Summary: Wherein a new challenger appears, and Max faces a bet that can’t be won…
Categories: Non-Naruto Fiction > Original stories, Non-Naruto Fiction Characters: OC
Genres: Action/Adventure, Fantasy, General, Sci-Fi
Chapters: 16 Completed: Yes
Word count: 27134 Read: 6567
Published: 03/07/13 Updated: 18/07/13
1. I by shadesmaclean
2. II by shadesmaclean
3. III by shadesmaclean
4. IV by shadesmaclean
5. V by shadesmaclean
6. VI by shadesmaclean
7. VII by shadesmaclean
8. VIII by shadesmaclean
9. IX by shadesmaclean
10. X by shadesmaclean
11. XI by shadesmaclean
12. XII by shadesmaclean
13. XIII by shadesmaclean
14. XIV by shadesmaclean
15. XV by shadesmaclean
16. XVI by shadesmaclean
Max stretched and yawned as he sat up, while Bandit just cracked open one eye, then dozed off again.
His human companion threw his legs over the edge of the square of floor space in his cabin, the rest occupied by a V-shaped wedge of mattress and blankets that comprised his cabin, matching the contour of the bow. Above, a bright square of sunlight had gradually worked its way to his last position before he woke up. As he stepped into the small below-deck corridor, he glanced over at Justin’s quarters, finding the tiny cabin empty. After that, he stepped into the small bathroom to wash up.
He yawned and stretched again, smiling and almost laughing out-loud at how it felt for his arm to finally be free of that cast and healed enough to use again. Those fifteen days since they left St Lucy had done them all a world of good after Project Pythagoras and that maddening repeat-looping day. One of the first orders of business upon arriving on the island of Sarna the other day was to visit a local clinic Shades had found out about, and it was such a relief to know his arm was almost good as new, the doctor there simply admonishing him to avoid overexerting himself for another week or two.
As he finished washing up, he turned and headed up the steps to the main cabin, saying, “Let’s see what’s for breakfast…”
The mere mention of breakfast was enough to wake Bandit up at last, and the big cat followed him up, tail swaying eagerly at the thought of food.
Much to his feline friend’s disappointment, though, Max picked a bite to eat from a hanging basket of fresh fruit Shades gathered from the marketplace yesterday. Seeing no one topside, either, he decided he would wait for his friends to return before cooking. Pondering how Shades’ remarks about the importance of eating plenty of fruit while traveling the high seas echoed his parents’ own experience in that regard as he ate, he stepped out on deck, Bandit trailing along behind him.
Though the Maximum was surrounded by a crowded jumble of modest-sized vessels, some local, some of foreign design, all vying for limited dock space, Max could easily see much of the city of Bodeen looming over him. A mix of grey and tan edifices, topped with slanted rows of red and brown tile roofs marching in staggered, haphazard lines up the inclined streets toward the city center, up on the hill. The morning shadow of all those buildings still loomed over the harbor, rendering much of his immediate surroundings in various shades of drab and dingy.
Munching casually, Max let his eyes wander among those rooftops, wondering offhand what the view must look like from up there. If perhaps he might get to see for himself before they left. Justin was very insistent about not leaving the ship unguarded here, and Shades agreed with him with barely a moment’s thought. Now that Max saw the place in this light, reflecting all that he had seen in the last couple days, he could see what they were getting at, concluding that maybe they were on to something. Although no one told him he couldn’t bring Bandit ashore with him, he noticed that, while people still admired the big cat, they also gave him a lot more space than either of them were used to. Though not quite as traveled as Justin or Shades, he could sense there was something about this town’s atmosphere that was noticeably different from Centralict, the Kona Islands, or St Lucy.
Something he instinctively trusted less than any other seaport he had seen.
As he finished eating, he wondered if perhaps he wasn’t spooking himself with such thoughts, for the more he scanned that roofline, the more he felt as if he was being watched, and even Bandit seemed noticeably less relaxed than when they first came topside.
“Pardon me, young man,” a voice said from off to Max’s left, “but my boss has a little business proposition for you.”
“Huh?” Only belatedly, Max realized he was so preoccupied watching the rooftops, that he had failed to notice several men approach the dock next to the ship. “What do you mean?”
“Why, young mariner, I’m talking about your panther,” the somewhat older man, who appeared to be the leader of this group, replied, gesturing toward Bandit, “that fine specimen of a panther. I’ve never seen such markings… How much would you be willing to part with it for?”
Bandit growled softly at the half dozen or so men, a sentiment that matched how Max was fast starting to feel about these guys.
“I’m sorry,” Max told the man, becoming ever more suspicious of them, and this situation, by the second. At times like these, he was reminded that he was not accustomed to people barging in and just striking up conversations without even introducing themselves. That he wasn’t used to the idea of live animals being treated as merchandise. Nor was he used to the idea of people calling his oldest friend an it. “You heard him. My friend’s not for sale.”
“Boy, you don’t seem to understand your situation,” the man informed him as his crew stepped aboard the Maximum. No weapons drawn as of yet, but their manner was all the more imposing as they moved to surround Max. “You must be new to these parts, or you’d know the House calls all the shots here in Bodeen.”
Max noticed that all of them, regardless of their mode of dress, wore the same red arm bands, which he had seen from time to time about town, and, he now realized, still had no more clue what they were about than he had the first time he laid eyes on them.
“Get off our ship,” was all Max had to say to him, increasingly certain that this was going to come to blows.
“Our boss has had his eye on your little pet,” the man continued as if Max had never said a word, “and what Mr Bertona wants, Mr Bertona gets. That just leaves the little question of what you get. The boss makes very generous offers, but he only makes them once, so we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Either way, we’re taking the cat.”
Max glanced about for a moment, noting that anyone who may have been about the docks a couple minutes ago had made themselves scarce in these folks’ wake.
“I said, get off our ship,” Max repeated, wishing Shades and Justin would hurry up and get back. Even more so as he reached for his laser sword, hoping to make them back down peaceably with a little intimidation of his own, only to find it missing. Even worse, he was still in bare feet so soon after waking up, so he didn’t even have his backup blade concealed in his boot. Sensing they were already aware something was amiss on his end, he warned them, “If you lay a hand on my friend, I won’t hold back.”
“It’s seven against one, boy, and nobody’s gonna make a move against us around here, so what’s it gonna be?”
Before Max could reply, one of the henchmen made the first move, but Max had already resigned himself to a fight, blocking the man’s punch and dragging him in the way of the next guy’s kick. Max then back-kicked the one behind him, then moved forward to shake off the two who had just moved in from the sides to pin him—
As Max’s would-be captors staggered away from him, Bandit, who was angling to take a bite out of one of them, was instead struck with the unfamiliar sting of a tranquilizer dart.
“Bandit!” Max cried out, watching his companion snarl in pain and surprise as he reeled and fell over, wrenched the two men straining to pin his arms, kicking another out of the way as he dragged them toward his fallen friend.
The last thought he could remember was of how the dart seemed to have hit Bandit from somewhere above them, when he himself was struck by the familiar zap of a stun beam, square in the back.
“That’s enough of that,” the ringleader remarked, keeping his power pistol trained on Max until he was sure both of their targets had gone silent before reholstering it. Figuring the smartest thing he had done after locating where the cat was staying was to post a sniper up on the rooftops, just in case their quarry became unruly like that.
“Shit!” one of them muttered, kicking Max’s limp form as he got back up. “That hurt!”
“Come on,” the leader said to them, “we don’t know when his crewmates will be back. We’ve already caused enough of a scene here, and the last thing we want to do is cause more inside bickering between the boss and the rest of the House, or the brass. One of these days, he’s gonna go too far…”
“What should we do about this guy?” one of his henchmen demanded, kicking Max again while two others picked up Bandit and dragged him toward the dock.
“Take him along, too,” the leader ordered, realizing that the boss himself could provide them with a way to kill two birds with one stone. “He seems to be quite the scrapper himself, I’m sure they’ll provide the House with plenty of entertainment.”
That resolved, they hauled Max and Bandit away.
the streets of Bodeen
Elsewhere, Justin and Shades walked the streets of Bodeen, taking in the sights as they made their way back toward the harbor.
“So, anyplace else ya got in mind?” Justin asked his friend.
“Not really,” Shades answered. “In the last couple days, I’ve already checked the dock registry,” wishing he hadn’t brought that up, along with the fee he had to bribe them with for a look at that info, “the local constabulary,” such as it was, while Justin refused to set foot within sight of it, “as well as every inn and tavern I’ve heard of, so I doubt John or Amy have been to this town.”
Of course, one thing he had learned was that Bodeen was but one of four cities on the island of Sarna, so that still left the possibilities of Andora, Kasko and Ranco. From both the descriptions he had heard, as well as the couple maps he got to look at, this island was a lot bigger than any of the Konas, or St Lucy, probably larger than Centralict, with the four coastal cities that seemed to preside over the interior. Consisting of both alternating lowlands and hilly, bordering on mountainous, terrain toward this side of the island, the four city-states coexisted (at least most of the time, from what he gathered) in an uneasy peace. Then again, now that he had seen Bodeen…
“And I suppose you’ll wanna go to the other cities, won’t you?” Once upon a time, Justin would have been at something of a loss to understand why anyone would go traipsing about the world just to find two people, but now he wondered if he wouldn’t find himself doing the very same thing if Max, or, dare he admit it, Shades, just up and disappeared on him. “Well, I just hope they’re not like this one.”
“I’ll second that,” Shades agreed. Even beyond the seaport, most of Bodeen was a rambling maze of disjointed roads. All standing in the shadow of three-to-five stories of stucco and terracotta, of peeling plaster and narrow, crooked-looking windows. Every turn feeling like they wandered into the wrong neighborhood, and Justin’s frequent comparisons to the seedy side of his former home of Benton didn’t inspire confidence, either. In his time here, he had seen far fewer motor vehicles than he had in Centralict, or even in St Lucy, and those who apparently had lots of extra coin to toss around were taxied about by the occasional rickshaw or sedan. Instead, most everyone traveled on foot in most parts of town, pedestrian traffic consisting of entirely too many types that inspired him to watch both his back and his wallet. On that note, he added, “Especially the docking fees.”
“Don’t even get me started on that,” Justin muttered, as they were almost twice as much for visitors as they were for locals. “We can’t keep going like this.”
“I hear ya there,” Shades concurred. They had already purchased the most important supplies yesterday, but he was worried about the next place. Between replacing weapons lost in their battle against that guardian robot thing on Adnan’s, restocking their pantry, and an assortment of unexpected ‘fees’ and other expenses at every turn, Bodeen’s unforgiving prices were taking a toll on their dwindling funds. While the profits of Justin’s haunted exploits, plus the reward money from Kona Council, added up to a substantial chunk of change by most realms’ exchange rates, this place seemed to suck up money like a vacuum. And it didn’t help that Justin blew so much of it on specialized bolts for his crossbow. “I also asked around about odd jobs, but for how damn expensive everything is around here, nobody wants to pay enough to cover more than food and docking fees.”
“Where the hell does it all go?” Justin gestured to the dirty streets stretching haphazardly before and behind them. Though the buildings were bigger and, he’d wager, newer, than those of his former home, by and large, the place still had a very similar vibe to Benton. A quick glance at those who walked these streets was all he needed to tell to that they walked in the midst of pickpockets, cutthroats and swindlers of every stripe. Much as he hated to admit it, he was glad Max and Bandit stayed behind to watch the ship in a town like this. To borrow a phrase from his friend: “Does money just burn a hole in everyone’s pockets around here?”
“Maybe it does,” Shades remarked, leading him off to the side of the way, “maybe it does.” Bright and flashy, and looking a good deal newer than the crumbling plaster it was pasted to, was a poster. “And I think I have an idea where a lot of it ends up.”
“What? You mean that fighting arena?” Justin asked, reading the promotional spiel for fighters to test their meddle, and everyone else to try their luck betting on fights. An entire blurb devoted to a thousand credit purse for anyone who could defeat the arena’s undefeated champion. Nikopolas Arena, spanning the top of the poster in huge letters. “That many people are gambling there?”
“From what I’ve heard,” Shades replied. “According to my information, it used to be an ancient gladiator arena, from an era when this city apparently ruled the rest of the island, before the current island coalition. It’s been everything from abandoned ruins to a museum since. At least until a couple years ago, when some outfit remodeled the place and started hosting fights there. They seemed to have made some lucrative deals with the local government, using it as a training facility for the militia, in exchange, I would presume, for first dibs on the gambling revenue…”
He trailed off for a moment, watching a pair of rough types stride past, glancing at the two travelers for only a moment before continuing on their way. Shades had seen folks like them about during his stay in Bodeen, no formal uniforms like the Militia guards who sternly patrolled most of the town, all carrying batons or the occasional power pistol, but not operating in any law-enforcement capacity. But all wearing those same red arm bands, like an unsavory cross between guards and gang members.
“The Nikopol faction,” Shades said, recalling the name he’d picked up in conversation with the locals.
“The Red-Bands?” Justin thumbed after them, now that they had passed safely around a corner.
“Yeah, but that’s mostly just around the port district,” Shades told him. “Up here they’re called Nikopols. From what I hear, they run the gladiator arena.”
“That ain’t all,” Justin warned him, wanting to compare notes. Though Shades might have a nose for local history, Justin Black was attuned to the seedy side of port towns, the kind of rumors his friends were less likely to be in the right time or place, and blending in with the right crowd, to overhear. “I keep hearin’ some nasty shit about those guys. Don’t know how much of it is actually true, especially the one about them making prisoners fight in there, but I keep hearing warnings about getting on their bad side.”
“So I’ve heard,” Shades mused, “like they’re above the law, or something…” Justin’s words confirming his own impression of them. “Even so, I still want to take a look at it before we go. I bet Max wants to check it out, too, don’t you?”
“Sure, why not?” Justin paused for a moment, an idea starting to take shape. “Bet… Max… I got it! Max is a damn good fighter. Why don’t we bet on the fights?”
“No,” Shades put his foot down, “we’re not putting Max at risk just for money. He finally recovered from that broken arm, and now you want him to fight for us?”
“Well… when you put it that way…” Justin backpedaled. “But we could at least bet on other fights. This is a gambling town, that seems to be where the money’s at here.”
“Maybe so,” Shades said, turning back toward the seaport, “but we should at least talk to Max before we decide to gamble any of our remaining funds. I, for one, don’t trust the House or their odds.”
“Max should be up by now,” Justin said as he joined him, “so let’s talk to him when we get back to the ship. I just think it would help if we could make some money before we set out again.”
“Maybe we should check out Kasko or Ranco next,” Shades suggested, “there might be something going on there.” Though nothing he had heard while out and about inspired confidence in that regard, he got the distinct impression these city-states were long-standing rivals. Probably a holdover from those same wars mentioned in the histories he had browsed. “I suppose we’ll be alright with Bandit watching the ship for a few hours.”
“And let’s grab a bite to eat while we’re at it. These restaurants cost way too much, and the food tastes like crap.” Justin didn’t care too much for standing around hungry for hours at a time anymore. “I don’t know if Max wants to fight or anything, but I bet he’s hungry, too.”
“And I’m sure he wants to at least check out the fights.” Shades would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit his own curiosity as a martial artist. “You can learn a lot from watching others in action.”
Morning was fast edging toward afternoon, as the two of them continued to speculate about the arena while they made their way back to pick up their friend and some lunch before their visit to Nikopolas Arena, one last bit of sightseeing before bidding this place farewell.
a bet that can't be won
When Max regained consciousness, he wasn’t quite sure where he had ended up.
