He would have to fight something this afternoon. It was inevitable.
He only had two more fights to win before he was retired to the
breeding colony for humans. If he could survive two more fights
with whatever they found for him to battle, he was free forever.
He was not worried. He was the champion.
shot up after the opening bid. Whispery gravel voices shouted.
light flashed and the cage dissolved into nothingness. The bewildered
creature blinked in the odd light, and then cringed at the sight
of the dark figures. One approached the new slave and clapped it
in chains. The new arrival wasn't a human. Humans were more expensive
and traded only on the limited market. The Kelsh Cluster had uncovered
a variety of sentient and semi-sentient species. Among these, humans
were slightly higher on the evolutionary timeline than most. None
of them had mastered telekinesis or molecular manipulation, but
humans had shown promise in both areas. Had it not been for the
intervention of the Dark Ones, they might have taken to the stars
in significant number.
slave-fighter was the only one awake when they brought the new arrival
in. It was humanoid, small, nude, and rather helpless looking. It
had been caught on one of the furthest denominations no doubt, where
the local stars were older than those of the inner core. The tiny
furnaces in the sky made for worlds of hot, wet, darkness. The new
slave's skin was partially translucent, its glands quivering soundlessly
beneath the slug-like opacity of his flesh.
It did not
speak, but let out a short whimper when the Dark One behind it jabbed
forward viciously with an edge. The new slave, naked, but with no
obvious sexual orientation, flew forward sharply into the holding
pen with the human and all the others. The silent human fighter
in the corner watched through slit eyelids. All around the floor
of the holding area lay many of the other sentient competitors.
The non-sentients and particularly brutal killers were confined
to separate cells. The new slave shook with pain on the floor, and
curled into a grotesque reverse-fetal position.
slipped back to sleep.
the next cycle with something cold and soft lying by his side. It
was the new slave. He pulled back his cloth-booted shoe and drove
it into what looked like the creature's digestive tract. It buckled
bonelessly and let out a yelp. It was on its feet in an instant,
looking around wildly with huge eyes.
It said, gutturally, looking up at him with doleful sadness and
it down. It muttered "Gonk." again softly and rolled away toward
the front of the cage. Verner hated the new ones. He never bothered
talking to them anymore or even trying to be friendly to them. Whatever
pisshole little denomination they had come from had evidently not
put up much of a fight. There were tons of them. Fifty or sixty
had come through already just on this platform. They were probably
cheap throwaways. They seldom won matches, and were often the butt
of cruel tricks on the part of the Dark Ones.
never fought one in single combat. Generally they didn't last long
enough in team fighting to come under his edge. Humans were relatively
rare, and Verner prided himself on the fact that only very highbrow
entertainment was made of their death. Humans were too expensive
to slaughter wholesale. The Gonks, however, usually were dead within
only a few cycles. Not exactly the kind of creature to make friends
with. Besides, it wasn't as if he could even mate with them.
briefly of the intelligent and ferocious cat-warriors that were,
as far as he could tell, all female. They were sexually voracious,
especially right after a kill, and their anatomies permitted copulation.
Sometimes Verner had come loose with the blood of the recently-slain
matted to his flesh. As a little joke, and to commemorate his thirty-third
fight (the halfway point to retirement for the subjugated races),
the Dark Ones had pitted one of them, one of his partners, against
him. He had found it necessary to remove her brain on the arena
floor because the ravaged thorax and abdomen, though having lost
all four limbs and its tail, continued to attempt to snap at him
with elongated meat-eating teeth.
the Gonks. The only spectacles that the slaves were allowed to observe
were the occasional punishment/humiliation that the Dark Ones imposed
on the sentient races, and the arena killings. He found it hard
to call them "gladiatorial bouts" because in essence they were generally
little more than one slightly superior species trying to kill another
creature of a lesser species. The Dark Ones were inventive at times,
but to anyone who knew the fury of the killings, the match-ups were
seldom equal. Thankfully, short of fighting some of the non-sentient
beasts or killing machines, humans were generally at the top of
the food chain.
Gonk hadnít been there for as much as four cycles before its bracelet
chirped tonelessly. This was an indicator to prepare for combat.
