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Alden was already panting. The ghost woman’s thrusts came in rapid succession and struck all over his defense, probing for weakness and designed to tire him out. “They can’t see you?” he gasped.
Mismatched eyes blazed in the moonlight. “Indeed, only you can see me. Your audience shall believe you’re cursed. You are cursed, Alden. And so am I.” Instead of thrusting on the next attack, the ghost swung her sword in an arc.
The two blades cracked against one another again and again as the brunette ghost wove a complex pattern of slashes with her metal sword. Alden had to shift his greatsword back and forth to absorb the blows.
“Work with us,” Alden pleaded. “We need you.”
“I need you to shut up and accept your fate,” the ghost said. “You shall inevitably get your entire band killed. At least if we do it this way, no one will ever desire to wield this sword again.”
“Are you really going to kill me?”
The woman hesitated. Alden saw she was finally panting as badly as he was, and her ghostly form was starting to flicker. “I have to. This is my only option to stop the cycle.”
“I promise,” Alden said, “I will break the cycle of death.”
The ghost’s expression stretched in anguish. “You cannot. I’m sorry, but this must be done to save the lives of all those who would try again in the future. They need to bury me somewhere and… forget me.” She sounded so sad that Alden wanted to throw down his sword and take her in his arms to comfort her.
But he didn’t get a chance, because she raised the metal greatsword overhead for another strike. The blade came slashing down, and Alden intercepted it with his bone greatsword. The metal sword bit deep into the bone sword, but the attack stopped.
The ghost woman tried to lift the sword, but her arm couldn’t hoist the weapon aloft. She staggered under the weight of the blade, and then her body flickered out of sight completely. The metal sword thumped to the ground.
Alden waited a moment to see if this was some new trick, but the ghost did not reappear. Cautiously, he lifted the metal sword and slid it into the sheath on his back. “If you won’t help me,” he said, “I’ll have to rely on my old sword until I can convince you.” He turned back to the duel with the bird.
The Sacram band was holding their own but not scoring any hits. The bird was lashing out to keep the Slayers, Grath and Lalaine, at bay. Braden continued to dodge hammer strikes, but he looked tired. Jincra was having a tough time maneuvering into any position to distract the bird or take the hits.
“Braden,” Alden called out. “Do your nostril trick again. Slayers, when the bird is hooked, target the wings.”
Braden rolled in the sand and hurled his sickle again as his hunter’s mark glowed purple. The curved blade sliced through the air and aimed true, hooking into the bird’s intact nostril.
The bird screeched and lowered its head, not pulling away this time. With a fluttering of feathers the avian spread its wings to maintain balance.
Lalaine’s Slayer tattoo glowed fiercely red as she leaped high into the air to land on the hammerbill’s back. Her long blonde hair snapped in the wind and gleamed in the light of the nearby bonfire as she landed a flurry of slashes. Her glaive blade bit deep into the tendons of the wings with a spray of blood.
“What precision and power!” Moxi squeaked “And look at that golden banner! What a huntress! Ahken, what do you say we call her the Golden Huntress?”
“I like it! The Golden Huntress has disabled the hammerbill’s worst attack,” Ahken cried.
“And she looked great doing it!” added Moxi.
The bird screamed and tried to flutter, but its wings flopped uselessly. Limp wingtips hung to the floor of the arena and dragged in the sand. The hammerbill twisted its head around to bite at Lalaine, and she launched herself off. The bird pursued her doggedly around the arena. Because it could not get momentum to hammer with its beak, the creature instead tried to skewer the huntress with its long fangs.
Lalaine darted behind Jincra, who braced himself and raised his shield. His Guardian tattoo glowed a fierce green, brighter than Alden had ever seen it. The shield itself began to glow with the same green light.
The hammerbill’s fangs landed on the bone shield, cracked, and shattered against the immovable glowing barrier.
Just like earlier, Grath immediately counterattacked. The Aibeck hunter slid his axe along the right side of the bird’s face, cut a long gash, and sliced out an eye.
The hammerbill stretched up straight and screamed to the night’s sky.
Alden launched himself into the air and slashed across the bird’s thick chest. His bone greatsword bit deep, and blood stained the blue-green plumage.
The bird lowered its head and cocked it to glare at Alden with its huge remaining eye. Alden could see himself reflected in the dark orb.
The bird slammed down with its hammer beak. It couldn’t get momentum, but the blow would still shatter Alden’s bones.
Alden raised his bone greatsword to block the blow. The beak connected with the sword, and there was a terrific crunch. The middle of the sword had been deeply nicked by the ghost’s sword, and a crack formed across the blade. The hammerbill pressed down harder, and Alden’s greatsword snapped in half. The young leader managed to throw himself clear before the beak smashed into the sand.
Alden looked down at the stump of the greatsword in his hand. Only one foot of sword remained, which wouldn’t do much but annoy the bird, if Alden could even get close enough to poke the avian with his tiny weapon. Alden retreated to the edge of the battle as Grath stepped in and harried the bird to get its attention.
Alden threw away the useless stump. He reached for the metal sword’s hilt, but his hand froze inches from the red leather. I may be risking my friends’ lives, he thought. Is it better for me to stay unarmed? He watched helplessly as his friends fought the enraged avian.
The hammerbill had gone into a mad frenzy in the center of the arena. The bird hammered, bit, and kicked in every direction. Grath and Lalaine could not get close enough to land strikes. Jincra was having a tough time keeping up with absorbing blows, but the bird wasn’t concentrating attacks in any area long enough for the Guardian to have much effect.
Braden tried his nostril trick one more time.