All he could tell for sure was that it was a room, about ten feet by ten feet, most of it occupied by storage boxes. Including the small stack he was lying on, illuminated vaguely by a bare bulb that seemed too faint to cover even this tiny space. The heavy, windowless door that served as the only way in or out also failed to provide any clue to his location, or what he was doing here. No windows, either.
It was feeling his hands bound behind his back with what felt like some sort of plastic strips that brought it all back to him. That abrupt and unexpectedly violent confrontation back at the ship, all about… Max looked around, his movements turning frantic as he realized Bandit was nowhere to be seen.
“Bandit!” he shouted, stumbling to his feet. Though he strained at those plastic straps with all his might, they refused to give even a hair, instead biting into his wrists. Lunging at the door, he kicked it full force, finding it quite solid on its hinges. “Hey! Is anybody out there? What do you want with me? Where is Bandit?”
Max kicked the door several more times, starting to adjust his balance to having his arms bound. Even shifting his stance for greater power, the best he could manage was rattling the door in its frame. Turning around, he backed up to the doorknob, twisting it until his wrist hurt, only to find, much as he already suspected, that it was locked. Having run out of bright ideas for the moment, he turned to sit down on the boxes and think.
Just as he was about to sit down, he heard what sounded like someone fiddling with the lock, then saw the doorknob turn, and the door swing inward. Seeing a lone figure enter, concluding that this might be his only chance to escape, Max rushed him, barging right through the doorway and across a wide hallway, shoving his unknown captor up against the opposite wall. But even as it was beginning to dawn on him that he had no way to subdue his adversary without the use of his hands, that was when he sensed a second figure move in from behind him, apparently having hidden himself just to the side of the door.
“That’s enough of that, kid.” Max recognized both the voice and the attitude from the docks earlier as he spotted an equally familiar power pistol pointed at his back. “Unless you want to go to jail for burglary.”
“But you’re the ones who brought me here,” Max protested even as he let go of the other guy.
Still angry at being blindsided, he shoved Max back.
“That’s not what the authorities will see when we haul your ass out of our place,” the man countered, gesturing for Max to follow him down the hall. “It’s up to you, but Mr Bertona will very disappointed if you’re late for your appointment.”
“What did you do with Bandit?” Max demanded, wanting to know at least that much. “Where is he?”
“Who knows?” The man smirked and shrugged. “Bertona’s in charge around here, so even if he made a throw rug out of that damn cat, it’s none of my business…” The look on Max’s face changed his mind about pursuing that line of jest as he simply said, “But I imagine that could be what he wants to talk to you about.”
“Bandit’s not for sale,” Max reiterated.
“Save it for Bertona, kid,” the man replied, leading him along, his partner also covering Max with a second power pistol he had drawn while Max’s attention was diverted.
They continued on in silence, leading Max, still in his bare feet, up a flight of stairs to another hallway, this one better lit and less dingy than they one they just came from. Seeing that he currently had no chance of escape, Max simply followed their lead, trying to take note of as much of his surroundings as their brisk pace would allow. The only thing he found at all noteworthy about his captors, recalling it from his earlier run-in with the them, was that they both wore the same red armband he had seen around town before. Though he could hear the bustle of other people beyond, the sections they led him through were all unoccupied, and he concluded that trying to call for help wouldn’t do him any good here, as he was pretty sure he was well inside their territory.
They eventually reached another stairway, marching up several flights. One of them stopped to unlock a door on one of the upper levels, and they entered another hallway, this one curving along a contour that seemed to follow the outer edge of the building, based on the occasional window overlooking part of the city of Bodeen below. While the levels below appeared drab and utilitarian, this hallway was cleaner, more ornate in its architecture, and increasingly more decorated the farther they traversed it.
The only thing Max got to see much of through the largest of those windows was a massive bronze statue, that most likely stood in front of the building they were in, before he was whisked along.
They passed several more doors along the way, but the one they finally stopped at had a pair of Red-Bands standing guard, who briefly sized Max up before letting them pass.
Inside was a spacious office, decorated in even more opulent fashion than the rest of what he had seen of this level. There was a massive, ornate desk on the far side of the room, an expanse of window behind it offering a commanding view of the topsy-turvy roofscape below, all the way down to a glimpse of tiny ships sailing in and out of the harbor from the sea beyond. Though there were several people present, it was the one sitting behind that desk that grabbed Max’s attention.
“I take it you’re the boy I sent my men to bargain with,” the man remarked, pointing a burning cigar at him.
Balding and bearded to conceal a couple extra chins, he appeared as solid and substantial as the desk he loomed over. Prominent, barrel-chested paunch working its way into midlife rotund. Either the statue he saw outside was a very flattering rendition, or else time and luxury had not been kind to him, Max reflected, watching him take another leisurely puff of his cigar. Flanked on either side by a pair of thinly robed women not much older than Max, and, as far as he could tell, looking more like living decorations than playing any active role in the events transpiring here.
They were also, he noticed, the only ones here besides himself not wearing one of those red armbands.
“And I take it you’re this Bertona I keep hearing about,” Max replied, looking him evenly in the eye.
“You’re smarter than I expected for someone who wouldn’t take my first offer,” Mr Bertona chuckled, tapping some ashes into a jade ashtray. “Might I ask your name, boy?”
“It’s Max,” he answered, “and I don’t want to bargain with you. I just want my friend back.”
“Oh? You mean that?” Mr Bertona commented, gesturing off to the side.
Only now did it dawn on Max that he was so focused on Bertona and his entourage, that he failed to notice the small, wheeled cage sitting off in the corner. Groggy from the residual effects of the tranquilizer, occasionally looking up blearily from behind bars, but still alive. Much to Max’s relief.
“Bandit!” Max shouted, turning toward his friend, stopping short as the plastic bands binding his hands reminded him of his own predicament.
“You don’t seem to understand your situation, do you?” Mr Bertona motioned for his men to stop as Max paused in indecision. “If you hadn’t made such a big scene back at the docks, my associates would have been willing to discuss price, but now we’ll have to conduct business very differently.”
“Price?” Max demanded, reminding himself just how deeply those straps could cut his wrists if he wasn’t careful. “You think I own him? He doesn’t belong to anybody. He’s my friend, and if you don’t let us go—”
“You’ll what?” Bertona shot back, his henchmen laughing at Max’s growing frustration. “Are you going to take on my entire organization? You’re welcome to try, boy. We’re Nikopol, surely you’ve heard of us? The Militia’s not going to take the word of a burglar over mine.”
“But you took him…”
“I’ve got the shipping manifest right here,” Mr Bertona informed him, tapping one of several documents spread out on the desktop, “and my guards now have you caught inside my property. It’s your word against mine, boy.”
“My friends will come,” Max told him, “and they’ll also tell them Bandit’s with us.”
Mr Bertona exhaled a long, exasperated stream of smoke before continuing his argument.
“You’re all outsiders,” he warned Max. “Your word means nothing against Nikopol here, not from some troublemaking streetrat the tide washed in.” That last remark giving Max a whole new understanding of how Justin must have felt all these years. “You have no choice but to bargain with me if you want to get anything other than a tour of Bodeen’s jail out of this. Take your pick, but don’t waste my time. I don’t have all day, boy.”
“Fine,” Max sighed, seeing that he was completely out-maneuvered, in the heart of his adversary’s own turf. “What will it take to get you to release him?”
“Now that’s more like it.” Mr Bertona smiled at him, then intoned, “I take it you’ll behave yourself in here if I remove your bonds?”
When Max nodded his head in grudging assent, they shoved him back over toward Bertona’s desk, and he felt some kind of cutting tool snip the plastic bands, freeing up his hands even as he felt equally tight restraints clamping down on his range of options with them. After all, he was still unarmed, surrounded by at least half a dozen armed men, and probably plenty more throughout the rest of the place, if the number of Red-Bands he had seen around town was any indication. Bertona’s own private army to fight his way past, and no way for Bandit to flee while still drugged.
“So it would seem you’ve at least heard the name ‘Nikopol’ before,” Mr Bertona resumed, “but do you know what we do here?”
“You run the fighting arena, don’t you?” Max’s tone shifting from one of contemplation to realization as it dawned on him that he was forgetting something important that he should already have known about the Red-Bands. And, most likely, a clue to his current whereabouts.
“Very good. That should save me some explaining.” Mr Bertona took a long, leisurely drag before stubbing out the remainder of his cigar. “My associate tells me you put up quite a fight against his men when you attacked them—”
“They attacked me,” Max corrected him.
“Watch your tone with me,” Bertona cautioned him. “You forget where you are, and who you’re dealing with. As I was saying, I am told you can hold your own in a fight, so I was thinking, perhaps we might make a little wager.”
“What do you mean?” Max gave him a wary look, not sure he liked the sound of this.
“What I mean is, why don’t we see just how good you are in a fight?” Mr Bertona waved his arm at the grounds below, at all the people now flocking toward the entrance. “People come from all over Bodeen— even other parts of Sarna— to bet on our matches. I don’t like to disappoint our spectators, so I expect you to put on a good show.
“You’re a nobody in these parts, so the odds against you could bring in a tidy profit if you last more than a couple fights. If you can bring in more money than your little friend would sell for at the Bodeen Bazaar, I would be willing to part with him. Of course, even with those odds, you’d still have to win every bout today to pull it off.”
“You want me to fight for his freedom? How is that any different than ‘buying’ or ‘selling’ him?”
“Don’t push your luck, boy,” Mr Bertona leaned over his desk at him. “Neither you nor your friends have that kind of money, do you?”
“Well, no…” Max admitted, figuring there was little point in trying to lie about it.
“So you really don’t have any choice,” Mr Bertona told him, opening a glazed lacquer box and lighting up yet another cigar. “You have nothing else to bargain with but your fighting skills, which means this is the best deal you can negotiate.”
“Very well…” Max now understood that he had reached the limit of trying to reason with this man. On one hand, if he went to jail, his friends would probably be able to find him more easily, for it now occurred to him that Justin and Shades had no clue what happened to him, but it would become a huge delay, with no indication of what might happen to Bandit in the meantime, to say nothing of trying to rescue him with the Bodeen Militia hounding them everywhere. This Bertona’s attitude did not inspire confidence, and he now understood that he was all on his own in a den of thieves, but this was the best chance Bandit had. “I don’t care about your money, but I will fight for Bandit’s freedom, if that’s what it takes.”
“Then shall we begin?” Mr Bertona looked Max over, then added, “The fights begin soon, but are you ready as you are?”
“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” Max retorted.
To which Bertona blew another stream of smoke, right in his face.
“Pathetic,” Mr Bertona remarked. “I won’t let you set foot in my arena like that, and I won’t let you use it as an excuse if you lose.” He turned to one of his men. “Give the boy some boots before you put him in the ring. I’ll throw them in for free if you make it past your first match.”
“I can fight just fine in bare feet,” Max replied.
“That’s not allowed at Nikopolas,” Bertona told him, “so you’ll take the boots and be grateful for them.”
“Fine.” Max shrugged. “Let’s just get this over with. I never wanted to bargain with you in the first place.”
“Whatever.” Mr Bertona leaned back in his chair. “One day, kid, you’re going to open your eyes and realize that everything in this world is for sale. It’s only a question of price.”
For his part, Max walked over to the cage, where Bandit was still sleeping off the effects of the tranquilizer, reaching through the bars and patting his head, promising his old friend, “These people don’t respect you. I’ll find a way to get you out of here. Somehow.”
He then turned back to Bertona’s men to be led out to the arena, steeling himself to do just that.
back at the ship
It was an immense relief, for both Shades and Justin, to find their ship still docked where they left it in this shifty port town.
“Hey! Max!” Justin called out, finding the cabin door unlocked as he let himself in. Seeing no one about, he shouted down the stairs, “You up yet? We’re gonna be making lunch before we go out again!”
When he received no answer, he headed down below while Shades started on the dishes. At the bottom of the steps, he saw the door to Max’s cabin hanging open, just like the bathroom door, revealing both rooms to be empty. Instead of Bandit cat-napping as usual, framed in the square of noonish sun, he spotted Max’s laser sword.
As he entered the tiny, cut-out space of floor not occupied by bed, he nearly tripped over Max’s boots.
For some reason he couldn’t quite place, this bothered him. I mean, he always used to run around in bare feet back in Paradise… but couldn’t recall ever seeing him set foot off the ship without wearing his boots. Not liking the idea of Max’s prized possession just lying around in a seaport like this, he put it in his coat pocket, to give to his friend later.
“Hey, Shades,” Justin told him as he came back up, “it looks like Max isn’t here.”
“Which means he left the door unlocked,” Shades muttered, shaking his head as he started cooking lunch. “I keep telling him we’re not in the Konas anymore…”
“He also left without his laser sword,” Justin pointed out.
“Maybe he did get tired of waiting for us, and headed out to the arena without us,” Shades replied, noting that some of the fruit he picked up yesterday was also missing. “After all, I heard they don’t allow guns in there, so maybe he thought it applied to all weapons.”
“Maybe…” Though in all the time Justin had known him, Max treated that blade as a personal treasure, though he had to admit it was still more possible he may have just forgotten it. “But he also forgot his boots.”
“You serious?” Shades looked up from his task for a moment, then said, “Perhaps he went in sandals instead. Though I didn’t hear anything about the fights being in bare feet, he may have heard different.”
“You mean he might actually be fighting, while we could be betting on him?”
“I didn’t say that,” Shades told him. “I just mean he might have at least considered the possibility of competing, that’s all. Besides, wherever he went, he took Bandit with him, so he should be alright. Then again, if he did go to the arena, they probably don’t allow animals, so he might be back sooner than he expected.”
“Or he could have just gone out for a walk.” Justin decided that perhaps he was just jumping at shadows, given how restless both he and Bandit seemed to get while they were out at sea.
“Most likely,” Shades concluded. “Either way, they’ll probably be back by the time we’re done eating. If they’re not, then we’ll go to the arena first, since he was so excited about going there before we leave. As it is, we’re going to miss most of the first and second tier matches… Guess we’ll have to take quality over quantity.”
After all, they had tried to go yesterday, but it seemed the arena was only open on certain days, so this would be their last chance, if they were planning to leave tomorrow morning.
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Justin agreed, “but I’m still taking my laser staff.”
“Probably a good idea,” Shades conceded, “as long as you keep it concealed. I’m told they have scanners that detect most types of guns, so we would have to stop by here to stash our own guns, even if we weren’t eating, as well. But still, going to and from, there’re still some pretty shady characters in this town.”
“You got that right,” Justin muttered, hiding his double-barrel power pistols behind the lounge cushions, where they would not be apparent to anyone who might break into the ship while they were away, but still quickly and easily accessible to anyone who knew where to find them in a pinch. Perhaps it was the prospect of being reduced to close-quarters combat if attacked, or perhaps all this talk about watching fights and studying techniques, but he found himself wondering, “Say Shades, would you mind if I ask you something about your fighting style?”
“I think you just did,” Shades answered, then, “Sure, I guess. Ask away.”
“Tell me,” Justin asked, “how the hell do you hit so hard anyway? I mean, Max I can see,” being one of the strongest people he’d ever met, “but…”
Justin cocked his head, not quite sure what his friend meant by that.
“Hmmm…” Shades thought for a moment, then asked, “If I were to punch you in the face, in a real fight, where do you think I’m aiming?”
“At my face, right?” Wondering if this was some kind of trick question.
“Not quite,” Shades explained, remembering when Master Al explained this principle years ago. “In a real fight, I’m actually aiming for someplace a couple inches behind your head. In martial arts, that’s the meaning of follow-through.”
“You serious?” Though it sounded plausible enough, there was a part of Justin’s mind to which that sounded too simple. Too good to be true.
“Seriously serious,” Shades assured him. “Just watch some of the fights later. You’ll see the difference.”