Verner and the other sentients immediately left the new Gonk and
crowded along the transparent wall to see what it would be that
the Gonk would fight. His stomach turned.
It was a
Verner because it was a completely off-kilter match. This had the
reek of the Dark Ones and their bitter sense of humor. The Gonk
was led away, not fighting, oblivious to its impending fate, and
given a heavy cudgel with which to attempt to hit the squat, refuse-bucket
shaped killing machine. The fighting apparatus looked relatively
harmless and seamless, like a short, blunt, metallic bullet. No
visible appendages adorned it, but Verner knew of the horror within,
indeed had felt the wrath of one on occasion, and grimaced.
brain painted a vivid picture of what was likely to come, and reality
did not disappoint him. He turned away and began a series of fighting
motions to warm up his muscles. He would fight today as well, then.
This bloodbath was humor to whet the appetites of the crowd for
the real contest. He let his mind wander into the fighting paradigm
of immovability. It helped, a little. He rarely got nervous anymore.
entered the arena timidly, not understanding the purpose of the
crowd of darkly-robed observers. There was no cheering. The room
was chilly because they liked it chilly, and the Gonk's sharp anxious
breath hissed just an instant after the puff of steam appeared.
The fighting machine suddenly leapt to life and hovered silently,
inches over the floor. Around its left side appeared a halo of light
that shone like a blue placenta. Its right side emitted a sharp
angled slice of coherent blue light.
oblivious to its intent and curious, walked up to the malicious
machination. It then looked quizzically at the cudgel and extended
it at arm's length to the machine, as though offering a gift. It
smiled in a pitifully stupid fashion.
It said happily.
swiveled almost faster than the eye could see, and sliced off the
Gonks outstretched arm at the elbow. The ridiculous smile on the
Gonk's face faded slightly. It stared in disbelief. The machine
hacked and sliced the Gonk to pieces, starting with the lower half
to maximize the time it would scream and wail before it passed out.
The killing apparatus devoured him like the blade of a food-processing
machine digests a carrot.
which had until the last moment been completely silent, took their
feet and cheered wildly at the mangled skull of the hapless new
slave. The Gonk's remains were brought back to the holding area
in a plastic bag. Some of the non-sentients would make a satisfying
meal out of it later.
his face away when saw the Gonk walk right up to the killing machine.
He knew exactly what was happening, and though his eyes fought to
avoid seeing the horror, his ears painted a sufficiently vivid picture
as each hiss, grind, and scream penetrated the silence. He hated
the voices of the Dark Ones, but he wished sometimes that they were
more enthusiastic. The sounds of terror and destruction that they
revered so much would be drowned out. He heard several wet sounds
and saw the arena porters return with a maniacally small bag that
looked like it contained a thin soup.
light at his wrist indicated to Verner (as was custom) that he should
prepare for battle. He was next. His bracelet chirped. The crowd
cheered like thousands of shattering glass goblets. Verner selected
his weapon, a simple edge of the same type that was used by the
killing machines. It was a good weapon, light and fast. It had no
mass, but could slice easily through almost anything. He tried to
crane his neck and peer through the mesh to see what he was supposed
to fight. As always, the walls of the holding area opaqued, and
he was left in a room of whiteness with no doors or windows, awaiting
the light that would begin the match.
In the instant
before the battle was met, Verner played over the handful of 65th
matches that he had witnessed. They were often brutal, rarely fair,
and ended most predictably in the death of the veteran because he
or she was unprepared. Verner had planned well ahead. There was
no money to be had in this place, but he could and did garner favor
from other slaves by many means. He had been told by one of the
veteran fighters that his opponent today was likely to be a beast
that was brought on board recently. No one had ever seen its equal.
He steeled himself.
At the light,
he rolled to the left to avoid being cornered if the Dark Ones decided
that it was amusing to let his opponent into the arena first. No
preemptive blow came. It looked as though nothing was in the arena
with him. Then he saw it.
It was tall,
and looked female. Female humans rarely fought because they were
too valuable in breeding colonies and their birthing process killed
many of them offhand. Verner had only ever seen one other female
human in his life, and was transfixed by them. The one he had seen
before was short and soft-looking, and had short cropped hair. The
fighter before him had breasts like the female cat fighters and
distinct musculature. Long flowing hair came out from behind a strange
up, self-conscious. He had never fought a human before. Indeed,
he had never even heard of two fighting each other. For the price
of a human, a Dark One could easily buy two fighting beasts, a half
dozen killing machines, or an entire stable of Gonks or lesser meat.
