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Blood and Honor

by Zephir

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Chapter 1

Dust swirls into the air, settling slowly back to the ground and covering the two fighters in a thin layer of dirt. The larger man's left foot swirls backwards while his right comes forward, steadying his balance, while his opponent completes his back flip and lands in a crouch, right arm slung across his chest and his other out to his side. They glare at each other for a second, the smaller man smirking, before the crouching man leaps into the air and reaches into his shirt, tossing a handful of shurikens at the other man.

The larger man leaps backwards and lets the shurikens clatter into the sand harmlessly, each one kicking up a small cloud of dust. The other man comes back down at him, removing his short sword and slashing out at him... but the larger man's prepared for it. He brings his left arm up and neatly parries the blow with his triple-bladed hand claw, simultaneously bringing his other hand up in an uppercut. A look of horror passes over the other man's face as he falls upon the three blades of his other claw, skewering his throat.

The large man lets his whole weight come down on his claw and retracts it quickly, letting the body fall limp to the ground before removing his weapon. He looks down at him for a moment, then glances up at the crowd, whose familiar chanting begins to surface again... thousands of people cheering his name and praises. His golden waist sash and long blue hair flow in a gentle breeze while he stands tall and rigid, his fists clenched at his sides. The air begins to build an electric fever as the chanting grows louder, and the lone victor hears the familiar sound of success.

"Var-gas! Var-gas! Var-gas! Var-gas!"

***

Fists and legs swoosh through the air, completing punches, kicks, and elaborate sweeps and maneuvers. Most of them feel nothing but air, but some of them land against a wooden practice totem, replete with multiple knobby arms and a spinning torso attached to a solid base. Vargas practices like this for nearly an hour, simply flowing through a series of drills and mock fights with imaginary enemies, keeping his reflexes and flexibility at peak level.

His room is, simply, spartan. A bed rests along the center of one wall, and a dresser stands nearby... which he hardly uses, since he owns few clothes anyway. Most of the space in his room is open, allowing him to practice in private, while several simple exercise machines and props stand to one side. Hanging on the wall opposite his bed and between two groups of exercise machines, his weapons of choice hang on the wall, on a small rack: a set of two three-bladed claws that strap to his hands and wrists.

He stops swinging his fists for a moment and stands in a rigid boxing-like stance, staring into nothing. His eyes glaze over as he thinks long and hard about things, not really knowing how or why he started thinking. Visions of things past and things done, people met and people gone... his hands begin to fall to his sides slowly and his breath starts to level out.

Then a knock comes at his door. He blinks his eyes and shakes his head, snapping himself from his little trance. "Come."

The door opens a crack and a man, dressed in heavy robes and jewelry, peeks his head in. He glances once in the wrong direction before settling his eyes on Vargas. "Ah, my favorite gladiator."

He steps into the room while Vargas grabs a towel and starts wiping himself off, looking at his hands instead of him. "Whadda ya want, old man?"

"I've brought your reward for your work today," He says, looking him over admiringly. "And I must say, you certainly impressed me out there. Marvelous, the way you fight."

Vargas wipes sweat from the back of his neck roughly, his arm snapping out stiffly when it leaves his neck. "It gets the job done."

He glances over at him and snatches the small object from his hands, a rare relic. "That's all that matters."

"Sure it is," The old man says flatly. He eyes him curiously for a second, studying him, trying to find something new to learn about this rock of a man. "Your next fight is tomorrow morning, the arena."

"I heard," Vargas barks back, tossing the item onto his bed and standing stiffly, staring off at the wall.

"...Then have you heard about what comes after that?"

Vargas turns his head back slightly, but only to one side, still staring at the floor crookedly. "Yeah. Tier four."

"Be prepared," The old man says softly, then glances around at his exercise equipment. "...Though I don't have to tell you that. Good night, Vargas."

Vargas looks at the floor for a long moment, contemplating the things to come. Eventually he snaps himself out of it and returns to practicing.

***

A dull roar fills the tunnels leading to the arena, echoing from the walls and floors and adding an electric intensity to the air. Chants break between several groups of people, but no truly solid cheers come from it. There, in the waiting cell adjacent to the doors, Vargas hands his head low and meditates, clearing his mind of all things before his battle. Outside and all around him, the crowd cheers back and forth, first for this fighter and then for his opponent.

Still sunken deep in tranquility, he hardly notices when the finishing blow is made and the crowd erupts, throwing forth a solid wall of support for the victor. The announcer calls the winner and loser and the item betted as the arena is cleared, setting the stage for the next battle, and Vargas shakes himself from his stupor, looking up slowly towards the doors.

And outside, the announcer calls, "...'nd our next fight, made with a bet of a Tiger Mask against a Thunder Shield, begins now!"

