♜♜♜♜♜♜

Interlude XVII: The Scorpion’s Shadow

 

“They seem to be holding up well,” Empress Alexandra observed cooly as her long black nails clicked rhythmically against the volcanic black arm of her chair. “Don’t they—” she paused to glance over her shoulder at the silent but clearly displeased Duke Zenon, “—Imperatoris?”

Emperor Arius smirked as he tapped a golden scorpion ring against his empty wine glass. Lady Saaru Zenon quickly stepped forward to refill his cup while the Witch Emperor continued to watch his son battle between life and death. Arius grimaced as Tristan caught the edge of Jett’s scythe against the back of his armor while protecting Lady Isleen Tyrell from the two overly ambitious sons of the Burning Viper Coven. “I thought enchantments weren’t allowed inside the arena, Duke Zenaku.”

“Imperatoris?” Duke Zeke Zenaku frowned in confusion as he peered between the Emperor and Empress’s seats to watch the battle. “I’m afraid I don’t follow. Are you suggesting that my sons are breaking the rules?”

“I wonder,” Arius replied with the ghost of a smile before taking a drink. “I couldn’t help but notice in the previous fights that my son has taken on nine challengers while your sons have only set foot in the arena five times, and two of those matches ended prematurely when their opponents forfeited.”

“Surely, for the son of the Emperor, such a slight imbalance should be easy enough to overcome,” Alexandra murmured cynically as she gestured for Lady Saaru to fill her glass as well. “Lady Isleen, on the other hand—well, she has never gone past the third match before. Perhaps she is holding him back?”

Arius narrowed his golden ember eyes as Isleen swung wildly toward Makhi’s momentarily exposed side, only to miss what should have been an easy advantageous strike. “Lady Isleen does appear to be struggling more than before—noticeably so.”

“Don’t let it bother you too much, Father. It’s the last match, and Isleen doesn’t have the stomach to challenge me.”

The Emperor turned with a scowl to where Aurelia finally made her entrance, dressed in her usual black and gold armor with twin scorpion pauldrons. The Princess’s deadly whip and piked battle axe clinked against the scales of witch steel at her waist as she sat in the empty seat beside the Empress.

“Goodness, are they still at it?”

“You should be down in the pit getting ready,” Alexandra admonished without so much as glancing in her daughter’s direction. “You must be sure to crush whoever stands against you.”

“Yes, dear Cousin, you’ll actually have to fight this year since Farrell isn’t competing,” Saaru commented with an icy glare at Aurelia’s back. “I’m sure the princess will put on a magnificent display no matter who her challenger is.”

“Not to worry, Cousin,” Aurelia retorted with a cynical smirk. “I’ll be sure to re-establish the pride of both our families after your sorry defeat in the first match.”

“I—didn’t know who he was!” Saaru blurted out quickly with a hesitant look at her father. “Anyway, you know I don’t enjoy these matches.”

“Leave her be, Princess,” Duke Titus Zenon muttered absently as he continued to monitor the fight below. “Saaru, you had better head back to our viewing box and keep an on the twins for me until the tournament is over.”

“But—” Saaru glanced from the Duke to the Empress, neither of whom spared a glance in her direction, and turned away with a pout, passing the wine pitcher off to one of the shadow guards as she exited the royal family’s private booth.

❆❆❆❆❆

Aurelia’s smirk quickly faded after the distraction of her spiteful cousin’s misery left her to focus on Tristan’s match. It was expected that some team members would be worn down this late in the second round with restricted access to Tears of the Sun or any magically regenerative means, but the obnoxious bastard appeared to be outperforming all three of the purebloods in the arena with him.

‘What the hell? Uncle Zenon was supposed to eliminate them if I had to enter the arena. Why the hell is Isleen the only one lagging behind?’

