Blood and Honorby Zephir
Chapter 3Gladiators battle in the arena above, shedding blood for sport and play, while spectators cheer them on and place bets upon them. Item is bet for item and money for money, and although the fighting is real, the death is not. Before the reaper can claim them, they are healed and returned to strength... living to fight another day. It is in this fashion that the great Colosseum has built its reputation and fame, and in this fashion that warriors the world over have visited its great, ornate halls.
But this is not the way of the underground pits. Here, buried in great chambers under the sands, lives a second culture, borne of the desire for true blood and the real penalty of defeat. Here, there are no healing winds to prevent the defeated from dying... here, there are no consolation prizes... here, there's only blood and honor.
Heels click on the stone below, clacking amidst a rattle of other shoes as they stroll towards the portal ahead. The closer they draw near, the greater the light becomes, until some have to shield their eyes and squint when they emerge into the oddly bright torch-lit chambers of the underground pits. Rika brushes a lock of hair from her eyes and blinks several times, quickly adjusting and looking to her left for her seat. Upon finding Cicero sitting in a special boxed-out section near the front, she walks over and opens a fan, cooling herself with it. The heat is intolerable in here...
She walks up a short flight of steps and comes around his side, and after catching his eye, bows lightly. "Cicero."
"Ahh, milady. Come, do have a seat," He says, motioning to a seat nearby.
She nods and smiles. "Of course."
The announcer's voice is heard in the background, just coming over the din of the crowd as the competitor currently in the ring defeats his opponent by shattering an arm. She sits down and looks around, catching only the last few words of the announcer. Not that she cares much, anyway.
"--Victor: Xerael, of Tzen!"
He takes a bow for his audience, holding his arms folded across his chest, ignoring the cries of pain coming from behind him. Rika looks him over passively, yawning even, then turns to Cicero. "How much longer until my match?"
"Yours is after this one, and that'll be all for tonight," He answers, keeping his eyes on the pit.
She nods her head a few times and adds almost after the fact, "Good."
"Ladies and gentlemen: our next match has been altered from the card. It has now been decided that a special stipulation will be added: this match is now a best of three victories battle, healing permitted until the final round. And introducing the first opponent..."
Vargas' head snaps up. "Best of three victories?"
The gates before him are thrust open and he walks out into the fighting pit, glancing once towards Cicero's booth before turning his eyes again on his opponent's gate, never catching sight of Rika. As he turns his head back to face front, he hears the faint and distant sound of his opponent's gate opening, and sweeps his gaze downwards to look at him.
And stops in his tracks. Across from him, walking slowly towards him, is a figure he thought he'd never see again, and yet is standing before him now. A sudden flood of memories crashes through his head... memories of training sessions, jokes, warm camaraderie, friends and enemies... betrayal...
His feet find their way over and stop, facing his body towards him. His eyes narrow and his fists clench, drawing up to his sides. Although he fumbles in his mind to find the right words, the other man speaks first. "Vargas... never thought you'd seen me again, did you?"
"No," He replies flatly, shaking his head.
"You know, I arranged for all of this. The rules, the time, the two of us..."
Vargas sneers, "You -- arranged for us to fight?"
"Oh, no, no... I fought my way up here, same as you, I just made sure our fight had the right rules. And you do know why I'm here?" He asks, lowering his head.
Vargas' eyes narrow a little bit more. "I have an idea."
"Good. I'd hate for you to die not knowing why you were beaten!" Just as he finishes his sentence, he hurls himself at Vargas, slashing his right claw across his chest and hurling three blades of energy at him.
Quickly, almost casually, Vargas throws one arm forward, white energies swirling around it in a huge blanketing storm of light. They cascade forwards and form an elliptical shield just forward of his fist, a mass of blue-ish white air that expands rapidly through the air. The three blades glance harmlessly off and fly haphazardly to the sides, burying themselves in the sand to their sides. The shield wears off just as the other man closes the distance, forcing Vargas to assume a defensive stance and guard against his repeated strikes.