This was going to be an expensive fight. He eyed the woman warrior,
she had not moved. He saluted with the lifeless hilt of his edge,
and the weapon glowed silently to life. The other fighter nodded
back, and both her hands flickered with the white glimmer of short
upon each other and closed the distance. She struck forward with
both hands in a double-pronged stab at his body. He saw the strike
a second earlier and dodged just far enough out of the way to whip
his edge around in a pinwheel strike at her legs. He was sure that
his blow would land, and immediately felt guilty about it, but the
strike felt oddly soft and resilient. She was in the air, clearing
the edge, and had landed and spun away before he realized that she
was still upright and uninjured. His astonishment gave way to suspicion.
had time to ponder this further, she crouched and advanced once
more. Instead of trying for the quick deathblow this time, he parried
her attacks with all the speed he could manage. He began to immediately
lose ground. The woman backed him off and attacked, backed him off
and attacked. Though he had a slight range advantage, she knew that
his strength and speed would finish her in a close fight. They circled.
In a protracted
fight, his single edge would not be able to defend him indefinitely
against her lightening-fast double attacks. The first thrust would
slow him down and the rest would be easy for her. He needed to get
this fight over with in a hurry. He feigned a misstep by actually
letting his cloth boots slip uncomfortably over the arena floor
and falling ingloriously in a heap. She took the bait. As she drove
forward, Verner swept the edge up through her midsection with blinding
speed. Somehow, she had seen this coming as well and had reversed
her grip on the edges. She stabbed downward viciously with both
tips pointed at his throat.
strange happened. The instant before the blows would have connected,
the air around them crackled weirdly. Verner's view of the woman
was oddly bent as though she was on the other side of a surface
of water. He could feel her weight upon him, and could feel the
changes in pressure as her powerful muscles tried to drive the twin
daggers into him. He twisted his own edge, trying to find a chink
in the armor that surrounded them. He had an instant of clarity
in the barrier when he thought he could see her eyes. Then, the
world exploded and all was dark.
of shadow surrounding his mind cleared for a moment as he was being
dragged by unseen hands from the arena. His body was numb, and he
was certain that he was dead. He tried looking around, and his eye
responded. His muscles jerked uncontrollably. He was sure it hurt,
but the pain as removed from him. He tried to see what was dragging
him, but before he could focus, something struck his head sharply
and he felt himself descending again into darkness. He thought for
a moment with indignity that humans should be treated better, even
to a strange and pleasant noise. He had heard other sentients and
even a few of the beasts singing before, but he had never heard
the same tone or timbre. Used to feigning sleep, he kept his breathing
level and tried not to stir or give away his alertness. He took
those stolen moments to take inventory of his body. He had not tried
to move or speak since the fight, so there was no way of knowing
how badly he had been injured. He suspected that he must have killed
the skillful warrior woman and a small voice in the back of his
head said a guilty apology to her soul.
not open his eyes, even though the sweet sound from above him was
maddeningly familiar and as far as he could tell, very near. He
felt no pain, and did not appear to be injured. He opened his eyes
just enough to make out a silhouette in the light above his face.
As soon as he did, the sound abruptly ceased.
The voice spoke firmly. It was human, and undeniably female. He
opened his mouth to reply, but when he lifted his head, a fist rammed
it painfully to the floor. He blacked out again.
time he woke, he stayed silent and kept his face unmoved. He heard
her movements almost immediately, and tracked them till he was sure
she moved away from him. He then sat up as quickly as possible and
crouched into a defensive position. To her credit, she looked at
him mildly as if he was not a threat at all. He relaxed, feeling
He said, as evenly as he could manage. Her brow furrowed in disgust.
Verner was impressed by the range of facial expression she could
muster. He had known very few humans in his life, and the ones he
knew were inevitably scarred and malformed. Vernerís master wasnít
a cheapskate, but still could not afford fine humans. Verner had
been won in a wager, and was until recently the ruler of the slave
roost on this platform.
