Saturday, October 27, 2007

Star Shadows part two

Fear comes from the unexpected.
He knew what to expect now. The screaming crowds. The smell of fear. The blood. He knew it better than he knew himself.
And all he knew of himself was that he was a glorified assassin.
Blood dripped from the arena above. He held his arms out to his side to protect his body from the blades that hooked down the gauntlets he wore. His eyes did not move beneath his mask to look at the droplets that spattered upon the vicious metal. Instead they turned inward, as they always did before a battle, to the first thing he remembered.
A woman with eyes the color of his. The woman who condemned him to fight in the pits as a tribute to his father.
The woman who condemned him to never know himself.
Who was he? Who was the woman who sent him here? Who was his father? Did he fight in the pits? Did the woman hate him? Was that why he was sent here?
What horrible crime did he commit to deserve his sentence?
And why, after six solar years, was he still alive?
At least that question he could answer on his own.
It is hard to die when your wounds heal over night.
“Phoenix. Phoenix.” The crowd began the chant. The lift would not move until the people were whipped into a frenzy.
Like the fabled Phoenix his wounds healed and he arose once again to fight.
And since he had no name to speak of that was what he was called.
Could not the woman who sent him here tell them his name?
What difference did it make after all this time?
He focused on Laylon. The woman who trained him. The one who counseled him. The only person he knew. The only one he trusted spoke as the lift began its ascent.
“You know what to expect,” she said.
“Did you expect them to take your eyes?” he asked as he rose above her.
He saw her head tilt in confusion. In all these years it was the first time he spoke of her blindness.
He couldn’t help but grin wolfishly as the floor to the arena parted above him. At least now he was guaranteed some interesting conversation after the battle.
As soon as he was done with the latest victim.
He mind had ceased a long time ago to worry about the men he killed. When Laylon first began his training he had several questions but she could answer none of them except for the ones that dealt with the Murlaca. Her life outside the pits had ended long ago when she was blinded in a battle. But she taught him one thing.
Kill or be killed.
He soon learned that some of the men and women in the rings were professional fighters. And some were prisoners, sent there for assassination. The professionals were treated like celebrities. They wore special armor, had trainers, medics, entitlements.
The prisoners were different. They weren’t there long. Some of them were good fighters, some of them survived to fight another day but they all died eventually.
The rules were simple enough. You were thrown into a ring and you fought. The winner moved on. The losers were carted off. Some of them died in the ring. Some of them bled to death as they were waiting for their bodies to be incinerated. If they were lucky.
He was the only prisoner to survive this long. He had beaten all the champions. They did not have to die, although some did of their injuries. Now there was none who even challenged him.
And after each battle he returned to his cell because he had no choice but to do so. At first he rebelled against the handlers who were all selected for their size and cruelty. But they had ways of controlling him.
They stunned him with their long prods
They kicked him viscously when he collapsed. More so when they found out how quickly he healed.
He hated them for it.
He hated the crowd that erupted into screams and more chants of Phoenix as he rose to floor level in the caged arena where he was supposed to fight.
He hated the lights that flashed in his eyes and whoever controlled them. He was certain that one day whoever awaited him in the ring would take advantage of his temporary blindness when he appeared through the floor and use that instant to kill him.
Even though he couldn’t die.
He still felt pain. He knew it when his flesh was ripped open by the blades. He felt it when his ribs broke from the violent kicks of his handlers.
He felt everything.
Yet he had no scars.
He quickly found his opponent once the light left his eyes.
His blood quickened as he turned his head to where the man stood, his sides heaving in anticipation. Tonight he would have a challenge. The man had some size on him, a wide chest, thick muscular arms and sturdy legs. There was intelligence in his face, more so than the usual fear. And it seemed as if he were used to the blades. His arms were relaxed at his sides instead of clenched. Clenching them just made the muscles weary. Made the blades heavier. The match shorter. He was also wearing the armor of the champions. Thick leather covered most of his body as it did his own. But it wasn’t thick enough to stop the blades. Nothing could stop the blades.
He wondered briefly what his challenger’s crime was. Or maybe he just crossed the wrong person. The man waiting to fight him must have done something to someone to be sent here. Just as he had. Was it the woman with the pale eyes?
He knew the mask made him look more intimidating. Heartless. Cruel. The hooked crest that arched over his forehead and covered the bridge of his nose gave him the appearance of a predator.
For some reason the woman who gave him his sentence to this place did not want his face to be seen and as he did not recognize himself it made no difference to him whatsoever. It gave him an advantage so he took it.
And it wasn’t as if anyone would claim him since he was nothing more than a glorified assassin.
As usual he raised his arms above his head in a show of strength, watching his challenger to make sure he didn’t attempt to attack him. Then he crossed them in a slashing motion as he brought them down.
The crowd screamed louder.
He hated them. All of them.
He heard the announcer amplify his name over the screams of the crowd.
He hated him. He was the one who first called him Phoenix. And since he had no other name it became his title.
He rose from the ashes of his blood and the blood of his victims to fight again another day. Just like the fabled bird of ancient times.
But the bird was able to fly away eventually. And death would be an easy flight to take.
Too bad he couldn’t die.
He bounced up on the balls of his feet three times. Then he leaned his head to one side until he heard the familiar pop.
The crowd screamed in anticipation.