Steel clashes against steel as they trade parries and blows with their claws, locking them and swinging them around in wide, grand arcs and spins. An off-balance parry by Vargas catches him and makes him stagger, forcing him to spin around and try a roundhouse kick. Vargas leans backwards and avoids it, but his opponent then comes at him with a series of palm strikes, chops, and kicks that he has to block or avoid.
Their feet shuffle, step, and skid across the sand, kicking dust into the air with each plant of their soles. Vargas lifts his foot to strike, but his opponent raises his own and steps on his toes, forcing it back to the ground. Vargas hits him with a palm strike and frees his foot, then tries again to kick him, but is again blocked. He brings his other foot up, but has it caught by his knee's pit and brought back to the ground, too. With both of their feet tied up, they resort to furious forearm parries and slaps until finally Vargas' opponent finds an opening and punches him in the nose.
Vargas' head snaps back and he breaks the lock on their feet, then stumbles backwards a few steps, trying to regain his balance. His opponent takes this chance to charge forth, arms swinging, but Vargas moves too quickly and blocks his strikes, then finally finds a flaw in his stance and takes advantage.
His opponent takes a step forward and lunges with one claw, leaving his feet spread widely apart. Vargas ducks quickly and moves one leg out, then sweeps it around in a wide circle and catches his feet, knocking them out from underneath him. Vargas stands to his feet and watches as his enemy scrambles to his feet, then collects a familiar ball of green energy into his fists and spins, hurling many blades of air at him as he comes about.
He barely has time to get to his feet again before he sees a storm of sickles coming at him, and so is cut to ribbons by the energies and collapses to the ground, bleeding from dozens of slashes and abrasions. Vargas stands tall for a moment, then spits and walks slowly over.
"The winner of round one - Vargas!"
His opponent's eyes open slowly and take in the view as the healing energies dissipate. The first thing he sees are harsh lights coming from torches high above, and the second thing he sees is Vargas.
"You can't beat me, Darell," Vargas says flatly. "Give up."
"I won't!" Darell spits, bringing his left leg out to his side to try and trip Vargas.
He hops out of the way and stands straight as Darell jumps to his feet, then brings his fist back up in front of him as he anticipates his next attack - an Aurabolt. Darell summons his bolt rather quickly, but Vargas thinks too fast and watches as the holy energy dissipates totally over his shield. Astonished, Darell doesn't move for a moment too long and is caught unprepared for Vargas' sudden rush.
The first punch glances off Darell's jaw, but he manages to block the second and third in time and starts shuffling backwards. They trade a series of parries and kicks until Vargas catches Darell's arm in a swing and locks it up, then catches his other arm and swings it around, locking it up, too. He pulls him in close and implores him, "Give it up, Darell. You can't beat me."
Darell snarls back at him. "Never, murderer!"
He head butts Vargas and breaks the arm lock, then shoves him backwards with a weak and hasty Aurabolt. "Not after what you did to Duncan!"
Vargas slides backwards, his feet digging small ruts in the sand, then falls to one knee and plants a hand to the ground. He looks up and sees Darell charging up for another attack, then looks back down and concentrates hard, pulling as much of his energy together as he can. Darell's power reaches a peak and he unleashes his blast, a bright blast of red-orange flame expanding in a taut column towards Vargas.
But Vargas unleashes his attack as well, energy flowing from his fist into the earth. The ground splits in two and expands, opening a small fissure that quickly snakes out and reaches for Darell, then sits still and absorbs the full brunt of Darell's attack with a clenched jaw. Darell's eyes open wide in shock as he suddenly loses footing and falls into the gap. Acting solely on instinct, he reaches out and snags a rock with his hand, then reaches around with his other and hangs on tight.