A short while later, Shades finished preparing lunch, and the two of them sat down to eat, continuing their free-flowing discussion of martial arts.
Max had to admit, the spectacle before him was overwhelming, almost enough to make him reconsider, if not for Bandit.
Before today, he had only seen Nikopolas Arena from afar, a massive circular coliseum looming over the surrounding neighborhood, as the impending prospect of having to fight within it now loomed over him. Of course, just the portions he was led through, from the storage room that served as his makeshift cell to the upper-storey room where Mr Bertona presided, he could tell this place was big. Being led back downstairs and down still more halls, into a waiting area near the center of the arena, with rows of stands stacked almost to the outer wall several stories above, and an almost dizzying distance back, revealed to him just how big.
Combined with more people than he had ever seen in his entire life, all in one place, instilled a near-paralyzing sense of disbelief at the idea of actually going through with this.
That mounting sense of pressure bearing down on him made it difficult to focus as the Red-Band he was sent down with tried to give him a crash-course in House rules for matches. Somewhere in the midst of all that, he was given a pair of boots of unfamiliar design, and softer soles than he had ever seen, along with the Nikopol’s quip that no footwear in arena fights was allowed to have cleats, spikes, steel toes, or other hidden weapons. Going part and parcel with what the man was already explaining about the fights being strictly unarmed.
All this in the space of the few minutes between matches, and already he was up. As if Bertona was apparently that certain of his participation, even before their private audience. Struggling against a mounting sense of disorientation at how far off course his life had blown in one morning, he prepared himself as best he could for the bout right before it began.
One of the improvements Nikopol had made to the place was to renovate the center of the pit, the ring itself consisting of a circular platform surrounded by a nearly twenty-foot gap— farther than most people could jump— cutting combatants off from the outer edge of the pit. Not that jumping it would do him any good in this situation anyway, yet a part of him couldn’t help seeing it as a challenge of sorts. As he crossed one of the two retractable bridges that served as the only way in or out of the ring, Max looked down, seeing a hanging web of safety nets circling the pit below. Unlike the spikes Shades said were rumored to have once lined the bottom during the final, decadent days of a dynasty overthrown long before they were born, at least according to local legend.
On the far side of the ring, he watched his opponent cross over the other bridge, reminding himself of the Red-Band’s impromptu lecture about the fights. A match could be decided by knock-out, ring out, submission, surrender, or be decided by the House at its discretion. While he was putting on his ill-fitting new boots, they had pressured him to write his name on some document, saying something about signing a waiver, something about liability in case of injury or death. Which he had to admit was a possibility in such an open-ended fight, in spite of the rule that anyone who killed their opponent would be both disqualified and banned from ever competing again. In itself, a rule both he and Shades had found a measure of relief in, as his friend said he wouldn’t have anything to do with the place if they conducted death-matches.
A sentiment Max agreed with wholeheartedly.
Then there was no more time for contemplation as the walkway withdrew behind him, even as he set foot on the platform, leaving him alone with his first contender.
A face he found he recognized as they both approached the center of the platform. One of the men who accosted him this morning, and the look on his face told Max that this guy definitely remembered him. Unlike at the docks, though, this time he wore a tank-top, with his faction’s signature arm-band curiously missing.
“What are you doing here?” Max demanded, as a voice on the arena’s public address system announced their match.
“What do you mean, kid?” he shot back. “We don’t just run this place, we train here, too! All Nikopol members are required to fight.”
“But your band…”
“We’re not allowed to show them in here!” the Red-Band warned him, “So why don’t you just shut up about it?”
“FIGHT!” the announcer’s booming voice finished, shouting even louder than the rest of his spiel.
The Red-Band wasted no time rushing Max with a flurry of punches, immediately putting him on the defensive, and very clearly trying to push him back over the edge.
Max quickly picked up on this, sidestepping after backpedaling several steps, even managing to trip his opponent, sending him stumbling toward the edge instead.
But the Red-Band managed to stop himself a couple feet short of falling off.
“Bastard!” he muttered, turning to face Max, striding up to him. “You gave us a lot of trouble back at the harbor. Now it’s payback time!”
“I could say the same to you,” Max reminded him, the awkwardness of his current situation taking a back seat to his resurgent outrage as he recalled the events of only a couple hours ago. “Guess that means I don’t need to hold back here.”
“Don’t make me laugh!” the Red-Band shouted, jumping back in with another barrage of punches.
This time, Max stood his ground, blocking his attacks from a more assertive stance, glad that Shades made for such a solid defensive sparring partner. He had to admit, at first he wasn’t so crazy about having to fight again so soon after all of his injuries were finally healed, especially his arm, but now that he was here, he quickly found his fighting spirit coming to the fore in spite of his own caution. But his adversary wasn’t finished yet, catching Max with a swift kick that finally drove him back.
“Is that all you’ve got?” the Red-Band taunted. “If it is, you better quit! I’m seventy-four and thirty-three in here. Do you know what that means, kid?”
“Nope,” Max told him, “and I couldn’t care less.”
Scowling at Max with open contempt, the Red-Band charged him again. Having gained a sense of his opponent’s form and tactics from those last couple exchanges, this time Max answered with a few counters of his own. The fight quickly became more active, moving around the ring as both combatants adjusted their footwork, angling to out-maneuver the other. Max, especially, having to be careful not to let himself be drawn or pressed too close to the edge, noting that the best strategy was to hold the center.
Something this more experienced competitor excelled at.
Yet, despite starting out on such an aggressive footing, the Nikopol began to run out of steam as Max weathered his assault. Feeling the other guy’s attacks slowing down, Max stepped up his counter-offensive, quickly breaking through his guard. Seeing that this was his best chance to end this, Max went all-out, forcing him back toward the drop.
As his last punch jarred the Red-Band off-balance, Max nailed him with a high kick, plowing him staggering all the way over with a frantic wail.
“That’s for Bandit…” he hissed, looking down past his still-extended foot to see his adversary bounce off the outer wall before landing on the net.
Max stepped back toward the middle, turning in a full circle, eyes wide, taking in the crowd cheering, their roar of approval nearly deafening compared to during the fight.
It was only as the cheering died down that he noticed the bridge was back. Grateful for the guaranteed breaks between bouts, as he couldn’t help remembering his battle with them in the Harken Building, and the idea of having to hold that platform against one challenger after another was almost as daunting. At least the ring-out rule gave him a way to avoid having to pin a rough character like him, or worse, having to K-O him, likely turning into a brutal, drawn-out war of attrition that would leave him battered and exhausted in the face of successive matches still awaiting him.
And already his keeper was waiting on the other side, as if there was anything he could do besides fight his matches and try to go the distance.
Max slumped in one of the benches that lined the inner circle, which was reserved for arena combatants and staff, trying to take full advantage of this break in the action. Recalling Bertona’s final words before they parted (We’ll be watching you from my private box with my new pet. Try not to disappoint.), he gazed up at the stands. Sure enough, there was a squarish block jutting out from one section most of the way up, with a very prominent Nikopol faction banner draped above it, where Bandit was waiting for him.
“Hey, man!” a voice called from around the bend, “Not bad for fresh meat!”
“Yeah!” added another, “He put up a hell of a fight! He should fight Ma’Quiver!”
Max turned his attention back to his own section as the next fight began, seeing the owner of that voice run up to him. About Shades’ height, of slight build, with short, unkempt brown hair and wide eyes. Striking him as oddly out of place with a red band on his arm.
“Looks like he got too full of himself there,” the young man remarked as he sat down next to Max, “but you’ve got some kick-ass moves yourself! Mind if I ask who you are?”
“Max,” he replied, “and you are?”
“Oh, I’m Tim,” he said, “but that’s not really important right now. So, what brings you to the island of Sarna?”
“Just passing through,” Max told him, quietly hoping he could make those words stick before the end of the day. Now that his first fight was over, he couldn’t help noticing the competition dividing their attention between the current contest, and glaring at him. Especially now that this fellow had taken an interest in him. “Say, what’s with these guys? Do all of them work for Nikopol?”
“Of course not,” Tim answered. “I mean, some ’em do, even if they’re not allowed to show it in the ring, but a lot of ’em work in Bodeen, or farther inland. Most of those guys are hoping to win some money, or have someone else betting on them out in the stands. And since the House sets the odds on each fight, they don’t always like new blood in the game. Especially since he showed up…”
While Max was grateful for a friendly face in the midst of so many enemies, he found himself torn between listening to this man’s already valuable intelligence about this place, and his own instincts telling him to pay more attention to the two battling it out in front of him. Either of whom he might end up having to take on later, so seeing their fighting style now could be a decisive advantage later. As he observed the match, it quickly became apparent to him that one of them clearly held the upper hand.
“So,” Max turned to Tim, noting that his attention had also shifted to the fight, “who is that guy?”
Tall and lanky. With shoulder-length black hair, and dressed in loose-fitting pants and a sleeve-less tunic that Max noted were well suited for hand-to-hand combat. He stood a whole head taller than his opponent, and so did his fighting skills. Max didn’t have to watch long at all to tell this guy was good, seeing how calmly, almost casually, he blunted the other fighter’s attacks against a frustration and desperation growing more and more apparent with each failed shot.
“That’s Ma’Quiver,” Tim told him, “the reigning champ.”
Max could believe it as he looked on, seeing this Ma’Quiver unleash a barrage of punches and kicks. A high-speed combo Max couldn’t help but wonder if he’d be quick enough to defend against himself. Now that he had finally gone on the offensive, Ma’Quiver quickly shattered his guard, blasting him back, completely off-balance, and finishing his spectacular counter-attack with an uppercut that sent him sliding across the floor and into the pit.
And the crowd went nuts for it.
“Amazing, isn’t he?” Tim asked, raising his voice to make himself heard over the roar of the audience. “Since he came to this island, he’s remained undefeated in ninety-five fights, so that makes his ninety-sixth!”
Max, of course, was impressed even without those numbers, which he was now wondering if that was what that other guy was bragging about. Much as he liked the challenge, he reminded himself that Bandit’s fate still hung in the balance, putting a harsh damper on his martial admiration. After all, if what this fellow said was true, then that would make this Ma’Quiver the single biggest obstacle in his path to freeing his friend.
“Hey! Scrub!” one of the other Red-Bands called out to Max’s new acquaintance, “You ain’t got time to be flappin’ yer gums with that loser! We got work to do!”
“Oh! Right!” he called back, hopping to his feet and rushing off. “Coming!”
“Total waste… Can’t fight worth shit, and only wants to watch.” The Red-Band folded his arms in plain disgust. Seeing Max watching Ma’Quiver cross the bridge so the next fight could begin, he smirked, adding, “Knock yourself out, kid. I got fifty C ridin’ on him in the upper tier matches.”
While he was admittedly rather inexperienced with gambling, Max was beginning to suspect this was what Bertona had in mind, and he wondered just how many fights it was going to take.
stacking the deck
As late morning wore on into afternoon, Mr Bertona watched the progression of first and second tier bouts from the comfort and security of his private box, accompanied by most of the same entourage that occupied his office that morning, paying careful attention to his new pet.
“Remarkable find,” he quipped, turning to the man who first approached Max about it.
“Indeed,” his aide replied, “his markings are most unique and exquisite, aren’t they?”
“Actually, I was talking about that fighter,” Mr Bertona informed him, sweeping one hand in the general direction of the arena below as Max finished yet another fight. “He has made it a lot farther than I first expected him to. In fact, his skills seem to improve with every match he fights. Maybe it’s for the best that he put up such a fight about it…”
Bandit, meanwhile, still sat in the same cage, having been wheeled into the box with Bertona, only now very much awake and in a most understandably foul mood.
“Yes,” the man conceded, “though at the time I had little choice, since I’m fairly sure they were going to be leaving Bodeen very soon. And we couldn’t have him going around making a scene, just when things were finally settling down for Nikopol.”
“I suppose not,” Mr Bertona shrugged, “but so far, this boy is bringing in a lot of money. I knew that what we needed all along was better fighters. Better fights means bigger wagers. It’s such a pity we couldn’t get that Cyexian to fight.” Though a rare occurrence, there were no specific rules against women fighting in Nikopolas. “By all accounts, she’s said to be tough, even by other Cyexians…”
“I don’t know about that…”
“Why not?” Mr Bertona snapped his fingers, and one of the robed girls started massaging his shoulders. “She’s a bounty hunter. She should be used to fighting for money.”
“Maybe so,” his aide admitted, “but she’s also said to be a lone wolf who doesn’t stick around long anywhere, and I’m told she’s very stubborn about the bounty she’s after.”
“A pity he wasn’t here, too,” Bertona mused, “that would have been the perfect high-stakes grudge match!”
“I really don’t think the rest of the House would have gone for it. That man is infamous for being more trouble than he’s worth. They’d probably be more interested in cashing in on that insane bounty on his head.”
“Of course they would,” Bertona snorted, “and then they would thank me for it when I show them our profits. That’s how it always works with overly cautious old farts. They don’t want to take any risks, but they’ll always accept the reward.”
“Oh well, in either case, now that you mention it,” the aide brought up, “I’ve been hearing rumors that he got killed in some backwater islands, and by some nobody, at that.”
“Too bad,” Mr Bertona commented, then turned his attention back to the matter at hand, saying, “Now, as for this boy, we can’t have him getting overconfident, now can we?”
“No, sir, we cannot.” Knowing exactly what Mr Bertona meant, for he could already tell, from both his expression and his tone, that his boss had already decided to play for keeps.
“Make sure that in the next tier that kid has to fight him. That will be as far as he goes. His winning streak ends here.”
With that, his aide left the box to carry out his instructions as a servant delivered a platter of fresh seafood.
As he ate, he glanced over at the cage, which he had had placed in here in the hopes that this Max could see it even from down there. Both as a motivator for his fights, a reminder of the stakes, and ultimately a carrot he could never reach. Something to rub his nose in for rubbing him the wrong way from the start.
All the same, though, he was fast beginning to dislike the way that cat was looking at him, now that he wasn’t doped-up on tranqs. Had originally wanted this magnificent specimen as an exotic pet for his manor grounds up on the hill, a regal feline symbol of Nikopol’s power, but he now suspected that there was entirely too much of the wild, the untamed, left in him. As such, he couldn’t help thinking it such a waste that such a stately creature would be as uncivilized as the rude boy he sailed in with.
Now he was starting to conclude that if his groundskeeping and security staff couldn’t tame it, then it would make just as proud and noble a symbol stuffed and mounted in his main hall.
As if sensing his captor’s thoughts, Bandit regarded him with a low, threatening snarl that promised blood and mayhem if not for the steel bars between them.
“Your boy will leave this place the same nobody he was when he walked in, when I’m through with him,” Bertona told the big cat. “Whether you like it or not, you’re mine now, one way or the other. The House always wins. I always win.”
the main event
Max watched the end of the current bout, having been told that he was up next.
While that first guy he had fought wasn’t quite the toughest of his opponents, he was by no means the weakest of the half dozen he had lasted through so far. And unlike him, he recognized none of the others from this morning, thus he was not always sure which ones were Red-Bands, making the others more than a little awkward since he now knew that only a portion of those competing here were part of the Nikopol faction. Though he was beginning to suspect that word was getting around about him among the Nikopols, since he increasingly sensed he was getting two distinctly different kinds of glares from the competition. Of course, some had simply come to try their luck, test their meddle, or just looking to make a little money, robbing him of the edge of striking a blow for Bandit, while still having to defeat them without fail anyway for his sake.
Once he started to get used to having an audience while he fought, he began to notice that the crowd seemed to have their own favorites, and that he was fast becoming one of them. He tried to take some encouragement in having an increasing number of them on his side in this mostly hostile territory. For whatever that was worth.