I donít speak Hemiotaen, or whatever gibberish that is." Her eyes
looked back sharply. "My nameÖ."
I got it."
He was unaccustomed
to her bluntness. Generally, the fighters he held conversations
with were very slow and deliberate in their speech. After all, what
was there to do but talk during the hours and hours of down time
between fights? This one spoke quickly and befuddlingly. Before
he could say anything more, she rattled off another question.
why youíre not dead?"
of shield?" It was half a statement, half a question. "I didnít
even know it was there." He added, trying to be helpful. He was
unaccustomed to human company, but that didn't mean he had to be
we were too expensive to kill." She said. "At least I am." Apparently
she was not interested in courtesy.
have been my 65th kill, too. One more and Iím finished."
fight, he thought. No wonder.
is this, anyway?"
immediately satisfy this inquisitive and rude new arrival, he just
said nothing and settled back into his corner of the main holding
area. She glared at him a while, but her focus was broken eventually
by the other sentients in the cage around her, who were watchful
but non-conversational. Eventually, she sat and relaxed in very
much the same way he was. Verner wondered idly how long it would
take before they came to blows again. A cell with two champions
was unheard of. One of them would not survive to see the breeding
colony, the question was simply if the fight would happen in the
arena or right here.
lights in the main holding area dimmed to represent the natural
sleep and darkness cycles of the Dark Ones, Verner took the opportunity
to appraise the female fighter once more. His night vision was excellent,
and even from across the room he could make out her features clearly.
She was attired in the same short white robes that were given to
all humanoid competitors.
against the far corner of the room with her legs curled up beneath
her. What he could see of her physique was finely muscled, and with
very few scars. The mark of a lash curled up one of her bare legs
like a spiral staircase around an alabaster pillar. He thought briefly
of the stupidity of blemishing so flawless a human, but the throb
at the base of his skull reminded him of her obstinance. Perhaps
her conditioning for the arena had been a difficult one.
slept alongside each of the other fighters for the duration of their
stay, and was intimately familiar with their breathing patterns.
He could have described their positions in the room simply by the
depth and breadth of their respiration. The new fighter's breathing
threw a discordant note into his sensory map. She was not sleeping.
Her breath slid in and out through what Verner was sure were clenched
jaws. After a few awkward moments, he spoke to her in a tone that
would not wake the others.
the Dorian Loupe."
her eyes snapped open. He watched as she calmly let her pupils adjust
to the low light. They appeared to swallow her bright irises. Eventually,
they focused on him. He waited a polite amount of time before pressing
why you're here?"
any of us here?" She answered, sarcastically.
to get right to the point. Small talk was pointless in this situation.
She obviously was unused to the intricacies of barrack conversation.
He wondered idly where she might have come from that wouldn't have
indoctrinated her into the environment that he had always known
on the Platforms.
"I was considering
the possibility that you were here for me to kill in my final fight
before I get retired."
for you." She replied. "Did you forget that I would have killed
you today if not for the shields?"
Verner said immediately, tasting the lie immediately. She did not
respond. He got the impression that she was weeping silently. Not
understanding completely why, he tried to be more constructive.
know that they didn't want us to kill each other. Otherwise, why
would they bother with the shields? And they rarely put fighters
in the main area if they're going to be pitted against each other
he thought, when they're trying to be creative. He remembered
vividly the sound of the cat-female's skull as he bashed it against
the arena floor.
we're meant to fight together."
to have an effect on her. She stopped shaking and her breathing
have tag-team fights on this Platform?" She asked, her voice betraying
now only a hint of curiosity.
tag-team," he replied "They match you with another fighter and you
fight at the same time against another pair. It's a teamwork competition."
He tried to make it sound positive, but he distinctly remembered
the two times in the past when he had been forced to fight team
matches. He had, on both occasions, left the corpse of his partner
in the arena.
said. "I've never fought like that. Maybe we should practice sometime,
to get the feel. If it's the 66th fight for both of us,
they're going to throw something tough at us."
about this for a moment. It seemed rational, but somehow too simple.
you think I want to practice with you, or that I even need practice?"
in the soft light and relaxed against the cool smooth metal walls
and said nothing more. Troubled by the eerie feeling that she was
reading his thoughts, Verner slipped into an uneasy sleep.
the next cycle to the sound of the match bell. The combatant took
his place in the elevator and the others crowded along the viewing
wall. Verner did not see the female human among them. He was instantly
alert. His eyes swept the main holding area. She was crouching in
a corner by herself, doing strange exercises, seemingly oblivious
to the deathmatch going on below. Verner took quick stock of the
fighters at the wall. One of the newer ones was gone. He ignored
the fight as well, and joined the female.
shouted, as she shot a fist forward into the air, and spun her shoulders.
