Author Gladiatorial Challenge: Round 1, Brian Niemeier
Brian Niemeier is the Campbell Award nominated author of the Soul Cycle series, including the Dragon Award nominated Souldancer. He graciously agreed to enter this Author Gladiatorial Challenge to earn your vote for the Dragon Awards (hurry! tonight’s the last night to get your ballot). Below is his entry for round one. I hope you find it as entertaining as I did. Declan’s entry ran earlier this evening, with judging to come tomorrow.
The Barbed Devil charges with a mighty Infernal oath to bring this chaotic aberration to heel.
In the cool of the night, the devil’s heat shines as bright as day to Astlin’s fiery eyes. She’s not sure what to make of the onrushing foe until the image of a man’s face painted on a broken shield lying half-buried in the sand speaks to her with the voice of a derelict whose mind she consumed years ago.
“He doesn’t believe in your shoes.”
Hearing that the devil doubts her shoes’ existence deeply perturbs Astlin. It’s not as if they aren’t right there on her feet for everyone to see.
Wait. Are they?
She looks down at the toes of her black, sturdy boots. Yes. This guy must be crazy.
The Barbed Devil’s charge has carried him halfway across the arena. Sand sprays and bones crunch under his spiny feet.
He’s not wearing any shoes. Is that why he doesn’t believe in hers? Because he’s never worn them?
Astlin decides that the best way to prove her shoes’ existence is for the devil to try them on. She bends down to undo the complex series of buckles and fasteners that connect her boots to her armor.
No sooner are Astlin’s boots detached from her leggings than the Barbed Devil knocks her right out of them. The force of the impact surprises her, and she topples onto the sand under her shoe-doubting foe.
The devil furiously rakes Astlin with his razor-sharp claws. Most of the attacks fail to pierce her strong leather armor and stronger brass skin, but some of the barbs scratch her still human face, drawing molten brass blood.
Being infused with positive energy, the Worked liquid metal irritates the devil, making him rear back. Astlin uses the distraction to roll out from under him. In her hurry to stand, she slips and falls prone on the soft arena floor. She sees her boots lying nearby and crawls toward them.
The fingers of Astlin’s outstretched hand are about to brush against her boots when a glowing cage of pure energy surrounds her. The devil’s deep, mocking laughter cuts her as no blade can.
Anger stokes the Fire in Astlin’s soul. She lunges forward, and her transessed body’s resistance to Workings shatters the glowing cage. She seizes the boots, and the diabolical laughter stops.
The devil is on her back in an instant, pressing her face into the sand with inhuman strength. Enraged beyond words, its telepathic curses flood her mind.
This guy’s a telepath, too? Wow! This whole time Astlin thought she was the only one. Eager to show off her skill with the power they share, Astlin projects all of her thoughts and memories into the devil’s mind. He tries to resist for some reason, but it turns out that he’s not nearly as good at this as she is.
The devil doesn’t seem to like Astlin sharing her mind with him as much as she thought he would. He screams, throws himself off her, and keeps screaming while rolling around in the sand.
Astlin gleans from their telepathic bond that this guy comes from hell. She’s surprised and a little disappointed to learn that nothing he’s seen there is as bad as what happened to her.
Oh well. Serves him right for interrupting her.
What was she doing again?
Oh yeah. Shoes.
Astlin sits down on the devil’s back. He struggles but can’t do much more than writhe under the weight of what’s basically a living brass statue. She takes her boots in one hand.
You’re supposed to start with the dominant foot. Is this guy right-handed? Probably a safe bet. She grabs his right ankle. Sharp spines cover that, too, but her gloves are up to the job.
Her first attempt to put the shoe on the devil’s foot reveals a problem. Astlin’s feet are way smaller than this guy’s. She snaps off spines, and the devil howls. Still won’t fit. This is gonna take something more drastic.
Having his foot crushed down to half size drives all reason from the devil’s mind. His spear-like tail stabs out and impales Astlin through her right eye.
Astlin’s scream joins the devil’s in a nightmarish chorus. In a spasm of pain, she accidentally rips his foot from his ankle. Positively charged molten brass eats through the tip of his tail, leaving a cauterized stump behind.
In her agonized fury, Astlin jumps up. All of her weight comes crashing down on the devil’s head, squashing it like a melon. Black blood sizzles on her brass feet as she squishes grey matter between her toes. The stench of a burned corpse rises on the night air.
The devil’s barbs rattle like dry, bare brush in the wind; then go still.
Molten metal drips from Astlin’s eye socket onto the sand, where it cools into shiny amber drops. She steps off the devil’s dead body and lets its blood and brains burn off her feet before donning her boots again.
A single question haunts the souldancer: do her shoes really exist? Now she may never know.