Disclaimer: I do not own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, the larger DC comics universe that I am drawing from or any of the Mythology that I am about to mangle to suit my own twisted purposes. Frankly, if you recognize it, I don’t own it. This work may not be sold or used for profit in any way shape or form for that very reason. Please don’t sue me because I don’t have anything worth taking.
-== Chapter 3 – Champion's Challenge ==-
Diana rose well before the Sun on the day of the tournament and dressed quickly. As had become her routine since her talk with Athena, the Princess slipped from her room and moved directly to the Palace's Chapel. Within the room stood the five small altars that comprised the Royal family's sacred space, each altar dedicated to one of the five principal goddesses of the Amazons: Demeter, Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Hestia. Moving in silent reverence, the Princess made offerings of incense, wine and food at each of the altars. Along with each physical offering, she offered prayers asking that the goddess would guard and guide the future of Themyscira and bless the tournament.
Unlike many warriors, she did not ask the goddesses to bless her efforts or to grant her victory and glory in the coming challenges. Instead, she asked them to bless the most worthy of the challengers and to guide to victory the warrior who was best suited to fulfill the sacred duties that would be placed before them. It was the same prayer she offered every morning. She was one of very few Amazons, possibly the only one outside the High Priestesses of the Five, who had been told exactly how important the role of Champion would be. That knowledge led her to realize this tournament was far too critical to the future of Themyscira, and the world beyond, to allow selfish pride or a desire for glory to affect the outcome.
Unbeknownst to Diana, however, more eyes and ears than just those of the gods observed her morning ritual this day. Her sister Donna had also risen early that morn to offer prayers and sacrifices to the five goddesses in hopes of influencing the outcome of the tournament. Things had become strained in the Royal House after Diana had forced her mother to permit her entrance to the tournament. The move had hurt the Queen more deeply than anyone outside the family knew. And in the days since the confrontation, Donna had come to resent Diana, believing that her sister had hurt their mother amid some perverse quest for personal glory. As a result, she pushed her sister away, a move that hurt both of the once close girls badly. Hearing her sister's prayer, however, challenged her assumptions about Diana's motivations. If she didn't want to be the Champion, why was she so insistent on competing? Was she doing it merely to prove a point? Was she trying to hurt their mother?
"Donna!" Princess Diana exclaimed in surprise as she turned to leave the sacred space. "How long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough to hear your prayers," the younger Amazon spat in confused anger. "Why are you doing this Diana?" she demanded. "Why are you putting mother through this if you don't even want to win? Are you doing this just to hurt her?"
"No!" Diana protested quickly. "I hate that this is hurting her but it's something I have to do."
"Why?" Donna repeated, her anger undiminished by her sister's words, "What about this tournament is important enough to tear our family apart like this?"
Diana's jaw tightened in response to her sister's anger. Over the centuries the two of them had fallen into more than one brawl over quick tempers and pigheaded stubbornness, but she could not afford such a thing today. "It's... complicated," she asserted with a hard, neutral expression.
"Then un-complicate it!" Donna shot back loudly. "I'm neither stupid nor slow witted, sister dear. So. Explain. It. To. Me."
Diana sighed, letting her rising anger go. "Athena explained the reasons for the tournament to me. There are only a handful of warriors on the island who could win the tournament, but it is critical that the Champion beats every one of our best warriors in the tournament. Otherwise she will lack the confidence she needs to accomplish the tasks appointed to her. It has to be an honest victory too, so even if I know I won't be the one to win, I have to compete and give it my all." She stared into the shocked expression on her sister's face. "Athena said that the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance, Donna," she continued softly, "If it did not, I would not put this burden on mother."
As her sister's words sank in, Donna's anger melted away into a sad melancholy. "Athena told you that you could not win?" She asked, fearing the answer and the truth of the matter which seemed so obvious to her. Diana had long been oblivious to the fact that she was one of, if not the, best warrior and athlete on the entire island, a fact that stood testament to her humility and strength of character.
"Not directly," Diana admitted with a frown, "but I am one of the youngest and least experienced warriors on the island, surely there are dozens of women more capable and I am..."