The bird recognized the maneuver and used its hooked bill to snag the sickle out of the air. The hammerbill yanked hard and pulled the rope and the other sickle from Braden’s hands, then tossed them far across the arena into the darkness.
Braden was disarmed, and in his surprise he hesitated.
The hammerbill lashed out at Braden with its beak and fangs. Braden was surprised that his trick had failed and was caught flat-footed. He rolled, landed in a sand crater, and got stuck. The bird continued to harry him, but now Braden was limited in his ability to dodge.
The other Sacram hunters tried to help, but the bid’s long legs lashed out and drove them back.
Alden gritted his teeth, drew the metal sword, and raised the flat of the blade to his face. The icy aquamarine runes shone in his eyes. Resistance built in the sword so that he couldn’t move it in any direction, no matter how he pulled on it.
“Please,” Alden begged. “Please help me save my friend.”
The hammerbill smashed down again, and Braden narrowly rolled out of the way.
“Someone get this thing off me,” the Trickster cried.
“He’s going to die,” Alden roared. “You say you hate watching people die. Can you stand by and do nothing?”
“And if I help you,” the ghost whispered in Alden’s ear, “you shall proceed down your reckless path until you get yourself and your friends killed another day.”
Braden dodged another strike. Lalaine was screaming her brother’s name but couldn’t get through the bird’s kicks.
“If you do nothing, we will all die today.” Alden closed his eyes. “If you help me, I give you my word that I will do whatever it takes to stop the killing. You and I will put an end to all this death.”
“What do you mean?” asked the ghost.
“Darkness is coming,” Alden said. “The Scourge is threatening my village. We need allies or else all of my village will die.”
“You’re lying,” the ghost said, but she sounded uncertain.
Alden pressed her. “You heard my friends talking about the Scourge. That wasn’t for show, it’s really happening. Help me save my village, ghost. Help me save my friend now. You hate death. Let’s save lives together. That’s what I want your power for.”
Alden felt the resistance disappear, and the sword was suddenly light in his hands. Lighter than it had ever been, like it was made of vapor instead of metal.
“To protect life,” the ghost said, “I shall lend you my power for that. I promise nothing for the future, but I vow to consider your request. And I’ll be watching you closely for deceit.”
Aquamarine light reflected in Alden’s eyes as he clenched the sword hilt tightly in both hands. The supple leather of the hilt flexed under his fingers. “You’ll find no deceit in me, ghost. I am a man of honor: my word is iron.”
The sword hummed in Alden’s hands. The runes glowed brighter, their icy blue light spilling across the sand of the arena.
Three chimes sounded in Alden’s ears. His menu flickered open of its own volition and his eyes focused on the sword’s skill tree as all five gray bubbles suddenly blazed with sapphire light.
Ghost Bond 1 – Level Boost (Unlocked) – The user functions as if one level higher.
Ghost Bond 2 – Additional Weapon Damage (Unlocked) – The user gains additional weapon damage at the ghost’s discretion. Doing so drains the ghost’s spirit energy.
Ghost Bond 3 – Increased Spirit Reservoir (Unlocked) – The user gains additional spirit energy at the ghost’s discretion. Doing so drains the ghost’s spirit energy.
Ghost Bond 4 – Simultaneous Attack (Unlocked) – The user and ghost may coordinate physical attacks for combined damage. Doing so drains the ghost’s spirit energy.
The menu closed itself, and hot energy flooded Alden’s body. His muscles felt as though they might burst through his flesh. He could smell every drop of blood in the arena and hear individual voices in the sea of cheers from the crowd above.
The bird saw the sword’s bright light and hesitated. Braden lay in the sand under the bird with his arms raised over his face in a futile protective gesture.
With the bird hesitating, Lalaine finally dodged through the black legs. The blonde huntress slashed across the hammerbill’s body and screamed up at the beast.
The bird whirled around and pounced at the huntress. Lalaine dodged out of the way, but the bird pursued her quickly across the arena until the beast had cornered the huntress against the rock wall near Alden. Muscular black legs kicked again and again, cutting off Lalaine’s efforts to escape from the bird. She deflected the attacks with her glaive but was calling for help.
Alden charged toward the bird. The metal greatsword vibrated in his hands with every step. In a single stroke, the hunter scythed the blade through both of the bird’s thick legs and sliced them off halfway up to the knobby knees.
The hammerbill screamed and flopped on its side. Its injured wings flopped uselessly, and the avian tried to stand on its severed stumps but kept falling over. The wounded hammerbill flapped recklessly until it landed in a pile of swept-up burning logs.
The stench of burning feathers assaulted Alden’s nose and made his eyes water.
The hammerbill screeched and managed to roll out of the flames and into the sand, where the avian lay hooting and calling for help.
Alden stepped forward with his gleaming sword. The runes flared into blinding aquamarine brilliance as Alden brought the sword around in an arc and decapitated the injured hammerbill in one stroke.
Silence reigned in Alden’s ears. He closed his eyes and pictured the ghost’s face. “Thank you,” he whispered to her.
“Remember your promise,” she whispered in his ear.
But when Alden opened his eyes, she was gone.
Alden became aware of a wall of noise. The crowd was screaming and stamping their feet. The rock walls echoed with Ahken and Moxi thundering their praise for Sacram tribe.
Alden’s band ran toward their leader and called out their joy. His friends clapped him on the shoulders and congratulated each other on their victory. Lalaine kissed Alden on the cheek. Even Grath was smiling. Everyone was holding each other and leaping and cheering.
Alden stood at the center of it, the calm at the eye of the storm.
We can really do this, the young hunter thought. We can really save our people.
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