He back arched, bringing her other hand, mimicking a second weapon,
down on the same spot. She sat backward into almost a seated position
and stabbed upward with both hands. Using her momentum to rock back
even further, she pin-wheeled over a single outstretched arm while
the other slashed out in a vertical buzz-saw attack. The finale
of the sequence was a cross-body strike with both hands that would
have sliced even a sturdy opponent into thirds. She let her form
dissolve when she noticed him approaching.
some company?" He said.
saluted and took up her stance once again. Verner compacted his
upper body into the squared stance that his Warmaster had taught
him. They circled, taking a few measuring strikes at each other.
They locked, thrashing each other.
"Eza!" at him repeatedly. Eventually, he realized that she was using
it as a warning for when she was about to execute a particularly
brutal or complicated move. When they fell apart, Verner's head
was ringing and the female was nursing a cut on her shoulder. He
looked at her, as if expecting a second attack. Instead, she just
smiled and sat down. She was breathing heavily. He was not.
He was momentarily
furious, but she smiled at him sweetly as if the insult had no real
weight. This woman's etiquette was utterly unfathomable. In the
same breath, she complimented him.
that underhand strike." She said absently, while she undid the belt
of her robe. Verner was transfixed, she seemed not to notice his
gaze. He was aware that he might be being rude, but he had never
seen an unclothed woman before. She dropped the robe from her shoulder
and tended to it. She was naked to the waist. He stumbled for a
the move that won my first match." In saying that, he realized how
long ago he had learned it, and how fundamental it was. He decided
to inquire further.
of fighting were you taught? I've never seen those kinds of moves
up at him with a quizzical lopsided grin. Her eyebrows furrowed
when she noticed him staring at her. She covered herself reflexively.
"I was a
Commissar agent before I was sent to the Giri Platform. They teach
that kind of fighting there for human pacification duty."
humans have you seen?" He asked, cautiously. To this, she again
gave a confused stare. For the second time, he was impressed by
the latitude of her facial expression.
consisted of twenty males and twenty females. We lived in a colony
of eighteen hundred..."
hundred! That's preposterous. Who could afford to support that many
humans? You lie!"
injured, but unfettered.
was designed to limit the activity of the uncontrolled indigenous
groups on denomination fourteen."
Verner insisted. "Humans are too rare to waste like that. I am the
only human on this Platform, and the rest are in the breeding colonies.
You must be mistaken."
are not rare on the outer denominations." She replied firmly. "The
reason there are so few of them on the Platform networks is because
they're so difficult to capture alive. Most will fight to the death
to avoid captivity. In fact, my whole unit was wiped out by the
indigenous population of denomination fourteen. I was the only surviving
member of eighteen hundred Lotus-controlled humans."
pointed toward the view slats of the arena, indicating the panel
of Dark Ones.
Lotus. They sent me to the Platform circuit to dispose of me. No
doubt to make room for the newest generation of pacification troops."
to let this sink in. No one on his Platform had ever referred to
them as anything but "the Dark Ones".
You mean to say that humans are resisting the Dar... the Lotus?"
Lotus, " She corrected. "They are resisting Lotus. Lotus is one
mind with many bodies. Those shadows that you see out there are
just puppets. Lotus moves through them like a wind. Sometimes...."
off in mid-sentence. She made no indication that she would continue.
He prompted gently.
Lotus moved through me."
cycle, they attempted a practice match with two other fighters.