His challenger was not as intelligent as he first thought. His came at him as if he thought to overwhelm him with his greater strength.
Phoenix moved aside gracefully and watched in amusement as his challenger waved his arms in an attempt to stop himself from careening into the side of the cage.
Should he prolong it? Or simply but the man away so he could return to his cell?
His cold, lonely cell.
He was bored so he decided to make it last.
Make him bleed a lot.
Maybe he’d get a reward for his trouble.
Sometimes they allowed him a woman. And the luxury of the baths.
His challenger realized that his greater strength wouldn’t work. Not when Phoenix had speed and agility on his side.
The challenger circled him. Phoenix kept his eyes trained on him, turning with him in an almost casual manner. He held his arms out at his sides, the blades ready.
The challenger grinned, as if he suddenly saw a weakness but Phoenix knew it was nothing more than a ruse.
He had no weaknesses in the ring.
But he might let him think so, just to make it interesting.
The floor was wet from the cleaning it received between matches. The blood was sprayed into the crowd to keep the next combatants from sticking and slipping. The crowd loved it.
Phoenix took a step back as the challenger circled. As if he was afraid. His foot moved awkwardly. As if he slipped.
The challenger came at him. As he expected. He raised his right forearm up to slash downward at Phoenix.
Who ducked under the strike and slashed his left forearm across the challenger’s belly.
The man was softer than he first thought. What he thought was solid muscle was nothing more than thick layers of fat that oozed a thick stream of blood.
He seemed surprised that he was injured. But no more so than Phoenix who saw rather than felt the blood on his hip.
Phoenix realized that there wasn’t a mark on his opponent until now. He must have fought well to get to this level without injury. Or else this was his first battle of the day.
It made no difference. It would soon be over.
The wound wasn’t deep for either of them. Nothing more than an annoyance.
But it sent a clear message. Neither of them was to be trifled with. Or easily dismissed.
Phoenix saw the impact of it in the challenger’s eyes.
“What are you hiding under that mask?” the man said.
It was the first time, in the solars. In all the matches. In all the deaths. That anyone had every said anything to him beyond please.
He was not prepared for it.
And his challenger knew it.
The man saw the doubt in his face and came at him with a roar. Phoenix threw his left arm up in defense just in time and heard the crowd’s joint intake of breath as the two arms collided in mid air, the blades tangled as the combatants tested each other’s strength.
The challenger’s was greater. But Phoenix had not survived this long on strength alone.
He bent backwards under the pressure. He used his right arm to block the slashes aimed at his thigh.
As soon as he felt his attacker shift his balance Phoenix kicked upwards with his legs. His armored plated boots struck the man in his chest as Phoenix flipped backwards. He landed in a squat and slashed with his right arm along his opponent’s thigh. His aim was for the back of the knee but the man knew it was coming and managed to turn his leg in time to take it on the armor.
Phoenix did not expect his blow to be deflected. Every other time he struck in that manner he crippled his opponent and it was just a matter of time to finish him off.
He knew he was vulnerable in his crouched position so he swung his leg out in a sweep kick, hit his opponent in the ankles, and sent the man toppling as he rose to his feet.
The impact of the man hitting the mat bounced the floor. Phoenix flexed his legs to absorb the vibration and looked down at the man. He should finish him now. Just a strike across the exposed throat and it would be over, but he was curious.
The crowd roared for him to strike a death blow but he ignored them, as he usually did. “Why are you here?” Phoenix asked. “What was your crime?”
“I have to admit you are as good as they said you are,” his opponent said as he moved to his feet, his eyes on Phoenix the entire time.
“They?” Phoenix said. “Who are they?”
The man swung his arm out to encompass the crowd. “Everyone. You’re a legend of the Universe. Unbeatable. Indestructible. A slave who’s the master of the game. Until now.”
He feinted with his right and swung with his left. Phoenix saw it coming and blocked with his right then swung his left straight up. The blade on his wrist buried itself in the soft skin beneath the man’s chin and pierced through to his tongue.
The man gagged and staggered back as Phoenix wrenched his blade free.
He missed the artery.
“Who are you?” Phoenix asked.
The man spat out a gob of blood. Phoenix saw the slice in his tongue; saw the hole in the bottom of his mouth as he worked to speak.
He couldn’t form a word but his eyes spoke volumes. He meant to kill him and he meant to kill him now.
With a cry from deep in his belly he came at Phoenix. Arms slashed as he sought to run over him and over power him with his strength.
Phoenix met him head on, his own blades slashing. Blood poured from the man’s chin and down his front, slicking both of them, covering them, making them slide as if spilled onto the floor.
Was it possible that the screams of the crowd were even louder?
Phoenix strained against his opponent as their arms locked into each other, the blades capturing them and keeping them attached as they fought for balance, for a superior position.
But Phoenix was flexible. He pushed against the man with one leg planted and was able to open enough room between them to bring his knee up into a snap kick as he pried his opponents arms open wide. The toe of his boot hit the gash and his head snapped back, exposing the vulnerable throat.
With a roar from his gut Phoenix slashed the man’s throat, ripping out the larynx and the main artery. Blood gushed forth in a heavy shower. Phoenix caught the man as he toppled and turned his body towards one side of the arena so that the blood spouted out upon a dark haired woman who looked at him in fear but screamed in absolute ecstasy.
He hated her too. For a very good reason
He looked down and saw the life leave the man’s eyes, along with his unanswered questions. He dropped the body to the floor and went back to the center of the ring where the lift would take him down to the cells.
He didn’t even bother to lift his arms in victory. He had too much on his mind.

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