A sad smile spread over Donna's face, "I fear you underestimate yourself, sister mine, but perhaps you are right. Go with the blessings of the gods, Diana, and I will make mother understand your reasons."
Diana smiled back at her sister, comforted by the sudden understanding she saw in her eyes. It eased her heart to know that she had been able to at least make peace with one half of her family before the tournament, she could only pray that her mother would reconcile with her when someone else won the tournament.
* * * * *
The sky over Themyscira was clear and bright as nearly 250 of the island's warriors gathered on the green grass of the tournament fields. As commanded by the traditions of the Amazon tribes, each of the participants wore the expected training armor and ceremonial mask. The armor was simple, but effective, comprised of breastplate, kilt, vambraces, greaves and helm all made of thick, hardened leather. Had they been dressed for actual combat, the leather armor would have been replaced by burnished steel, but the leather would provide adequate protection for such contests and trials as they would face in the tournament.
Diana moved self-consciously among her fellow Amazons as they waited for the Oracle, the High Priestess of Athena, to begin the tournament. The Oracle was an enigma among the people of Themyscira and the subject of no small amount of gossip-mongering on the island. Rumors and stories about her abounded, but little was widely known beyond the speculation. It was said that the Oracle was not an Amazon at all, that she had been born a seemingly mortal child to a priestess of the great Temple in Delphi. She was thought to be the child of one of the gods, and a demigoddess in her own right. The story even said that as a result of her heritage, she was allowed to live in Olympus for a score of years each century and that she had the power to see into a person's heart and know their thoughts.
The only things that Diana knew about her for certain, however, were that the Oracle was accorded a great respect and deference by the Queen and that she did indeed vanish from the Isle for a decade or two at a time whenever the mood struck her. More than that, only the Queen and her most trusted advisers knew. However, Diana suspected that many of the rumors held some grain of truth to them.
The Princess was shaken from her distracted musings as the Oracle seemed to appear from thin air before the great altar behind which the Flame of Truth burned brightly. The Flame had been one of Athena's greatest gifts to the nation of Themyscira, for in its presence no lie could be uttered. Even speaking a half truth or repeating something that you
believed to be true but was not, was impossible in the light of that magic fire. Almost instantly both the athletes and spectators fell into reverent silence, as the Oracle raised her hands in supplication to the gods. Her voice rang out clear and true as she spoke the words of an ancient invocation, one in a language older than the most ancient dialects of the Amazons' native Greek. In the wake of her words, the Flame of Truth flared and billowed, growing stronger and more intense, a sure sign that the gods had blessed them and were watching the proceedings.
Turning from the altar to face the assembled Amazons, the Oracle spoke the ritual words that would begin the competition, "Our efforts have been blessed and our gods are watching. You compete today not merely for personal honor or the glory of victory, but for the honor and glory of our entire nation. As the gods have commanded, we are compelled: only the greatest of our number may emerge victorious."
The words tore a roaring cheer from the throats of every Amazon who heard them. Within moments, before the cheering even fully subsided, the tournament proctors were moving among the competitors and tying different colored armbands around the biceps of each participant to divide them into groups. The format of the tournament was simple. Each group of competitors would compete within itself in five events: an archery contest, a foot race, unarmed combat, armed combat, and the javelin throw. In order to avoid elimination on the first day, you had to win at least one event. On the second and successive days, the remaining competitors would be regrouped into fewer and fewer groups and only the single competitor who won the most events in each group would continue on. The tournament would be complete when the field was reduced to a single group and therefore a single Amazon emerged victorious, no matter how long that might take.
The first day of the tournament was by far the longest, due to the sheer number of competitors. They were divided into 20 groups each of which had between ten and twelve competitors and it. Tradition forbade the women participating in the tournament from speaking to each other as another means of ensuring their identities remain secret, a fact which left the field eerily quiet as the groups moved about between events, waited impatiently for their turns to compete, or engaged in fierce efforts to avoid being eliminated.