He felt another heady wash of hormonal interruption when they undid
their robes and used the belts as mock weapons, but it passed as
soon as they were locked in combat. Keeping up with her acrobatics
was difficult enough, not to mention trying to keep in mind that
she would be armed and attempting to use both hands in attack.
to imagine what the fight would be like, taking into account the
length and use of the edges, but it became tiresome quickly. He
settled eventually on getting accustomed to her movements and body
rhythms. By the end of the cycle, they were fighting together as
one person. He was satisfied with her proficiency, though her tactics
were wildly different than his own.
when the match bell rang again. They both looked reflexively at
their lights to see if it was either of them that had been called.
It wasn't. A fighter separated himself from the pack and proceeded
to the white elevator. Verner and Eza sat down and stretched themselves.
Sweat stood prettily on her body, and this time Verner thought for
certain that he caught her staring at him as well. This time there
was no awkwardness.
had gathered against the viewing slats to watch.
you not watch the combat?" Verner asked, after a moment.
her robe back up, and stared at the ground.
seen enough death to satisfy even the thirstiest Warmaster."
up at him.
die eventually. It's silly to watch others go to theirs. I think
life is most important. I do not like death to intrude upon my moments
of peace when it can be avoided."
the most she had spoken since the last cycle. He wanted to keep
her talking, so he pressed the issue.
about the breeding colony? You're only one fight away from it..."
off by the disgusted look in her eye.
making fun of me." She said, looking suddenly fierce.
Not at all." Verner replied, his hands up in a placating gesture.
She would not be placated.
"I bet you
think it sounds fantastic to be in a Fleshpit don't you? Sit around
all day and eat and copulate? Great deal, huh? Except they don't
tell you how it is for females. Lotus cares about us because we're
the engines of breeding, but they don't know how to keep us from
dying when the babies go bad. If the baby is a male, a fighter,
and giving birth to it would threaten it, they kill us to harvest
it. That's all there is to it. Even the indigenes have a higher
success rate for live births.
"And I absolutely
love the idea of copulating with a horde of fat inconsiderate
ex-fighters. As if they aren't difficult enough to deal with in
the arena. If the females in the colonies fight back, they are pacified
stunned. He had never known anything about the colonies. He had
been born in one, and immediately given to a Warmaster to be trained
as a fighter. He had never known his mother or father. He had only
vague notions of what life would be like after his 66th
fight. He knew only that it would be an end to the mortal danger.
He has assumed the same was true for the females. Eza's eyes pierced
him like the tips of small pointed edges. Her gaze was a firestorm.
I survive this next fight, I won't be any more alive than I am right
now. The space between fights is the only real peace I will ever
have. When the fights are gone, my life is over."
nothing. He had the feeling that silence was an acceptable substitute
for his inadequate words. She seemed to relax at his complacency.
"In a way,
I was hoping that you might kill me. At least that way I wouldn't
have to go the Fleshpits when it's all over. I've seen the women
that are there. I'd rather be dead."
this. He finally hit upon a suitable reply. He explained to her
how he was raised by the Warmaster and how he had never set foot
outside of the Platform or seen any other denominations. He explained
how he had only once before seen another human female, and that
he had never mated with one. He neglected to tell her of his congress
with the other races, suddenly ashamed of himself for being a sexual
creature at all. When he was finished, he just sat back and tried
to appear resigned.
He was startled
when she stood and came to him. She sat at his side and placed her
head on his chest. Instinctively, he was unsettled by such closeness.
His body tensed for attack, but her hand on his chest instantly
removed any temerity. She stayed close to him that cycle of darkness.
disorientated the next morning. He had slept little, the feel of
Eza's hands on his flesh still coursed in primitive nerve-memory
over him. She lay still beside him, her light scent coming to his
nostrils in uneven measures. He was tired. He wondered what had
It was his
He was instantly
fully alert. Eza stirred at his elbow.
up." He said urgently, but in a tone not to arouse the others.
turn. They will be coming for us soon." She jolted up beside him.
only. I am entitled a warning because I am the champion, but it
will not be long."
was in her eyes. Temerity? He wondered.
panel of the holding area opened and two tenders entered. They would
tether them together. A moment later, Eza's bracelet toned.
up at him.
She hissed. He noted absently that it was only the second time she
had used his name.
me to kill you." He hissed back, trying to anticipate her.
She whispered, urgently. "This isn't my 66th fight!"
He was completely
unprepared for this. He tried not to show it. The tenders approached.