If only he had come by this place of his own volition, he might have been able to go all-out for the challenge of it, just to see how far he could get. Instead, he had no choice but to fight cautiously, to conserve his energy and try not to reveal too much to his rivals watching from the sidelines, as his friend’s fate was riding on every match.
Competition whose ranks were now shrinking in number since the second tier, even those who remained served to raise the bar for every bout from here on out. So far, those he had faced were all more skilled than any of the security guards he and Shades fought in that creepy mall, and at least as tough as those thieves they ran into in the Kona Islands, who admittedly had numbers on their side. Much to his relief, though, he at least hadn’t met anyone of half of Striker’s— let alone Erix’s— caliber in here.
Then again, Max was pretty sure that was all about to change as he entered the ring and saw who his next opponent was.
Naturally, Max had been trying to keep track of all the fighters as best he could, just as they were watching him, but he especially focused on Ma’Quiver’s matches, as he could already tell, even without any of the others’ commentary, that this guy was a cut above the rest. Under other circumstances, he would have enjoyed such a chance to put his skills to the test, but in this situation, it was a struggle to try to shake off this sense of dread in the face of these grim new odds. Judging from the spectators’ response, it looked as if his growing fan favor was in danger of being eclipsed by a much greater favorite.
The walkway retracted behind him as Max wondered how he was going to handle this.
“You must be new to these parts,” Ma’Quiver quipped as he strode toward the center, “I haven’t seen you around here before. Nice to see some fresh blood in the game…”
As the two combatants approached each other, Max could feel the intensity in the stands, rising to a level he hadn’t felt in either his own, or Ma’Quiver’s, fights.
“The name’s Max,” he replied, deciding to play it even more cautiously while he tried to figure out what he was dealing with. “You must be this Ma’Quiver fellow I’ve been hearing so much about.”
Up close, the arena’s undefeated champion was even taller than Max, with a wiry, sinewy build that hinted at both speed and power to match, with sharp green eyes that almost seemed to look right through him.
“And let me guess,” Ma’Quiver intoned quietly, “you’re not impressed, right? Did I miss anything?”
“Well, no, actually I—”
Before he could tell Ma’Quiver that he was, in fact, impressed, the announcer’s voice boomed out the start of the match, and Max was abruptly cut off by his opponent’s fast-break offensive. Driven backpedaling out toward the edge so fast he could hardly keep his feet under him, he barely managed to sidestep in time to avoid losing the fight before it had even rightly begun.
“Oh,” Ma’Quiver smiled as he turned before Max could regain his footing to counter-attack, “you’re better than I thought. Just as I expected. But why are you hesitating?”
Max angled around him, keeping a wary eye on an adversary whose sheer foot-speed had caught him off-guard in spite of having watched him fight earlier. Now that he had seen this guy in action, face to face, Max could see that he was at least as fast as Erix, much to his dismay. So confident, yet so calm, with that same knack for entertaining the crowd while still holding the advantage against everyone he faced.
Concluding that the best way to deal someone that fast was to strike first and keep them on the defensive, Max jumped in, deciding to take the fight back to him. Yet Ma’Quiver took Max’s assault in stride, blocking all of his attacks as casually as he had seen him do to others, only now he was on the receiving end of that treatment.
“That’s more like it,” Ma’Quiver remarked, blocking Max’s kick and shoving him back. “I was hoping you were better than these meatheads, but surely that’s not all you got!”
“Of course not!” Max shot back, springing back to his feet. What’s with this guy? Thinking of Bandit, he focused back on his original goal, reminding himself that, like a growing list of times before it, defeat was not an option.
“Glad to hear it.”
And Ma’Quiver launched another sharp offensive that Max staggered back from. This time, though, Max was better prepared for it, jumping aside much sooner. Unfortunately, his opponent had already accounted for this, pivoting and following Max in his new direction to continue his attack.
Taking a serious risk against someone of Ma’Quiver’s agility, Max dropped down, sweeping his legs with a low kick, which his opponent couldn’t quite avoid, tripping him up and giving Max a few seconds’ breather.
“Okay, now I’m impressed,” Ma’Quiver admitted as he caught himself. “Nobody here has ever stopped that combo before. It looks like I can actually have some fun with you, Max! Now show me what ya got!”
And a massive cheer went up from the stands as the two of them continued exchanging blows, moving around the arena in a furious dance. Max fighting as much against a growing sense of desperation as his opponent, feeling that his only chance of getting past this round was stretching farther and farther out of reach. Fast coming to the conclusion that, if not for his past experience against Striker and Erix, he doubted he would have lasted even this long.
Max could quickly tell that this mysterious fighter’s confidence was more than just bravado. He was proving himself to be easily as skilled as Erix, possibly even more so. And he was fast understanding that the only way to avoid exhausting more of his strength, and leaving himself worse off in subsequent bouts, would be to take a dangerous gamble on ending this one quickly.
Taking a tactic he felt he was getting entirely too accustomed to against stronger adversaries anymore, Max allowed Ma’Quiver to press him closer to the edge. As if this guy wasn’t already a consummate master of holding home ground, effectively locking Max out of the center anyway. It was a definite risk, since those who fought here often were more mindful of such hazards than in other battles he’d fought, still it was the best plan he could think of at the moment.
Waiting until Ma’Quiver had pushed him within a few paces of the side, then, just as he suspected, his opponent went for another rapid combo. Which Max focused all of his attention on catching the first punch of. In a fluid motion he had practiced many times with Shades and Justin, he stepped aside, sliding his attacker along the course of his own momentum.
In this case, stumbling and falling over the edge.
Max’s sigh of relief, though, was cut short by the collective gasp of over a thousand people, at first thinking it was perhaps shock that someone had actually beaten Nikopolas’ undefeated champion, at least until he saw it.
As he stumbled back, too far away now, he realized dimly, to do anything about it, he spotted a pair of hands grasping the rim of the fighting ring. Before Max could figure out what to do, torn between a pressing need to win this match for Bandit, and an indisputable sense of shame at the idea of kicking him when he was down, as Erix had done to him not so long ago, Ma’Quiver swung from side to side a couple times, finally getting one leg back up over the edge. Thus he was still standing there, dumbfounded, as the opponent he thought he had defeated bounded back to his feet.
Much to the audience’s thunderous amazement.
“No way!” Max gasped, watching his formerly fallen foe escape his precarious position, wondering all the while where this mysterious warrior learned to fight like that.
“Thought you could get rid of me that easily, huh?” Ma’Quiver grinned at him, giving Max the strong impression that not only was this guy holding back, but was also hiding something. And Max got the sinking feeling he was about to find out what he was really up against, as he said, “You seem to be getting the hang of this arena, but let’s see how you handle this…”
Ma’Quiver seemed to tense up for a moment—
Then Max couldn’t quite follow what happened next. Ma’Quiver seemed to vanish from right out in front of him, then he was right up in his face. He didn’t even see the punch that nailed him in the face.
Didn’t even feel it until he hit the ground a couple paces away from him.
evening the odds
Justin was glad Shades had the foresight to bring an extra pair of binoculars from the ship, as seating was proving as unfavorable as ticket prices.
“Max had damn well better be here…” Justin muttered as he scanned the crowd.
A crowd even larger than he had anticipated, despite Nikopolas Arena’s considerable size. Hundreds of people in just their quarter alone, packed almost to capacity. Moving among the spectators were several groups of Red-Bands, traversing the stands in pairs. One carrying a shoulder-strapped lockbox and taking wagers, the other bearing a tablet and recording them. As well as at least a couple dozen others scattered about, serving as security guards.
“Well, if he’s here,” Shades assured him, having joined his friend’s search in the interval between matches, “we should be able to spot him easily enough since Bandit went out with him.”
And if so, would have indeed gotten to watch more fights than they would get to. Then again, given that it was his understanding that upper tier matches were fought only by those who won in the lower tiers, it meant that he and Justin would presumably get to make up for quantity with quality in the bouts they did get to see. Of course, he found the tier system itself intriguing, for although no stranger to the concept of drawing lots to decide blocks in a tournament lineup, he had never seen anyone use the randomized drawing to shuffle the match-ups in successive levels, rather than fixed fighting brackets leading to a final showdown.
Even the audience wasn’t let in on who was facing who until the beginning of each fight. Then again, given that this arena seemed to be funded on gambling, he was fast starting to suspect that the randomized format was also part of the show, likely to raise the stakes on the upper tiers. So far, Justin had cooperated with him about not betting anything until they had seen enough to make a more informed decision about it.
“I know, but I still can’t believe he left without us.” Justin also still couldn’t quite shake off that uneasy feeling from earlier, seeing Max’s boots, and especially his laser sword, just lying around like that, so he was glad Shades was right about the scanner units stationed at the entrance only being able to detect power pistols and the like, as he was also carrying Max’s blade concealed, in addition to his own staff. They had even waited for a while after lunch to see if the two of them had merely stepped out, in spite of how unwelcome Bandit seemed to be in these parts, until waiting any longer would mean missing all the action here. “Doesn’t he know how much of a pain in the ass it’s gonna be to find him in this place?”
From the moment Shades eyed the arena from afar, he was quite sure the view from the cheap seats would probably be less than ideal. After all, his old friend, Arthur LaRoch, played football one year in high school, and he had made a point of attending as many games as his budget and work schedule would allow, despite the fact that he couldn’t care less about sports. A bunch of gorillas beating each other up over a coconut… was how his aunt so aptly summed up his own opinion of the game. Still, he had to admit that it at least yielded the wisdom to bring binoculars to big outdoor events.
“Um, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem…” Shades trailed off, his focus shifting back to center stage as he watched the next two combatants enter the ring. Couldn’t quite admit what he was seeing as he tried to make some sense out of the scene unfolding before him. “Looks like he’s the main event.”
Based on the audience’s reaction, he was beginning to suspect their friend had made quite a name for himself in just one short day.
“What the hell is he doing down there?” Justin demanded. “And why didn’t he tell us he was gonna fight? As far as he’s made it, we could’ve won a lot of money!”
“You know, he didn’t really strike me as the type…”
Shades couldn’t help feeling uneasy about this turn of events, wishing he could figure out precisely why. Recalling Justin’s remarks from back at the ship out of left field, Shades noted that Max was sporting new footwear. This didn’t look like a barefoot contest any more than it had sounded like one in any of the descriptions he’d heard, though he had to concede that his friend may have picked up the wrong impression listening to his own talk about martial arts tournaments back on Earth. All the same, though, that explanation failed to satisfied his intuition.
“Give ’im hell, Max!” Shades called out, deciding to just run with it.
“Kick his ass!” Justin added.
Once the fight began in earnest, it quickly became apparent that Max was up against one tough customer. As their exchange escalated in intensity, so, too, did the atmosphere in the stands. The air of anticipation more than suggesting that not just Max, but this other fighter, especially, had everyone around him on the edge of their seats with his eye-catching blend of fighting skill and showmanship working the crowd as much as his opponent.
“Damn!” Justin remarked. “Who is that guy?”
“Him?” the guy next to him said, pointing to Max’s opponent, “That’s Ma’Quiver. He’s the undefeated champion of Nikopolas Arena, and the greatest fighter Sarna’s ever seen!”
And Shades was not seeing any reason to doubt it.
“Really?” No matter how hard he tried, Justin couldn’t quite keep the worry out of his voice. “How many fights has he won?”
“So far, he’s won ninety-nine, and this’ll be his hundredth,” the man replied, not even bothering to take his eyes off the fight. “You must be new around here. You didn’t bet on that other guy, did you?” he laughed. “I mean, he is pretty good, but his luck ran out when Ma’Quiver was chosen as his opponent!”
“Never mind the boots,” Shades muttered, for now that he knew Max’s whereabouts, the answer only served to raise more questions, “if Max is down there, then where the hell is Bandit?”
Now that he thought about it, he strongly doubted their feline friend would be allowed to just come waltzing into an establishment like this.
Yet both his and Justin’s concerns were abruptly derailed as Max turned the tables on this Ma’Quiver, turning his own momentum against him and hurling him over the edge.
“Oh yeah!” Justin shouted at the other spectator, even as an awed hush fell over the stands, “Max has never lost a fight, either!”
Even as Shades opened his mouth to politely correct his friend on that score, the words froze on his tongue as the crowd let out a collective gasp at what happened next.
His nagging sense of foreboding, he noticed, had not entirely deserted him as he watched this guy come back from the brink of defeat with a clever move he wasn’t so sure even Max could pull off. Realized he was holding his breath just like everyone else. He glanced over at Justin for a second, seeing his friend too slack-jawed to even eat his own words.
“Aw yeah…” the fan Justin was arguing with breathed, almost too quiet for either of them to hear, “He’s gonna do that move…”
And that was when he saw it.
Or, rather, didn’t see it. At first, Shades wondered if he had blinked, but that Ma’Quiver seemed to vanish for a moment, and Max went flying. He blinked a couple times, certain he was seeing things.
Yet Max was still down for the count, his mysterious opponent standing over him. Ma’Quiver seemed to regard Max for a moment, then turned as if heading for the extension bridge, then paused again.
“What the fuck was that!?” Justin blurted, apparently as confounded as Shades.
“Awesome!” the Ma’Quiver fan gushed, Shades quickly getting the feeling that this was what the audience was really watching this fight to see. “I’ve only seen it twice before! Everybody calls it Shadow Fist, and it’s his ultimate attack! That’s the end of… that… guy…”
Max was slow getting back to his feet, as slow as that fan’s last couple words, but Ma’Quiver seemed inclined to let him rise or fall of his own accord before continuing, and Shades wondered how much of it was sportsmanship, showmanship, or just plain overconfidence, and in what measure.
As the match resumed, it quickly became apparent just how much of a disadvantage Max was really operating at. At first, things carried on much as they had before, only now their friend was a good deal more wary of this strange adversary. And rightly so, they soon discovered, for, much as both of them feared, this Ma’Quiver indeed had more where that last attack came from.
If my eyes aren’t deceiving me, Shades thought, I just saw that guy go… shadow… For lack of a better word. As if Ma’Quiver’s moves were invisible, as all he could see of them were flashes and flickers of movement. There was also an accompanying sense of something happening when he did that, and he felt he should have a better idea. Somewhere along the way, he had gotten into a conversation with Master Al once, about stuff he had seen in video games, but there was nothing his sensei had heard of, no technique that bore any resemblance to what this guy was doing.
The closest thing he had ever seen to it was in dreams. A thought he found rather less than reassuring as he reminded himself that he was in a different dimension, becoming acquainted with an expanding list of things he never knew existed. Which did not bode well for Max, as he surely couldn’t withstand much more of this kind of punishment.
That, of course, brought him back to the question of why his friend was still hanging in there, despite the fact that he had no plausible way to win, since that Shadow move was clearly more than just a one-shot. He knew Max could be stubborn, but also very sensible, especially if there was nothing at stake. Thus he couldn’t shake off the gnawing worry that something was missing from this equation.
“He hasn’t fought this hard since that time Erix took me hostage… What’s he so fired-up about?”
Both he and Justin got their answer a moment later, when, during a pause in their confrontation, Max pointed up into the stands. Up, at what appeared to be a private box. And in that box, prominently displayed, a cage.
And in that cage, Bandit.
“So that’s it…” Shades’ intuition rapidly filling in the missing pieces of the puzzle. Lurking underneath it all, though, the unsettling certainty that Max would never willingly wager his friend’s life or freedom for anything.
While Shades was busy smelling shenanigans, he failed to notice that Justin, having seen quite enough, was headed down to the standing-room only section, near the pit, with a mind to do something about it.
raising the stakes
As Max dragged himself back to his feet, he kept a wary eye on Ma’Quiver, afraid he might disappear like that again, but his opponent scarcely even moved, just watching him, seemingly out of idle curiosity.
