Shadow and Ice (Gods of War)(2)

By: Gena Showalter

You check in, and help others check out.

Acid coated the inside of his chest, scalding him, but not by word or deed did he reveal his discomfort. With combatants, perception was vital. Reveal a weakness, become the day’s target.

An assembly lasted an hour, occurred once a month, and helped hurry the war along. Attendance was mandatory, forcing every participant in the Terran All War to visit this icy tundra, even the cowards and hiders.

Stroll in one second late, and you would be disqualified. A fate worse than death. You were hunted by an Enforcer who had the means to track you and disable any special abilities—your own, and those of your weapon. All because of a mystical tattoo.

Before the war, every combatant was permanently marked. The ink permitted the Enforcer to link with you anywhere, anytime. Supposedly this allowed the High Council to facilitate a fair war. Knox had his doubts, and suspected the ink did so much more. Considering he bore the mark on his left shoulder—a tree inside a circle—there was nothing he could do about it. He was as vulnerable as everyone else.

Removing the tattoo wouldn’t help. The ink got in your blood. Running from the Enforcer wouldn’t help, either. When he caught you—and he always caught you—he would chop off your limbs, and nail what remained of your body to a wall of ice that was within sight of the assembly. While you were still alive.

You were to serve as a cautionary tale.

If your limbs regenerated, the Enforcer removed them again. However many times were necessary. You were executed only after a winner was declared.

Sometimes combatants set traps before an assembly to encourage others’ tardiness without actually breaking the rules. The very reason Knox had yet to move from this spot high on a cliff, hidden by boulders and trees. Last month, Zion of Tavery managed to trap him in an ice pit; by some miracle Knox had climbed out and crossed the threshold with eight seconds to spare.

Most of his opponents congregated in a clearing below him, imprisoned by walls of energy. However, the warriors themselves remained visible. They were loaded down with weapons, and trash-talking.

“Hope you enjoyed your last day on Terra.”

“Your severed head will look amazing on my mantel. Note to self. Get a mantel.”

“I need a new workout song—your screams should do the trick.”

The Terran All War had kicked off five months ago, and hostilities had blazed hotter every day since. The combatants had only one thing in common—their hatred for Knox, Zion and Bane of Adwaeweth.

Understandable. Knox was ruthless beyond compare, a four-time champion who’d already eliminated three men. Both Zion and Bane had taken out three, as well. A handful of others had made a single kill.

How many warriors will attack me when the assembly ends?

Last month, he’d had to fend off twelve at once, nearly losing an arm in the process. He dreaded assembly day...and greatly anticipated it.

For one hour, the Enforcer would telepathically communicate with the High Council, letting them know who lived and who had died, and bloodshed would be prohibited. Powers and weapons with any kind of supernatural capability were deactivated. Knox wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder, expecting an ambush. He could scheme, even nap, or silently rage about High Council members who were luxuriating in opulent homes while honorable men and women were forced to commit terrible acts in order to win new territories for a king or queen just as despicable as the High Council members.

Hate the High Council. They governed those kings and queens, while supposedly remaining unbiased about each All War’s outcome. Knox suspected they’d cheated a time or twenty, but voicing such an accusation would get him killed sooner rather than later. He’d seen it happen time and time again, good soldiers taken out under mysterious conditions after daring to speak the truth.

A worry for another day. Survive now, thrive later.

When the assembly ended, the ban on fighting would lift. Between one blink and the next, everyone’s powers would reactivate, and warriors would spring into action. There would be casualties.

Eight minutes, twenty-eight seconds until check-in.

Knox scanned the battlefield, not yet catching sight of his prey. He rolled his head left, right, popping bones and stretching his muscles, preparing. I won’t hesitate. I’ll do what’s needed, when needed.