He spoke to her through clenched teeth.
have you fought?" He ordered.
this one?" She shot back, her voice quaking.
Suddenly it all fit. Her unfamiliarity with his fundamental moves,
her lack of etiquette, her rapid speech. She was new meat.
replied, her voice suddenly weak.
crashed upon Verner like a wave. Suddenly he understood the humor
and irony of the situation. The Dark Ones, Lotus, whatever, had
managed to outmaneuver him.
fight! It echoed in his head. She's barely trained! A machine
would probably kill her, a cat-warrior certainly... She's just a
beginner! His mind raced. Visions of him having to drag her
body from the arena danced before his eyes, as did visions of him
not walking out of the arena at all. He thought furiously as the
tenders motioned with their prods. The prickling move-along made
the hair on his arms stand on end.
a glance at her. She was staring straight ahead, but her eyes were
twitching wildly. He would have to calm her down, and he didn't
have much time. He tried to remember his fight with her. Suddenly
he realized that she was still an excellent fighter even if she
was unaccustomed to the nervousness that came before each battle.
She had nearly bested him in his 65th fight, even though
it had been her first. A plan formulated. As soon as he had a kernel
of hope to cling to, his fighter's instinct took over.
listen carefully because we don't have time to say this twice. We
won't be able to see what's on the floor till we're there too, so
don't bother. Whatever happens to be on the other side of the elevator,
make sure you clear the entrance quickly in case the other is there
already. Be strong and be merciless, and above all, be fast."
up at him as they were marched to the elevator, suddenly looking
small and weak.
interrupt me. You will survive this. You have the skill.
Anxiety is normal, beat it and you've won already."
in a deep breath as the door closed behind them. The breath seemed
to make her a measure taller. She selected her mask and edges. He
picked up his edge. She put on the mask and took one last look at
him. Here eyes were the firestorm again, and her hair waved like
flames when she nodded to him. Verner felt anxious himself for the
first time in a dozen fights. He felt the mechanisms that beat it
back within his own psyche, and hoped that she could do the same.
The hand that was closest to her squeezed her wrist, careful not
to touch the edge. She nodded a second time, and they faced the
door, both fighting down the urge to crane their necks and see what
was waiting for them.
took them to the arena.
thing Verner noticed was that he could not move. He tried to immediately
roll out of the way to anticipate any treachery. His feet were rooted
to the ground, arms to his sides, and eyes directly front. Eza was
there, but directly in front of him instead of slightly to the side
as she should have been. She too was standing ramrod straight.
in his head assaulted him like a thousand screams. His knees buckled.
The voice held him up, battering his mind once more.
he stumbled forward, as if the voice had shoved him. He barely managed
to avoid falling on his own edge. At the same time, Eza came loose
from whatever restraint they had both been under. She failed to
keep her feet and threw her arms out to her sides to avoid accidentally
stabbing herself. Her mask cracked and fell away as her face bounced
painfully on the arena floor. Verner gritted his teeth, and darted
forward to help her to her feet when he saw the alarming redness
coming from between her broken front teeth.
As he moved
forward, however, a strange momentum was given to him that he had
not intended. His muscles, under someone else's control, betrayed
him. The dart turned into a run, the run, to a sprint, the sprint
to a lunge. At the last second, Eza rolled away and avoided the
attack. She was on her feet in an instant, and began to fight the
unseen influence once more. This time, as she staggered backward,
her right hand put an edge to her throat and held it until the flesh
began to sizzle. There were tears in her eyes, but her jaws were
locked so tightly that the muscles of her cheek and temple stood
out in definition and trembled. Verner could hear her teeth grinding
in her mouth.
a step toward him, and suddenly it was as if she had returned. Her
balance returned and her mind took control of a disorientated body.
This time she did manage to keep her balance. She opened her mouth
we're supposed to figh...." She spoke quickly and managed to get
a few words out before Lotus took control of her again. Her teeth
snapped shut on her tongue, and the first third of it fell to the
arena floor. She screamed silently. Verner moved to help her again,
but felt the acceleration in his muscles almost at once. He tried
to resist, and was thrown to the ground.
edge began to hover near his throat. He fought his fear. The edge
bit into his flesh, the pain was severe, but not unbearable. Verner
willed himself to relax.
withdrew. This time it pointed to his vitals, and the point began
to descend. He closed his eyes and let it, beyond caring. But this
time, too, it stopped short. Instead, his eyelids were forced open
and he was compelled to watch as Eza put one of her edges through
her own hand. He strained, hating Lotus with unequaled passion.