Her sister-in-law stumbled into Mekhi’s obvious feint, tripping over the pureblood’s morning star in an embarrassing tumble that left her sprawled out in the red sand. Tristan hastily moved to Isleen’s defense, managing to lacerate Makhi’s right arm as the pureblood aimed his three-balled fail at his teacher’s exposed back.

“Is it me—or does it seem like Isleen can’t see properly,” Arius growled. The heavy disapproval in her father’s voice sent a tremor of fear through Aurelia’s gut as she glanced nervously toward her uncle.

“She must be tired,” Alexandra replied dismissively. “Not to worry, Isleen has enough experience and common sense to know when to surrender.”

“Surrender?” the Emperor retorted scornfully. “Is that what you’re hoping for? An easy disqualification so your daughter can face one of Duke Zenaku’s boys, who will likely throw the match to win her favor?”

The Princess dug her metal-tipped gloves into the volcanic rock of her chair as the embarrassment of sitting through yet another of her parent’s public arguments washed over her.

“I think you mean ‘our daughter,’” Alexandra corrected coldly before turning a level glare on her husband. “And you certainly never had a problem with that when it was Farrell throwing his fights to honor the princess.”

‘The fuck are you saying, mother?’

“Perhaps because I hoped to foster a relationship between the Princess and Prince Consort built on a healthy foundation of respect,” Arius shot back with an emotionless glare. “Unlike our own toxic union built on lies and deceit.”

The Empress stared at him momentarily in silence before bursting into laughter as she rose from her chair. “Deceit? Says the man whose bastard son now dares to challenge our legitimate daughter for everything you promised her?”

“Promised to Aurelia—or my firstborn?” The Emperor retorted with an undercurrent of malice that surprised even Alexandra. “In either case, you and your brother will do what you always do regardless of my decision.”

The Princess held her breath as Arius broke eye contact first and resumed watching the match below while her mother, the Empress, twisted the golden chain necklaces that hung around her graceful neck, her golden lips pressed into a thin, trembling line of fury.

“Ah! There!” Duke Zenaku cried out, slapping his hands together gleefully as he rose from his seat.

Aurelia’s gaze quickly returned to the arena where Isleen lay sprawled on the red sands of the arena once more, a hand pressed to her cheek as her helmet rolled to a stop a mere two yards away.

“He’s got her!” Zenaku declared, pumping his fist triumphantly before Alexandra’s pointed cough reminded him of his surroundings. “Ahh, I mean—ahem—I suppose that settles the match.”

❆❆❆❆❆

Tristan moved swiftly between his wounded teacher and the two purebloods who closed in on her like hyenas.

“She’s out. This match is finished,” the pureblood, who Isleen had identified as Jett Zenaku, declared as he swung his scythe into a defensive position while eyeing the bastard prince warily. “You fought well, but without your partner—”

“Who said I was finished?” Isleen snarled as the hand gripping her face burned with a fierce white flame, searing the cut that ran diagonally along her cheek closed. She fumbled around in the sand for her halberd, which she grabbed before rising unsteadily to her feet. Her coal-grey eyes clouded with rage and poison as she stumbled forward until she found her student’s back. “Don’t let me stop you.”

“Your vision?” Tristan hissed worriedly.

“Looks like I was careless, after all,” Isleen retorted with a trembling smile as the burn along her cheek caused her pain.

“Don’t be foolish, Isleen,” Makhi snorted, wincing as he struggled to pick up the fallen flail with his injured left arm. “If we keep fighting, you could end up crippled or dead, and I have no interest in leaving Duke Tyrell without an heir.”

“Not to worry, Brother, this fight is over,” Jett commented with a nod to where two Scorpion Guards were already heading in their direction. “The days of the Burning Hawk ruling the arena are over. Mark my words. The Tyrell family is finished.”

“Don’t let them win, Tristan,” Isleen hissed as her fingernails dug into the scales of his armor. “This battle is more than just a contest of skill and boastful bragging rights for the covens. This is your chance to show the purebloods of Ventrayna that Aurelia and the Empress’s coven is not the only choice for our future.”