More cheering, and Vargas steps forward.

"Introducing our first opponent, the challenged: an uncrowned champion amongst champions and warrior supreme, Vaaaar-gaaas!"

He steps into the harsh light of day as the doors swing open, but he doesn't shield his eyes. Instead, like he's done so many times before, he simply blinks his eyes once, long and hard, and opens them again to look out across the crowd. Thousands upon thousands of spectators cheer his name, lifting him high on a pedestal. But while any normal person might've swollen with pride over this, Vargas instead glares out at them, inwardly scoffing at them. If they only knew the irony of what he's doing.

"And the challenger, a sorceress from lands afar: Tira!"

Another round of cheers and applause goes up for her, though for her they cheer less. She steps out from her gate directly opposite him, her quarterstaff in one hand. He studies her dress while she walks out... a rather elaborate affair, with a pair of tight-fitting black shorts underneath a double-layered skirt that's really two large, circular pieces of cloth that dip down from the point below her navel and wrap around to the small of her back on both sides. These cloths are colored a deep green with a trim of gold, and around her chest is a tight shirt that cuts off just below her bust line, and reaches up and around her neck, covering it and leaving her shoulders and abdomen exposed. It, too, is colored green with golden trim. On her head is a tiara with a gem in the center, no doubt carrying some mystical properties with it.

Vargas can't help but wonder where she got the money to pay for all that. In any case it's irrelevant, and he finally stops walking when he reaches the center of the arena. She comes to a stop opposite him, too, and they stare off for a moment.

"Begin!" Shouts the announcer.

Vargas acts first, slamming his fist into the ground lightning-fast. The earth begins to split and fall inwards, a crack about three meters wide opening up in the earth and racing towards her. She ducks and rolls to one side, then gets to her feet and raises her staff. A ball of red energy channels into its head and she stiffens her stance, holding her staff vertically in front of her. "Fire Two!"

A ball of flame suddenly bursts from the ground in front of him and turns direction, coming straight into his face in a solid wall of flame. He shouts and stumbles backwards, reeling from the heat. She then lowers her staff and runs at him headlong, holding her weapon back to strike at him. He wipes dirt and sweat from his eyes and opens them in time to see her raise her staff into the air and bring it downwards on him.

In a rapid snapping action, he kicks the weapon out of his way with his right leg and slashes upwards with his left claw, gashing her stomach. She shrieks and staggers to her left, giving him time to gather his energies. He assumes a squat stance, pulling his fists into a ball at his left side as white energy swirls inwards into them, gritting his teeth. She stands back up in time to see him thrust his hands forward, hurtling a bolt of pure white energy that pierces her defenses to their core.

The blast throws her backwards several meters and she hits the dirt rolling head over heels. She finally stops rolling and lays sprawled out on her back, aching with pain. She sits up and grimaces, grunting for the effort and looking up to see him run and leap into the air, pulling back his right fist to jam into her, his left hand out in front for balance. The light of the sun casts a dark silhouette in his place, and acting largely on instinct and reflex, she rolls to one side and scrambles to her feet as he lands hard on one knee, stopping himself short of ramming his claws into the ground.

He jerks his head sideways at her and stands to his feet, but she calls forth another ball of energy into her staff, this one a shade of white. "Cure Two!"

A flowing white energy falls down around her, basking her body in its warm light and healing her wounds. He watches as the cuts on her stomach seal up and mend themselves, but grins wryly and clenches his fists. He's got her now.

He thrusts his left leg backwards, spinning that side of his body around while bringing his other up forward, both feet throwing dust into the air. He brings his fists together and claps them into a ball to collect the green-hued energies swirling together there. Quickly they amass and fuse together into a coherent ball, its energy building to a peak, and then he thrusts his arms out and spins in a circle, tossing multiple blades of air at her.

She squeals and holds up her staff in a vain attempt to shield herself from the sickles of air, but they slice into her skin and body, rending her viscously. Finally they prove too much and she collapses to her knees, panting deeply from the pain. She drops her staff and wraps her arms around her midsection, then looks up when a shadow falls over her. She looks far up into his silhouette, watching as he stoops down and backhands her chest with his right claw, neatly delivering the finishing blow.

He turns around and faces the announcer's stand as the crowd again erupts into a chorus of his name, cheering on their champion.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you the victor, Vargas! The prize won, a Tiger Mask!"

He hears the words, but they carry little meaning for him anymore. Behind him, a warm light falls upon Tira as healing magics are cast on her, restoring her to her original condition. She wakes up slowly, blinking against the sun's light and inwardly scolding herself for her loss.

When she finally sits up and looks around herself, Vargas has already left.
Caves of Narshe: Final Fantasy VI
Version 6
©1997–2017 Josh Alvies (Rangers51)

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