“You’ve earned my respect,” Ma’Quiver told him once he was finally up. “I’ve only used that technique as a finisher here. You’re the first to ever get up from it.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Max muttered, shaking his head and wondering if he would even be able to get back up again if his opponent did that a second time. Especially since he was still at a loss for what that even was in the first place.
“Then you should take this as one, as well…”
Max, already dreading the implications of that pronouncement, stepped back a couple steps as Ma’Quiver disappeared yet again. This time finding himself bombarded by flashes and flickers of punches and kicks as he threw up his arms in a frantic effort to guard. Only, much like the first time, somehow it was coming too fast for him to keep up with. Try as he might, Max was steadily driven back by this blindingly fast barrage of blows.
Which came to a jarring end with another uppercut like the first one, that sent Max sliding across the floor, right up to the edge.
Max looked up to see the mysterious warrior standing right where he had been at the beginning of the attack as he rose to his feet on shaky legs. If the crowd went wild at that last round, they really raised the roof for Ma’Quiver kicking it up a notch. Even as Max began to wonder how he did that, it raised the even more troubling question of whether or not he had any chance against someone like him.
“Not bad. You actually blocked a couple of those…” Ma’Quiver remarked. “But can you keep it up?”
“I’ll try not to disappoint you,” Max replied. Knowing full well that if he hadn’t seen Ma’Quiver’s moves up close a couple times before he did whatever he did, there was no way he would have managed even this much. Fearing another onslaught like that last, from his adversary’s tone, Max rolled over, quickly scrambling away from the edge.
“I see,” Ma’Quiver commented, “so even after seeing that, you still want to defeat me?”
“No,” Max told him, “it’s more like I have to defeat you.” Though he was still at a loss for how. Thinking about Bandit, it was enough to make him scream, yet he was increasingly certain he had just run up against the brick wall of a challenger even tougher than Erix. Just when he was beginning to fear there was no hope of saving his friend, he tried a new approach, telling him, “You’re not my enemy, Ma’Quiver, but I have to fight you anyway. I’m actually trying to help my friend, and to do that, I have to win this fight…”
“Sorry, Max, but I’ve got a reputation to maintain,” Ma’Quiver informed him. “If I let a no-name contender like you beat me, I’d be the laughing stock of these parts. Not that I really care about what they think, mind you, but I have my pride as a warrior. I’ve won ninety-nine fights here, and you’re gonna be the one-hundredth. You won’t get past me without putting up the fight of your life!”
And then it was on again.
Before Max was entirely ready, he was once again bombarded with a blur of attacks neither his eyes nor his body could completely keep up with. The only thing he could think of to do was to jump to the side, hoping to take advantage of Ma’Quiver’s forward momentum to get in behind him. It was a plan that should have worked, yet somehow Ma’Quiver managed to about-face and catch Max’s foot in mid kick, shoving him back.
Max pounded his fist in rising frustration as he got back up again.
“You pick up on other people’s moves quickly,” Ma’Quiver observed, actually breathing hard for the first time in this entire confrontation, “a useful skill… Or did you actually notice? But how long can you hold out?”
“As long as I have to.”
Though Max wasn’t sure how much more abuse he could take out here. While still steady on his feet, if this Ma’Quiver kept breaking through his defenses like this, he doubted he would be for long. The only things allowing him to stop any of them was both parts observation, as well as the fact that, if he wasn’t mistaken, that last volley of attacks had slowed down a bit, to where he could almost see them. Yet he knew it was still no use if his hands and feet couldn’t keep up with it, as well.
“Tell me, Max,” Ma’Quiver demanded, giving him a level look as he spoke, “why are you being so stubborn about this? You don’t strike me as the Sore Loser type, so what is it? Is the money that important to you? Is someone else betting on your matches? Or do you have some card up your sleeve you haven’t played yet? Why do you keep getting back up now that you’ve seen my power?”
All the while, all Max could think of was his oldest friend, who had been the one constant in his life all these years, whom he feared he was moments away from failing him in his hour of need. No longer heeding his opponent, he found himself gazing up into the stands, up at Bertona’s private box. So close, yet so far away. Taunting him. It was then that Max realized the implications of the direction each of them was facing.
And so he gave Ma’Quiver his answer, pointing up at his feline friend’s plight.
“I see.” Ma’Quiver nodded. “So be it. I acknowledge you, Max. Seeing as how my ultimate techniques involve skills that you, my friend, clearly do not possess, I will refrain from using them from here on. Let’s see if you can beat me in a fair fight!”
With that, he stepped up again, forcing Max back on the defensive. Though at least this time he did so at a speed Max could actually keep pace with. All the while, the grim realization dawning on him that it wouldn’t even matter if he had the strength left to fight any additional bouts if he never made it past this one.
“Come on!” Ma’Quiver challenged, jumping right in close and grabbing Max by the front of his shirt. He then leaned in close, whispering, “I don’t know what happened between you and Berto, but the House runs this game, and they expect us to put on a good show. No one’s gonna believe the Undefeated Champ lost without one hell of a fight.” He then subtly relaxed his grip, shouting, “Now show me what ya got!”
Max broke free, kicking Ma’Quiver away.
“That’s more like it!” Ma’Quiver seemed to be taking in the crowd’s mixed response as Max hesitated. “Bring it on!”
And so Max did, deciding that his only remaining option was to gamble on this guy’s unexpected generosity. Feeling that his only chance was to hold out against him, he took the fight back to Ma’Quiver, throwing caution to the wind, hitting him with everything he had. Much like before, the quick and nimble fighter took it all in stride. Unlike before, though, the counters were more manageable.
At least until Ma’Quiver slipped in behind him, putting one arm around Max’s neck, hissing, “Don’t get sloppy now. I never said I was gonna throw this fight, just give you a fighting chance.”
When he felt Ma’Quiver’s grip loosen up, Max elbowed him and hauled him over his shoulder.
Ma’Quiver rolled away and bounded back to his feet, and their blazing intensive sparring match continued, much to the audience’s rabid enthusiasm.
At least until Max heard a familiar voice call out to him from off to his left.
It took him a moment to spot his friend, but sure enough, there was Justin, standing in the front row, one level above the inner circle, which was reserved solely for fighters and Nikopolas staff. Arm cocked back, and his intuition made out what it was he was holding before his eyes could, just as Justin threw it. And then there was no time to wonder where his friend came from, or whether or not Shades was also with him, as his laser sword sailed through the air in his general direction.
Only more than a little off, his treasured blade skittering across the floor toward the edge.
Before he knew what he was doing, Max dashed across the intervening space, diving and snatching it up just as it was about to tumble over the brink.
It wasn’t until after he scrambled back to his feet and already brought the radiant green energy blade to bear against Ma’Quiver, that his mind finally caught up with his reflexes.
With what he was actually doing.
the show must go on
For the first time in his life, Max found himself feeling chagrined while wielding a weapon.
And it genuinely didn’t help, the way Ma’Quiver was looking at him, either.
The crowd, meanwhile, fell into a stunned silence at this strange turn of events.
“And here I had you pegged for a man of honor…” the mysterious warrior sighed, shaking his head slowly.
“Ma’Quiver… I…” Max stammered, as much at a loss for words as he was for moves in the wake of Justin’s impulsive attempt to help him. In another first, he began to wonder if he should toss aside his blade to fight. “I… didn’t ask him to do that.”
Max was just about to shut it off, when his opponent chimed in with an implication of his actions that had completely slipped his mind in all the confusion.
“You do realize that you just got dis—”
But was cut off by a voice calling out from the sidelines.
“Hey! Ma’Quiver!” shouted the friendly, helpful young man Max had talked to earlier, “Your sword!”
Then tossed an object that could be only one thing. As Max stood there, dumbfounded, Ma’Quiver zapped halfway across the ring to snap up his weapon, sliding to a halt and turning to face him.
“Foolish gesture…” Ma’Quiver muttered, firing up a pair of parallel orange energy blades. Much like with the Cyexian pirate captain Striker’s sword, the difference in blade length created an illusion of curvature. Aside from the color, the other chief difference he noted was that there was no axe-shaped guard on this one, just a small square of hilt. “Now we’re both going to be disqualified.”
The entire arena had gone silent, and many eyes turned to the private Nikopol box, where Mr Bertona was well known to oversee the arena matches.
From within his viewing box, Bertona took a long, deep gulp of cigar smoke, then blew it all out at once. Looked down at the two combatants, studying the mood of the crowd, then over at Bandit, his face hardening in stubborn resolve. Pressing the intercom button, the one that patched him through to the judges, he made his pronouncement.
A moment later, the announcement broke in over the public address system for all to hear, announcing: “THE HOUSE WILL ALLOW IT! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE MATCH WILL CONTINUE!”
And a deafening roar of enthusiasm erupted from the stands as Ma’Quiver assumed a fighting stance.
“You heard the man,” he said, though Max could hardly hear him over the din, “the show must go on. Continue with swords?”
“Agreed.” At least now Max didn’t feel so bad about it.
It took Max a moment to regain his bearings, but the sight of Ma’Quiver charging at him with a laser sword was enough to get him moving. At least now that his opponent was no longer unarmed, he felt a little less ashamed over this unexpected twist. All the same, the fact that this guy also carried a sword didn’t bode well for his chances at swordsmanship being too much better than he had fared at hand-to-hand.
Sure enough, Ma’Quiver also proved himself a consummate swordsman, matching him move for move as the audience cheered on this unprecedented fight. Both of them unleashing fast-paced swordplay, the like of which most of the crowd had never seen before. Between his arms and his blade length, Ma’Quiver’s reach was greater than Max’s, allowing him to control a much larger zone.
Contemplating the tactics they had practiced in sparring, Max weighed his options. With tonfa, Shades would try to get up in his face, negating both his reach advantage, and the zone, entirely. Justin, on the other hand, would try to flank him, guarding tightly and looking for a prime opening. But with Ma’Quiver’s reflexes and agility, Max suspected that being outmaneuvered was probably a rare occurrence for him.
“So, you really wanted to win this badly…” Ma’Quiver intoned, pressing Max back as they locked blades. “Your friends must mean a lot to you.”
“They do.” Max pushed back, trying not to lose focus against a resurging sense of shame at his ever more desperate situation.
“And you must mean a lot to them, as well.”
“Of course.” Max held his ground, even though he was increasingly certain that his own conviction was the only thing holding Ma’Quiver back. “Justin meant well… Please don’t hold it against him.”
“You’re serious?” Ma’Quiver demanded as they resumed their exchange.
“Yes,” Max told him. Having finally figured out something he might offer someone who already had what he wanted. Realized that, as long as he was playing by Bertona’s rules, he had no chance, that his only hope was to play this match by Ma’Quiver’s. “Help me, just this once, and in return, I promise I’ll fight you again, for real, in a time and place of your choosing. Win or lose, I’ll hold no grudges.”
“I’m really not your enemy, am I?” Ma’Quiver asked as he leapt in again.
“No, you’re not,” Max answered, his sense of shame giving way to frustration as he tried to gauge his opponent’s reaction, “but I will fight you, if that’s what it takes. It’s all I have to offer. I know I’m no match for you, but I won’t abandon my friend.” Risking a look up at Bandit, “Even if I have to fight you a hundred times… even if I have to fight all of them…”
With that, Ma’Quiver disengaged and stepped back, smiling.
“Good. You’re as strong as I thought you were. But your heart’s not really in this fight, is it, Max?” And though Max was grateful for the chance to catch his breath, he was still also anxious of where Ma’Quiver might go with this next. “It’s no fun fighting someone whose fighting spirit is so out of balance…”
From that tone of open disappointment, Max wondered if he should perhaps brace himself for the worst.
“Tell me,” Ma’Quiver grinned, glancing over at the sidelines, “how far can you jump?”
“Just follow my lead, Max.”
With that, Ma’Quiver dashed toward the edge of the arena, taking a flying leap.
Much to everyone’s amazement, even Max’s, he cleared the gap, landing gracefully on the other side. Before the startled Red-Band standing next to him could make a move, Ma’Quiver knocked him over the railing with a boot to the head. He was able to take down a second one with his stun blade before any of the other guards on that level regained their initiative.
Taking this as both his cue, and a personal challenge of sorts, Max followed suit, making his own jump, rolling to a somewhat less graceful landing on the other side. He bounded back to his feet in time to join the fray as Ma’Quiver took on the Red-Bands, both in and out of uniform. While the two of them cleaned out the guards on that level, most of the other fighters fled the inner circle in panicked confusion.
Save for one.
“Ma’Quiver!” cried Tim, scrambling up as the last guard hit the ground, “What are you doing!?”
“I’m bustin’ out of here,” Ma’Quiver told him. “I suppose this was how it was going to happen anyway, the way things were going. Thanks for holding on to my sword while I fight. I never trusted Berto with it.”
“Who would?” Tim shrugged. “So you’re really leaving Bodeen, aren’t you?”
“You knew I wasn’t going to stick around for longer than I had to.” Ma’Quiver turned to Max, saying, “Glad to see I was right about your skills. If you’re not from Sarna, that means you’ve got your own ship, right?”
“Yes,” Max replied, “but where are you going with this?”
“Anywhere but Sarna,” Ma’Quiver told him. “If we succeed in rescuing your friend, I expect to hitch a ride with you. I’m also holding you to your word about that rematch. Got it?”
“Of course,” Max answered.
“Then here,” Tim said to both of them, holding out a pill in each hand. “You’ll need your full strength to beat the House, won’t you?”
“Thank you, Timofar,” Ma’Quiver took the pills, then said, “Now that the Nikopols have seen you help me, you should probably flee Bodeen, as well.”
“I will,” Timofar assured him. “I really enjoyed watching you fight. I feel like I learned a lot from you. I hope we meet again someday.”
Tim clapped his shoulders, then took off.
“Here,” Ma’Quiver handed Max a water bottle from the nearest bench as he popped his pill, “take it. We’ll need all the help we can get. I just hope you friend is up to it.”
“They will be,” Max replied, swallowing the pill and taking a swig, as he had seen Shades do with the ship’s stock of vitamins, “both of them.”
“That helps,” Ma’Quiver said, relieved at news of even one more ally than he had hoped for. “Follow me. We don’t have much time.”
Max could see exactly what Ma’Quiver meant as he looked up and saw the growing chaos in the stands. Yet, even in the face of such grim odds, he felt a rising surge of energy with him, and with it renewed hope and determination to see this through.
the crowd goes wild
For Justin Black, a growing list of questions that had been quietly, yet very insistently, piling up in the back of his mind since they went back to the ship for lunch, all found their answers at the tip of Max’s finger as he pointed up at Bandit.
His missing friends. His friend’s missing boots. Even more pressing, his friend’s missing laser sword. Combined with Max not leaving any notice when he had seemed so excited about coming to this arena.
Justin knew a stacked deck when he saw one, and Max was clearly fighting a battle he was not meant to win.
“Max!” he shouted, having moved down as close to the ring as he could get, “Catch!”
Though there was one more level below the stands, he could see no immediate path to get below this one, so this would have to do. Wondering if some of Shades’ almost uncanny intuition wasn’t rubbing off on him, he now felt vindicated in bringing Max’s laser sword with him as he prepared to toss it to him. Seeing that he had Max’s attention, he threw it.
Unfortunately, his distance was even worse than he feared, and the weapon fell short of Max’s area, clattering to the floor and rolling away. Just like anyone else who was close enough to the ring to more closely observe his interference, Justin held his breath as Max made a frantic dive for it.