“I don’t care about Ventrayna’s future—especially if that means putting you at risk,” Tristan hissed as he lowered his swords. “You said there was no honor or glory to dying in the arena.”

“That depends on what you’re fighting for,” she retorted swiftly. “If my death can grant my brother a fighting chance to live—then I die with honor.”

“Be rational, Tristan,” Jett interjected with evident exasperation as he shook his head. “The fall of one coven just means the rise of another. It’s hardly the end of the world. And you still need the support of two dukes if you want to claim the title of Crown Prince.”

“What?!” Makhi spat incredulously. “Why the fuck would we support him when Aurelia’s promised us—”

“Shut up, you fool!”

Isleen groaned as her burning left fist hovered dangerously close to her eyes.

“Don’t,” Tristan growled as he caught her wrist. “You could damage your sight permanently.”

“Please,” she hissed through gritted teeth. “I know you don’t want to use the power that’s been given to you for something like this. But this is the only chance I have to save my brother without condemning my coven in the process.”

“Even if you were to “hypothetically” beat Aurelia,” Jett interjected again. “The Emperor won’t just stand by and let you kill her.”

“You said that only the powerful are allowed to rule,” Tristan murmured as he glanced toward the approaching Scorpion Guards. “So what would happen, “hypothetically,” if someone came along who was stronger than the Emperor?”

“Stronger than the Emperor?” Makhi snorted, half choking with laughter as he gripped his injured arm. “Gods—you must be either mad or just fucking stupid.”

“Hypothetically,” Jett replied with measured words, “Such a person would have to kill the Emperor or make him surrender his crown.”

“Neither of which is fucking likely to happen—even if you are his son.”

“Is that true, Isleen?” Tristan pressed.

“That is the way of the desert,” she replied, her expression grim and a little frightened as if she had already surmised his intent. “Challenging the Emperor directly with your current skill level would be an enormous risk. Arius is not the fearsome war god he used to be, but he’s far from weak and inexperienced.”

“As if anyone could be stronger than a pureblood blessed by Kritanta herself!” Makhi spat out incredulously, stumbling slightly as the blood loss from the cut running down his left arm appeared to be catching up to him.

“Altius Ignis,” said the first Scorpion Guard to reach them respectfully. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Lady Isleen can continue this battle.” The masked witch promptly removed the brush from the satchel of wet clay, then flinched as the bastard prince’s sword cut through the flimsy handle before the clay-soaked brush head splattered onto the red sand below.

“The match isn’t over yet,” Tristan retorted calmly before gesturing to Makhi. “The other side is just as handicapped and incapable of continuing.”

Jett swiftly turned to his brother, who was a tad bit paler than he had been moments ago. “Get a grip, will you!”

“I’m fiiinnnee!” Makhi retorted, straightening with a sniff. “Anyway, it’s not like I can’t defend myself, unlike that blind bitch over there.”

“My blindness is temporary, unlike your repulsive face,” Isleen retorted through gritted teeth releasing her student’s armor as she straightened with her halberd at the ready.

“This—” the Scorpion Guard glanced from the decapitated bit of wood in his hand to his comrade who finally reached them, “—might require a more official decision.”

“No need for that,” Tristan replied with a shake of his head. “The match isn’t over yet, so all I need to do is ensure the injured brother falls first.”

“The fuck is he on about?” Makhi sputtered as his younger brother quickly stepped between them and swiveled his scythe into an offensive stance.

“That would not be a wise decision,” Jett growled. “The minute you go for my brother, you’ll be leaving Lady Isleen exposed. I may not wish to kill the heir to the Burning Hawk Coven, but I can and will cripple her if forced to.”

“Then you just have to decide which is more important,” Tristan countered with a cynical grin. “Starting a war with the Burning Hawks—or keeping your brother alive.”

“What?”