Diana’s group was almost immediately paired off against one another in unarmed combat. It made sense, considering that it was one event that required neither equipment nor special preparations. The Princess was left to face off against an aggressive looking woman who wore a mask fashioned to resemble a cheetah in her first bout. The moment the match began, the woman's sprang at her with lightning speed, throwing an impressive volley of punches, kicks and attempted grabs that left Diana defending herself furiously. The assault forced Diana to give way under its ferocity, backing her toward the edge of the dueling circle. The rules of the contest were simple and brutal, a competitor won by either forcing their opponent out of the circle, making them yield, or rendering them unconscious.
Suddenly, Diana saw an opening in her foe’s offensive and acted. She brushed aside a kick and allowed the follow up punch to glance off her cheek, turning her face only slightly to avoid the full force of the blow. Snapping her arms out inside the Cheetah's defenses, she grabbed the woman's shoulders and fell backwards, dragging her opponent with her. Diana jerked her feet upward, planting them on the other woman's armored stomach and used her legs, along with the momentum of their fall, to hurl the other woman behind her.
Moving quickly, she kicked up onto her feet and whirled toward her opponent, who landed with a surprised thud just outside of the circle. Even as the Cheetah sprang back on her feet, the match’s Proctor stepped in and ended the bout, declaring Diana the victor. The loser shot both the Proctor and the winner disgusted looks before stalking away from the ring in anger, a response that greatly displeased the Princess. She quickly shook off the emotion and focused on the remaining bouts in her group's unarmed combat event. She won her second bout in a far more traditional manner, landing a blow that left her opponent too dazed to continue. As the second round drew to a close, three warriors in her group were left undefeated and they drew lots to determine who would fight first with the victor of that bout going on to face the remaining warrior.
To her abiding shock, Diana won the by, allowing her to watch the only bout of the third round before battling for the honor of winning the event and being guaranteed to continue in the tournament. Both of the remaining bouts were quick and brutal as all three competitors went all out in an effort to win. In the end, however, a seemingly lucky kick left Diana the victor.
The remaining events of the first day flew by in a terrible blur for Diana. She managed to surprise herself by emerging as the victor not only in unarmed combat, but also in the foot race. With each victory the Princess acquired, the warrior in the cheetah mask grew increasingly hostile toward her, a fact that Diana found to be more than a little troubling. It was not the Amazon way to begrudge a better warrior or a better athlete their victory. In the end, only three competitors from Diana's group avoided elimination on the first day as the Cheetah managed to best Diana with the javelin and another warrior took the archery event when Diana's bowstring broke, causing her to miss a shot.
* * * * *
The second and third days of the tournament proved to be both far shorter and considerably more surprising to Diana. On both days she won the first three events in her group, sealing her victory without need to compete in any further events each time. It was a feat unmatched by any other warrior in the contest save one: the woman in the cheetah mask. She alone seemed able to match the speed and ease with which Diana managed to win.
So it was that on the fourth and final day of the tournament, only eight warriors remained, including Diana and the Cheetah. As the final group of competitors stood on the tournament field, waiting for the games to begin one last time, the air was tense and volatile, drawn tight like a bow prepared to launch an arrow. It was in that stressful and anxious moment that the woman behind the cheetah mask did the unthinkable. She broke with tradition and spoke to Diana.
"Turn and leave the field now and you might escape with your dignity intact, Princess," she whispered hoarsely to Diana. "You cannot win this tournament. I will not
be beaten this time."
Angry outrage welled up inside of Diana at the words. Such gross disregard for the traditions of Themyscira appalled the Princess, even in a matter as trivial as this. It was the very principle of it that galled her, to think that someone with so very little concern for their nation's traditions might be chosen to represent them to the outside world.
When she merely fixed the offender with a cold, steely gaze, the woman smirked. "Ever the one to do the right thing, aren't you," she asked in a mocking whisper. "You lack the will required to win, the willingness to do whatever it takes. That is why I will be the Champion... not you."
It wasn't until that moment that Diana finally understood why Athena had wanted her to participate. The other warriors who remained in the tournament were strong, skillful and cunning but they could not match the Cheetah. Only Diana could hope to defeat the woman without resorting to treachery, which it seemed clear that the Cheetah was more than willing to do. The realization struck the Princess with the sharp force of a slap in the face and caused her eyes dart away from her rival and fix on her mother and sister. To anyone outside of the Royal family, Hippolyta's face would have seemed stony and impassive, but Diana could readily see the tormented mix of pain and pride, of fear and resignation in the Queen's eyes.
