Interlude XVI: The Red Sands of Glory
Tristan didn’t have time to worry about Isleen’s objective or how she planned to achieve it. The student and his teacher soon joined the other witches in the contestant’s tunnel that led beneath the orange flame of the Burning Hawk’s torch and ended at a large, singed metal gate on the ground level of the red sands of the arena. The bastard prince raised his brow as one of the rat-masked arena staff members presented them with orange tabards embroidered with a sun hawk. He then realized that all the contestants around them wore similar tabards and quickly pulled his on.
“First round is a bit of a free for all,” Isleen explained in a cautioning tone as she helped him tie their team colors in place. “Mostly, we pick apart the other covens to increase the odds of more of our own making it into the second round. That said, once the numbers have thinned out, you’ll also have to keep an eye on our fellow teammates.”
“Good to know.”
“Members of the Emperor’s Scorpion Guard will also be in the arena as neutral observers and referees, but they will only interfere to prevent unnecessary death. If a contestant is severely crippled, knocked out, or otherwise unable to continue the match, they will receive a mark of white clay across their tabard. One mark means you’re at risk of being disqualified. Double mark or X means you’re no longer fit to continue fighting.”
“Seems simple enough,” Tristan murmured as he studied the tense gathering of purebloods and a few coven witches around them. “Any other rules I should know about?”
“Yes. Two. If a contestant throws down their weapons or raises their hand like this—” The pureblood lifted her right hand with the index and middle finger raised and pressed close together “—that means they surrender. If you continue the fight after their surrender in the first two rounds, you’ll be disqualified and likely receive further consequences dependent on any following harm or death.”
“A surrender equals an automatic X, but it’s still better than being permanently crippled or killed,” Isleen continued, nodding to the rat-masked witch with a metal peg leg, who waited by the lever that raised the metal gate.
“Got it, and the second rule?”
The bastard prince arched his brow with a faint scoff.
“I’m serious,” Isleen retorted with a shake of her head. “Dying in the arena will only bring shame to your coven and family name. The only honorable death worth glorifying is on the battlefield, and then only if you die bathed in the blood of our enemies.”
“It is the Ventrayna way,” she retorted with a shrug. “In the battlefield, you’re fighting for the honor and glory of the Emperor and our Witch Nation. In the arena—we fight for the pride and strength of our covens.”
The deep resonating rumble of a battle horn echoed through the tunnel around them. Isleen tightened the strap of her helmet and then quickly ignited the double blades of her halberd while Tristan unsheathed his dual long swords. As the dying rallying note of battle faded beneath the palpable anticipation of the contestants around him, the arena staff member pulled the lever down, slowly raising the metal gate between them and the waiting roar of Skreigh’s legions of witches.
“Stay close to me so I can keep an eye on you,” Isleen hissed as the gate locked into place above the door with a groaning creak. The pureblood advanced, her light steps quickly moving into a jog as the other orange tabard contestants surged forward around her. Tristan kept close to his teacher’s left side as he watched the tide of green and purple tabards rush through two more tunnels on opposing sides of the arena’s high walls. A chaotic mix of witch steel and orange, green, and purple flames crashed against each other like tidal waves.
The long reach of Isleen’s halberd kept the advancing lines of their opponents at bay, but it was immediately evident that she was the primary target of both groups. For the first ten minutes of the match, the orange tabards took advantage of this distraction to whittle down the outer ranks of the other two covens before the green and purple teams’ leader bellowed out orders to withdraw.
Tristan saw more than one witch lying on the ground, unmoving as the covens broke apart into smaller matches, leaving their leaders in the center of the red pit. The two male purebloods in green tabards continued to attack Isleen relentlessly. Tristan recognized Makhi, whose weapons of choice appeared to be a three-balled flail and a morning star. His companion was an even taller Burning Viper pureblood whose green fanged scythe sparked with venomous flames as it narrowly missed the braids beneath Isleen’s helmet as she ducked and rolled away from the attack.
The third team leader was a female pureblood in a purple tabard holding a long, curved scimitar and medium kite shield framed in pointed spikes that served as both a defensive counter to disarm attackers and an offensive means to inflict damage.