He could not move backward, only forward, toward her.
in her eyes as he approached, but he stopped before hurling himself
at her like last time. Her eyes looked at him, pleading. The arena
floor was slick with her blood. She stood erect, a mess of crimson.
Verner knew she couldn't cry because Lotus wouldn't let her, but
that moment of dignity belonged to her alone. He hoped his was a
equally courageous. He tried to tell her with his eyes that it was
all right, and that they would have to fight.
brought tenseness to his muscles. Lotus took the opportunity to
thrust his body at her. At the same time, her hands flew up in a
defensive posture. They locked in combat. At first, Verner tried
to resist the voice, but even as his mind sent messages that his
muscles never received, the voice began to batter him relentlessly.
her and be free. Resist and be destroyed. Kill her. KILL HER.
continued as he went through the motions. He struck, she counter
struck, each time the voice burrowing deeper and deeper into his
mind, trying to occupy him fully. The mind with no body was encompassing
them, controlling them, invading them.
her, kill her, kill her, kill her, kill her, kill her...
to maintain a bastion of sanity on the edge of the horrible voice,
but it penetrated him further and further. As it did so, their hands
began to speed up from a dancing pace to a killing velocity. The
edges smashed against each other with enough force to make the massless
blades rebound. So ferocious were the attacks that muscle and ligaments
were torn from the bone. Through all this, the fight only accelerated.
Their bodies were pushed beyond any limits they had known.
to focus on her eyes for some sign of what to do. Whatever was controlling
them had neglected to retain the former tunnel vision that had been
enforced. Her eyes were centered on his as well. In them was dignity,
forgiveness, and understanding. He began fighting her without Lotus's
help. His arms did not fly as fast, or as viciously, but his skill
far surpassed that of Lotus. She began to move more smoothly as
well, taking control of her body.
for what felt to Verner like a lifetime. An idea was forming in
the little refuge of his mind that was not controlled by Lotus.
He tested his theory by attempting a brief resistance. As soon as
he tried to back away, the voice redoubled its screaming and threw
him forward again.
a while more, his body nearing the limits of exhaustion. His edge
carved the air of the arena like a wayward lightening bolt. Parry
and thrust, counterthrust and retreat. He looked into Eza's eyes
a final time, and saw surrender.
He let his
muscles relax, and his arms fall to his sides. As he did, Eza mirrored
him. Her eyes spoke gratefulness. The instant he refused to fight,
the voice returned. This time, it was not merely an encouragement.
This time, it was an attack. The words of Lotus reverberated through
the frames of their bodies. Verner's joints creaked and his flesh
rippled. The muscles that were already torn and loose began to vibrate
with the timbre and punctuation of the screaming inside his head.
his move. He darted forward suddenly with blinding speed. All the
tension that his muscles could manage was behind the thrust, and
not even if Eza had been under Lotus control could she have avoided
it. It was a killing blow, and his edge buried itself into her chest.
He did not look at the wound, he focused on her eyes. Some part
of him registered that her edges were inside of him as well. He
could feel the strange wetness of his own blood on his cloth shoes.
It did not trouble him. He could not speak, the non-mind that was
Lotus was still inside his body.
to retreat, but he would not let it. It tried to flee his dying
body, but had gotten too deeply inside. He let himself slump to
the ground, and Eza followed. The edges fell to the floor and extinguished.
Their bodies were open to the air, and their blood flowed silently
to the floor in a black pool. They did not notice. Their eyes were
locked upon each other as their tiny sinking ships dragged Lotus
down with them.
the same moment, their bodies expired. As his breathing stopped,
and his heart fell still, he listened for the roar of the Dark Ones.
It never came. Only silence filled the cavernous arena, and nothing
moved within the crowd of spectators. He tried to focus on Eza,
but got only a glimpse of her triumphant eyes before his vision
blurred forever. At the edge of the abyss, Verner somehow found
the strength to smile.