David, what is this?
It's the third and final piece of an unedited, unbeta-tested excerpt. Go read this if you haven't, ya plebe.
You're reading Part 3 of the excerpt.
Pinprae the thief is running behind Irdessa the Undying. What fuels his feet is a true mystery, as if he’s not bordering on pissing himself. As if this path will end anywhere besides orcane guts. They’re running in a line to crash head on into what appears to be not a wounded, retired orcane, but one at the peak of its vitality and mad as all hell. It bears down like a massive wolf, but stumpier and as high as Pinprae’s head at its shoulder. They’re supposed to be more suited for swimming than running. In this moment, Pinprae cannot believe that’s true.
Pinprae throws a panicked glance backward to see the armored deserter some ways behind him. Farther back still Torvald the Tactician runs west toward the cliff with his strikers. The other team hasn’t moved. The bald soldier is shaking the tattooed man by the neck, perhaps trying to jiggle some use out of him. Both northern orcanes—neither of which look at all injured—are en route to converge on them. Those “runners” might as well be rabbits in a snare. Did Torvald predict this? The jeweler woman seems to be considering abandoning her team.
Ahead, Pinprae can see the beady, black marbles that are the orcane’s eyes. Its claws are kicking up gravel and dust twenty feet in the air. What did Torvald say? Attack the white part. That’ll be a feat, considering its fur is black across its entire back, and outside its legs and the top half of its head. The only white Pinprae can see is its belly, maybe its throat.
“I thought we were just supposed to distract it!” Pinprae cries.
Impact will occur in moments.
“Shut up, Prancer!” yells the deserter.
Irdessa points with her javelin and banks to the left abruptly, back toward the Holder’s wall, her feet impossibly agile. Pinprae follows, nearly turning his ankle in the process. It takes all his fortitude to run behind her, to match her pace rather than outrun her, although he’s tempted to make a break for the Last Hall and attack the gate with his knife. His thoughts are a steady, jumbled stream of swears, mostly at himself for ever wishing he could witness the Undying and the Tactician at work.
A bloody shriek from behind. The stands erupt in cheers. The deserter?! Pinprae’s bowels go liquid.
“Keep running!” Irdessa yells. “Don’t look back!”
She’s making a tight arc to the right and Pinprae is holding his place behind her. He’s unable to keep himself from looking.
The orcane rolls to a stop on its back, gripping the bald deserter’s head in its mouth, forelegs wrapped around his shoulders. The man’s free hand claws at the beast’s massive paws to no effect. His puckered lips are protruding from between the animal’s clenched teeth. The orcane’s hindlegs rise up and kick once, raking the man’s stomach like a brutally effective mousing cat. The bald man has become a flailing sack. The hindlegs kick again. This time his body erupts. Red viscera bursts forth, gleaming in the golden sun, arcing high and spattering in piles over the ground. Pinprae’s feet stop responding.
The two other orcanes are fighting over the woman jeweler, tugging her in opposing directions. She comes apart in a crimson explosion. The orcane that won her legs throws away the limbs and trots panting toward the soldier, who left the tattooed man to his whimpering fate and stands there shooing the orcane with his spear.
It’s Irdessa, and she’s at full sprint, closing on the orcane that’s gnawing on the bald man’s emptied torso. Pinprae watches her launch a javelin. It flies too fast for him to follow, but the orcane spasms, its spine arching in a crescent. It gives a piercing bark, disentangles itself from the remains of the bald man, and flounders onto its feet. Its shark eyes fall on Pinprae. The orcane rears its head, giving a whistling howl that ends in a harpy’s shriek. Doesn’t that mean… it has found a target? All heat flees Pinprae’s body in a single instant. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.
He was supposed to be doing something, but what? His dagger feels like little more than a sewing needle. He’s considering running it across his own throat when the orcane charges, running hobbled, its white lower jaw soaked entirely in the blood of a chunk that was a functional human until just moments ago.
Pinprae doesn’t see her but her words hit him like lightning. He flees on feet powered by naked dread. The orcane’s stride is compromised, thank the gods. Enough for him to stand a chance? He runs toward the southern wall, away from the northernmost skirmishes. There’s no telling where Irdessa is.