He looks down at the deep, dark abyss and exhales a sharp breath, then turns back around and tries to gain a foothold... unsuccessfully. Then a small rain of pebbles and dirt comes down around him and he coughs as he inhales some, then looks up to see Vargas' silhouette standing over him. He coughs a few more times and says, "Come to finish me off?"
He smiles wryly and waits for his answer. Vargas shakes his head slightly and kneels. "No."
He extends his hand to Darell, very much to his surprise. Darell looks at his hand questioningly and asks, "What're you doing?"
"Giving you a way out," Vargas answers. "Just give it up."
"No!" He snaps back, struggling to get a foothold again. "I won't!"
Vargas shuffles on his knee and tilts his head at him, looking annoyed. "You're not accomplishing anything!"
"I'm fighting for Duncan's honor! I'm avenging his death, Vargas!"
Vargas narrows his eyes and glares at him through slits. "He died because he made the wrong choice. Don't do the same thing, Darell."
"And what choice was that?!"
"He neglected me... his only son... and chose Sabin as his successor," Vargas answers, lowering his head somewhat. In spite of Sabin's words to him in their last fight, he still had found trouble accepting that truth... somehow, it was much easier to accept the lie. Leveling his head back up, he asks Darell, "That past is gone. Come on, Darell; just take my hand and let it go."
"...Fat chance..." Suddenly Darell explodes from the chasm as he gains a solid footing and launches from it.
He flies straight towards Vargas, knocking him over and rolling once over in the dirt with him. As both men get to their feet, metal flashes and teeth grit, then both collide again in a furious series of parries and spinning kicks. Rika sits forward on the edge of her seat, soaking up as many details as she can about this fight. A lucky punch by Darell catches Vargas in his stomach, while a following spinning roundhouse catches Darell in the jaw and sends him flying head over heels to his side.
He tumbles in the dirt and whips over on his back, then finds himself staring down the lengths of three metal blades connected to Vargas' hand. He breathes hard a few times and relaxes, letting his arms go out to his sides as he glares up at him. The crowd falls silent and waits to see what Vargas will do, who simply stands over Darell menacingly, with his claws down at him. Breathlessly Darell asks, "Well? Aren't ya gonna do it? You said your past is gone... well, I'm part of your past. Make me gone, Vargas."
Vargas stares at him for a moment, considering it. Feelings of anger and resentment cloud over his eyes, tinged with a touch of guilt and remorse that make him reexamine that part of his life... but only for a moment. He grits his teeth and inhales sharply, scowling and drawing his claw back for one final strike.
But that short moment was all Darell needed. He swings his foot to the side and trips Vargas easily, then scrambles to his feet and assumes an offensive stance on the way up. Vargas spins to his side and rolls in the dirt, also getting to his feet and growling, "You can't beat me, Darell!"
Darell charges him quickly, fists drawn back to strike. "So you keep telling me!"
A flash of bodies and flesh collides, metal scraping by metal and hair whipping in the wind. One man spins while another ducks, one punching with the other kicks. It all happens so fast that the crowd doesn't know what's happening to whom until the dust clears and one man's standing behind the other, cradling his head in both hands. Rika sits forward and peers at Vargas, feet set wide apart behind the kneeling Darell. All around her, a cheer suddenly breaks out from the crowd.
"Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!"
Vargas tenses his arms while Darell growls one last time, then snaps his arms to both sides of himself quickly, breaking Darell's neck in one smooth motion. He steps back and watches his limp body fall face-first to the ground, then looks up at the crowd, still scowling. He looks all around and observes their chanting and cheering, for once actually feeling the slightest bit of distaste for their love of this blood sport. As he glances around him, his eyes happen to fall on Rika and he catches her gaze. They stare off for a moment, each narrowing their eyes.
He turns suddenly and walks away, passing through his gate and disappearing into the darkness. In the stands, Rika sits back and turns her head as Cicero addresses her. "You should hurry, they're waiting."
She follows his nod to the crowd and nods also. "Of course..."