The magnitude of the sacrifice that Athena was asking of her threatened to overwhelm Diana. If she won the tournament, she would alienate her mother to a degree from which their relationship might never recover. She found herself trapped, caught between opposing and irreconcilable desires. No matter what she did, she could only lose; the only question was what would she lose? What did she do? She closed her eyes and considered her quandary.
It took only a moment before the Princess reached her decision. The answer came from the most unexpected of sources: her mother. As she recalled something that her mother had told her long ago, Diana knew what she had to do. "Daughter," the Queen had said, "the greatest thing a Queen can do is set aside her own desires for the good of her people. If you cannot learn to do that, then your people will suffer." The words had been part of one of her many lessons on statecraft and the responsibilities of royalty and their truth now was utterly undeniable. No matter how much it hurt her mother, no matter how terrible the price seemed she could not let Cheetah win the tournament and sully the honor of Themyscira. The decision filled her with a sense of righteous purpose that could not be denied, ignored or overcome. She would not lose.
* * * * *
The final day of the tournament bore witness to the most intense and downright brutal competition that the Amazon nation had ever seen. Each of the competitors approached every event as though it might be their last, clashing with a determination and will that could not easily be described. However, it paled in comparison to the ferocity of the battle between Diana and Cheetah.
Cheetah took an early lead in the contest by winning the foot race, edging Diana out by the barest of margins. It quickly became apparent that victory would not come without a fierce battle, however, as Diana promptly won the javelin throw by an equally small amount. The archery contest came next and proved that Cheetah was not yet finished as she took a second win for the day. Only combat remained at that point and the armed match went to Diana without directly pitting her against Cheetah at all. The Princess's victory eliminated the six remaining warriors, leaving only Diana and the Cheetah to settle the tournament in single, unarmed combat.
The poetic justice of the final confrontation was lost on no one. It was within the unarmed combat ring that the rivalry was born and it was within that same ring that one of them would become the Champion of Themyscira.
Both combatants entered the ring cautiously, eyeing their foe for any signs of weakness or distraction. Neither of them moved for several long moments, as the battle played out in their minds. It would be a close thing, they both knew, with a single misstep meaning the difference between victory and defeat. In the instant before the first blows came, the barest hint of a smile tugged at Diana's lips.
No one could say with absolute certainty after the match which of the warriors had moved first, merely that the dueling ring seemed to explode into a flurry of violence. They were fast, almost too fast for anyone to be able to follow all of the blows. What was absolutely certain, however, was that neither woman was holding anything back.
From Diana's perspective, the fight didn't feel at all unusual. The rapid exchange of punches, kicks, grabs, blocks and dodges proceeded almost identically to how she had envisioned it. It pleased her to no end to watch the other woman's face quickly contort with anger and frustration as neither of them could manage a solid contact on the other. So tight was her focus and so intense was her concentration that the Princess didn't seem to notice the sounds of shock and amazement that echoed through the onlookers.
It wasn't until Cheetah stepped back under the force of a particularly intense flurry of blows that something out of the ordinary caught Diana's eyes. A thin leather circlet had become visible around her foe's neck. A flash of understanding flitted across the Princess's mind as she pressed the attack. Amazon tradition forbade warriors from wearing any sort of jewelry, amulets, or charms into a tournament, forcing them to rely only on their own abilities and the blessings of their gods rather than any possible magic. Seeing the thin leather thong around her opponent’s neck and knowing her opponent’s willingness to do whatever it took to win could mean only one thing to Diana.
Stepping inside her enemy’s guard, Diana's hand flashed out, snagging the cord and ripping it, and whatever hung from it, away. The instant the thong snapped, Cheetah appeared to slow down, moving in what seemed like slow motion. Dropping the cord, which felt somehow foul in her hand, the Princess lashed out landing a brutal series of blows that sent her enemies sprawling to the ground. Diana stopped, settling into a defensive stance as she waited for her opponent to get back up. When she did not, Diana relaxed. The tournament was over. She had won.