Over his right shoulder, distantly, Torvald’s team is in action. The woman with the bow is kneeling, firing arrow after arrow into an orcane that is bearing down on her. The large black-bearded fellow is pacing, yelling, axe held high, inviting the beasts to a one-on-one. The other orcane rears, slinging a dark-skinned body into the air. A flash of silver. One of its paws flies off. There’s Torvald, his long sword gripped in both hands.
The orcane on Pinprae’s heels is gaining on him. He can hear its strained whimper, like a starving hound chasing a cat. Pinprae looks back, against all common sense. The monster is within ten yards and closing. Its massive head remains level, despite its trampling feet. Its red teeth are bared, black eyes round. Pinprae’s toe hits something and he tumbles. He’s on the ground. It’s all over. His mother’s words come back to him, the ones she uttered after socking him in the eye.
“Thieving’s gonna get you killed, boy. You’re gonna end up in the belly of a monster in Keswal.”
Just as Pinprae throws up an arm in a pitiful farewell to his life, the orcane’s body flinches, rocked by an invisible impact. Its forelegs go limp and its nose plants into packed earth. Pinprae has the presence of mind to scramble backward. The beast goes end over end, crashing lifeless in a blast of dust, sliding to a stop with its cold, black snout against Pinprae’s ankle.
The roar of the crowd surges until it fills Pinprae’s head and all he can hear is,
“Get up!” Irdessa is inexplicably standing above him. “We’re not done.”
She jerks him to his feet and darts over to the fallen orcane. It takes only a moment for her to find a javelin. She yanks it and a line of blood chases the weapon from the wound.
“Can you run?”
“Can I… run?” His eyes are bound to the massive fallen orcane. He’s never seen a dead one. It’s said their dorsal fins are cut off at a young age, to make room for the leather saddle. Indeed, there’s a puckered, hairless line amid the short black fur on the thing’s back. Its gaping mouth and shark eyes are a mess of blood and sand.
His cheek is ringing. Irdessa is in his face. “We’re not done!”
She runs. Pinprae follows her numbly. What use could I possibly serve besides diversionary chew toy?
Ahead, the ground is littered with the fallen and their loose parts. The three-footed orcane is thrashing like a speared fish, trying to dislodge the axe embedded in its eye socket. The black-bearded man clings to the axe’s long handle, getting jostled around like a fisher who’s just netted the father of all marlins. It sounds like he’s laughing.
The last orcane drags itself growling toward the poacher, who is advancing to meet it. The beast’s fur is striped with blood from half a dozen arrows. A spear extends from its hip. The woman fires an arrow directly into its snout from no more than five feet away. The orcane sneezes tremendously, expelling a red cloud on her, and rolls to its side, giving a tremor then moving no more.
The stadium explodes in applause.
Irdessa has slowed her pace and is walking toward arena center where Torvald runs a surprisingly clean cloth down his sword’s blade. The poaching archer shoulders her bow and joins him, her face dripping red. Blackbeard is trying to pry his axe out of the orcane’s skull, swearing at full blast.
Pinprae hesitates, several yards away. Those are warriors. The likes of which he’s never seen. He is not worthy of standing among them, or even being alive for that matter. Hell, he almost shat his pants. Irdessa looks back at him and gestures him to join her.
You did well, she mouths, as he comes to a dazed stop beside her.
I did? He takes in the crowd in a slow circle. They’re bouncing on their feet, cheering and yelling, commoners and the rich alike. All manner of valuables, trinkets, and detritus shower from the seats, scattering over the earth. The sun has sunk low enough on the western horizon to cast eerily elongated shadows over the floor of Keswal. The shadow extending off the heap that is the jeweler’s legs stretches all the way to the Holder’s wall.