She gives one last glance out over the pits as she rises and walks over to the hallway leading down to her pit, still analyzing Vargas...
The door slams shut behind Vargas, leaving him standing all alone in his room to stare blankly and think. He stands for a long moment just gazing into nothing, running through a torrent of thought and emotion, an incoherent babble of voices and images in his head from his past. Finally he snaps to and walks forward, sitting down on his bed heavily. Looking downwards, he sees the claws on his hands and stares at them absent-mindedly, as if seeing all of the pain and conflict of his life in them. He begins to unstrap them when a knock comes on his door. "...Who is it?"
"...Come in," He replies, rising to his feet.
The door swings open slowly, giving a slight creak at one point but none more. Cicero steps in and pans the room until he finds Vargas, removing his claws and setting them up on their rack. "Congratulations on another fine victory, Vargas."
"Oh, shove it," He says, turning around. "You knew that was gonna happen, didn't you?"
Cicero, for once, remains quiet. "He came to me and proposed the stipulations. He knew what he was getting himself into."
He watches Vargas with a stiff gaze as he scoffs and walks away, adding, "Our pasts often catch up with us, Vargas. You can't avoid it."
An awkward silence falls over the room as Cicero stares at Vargas' back and Vargas turns his head to the side just slightly, casting his eyes down and to his side. Cicero decides to be the first to break it and steps towards him. "That's not why I'm here, though. I was thinking that maybe... just this once, at least... you could join us in the hall for the banquet?"
Vargas keeps his back turned on him. "You know I don't like that kinda scene."
"Yes... I do know. But please, indulge me, Vargas. You've never been to one and it would please me if you attended."
Vargas spins around and looks at him hardly, and to that Cicero holds his hands out. "Just this once."
Vargas considers telling him 'no' in no uncertain terms, but eventually realizes that he really doesn't care. Not today, not anymore. He sighs deeply and hangs his head, then mutters, "All right, all right."
A small smile breaks on Cicero's lips. "Good. I'll be expecting you around ten."
He turns around and heads out the door, never looking back nor saying anything more. Vargas waits until he shuts the door before going back over to his bed and slumping down on it, staring off into space again. He'd most wanted to be left alone ever since he got in here... now it seems he won't be able to do that anymore. He just hopes he doesn't bump into the wrong sort of people there tonight.
That night in the banquet hall, a dramatic change of atmosphere occurs. In stark contrast to the gritty, barbaric pits and sands of the arenas below, its halls and ballrooms are brightly lit and adorned with festive decorations and plentiful buffets just waiting for guests to entertain. Soft, lively music fills the room from the grand band stage to the front, populated with only the best musicians in this part of the world, setting a lightly energetic mood to the air. It's to this backdrop that many people mingle, dance, and dine, most of them rich aficionados or sponsors -- or simply high-rolling gamblers with a tap on blood sports.
A small fraction of this crowd, however, is represented by the honored and esteemed fighters of the rings; the most successful and renowned gladiators, attending on personal request by Cicero or common courtesy to play to their public. Many hallowed names grace the hall tonight... Arath, the fallen retainer Holdan, Xerael, Rika, Siegfried... and Vargas.
He steps through the grand arch of the banquet hall's doorway, its doors being held open, and looks around him calmly and... curiously, actually...
He's seen many sights in his days, but this is something else entirely... the lights, the colors, the smells, the sounds... all alien to him. He almost wanders about with his jaw open and his face bright with wonder but soon catches himself and regains his composure. Still, he ends up walking randomly forward for a minute, trying to find something he can do, and eventually winds up by the reception area, standing by the drinks and examining them.
A figure pushes his way through the crowd behind as he lifts a drink, then puts a hand on his shoulder just when he takes a sip. "Ah, Vargas! I see you came, after all!"
Vargas almost spits his drink out, but swallows hard and turns around and looks down. "Cicero."