And even as Max returned triumphantly to his feet with it and fired up his radiant green blade, Shades’ own insight had the drop on everyone else’s as he wondered how Justin could possibly help their friend by getting him disqualified.
Sure enough, the entire arena came to an abrupt halt, right along with the fight itself, as even Max stood sheepishly at the results of his own reflexes and instincts. It seemed that now it would only be a matter of seconds before whoever was judging this contest regained their speech faculties to make it official.
It was in the midst of this awkward pause that things got even more complicated, as someone in the fighters-only section below Justin tossed a second laser sword into the mix, this time to that Ma’Quiver fellow. Though the audience went into a brief wave of murmurs, they almost immediately lapsed into an even more intense, more expectant, silence. Shades quickly noticed that all eyes turned upward toward a private viewing box, the same one that was adorned with the Nikopol sigil, wherein Bandit was apparently being held captive. A development he hardly found reassuring.
When the announcer declared that the fight would continue, he became even more suspicious, as everyone else’s response strongly hinted that nothing like this had ever been allowed before.
On the subject of allowed, though, his attention briefly shifted to Justin. Who at least had the presence of mind to try slipping back into the crowd, as a couple Red-Bands in this neck of the woods had clearly taken an unhealthy interest in him. Given that Shades still hadn’t figured out any plausible way to back him up against these sort of numbers, it was probably for the best that the guards’ interest quickly waned, along with that of anyone else who may have noted Justin’s position, as the match between Max and Ma’Quiver resumed in earnest.
And how. If nothing else, the crowd seemed to like it.
Shades hadn’t seen Max fight like this since his duel with Erix some weeks ago, moves that amazed him as much as anyone else witnessing this spectacle. Much to his dismay, though, this Ma’Quiver matched his friend’s swordsmanship stride for stride, proving himself as capable with a blade as he was unarmed. As the exchange of energy blades went on, the crowd became ever more passionate, approaching fever-pitch, as new odds were given, and a whole new round of betting began among the money collectors in the stands.
Shades found it harder to divide his attention between a fight he didn’t want to miss a second of, and the guards he feared might still have their eye on Justin.
Only to realize that he had largely failed at that last as Justin slipped right back in next to him, saying, “So, what’d ya think of that?”
“You mean almost getting him disqualified,” Shades cocked his head, “or letting the House know exactly where we are?”
“Hey!” Justin shot back, “It’s not like you were doing anything!”
“That’s because I was trying to come… up… with…”
Shades trailed off as he noticed that Ma’Quiver had backed off. Yet even as he wondered what tactic this difficult foe would throw at his friend next, he instead ran over to the edge and jumped clean out of the ring. Even as his mind started catching up with the fact that Ma’Quiver was now beating up on guards left and right, Max jumped across and got into the act, as well.
“What the hell are they doing!?” Justin screeched, his voice competing against the collective confusion of over a thousand people.
“…A plan,” Shades concluded, taking his cue from the same confusion. Tugging Justin’s arm for him to follow as he led them farther up the stands, toward one of the Red-Bands bearing the money coffers for this new betting frenzy, making a dangerous gamble of his own, bellowing as loud as he could against the escalating cacophony of the crowd, “Hey! Nikopol’s reneging on our bets! Those bastards just tried to rip me off!”
He approached waving bills, just like everyone else, only to snatch them away and whip out one of his stun-sticks at the last second, striking the Red-Band with the tablet, for this renewed frenzy of betting had him doing some thinking of his own, seeing as how things were about to get ugly.
“Good one!” Justin laughed, immediately catching on.
It only took a matter of seconds for the nearest gamblers in that section to fall upon both him, and the hapless fellow with the tablet for recording wagers. In spite of this, it was still Justin who slipped out of the dogpile with the coffer. Shades, meanwhile, had busted out one of his stun-sticks as he moved on the next pair, further along the row, closer to the Nikopol box.
He wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but it at least looked like Ma’Quiver had joined forces with Max, though even if not, there would be no better opportunity to rescue Bandit.
The Nikopol with the coffer was paying so much attention to the violence engulfing his fellow that he didn’t even see Shades coming as he skipped across the backs of several now-unoccupied seats to the close the distance. One blow from his stun blade was enough to drop him, and a second strike took down his thunderstruck partner. A quick switch to its cutting blade made short work of the lock binding the coffer as he snatched it up.
For inspiration struck just in time, even as several guards in this section had caught the two of them as the cause of all this chaos, and were quickly moving in on them.
Opening the lid and holding the coffer as if it were a bucket of water, he pitched its contents into the crowd between themselves and the guards. A spray of coinage, and a fluttering wave of notes floating on the updraft. Followed almost instantly by a mad rush of people flooding the intervening space like a tide in fast-forward.
“What the fuck are you doing!?” Justin cried, watching all that money on the breeze. And just when he had found a solution to their financial problems.
“Giving these people a refund!” Shades answered. “What’s it look like?”
Shades sighed, wondering exactly when he started to get used to breakfast to battle.
Though Justin had to admit, it was making an excellent obstruction for the guards, solving one of their tactical problems. All the same, he hung on to his own coffer as he and Shades skirted the outer aisle, working their way toward the box where Bandit was being held. By now, Nikopol resistance was nearly nonexistent, and mostly incidental, as more and more of them found themselves bogged down in what was looking to be the beginning of a full-on riot.
As they neared the box, seeing it already vacated, Max and Ma’Quiver emerged from a stairway leading underneath the stands.
“Max!” Justin called out, “What the hell happened to you?”
“I’ll explain later,” Max replied, stepping up to the door, “but first I’m getting my friend back.”
“So these are your friends,” Ma’Quiver quipped, taking both of them in in a glance. “Our chances are looking better than I thought.”
“Alright.” Shades stepped up to the door, both stun-sticks fired up, figuring that with an ally of Ma’Quiver’s apparent caliber on their side, they just might be able to pull this off. “Let’s do this.”
all bets are off
Mr Bertona had a bad feeling from the moment Max and Ma’Quiver’s match went sideways.
Yet he was still at a loss for how it could turn into a total riot in a matter of minutes, the first of its kind since the violent final days of the arena’s previous incarnation. What should have been the highest-grossing fight since Ma’Quiver first showed up in Bodeen was fast degenerating into the biggest net loss in the arena’s history since he first re-established the place. At first confident that his own private army could hold two people at bay, but now that all of his henchmen were occupied, he found himself torn between his caged prize, which he had his men haul back into his private den behind the viewing box and across the hall, and his waning confidence that the two men he had left would be any match for the two who were surely coming for him.
Much to his dismay, the rest of his entourage had already fled, leaving only his two highest-paid bodyguards to wait with him as the chaos grew outside.
“I’ll pay you both triple to stop those two—”
Then the loud crash outside in the hallway told him that any escape he may have had a couple minutes ago just got cut off. That heavy, reinforced steel door he had installed as one of his first orders of business in this place proved no match for the orange energy blades that sliced right through it like a hot knife through butter. In a flash of motion too fast for either guard to aim, let alone shoot, at, Ma’Quiver kicked one Red-Band, then the other, into opposite walls, followed by a blurring streak of orange stun blade, sending their guns flying uselessly into opposite corners.
While Bertona wailed in alarm, Shades walked in and picked up the nearest power pistol, and Justin kept watch at the door, Max dashed over to Bandit’s cage. Aiming carefully to avoid his feline friend, Max swept first the top of the bars, then the bottom, with his energy blade, allowing Bandit to simply step out the front.
With a look of blazing fury on his face, Bertona whipped out a power pistol of his own, aiming in Max and Bandit’s general direction—
Ma’Quiver moved so fast Bertona didn’t catch even a glimpse of it as the gun flew from his hand.
And Justin’s thought to warn Max froze on the tip of his tongue at the sight of the man’s wrist hanging at an entirely wrong angle. Even Shades stared, slack-jawed at that one, certain somehow that that was the fastest he had seen— or, rather, not seen— him move yet.
“You bastard!” Bertona screeched, apparently too shocked for the full extent of his own injury to completely register, snarling at Ma’Quiver, “You dare to bite the hand that feeds you!?”
“I don’t need you,” Ma’Quiver told him, grabbing him by the front of his jacket and slamming him against the window overlooking the grounds below, hard enough to crack the glass. “I see now that I never needed you.”
“I told you my friends would come for me,” Max reminded Bertona, patting Bandit on the head. Then the big cat turned his attention to his captor, growling low and menacing as they strode toward the pinned promoter.
“You tried to have it both ways with them, too, didn’t you, Berto?” Ma’Quiver hissed in quiet contempt.
Caught between the creaking glass, all that held that deadly drop at bay, and the pissed-off panther stalking him, reality finally seemed to settle in for Bertona, who visibly shrank into his own jowls, whimpering, “Please… Please call him off…”
“He has a name,” Max informed him, “and so do I.”
“Bandit? Right?” Bertona’s eyes bulging as the aforementioned feline came closer. “Max… Please…”
“We’re free to go, right?” Max pressed.
“Yes! Of course!” Bertona went on. “I said I would be willing to part with him, right?”
Meanwhile, Max had spotted that shipping manifest Bertona had waved in his face only hours ago, tearing it in half. Then he spotted the sniveling man’s half-smoked cigar fuming in its jade ashtray, using its smoldering tip to light the page. Once the dubious document was reduced to a pile of ashes sitting in that jade tray, Max finally addressed him.
“Fine,” Max replied, putting his hand on Bandit’s side, soothing him and saying, “It’s alright now… It’s over. You’re free, and that man is so scared, he’s not even worth fighting… It’s time for us to get out of here…”
Max’s words calmed the big cat noticeably, and at last he relented, but still glared at him with a distrust mirrored by his human companion.
“Pathetic,” Ma’Quiver spat in disgust, letting Bertona slump to the floor.
“Max…” Bertona stammered, regaining some of his composure now that he was no longer stuck between a rock and a hard place, “I see now that you’re a much more capable man than I gave you credit for. I know we got off on the wrong foot, but wouldn’t you consider working for me? Nikopol could use—”
“What do you mean, no?” Bertona blurted, crawling toward his desk. “I’d make you the head of my elite guards. I’ll pay you double what I offered Ma’Quiver to train my men…”
“Don’t talk like I’m not here, you creep,” Ma’Quiver remarked, kicking him for emphasis.
“You still seem to think we’re for sale.” Max looked him square in the eye. “Our answer still stands. No.”
“I think you’re pissing him off,” Justin advised him.
“Very well. Five times!”
“You don’t seem to understand your situation, do you?” Shades chimed in from the door, wanting to put a stop to this before Bertona could stall for any more time. “You’ve made Max awfully angry…”
“Ten times! I’ll even hire your crew! You’re throwing away a fortune!”
“No more games.” Max turned toward the door. “I’m leaving.”
“Wait!” Bertona called out, noting the coffer Justin was still clutching in his arms, saying, “You, at least, seem to know the value of a credit. Perhaps you could reason with these folks, talk some sense into them. What do you say?”
For his part, Justin handed the box to Shades, saying, “Just a sec…”
Both he and Ma’Quiver tensed up visibly, the latter alarmed at Shades’ unease about this.
“Nice to see that at least one of you isn’t a fool…” Bertona grunted as he hauled himself up against the desk with his good arm and turned toward his seat, “After all, there’s money to be made here—”
Justin didn’t even need Ma’Quiver’s insane speed; Bertona still never saw it coming as Justin punched him out.
“I see,” Justin mused as Bertona collapsed to the floor like a slab of beef. “Follow-through, right?”
Shades nodded. “Follow-through.”
Even as Ma’Quiver sighed with relief, he couldn’t help but appreciate that punch, as Justin packed a bit more of one than he would have expected.
“You’re just like all those assholes back in the Triangle State, who think they can get whatever they want from everybody just by waving some money around,” Justin told the groaning heap on the floor as he strode to the corner to pick up the other Red-Band’s fallen gun. “I may be a mercenary, but I don’t sell out my friends. So tell me, where’s your fuckin’ money now?”
With that, he knocked the ashtray off the desk, spraying ash all over Bertona’s face.
“And if you ever call my best friend a fool again, I’ll kick your ass myself.” Taking the coffer back from Shades, he said, “Come on. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
For good measure, Bandit kicked up some of those scattered ashes at Bertona as he turned and walked away, a gesture Shades couldn’t help but be reminded of a house cat scratching in a litter box.
“Bet that bastard isn’t used to that kind of treatment!” Shades laughed in spite of himself.
“I imagine not,” Ma’Quiver agreed, then turned serious. “That greedy fool wasted a lot of time. I’m sure the Bodeen Militia’s already been called, so it won’t be easy getting back out of here.”
Turning back toward the door to the private box, the sounds of ensuing violence echoing in to them, Shades said, “We probably can’t go back that way anymore…”
“Let’s take the back ways,” Ma’Quiver recommended.
“Good idea!” Max recalled being led through these halls only hours ago.
“But do you know your way?” Justin asked.
“Of course I do,” Ma’Quiver replied. “I’ve been here longer than you guys, and know my way around Bodeen.”
“Then let’s go,” Shades said, wanting nothing more than to be back aboard the Maximum, and well on their way to anyplace else.
With that, Ma’Quiver led them through the lesser-used passages, taking out the occasional Red-Band or Militia guard as they went.
And so two warriors left Nikopolas Arena, both undefeated.
Once outside the arena complex, it wasn’t hard to blend in with the panicked crowd still fleeing the on-going riot within; all they had to do was conceal their weapons and continue their own frantic retreat.
As they put more distance between themselves and Nikopolas, their pace slowed down to a more reasonable, but no less urgent, one. Justin hiding his hard-won treasure under his coat, draped over his arm as inconspicuously as he could manage, while Max very understandably worried about whether or not Bandit was drawing too much attention in public, and Shades took as many peeks over his shoulder as he dared, while Ma’Quiver led them down narrow alleys and side streets. Though each of them, in their own way, began to suspect that there was less need for a guide than they originally thought; now that they were out of the arena, any downhill path seemed to work its way toward the harbor, tributaries all leading to the same ocean.
Then again, it wasn’t too hard to forget that the twisted streets of Bodeen were also a labyrinth of haphazard forks and dead ends, which they were grateful Ma’Quiver had more time to explore than they had had. A fact for which Justin, especially, with his memories of being chased through the unfamiliar twists and turns of the shantytown of Bates, was relieved to be escaping with someone who knew the lay of the land. So far they had been lucky in that any of the stray Nikopols or Militia that passed them along the way were focused on the uproar at Nikopolas Arena, rushing in the opposite direction with hardly a passing glance.
Once they actually entered the seaport, they took a more cautious stride, and Justin was both relieved yet hardly reassured to sense that he wasn’t the only one who thought their escape had been a little too easy.
Sure enough, farther down the way, about a dozen figures stood aboard and around the Maximum. Shades whipped out his binoculars from earlier for a closer look. As if he really needed to; his eyes only served to confirm what all of their gut instincts already told them.
“Red-Bands,” Shades said it anyway as he ducked back behind the tool shed they were hiding behind.
“Shit!” Justin hissed.
“Well, they did attack us while we were on the ship,” Max told them, “so I guess it’s no big surprise they already know where it is.”
“Could be worse,” Shades pointed out. “Without that riot, there could be even more guards. With more time, they could also simply impound the ship, and we’d be stranded in Sarna.”
“With more time, there will be more guards,” Ma’Quiver warned them. “And the four, er, five of us are going to start drawing attention if we keep skulking around over here.”