The purple tabard witch tried to take advantage of the relentless attacks of the two green purebloods and aimed for Isleen’s back, but Tristan quickly intercepted her, deflecting the swing of her scimitar with his crossed swords. The pureblood barely hesitated before slamming her shield into his side, forcing the bastard prince to roll away while offering him an opportunity to kick the purple tabard witch’s feet out from under her.
She fell with a startled oomph but quickly rolled away from him, returning to a defensive stance behind her shield as she focused her attention on Tristan. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Nobody,” he deflected, rising and dancing along with her so that he remained between the pureblood and Isleen, who had managed to disarm Makhi’s morning star, though his three-balled flail continued to give her trouble.
“Obviously,” she retorted with a snort. “So then get the hell out of my way.”
“Three vs. one doesn’t really seem fair. Why don’t we have ourselves a little match first.”
“A no-name Burning Hawk wants to challenge me? Saaru Zenon?”
“Saaru Zenon?” Tristan echoed with a tilt of his head. “Any relation to Duke Zenon?”
“Like you don’t know who I fucking am,” Saaru retorted furiously.
“Should I? I don’t think we’ve met before, although your name does sound vaguely familiar.”
“Get ready to surrender, no-name,” she growled as her sword and shield ignited with purple and yellow flames. “Before I brand my name on your corpse.”
The bastard prince smirked, even as he tightened his grip on both swords, allowing Arius’s red flames to dance along their length as he slid into a fighting stance and then tilted his head, inviting her to come at him. Saaru looked taken aback by the color of his magic but charged forward nonetheless, sweeping her scimitar diagonally across his body as a wave of purple flames launched toward him.
Tristan ducked beneath the scalding flames and circled away from the obvious thrust of her scimitar, sweeping his left sword across her shield before turning to strike the armor of her exposed back with his right blade. The pureblood flinched and stumbled forward before whipping around to face him.
‘Heavy shields only work in a wall formation. Something tells me she doesn’t have a lot of battle experience and is relying on her magic to make up the difference.’
His musings soon proved accurate as Saaru unleashed wave after wave of purple flames, forcing Tristan into a sprint as he ducked, rolled, and circled around her, waiting for another opening as he raced across the scorched, blackened sand.
“Stop running and come at me already!” Saaru screamed, finally advancing towards him again.
“Alright,” Tristan murmured as he altered his direction and spun a tightening ball of red flames beneath his heels before using the built-up pressure to launch himself directly at the pureblood. Saaru quickly ducked behind her shield and staggered as the bastard prince’s left foot slammed against it. Tristan somersaulted over her, his first blow glancing off the side of the pureblood’s helmet, knocking her further off balance. He used the flat of his left sword against the back of her legs as he landed, slowing her response as he quickly moved in to press his right blade against the pureblood’s throat.
Saaru stood in place, frozen in disbelief, still upright and armed—but completely at his mercy.
“I believe this is the part where you drop your weapons and surrender,” Tristan prompted with a helpful tap of his left sword between her shield and side.
“I’ll never surrender to a nameless witch!” she hissed back, the purple flames on her scimitar and shield crackling maliciously.
“Oh—well then—if it helps, my name is Tristan Karan.”
“What?” Saaru stiffened, then blinked slowly as she turned her face toward him. “But that would make you—”
“The Emperor’s bastard?”
The pureblood’s golden eyes, tinged with flecks of violet, stared at him in silence before the sound of her shield and sword striking the sand signaled her surrender.
It was only then Tristan noticed the fully covered Scorpion Guard that stood observing them from behind his black skull mask. The witch swiftly stepped forward and bowed his head to Saaru respectfully before swiping his brush dripping with wet white clay across her purple tabard in the shape of an X.
“I shall look forward to our next meeting, Tristan Karan,” Saaru muttered with a half-smile as she lifted the shield and sheathed her sword. “If you live that long.”