Cicero smiles and steps back, looking him over from head to toe. "Ahhh, well... I didn't think you even had clothes like these, Vargas."
Vargas reaches up and runs a hand down his silk shirt slowly, feeling the texture of it. "I didn't until an hour ago."
Cicero looks up at him, his smile slowly growing wider and a laugh building on his lips. "Hhhah, hah, hah hah! Still the same old Vargas. Good, good, I like that. Now tell me, how are you liking it so far?"
Vargas looks around to his left, then to his right, and finally back down at his drink. "It's been all right so far."
He tilts his head back and takes a shot from his drink, then adds, "We'll see how long that lasts, though."
Cicero looks at him oddly for a moment, then tilts his head and shakes it once. "At least you're giving it a try, my friend. Do stay and enjoy yourself."
And with that, he nods and wanders off, rejoining his wealthier guests to mingle again. Vargas stares after him for a long minute, then finishes his glass and reaches for a new one.
Across the room from him, another fighter mingles with the crowd. She speaks with two men in formal wear, holding a drink in her hands and dressed in a flowing silken gown laced with many sashes and ribbons and with her hair tied back in a low ponytail. She laughs as he finishes a story and sips her drink, glancing around the room as she does so. Her intention had been reflex: take a drink and look about, but her eyes catch sight of Vargas and stop. For a while she just stares at him, studying him in detail from his face down. Humph... he thinks a clean shirt and hair gel make him worthy of being here? Get real.
She lowers her glass and scoffs under her breath, then excuses herself from her company with a small curtsy and walks through the crowd towards him. Vargas leans back against the wall and takes another drink, never once seeing her. Thus, he's quite surprised when a familiar voice suddenly comes up behind him and remarks softly, "Lovely evening."
He spins around and looks down at her, catching her eye. "Too bad your friend from the pit couldn't be here to see it."
She takes another sip of her drink, looking over the top of her glass at him. He shuffles his foot once and turns back to the side, looking away. "What're you doin' here?"
"I was invited. And you?"
He glances back at her and answers, "Cicero wanted me to come."
She stares at him for a second, lowering her glass. "What makes you so special that he'd want you here?"
He looks in her eyes deeply, turning back around to face her squarely. Right here and now he figures that she's a pompous, arrogant, tactless nymph with a grudge to hold against him... and fires back a volley of his own. "I'm Vargas, undefeated and unchallenged, son of Duncan and master of the martial arts. Someone steps up to me, I knock 'em right down. Just like you."
Her face hardens -- especially her eyes -- and she steps closer, arching her head back to meet his. "That was a farce. I should've beaten you."
"'Fraid not," He says flatly.
She scoffs at him and shakes her head. "You arrogant prick."
"Prove me wrong," He says. "You talk with your boy Cicero and set up a rematch."
"Why don't you if he likes you so much?" She asks, crossing her arms.
"I got stuff to do."
She frowns and shakes her head again. "Whatever. I'll see you in the ring tomorrow."
"Oh, wait..." He says, looking down and holding up a finger. "After my next tourney match."
She tilts her head to one side and looks at him funny. "And what if you die in that match?"
He smirks at her and chuckles. "Don't you worry 'bout that. I won't be dying anytime soon."
He takes another sip of his drink, watching her shake her head. "Now take your... 'assets' and go bother someone else."
He waves his hand down at her chest area, still smirking, only this time meaning it. She looks down at her chest for a moment, then clears her throat and shuffles her feet. She looks up at him and brushes a thick bang from her eyes and points her finger from that hand at him. "I'll let that one slide... but you try that again, and I won't hesitate to knock you out where you stand."
He chuckles again and replies, "Whatever you say."
She shakes her head one more time at him and turns away, walking through the crowd again. He watches her leave and shakes his own head, his smile fading into a frown. Several thoughts cross his mind, one of them being that a pretty face can't make up for a hotheaded personality. The first volleys have been fired... the war's on.