“In other words, we’re running out of time.” Justin was beginning to regret their decision to walk away from their confrontation with Bertona. Yet, he had to admit that running would have attracted more attention, turning their flight into a marathon series of fights, possibly detouring it entirely, as happened to him back in the Triangle State back then. “If I only had my crossbow, I picked up some smoke bolts in the market…”
Only he and Shades had power pistols, meaning that they were outnumbered at least six-to-one. Combined with a setting where the enemy had cover, this would quickly degenerate into an entrenched standoff in which a shootout would only draw more enemies to this place. That, and he just didn’t like the idea of shooting at their own ship.
“Say, Ma’Quiver,” Max turned to him, recalling one detail from earlier at the thought of leaving the island, “what about your friend from earlier, who helped us out? What’s gonna happen to him?”
“Oh, Timofar?” Ma’Quiver thought for a moment. “I’ll bet he’s long gone by now. I think he said he had family up in Andora. They’ll probably help him hide out until things here settle down.”
“But we, on the other hand, don’t have time to stick around,” Shades reminded them, bringing everyone back to the problem at hand, much to Justin’s relief. They’ll probably recognize The Champ right off the bat, and it’s probably safer to assume that they have a ‘suspect description’ of Max and Bandit, but Justin and I… “Say, Justin, you up for a little role-playing? After all, you do look like a convincing streetrat, and you’ve already got some hot merchandise on you…”
“What are you guys planning?” Ma’Quiver raised an eyebrow.
“Just disturbing the peace,” Shades replied. Riding waves of chaos seems to be our lucky move today, so let’s see if we can’t make it work one more time. “Our best bet for taking back our ship is to throw them off their game. Max, Ma’Quiver, you guys be ready to make your move once we have their undivided attention.”
A moment later, Justin came dashing around the corner, racing wildly down the dock, clutching the coffer in both arms and glancing warily over his shoulder.
“Stop!” Shades demanded, charging around the corner in hot pursuit, shaking his fist at Justin. “Damn thief!”
At first, the Nikopols simply gawked at this scene, but as Justin drew near the Maximum, they regained their initiative, several of them moving to tackle him. Before they reached him, though, Justin hurled the box at the ship deck, the heavy case hitting one of them in the shin. The ones closer to Justin got an unexpected dose of stun blade as he busted out his laser staff, taking out five on them in a matter of seconds as they were still trying to catch up with what just happened there.
Shades used that opening to fire up his stun-sticks while those on the dock had their hands full with Justin, hopping on deck and starting to work on them. They backed off from his energy blades in understandable wariness as the whole scenario went sideways. Shades nailed two of them anyway, as there was only so much room for such a tightly-packed crowd to retreat in any given direction on the Maximum’s rear deck, much like how the last Red-Band on the dock stumbled right off the side trying to avoid Justin’s laser staff.
“As I said: damn thieves!” Shades shouted at the remaining Nikopols. “This is our ship!”
At first, the others had backed into the corners at Shades’ unexpected offensive, but now they remembered that they had guns, to say nothing of their lone assailant ever so slightly outnumbered. So focused were they on him, they never saw Max— let alone Ma’Quiver— coming. Only the lone sentry on the upper deck, who tried to aim at them as they neared the ship.
To no avail, as Justin’s draw was quicker.
While Max and Ma’Quiver mopped up their remaining adversaries, Justin skirted around the edge of the fight, untying mooring lines for a swift departure, and Shades entered the cabin, wanting to be ready to step on it the moment his friends gave the word.
Yet, as he entered the cabin, he was met by still another Red-Band, frantically zipping up his pants as he scrambled up the steps from below, apparently caught flat-footed by the commotion out on deck. They both stared at each other for a moment, Shades silently cursing himself for putting away his weapon too soon as the guard fumbled for his sidearm. Quickly realizing that it was too risky trying to out-draw someone who was already half way there, Shades closed the gap between them, as he had practiced disarming in Master Al’s dojo, struggling to keep it from being aimed at him as he fought for control of it.
As the two of them grappled with each other over the power pistol, they both staggered back out the cabin door, where, upon seeing Shades’ predicament, Max nailed the Red-Band from behind with his stun blade as Bandit slipped past them, wanting to get away from all these energy weapons.
Meanwhile, a fresh group of enemies came charging down the dock as Max and Ma’Quiver were in the midst of tossing their unwelcome occupants onto the dock. Even as the guards opened fire, and the two of them hit the deck, Shades laid down a wild cover fire while Justin picked them off with surgical precision. Only two of them actually made it to the ship, both desperate to silence Justin’s guns.
They never got that far, for even as Justin was backing away, Ma’Quiver sprang back to his feet in a blur of motion, hammering both of them with a sweeping kick that knocked them both back onto the dock.
“Hurry!” Justin shouted, ducking below the deck railing for cover against a couple Militia guards who started firing on them from a more defensible position behind the same shed they themselves previously hid behind. “We’re all set to go!”
While Max and Ma’Quiver ducked again, Shades retreated back inside, taking the helm. There was a moment of apprehension, an almost paranoid fear that they may have done something to the ship, but when the engines started without a hitch, he went for it. Not wanting to give them any further opportunity to get boarded, Shades poured on as much speed as he dared, maneuvering amid the confined space between docked vessels.
Once they were a little farther out, the Maximum picked up several patrol boats, issuing orders to stop and prepare to be boarded. Though now that they were out in the open, Shades applied more speed, seeking to keep their head start. All the while relieved that their first order of business after arriving (and paying docking fees, up-front, and in advance) was to refuel.
Even so, it looked as if these smaller vessels could at least match the Maximum’s speed, bringing it all down to a race to see if they could make it far enough away from the island of Sarna for them to turn back.
At least until they looked up ahead.
Hovering near the outskirts of Bodeen’s harbor was another ship. What appeared to be a military vessel, a cruiser easily larger than the Maximum, bearing Bodeen Militia markings. Far enough out, and already in position to intercept them, no matter what angle they attempted to slip by from.
“Dammit!” Justin hissed. Even in the midst of all this, Justin found a moment to snatch up his hard-won coffer and take it inside, still holding it under one arm and trying not to think about confiscation.
“Bad timing…” Ma’Quiver muttered.
“We could retreat back to shallower waters along the shoreline,” Shades mused, thinking quickly.
“But then those other bastards will catch up with us,” Justin pointed out, seeing that the smaller patrol boats gaining now that they were in open waters.
“And if we get too close,” Max cautioned them, examining the cruiser with the helm binoculars, “they’ve got more than enough firepower to blow us out of the water.”
“Even if we made it to Andora or Kasko, it would be no help,” Ma’Quiver told them. “Bodeen has too much influence around the rest of Sarna these days.”
“So what the hell do we do?” Justin demanded.
It was fast narrowing down to a choice between stopping and hoping they accepted a surrender, or fighting until the Maximum went down, and any survivors simply being netted and hauled aboard like the catch of the day.
With only a minute or so left to figure out what they could do about it.
Back at Nikopolas Arena, Mr Bertona sat barricaded in his own private den, a couple arena medics tending his injuries.
Now that the Bodeen Militia was on the scene to rein in the riot, some of his own Nikopols were able to spare several guards to stand watch around the entrance, having at least secured the hall outside. Likely the crowd’s fixation on the gambling money coffers and ganging up on Red-Bands being the only reason none of the rioters seemed to have thought of looting Bertona’s private rooms. Just the fact that it had become noticeably quieter since he regained consciousness a short while ago offered some hope that the worst was over, and the Militia would soon have the Arena District back under their control.
That just left the task of rounding up responsible parties.
“Mr Bertona,” the voice on his desk intercom informed him, “the ship has been taken, and your guards have suffered heavy casualties. Our patrols are currently in pursuit.”
Bertona made the mistake of jerking his right arm, his shattered wrist blasting him with an explosion of agony he bit back with a sharp curse.
“Please, Mr Bertona,” one of the medics pleaded, and not for the first time in the past ten minutes or so, “we need to move you to a proper infirmary so we can fully treat—”
“No.” This time electing to stomp his foot for emphasis. The day’s unpleasant surprises were not all finished springing themselves on him, it seemed, for not even the precaution of placing men to watch that ship for Max’s friends he had spoken of had proven a very effective measure. Glaring balefully at the empty cage in the corner, he declared, “I’m not going anywhere until they have that ship.”
“Sir,” the voice on the intercom responded, “Patrol Cruiser Nikopol reports that they are near the harbor, and in position to intercept the rogue vessel in a matter of minutes.”
“Excellent…” Bertona grunted as the medic finished wrapping an impromptu splint binding his wrist, a grim smile touching his lips in spite of the throbbing bruise that little streetrat bastard had left when he sucker-punched him. The Nikopol, the newest addition to the Bodeen Militia fleet, her armaments brazenly pushing the limits of Bodeen’s arms treaties with the other city-states. More than enough to handle one rogue vessel and its rag-tag crew. Wishing the window overlooking the city afforded him a better view of the coming fireworks, he vowed, “When I get my hands on that ungrateful upstart bastard, I’ll have them break every bone in his fucking body for this…”
“Um, sir,” the medic piped up again, “with all due respect, if they’re about to capture them, would you please reconsider moving to a real—”
Before Bertona had a chance to interrupt, his aide slipped into the room, announcing, “Mr Bertona, I’ve received word that the other heads of Nikopol are demanding an audience with you, sir.”
“Couldn’t they wait?” Bertona muttered, already knowing that the rest of the House, as well as the Patriarchs of Bodeen, were going to want an accounting for this fiasco. Heads were going to roll for this, that he already understood, and he would be damned if his own head was going to be among them. “Very well. Tell them that I will soon have those responsible for this outrage, and I will personally see to it they are punished.”
No way in hell he was going to present himself to those scheming old men without a scapegoat to appease them.
“Very good, sir—”
Before the other could continue, that same voice broke in on the intercom, his tone bringing the entire room to a standstill.
“Um, Mr Bertona…” voice swaying between chagrin and panic, “I’m not sure how to explain this, sir… but we’ve lost all contact with the Nikopol, and the patrol squad reports that the rogue vessel has reached open waters and will soon be out of pursuit range of Sarna.”
And Bertona did it again. Even as the medic stepped very sensibly out of arm’s reach, Bertona again raised his hand. Or tried to, at any rate, ending in an agonized howl that none present could help but wince at.
“Mr Bertona,” his aide suggested, his voice and posture hasty enough to suggest that he would rather be anywhere else on Sarna right now than here, “I will inform the rest of the House of your injuries, and try to arrange for our audience to be postponed. In the meantime, we should retreat to your manor until we figure out just what we’re going to tell them. I’m sure the Patriarchs will send someone soon, as well.”
Even more so, now that this conflagration had spread as far as the harbor, and involved the possible destruction of Militia property, as well. About all that was left to do now was to round up as many of the key rioters as possible and see how much of the blame would stick. Now that the suspense of the pursuit was past, Bertona could really feel the medics’ painkillers kicking in, his whole body, not just his eyelids, starting to turn to lead.
That empty cage in the corner mocking him as he slumped in his desk.
M to the N
The crew of the Maximum thought frantically as the Nikopol loomed stark and final in the distance.
“Between a rock and a hard place…” Shades muttered, able to see, even at this range, that they wouldn’t last long up close and personal with such a heavily armed adversary, and hopelessly outnumbered if they turned back.
The recently christened new flagship of the Bodeen Militia looking like the end of the line once they got there.
“Hey, Justin,” Max piped up, hoping it wasn’t too late to suggest it, “you still have one of those grenade things left, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” he replied, recalling how the repeat-loop in St Lucy always restored their inventory at the start of that same day. In a way, he found he was hanging on to it like a lucky charm of sorts, but now he reminded himself that the only good luck to be had from it was to actually use it. “I’ll go get it.”
“A grenade?” Ma’Quiver intoned, wondering what possible use just one grenade could be against a target of that magnitude, deciding to see what they had in mind first. “Won’t we have to be within their attack range to use it?”
“He’s right,” Shades muttered, remembering that this scenario differed from their battle with Striker’s crew in one very serious way. “With those other guys chasing us, we won’t be able to swerve away without them catching up. That, and we don’t have the advantage of surprise this time, so they’ll be shootin’ at us the whole time…”
“Isn’t there something you could do with your crossbow?” Max asked Justin as he came back from his weapons stash. “Any special bolts you picked up?”
“Nothing that would work against that,” Justin admitted, uncomfortably aware that they were almost within firing range. Thinking quickly, he added, “Of course, I could try just using the bow to launch it…”
Justin scrambled to retrieve the rest of his weapons from their hiding place, relieved that the Red-Bands were apparently more intent on sitting on their ship than searching it. He and Max, as well as Ma’Quiver, raced up to the top deck as Shades kept the helm. By the time they were up there, the Nikopol had already opened fire in earnest, rocking the ship with each glancing hit.
As the three of them crouched below the deck railing, Justin set one of his smoke bolts, wanting to distract the enemy from this projectile’s true nature. Ma’Quiver very carefully loaded the grenade on the tip through a slot near the pin. Max knelt beside them, power pistol at the ready to lay down some cover fire for them.
“Careful,” Justin cautioned, aiming upward toward the Nikopol, and trying not to think about what a disaster it would be if the EMP went off here and killed their own engines and weapons. “We only get one shot at this…”
Ma’Quiver held the pin, knowing that they would have to fire the moment Justin had a decent shot, or else they would lose all advantage in launching it from beyond point-blank range.
From Shades’ slouched view, the Nikopol appeared much closer than it probably was, and growing.
“Pull it!” Justin shouted as Max popped up to cover them.
Ma’Quiver removed the pin as quickly, and as gently, as he could, so as not to disrupt Justin’s aim, and a second later he fired with a twang scarcely heard over the Maximum’s engines or all that firepower.
As soon as he heard Justin call a clean hit, Shades swerved hard to starboard, angling to slide past the cruiser from behind. Trying to strike a balance between aiming for open sea, and not giving their remaining pursuers too much inside curve to gain on them still more. Putting them almost broadside with the Nikopol, exposing them to more fire, but forcing them to turn toward the Maximum, losing the broadside angle almost as quickly as they had gained it.
A burst of smoke issued from midway along the cruiser’s deck, and somewhere in the midst of it, the Nikopol’s guns went silent.
“What did you do to them?” Ma’Quiver asked, for he knew of no weakness on such a heavily armored vessel that could be exploited with a single grenade.
“Electromagnetic pulse,” Shades answered over the helm intercom. “A fun little toy we picked up a while back, but I’m afraid that’s the last one we’ve got. They sure did come in handy, didn’t they?”
“Damn straight!” Justin replied. “We have got to find more of those somewhere.”
As far as any of them could tell, their timing couldn’t have been much better. Along with her main weapons, the Nikopol’s engines also went dead in mid turn, the bulky cruiser drifting into the path of the patrol ships, which were already slowing down to stay out of firing range for their now-silenced barrage against the Maximum, forcing them to swing wide to avoid a collision and costing them whatever distance they had managed to close on their quarry in the meantime. Better still, at least half of them turned to render aid to their flagship, which could no longer moved under its own power.
And so the chase persisted for a while longer. With no more obstacles, the Maximum could finally build up to full speed, but the couple patrol ships left stayed on them in dogged pursuit, occasionally firing random shots at them in frustration as the others retreated back to the relative safety of the cabin. Yet as the long strip of land that was Sarna thinned almost out of sight, they at last gave up their hunt, turning back to Bodeen while they could still do so.
Now that all the excitement was over, their prolonged adrenaline rush spent, both Max and Ma’Quiver more fell than sat on the cabin lounge seats, the former having only felt this kind of exhaustion once before, after his duel with Erix.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, Bandit came back up from below, hopping up on the seat next to Max, who put one arm around him, saying, “I’m glad to see you, too, boy. I was afraid I’d never see you again. Thank you, Ma’Quiver.” He turned to his new friend, adding, “You put up a hell of a fight. I’m so beat I can hardly move…”
“I hear ya there,” Ma’Quiver replied. “That’s the drawback of these power pills. For a little while, they allow you to exert yourself beyond your limits, or can give you a boost when you’re already worn out, but the price you pay later is exhaustion and muscle fatigue. To be honest, I’ve never used them before myself, but I still didn’t think it would be this bad…”
“Um, Ma’Quiver, was it?” Shades asked, wanting to get his name right in spite of the rather hectic circumstances of their first meeting, “Just what did you give Max anyway?”