The dragon sleeping within the bastard prince growled approvingly as Tristan slowly opened the door. The rush of black flames scorched the red sand beneath the bastard prince’s feet, melting it into a pool of golden liquid that quickly hardened into volcanic sheets of rock, which splintered as Tristan threw down his swords.

Jett’s pale green eyes narrowed in on the prince’s swords with confusion before his attention snapped towards Tristan’s burning black hand that blurred directly towards him. He cut through the dark figure and winced as the bastard prince’s body dissolved into smoke. The pureblood and the Scorpion Guard both turned to where Tristan reappeared, holding Malki aloft by his throat, the black flames coursing over the bastard prince’s figure, engulfing the helpless pureblood’s armor. Malki screamed as he kicked and grabbed Tritan’s black hand with his good right arm.

“Let him go!” Jett roared, wincing as his limbs refused to budge beneath the Scorpion Prince’s dark gaze, which burned with the inferno of the goddess’s fire. “Kritanta’s flame!” he hissed. Understanding quickened the fear scratching at the back of his throat as he threw down his scythe. “We yield!”

The bastard prince smiled as he turned his gaze from the younger brother to Duke Zenaku’s oldest son, whose strangled gasps for air filled the silent arena. “And you—do you surrender?”

Makhi’s squirming legs stilled as he sputtered, then slowly lifted his right arm above his head with two fingers raised close together.

“Good,” Tristan murmured before casually throwing his prey into Jett’s surprised arms. His black eyes turned their focus onto the Scorpion Guards before slowly resuming their ember gold color. “I believe that means this is our victory.”

The two masked pureblood witches looked at each other in silence. Both Scorpion Guards bowed before him as the bastard prince walked through them toward his confused teacher. Isleen flinched and then blinked as Tristan lowered her halberd with a word of reassurance while the arena around them shook beneath the deafening approval of Skreigh’s legions of witches.

❆❆❆❆❆

Empress Alexandra’s grip on her golden necklaces tightened to the point that two of the shorter strands of precious metal snapped and fell into her lap. The pureblood monarch quickly sucked in a breath through her gold-painted lips and then exhaled as she fought to maintain her carefully neutral expression beneath her husband’s watchful gaze. The Emperor smirked before nodding almost approvingly in her direction. Then Arius rose to his feet, applauding as he walked to the edge of the balcony to join the tens of thousands of witches in the arena cheering for his bastard.

“Wait!” Aurelia protested incredulously as she paused mid-pour to focus on the scene in the arena below. “The bastard won? How does that make sense? Isleen was incapable of continuing!”

“Exactly!” Duke Zenaku protested as he clutched the balcony railing. “He must have used the Emperor’s name to intimidate those Scorpion Guards and then used—whatever hellish magic that was to cheat.”

“That hellish magic,” Arius cut in with a malicious grin as he turned his burning ember gaze toward the Duke. “Is Kritanta’s blessing.”

Alexandra felt her blood run cold as she recalled a not-so-distant memory of the days when Arius had fought with a similarly dark and malicious flame. ‘Then it’s true. Tristan is the son of the Phoenix and Scorpion.’ She released her golden chains, already warped from the heat of her anger, and turned her burning glare on her half-wit brother, who carefully avoided looking in her direction. ‘So, Kritanta got what she wanted after all, and now my daughter must pay the price?’

“I think I shall go congratulate my son on his victory,” the Emperor declared as he turned and moved to exit the viewing box. “You should probably come with me, Aurelia, seeing as you’ll be the one to face him next.”

“Husband!” Alexandra’s voice cracked faintly as she rose from her seat. “Be careful how much glory you give him. He is a scorpion raised by wolves—he may yet turn on you.”

“Spare me your venom, woman,” Arius countered coldly as he paused before the door, his shadow guard swarming around him. “If my son takes my crown from me, it will be because he earned it the desert way, not through underhanded tricks and deceptive methods you little dragons still cling to.” His intimidating gaze quickly turned on Aurelia, who lowered her copper eyes respectfully as she followed the Emperor out of the room.