Pinprae is now a proven, no longer a wet. It’s less exciting a feeling than he expected. The sound of the crowd is dying slowly, or he’s going deaf. He gazes over the scattered dead. Ten went in to the fight. Five remain. He tries to remember the faces of the deceased. All that’s coming back is the deserter from his own team. How did I outlive him? Pinprae finds himself eyeing the convicts in the seating on Keswal’s southern side. Of all the audience, they’re the most somber. A so-called perk of being arrested and sold to Fohrvylda is that you watch fights for free, in cushier seating than the rabble. Seems the luxury of that benefit is lost on this crowd. Those who meet his eye offer little more than a nod, if anything. Maybe Pinprae’s survival is heartening for them. Then again, they’ve surely seen far more deserving than him fall in Keswal. Probably even friends of theirs, or family. What the hell gave him the right to survive? Pinprae looks at his feet, which waver in the sheen of tears. Godsdammit, Pinprae, not now.
“Behold!” A booming voice comes from the northern seats startles the tears away. It’s the infamous Bloody Portent, yelling into his blossom-shaped loudphones. “Torvald the Tactician and Irdessa the Undying!”
A surge in the applause.
“Among the triumphant are Pinprae the thief!”
Pinprae’s heart thuds. He holds a single hand in the air. Perhaps the crowd acknowledges it. He can’t tell.
“Jasmin, a poacher of His Might’s own boars!”
The poacher watches the crowd with the same bitter annoyance she’s worn since the Last Room, only now it’s painted red.
“And finally, Kraus the Thirsty Raper!”
The cheers are interspersed with a heaping of angry boos. The bearded fellow, who managed to pry loose his axe, turns and scowls off toward the Faithless Sea. Rotten vegetables hurtle from the northern stands and burst on the arena floor. None are close enough to hit him, but chances are their intended message is delivered even so. His grip on the axe, the nearly imperceptible shudder of his shoulders, tell Pinprae he’d use his weapon on every member of the crowd one by one if he had the chance.
“Meanwhile,” the voice continues, “joining the glorious dead: a deserter of the domestic patrol, a cultist from the southern bluffs, a counterfeit jeweler, a poisoning butcher, and a soldier turned berserk. Rejoice! They have paid their debt to Fohrvylda!”
The cheers are less enthusiastic, and rightfully so. They all saw it happen, this reminder serves little purpose. The crowds are filing from their seats.
“Time to move,” Irdessa says, turning and making for the archway of Last Hall. Jasmin the poacher follows her immediately. Kraus limps after them.
Torvald faces the northern wall, waves, and bows low. “Let’s go, Prancer,” he says.
Pinprae follows him, considering the appeal of the name Prancer over his own. The Holder has taken on an amber sheen in the sun’s final rays. The crystal hanging from its fingertips shines fiercely.
When they arrive at the entrance. Irdessa raps the placard again with her only remaining javelin. The poacher taps her bow against it.
“Um, what’s inscribed there?” Pinprae asks.
“Shut up ya fucking wet,” Kraus calls back, slapping the flat of his axe against it.
“I’m not a wet anymore,” Pinprae mutters.
“It means don’t feed the birds,” Torvald says. He gives it a tap with his sheath.
Pinprae’s lost his dagger and now, at the day’s end, he’s not sure he’s able to jump high enough to hit it. He jumps and swings at it. Misses. “Wouldn’t we rather be feeding birds?” He jumps again. Misses again.
Kraus chuckles. “Still a fucking wet.”
Torvald has reached the Last Door and turns to watch. “Might want to get a move on.”
There are several distant thumps, the same as when the Orcanes were released.
Pinprae jumps once more, this time just grazing the wooden plank with the tip of his finger.
“I got it!” he says.
There comes a flurry of feathers and shrill clucks and squawks from the arena behind him.
“Get in here you dumb wet!” Kraus calls.
The sun is aimed squarely at the hallway opening now, so that the shapes pouring out into the arena are only silhouettes. Pinprae can tell they’re two-legged, taller than a man, and approaching quickly. He runs down the hall and scrambles under the gate. As it lowers he hears the skittering of nails down the hallway. The gate comes to a close with a muffled boom.
“What the hell were those?” Pinprae asks.
“You ain’t ever seen dreadhops?” Kraus is chuckling, prying off his leather plate and releasing a uniquely abhorrent odor. “Must be a city wet.”
“Those are the birds,” Torvald says, “and today, you didn’t feed them.”
(thanks for readin'. I'd appreciate whatever feedback you have for me.)