“Nothing dangerous, I assure you,” Ma’Quiver told him, “or else I wouldn’t have used it myself, either. According to what I’ve heard, they originally come from New Cali, something concocted for soldiers, if I remember right. I’ve also heard them called ‘Second Wind’ and ‘Enzyme X’ among other things. Of course, the fact that Timofar had some means that Berto was rigging even more fights than I thought. I’ve fought all the local contenders at least a couple times, but there were a few matches where those Nikopol guys were different than usual, as if they had become more aggressive and reckless…”
“Sounds useful,” Justin remarked.
“Sounds like a last resort to me,” Shades added critically. “You’ve gotta be careful with shit like that. Who knows what side-effects they might have.”
“I assure you, they’re safe enough to use on a situational basis,” Ma’Quiver reiterated, “but you’re right about the tradeoff. Hell, I didn’t even want to use the things, but there are too many guards, and we were starting that fight already worn out…”
“Just how powerful is this Bertona guy anyway?” Shades wondered aloud, now that he had time to ponder who they just pissed off back there. “To even have people sitting on our ship, as well as running the arena…”
“Judging from what little I could find out about him during my time in Bodeen, the impression that I got was that he was some shady character who worked his way up the ladder of the city’s seedier business ventures, seeming to come up out of nowhere when he re-established Nikopolas Arena a few years ago,” Ma’Quiver explained. “Of course, it’s pretty much public knowledge that he’s got some kind of deal with the Bodeen Militia, but— and I’m just reading between the lines here— I suspect his Nikopol faction is probably just a front for ousting the current Patriarchs. Rumor has it that his mansion is practically a museum of relics left over from when the days when Bodeen ruled the entire island.”
“I see,” Shades nodded.
“So his organization’s that big?” Justin moved the money box over onto the lounge table, this new passenger’s words giving him still more reason to be glad they were clear of Sarna once and for all.
“While we’re on the subject,” Ma’Quiver’s offhand remark taking a moment to register, “I’ve also heard rumors that Berto’s paranoid enough to plant tracking devices on all the betting coffers, so we’re probably lucky those Red-Bands already had their hands full back there.”
The second those words sank in, Justin whipped out his laser staff, breaking the lock on the coffer. Dumped all the money on the table, then stepped out on deck and chucked the empty container overboard. As he came back in, he told Ma’Quiver, “Well, now they won’t be following us anywhere else.”
And then proceeded to start counting and sorting his haul.
“Of course, it’s not like anyone was following us anymore anyway,” Shades pointed out. “Still, this should solve our money problems for a while. That’s more than you ever would have made betting on Max anyway.”
“You were going to bet on me?” Max raised an eyebrow at that one.
“The important thing, though,” Justin moved on, “is that we taught those assholes a lesson! And,” just as importantly, he had learned along the way, “lived to tell the tale, with a little something to show for it.”
A sentiment they could all agree with as the island of Sarna vanished behind them.
the ancient art of Shanshou-kan
Now that there was no longer any sign of further pursuit, they cut the engines to conserve fuel and set the sails.
As they worked, Shades asked Ma’Quiver, “So, seeing as how we’re not going back to Sarna anytime soon, what do you plan to do next?”
“Well, in the long run, I plan to continue my journey,” he replied, “but for the time being, I’m not going anywhere until I get my rematch. Right, Max?”
“Of course,” Max confirmed.
“So that’s what you promised him,” Shades remarked, for he was quite certain that in the latter portion of their match they had become a lot more talkative, even if they were way too far away for him to hear any of it. “I suppose we’ll probably need to re-divide the rations.”
“Wait a minute,” Justin piped up, looking up from his counting. “You mean we’re taking him along, too?”
“Unless you wanna press your luck dropping him off in one of the other city-states,” Shades snorted. “You’re welcome to try sticking him in a life raft, but I doubt you’re any match for him. I, for one, wouldn’t dream of doing that to somebody who helped my friends so much.”
“I’m just sayin’ it’s gonna be cramped onboard,” Justin pointed out, “and food’s gonna be a problem, too.”
“Then let’s hope we find land again soon,” said Shades, “and be glad we stocked up so much before we checked out.” He then turned to Ma’Quiver, adding, “By the way, I was kinda wondering, what is that fighting technique you use, and would you be able to teach it to others?”
“Well… the thing is… uh, Shades, wasn’t it?…”
“Perhaps we should start with some introductions,” Max suggested, a trifle chagrined at not having thought of that sooner. “You already know my name, and Bandit’s…”
“Justin Black.” Scarcely looking up from his counting.
“Dominik Ma’Quiver,” he replied, bowing his head slightly, “and you should be pleased to note, I travel light, not wishing to burden myself with too much baggage.”
“And here I was thinking you just had no time to pack your bags,” Shades remarked.
“This is our ship, the Maximum,” Max told him. “For helping save Bandit and escape from those guys, I am in your debt. The least we can do is give you a ride to the next island. Maybe then we’ll have our rematch?”
“Perhaps. For now, I’ll hold you to your word, Max. It would be rude to fight you on your own ship anyway, so instead we might do some training, as your friend suggested? I’m pretty sure I could beat you as you are now, but you’ve got potential, and I’d like to have more of a challenge.”
“So you really can teach others how to do that?” Shades immediately lit up at the prospect.
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never tried,” Ma’Quiver cautioned him. “It’s not something just anybody can do. My master only met one or two other people in all of his travels who had any ability…”
“Couldn’t hurt to try.” Max shrugged.
“Very well,” Ma’Quiver proposed, “in exchange for passage, I will teach you what I know of the ancient art of Shanshou-kan.”
“But what if we can’t do it?” Justin demanded.
“Don’t be rude,” Shades countered. “This guy’s offering to teach us things you can’t learn from any dojo where I come from. And even if we can’t do it, no training is ever a waste of time as long as you learn something from it, right?”
“Right,” Max nodded. Then he turned back to Ma’Quiver. “So, what is Shanshou-kan?”
“Shanshou-kan, or Lightning Step— Shadow Fist, as they called it in these parts— is a system of fighting based on the rare ability to bend time around yourself. Much like how I appear to ‘speed up’ to your eyes, it’s no exaggeration to say that you slow down from my perspective.”
“So it’s not just about being fast…” Max mused.
“Yes and no,” Ma’Quiver explained. “It takes a lot of concentration to enter that state. Even though I’ve been practicing the technique for years, I can still only use it for sustained bursts, which is why I always trained for speed and precision, to make the most of it while it lasts. In the arena, I only used it as a finishing move. And only against the tougher contenders, to keep the crowd on the edge of their seats.”
“I see.” Shades figured there had to be a catch to something that pushed the limits that much. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, where did your master learn all this?”
“From his master, of course,” Ma’Quiver answered. “To my knowledge, there has never been any formal school where these techniques are taught— probably because the talent is so rare in the first place— so it is simply passed down from master to student. Sadly, this also means there is no record of where it came from, either. My master searched for many years to find me, and I suppose someday I’ll have to seek out my own student, but for now, I’m still a learner myself, which is why I continue to search for my master.”
“What happened to him?” Max could tell there was a story here.
“Sounds like we’re gonna be hearing some new stories over dinner,” Justin commented. “Speaking of which, I’m starving. I think I’m gonna get started on that.”
“We got separated a few years ago,” Ma’Quiver informed them. “We were staying in the ancient city of Alta, and one day there was this earthquake. We tried to get out, but the building collapsed. I found myself trapped in the basement, with everything falling down around me. Even the basement floor broke apart, and I fell into a really old tunnel.
“I don’t know how long I was out, but I had injured my leg in the fall. It was slow going, crawling through tunnels that I later found out were part of ancient catacombs thought to have been lost many years ago. By the time I made it back to the surface, I was completely exhausted, and wound up sleeping in a hospital for four days.”
“What about your master?” Shades asked.
“I heard he came out of it okay, but I can only guess.” The look on Ma’Quiver’s face, Shades suspected, must surely look like his when wondering about John or Amy. “Between the tunnels and the hospital, I was out for about seven days, and by the time I regained consciousness, I was told he had given me up for dead after searching through the rubble for three whole days. Of course, after seeing the damage for myself, I also had a hard time believing I could survive that, yet here I am.”
Three days. Max couldn’t help noting the number. The same amount of time his parents and Uncle Angus stood vigil outside the Harken Building before finally giving up on the late Chad Owen. Tried not to shudder at that memory as Ma’Quiver continued his tale.
“Sadly, nobody knew where he went. Just packed up with a heavy heart, and signed on with a ship leaving port that same day. From what I understand, I found my way out of those tunnels the day after that. And I’ve been searching for him ever since. I want him to know I’m still alive, and I want to complete my training.”
“Then I guess we have more in common than I would have guessed,” Shades commented. “I’ve also been trying to find a couple old friends of mine, and so far I’ve been having about the same luck.”
“Great,” Justin sighed, “you mean now we’re gonna be runnin’ around askin’ even more questions everywhere we go?”
“So if you were searching for your master,” Max asked him, “then why were you at that arena for so long?”
“Well, to make a long story short, I ran out of money,” Ma’Quiver told them. “I don’t like selling my fighting skills like some kind of mercenary, so I usually get by doing odd jobs here and there. You know, ship’s hand, dock work, fishing… I live fairly simply, so the pay is usually enough to suit my needs, but surely you saw the prices in Bodeen?”
“Don’t get me started on the prices in Bodeen,” Justin muttered.
“Of course, I’ve sometimes found myself in places where the only paying work was stuff like bounty hunting or guard duty of some sort, but I’ve always tried to keep it above board, nothing shady. This time, though, I got caught up in testing my skills, I didn’t pay enough attention to who I was dealing with, I see that now. Just a few matches, I thought, a few fights here paid more than days’ worth of labor in the city.”
“But let me guess,” said Shades, reading between the lines, “doing business with this Bertona bastard got you more than you bargained for?”
“You got that right,” Ma’Quiver snorted. “Once he saw what I could do, he didn’t want to see me leave. Kept jerkin’ me around on the pay, because he knew I couldn’t leave the island, and started hassling me to train his henchmen. Not too long ago, he even offered to make me a Captain in the Bodeen Militia. By then, I could see that all he wanted was to expand his own influence, and I can’t say I like what his influence is doing to that town.”
“Then why’d you put up with that asshole?” Justin demanded, for this fellow seemed to resonate with his own disgust for the idea of being anybody’s lackey.
“There was still the matter of passage,” Ma’Quiver reminded him, briefly bringing Justin back to the frustration of his own long years in the Triangle State, “he had me where he wanted me. For a while, I kept telling myself that if I saved up a little more, I would be able to leave. But old Berto just kept getting bolder. I quickly learned just how much influence he had when I realized his Red-Bands were scaring off anyone else I tried to work for. Tried to sign on to outside ship’s crews, but couldn’t get anywhere near the harbor without them prowling around, and by then I was afraid of what they might do to anybody I did manage to sign on with.
“And it wasn’t just cheating me… he seemed to think he already had me in his pocket, that I was somehow going to make Nikopol unstoppable or something. Started acting more and more like he was above the law in Bodeen, started taking more risks, as if all the money he was raking in could buy his way past anyone.”
“And yet you felt you were… enabling him, didn’t you?” Shades insinuated.
“Yes, I was at wit’s end by the time Max came along. At first, all I saw was a challenge, someone better than the desperate losers who drifted in and out, good enough, even, to make the top dogs there feel threatened. I suppose I was also taking out my frustrations on my opponents, but I especially enjoyed humiliating Nikopols, and the crowd loved every minute of it.
“Max,” he said, looking him in the eye, “once I saw how far you were willing to go for your friend, I knew you were someone I could trust. The fact that you had your own ship to get off the island with sealed the deal. You gave me a way out, in return, I gave him a way out.”
Gesturing to Bandit.
“While we’re on the subject,” Max asked him, as it was something he found himself wondering about more and more now that the battle was over, “what changed your mind back then?”
“Hmm, how can I put this?…” Ma’Quiver mused, looking over Max’s feline friend. “I guess you could say I don’t like to see living things in cages.”
“Same here!” Justin agreed from the galley. “Just like how I don’t like chains.”
“Well, I’m sure Berto’s not feeling so clever now,” Ma’Quiver laughed. “I doubt the city Patriarchs are too pleased with him anymore, either. Perhaps some of the problems in Bodeen are about to be solved very shortly.”
“Yeah, but we’re not goin’ back to find out,” Justin told him bluntly.
“I’ll second that motion,” Shades agreed. “That’s one place we don’t want to go back to any time soon!”
Max put a very tired arm around Bandit, words failing to express his relief at his seeing his old friend back, safe and sound.
Thinking of all the various reactions the big cat seemed to draw everywhere they went, he began, “Well, what can I say?”
“You just can’t take this guy anywhere,” Justin finished, walking over and patting him on the head, “can you?”
They all shared a good laugh as the Maximum sailed on, the island of Sarna and all its local troubles many miles behind them.
-notebook draft: July 06, 2009 – December 12, 2009
-word-processed draft :May 13 – June 20, 2010
-additional revisions: July, 2010
Much like Part 13, this story was written from scratch, with no prior drafts, and only some really old story notes to refer to. Probably for the best, given how sketchy most of those notes were. I was originally going to title this one "Ma'Quiver" but decided that naming a story after a character just didn't fit in with the series' naming style as it's evolved. For a while, I went with "Fresh Blood" (referring to Max's entry "adding new blood to the game" at the arena), but it just didn't roll off the tongue. That, and I became afraid that on some of the fanfic sites I post Tradewinds on, people would get the wrong idea, since apparently anything with the word "blood" in it these days couldn't possibly be about anything other than vampires. (cue eye-rolling)
Some of the scenario for this came from a story I wrote in high school, for a series I stuck a fork in more than a decade ago, but revolved around a gladiator fight with a character I'll refer to as "Ma'Quiver" for simplicity. Back then, the story basically involved Ma'Quiver throwing a fight for Max in order to gain access to another contender for reasons that would take too long to explain. Back then, Ma'Quiver not only did this favor, but later joined his party, yet when I looked back, I never really came up for any explanation for his change of heart, which was something I kept firmly in mind this time, the end result being a character with a more interesting personality, and a greater role in the series as a whole than just a one-shot.
Of course, even fighting to free Bandit took on some surprising changes when I actually started writing it down. One of the biggest plotholes in the notes was how Max knew how to fight in a tournament. To say nothing of how Justin and Shades already knew to infiltrate the arena. The real thing that did it, though, was Mr Bertona, what I would have to categorize as a very "Californian" villain, a loose amalgam of just everybody I've worked under down here, melded with the general attitude in these parts. Both their initial confrontation, and their conclusion, gave the whole thing a greater intensity than my really old idea of having Bandit escape from a "match" in another section of the arena, and Max's friends rescuing him. Berto also provided a strong thematic foil for Ma'Quiver, and a character contrast that was heavy on show, with little need to tell.
By and large, I'm glad I waited and took my time on this one, as it came out a lot fuller than the filler detour it started out as back in the day. Unfortunately, I'm still in the middle of Part 16, but lately I've had a series a almost head-rush epiphanies that may have just connected the dots from Part 17 all the way through at least 22, so once I'm done with 16, hopefully things will pick up pace.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.