The Scorpion Guard escorted the defeated pureblood to the open gated tunnels of the arena, protecting her from overly enthusiastic contestants who still battled around them. Tristan quickly turned to look for Isleen and found her standing, panting slightly with effort, over two prone witches wearing purple and green tabards. The bastard prince frowned, not recognizing either of her opponents and then noticed Isleen had a single white mark on the back of her tabard.
A quick gaze around the arena helped him locate Makhi and his scythe-wielding companion. The former sported a similar white mark, while the latter remained undefeated.
‘I guess if you don’t surrender, you’re allowed to continue fighting even when beaten?’ Tristan mused absently as he jogged towards his teacher. ‘So then why did Saaru surrender so easily?’
“Saaru?” Isleen tilted her head at him as they retrieved their awarded flasks of Tears of the Sun to rest and recharge for the second match. “That bitch has never beaten me, and she’s never made it past the second round if she even bothers to continue after the first round.”
“Huh,” Tristan murmured, his confusion doubling as he guzzled the spicy but refreshing liquor. “You know what, I don’t get it. What’s the point of competing if you’re not going to push all the way through?”
“Well—” Isleen crossed her legs with a faintly uncomfortable expression as she played with the cap of her flask, “—it depends on your objective. Most coven witches and even some purebloods know they don’t stand a chance of winning. For them, just showing up is a way to demonstrate their potential and bloodline to join one of the three main covens or find a suitable marriage partner.”
The bastard prince half-choked on his wine as he stared at her in disbelief. “Say what now?”
The pureblood sighed as she removed the cap of her flask and then flicked it over her shoulder. “How do you think Farrell ended up becoming Aurelia’s Prince Consort? He’s won nearly every tournament for the past eight years, five of them before the Emperor selected him as the princess’s husband.”
“Wait. So, because Farrell was successful—he was punished with marrying my half-sister?”
“It wasn’t exactly viewed as a punishment then by my father—or myself, for that matter,” Isleen explained before taking a long drink. “Honestly, they were just like every other couple, minus Farrell’s distaste for his matrimonial duties—things only turned sour when Aurelia found out about….” She trailed off and lifted the flask in an apparent attempt to empty it before continuing.
Tristan watched her for a moment as he took slow sips of the wine and drummed his fingers along the damp sand that still clung to his boots. “So, you’re saying this is my fault.”
The pureblood continued drinking though her left foot slid restlessly through the red sand beneath her.
“If Aurelia’s sudden change in behavior began two years ago when I returned to Ventrayna—”
“No,” Isleen forced out as she wiped the trail of spilled wine from her chin. “It began three years ago. That’s when someone in Lafeara sent the Emperor proof of your heritage. The Empress learned about it through her brother Duke Zenon and naturally, Aurelia learned about it from her.” She double-checked her flask and set it on the ground by her chair. “Up until then, everyone believed that Alexandra had successfully eliminated all potential challengers to the throne.
“Aurelia herself had put off solidifying her marriage and title with children. She was always rather smug about preferring the slaughter of the battlefield over what she called the torture of childbearing. And my brother—” Isleen grimaced as she folded her arms, “—he did his best to hide it, but both Duke Zenon and our father knew of his preference for male lovers. And Farrell’s excuses and continued absence from Aurelia’s bed didn’t help matters. That’s when the Empress inforced these monthly mandatory sessions began—but even then, Aurelia still didn’t get pregnant. She became paranoid and blamed my brother, accusing him of sabotaging their marriage and her future as Empress.”
Tristan drank quietly as Isleen paused and nervously flicked flecks of scorched sand from her arm bracers.
“Of course, Farrell denied it. And the Royal Physicians confirmed there was no evidence of foul play, but Aurelia needed someone to blame. She took her anger out on Farrell and killed his male lover. My brother was outraged and tried getting our father to impose sanctions for the murder of his friend, another pureblood of the Burning Hawk coven. But the Empress intervened. She agreed with Aurelia that Farrell’s lovers posed a risk to his marital duties as Prince Consort. But then Aurelia took things further and started killing all of any my brother’s past partners who had yet to marry.
“Eventually, Farrell learned that the best thing he could do was remain silent and compliant. I honestly think he believed that getting Aurelia pregnant was the only way to stop the madness—but as we both know, that never happened.” Isleen shook her head silently and sighed. “Your return to Ventrayna—didn’t help, but I blame the Empress and Duke Zenon for placing all that pressure on Aurelia’s shoulders.
“When Alexandra failed to assassinate you, and Aurelia lost her title of Crown Princess, the princess’s paranoia intensified. I think that’s when she began to secretly torment Farrell, who kept quiet because he knew there was nothing we could do to stop her. The only way for a Prince or Princess Consort to leave a marriage to a member of the Royal Family is either through death or by becoming a widow.”
“I see,” Tristan murmured, setting his nearly empty flask aside. “Which is why you’re aiming for the opportunity to fight her in the arena?”
“Precisely,” Isleen replied with a faint smile. The pureblood stood up and stretched out slowly. “No one can be punished for a death in the arena. Even an Emperor could die here, not that anyone’s crazy enough to challenge Arius, but—the option still exists. Bloodlines are important to any coven, but only the truly powerful are allowed to rule. That is why the covens fight for the right to challenge the royal family, even if we know we cannot win. In our world, wealth and influence are a luxury offered only to those strong enough to take what they want and keep it.”
“What about peace?”
The pureblood turned to offer him an amused smile. “Ventrayna has been at war for longer than I’ve been alive. My father says that war against the Pope and his church is what keeps the three covens from fighting amongst ourselves more than we already do.”
The deep resonating call of the arena’s battle horns quickly pulled the bastard prince to his feet as other contestants began to make their way down into the entrance tunnels.
“Let’s go,” Isleen declared as she picked up her halberd. “We fight this round in pairs, so I need you to watch my back.” She tapped her shoulder where bits of dry white clay cracked and flaked away from her tabard. “One more strike, and I’m out.”
“I’ll do my best,” Tristan replied as he hooked his thumbs around the scaled collar of his armor. “This round should be easier since we won’t have to worry about being overwhelmed with numbers.”
The bastard prince’s predictions held true for their first two matches, which they bested with a moderate amount of teamwork and Isleen’s overwhelming firepower. His teacher’s confidence quickly returned as they exchanged high-fives before leaving the arena to the approving roar of the crowd.
“Not bad,” Isleen commented with a slight grin as she wiped the sweat off her face with a towel offered to them by the arena staff. “You’re not exactly at Farrell’s level yet, but—”
“And she undercuts another compliment,” Tristan scoffed with a feigned expression of disappointment. “Seriously though, how many matches do we have left?”
“Getting tired already?”
“No, just—” the bastard prince rubbed his face and neck roughly with his towel before moving on to check his equipment. A few scorch marks and nicks were all he had to show for the last few rounds of matches, though his orange tabard was barely holding on.
“If we make it to the third round, we could end up fighting each other,” Isleen observed quietly as she finished off the last of his Tears of the Sun. “Damn. That will have to hold me until the second round is over.”
“Let me take the lead on the next match then, so you can conserve your magic,” Tristan replied, straightening as another rat-masked witch approached them.
“Number 47 and 63?” asked the small, frail witch who might have been a child if not for the streaks of gray in her hair.
“Yes?” Isleen replied, tossing her towel on the bench before them.
“What?” The pureblood’s expression quickly darkened with a scowl. “I think you’re mistaken. We just finished our match.”
“And you’ve been selected for the next round.”
“No, that—doesn’t make sense. There should be plenty of other contestants waiting for their turn.”
“The draws are random—”
“And our numbers shouldn’t have been added to the pool again until all the other teams finish their match!” Isleen thundered, her words hissing with anger and magic that quickly made the arena staff member step back. “I know how the system works. What the hell is going on?”
“I do not make the rules, contestant,” the rat-masked witch responded with only a hint of displeasure. “Your opponents are waiting for you in the arena. If you wish to forfeit the match—”
“No!” The pureblood quickly picked up her halberd, which ignited in orange flames the moment her fingers brushed against it, scorching the wall upon which it leaned. “But I will be filing a report against Duke Zenon for this obvious breach of the rules.”
“It is within your right to lodge a formal complaint with the Tri-Tournament office of Rules and Enforcement—”
“Let’s go, Tristan,” Isleen spat with one last withering glare at the arena staff member. “It would appear that Duke Zenon has decided it is in his best interest to pick a fight with my father and the Burning Hawks.”
The bastard prince quickly wiped his hands on the towel before tossing it toward the bench as he jogged after her. “Shall I take the lead then?”
His teacher looked frustrated and more than a little displeased as she reluctantly nodded in agreement. “If you run out of red flames—don’t hesitate to draw on Kritanta’s power. The only reason they’re playing this game is because they hope to put us at a disadvantage by forcing us to burn through our magic.”
“And Kritanta’s magic is limitless?”
“Might as well use every advantage we have if they’re going to play dirty.”
“Sure,” Tristan replied with a hesitant shrug. “What could go wrong?”
Isleen’s plan carried them through the next six matches. Using a mix of red and black flames allowed Tristan to take on the brunt of the attacks while his teacher supported him from behind only when necessary.
The bastard prince wasn’t sure if the crowd of onlookers had caught on to the unfair treatment they were receiving, but the legions of witches seemed to be cheering louder with each hard-fought victory. Tristan panted as he locked arms with his equally tired partner and smiled ruefully as the pureblood offered him a silent but approving nod.
“I’m just about out,” he wheezed as she leaned against him for their return trip to the tunnels. “Why does it feel like we’re single-handedly eliminating all the other contestants by ourselves?”
Isleen laughed weakly before glaring at the rat-masked witches waiting to greet them with a fresh set of towels. “I don’t know. But if I don’t get some Tears of the Sun to refresh and recharge soon—you might have to carry me out of the next fight.”
“That seems to be their intent. They’ve been focusing their attacks on you for the past three rounds.”
“Because if I collapse, you’ll be disqualified with me,” she murmured with a sneer. “Bastards!”
‘So that’s what they’re after.’ Tristan clenched his jaw as the much smaller room of contestants appeared before them, many of whom they had recently eliminated. Surprisingly, the remaining members of the Burning Hawks didn’t seem resentful of this fact as they made way for the tired pair to reclaim their bench.
“Here,” a female witch with her braided red hair pulled up into a high ponytail approached the bastard prince as Isleen collapsed to lay across the bench. “It looks like your partner could use this more than me.”
“Oh?” Tristan quickly accepted the flask. “Thank you?”
“I hope you win,” the pureblood murmured, batting her lashes shyly as she avoided his gaze. “It would certainly put those fake dragons in their place.”
“Ahh, yes, we’ll—certainly do our best,” he murmured as she bolted away to link arms with her male partner before the two of them moved on to the tunnel’s exit. “I guess this is yours?”
Isleen eyed the flask warily, then accepted it and removed the cap. The bastard prince blinked in surprise as she sniffed the opening three times before taking a cautious sip.
“Are you worried about being poisoned by our own teammates?”
The pureblood shrugged and then took a longer drink which she swished around in her mouth before swallowing. “I don’t know her. She might be a recent addition to the coven, but—it wouldn’t be the first time someone tried to take out the competition with underhanded methods.”
“Okay, but—aren’t we immune to poison?”
“When you’re as low on magic as I am,” Isleen retorted with a wry smile. “You’re little better than a weakling coven witch. That said—” she tilted her head towards the flask before taking an even longer drink, “—this seems fine. I’ll be back to full strength in no time if they let us—”
“Number 47 and 63!” The rat-masked witch called out again.
The stream of curses that left Isleen’s mouth as they both stood up turned the heads of nearly every witch and arena staff member within hearing. Thankfully, the pureblood quickly occupied her temperamental tongue, finishing off the last of her magic-reenergizing liquor before tossing the empty flask onto the arena’s red sand as they reached the tunnel gate.
She laughed cynically as Tristan silently drew his swords and moved in front of her to face their waiting opponents, Makhi and the scythe witch.