6. Grand Demon’s Duel: Prelims.
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Steff sat in the stands, her cloak wrapped around herself, the cold air she was creating underneath it was helping with the scorching sun. Somewhat. The Emperor was going all out tough guy here. No climate dome, no sand shield, nothing. Whatever comfort most of these fools had expected to find here, they got none. She heard snippets of conversation, bemoaning that. From what she was hearing, this had never been the case. Interesting.

She was seated a quarter way up the stands, looking down at the milling mass of bodies in the gigantic area below. Over five hundred people were down there, men and women just legally adults. Commoners, minor nobles, rich young masters who hadn't been able to earn their place in the tournament itself. Hell, some weren't even human, other races she didn't recognize coming from outside the City-state to make a big name for themselves. She had gotten her own spot months ahead of time by joining expeditions with different officers and getting their approval. Which had been, honestly, not that hard.

She proved almost invaluable as an omni-range attack specialist. Given time, she could do almost anything, limited only by her Sol reserves and imagination. But, again, politics had reared its ugly head and she had been dismissed after a single tour with each captain.

Now, she watched as five hundred people prepared to whittle themselves down to fifty. There were healers standing at ready at the sidelines, and upon pain of death, killing was not permitted.

Factions had formed, alliances of strong and weak drifting together in groups, sects and gangs forming, people pulling apart into crowds. A confident, or scared few stood apart from the rest, some boldly facing the world, some slinking away to the sidelines.

The stone bench was pressing into her ass, and she damn well wished they would just get it on already. It had been an hour now. She had missed the Emperor's speech, but from the chatter she heard, it had been suitable magnificent and long winded, though he had taken a few long pauses to catch his breath. And switch Ho's, she thought with a smirk.

When she arrived, slaves had just finished filling the arena with sand, even though it would have been more efficient to do it days ahead of time. She had snagged a seat, and the people below had started filing in.

Now, the Emperor stood again.

She couldn't see him, as he was behind her to the left, but she heard him. A booming voice rolled over the crowd, quieting all conversations.

"We stand here today in celebration of strength. Given to us by the first Emperor, Han Tei Sol, Conquerer of the Heavens, Defender of the Gates, He who Ascended to the Heavenly realms. A master of cultivation, he reached the fortieth stage of Divine Enlightenment."

Here he switched to another language, one not understood by the people in the crowd, but to Steff's shock, perfectly clear to her. His booming voice rolled over the crowd, every word perfectly clear.

"Through weed and fucking bitches. He the biggest prick i have ever heard of, and that includes Trump. May he rot forever, wherever he disappeared to. I'm fucking your entire harem, you stupid old warmonger."

With that, he switched back to tongue of the Golden City and announced the start of the free for all. Steff sat, eyebrows raised and mildly shocked at what she had heard as below her, hundreds of bodies slammed together with a tremendous roar.

What. The. Fuck?

*****

Lida stood, her arms held out and flames billowing from them. Streams of fire shot forwards, striking the opposing globes of water hurled at her by an enemy mage. Her Breath of the Heavenly Dragon could not fail against such a paltry technique as the Divine Turtle's Bubbles. It could not.

Slowly, she strained, dipping into her Sol reserves and making her flame hotter, larger and fiercer. It thrashed now, a stray strand setting the scarf of a passing monk alight as he flew backwards past her. Hah, fool.

Then something smashed into her back and she fell, the world going dark.

*****

Rygelle roared, swinging his blunted glaive down and smashing it into the back of an unsuspecting fire user. With an audible crunch, the mage collapsed, her cry drowned out by the commotion around her.

Blood in his eyes and fury coursing through his veins he advanced, smashing aside any in his way as he plowed forward aiming for the colours of the Crumbling Mountain sect. He had been separated from his brethren, and hurried to return. Without him, they would fall to the superior might of the Dao Seeking Homies, a gathering of black-skinned devils, as much as it galled him to admit it.

He pressed forward, his glaive, though blunted, throwing people aside. He was invincible. Unstoppable. Irrefutable.

A woman stood in his path, pitiabley short and dressed in a billowing cloak. He swung down, roaring and intending to crush her, but catching only empty air. Where she had stood was now a burst of darkness, melting away from the humanlike form it had taken.

From his own shadow stepped the woman, and before he could react, smashed the short sword she held into his temple, dropping him to the floor and sending his weapon flying. He roared in pain, struggling to rise, then fell again as the woman's boot struck his jaw. Another swift kick sent him into the blackness.

*****

Jian Xiao stepped away from the lumbering giant's twitching form, melting away into the cold shadows as she snuck through the crowd, a watchful eye out. Fools like him got hammered down. Every time.

The rules had said nothing about defeating the most warriors, only about being one of the last few standing. And she was culling the competition. Better to strike them here than give them an actual chance. The shadows covered her as she snuck past two brawling groups, behind the back of a skinny, pointy eared elf, tripping him at a crucial moment. She moved away as his opponent set in battering the man down, eyes open. She was away from the gigantic fight in the center, weaving between smaller sects at the outside of the battlefield, slowly culling off any unsuspecting fighters. Slowly. Smartly, never greedy.

Ahead, she saw a man, Ice covering both blades as he hacked and slashed, a maniac grin on his face. His opponent had cuts across her body, desperately trying to fend off the man with her bare arms, her already worn robes in tatters

Like many others, he thought he had a way around the tournament's rules. He had brought a blunt weapon, then sharpened the edges with ice, intent of crippling his opponents. She would not stand for it. Such was cowardice, depravity. She fought smart, this man fought by bending the rules to satisfy his blood lust.

A spike of shadow, and a twist of her mind pinned him in place, while she stepped behind him and brought both her swords down in a two handed swing. He fell to the floor, bleeding from where the rough edges had broken skin, but not mortally wounded. Ignoring the other woman, she continued, looking for any more problematic warriors.

It had been a long day already, and she suspected it was only getting started.

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