Alexandra clenched her jaw and threw another glare at her useless brother before rising from her seat to leave. ‘As always, it’s up to me to ensure the future of this family and the descendants of the Dragon Coven.’

❆❆❆❆❆

The arena warped viciously around him as Tristan struggled to close the door. The devouring dragon was hungry and very unwilling.

“Why do you deny me? Power is what you need if you wish to rule my covens. We have barely scratched the surface of what you can accomplish with my blessing. Ventrayna, Lafeara, the whole world is ours for the taking.”

The bastard prince shook the tempting thoughts from his head and focused on his feet dragging through the sand as Isleen stumbled along beside him. Every step was an uphill battle as the arena walls swayed around them, fading in and out of the shadowy flames through which Kritanta watched him—waiting.

“I—think my vision might be returning,” Isleen muttered, her voice banishing the dragon’s whispers as he focused on her squinting face. “Is—someone walking toward us?”

Tristan’s gaze immediately snapped forward to where the Emperor and six of his shadow guards had appeared, headed straight for them. The bastard prince stiffened as his legs stumbled to a halt, his grip around his teacher’s waist tightening.

“Who is it?” Isleen growled, picking up on his change in demeanor. “Is it Aurelia?”

“No,” he whispered before moving steadily forward again. “It’s the Emperor.”

“But would he be the Emperor without me?” the dragon cackled. “Without the blood and sacrifice of your Mother’s coven?”

‘Leave me be. I do not need your power now.’

“You will require my power sooner than you think, my Consort.”

The bastard prince shivered as the red sands before him sharpened into focus. He quickly turned his attention to Isleen, who appeared to have forgotten how to breathe momentarily as she choked on the dry arena air.

“Greetings, Imperatoris,” Tristan called out for the both of them as he bowed his head toward the ruler of Ventrayna—his father.

‘What the hell does he want now?’

Tristan bit back the obvious question and forced a smile as Arius placed a hand on his son’s shoulder before pulling the startled bastard prince into a hug. The continuous deafening roar of the crowd died in an instant as hushed confusion quickly followed.

“You did well, my boy,” Arius murmured through the stillness as he clasped the back of Tristan’s head and kissed the pureblood’s cheek. “Don’t let the black flames lull you into a sense of security. Kritanta always takes more than she gives.”

The bastard prince staggered forward slightly as the Emperor released him and stepped away. Tristan quickly turned his attention to Isleen, who went from being rigid with shock to collapsing at her student’s feet.

“Witches of the Desert, Ventrayna, and Skreigh,” Arius boomed out as he opened his arms to the tens of thousands of witches around them. “Shall I introduce your champions to you?”

The Covens resounded in a unanimous affirmation before falling into perplexed silence once more.

“You know the daughter of Duke Liam Tyrell pretty well, Lady Isleen Tyrell, sister of the Arena’s long-standing champion, Farrell Tyrell,” Arius continued with a wave at the half-blind witch clinging onto her student’s shoulder. “Allow me to introduce her companion—my son, Tristan Karan Iairos!”

Tristan could only clench his teeth in frustration as silence stretched over the grand arena. For a moment, the only sound that could be heard was the wind flying through the distant banners of the scorpion before the crowd roared once more to their feet, chanting not his name nor his mothers, but “Iairos, Iairos, Iairos!” over—and over.

“Arius was never very good at sharing glory,” the dragon cackled maliciously as it absorbed the bastard prince’s silent rage. “But still, for a father to steal the limelight from his own son?”

Tristan shook the dark thoughts from his head once more as he continued through the line of shadow guards, who beat their fists to their chests in recognition as the Scorpion Prince walked on steadily towards the lower tunnels with a half-blind Isleen at his side, mumbling out what seemed to be an incoherent stream of curses.

 


Feed the Author your comments here!

%d bloggers like this: