CoN 20th Anniversary: 1997-2017
Blood and Honor (FF6 Fanfiction) [2013 revision]

Posted: 8th November 2013 16:11

*
Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
As I had mentioned in earlier posts, work has completed in about the time I expected on the revision, soooo...

Quote
Prologue

"A man who is lost, is truly searching for himself." – Sir Richard Baramoure, ca. 547

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A wise man once wrote, “The world is never so simple as black and white.”

Many find this out the hard way, and for a lone wanderer of the wilderness, it carried with it a heavy price: his father's life, taken by his own hands.  In a fit of rage he had lashed out at him, and in that rage he had destroyed everything he'd worked for in his life... glory, power, honor, all of it gone in one fell blow.

And then, he was defeated by his peer, his father's death avenged at the hands of one he once considered a brother.

But the comforting release of death would not take him; instead, he survived, only to live with the pain of his memories... to suffer with the guilt and shame as long as he walked this creation.  Without a home, without a family, and without a friend left in the world, he disappeared into anonymity, roaming the wilderness aimlessly and without purpose... he became a nomad, a vagabond.  Even adventurers have goals and a purpose; he had only the cold reality that there existed no challenge that would end his agony, except from the one granted by his own hands... and he was too cowardly to surrender to suicide.

Hence, he wandered almost a year, surviving Kefka's apocalypse with an ease he found loathsome, and eventually found his way to the forests north of Kohlingen, where he discovered a place that may yet accept him: a palace to the art of war, a Coliseum wherein warriors battle for prize and for honor.  Killing, he understood... he had done it once, and he could do it again.

Here, he created a new home for himself... here, he rebuilt his name.


Presenting: the first chapter in the "Dragon's Head" series. The final order:

Dragon's Head
1) Blood and Honor
2) The Unforgiven
3) Blood Brothers


This is the 2013 revision, which brings it in line with my modern style. Contrasting it against the original will show significant changes and updates. Here is the Prologue for the time being; while the revision is complete, I am putting it through the wringer one last time searching for misspellings and omitted words... I call it the "proofing" phase. The Prologue has had two revisions and a proof run on it, so it's not changing.

Among the changes from the original:

* New material: additional scenes, extended scenes, and some scenes changed in ways both minor and significant.
* Altered dialogue in some instances; in attempting to match speech patterns, I ended up with wonky lines. That is changed now.
* Multiple spelling and grammatical corrections, and other changes made for uniformity's sake.

In all, the original stood at about 28,000 words; it is now just barely over 40,000, a growth of about 43%. Consider this is the Director's Cut Special Edition. =p

Overall, while Blood and Honor was once one of - if not the - best examples of my work, it is now my best-produced work to date. And while the original did a good job of conveying what I wanted to get out there, it was substandard in its writing and filled with plotholes and incongruities; that has been fixed. I feel it is now commercial grade, if not better, and does a far better job of presenting its message and developing the characters than the original did.

I will have a final word total for Dragon's Head once I assemble the entire product.

Additionally, I intend to produce two pdf copies: a 7x9 proprietary format, and a U.S. paperback "A" format. I am also looking into commissioning covers for each of the three chapters, and will possibly create a cover for the entire book itself; I don't know if the good folks will put the covers on the site itself - or use the pdfs, even - but I will create them anyways, and once those are ready, there will be links to them for download; potentially in a thread created under Your Creations, rather than necro'ing the main threads.

I will see about completing the proof and uploading the entire chapter by tonight.

P.S. An additional note: a line from the prologue has created a link with my other novel, albeit via mention only. For the time being, I'm considering this novel and that one existing in different realities, but with identical backstories, including story and line references like the quotes I've been adding front and aft of each chapter.

This post has been edited by Zephir on 8th November 2013 16:14

--------------------
~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205444
Top
Posted: 8th November 2013 19:01

*
Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
Quote
Chapter 1

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Dust swirls into the air, settling slowly back to the ground and covering the two fighters in a thin layer of dirt as the larger man steadies his balance – swinging his left leg backwards while he brings the other forward – and his opponent completes a back flip and lands in a crouch, right arm slung across his chest while his other floats to his side for balance.  They glare at each other a second – the smaller man smirking – when the latter reaches into his shirt, then flings his arm out, hurling a handful of shurikens at his foe.

With practiced ease, the larger man hops backwards, his eyes on his opponent as the shurikens embed harmlessly in the sand, each one kicking up a small pocket of dirt as it impacts.  Across from him, the other man charges, drawing and slashing with his short sword in one swift motion, attempting to take advantage of the short distraction... but his foe is ready for it.  He brings his left fist up and neatly locks the sword in the blades of his arm claw, then jerks the other arm up in a tight uppercut, watching as a look of horror flashes over the smaller man's face just before his throat lands on the blades, sinking down heavily into the fist as the claws skewer his neck.

Recoiling from the weight of the body, the larger man staggers back a step and lowers his arm, letting the man's own weight slide him off the weapon, where he crumples to a lifeless heap before the victor.  He looks down to the slain enemy for a moment, then glances up at the crowd as their familiar chanting begins to fill the air, thousands of spectators cheering his name and praises as the healing winds surrounding his defeated enemy cast a gentle breeze around him, blowing his hair and golden sash as he stands tall and rigid, his fists clenched at his sides.  There he stands, an electricity beginning to fill the air as the crowd's chanting grows steadily louder, listening to the familiar sound of success.

“Var–gas!  Var–gas!  Var–gas! Var–gas!”

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Later, he practices alone in his room, fists and legs sweeping through the air and striking a wooden practice dummy, a simple mannequin with a swiveling base and knobs for simulating hands and feet.  It twirls about as he strikes it, mindless in its motions, the wood rattling and knocking against his blows; he's been at this an hour, but this is nothing new – an hour of practice a day to keep his skills sharp, a series of simple drills and mock fights with imaginary enemies, keeping his reflexes sharp and himself at peak flexibility.

Around him, the room is spartan, with only a bed along the center of one wall and a dresser nearby that he rarely uses.  A few simple exercise machines and props stand to one side, while on the wall opposite his bed hang his weapons of choice, suspended on a simple metal rack: his two claws, triple–bladed metal bands which strap to his forearms.  Otherwise, the room is barren... so barren, in fact, that a slight echo is heard as he strikes the dummy.

Then, he abruptly stops, standing with his fists drawn up in a rigid kickboxing stance, unmoving as he stares into the space beyond the dummy... such mind–numbing monotony.  His eyes start to glaze over as he contemplates his life as he lives it now, and the mindless repetition of it all... the endless fighting, the seeming lack of a challenge, not really knowing how nor why he started thinking.  His mind's eye fills with visions of things past and things done, people met and people gone... in reality, his fists begin to fall slowly to his sides, and his breath begins to level out... is this what his life has been reduced to?  Endless, purposeless killing?  Is this what he's become now, a heartless killing machine?

What use is there in such an existence?

A knock then falls at the door, snapping him out of his sudden trance.  Blinking himself back to attention, he steps back and composes himself, shaking his head to clear the images as he calls out, “Come.”

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

Vargas grabs a towel as the man closes the door behind him, keeping his gaze on his own hands as he starts wiping the sweat from himself.  “Whaddaya want, old man?”

“I brought your reward for your work today,” he says, looking him over admiringly, a grin on his face as he observes the sculpted muscles moving about.  “And I must say, you certainly impressed me out there.  Marvelous, the way you fight!”

A sudden flush of anger and revulsion grips Vargas, and he wipes the sweat from the back of his neck roughly, his arm snapping stiffly outward as the towel leaves his neck.  The quick outburst calms him, however, and his voice is cold as he flatly remarks, “It gets the job done.”

He gives a quick glance over and spots the small object in the man's hands, then reaches down and snatches it away.  “That's all that matters.”

“Sure it is,” says the old man flatly.  He eyes him with curiosity for a moment, studying him, trying to find something new to learn about the walking mountain... so private and guarded, and so loaded with skill; it's always been a challenge to pull much more than a grunt from him.  A slight smirk touches his face then as he continues, stating, “Your next fight is tomorrow morning, the arena.”

"I heard," Vargas barks back, turning away and tossing the item unceremoniously onto his bed and staring off at the wall, his back stiff and rigid.

The man lowers his head, turning it aside slightly as he peers up Vargas.  “And you know what comes after that?”

Vargas turns his head only slightly aside, his gaze remaining locked on the floor.  “Yeah... Tier Four.”

“Be prepared,” the old man quietly states in a singsong voice, glancing around at the exercise equipment as he takes a step backward, preparing to turn.  He then lowers his head, peering crookedly up at the bronzed warrior with a sneer as he adds, “...But you don't need me to tell you that.  Goodnight, Vargas.”

Vargas's gaze remains locked on the floor as the man leaves, and he lets a long silence descend on the room as he contemplates the things to come... the pomp, the ceremony, and the doubtless tedious task of dispatching yet another unworthy opponent.  “If this is my life... then I suppose I must live it.”

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A dull roar resonates in the tunnels leading to the arena, echoing from the walls and floors and adding an electric intensity to the air as the crowd outside alternates between broken, sporadic chants and cheers.  There, in the staging area adjacent to the arena, Vargas hangs his head low and meditates, clearing his mind before the battle; outside and all around him, the crowd cheers back and forth, supporting first one fighter and then his opponent as the momentum of the battle shifts in ebbs and flows.

Still deep in quiet meditation, he hardly notices when the finishing blow is made and the crowd erupts, throwing forth a wall of verbal support for the victor as the announcer calls out his name and the prize.  Outside, the arena is cleared for the next bout, and Vargas slowly shakes himself from his stupor, casting his gaze up slowly to the doors ahead of him.

And outside, the announcer calls out, “–And our next fight, made with a bet of a Tiger Mask against a Thunder Shield, begins now!”

Steeling his muscles and tilting his head proudly back, Vargas approaches the door, listening as the announcer continues amid cheering, “Introducing our first opponent, the challenged: uncrowned champion amongst champions and warrior supreme, Vaaar–gaaas!”

The doors swing heavily open, bathing him in a light so bright he has to squint against it; then, as he's done many times before, he blinks his eyes once – long and hard – and opens them again to look out across the crowd as he walks forth, his pupils quickly adjusting.  There, thousands upon thousands of spectators cheer his name, lifting it into the air with praise and adoration... but where any normal person might've swollen with pride, Vargas instead glares out at them, inwardly scoffing; if only they knew the irony of what he does.

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

A lesser round of cheers and applause sounds for her as she steps out from the opposite gate, her quarterstaff in one hand as she waves to the crowd, playing up her moment in the spotlight.  He takes a moment to study her attire... a rather elaborate affair, with tight–fitting black shorts under a double–layered skirt, and a tight top that ends at the underwire, wrapping otherwise up around her neck and leaving her shoulders and arms exposed.  It's a fine green–dyed cloth, he muses, with gold trim all around the hemlines of both pieces, and a golden tiara on her head, a red gem at the center of it, doubtless bearing some mystical properties.

He 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 as he reaches the center of the arena, where she stands opposite him and levels a confident gaze, planting the end of her staff firmly in the ground.  Around them, the crowd begins to quiet down, pausing as they await the announcer... who, after another moment, shouts, “Begin!”

Not keen on wasting any time, Vargas acts first, dropping to a knee and slamming his palm into the ground with lightning speed, splitting the earth in two at the impact point... a split that rapidly spreads and grows, snaking out towards her in a rush.  Acting almost as fast, she ducks and rolls aside, then flips back to her feet and raises her staff, channeling a ball of red energy into the head and stiffening her pose, holding the staff vertically in front of her.  The spell then reaches critical mass as the ground splits past her, and she exclaims into the air as a ball of flame suddenly bursts from the ground in front of Vargas and turns direction, coming straight at him and forming a wall of fire that washes over him.

He shouts in surprise and stumbles backwards, reeling from the heat as she lowers her staff and runs at him headlong, holding her weapon back to strike at him as he wipes dirt and sweat from his eyes with the back of his arm.  Quickly regaining his composure, he opens his eyes just in time to see her swinging the weapon overhead, bringing the head down towards him; in a flash, he snaps his right leg up and kicks the weapon out of his way, then rapidly slashes up with his left claw, gashing her stomach.

She shrieks and staggers left, clutching at the wound while giving him time to gather his energies, assuming a squat stance and pulling his fists into a ball at his left side as white energy swirls inwards into them, gritting his teeth as he sets his feet in the sand.  Across from him, she stops staggering and stands up just in time to see him thrust his arms forward, hurtling a bolt of pure white energy that pierces her body straight to the spiritual core.

The blast  of his Aurabolt technique lifts her into the air and throws her back, and she falls back to the ground a distance away, hitting the dirt and rolling painfully head over heels, where she skids to a stop and lays sprawled out on her back, grimacing and whimpering in pain.  She sits up immediately and tries to gather herself together with a heavy grunt, looking up only to see him run and leap into the air, pulling back his right fist to jam into her, his left arm flayed out to his side for balance as the sun at his back casts him in a dark silhouette.  Acting largely on instinct, she rolls to one side and scrambles to her feet as he lands hard on one knee, stopping himself just short of ramming his claws into the dirt.

As he jerks his head sideways to her, she draws herself deftly up to her feet and holds her arm out, where she casts a quick force spell that pulls her staff back into her waiting hand, then lifts it before her, weaving together another spell... this one a shade of white.  The energy swirls into the head of the staff, then breaks and washes over her, bathing her body in a warm, flowing white energy that mends her wounds quickly and nearly fully.  Seeing this, he sneers, clenching his fists; he's got her now.

He thrusts his left leg backwards, spinning that side of his body around while bringing the other leg forward, throwing dust into the air around him.  Then, he brings his fists together and claps them into a ball, collecting the green–hued energy swirling there, quickly amassing them into a coherent ball as the energy builds to a peak, then thrusts his arms out and spins in a circle, tossing multiple blades of air at her.

Squealing as she holds up her staff in a vain attempt to shield herself, she can only helplessly stand and brace herself as the blades viciously rend apart her skin and body, until they prove too much and she collapses to her knees, panting deeply from the pain.  Dropping her staff, she wraps her arms about her midsection, slumping forward as she whimpers, then looks up as a shadow falls over her.  There she sees him looming over her, and she gazes far up into his silhouette, watching in fear and wordless shock as he levels his right arm to her face, the backs of his claws touching the bottom of her chin.

The crowd sits forward, peering at the drama as a short pause grips the arena, when she then sits back and lowers her head, yielding as she trembles all over.  Around them, the crowd cheers as he turns to face the announcer's stand, his name repeated in a chorus as the people cheer 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 to him anymore... hollow platitudes and reminders of his barbarism.  Behind him, a warm light falls upon Tira as the Coliseum's clerics bathe her in healing magic, restoring her body to health... though doing nothing for her torn clothing.  Feeling rejuvenated – if humiliated – she blinks against the sun's light and inwardly scolds herself for her loss, but when she next looks up, Vargas has already left, and the porters are coming to retrieve her; she'll have to brood later.


Seeking out all the italics and bolds in my transfers makes my fingers cry... unsure.gif

--------------------
~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205449
Top
Posted: 8th November 2013 19:07

*
Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 

...There's also a great deal more swearing in the revision than in the original.

Quote
Chapter 2

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A simple flick of her wrists and his neck snaps, the body falling limply to the ground.  Above him, she steps back and raises one hand grandly into the air, waving the other to her side and looking down on her latest victim as the crowd cheers her victory.

“Ladies and gentlemen!  Your victor: Rika Terral!”

At the sound of her name the crowd cheers again, and she tunes out the rest of what the announcer says in favor of the adoration, basking in the soothing warmth of their affection.  She turns full circle several times, bowing here and there to sections of her fans while her opponent rises and walks away, hanging his head dejectedly as porters and clerics lead him away... if Vargas lives in revulsion of their idolization, this woman thrives on it.

She later walks through a hallway in the living areas, finishing the last bit of a fruit in one hand as she rehearses a series of lines in her head, idly tossing a lock of flaming red hair from her shoulder with her free hand and then checking her clothing for wrinkles, smoothing out the folds almost absentmindedly.  Taking the last bite of her snack, she tosses the core into a nearby wastebasket, then dusts her hands off as she faces a large, ornate doorway at the end of the hall, composing herself one last time before knocking.

Soon, the door swings open and the small old man stands in the archway, finding himself looking on her as she smiles wide and opens her arms out to him.  “Cicero, my dear old friend!”

“Rika, my dear, come in, come in!” he says, laughing softly as he takes her hands and leads her in, then releases them as he closes the door behind her.  Ever the willing host, he then goes over to a liquor cabinet and opens it, facing back to her as he asks, “Would you care for a drink?”

“No, thank you, I've had my fill for today,” she replies, still holding her smile.

With a nod in return, he beams wider, joking, “Well... all the more for me!”

They both laugh as he pours himself a glass – he genuinely, she forcing it, inwardly grimacing at the joke; in truth, she finds him annoying and base, with just a touch of awkwardness about him... there are times that she wonders if he truly understands what's going on around him.  More than that, he considers them friends, while she merely tolerates him; but, if brown–nosing the old man can buy her favor, then she's damn sure going to brown–nose him, taking every advantage she can get to stay ahead of everyone else.

He sets the bottle down as his glass fills, then walks over as she catches herself staring blankly past him, glancing back to his eyes and forcing her smile to widen a bit.  He takes a sip, studying her, then asks as he lowers the glass, “Now... what is it you came to see me about?”

Doing her best to act sweet and innocent, she cocks her head at him and asks in a singsong voice, “Whatever makes you think I don't just want to visit?”

He smirks knowingly, waving the glass in his hand in a tiny circle.  “Because you're all about business, Rika... and that's what I like about you.”

He takes another sip while she hangs her head forward, chuckling once, then looks at him again, noting with a gentle shake of her head and a falsely complimentary air, “I can see there's no fooling you, Cicero.”

Ambling closer as she pauses – her eyes flitting about – she steps nearer and answers the question.  “I've been thinking about the tournament...”

The hand with the glass lowers slowly at his side, his brows furrowing.  “What about it, exactly?”

“Mostly about the tiers and my opponents,” she starts, then glances off into space, her expression coy as she gives a little smirk, stepping quietly around his side and behind him.  “...But I've been thinking a lot about the prize at the end.  What might I expect once I defeat all my enemies?”

Turning slightly aside as she steps around him, he casts his gaze to the floor at his side as she vacates it, nodding his head as he states, “You'll be crowned champion, of course.”

Laying a gentle hand on his shoulder, she leans closer to his face, speaking softly into his ear.  “Just champion, nothing else?”

He places a hand on hers and lifts it, turning about to face her with a coy smirk on his lips.  “Heh... you know as well as I, my dear, that all additional rewards are a secret to be revealed when a champion is crowned.”

Stepping back, she takes his hand in hers and smiles sweetly again.  “Certainly you can tell me, Cicero?  I mean, how big a secret can it be?”

She pauses, cocking her head at him and lifting a brow.  “Unless... it's something so important...”

He smiles and walks forward, lifting her hand as he spins her around and places a hand on her shoulder, beginning to walk her towards the door.  “I think you're imagining things, my dear.  Now, if you'll please, it's near my bedtime.”

She steps out the door, but quickly spins around and places a hand on the frame to prevent him from closing it right away; then, she gives him her sweetest smile, catching his eye.  “All right, Cicero... I'll see you tomorrow.  Goodnight.”

He nods and starts closing the door.  “Goodnight.  Until tomorrow.”

She stands back and waits as the door closes in her face, then twirls around and hisses through her teeth, her voice barely a whisper, “Damn!”

Cursing her failure to draw the information out of him, she storms off down the hallway, low heels clicking rapidly over the stone floor.  “I almost had it!  What's it gonna take for me to get through to that man?  And the nerve!  Denying me the chance to find out what's waiting for us when this is over... me!”

She passes one of the Coliseum's numerous maintenance people, who looks at her strangely and asks, “Milady, what're you doing out so late–?”

“None of your business,” she curtly answers.

Soon she moves out of earshot and out of sight, and he scoffs under his breath, turning around and muttering, “Rude.”

Finally back at her room, she halfheartedly slams the door behind her, then starts tearing off her clothes and tossing them on her dresser in frustration, her hands causing her even more aggravation by catching on folds and pockets as she yanks them off.  Next come necklaces and earrings as she works the latches roughly, slamming them down on a metal tray, and finally she removes the metal rings from her hair and slams them down, letting her hair fall down on her shoulders.  Sighing heavily, she finally starts to calm down, planting her hands on the edge of her dresser and leaning forward to peer at herself in the mirror.

There she sees a mess of unruly, straight, and spiny red hair splaying out all around her head and shoulders, draping down her back and arms and giving her the general appearance of a madwoman.  It's a striking countenance... rarely does she ever see herself when she's angry; she sighs again, watching her breath blow a few stray bangs away from her mouth, and stares back at her own light blue eyes, the color of a clear afternoon sky. “...Or... maybe there's something wrong with me...”

She suddenly laughs, hanging her head and shaking it, wondering what it is that drives her forward in the first place... fortune?  Glory?  The adulation?  She stands as she muses to herself, grabbing a robe and throwing it over her undergarments, quickly tying the sash with absentminded dexterity as she walks over to her bed, giving little care to the perfume she still wears... perhaps she'll feel better in the morning.

Perhaps.

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A new day is born with the passing of night, a new day that brings with it more challenges, and more rewards.  Today, thousands more fill the stands, impatiently stamping their feet on the stone and calling forth the next challengers, the anticipation for this matchup having reached a fever pitch; two warriors – undefeated and barely challenged – meeting for the first time... only one can emerge victorious.  The bets have been placed, and the money rides strong on both fighters, even odds going to each of them; there was little doubt in the minds of the people that this battle would not disappoint.  In the staging area, Vargas hangs his head low in meditation, waiting for the call to come...

“Vargas!”

He lifts his head at the sound of the announcer's booming voice, then walks forward into the blinding light of day as the doors swing open, closing his eyes to shut it out.  When he again opens them, he finds himself in the center of the arena, facing off against a woman with flaring red, spiny hair drawn into a high ponytail... he misses the name, but does it really matter?  She twirls her battle staff around and plants the butt in the ground, standing tall and defiant as she stares fiercely through him.

The crowd begins to quell itself, waiting in rapt anticipation for the announcer... who finally calls out, “Begin!”

Only this time, both react immediately.  Vargas quickly draws his hands to himself and summons forth a great beam of white energy, focusing his chi into an Aurabolt and then sending it in her direction, while she rapidly casts an ominously huge ball of flame from the sky and sends it at him.

Their attention on offense – not defense – both attacks hit hard, catching them vulnerable; she's thrown backwards and lifted in the air, falling back to the earth and unceremoniously flipping end over end, while he falls on his back, writhing from the intense heat.  Rika's the first back to her feet, rolling backwards to one knee and glaring at him... how the hell did he do that?!  And more to the point, where the hell did he learn Duncan's technique?!  She brings her staff back to bear and casts another spell, staring through the great ball of jade energy swirling before her, while he stands to his feet just in time to see dirt swirl into a massive cloud around her, then leap towards him, tossing dust and debris about as the whirlwind gathers strength.

In just a second he finds himself engulfed in a powerful cyclone, tearing at his body like no other force he's seen before... well, besides his own Gale Cut technique.  In spite of his bracing, he's lifted from the ground and thrown into the air, spinning inside the massive belly of the tornado before being dumped like a rag doll to the ground far below, where he lands hard, rolling and faceplanting into the sand.

Swearing to himself, he coughs up a lungful of dust and pushes against the ground, looking up to see her stalking towards him, jabbing her staff in the ground as she removes another weapon from her belt.  Acting on instinct alone, he hops to his feet and spins aside just in time to avoid the shimmering metal chakram flying towards him, then turns around to watch it track back to her waiting hand.  She catches it easily, then stares him down a moment, a superior smirk on her face, taunting in its intensity.

There's a short pause as he studies her, recognizing only too late that he's underestimated an opponent... when he did he become so sloppy? “I'll have to get serious with this one.”

Suddenly she spins around and throws the chakram back at him, then yanks her staff from the ground to cast another spell, gambling on splitting his attention.  He stands and waits for it to come within just a hand's breadth of his face, then ducks to one knee and disappears in a puff of black smoke.

Dumbfounded, she stares at the smoke and loses her concentration – the weave of the spell dissipating and fizzling out completely in her lapse – then gasps and steps back when another black puff appears before her and Vargas slashes with his claw.  The strike finds its mark, cutting her across the abdomen, but the second is parried by her staff, as is the third and fourth.

Thinking quickly – reacting in a battle, for once – she reaches into her belt and removes a short sword, and uses it to parry the next blow while she gambles on splitting her attention; with the staff in her other hand, she hastily casts a spell, ignoring the sound and puff of sand that her chakram makes as it slices diagonally into the ground nearby... she can always grab that later.  Barely able to hold off his claws for a second, she is nonetheless able to cast a bolt of lightning that catches him unguarded, giving her just enough time to bring her staff back around and cast a quick healing spell.

Clenching her teeth together, she then flings the staff aside and draws a second, longer sword, deciding that now is no time to get fancy... she needs to finish this fight with authority.  As the curing spell's magic dissipates around her, she charges forward and swings her blades, meeting his claws in a furious exchange of parries and glancing hits.  The intensity reaches a hectic pitch, each of them striking, repelling, parrying, lunging, spinning, ducking, and leaping, their feet kicking dust in the air as they step, sidestep, and twirl in complex motions and rhythms, each no longer holding back and drawing on every ounce of training in them... a lethal dance of metal and flesh, its choreography taut and rapid.  Cicero sits forward in his seat, watching at rapt attention, feeling the intensity of the fight in his bones as he grips the seat's armrests.

She swings her longsword now, catching his claw, then brings the other around to stab at his chest... and from the corner of his eye, he spots the tiniest of flaws in her stance, and takes advantage; slapping the short sword hard, he throws her off balance and tosses the weapon from her hand.  She steps back and brings that hand in to her belly, feeling it throb in pain from the shock of the blow, and grits her teeth while he slings her other sword aside with his left hand and lunges with his right.  In a nearly panicked rush, she calls forth a spell, and again catches him unprepared, summoning a wall of flame that rises from the earth and turns back into his face, basking his body in a blinding flame.

Throwing his arms up to shield himself, he stumbles backwards and falls to a knee... any hit could finish him off now.  Seeing this, she immediately charges forward with her sword, bringing it up across her shoulder to bear down on him, growling through her teeth, while he casts his eyes to the dirt, quickly summoning his energies... then pulls back a hand and drives the palm down into the ground, against the wall of energy gathered there.  An explosion of green energy then erupts from the earth, forming blades of air in the space between them and slashing at her unguarded body.

Screaming in shock, she staggers back as several sickles of air cut her open, then looks up as he leaps into the air and spins, throwing another series of blades at her.  Cicero flinches as she brings her sword up to guard against the storm, but all in vain, for they slice through her defenses and leave her a bloody mess.  Finally, the attack passes, and she collapses to a knee, not seeing him summon another Aurabolt and toss it at her, throwing all his strength into the blast in an attempt to finish the match with finality while she reels on the ground, her breath coming in panting fits.  It lands without resistance, penetrating her chest and shining straight through, cutting not into her flesh but instead her life energy itself, piercing it with a burning agony.

The scream in her throat degenerates into a gargled exclamation as the blast lifts her to her feet and passes, causing her to flail backwards to the ground, where she lies spread eagle, her eyes open but unseeing, cast up to the sky above, her breath coming in the shallowest of draws.  There's a long and abrupt pause as he waits for her to resume, but when it's clear she's in no condition to continue, the announcer declares victory, and he steps back, relaxing as the crowd erupts into a roar of applause and cheers, chanting his name.  Gazing down on her as he draws deep, heaving breaths, he muses that this has been the closest he's ever been to losing since his battle with Sabin... but he soon turns and walks back to the staging area, ignoring the sounds of a healing wind behind him.

There, she sits up with a jolt, flinging her arms to her sides as she looks around in confusion.  Upon realizing that she's actually lost a fight, she glances up and stares at Vargas's back in stunned silence, then scowls and scrambles to her feet, feeling humiliated and angry.  Looking to her side, she sees all her weapons lying in the dirt in a loose gathering: chakram, swords, staff... then grabs them up and storms out the way she came in.  In the rostrum, Cicero rises to his feet, feeling torn under the pleased smirk on his face... part of him is proud of Vargas's victory, while on the other hand, he feels a measure of pity for her defeat... always a sad day to see a fighter's record gain a blemish.

He excuses himself from the honored guests around him and leaves out a small door nearby, never seeing the man sitting near to the balcony, leaning his head on his fists and staring into the arena.  The man squints an eye, considering Vargas's victory, playing back over his style and method mentally, studying it... learning from it; he will need that information soon.  Then, he rises from his seat and leaves, having gotten everything he came here for.

In the passageways behind the arena walls, men, women, and objects are thrown aside and bullied around as Rika returns to her room, ranting and screaming at nothing and nobody in particular.  People soon learn to stay out of her way – dodging the random objects she flings about, nobody daring to step in and stop her – though one man simply walks past her, paying her no mind.  She says nothing to him and he says nothing back, so they pass in peace, the man continuing on until he finds Cicero walking down the hall in the opposite direction.  Quickly, he reaches out and grabs his arm, stopping him to ask, “You are the proprietor, Cicero, I presume?”

Cicero looks him over, then faces him and draws himself to his full height, proudly beaming back.  “Yes, I am Cicero.”

The man drapes his arm over Cicero's shoulders then, and begins walking in the direction Cicero was originally headed in, his voice conversational and cordial.  “I wish to talk to you about the next bracket fight...”

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A glass hurtles helplessly into the wall and slams there, shattering and spewing shards everywhere, adding to the chaos in the room.  Continuing her fit of rage, she screams at it for making a mess and grabs another, throwing it, too, into the wall before grabbing clothes from her dresser and throwing them on the floor with a growl.  She then storms over to her bed and rips the sheets off it, throwing them to the ground and screaming again in frustration, almost tripping on the sheets as they fall around her.

Stumbling as she regains her balance and releases the sheets, she stops and turns about, looking at the room around her as her arms flail in a semicircle about herself, panting heavily and clenching her fists as she observes the carnage: shattered glass, weapons dropped all over the floor, clothes and sheets all around her.  Her breath finally calms from panting heaves to heavy draws, and she sighs at length, collapsing on the edge of her bed and burying her head in her hands.

Until this day, she has never lost a fight... ever.  Never during her training or military service has she lost a singles fight, fair or unfair.  She'd always wondered what it might mean to be defeated one day... always figuring that a loss would mean the end of her life or her career, or perhaps that she would no longer be able to fight due to some crippling injury.  She'd wondered about the circumstances of a loss, too... would she make a fatal mistake, or would she misinterpret her opponent's motives... she even thought she had it all figured out how she would lose.

The crushing weight of this defeat, however, is something she's been unprepared for... beaten not by some trick or extraordinary circumstance, but because she underestimated an opponent, and paid for it.  She finds herself stifling a sob, and chuckles sardonically, sniffling as she regards herself with disgust – the thought of her, of all people, crying – and over something so simple as losing a fair fight to a better man.

Her eyes staring at the floor through her fingers for a long moment, she clears her head of the dour thoughts, then stands and removes the metal rings from her hair, letting it fall down around her face.  She tosses her head once to loosen it, then drops the rings down on the dresser as she stoops down, scooping up her sheets and starting to clean up her mess.  Normally she would leave for dinner at this time, celebrating with the high rollers that come through... but not today.  Today there will be no celebration.

No, she'll instead clean her room, then prepare for her tourney match later tonight... loss or no loss, she has to win that one.


--------------------
~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205450
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Posted: 8th November 2013 19:18

*
Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
In the revision, I changed around a number of things that had long bothered me about the original write-up, but which I had kept in place just out of principle, pigheaded an attitude as it was; this time, I simply changed them to something I'm more comfortable with, something much more in line with what I think characters' true actions would be, something more realistic.

Quote
Chapter 3

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Gladiators battle in the arena above, shedding blood for sport and play, while spectators cheer them on and place their 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 Dragon's Neck Coliseum has built its reputation and fame, and it is in this fashion that warriors the world over have visited its great, ornate halls.

But this is not the way of the underground pit.  Here, buried in a great chamber beneath 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 is only blood and honor.


Heels click on the stone below them, clacking amidst a rattle of other shoes as they stroll towards the portal ahead.  The closer they grow, the greater the light becomes, until some have to shield their eyes against it and squint when they emerge into the oddly bright torch–lit chamber of the underground pit.  Rika brushes a lock of hair from her eyes and blinks against the light, quickly adjusting to the glare and looking to her left for her seat, soon finding it amid the rostrum, where Cicero is already seated.  Opening a fan and waving it over herself, she cools herself, lamenting the bright glare of the torches ringing the chamber.  “This heat is intolerable...”

She ascends a short flight of steps and comes around Cicero's side, and after catching his eye, bows slightly.  “Cicero.”

“Ahhh, milady, come, do have a seat,” he says, motioning to a seat near him.

Nodding and smiling, she approaches it.  “Of course.”

The announcer's voice is heard in the background, just coming over the din of the crowd as the fight comes to an end in the pit below, the victor winning by shattering the arm of his opponent.  As she sits, she hears only the last few words of the announcer... not that she much cares, anyway.

"–Victor: Xerael, of Tzen!"

He takes a bow for the audience, folding his arms across his chest and ignoring the screams of pain coming from behind him, while in the rostrum Rika looks over him passively – yawning, even – then turns to Cicero.  “How much longer until my match?”

His eyes locked on the pit, he leans sideways as he addresses her, watching Xerael soak in the praise before leaving, porters and clerics helping up the loser and escorting him away.  “Yours is after this next one, and that'll be all for the night.”

She nods her head a few times, fanning herself a little faster.  “Good.”

Her eyes then widen as she gazes into the pit, for there steps into the ring the hulking form of Vargas, bronzed skin darker by torchlight than by daylight as he walks to a stop near the center, waiting for his challenger with stoic intensity as the crowd roars in approval, chanting his name.  She hadn't known that he's part of the tourney... she sets her fan into her lap, sitting forward and watching him intently, her interest now drawing keenly on this fight; if there's a chance she'll have to meet him again, she'll need to be prepared, and that will mean finding a weakness – any weakness – that she can exploit.

She watches him square off for battle as the announcer calls out, "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's head snaps up at the change in stipulations. "Best of three victories?"

"Varrr–gaaas!"

Still gazing up at the announcer, he hears the distant sound of his opponent's gate opening – almost lost amid the roar of the crowd – and sweeps his gaze downwards to look at him...

And stops short with a start.  There, stalking slowly towards him, is a figure he never thought he'd see again, and yet is standing before him now, and as the man crosses the distance a sudden flood of memories crashes through Vargas's head... memories of training sessions, jokes, warm camaraderie, friends and enemies... betrayal...

His eyes narrow and his fists clench as the other man stops before him, and as he fumbles in his mind to find the right words the other man speaks first, biting out his name with disdain.  “Vargas... never thought you'd see me again, did you?”

“No,” Vargas replies flatly, his gaze intense on the man.

The man tilts his head back, looking down his nose at Vargas with a haughty sneer.  “You know, I arranged for all this: the rules, the time, the two of us...”

Incredulous, Vargas asks, “You mean to tell me you arranged this fight?”

“Oh, no,” the man replies, shaking his head.  “I fought my way up here – just as you did – I just made sure our fight had the right rules.  And you do know why I'm here?”

Narrowing his eyes tighter, Vargas takes a deep breath.  “I have an idea.”

“Good... I'd hate for you to die not knowing why you were beaten!” the man shouts – his voice steadily raising – just as he hurls himself at Vargas and slashes with his right claw – identical to Vargas's – slinging three energy blades at him.

Quickly – almost casually – Vargas throws one arm forward, white energies swirling around it in a blanketing storm of light before the energy cascades forth and forms an elliptical shield just forward of his claws, a mass of blueish–white air that expands rapidly through the air.  The energy blades glance harmlessly off and fly haphazardly to the sides, dissipating into the air around him, while the shield fades away as the man closes the distance, forcing Vargas to assume a defensive stance and guard against a flurry of rapid 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 sweeps.  An uncharacteristically off–balance parry by Vargas then causes the other man to take advantage, spinning around and trying a roundhouse kick to the jaw.  Vargas leans easily backwards to avoid it, but his opponent then comes at him with a series of palm strikes, chops, and kicks that he has to block or avoid, pressing the attack with relentless abandon.

Their feet shuffle, step, and skid across the sand, throwing dust into the air with each plant of their soles, when Vargas lifts his foot to strike; quickly, however, his opponent raises his own foot and steps on Vargas's toes, forcing the foot back to the ground and pinning it.  Undeterred, Vargas hits him with a palm strike and frees his foot, then tries to again kick him, but is again blocked.  He then tries to kick with his other leg, but the man steps his other leg forward and hooks it into the pit of Vargas's knee, forcing that leg back to the ground and locking it as they trade a pair of parries, soon locking their claws together at the blades.

Snarling, the man then leans forward and headbutts Vargas, snapping his head back and breaking their lock in the process, metal scraping over metal as their claws disengage, both men stumbling backwards from the sudden release of their legs.  Taking the chance to charge forth, the man tries to press the attack, but Vargas moves too quickly and blocks his strikes, then finally finds the flaw in his stance and takes advantage.

As his opponent steps forward and lunges with one claw, he leaves his feet spread too widely apart, and Vargas ducks quickly under the strike and throws one leg out, then sweeps it around in a wide circle and knocks the man's feet out from under him.  Spinning back to a stand, Vargas collects a familiar ball of green energy into his fists as he watches his enemy scramble back to his feet, then spins, hurling many blades of air at him as he comes about.

The man barely has time to get to his feet again when he sees a storm of sickles coming at him, and is soon after cut to ribbons by the energies and collapses on the ground, bleeding all over from dozens of slashes and abrasions.  Standing tall for a moment, Vargas then spits and walks slowly over, while the announcer calls out into the air, "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 being harsh light coming from torches high above... and the next thing he sees being Vargas's face looming into view.

“You can't beat me, Darell,” Vargas flatly states.  “Give up.”

“I won't!” he growls back, bringing his left leg out to his side to try and trip Vargas.

Deftly, however, he hops aside and stands tall as Darell jumps to his feet, then brings his fist back up before him as he anticipates Darell's next attack – an Aurabolt.  Darell summons the beam rather quickly, but Vargas moves much too fast and watches as the holy energy dissipates totally over his shield, washing harmlessly over and away.  Astonished by his speed, Darell doesn't move for a moment too long and is caught unprepared for Vargas's sudden headlong rush.

The first palm strike glances off Darell's jaw, but he manages to block the second and third in time and starts shuffling backwards, yielding ground in an attempt to regain control of the fight.  They then trade a series of parries and kicks until Vargas catches his arm in a swing and grabs it at the elbow, then grabs the other arm and swings it around similarly, holding Darell's arms to his sides.  He pulls him in close then, and implores over the cheers of the crowd, “Give it up, Darell, you can't beat me.”

Snarling back, Darell shouts, “Never, murderer!”

He headbutts Vargas again and breaks the hold, then shoves him back 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 to brace himself, soon looking up to see Darell charging for another attack.  Thinking quickly, he looks back down to the ground and shuts his eyes, concentrating as he draws together as much of his power as he can, while Darell's power reaches its peak and he unleashes the blast, a bright flash 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, causing it to split in two and expand, opening a small fissure that quickly snakes out toward and reaches for Darell, then sits still and bears the full brunt of Darell's attack with a clenched jaw.  Darell, meanwhile, widens his eyes in shock as he suddenly loses footing and falls into the gap, where only instinct saves him from a painful fall as he reaches out and snags a rock in one hand, swinging around with his other to grab another handhold; there, he hangs on tight, struggling now just to keep from falling.

Panting, he looks down at the deep, dark abyss and exhales a sharp breath, then turns back to the rock face and attempts to gain a foothold... unsuccessfully.  A small rain of pebbles and dirt comes down around him and he coughs – having inhaled some – as he looks up to see Vargas's silhouette standing over him.  Coughing a few more times, he sneers up at him, growling, “Come to finish me off?”

Shaking his head slightly, Vargas kneels and offers his hand, very much to Darell's surprise, saying, “No.”

Looking at the hand questioningly, Darell asks, “What're you doin'?”

“Givin' you a way out,” Vargas answers, extending the hand further.  “Just give it up.”

“No!” Darell barks back, struggling to find a foothold again.  “I won't!”

Vargas shifts his weight on his knee and tilts his head at him, annoyance in his voice and expression.  “You're not accomplishing anything!”

Shouting back in a sudden roar, Darrel snarls, “I'm fighting for Duncan's honor!  I'm avenging his death, Vargas!”

Narrowing his eyes, Vargas glares down at him through slits.  “He died because he made the wrong choice.  Don't do the same thing, Darell.”

“And what choice was that?!” Darell shouts back, feet searching the rock face as he waits his answer.

“He neglected me... his only son... and chose Sabin as his successor,” Vargas answers, his head lowering as he remembers Sabin's words in their battle... in spite of them, he still has trouble accepting that truth, finding more comfort in the lie than the agonizing possibility he had committed a murder under a false provocation.  Leveling his head again, however, he pushes the thoughts aside and draws a deep breath, lowering his voice as he says, “But that past is gone.  C'mon, Darell... just take my hand and let it go.”

Finally feeling something beneath his foot, Darell turns his head up to glare at Vargas, a sneer spreading slowly over his lips.  “...Fat chance...”

He then suddenly explodes from the chasm as he channels his chi and launches himself from the foothold, hurtling as would a missile towards Vargas, grabbing the hulk's shoulders and rolling to the ground with him in his grasp.  There Vargas plants his feet in his abdomen and pushes him away, Darell hurtling backwards to the ground, where he uses momentum to help him somersault in reverse back onto his feet while Vargas kips up himself.

The two men then flash their claws and assume identical menacing stances, when they then charge each other, metal flashing and clanging as they grit their teeth, a furious exchange of spinning kicks and parries ensuing to the approving roar of the crowd.  In the rostrum, Rika sits forward, studying every detail of this match, picking apart every nuance of their styles... but especially Vargas's; she's never seen someone exhibit so many of Duncan's techniques, and she can't help but wonder how long he must have studied under him... and where he came from to begin with.

A lucky palm strike by Darell catches Vargas in the stomach, while a spinning roundhouse in return catches Darell in the jaw and sends him flying head over heels to his side, where he tumbles in the dirt and whips over onto his back to look up... only to find himself staring up the lengths of Vargas's claws.

Panting for breath, Darell then relaxes his body, lying spread out in the sand as he glares up at Vargas, the crowd around them falling silent and waiting to see what Vargas will do as he stands menacingly overhead.  After a pause, Darell breathlessly asks, incredulous, “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 a long moment, considering it... feelings of anger and resentment clouding his eyes, tinged with guilt and remorse that force him to reexamine that part of his life... whether it was all done for the wrong reasons... but only for a moment.  Clenching his teeth and inhaling sharply, Vargas scowls and draws back for one final strike...

But that short moment is all Darell needs.  He swings his foot to the side and trips Vargas easily, then scrambles back to his feet and assumes an offensive stance on the way up, while Vargas spins to his side and rolls in the dirt, rising to his feet quickly and growling, “You can't beat me, Darell!”

Charging ahead quickly, Darell draws his fists back to strike, shouting, “So you keep telling me!”

Metal scrapes over metal and hair whips in the wind as one man spins while another ducks, one punching while the other kicks.  It all happens so fast the crowd doesn't know what's happening to whom until the dust clears and one man stands behind the other, cradling his head in both hands.  Rika sits forward at the sight, peering at Vargas as he stands with his feet apart behind the kneeling Darell, while around them a cheer erupts from the crowd, gaining coherence and volume in rapid swells.

"Kill!  Kill!  Kill!  Kill!"

Darell growls one last time as Vargas hesitates, searching for a way out of this... but, perhaps there is none; Darell will fight to the death... it's his wish.  If he can't avenge Duncan's death, then he'll die trying.  For a moment, he wonders if this is no better than murder, itself... is a battle to the death any better than a death sentence?

His arms tense, and he grips Darell's head tightly... then, he abruptly releases his grip and grabs Darell's arms, drawing them up and unlatching the claws with unreal speed and ease.  Darell remains kneeling in stunned silence as Vargas slings the weapons to the sides, their metal shapes clattering uselessly to the dirt, when Vargas then plants a palm on Darell's back and shoves him gruffly, faceplanting him into the sand.

Darell sets his hands in the dirt then to try and push himself up, but he then cries out as he feels his body wracked with pain, as above him Vargas holds one palm behind the other and directs an Aurabolt down to the man, stunning him and sapping out what little strength he has left.  Vargas watches the limp body fall face–first into the ground, then looks up at the crowd, scowling at them as he hears their boos of disapproval... beginning to understand the depths of his distaste for their love of this blood sport.

“You don't want honorable combat... you want death,” he muses, shaking his head.  “Not today.”

He looks down to Darell as clerics flip him over and carry him away, the broken body barely alive, wondering what will become of him next... wondering if he'll return some day in the future looking to finish the job.  “Guess I'll cross that bridge when I reach it.”

He steps in place, turning his gaze over the crowd as their boos settle back down into a low din of conversation, while the announcer calls out the results... then, pauses, staring up to the rostrum as his eyes fall on Rika's.  “Her...”

Staring back at him through narrowed eyes, she pauses to consider his act of mercy... whether it could even be called an act of mercy; the poor man would have to live with the disappointment of failing in his mission.  Below her in the pit, he suddenly turns and walks away, passing through his gate and disappearing into the darkness.  In the stands, Rika sits back and turns to face Cicero as he addresses her, saying, “You should hurry, they're waiting.”

She follows his nod to the crowd, and meets it with one of her own.  “Of course...”

She gives one last glance out over the pits as she rises and walks over to the hallway leading down to the pit, still analyzing Vargas's style in her mind's eye...

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The door slams shut behind Vargas as he charges in, leaving him all alone to stare and think, running through a torrent of thought and emotion, an incoherent babble of voices and images in his head from the past.  His feet carry him to his bed in spite of himself, and he sinks down on the edge heavily, looking at the claws on his hands and staring at them intently, as if seeing all the pain and conflict of his life in them... if only, he muses, it could be as easy to cast them off as unstrapping the buckles.

As he begins to do just that, a knock comes at his door, to which he doesn't even lift his eyes.  “...Who is it?”

“Cicero.”

He sighs, a heavy and brooding breath carrying with it the poison of a dozen terrible memories and deeds... the last person he wants to see right now is his benefactor, but, he supposes, he has to be at least be courteous to the annoying little man.  Rising slowly to his feet after a pause, he calls out, “Come in.”

The door swings open with a slight creak, and Cicero steps in and pans the room until he finds Vargas at the bed, removing his claws and dropping them onto the covers.  Beaming at him, Cicero hooks his thumbs into his robe, rocking back on his heels.  “Congratulations on another fine victory, Vargas.”

“Oh, shove it,” Vargas spits, turning away.  “You knew that was gonna happen, didn't you?”

Nodding, Cicero continues to stand tall, defending himself by saying, “He came to me and proposed the stipulations.  He knew what he was getting himself into.”

He watches Vargas scoff and walk away, adding as he tilts his head aside, “Besides, you won.  That's all that matters, right?”

An awkward silence falls over the room as Cicero stares at Vargas's back, the hulking man doing little more than turning his head slightly aside, casting his gaze to the ground beside him, while Cicero ponders his brooding mood, unable to see what the problem is... his mark is still perfect, his standing in the tourney intact; why does a victory seem to bother him so much?  Presently, however, he steps forward, interrupting the silence as he asks, “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 banquet?”

Vargas keeps his back turned, facing forward again.  “You know I don't like that scene.”

“Yes... I do know,” Cicero replies, crossing his arms behind his back.  “But please, indulge me, Vargas.  You've never been to one and it would please me if you attended.”

Vargas spins around and gives him a hard glare, to which Cicero holds his hands out, quickly adding, “Just this once!”

Vargas considers telling him 'no' in no uncertain terms... but he soon realizes that he really doesn't care; not today, not anymore.  So what's a couple of hours of discomfort?  It could hardly be any worse than what he's experienced before... than what he's done before.  Sighing deeply, he hangs his head, then nods, muttering, “All right... all right.”

A smile spreads over Cicero's lips.  “Good.  I'll be expecting you around ten.”

He turns then and leaves, shutting the door behind himself as Vargas turns back to the bed, slumping down on it and staring off into space again.  He's most wanted to be left alone ever since he got here... but 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.

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Cicero's banquets fall in stark contrast to the gritty, barbaric pits and sands of the arenas below, exchanged for brightly lit halls and a ballroom adorned with festive décor and plentiful buffets just waiting to entertain guests.  Soft, lively music fills the room from the grand bandstand at the front, populated with only the best musicians from this part of the world, setting an energetic mood to the air.  It's against this backdrop that guests mingle, dance, and dine, most of them rich aficionados and sponsors... others 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 ring; the most successful and renowned gladiators, attending on personal request by Cicero or common courtesy to play to their public... a list of names that includes Arath, Holdan, Xerael, Rika, Siegfried... and, tonight, Vargas.

Vargas, himself, steps through the grand arch of the ballroom's doorway and looks around himself calmly and... curiously, actually.

He's seen many sights in his days, but this is something else entirely... the lights, the colors, the smells and sounds; all alien to him.  He almost wanders about with jaw agape and his face bright with wonder, but he soon catches himself and regains his composure, finding the reception area first to fetch himself a drink, wondering if there's anything here he can do.

A figure pushes his way through the crowd as he lifts a glass, then puts a hand on his shoulder just as he takes a sip.  “Ah, Vargas!  I see you came, after all!”

Vargas almost spits it out in surprise, but swallows hard – nearly choking on it – and turns around to look down at the old man.  “Cicero.”

Cicero smiles as he steps back, looking him over from head to toe with some amazement.  “Ahhh, well... I didn't think you even had clothes like these, Vargas.”

Vargas reaches up and slowly runs a hand down the front of his new silk shirt, feeling the texture of it as he glances down.  “I didn't 'til an hour ago.”

Cicero's smile widens as a laugh builds in his chest.  “Hhhah hah hah!  Still the same old Vargas.  Good, good, I like that.  Now tell me, how're you liking it so far?”

Vargas glances left, then right, then back down to his drink.  “All right so far...”

He tilts his head back and takes a shot from the drink then, swallowing before adding, “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 said, he nods and wanders off, rejoining his wealthier guests to mingle again, leaving Vargas to stare after him a long moment... shaking his own head in return.  Such a curious man... he wonders sometimes if he's right in the head.  Glancing at his glass and seeing it empty, he sets it aside and reaches for a new one, sampling a different brand this time.

Across the room, another fighter mingles with the crowd, speaking with two men in formal wear, holding a drink herself as she listens to one man tell a story, her other hand idly patting down the sashes and ribbons of her silk dress.  She laughs as he finishes the story and sips from her drink, glancing about 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 she stops, peering at him.  For a moment she almost has to ask herself if that's really him, but who else can it be, with that odd blue hair?  Her eyes scan him from the face down, and she takes another drink, gently shaking her head.  “Hmph... he thinks a clean shirt and hair shine 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, staying out of his sight as he leans sideways against the back wall, idly sipping from his drink.  Thus, he's quite surprised when a familiar voice suddenly comes up behind him and quietly remarks, “Lovely evening.”

He spins around and looks down on her, catching her gaze as she sarcastically adds, “Too bad your friend from the pit couldn't be here to see it.”

She takes another sip of her drink as she observes his reaction: the aggravation and the long sigh he draws as he shifts his weight and turns back to the side, looking away from her.  “What're you doin' here?”

“I should ask you the same thing,” she starts, her voice thick with disdain.  “I was invited.”

“So was I,” Vargas bites back, glancing back at her.  “Cicero wanted me to come.”

Lowering her glass, she glares up at him, studying the cold, hard eyes and the veiled intensity behind them... this is no man of the gentry.  He belongs on a farm somewhere.  “What makes you so special he'd want you here?”

Gazing back in her eyes deeply, he turns to face her squarely... and figures right here and now that she's a pompous, arrogant, tactless little minx with a grudge to hold against him, and fires back with a volley of his own.  “I am Vargas, undefeated and unchallenged, son of Duncan and master of the martial arts.  Someone steps up to me, I knock 'em right now.  Same as you.”

A sneer spreads across his face, and he jabs at her, adding, “Just like I did to you.”

Her face hardens – especially her eyes – as anger flares within her, the loss still painfully fresh in her mind, clouding it with such ferocity that she altogether misses the connection with Duncan.  She steps closer then, arching her head back to meet his, lowering her voice so only they can hear as she growls, “That was a farce.  I should've beaten you.”

“'Fraid not,” he flatly states with a single shake of his head.  “There isn't a world out there you'd've beaten me in.”

She scoffs and shakes her head, biting out, “You arrogant prick.”

“Prove me wrong,” he sneers back.  “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 as she lifts a sarcastic brow.

He pauses, taking a sip from his drink as he looks out over the crowd.  “I got stuff to do.”

Scowling, she shakes her head again, her voice abruptly softening.  “Whatever.  I'll see you in the ring tomorrow.”

“Sure thing,” he says, then looks down and holds up a finger, adding, “But after my next tourney match.”

Tilting her head aside, she lifts her brow again.  “And what if you die in that match?”

He smirks and chuckles, taking some pride in getting under her skin.  “Don't you worry 'bout that.  I won't be dyin' anytime soon.”

He takes another sip of his drink, watching her shake her head, then waves his hand down at her chest with a sneer.  “Now take your... 'assets' and go bother someone else.”

She glances down at herself with a start, then abruptly pauses and clears her throat, shifting her weight from one foot to the other and trying to keep from punching him in the face right then and there.  Looking back up at him with a scowl, she brushes a thick bang from her eyes and points the index finger of that hand at him, leveling it at his eyes.  “I'm gonna let that one slide... but you try that again, and I won't hesitate to knock you out where you stand.”

Try it,” he sneers.  “Might be funny.”

She shakes her head once more at him, then turns and storms away through the crowd, barely able to control herself as she draws her breath in sharp huffs.  As he watches her leave, he shakes his own head, his smile fading into a frown, musing that a pretty face can't make up for a bad personality.  The first volleys have been fired... this war's on.

He glances aside then as he sees a man walking towards him.  Quickly, he looks around himself to see if there's someone else around that he's approaching, but there isn't a soul to any side of him... so what can he want?  As Vargas studies him, he takes note of the silken robes and cloak, and thinks he recognizes the face... Xerael, was it?  The man takes a drink from his glass, then swallows as he lowers it, pursing his lips to taste the liquid, his voice conversationally low as he nears Vargas, remarking, “You know, I think that's the angriest I've ever seen anyone make her.”

Shifting in place, Vargas holds his own glass up, giving it a circular shake as he looks out over the crowd.  “What would you know about it?”

“Only that she's usually a much tougher cookie to crack than that,” Xerael states, standing next to him.  He then leans his head aside, studying Vargas with curiosity.  “You must have gotten in her head.”

Vargas shoots him a look, incredulously studying the man's eyes as he turns over the tone of his voice in his head, playing back the words.  “What's that supposed to mean?”

Xerael then chuckles in amusement, his voice low.  “Exactly what you think it does.”

Stepping to face him, Vargas points a finger across the crowd to her, glancing back at him and raising his voice.  “If you think me n' that bitch got anything goin' on you got another thing comin'.”

Xerael – maddeningly – chuckles again, lifting his glass back up.  “Doesn't matter to me what you think... if there's a distraction there, I'll take any advantage I can get.”

Watching him take a drink, Vargas narrows an eye curiously, turning his head aside.  “...And what's that supposed to mean?”

Lowering the glass, Xerael gives him a knowing smirk, pausing as he studies Vargas's eyes.  “I'm your next opponent.”


Xerael was a character I had always wanted to expand upon, but never really thought of a way to work it in. In doing the revision, I finally found a way.

It's not much face time, but at least I finally found a place for him to strut his stuff.

--------------------
~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205451
Top
Posted: 8th November 2013 19:24

*
Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
Quote
Chapter 4

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

The mind's eye is powerful and vivid... particularly when you don't want it to be.  And vexing Vargas's mind is the image of a smiling Rika in his head... but not a smile of happiness or comfort, but a cocky, self–assured grin, exuding confidence and pride.  She mocks him, drifting in and out of his view but never leaving as his feet carry him mindlessly over the sands, approaching Xerael at the center of the pit.  Normally he never lets such a thing bother him so much – nor allow someone to get in his head like she is – but she's decided to make this personal, and it's certainly getting that way for him.  Even the sight of her face is getting on his nerves... her fiery red hair, her sky blue eyes, her small, slender nose and full... luscious red lips...

Slapping himself mentally as he shakes his head, he curses Xerael for putting that image in his head... curses her for being so goddamned beautiful“What the hell're you thinking?!  She's the enemy.”

So deep in thought is he that he's actually surprised when he comes back to and looks up to see an arena full of spectators, staring down into the pit at him and Xerael, cheering for each in turn as the announcer calls out their names.  “Xerael... and Vargas!”

The cheers of the crowd fall on deaf ears, for both men crack knuckles and ready weapons, priming for battle as their eyes narrow and concentrate on reading the other's intentions, feet squaring in the sands beneath them in the waning din of the crowd.

“Begin!”

Acting quickly, Xerael swings his staff around and aims it at Vargas, hurling a massive ball of flame that singes the earth and closes the distance rapidly, but then burns furiously against Vargas's shield, swirling over and over impotently against the spiritual aura.  Drawing his staff back, Xerael stares with surprise and intrigue, while the shield dissipates along with the spell, Vargas then flashing his claw at him before charging headlong, one arm drawn across his chest.

Having no time to further ponder the shield, Xereal steps back and hurriedly draws together another spell, holding his staff close as a deep, dark power forms within and around him, coloring the air with a mixture of red and black hues.  They swirl inwards like a pinwheel–shaped smoke cloud, gathering together into a weave of arcane magics that Xerael has spent years perfecting... then, he finishes the last rites of the spell, and releases the energy in a massive wave of destructive power, unleashing the power of the ancient spell Quasar.

It washes over Vargas completely, and he smiles to himself as the punishing spell seems to disintegrate Vargas into nothing on contact... but the moment is only fleeting, as a hard kick sends him lurching forward with an exclamation.  He barely has time to even stand up again when Vargas begins starts slashing away at his back, metal scraping over metal, until Xerael manages to spin around and defend with his staff, madly deflecting the rapid blows; then, he swears as his armor suddenly breaks off and falls to the ground around him, the straps cut loose by Vargas's claws.  “Ssshit!

With a grunt he backs away, then erects a hasty energy shield to buy himself some time, hiding behind it as Vargas's strikes glance off harmlessly.  Noting the futility, Vargas then steps back and spits, swinging his arms around in a series of arcs, switching his stance and leveling a glare at the sorcerer.  Thinking fast, Xerael then waits until the shield dissipates and feints inaction, watching Vargas charge forward with arms swinging... and just when it seems Vargas will engage him hand–to–hand, Xerael slams his staff into the ground and summons a painfully familiar flame spell, the wall of fire rising in front of him and slanting backwards, washing quickly over his figure.

Cursing as he stumbles backwards, Vargas wipes his face off, growling through clenched teeth. “I swear, that's the last time I get hit by that spell!”

When he finally stops shaking his head and looks up, it's to see Xerael forming another spell with his staff and preparing to launch it his way.  In reply, Vargas crosses his arms over his chest and draws a deep breath, waiting until the spell leaps at him in the form of a powerful lightning bolt to disappear in a cloud of black smoke, reappearing behind Xerael to power up and release a rapid Aurabolt before the man has a chance to react.

Xerael somersaults forward from the blast, unable to even exclaim as he tumbles over onto his back, lying still for a short moment in stunned silence.  Then, he turns to one side and places a hand in the dirt, blinking his eyes as he gathers himself back together, and looks up to see Vargas approaching in a jog, lifting his claw to deliver a deathblow.  Eyes widening in sudden urgency, Xerael then spins abruptly about and rises to one knee, thrusting the end of his staff out and weaving together a hasty – but tremendous – burst of dark energy that slams into Vargas's chest and explodes, lifting Vargas into the air and throwing him backwards.

Surprisingly – even to Vargas – he manages to remain upright, and lands on both feet, skidding in the sand until he collapses to one knee, placing a hand on the ground to steady himself.  Panting against the stinging pain, he then finds himself thinking not of the right, but about Rika... again.

“That style... it's a lot like hers...,” he muses.  “He's from Tzen, though I don't know where she's from... maybe they were Imperials?”

Choosing to press the attack by hand, Xerael then charges forth, coming at him with a series of strikes and lunges with his staff, attacks that Vargas blocks and parries without thinking, acting on second instinct as his mind drifts far away from the battle.  Clenching his teeth in frustration, Xerael then steps back and slams his staff in the ground, causing a great burst of ice magic to explode between them, knocking both men backwards.

As Vargas skids back and again falls to one knee, Xerael takes the opportunity to cast a quick healing spell on himself for rejuvenation, watching as Vargas seems to pause, gasping for breath... and tilts his head at him.  Beneath the lowered head, meanwhile, Vargas draws deeper and deeper breaths, suppressing sobs that suddenly want to spring to the surface, because somewhere in the middle of his musing about Rika and Xerael, his thoughts had turned to Darell... and his father.

“Damnit, Darell!  Why'd you have to come here and challenge me?!”

Noting his inaction, Xerael makes another opportunistic move, summoning a great quake under Vargas's feet, the ground beginning to split open beneath him.

“I helped you!  I studied with you!  We were friends, once...”

The chasm grows larger and the ground shakes, but still Vargas won't move... instead breathing harder, the heaves growing ragged and labored even as he feels the earth giving way beneath him.

“I damn near killed my friend... two friends... and if I can kill my own father... if I can do that...”

Vargas closes his eyes and clenches his jaw, forcing a tear down his cheek.

“Then I can do... just about anything...”

The earth falls away beneath his feet and he finds himself suddenly weightless, plummeting down a deep chasm with no end in sight... and as his legs stretch out – losing the support under them – he throws his head back up to the sky, opening his eyes to the harsh lights of the domed ceiling.

“Anything.”

His eyes close again as he stretches his arms to his sides, as if offering himself to some powerful deity for divination... when he suddenly disappears in a cloud of smoke, and reappears before Xerael.

Having actually expected this, Xerael steps back and lashes out with his staff... only to have it slapped effortlessly aside and thrown from his grasp, the wood clattering to the sand some distance away.  Taken aback and without a weapon to defend himself with, Xerael attempts to erect a shield and falls further back, trying to put distance between them, but Vargas is too quick, teleporting behind him and slashing twice with his claws, ripping open the man's exposed back.  He then teleports back to the front as Xerael howls in pain, kicking and slashing with shocking speed as he puts a rapid end to their battle.

And then, it's done, Xerael flipping sideways from a last powerful roundhouse kick, where he bounces in the dirt once and lies still, blood spilling out from multiple wounds.  Standing over him with legs apart, Vargas clenches his fists and draws a deep breath, calming himself amid the abrupt ending as everything falls strangely silent around them, a brief period in time where only two things matter: Vargas and Xerael, one dying and one alive.

Vargas's hair then flows in an odd breeze – loosed now from a tie long since burned away – and the crowd explodes in a great cheer, chanting his name yet again.  In the rostrum, Cicero sits back, putting a hand to his mouth in concern... Vargas – his champion – has seemed awfully distracted during the fight; if he should do that again in the championship match...

Next to him, however, Rika smiles contentedly and leans forward, opening her fan and waving it over herself.  “I've got him.”

A chill chases down Vargas's spine as he stands looking at Xerael, a solitary tear rolling down his face... one word repeating over and over in his mind: Father... Father.

A pair of clerics then quickly gather up Xerael, lifting and placing him onto a stretcher to carry him away, the first asking the second, “You think  he'll make it?”

“Hell if I know... he's cut up somethin' fierce.”

Vargas watches them carry the man off, and draws another deep breath. “So what's another death on my name... I'm already a murderer, right?”

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Later that afternoon, Cicero excuses himself following Rika's victory, equal parts concerned and relieved... relieved that Rika has advanced – setting up a monumental bout for the championship – but concerned about Vargas's mental state.  It's the latter that has him approaching the hulk's door, but it's the man's brooding attitude of late that has him hesitating now that he stands before it... he stares at the wood, breathing in deeply as he tries to calm himself, then checks himself, swallows his fear, and knocks on it lightly.

Inside, Vargas sits on the floor in a meditative trance, cupping a ball of flame in his two hands, the little fireball floating just over his palms and rolling over and over calmly.  He then opens his eyes – ignoring the knock at the door – and concentrates on the fire, lifting his right hand out before him and reaching into the air.  The fire then begins to swirl and form a snakelike column, bridging the space between his hands as it follows the right palm, causing his heart to beat faster with excitement and anxiety – a cold sweat breaking across his forehead – and he holds his breath as he extends the arm further out and feels through the fire, making it extend outwards and reach across the room.

He then cracks an abrupt grin and allows the fire to dissipate, letting his hands then fall into his lap... he did it, he manipulated the flame.  The next level in his training, and he did it on his own.

The knock comes again at the door, causing him to jump in mild surprise, surprise that he quickly brushes off as he rises to his feet, composing himself on the way up.  “Come in.”

Cicero opens the door slowly and steps in, seeing Vargas standing at the room's center, and shuts it quietly behind him before folding his arms.  “I, uh... came to speak with you about...”

“...About what?” Vargas asks as the old man trails off.

Cicero swallows, working up the courage to confront the man about a possible weakness... would he get angry again?  Would he lash out?  “You looked distracted back there, in the pit...”

Crossing his arms, Vargas levels a gaze at him, squinting an eye.  “What about it?”

Cicero shifts his weight, opening and closing his mouth as he considers how to frame the question.  “Just wondering if it's going to be a problem in the future.”

His gaze cold and steeled, Vargas lowers his head a touch, his voice quieting with menace as he gives his answer.  “It won't.”

Cicero looks in his face a long moment, studying the hard lines around the eyes and the sharp clenching of the jaw... and at length nods, satisfied with the answer.  “Let's hope so.”

Peering at him, Vargas then asks a pointed question – a question that's been hanging in his mind for some time now – turning his head askew.  “Tell me, Cicero, are you actually concerned for me, or are you more concerned for your gate receipts?”

Blinking back, Cicero steps in place, unsure what the question is about.  “I care about all my gladiators.”

Really,” Vargas remarks with a sarcastic tone, then shifts his weight to the other leg, asking, “Is Xerael mending?”

Looking aside, Cicero shakes his head, telling him, “I wouldn't know, I haven't checked.  What does it matter, anyway?  You won.”

He then stands taller, beaming at the hulk as he adds, “You're advancing to the championship bout!”

Vargas shakes his head with a wry sneer, the emotionally small little man's reply telling him all he had wanted to know.  Gazing in his eyes before looking away, Vargas mutters, “Nevermind.”

Blinking again in confusion, Cicero steps in place and shakes his head, looking about as he remarks, “At any rate, you should start getting prepared; you're due again in a couple hours.”

Vargas tilts his head and narrows his eyes... is this some kind of joke?  “Again?  After a fight like that?”

“Yes, again,” Cicero answers, squinting an eye back at Vargas in surprise.  “Your rematch with Terral?”

Vargas slowly nods in realization, diverting his eyes to the ground; he'd completely forgotten about the rematch amid his brooding.  Cicero looks him over during their silent moment, then finally unfolds his arms as he clears his throat, turning back around and heading for the door in the process.  “I wouldn't worry too much about it; you've been through rougher gauntlets before... and you've already beaten her once.”

“Wait, Cicero,” Vargas calls out, stepping closer as the man stops and turns to face him, his hand resting on the doorknob.  “When exactly is our fight, again?”

Cicero pauses before answering, swinging the door open as he gives it.  “In three hours.  You have that long to prepare.”

And with that said, he steps out and closes the door behind himself, leaving Vargas standing alone and staring at the door, his arms at his sides and his head down as he drifts into a nearly meditative state of contemplation.

“Three hours.  I can meditate for a while before then, practice some... nah, I could use some rest.  Xerael actually took a bit out of me.  Shit, this whole week's been takin' a lot outta me.  I'll be glad when this whole thing's over.  I'm getting tired... too many bad memories, too many new enemies...”

An image of Darell lashing out at him flashes into his mind suddenly, and that finally forces him from his musings.  He glances about his room in slight confusion, then quickly gathers his composure and walks off to his bed, sitting on it cross–legged and beginning his meditation exercises, sore muscles begging he get some sleep instead.  “Damnit... I'm gonna have to fight her tired.”


This post has been edited by Zephir on 8th November 2013 19:25

--------------------
~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205452
Top
Posted: 8th November 2013 19:29

*
Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
There's a possibility some of my formatting will be lost, since it can get hard to pick out the italics amidst the walls of text.

*whimpering fox technique* unsure.gif

Quote
Chapter 5

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Rika stares at the curtains dressing the arena doors ahead of her, smirking as she practices cuts and thrusts with her sword, feeling especially confident today... thinking she's found the key to beating Vargas.  Across the arena in his own waiting area, Vargas waits with muted anticipation, subtle doubts about his own ability to complete this fight filling his head... he's never had to go again so soon after a battle as draining as his with Xerael.  He clenches a fist, feeling the sore muscles protesting, and wonders how he'll respond... pondering if he would be so pensive if he were fighting any lesser opponent.

But, he's beaten her before... surely he can do it again.  He hears the match's terms and their names announced, then squares his shoulders as the doors open before him, flooding the room with light from the bright afternoon sun outside.  Sky–blue eyes meet his as he steps out into the arena, and they approach each other – she leveling a confident gaze, he staring back intently – crossing the sands as the crowd roars around them, steady in their praise and their cheering split between the two of them.

They reach the center and stand with some distance between them, their eyes locked as they study each other, muscles tense and rigid... Vargas tenses his fists, cracking the knuckles, and she rocks her head side to side, cracking the joints quietly as she loosens up.  The din around them begins to quiet down to a dull roar as the crowd waits in anticipation of the announcer, who lets the pause drag out for dramatic effect, playing up the tension of one of the biggest rematches in Coliseum history... then, he breaks the pause with abrupt authority, shouting out, “Begin!”

Vargas scouts her easily – promptly raising his energy shield to block a massive lightning bolt summoned down from the heavens – but finds himself backing away under an immediate headlong charge as she slashes with her sword, her strike coming down just as his shield dissipates and cutting a thin slice across his abdomen before he can engage her in a series of parries.  They trade fierce slashes for a short, intense moment, when he locks her sword in his claws and throws his fists down, ripping it from her hands and then lashing out with a hasty Aurabolt.

Defenseless, Rika takes the full brunt of the blast and is vaulted backwards through the air, where she backflips once and rights herself, landing on her feet and skidding some distance away.  Vargas then makes a quick charge at her – claws flashing in the sunlight as he rushes over – but watches in shock as she thrusts her arms into pockets on her thighs and removes them with claws of her own equipped.  She snaps the buckles down quickly as he closes the distance – hands working deftly over the straps – and begins parrying and blocking his strikes with ease.

Noting his expression with pleased satisfaction, she grins and locks his claws in hers, then draws him in closer, sneering up at him as she asks, “Surprised?”

She then kicks him in the gut, sending him stumbling backwards, where he wipes dust from his face and shakes his head, looking up to see her step backwards and perform an all–too–familiar set of martial arts stance changes and arcing practice strikes, eventually setting herself in a wide, low stance; one claw towards him with palm turned up, the other to her side, ready to strike on call.  He looks on her with jaw agape as he realizes there can only be one way for her to have learned those moves, but he clenches it again as she charges forth with a grin and fires an Aurabolt of her own at him, to which he raises his shield and deflects it away from himself.

Watching her rippling figure charge him behind the deflecting and dissipating energies, he has only a second to think of a counter plan, when she leaps in the air at the last moment and delivers a high jumping kick to his face... a kick that meets only a black smoke cloud as he teleports behind her.  Setting his feet in the sand, he then spins and attempts to deliver a high roundhouse kick to her jaw as she lands and turns about... feeling only air meet his foot.  As he completes his kick and looks up, he gazes in dumbstruck awe at a second cloud of black smoke – its wisps broken in the middle by a slash where his kick has swung through it – and hesitates as a voice calls from behind him, “Miss me?”

He twists about to face her, then brings his arms up in vain as she rapidly weaves a spell and unleashes a thick bolt of flame at him, knocking him flat on his back.  She then runs and leaps into the air – striking a pose while there – and comes down with her knee aimed at his head.  Finding himself at a loss for the time time in a long while, he looks up at her silhouette approach him, and can only think to roll out of the way at the last moment, hearing her knee drive hard to the earth, the sound dulled only by her kneepad.

He rolls up to his feet and staggers back, trying to regain some sense of composure through his confusion, but she wastes no time in bringing the fight back to him by throwing a series of small fireballs in his direction that he can only dodge by leaping side to side and ducking left and right, just barely avoiding each one as they explode into the ground and toss dust in the air.  After the tenth fireball he starts to feel ridiculous ducking and rolling to and fro, and decides to do something about it; the next one hurtles in his direction, going up into the air before falling back down in a ballistic arc, and just as it's about to hit him, he teleports away and lands before her, falling to one knee.  There, she smirks down on him as he immediately drives his palm into the ground, opening a chasm under her feet.

She leaps off to the side and rolls, avoiding the chasm and rising back to her feet in an attack stance, while he steps back and spins, summoning together the energies rapidly and unleashing his air blade attack, looking to overwhelm her as she rises to her feet; it doesn't work.  Immediately, she jumps into the air and rolls, thrusting her arms out and spinning parallel to the ground as she charges energy into her claws, avoiding the majority of the sickles while deflecting others that strike her claws, the blades bouncing off the sheaths of bluish energy emanating from her weapons.  His jaw drops open again in surprise – firstly, that she thought of a way to block his air blade attack... secondly, that she can reproduce the shield energy he's perfected; to his knowledge, he's been the only person alive to learn that technique, even including his father.

Righting herself as she lands on her feet, she removes a short rod from a hidden pocket in her thigh and twirls it in a palm, then turns her body sideways at him and points it in his direction, leveling it to the ground at his feet.  The hair on the back of his neck stands on end as he watches the ground before him begin to well with a pool of fire, a development he snarls at.  “Ohhhh no... not again, Rika...”

He ducks to a knee, then lowers his head while thrusting a fist forward – forming a compact shield around himself that deflects the flames over him – and watches her through the flames and shield as she begins to spin in circles, wrapping herself in a thick blanket of green–colored energies.  A quick glance around himself also shows sand beginning to swirl into the air, blown about by growing eddies of air, and he snarls again as his shield collapses, then leaps straight up in the air and teleports away, only narrowly avoiding the storm of air blades thrown at him by her.  He reappears off to her side and plunks down on the ground, surprisingly winded by her relentless pursuit.

A pursuit so relentless, she doesn't give him even the slightest chance to recover, bringing her rod back to bear and summoning forth the power of the spell Meteor.  He rises from his crouch and watches in stunned silence as a rip opens in the space before him, unveiling a black portal filled with a stellar vista and populated with hundreds of meteors... all hurtling in his direction.  He steps back and tries to throw up his shield, but its energy is weak in his fatigue, and can only withstand a portion of the assault... eventually weakening and shattering as the rocks slam into the earth around him – ripping giant craters and gashes in their wake – the last few finally making their way through and battering him with their weight.  Under the attack, he thinks he can feel a few ribs crack.

Finally it passes, and she giggles as the portal seals up and shuts the meteor shower away, leaving him bleeding and heaving on his knees.  He coughs up blood as he plants a foot and tries to stand, but rises up only partway when his strength gives out, causing him to collapse back onto the knee and waver as she sashays over, laughing at him arrogantly as she feels victory close at hand.  Rika then kicks some sand in his face, and as he shields his face from it, he asks with heavy disdain through ragged breath, “Oh, you're enjoying this, aren't you?”

Laughing again, she plants a hand on her hip as a cheer ripples through the crowd.  “Very much.”

“Well... don't sing your victory song just yet!” he exclaims, jumping into the air with a high roundhouse kick.

She ducks quickly under it and swings her foot around, aiming to sweep him off his feet, but he lands and easily hops over it, then performs another roundhouse that she again ducks under.  Standing back to her feet, she returns the favor with a rising kick of her own, but he catches the leg in his arm and watches as she quickly hops up from her other leg and swings it around, aiming for the back of his head.

Before she can land it, however, he leans forward and lands a powerful palm strike on her chest as he releases her other leg, sending her crashing down into the unforgiving ground.  Her breath knocked out in a grunt, she lies momentarily stunned as he then sets upon her, leaping forward and driving his knee into her gut, where it again forces the air from her lungs as he strikes her forehead with the other palm, rocking her head back into the ground.  Blinking away the sudden whiteness in her vision as she draws a breath in a huge gasp, she then looks up just as he rears his claw over his shoulder and lashes it down at her, aiming to impale her chest.

Eyes widening in fear, she's able to just barely raise her own hand and grab his fist in it – fingers barely wrapping around the wide knuckles – and pushes back with all her strength, clenching her teeth so tight her jaw aches.  He then lashes down his other claw, and she again grabs that fist with her other hand, the blades of their weapons clinking and scraping against each other as the two of them growl through gritted teeth, the crowd around them roaring in approval.

Determined to put an end to it, Vargas snarls louder and pushes harder, his back arching as he slowly begins to overwhelm her, until the tips of his claws start to dig and cut at her skin, slicing small nicks and shallow gashes, each one eliciting a quiet, gasping exclamation through shut eyes.  Then, she opens them to glare up at him, and in desperation summons together a fireball – centered on the space around their fists – that explodes, singeing the both of them but vaulting him backwards from the concussive blast.

Able to sit up as he tumbles to the ground away from her, Rika gasps and coughs, cursing how close she had just come to abruptly losing the match, all because she had again gotten too confident.  “Goddamnit!  Underestimated him again!”

Glancing over as she stands again, she sees him kip back up onto his feet, bare his claws, and charge again, but she spits and teleports, reappearing – surprisingly – right before him, where she ducks and drives her shoulder into him, rocking him backwards.  He composes himself quickly, but only in time to see her pull her fists together at her side, gathering energy together for another Aurabolt; reacting mainly on instinct, he promptly teleports, and reappears some distance away from her, thinking he's lost her for a second.

But he hasn't.  She teleports right in front of him, refusing to relent with a series of furious strikes, metal blades clashing together as he defends himself, until she casts a rapid force spell between them that staggers him backwards and flays his arms aside, giving her just enough of an opening that she can slash away relentlessly at his chest and midsection, gashing him all over.  Reeling from the accumulated pain and fatigue, his arms begin to give out on him, and his eyes glaze over as she lands a kick to his head, two palm strikes to his chest, then another slash and kick at his midsection unopposed.  She then sneers and spins around one last time, landing a hard backhand slash and a spinning kick to his temple.

He yields under the strength of it, spinning through the air and tumbling over to the side, where he lands hard and rolls in the sand, finally coming to rest on his back, where he lies motionless... unmoving for a long moment as she waits for him, claws bared in a wide stance.  When it's ultimately apparent he's unable to continue, the crowd erupts in a roar, cheering for her – the only person to have ever defeated Vargas.  The announcer calls the winner, and she steps back to revel in the admiration, raising her arms in the air and bowing to them, then to Cicero, who stands and walks forward, nodding his head before walking away through the crowd, his gaze strangely void of expression.

Thinking on it a moment, she then grins, taking satisfaction in musing, ”Probably gonna give him a pep talk.  Hmph!  No matter.”

Behind her, Vargas drifts slowly towards unconsciousness, too tired now and in too much pain to even consider the realities of what had just happened, blood pouring out from so many cuts, and cracked ribs complaining with each heavy breath.  His thoughts are empty now as he focuses only on the pain and fatigue, tuning out the crowd around him as he yearns now for sleep... asking only for its comfort as he watches the setting sun overhead cast purple and orange hues across the low clouds.

Then, a sudden bright light and warm feeling surrounds his body as healing magics halt his slow descent towards death, restoring him to health.  Snapping his eyes open wide, he abruptly sits up and looks around, finding himself in the arena under the gaze of thousands of fans, many of them slowly leaving. “What... oh...”

The realization of his defeat finally hits him and he glances about for Rika, but when his eyes find her he catches only a glimpse of her back as she exits through the opposite door to the challenger's waiting area.  Deflated, he sighs at length, then stands to his feet and looks around at the spectators, but can only do so for a short moment before he hangs his head in shame and humiliation, walking off to the closest exit... the same one she left through.

In the hallways beyond the waiting area, Rika's wide grin is little more than a mask for mildly pensive brooding beneath the surface... for in spite of her long string of success against him, she had almost lost the fight in less than five seconds; if she hadn't been able to block him when he knocked her down...

Her grin fades to a mere smile as she draws a deep breath, reassuring herself the victory is nevertheless genuine; she beat him, and that's more than anyone else can say.

Rounding a corner and seeing the nearby corridor leading to the dormitories, she pulls the metal rings from her hair and lets it fall down around her face, tossing it once with another satisfied grin.  “I beat you, Vargas.”


--------------------
~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205453
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Posted: 8th November 2013 19:43

*
Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
The sparring room scene in this chapter is one of my favorite scenes to write, ever... lots of cute moments throughout. happy.gif Also, just a lot of rapid development and slow-played threads of multiple kinds happening at once.

Quote
Chapter 6

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A wooden sign explodes under Vargas's fist, sending Coliseum workers scurrying in fear and avoiding him as he storms through the hallways behind the arena, taking his anger out on the décor on his way back to his dorm.  He rounds a corner and parts another sea of support workers – workers that he dismisses with a grunt and an angry wave of his hand – and approaches a nearby statue of an ancient warrior, growling as he closes the distance and rears back his fist, channeling an unnatural energy into it as he draws it back.  Finally he reaches the bust and the growl becomes a roar as he throws the fist forward into the carved stone, shattering it with tremendous ease and causing a thousand pieces of it to explode into the air, blanketing the corridor with dust and debris and causing more workers to scramble backwards, some fleeing in outright terror... if he can do that to a sculpture, what might he do to them?

Stomping through the debris clattering down before him, he begins to calm his anger through deep breathing, cursing himself for having accepted Rika's challenge so brazenly the night before... he should've known it was a bad idea to stack two fights of such intensity back to back.  He's close to reaching the hallway leading to the dorms when an annoying little voice calls out behind him, “Vargas!”

His gait stutters to a halt and he tosses his head back, in no mood to entertain the old man right now.  Hearing footsteps near him, he draws a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself, then turns about to face Cicero, leveling a glare down at him.  “What is it, old man?”

Seeing the anger in his glare, Cicero slows to a stop before him, glancing around at the debris, and clears his throat, drawing himself up to his full height.  “Don't take it so hard now, that was just an arena match... you're still unbeaten in tourney.”

Hang the tourney,” Vargas growls, taking another deep breath.  “A loss is a loss.”

Cicero turns his head sideways at him, admiring the man's fire as an odd smile curls his lip.  “Anger... yes, you can use that the next time...”

He then abruptly laughs, stark in contrast to Vargas's seething rage.  “Good, good... such wonderful drama!”

Seeing the twinkle in the man's gaze, Vargas turns his head sideways, narrowing an eye at the strange old man as he replays the words... next time?  “What's that supposed to mean?”

“Why, didn't you know, my boy?” Cicero asks, rocking back on his heels and grasping the hems of his robe with his hands, a proud smile on his face.  “Rika is your opponent in the championship match.”

Vargas's head slowly rocks back, looking up to the ceiling as he shakes it with grim sarcasm... he should have known she would make it that far; the woman is too good.  Much too good.  “That fuckin' figures.”

Cicero laughs again, then steps in place as he begins to turn away.  “You should rest; in a week, you will be participating in the most anticipated match in the history of our sport.”

And with that, he turns and walks away, leaving Vargas looking on his back with a hard scowl on his face, lost in deep, angry thoughts, her giggling face foremost in his mind's eye.  “You'd think fate is demanding we face each other.”

Next to him, a worker begins to sidle by, edging his back along the wall with a fearful expression on his face; Vargas looks at him, still scowling, and watches him continue scooting along the wall, his voice trembling as he mutters, “E–e–excuse me, sir...”

Vargas continues to wordlessly watch him, his head tracking as the man shuffles by before trotting off, hurrying about the chore he's assigned to while Vargas looks on the man's back, and in his head scoffs, “Pathetic.”

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There's a hint of excitement and energy in the air the following morning... most of it because of Rika's win, and most of it felt by Rika herself.  She struts down the hallways confidently – an extra spring in her step today – and even smiles and waves to workers as they pass her, rounding the last bend in the hallways to see the sparring room doors ahead of her, flipping her ponytail off her shoulder as she nears it.  Soon she enters, pushing the doors grandly aside, and glances around at the... rather blank, spartan environs.  The walls are all simple stone painted white, and the floors a dirty, scuffed beige, with a high and flat ceiling; even the air is plain and drenched with the stench of old sweat and grime.

She breathes in deeply and exhales loudly, a smile on her face as she takes in the scents happily.  “Nothing like a good workout in the morning!”

A man then flies through the air in the center of the room, somersaulting and landing hard on the mat with a yelp, then there's another loud slap of flesh against flesh as his buddy takes a punch to the chest and doubles over, then a knee to his face that causes him to fall over on his back.  Above him stands Vargas, fists clenched at his sides and breathing hard but otherwise undamaged, appearing unusually intense today... and perhaps even a bit angry.

She laughs – a quiet, nasal laugh – as she watches the display, feeling more than just a bit satisfied to have gotten under his skin, reveling in the moment as sweet payback for his having hung a loss on her.  Her gaze tracks over him as he stands watching the men writhe on the mat – pitiably and only slowly rising to their feet – moving over the silken blue hair, the roguish edges and features of his face, and down across the oversized, bulging muscles flowing from head to toe, wondering how long it took for him to put those together... musing that a girl could lose herself in that chest...

She then draws a sharp breath, standing taller and slapping herself mentally.  “He's a dick, remember!  A dick!”

His gaze finally tracks up towards her and their eyes meet, a hush falling over the room as the other fighters observe them staring off in tense anticipation of possibly another explosive encounter.  Smirking at length, she raises her hands up to her hips and tauntingly scoffs, her demeanor haughty and jocular.  “Hmph!  Takin' it out on the little guys, huh?”

He glares at her a second, then glances aside as the two men stumble to their feet and back away, having had quite enough of being his punching bags.  He looks back to her then, and steadies his breath with a deep one, growling back, “Just a warm–up.”

“Really?” she asks, sauntering over, one hand falling from her hip before waving in a tight circle at herself.  “Care to take on a real sparring partner?”

He looks her over from head to toe and back to her eyes, again cursing her... even in that simple red tunic and without makeup, she shines with a natural beauty; why is it all the pretty ones have to be crazy?  Maddening... after a pause, he shifts his weight to turn, and steps over to grab two sets of sparring gloves from a nearby rack, turning back to toss one set at her in acceptance of her challenge.  “You come here to gloat?”

No, not at all,” she starts, pausing to smirk at him through a fallen bang of hair as she pulls the gloves quickly on.  “Just came for my daily workout... might as well warm up on you.”

He narrows his eyes at her as he finishes putting on his own gloves, doing his best to avoid retorting to the verbal jab, then slaps his fists together with a dull pop and starts walking in circles around her, waving his fists around in a loose boxing stance, deciding instead to make an observation and engage her regarding the skills she displayed.  “Interesting moves you showed yesterday.”

She throws a quick jab at his face, feeling the recoil when he blocks it just as quickly, his reflexes sharp as a tack.  “You like 'em?”

They spin around each other in another half–circle, until Vargas throws a rapid right jab, left jab, right bodyblow combination, a combo she blocks easily before stepping back, hopping up and down on her toes as he answers, “Was wondering where you learned 'em, actually.”

She hops a few more times, then bobs to her left and then right as she swings with a rapid series of jabs and bodyblows that he blocks and dodges with ease and speed, then hops again in place, pausing as she remarks, “You're pretty good.”

“So I thought,” he replies, then abruptly attacks with a wild flurry of punches and low kicks, forcing her back a few steps before she finally counters his furious offense and finds an opening, leaning forward to stick him squarely in the chest; but if he feels it, he doesn't even show it, instead rearing back and raising his defense in response; privately, she has to marvel at his constitution, so stoutly built is he that he can just shrug off bodyblows.  “Then you come along!”

Hey, don't be a sore loser jus' 'cause I had your ticket that day!” she barks, lunging back at him with her own combinations and forcing him back a few steps, pushing them both back to their starting position at the mat's center.

He finally hops back a step as her flurry tails off, holding his gloves ready – one arm up and the other low – taking a short breather as she hops in place, while he stands on his toes, ready to lithely move in any direction, the lessons of his father second nature to him.  “You still haven't answered my question.”

Starting to move in a circle around him, she tilts her head sideways and somewhat playfully asks, “What question?”

He jabs at her face twice – and twice has them blocked – while she sneers at him the whole way through, causing him to raise his voice, angrily asking, “Where'd you learn to fight like that?”

She pauses mid–step then and bounces in the opposite direction, changing the flow of their little dance.  “I used to be an Imperial soldier.  You learn things in there, y'know?”

He continues to circle about her a moment, scoffing to himself mentally... Imperial army, indeed!  You don't become a martial arts master in the Imperial army; they don't have any.  He abruptly comes at her then, punching madly away and causing her to block them all just as hastily, taking her attention off of his feet... but then, he suddenly drops down and spins, swinging his left leg into the kneepit of hers, causing the leg to buckle underneath her and sweeping her off her feet.  With a heavy thud she falls flat on her back – the sound echoing off the walls – and there she lies for a moment, staring up at him smile down at her with satisfaction, while one man in the audience laughs out loud.  In the abrupt pause, she sits up on her hands and nods at him wordlessly, then gets back on her feet and raises her fists again, her gaze serious as she again nods, quietly hissing, “Okay... okay...”

He raises his fists in return and they again circle each other, when he then charges with a jab and a kick at her ribs, which she quickly blocks and returns with a standing sidekick of her own – aiming at his head – but he leans back to avoid it and drops down again for another leg sweep.  Scouting it out beforehand, she simply hops over the leg and waits until he spins back to his feet to kick him in the chest, causing him to stagger back under the blow.  Glaring at her with bared teeth, he looks back in her narrowed eyes and taunting smile, biting out, “The Empire doesn't explain where you learned moves like that.”

No longer hopping on her toes, she smiles back at him a moment with an open–mouthed grin – taking deep, steady breaths – then cocks her head and glances away, answering, “I did some traveling before I was drafted.  I went up north to Figaro and met a martial arts master.”

“Martial arts master...” he repeats in his head, waving his fists in a loose stance as his face darkens, the unfortunate truth beginning to come together in his mind.  “Did she really learn under Father?”

Presently, however, he tightens his stance, holding position as she likewise tightens hers – pausing – then charges at him with a fast series of jabs and low kicks, a flurry he blocks and counters, turning the charge into a rapid exchange of blocked punches and kicks, until the only sounds heard in the gym are their gloves and flesh meeting, and their heavy breathing and panting.

He then ducks down and tries to sweep her feet again, but she hops over it and upon landing tries to return the favor, an attempt he also hops over before trying a high roundhouse upon landing, a kick that swings high over her head as she ducks.  More than a simple duck, however, she falls to her side and coils her body tight – holding herself up on a flat palm – and swings her legs around, aiming both her feet at his chest such that when he completes his kick and spins about to face her, he's met with a pair of boots to his chest, boots that collide and shove off.

He falls flat on his back, where he rolls backwards and up on his knee, while she draws her feet back beneath herself and stands, where they both then pause... panting for breath and glaring at each other, but it's Vargas who breaks the silence, wiping his mouth and standing again, each of them ignoring the crowd gathering about them.  “Who was your master?”

She waits for him to stand again and raise his fists, then answers, her gaze softening as she prepares to continue.  “Duncan, of South Figaro.”

She wastes no time in pressing an attack, charging straight at him with a leaping kick.  He knocks the foot aside, then blocks the jab aimed at his throat before countering with a hard bodyblow that she blocks... but his power is so overwhelming that she stumbles backwards regardless, absorbing so much shock through her arms that her elbows ache in protest, and voicing that protest with an exclamation.  Capitalizing, he charges quickly forward, and they trade more jabs and low kicks until she manages to kick him in the chest again, pushing him back.  With some space between them, she then jumps forward with a high kick, but he grabs her foot suddenly, pushes back, and twists it in a vertical circle, throwing her into an uncontrolled lateral roll that ends with her landing on her back... hard, the air in her lungs audibly forced out with a grunt.

The audience exclaims in excitement, several hopping in the air and pushing on each other, while she simply lies on the mat a moment, breathing and taking a rest break as she looks up at him, then finally relaxes, splaying out limply on the ground as she lays her head back on the mat, gazing up at the ceiling, where she breathlessly asks, “And who was yours?”

He pauses for a long moment, drawing his feet up under him as he tries to decide if he should tell her or not... wondering, too, how they got into this whole conversation in the first place.  Finally – against his sensibilities – he decides to reveal the truth, unsure of the motivations nor the rationale, knowing only that she seems to be drawing emotions out of him that he hasn't felt in nearly a year now.  Momentarily his eyes flit over her heaving chest, and he quickly glances away again – reminding himself to show a little more decorum – when he lowers his voice and shuts his eyes.  “My father taught me.”

Before him on the mat, she blinks several times, and as she looks up at him – piecing together the puzzle as she recalls their conversation from the banquet – he opens his eyes and looks down on her, listening to her ask in an exclamation, “Wait... your father is that Duncan?!”

He simply nods his head in reply and says nothing more, while Rika stares back, making sense finally of the similarities in their martial arts styles, the identical techniques, the missed connection when he had mentioned his father's name... she should have realized it sooner, but she was too absorbed in her own loathing to think straight.  Perhaps she's still too deep in her own loathing to think straight...

Finally, however, she rolls over and rises back to her feet, raising her fists before weakly hopping on her toes again, moving in a semicircle to his side.  In return, he raises his own fists and widens his stance, following her as they complete a half–circle, then lashes out with a few quick jabs, jabs she blocks and counters with a few of her own, when the two of them graduate to trading several kicks and punches, hopping over leg sweeps and ducking under spinning kicks.  She then kicks high and he ducks, returning with a punch that she blocks, then counters with a kick to the ribs that he knocks aside, countering himself with a kick that she blocks in kind.  They then block another series of punches from each other, then kick at each other simultaneously, but only end up planting their feet together and pushing off, shoving each other gruffly away.

She hops back a step then and bounces on her toes, ready to go again, when he stops and looks at his gloves in thought, then lowers his arms and turns his head aside as he catches her gaze.  “Y'know... kickboxing isn't really my thing.”

Still holding her arms up, she stops moving for a moment and stands still, considering his statement, then finally agrees, stating, “Yeah... me, neither.”

They both remove their gloves and toss them aside in front of a slightly confused crowd, then start circling each other, hands raised in grappling position, when he realizes they nearly forgot something.  Glancing about, he points to a man in the crowd, and commands simply, “Ref us.”

The man gives him a blank gaze in reply, but then nods and reluctantly moves closer to assume his role, nervously keeping his distance as he watches them, remembering basic wrestling rules: pins, submissions... fumbling in his mind for the right rules so as not to upset them.  They hardly pay him any attention, starting to move about each other in a semicircle, then suddenly lunge and grab at each other's shoulders.  Grunting as they push against each other, she then steps to her left and presses her right forearm into his shoulder while shoving her right shoulder into his left, trying to force him back in vain, as he holds fast with his superior strength and girth.

Seeing her futilely pushing against him, he then wraps his arms around her shoulders, twists sideways, and lifts her up with all his strength, pulling her up into the air before tossing her to the side, where she falls to her back and rolls over to her front.  She hardly has time to even think about his phenomenal power when he falls on her and hooks an arm through one of hers, attempting then to wrap his other arm over her throat as she scrambles around and tries to reverse their positions.

His grip is ironclad, but she fights hard against it and finally manages to flip herself over, worming out of his arm lock and placing one of her own on his wrist, wrapping both her arms around his.  He tries to fight out of it, but she quickly pulls her legs up and wraps them around his waist, then starts rolling to her side, eventually flipping over on top of him and pushing against his arm, pinning it against his chest, where she then presses her forearm down on his chest in an attempt to pin him.  He fights against it, however, and manages to keep at least one shoulder from touching the mat.

They hold their position for a long moment, fighting against each other through grunts and clenched teeth, when she decides to ask him the pressing question.  “If we had – the same – master – then why – urgh – didn't we ever – see each other?”

“I never,” he starts, lifting both shoulders from the mat.  “Actually joined – the regular school – until late.”

“Home training?” she grunts, pushing his shoulders finally to the ground.

Some,” he grunts back through gritted teeth.

The referee scurries over and drops to a knee beside them, chopping his hand down in the air as he counts out, “One, two–!”

Vargas lifts his shoulders from the ground then, breaking the count and lifting himself up with a sudden burst of power, where he pauses, gripping her arm as she holds his, then whips himself over with another abrupt burst of strength.  With his arm still in her grip and her legs wrapped about his waist, he uses them as leverage to reverse their positions, and she finds herself thrown and rolled over onto.  Her back slams to the mat loudly – as painful to her as the sound is loud – forcing air from her chest in a grunting exclamation.  “Huh!”

“One–!” says the referee, but he barely says the word when she lifts a shoulder from the mat.

Using all her strength just to keep the shoulder up, she fights back against the mound of muscle dwarfing her, growling out, “He teach you – this?!”

Taught – myself,” he growls out, trying to force both of her shoulders down, but she keeps rolling her weight back and forth, never giving him a chance to pin her.  “Wrestlin' bears.”

“Figures,” she muses as he finally powers both of her shoulders down and leans in, pressing his forearms into them.  “No wonder he's so damned strong!”

“One, two, three!” the referee counts out, then stands up quickly and steps back, giving them room as the audience cheers for Vargas.

At the count of three they both suddenly relax, with Vargas sitting back and releasing her, while she lets of of his arm and unwraps her legs from his waist, splaying out beneath him.  He sits for a moment and pants, then places his hands on his thighs and gazes down on her, sneering finally through tightly–drawn brows and breathlessly asking, “Two out of three?”

She turns her head to the side and stares off into the distance, past the crowd into nothingness, her breath coming in heaves... feeling a dull anger in her chest; she just hates losing.  And what's more, she can see him steadily pushing her buttons, poking and prodding every chance he gets, much the same way she's been doing to him... and as she lies there, she starts to marvel at just how similar they are to each other, thinking about his statement at the banquet the other night, “Same as you.”

“Okay, Vargas,” she thinks, squinting her eyes, knowing it's more fun to do the prodding when you're on the opposite end of it. “You want to play this game... let's play this game.”

She then looks back at him following a long pause and relaxes a bit more, narrowing her eyes at him.  “Yeah.”

Then with a loud, drawn–out growl through clenched teeth, she pulls her feet up and plants them into his stomach, where she pushes them up and reaches up to grab his shoulders, flipping him forward over her head and onto his back behind her, something his eyes widen with surprise at.  The sound of his back hitting the mat resounds in the silence, while she lifts her legs up over her head and somersaults backwards, rolling over on top of him again and using his shoulders for leverage.

She tries to pin him immediately, but he powers out before the referee can even begin counting and plants his own feet into her abdomen, pushing off with abrupt strength that sends her hurtling helplessly into the air, her feet leaving the ground with clearance to spare.  There she drifts back to the opposite end of the mat and lands on her feet, groaning from the force of it and wrapping her arms about her stomach, backing away as she draws breath in heaves to get it back.

Across from her, he gets back to his feet and charges her head–on, while she raises her hands back up in a grappling stance and lowers herself, waiting until he tries to grab at her to duck low and plant one hand on his stomach and the other on a thigh.  Then, she presses the back of her shoulders into his chest and stands up with a loud, growling exclamation, pushing her arms up with all her strength against him and tossing him neatly head–over–heels to the mat before staggering to the side, winding herself with the fireman's carry takeover.

Amid the loud clap of flesh against mat, the spectators around them pull back and give a chorus of exclamations, some clapping and laughing with enjoyment.  “Ooooo–!”

Vargas lies still a second, breathing heavily, then flips over and glares up at her standing back from him, holding her hands at the ready and breathing just as heavily, her gaze almost as intense.  She holds a hand out to him then before waving it towards herself in circles, motioning for him to get up and come at her, to which he narrows his eyes and growls as he rises to his feet.  Spitting once, he then starts to circle around her again, watching her hands, feet, and eyes for any telling signs of her next action.

“So whatever happened to the old man?” she almost casually asks through pants of breath.

Caught off guard, he can only blink at her, asking, “...Huh?”

“Y'know... the old guy.  Duncan?” she asks, still circling.  “How's he doin' lately?”

Suddenly she springs forth and clasps him by the shoulders, while he reflexively does the same, the two of them locking up until she steps forward and adjusts her position, wrapping her arms about his neck and pulling down, grabbing him up in a headlock.  He tries to power out and reverse it, but she stays one step ahead and blocks it, gripping tighter as she hooks a leg through one of his.

With a snarl and a grimace, he then changes tactics and plants his feet in the mat, wraps his arms about her waist, and lifts her up in the air over his head, rolling her weight across his broad shoulders and holding her there a moment, releasing one arm from her waist as he stands tall.  Her lock begins to loosen as she looks at the mat below them, then feels weightless as he kicks his legs out from beneath himself, dumping her unceremoniously on her back and leaning his shoulder into her side, adding his own weight to what they call a Marandan Drop.

“Ooohhh!” the audience exclaims in unison, hearing the slam echo off the walls even amid their cheers.

The wind knocked out of her again, she gasps for breath and coughs, blinking up at the ceiling as Vargas rolls himself off her... and for a moment, she honestly can't remember what she's doing there or why she's on her back.  It suddenly clicks, though, and she rolls her head to the side to see him getting back to his feet – almost as winded as she – and she slowly rolls over, staring at him as she tries to stand again.  “Hey... so... how's he... doin'?”

Standing again, he turns and stares back at her, waiting for her to get back on her feet and simply panting.  “I don't... feel like... talkin'... about it...”

“Why not...?” she asks, tilting her head.

“I just... don't,” he pants back, circling again and raising his hands, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on hers.

She shrugs and does the same, then charges at him, ducking at the last moment.  He reaches for her, but ends up grasping at her back as she jams her shoulder into his gut and wraps her arms about his waist, growling and lifting upward quickly with all her strength and picking him up onto her shoulder.  Holding on as she stands taller, he can only wait while she powers him up, then twists abruptly to her side to slam him down on the mat, the crowd cheering the loud thud as she then rapidly mounts him and shoves her forearms into his shoulders, watching his blank gaze and fighting his belated attempts to power out of the pin.

“One, two, three!” the referee calls out, then stands back and raises his fist, indicating a win for her as the crowd cheers.

Ignoring them, however, she stands back and tries to catch her breath, asking, “Daddy kick ya out?”

Panting for breath, he blinks at her, confused.  “What?”

She bends over, leaning her face closer as she places her hands on her knees.  “Daddy?  Duncan?  Why don't you wanna talk about 'im, huh?”

He scoffs and starts to roll over to get up, but stops and glances at her again... then scoffs a second time as he rolls up onto his feet; she's persistent... annoyingly persistent.  And why the hell does she care, anyway?  “'Cause I don't want to.  Can't you jus' leave well enough a–OOF!”

Just as he turns to face her, she tackles him, growling out, “No!

They splash and roll on the mat for a bit, scrambling and clawing at each other as they attempt to gain some sort of hold or pin on the other, when she finally gets him in a sloppy pin and gets up to a two count, then has it reversed on her and winds up on the bottom as he tries for a pin.  The referee gets it up to a two again before she breaks the hold and reaches up with a leg, planting it on his chest and pushing off, to which he fights back, eventually relenting and drawing back... but not before grabbing her leg and falling backwards, wrapping his legs around it and applying an ankle lock.  Yelping as she feels her ankle twisted, she sits up and reaches for him and the leg, snarling through clenched teeth.

One of the spectators points and whispers something to the guy next to him as she slaps at his hands futilely, then reaches over with her other leg and begins to repeatedly kick at his hands, each kick causing him to exclaim in pain as he feels her boot against his knuckles; and with a final, pained grunt he releases her ankle and rolls to the side, leaving her to grab at the ankle with a grimace.

He gets back to his feet and turns to see her trying to stand, but her ankle refuses to support her weight, and she stumbles about feebly on one foot; he almost smiles and goes over to try it again, but she abruptly charges and grabs him, rolling him down and attempting another pin.  They turn back and forth a while, until he wraps his arms about her waist and closes his fists, turning to his side and refusing to let go as she struggles to fight out of it.

Unable to break out of his grasp, she then feels herself weightless again as he stands with her and lifts, her chest pressed against his as he powers her up into the air, beginning to raise her up over his head to slam her back down... but he can only heave her up to his chest when his arms and legs give out on him.  Her whole weight comes crashing down on his chest and shoulders as her back rolls over onto him – none the better for the fall, herself – and both collapse to the mat, lying motionless once the sound of skin and mat clapping against each other fades away.

For a long moment they simply lie there, too tired to more nor speak, their hair having fallen out from their ties and spreading out all over; her hair covering his chest and falling on the floor – some of it having fallen up into his face as her head lies on his chest – and his fanned out in a wide blanket over the mat.  Neither cares to do anything about their position, though, and so they both lie and take an impromptu break, while the referee stands dumbfounded, fumbling for something – anything – to do, turning to his buddies for help and throwing his palms out questioningly.  “What do I do?”

Leaning forward, one of them says, “Count 'em out!”

“What?” he asks, facing him squarely.

“Count 'em out; you know–” he answers, slapping the back of his hand in his other palm.

Remembering the rule now, the referee nods, saying, “Oh, right!”

He then turns around and looks between them, still confused, but begins the count–out, raising his fingers with each number ticked off.  “One... two...”

The count gets to five, when she finally works up the energy to turn her head over and look up at him.  “Yo–... ya gonna move 'r wha'...?”

He doesn't answer for a long while, letting the referee count to seven.  “...You first.”

Groaning heavily, she looks away to the ceiling.  “Ughhh... fine.”

The referee counts eight as she plants one tired hand on the mat, then pushes up and plants her other hand.

“Nine...”

She then scoots over and faceplants into his shoulder, dumping her head down and making a sloppy pin attempt in the interest of keeping the spontaneous match alive, her face disappearing under her mop of hair and against his chest, arms drooped limply at her sides.  The referee falls to one knee and counts to two – fighting against a laugh at the sight of her – but Vargas shifts out of the pin and tries to roll her over again, and they quickly resume a tumbling battle of sloppy, tired holds, locks, and pin attempts, during one of which she grunts at him, “So... you gonna tell me?”

“Tell ya what?” he grunts back.

"DUNCAN."

"I told you, no."

She tries to wrap his head in a lock, but he evades and goes after her exposed arm, while she again grunts, “I'll keep asking until ya do!”

Setting his teeth, he growls back, "Okay, you wanna know?"

"Yes," she barks, again trying for his head.

"Fine," he growls, then manages to grab her around her torso, rolling her over and trying for a pin that goes nowhere as she fights him on it hard.  "He died, okay?  He died."

Died?” she repeats, the cold weight of the news coursing like ice in her veins, causing her attention to momentarily lapse.  Her shoulders pressed to the mat, the referee counts to two before she rolls a shoulder up, when she then tries for desperation, reaching her head up and rubbing the top of her hair roughly into his chest, spinning it back and forth rapidly.

Feeling his skin burning from the childish ploy, he clenches his teeth, shuts his eyes tight, and grimaces – trying to bear it – until he exclaims in pain and releases her, where she quickly rises up and spins around, rolling to her feet and grabbing his arm up in a wristlock, kneeling at his side.  “How'd he die?”

Beginning to stand up – barely fighting the lock, to her surprise – he mutters, “He was killed.”

KilledWhoa–!” she asks, then is pulled from her feet as he abruptly breaks the lock, grabs her ankles, and lifts them off the ground, literally pulling her feet out from beneath her, where she crashes down with a heavy slam on the mat, the air forced from her lungs in a grunt.  “OO!”

The crowd exclaims again, while she simply lies still and looks up at Vargas, who pants and glares down at her, his expression roiling with cold anger.  “I killed him.”

He watches her stunned and silent gaze, letting the revelation sink in amongst her and the crowd as he pauses, drawing enough deep breaths to steady himself.  “So you see?  I'm a murderer.”

And with that said, he turns and walks away through a gap in the crowd, not saying another word as a dead hush falls over the room.  As for Rika, she sits up on her hands and watches him leave, staring after him... repeating the words in her mind and focusing on the subtle break in his voice at the end of his declaration.  I killed him.”

She feels a tear almost wanting to spring forth as she tries to imagine what that kind of pain must feel like.  Goddesses, Vargas... no wonder you're wound up so tight.”


Note: Because there is no American Samoa in FF6, I changed the name of the wrestling move "Samoan Drop" to "Marandan Drop"; this is essentially grabbing your opponent in a fireman's carry, then falling backwards on 'em, driving your shoulders into their chest and plexus.

This is what I have proofed to date; the climactic championship match is next.

This post has been edited by Zephir on 8th November 2013 19:44

--------------------
~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205454
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Posted: 8th November 2013 20:54

*
Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
Quote
Chapter 7

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Sand swirls into the air, following Vargas's right foot like a tidal wave erupting from his sandal as he swings it in a wide arc, setting himself into a low defensive stance as his hands block a strike from her.  Rika then throws a punch, but makes the mistake of letting her guard down on her right; taking advantage, he skillfully grabs her wrist in his right hand, and in one swift motion brings his left leg around in a high sidekick, knocking her back.  She stumbles, bleeding from her nose, and can only watch as he spins forward and lands a heavy backhand across her chin, knocking her on the ground.

She lies there a moment, breathing dirt and groaning through the intense pain, then feels herself lifted by her shoulders to her knees, grunting again as she struggles feebly against his arms, while he grips her chin in one hand and her forehead in his other.  Above her, he clenches his jaw tight and bares his teeth, tensing and preparing to snap her neck, and in that one very brief moment he considers everything that's happened to get them to this point...

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The day started as normal as any: breakfast at nine, shower at ten, and a few hours of meditation and light exercise after that, some of it spent in the sparring room, where none dared bother Vargas; they knew what was to come later that night – the championship match, the final showdown between him and Rika, the one that would end it all for them, that could allow the victor to retire at the top of their game.  But he wouldn't worry about any of that then... there was only the preparation, the clearing of the mind before the battle that would allow him to focus; whatever had happened between them during the week was irrelevant, for in the pit, there is only victory, or the finality of death.

Rika's preparation was little different, and it was taken just as seriously, with warmups in her room – muscle exercises and concentration exercises – never once stepping out to speak with anyone... but such is her way.  Her meals were delivered, and her practices private; for her, there would be no seeing anyone until the battle... this one mattered too much – carried too high a price – to risk letting anything other than victory into her mind.

And then, it was time.

She and Vargas both left their rooms and went to their places, silent and contemplative, neither feeling anything other than the dull clarity of the silence before battle, each placing this match far above any other they had ever fought.  Each has defeated the other in battle, and each is the only person to have ever done so... and tonight, the record would be definitively settled.  Cicero had considered speaking with each of them beforehand, but even the odd little man knew this was no time for that... they needed to focus, or else he could well ruin the beauty of their canvas, and there is no art in sabotaging the masterpiece.

Now – around them in the grandstands – the crowd cheers frantically for the match to begin, chants of exultations rising and falling for both warriors, competing against each other as the crowd splits their support, choosing their champion beforehand; the very stone of the building resonating with their shouts.  In the staging areas, the two champions breathe deeply and clear their minds of thought, waiting only for their names to be called, ready to go out and prove their superiority to the other, ready to settle this game of theirs once and for all.

And, as they hear the muffled shouts of the announcer – dim against the crowd – the names are called.  “Vargas of Figaro, and Rika of Tzen!”

The double doors swing open on both sides, and the two of them stare off across the pit, waiting as the crowd erupts in a deafening roar of approval, then step forward with measured gaits amid the split chants of the crowd, one half repeating her name, the other half repeating his, competing against another to be heard.  They reach the center of the pit and pause, silent as they wait, while the chants of the crowd fade into a steady roar of approval as the spectators watch the warriors face off below them, silent and unmoving.

And so it all comes down to this; the moment thousands have waited for since Vargas and Rika were announced the top seeds, the moment where the best meets the best and the superior fighter will be determined.  The crowd continues to voice their support, standing as they cheer and watch the two warriors square off in the arena and do... nothing.  For the longest while it seems like that's all they'll do, but a bellowing voice echoes over the arena, calling out over the din, “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please?”

A pause for the crowd to silence themselves, and for dramatic effect.  "Today is a special occasion – not only because this is the final battle to crown our champion – but also because this is only the third battle to be fought under Marandan pit rules in this Coliseum."

With a series of resounding thuds and mechanical clanks, trapdoors open in the floor and posts arise through them – sand falling away into the chambers below as the repetitive clicking of gears is heard – whereupon are loops for chains and spiked ornamental tops, another series of thuds sounding as the posts lock into place and set.  Several stagehands come through doorways then and begin hooking chains to the posts – chains with spikes and thick metal tacks embedded in the links, known colloquially as “Marandan Flak Chain” – while the announcer continues above them, calling out over a low, repeating chant from the crowd.  "Long before Maranda was known as a place of tranquility and beauty, it was once a center for the study of the art of war, and the birthplace of many great warriors.  This heritage lives on today in this recreation of the infamous cage and pit fights of the First Hundred Years.  In this match the rules are essentially that there are no rules.  No holds are barred, no technique prohibited.  There will be up to three rounds, with the winning condition for each one being that one fighter must be sufficiently wounded or incapacitated such that they can no longer continue.  Usually this requirement is fulfilled... by death."

Beneath him in the pit, Rika glances up to the announcer's box, taking her eyes off Vargas for only a moment as he, too, looks up to the announcer, turning only his eyes up to observe him; around them, the stagehands finish running the chains and now flip open handheld torchlighters, setting the ornamental tops ablaze in turn and setting the pit in even brighter light.  "One death per fighter is allowed... but two deaths – barring extenuating circumstances – will not be reversed.  The best two out of three wins the match."

The announcer stops and gazes into the pit at Vargas and Rika, while the stagehands finish their work and exit, clearing the ring for battle as Cicero rises to his feet and inspects the arena, admiring the unforgiving menace of the battleground.  And the arena set for them is a virtual study in barbarism: the Marandan Flak Chain runs from post to post in a circle, enclosing the area in a ring of spiked steel, ensuring that anyone foolish enough to get pushed against them would be cut, while the posts they are latched to are thick and heavy, made of a metal so sturdy they almost beg to be used as weapons.

Atop each post is also a small torch, lit with a hot–burning fire meant to bathe the ring in an uncomfortable heat, intended to make the fighters more aggressive... and, incidentally, to push them to their limits.  Sand covers the ground, but it barely conceals the hard, rusted steel floor and the pattern etched into its center: the emblem of the Dragon's Neck Coliseum.  As the crowd around him begins to quiet away in anticipation of the match, Cicero steps forward to the edge of the balcony and halts, letting a deep silence fall over the small arena until all attention is focused on him... excepting Vargas and Rika, whose eyes continue to stare off in deep intensity, muscles tensed and primed for battle.

Letting a smirk curl his lips, he raises his arm, holding his palm to the air, and pauses... then lowers it, shouting, "...Begin!"

A gong crashes behind him and the two brandish their weapons – each donning a pair of their finest claws – as a row of drummers begins playing on kettle drums, a deep and rumbling echo of tribal music flowing through the arena, audible even under the din of the crowd and driving the crowd into a frenzy.  In the rostrum, Cicero looks around as he sits, pleased with his latest, ad hoc touch to the theatricality of the event, assuring himself that the music would – as well – intensify the battle, pushing the fighters into a rage of their own and creating a backdrop against which they can weave their art.

They circle around the pit, squaring off and waving their weapons in their fighting stances as they wait for a good opening... then charge each other at once, flashing steel blades about in a flurry of quick parries and swinging arcs.  They trade strikes for some time, she swinging with a backhand that he ducks under, while he counters with an uppercut that she likewise dodges.  Kicks hit air and punches find nothing as they both read each other and manage to avoid or block most of their offense, the steel of their claws whipping the air audibly.

Wondering why he can suddenly follow her so well, Rika then scowls as she continues to block and parry. “Should've never gotten in that spar with him!”

She narrowly ducks under a wide swing by him, then decides to pick up the intensity as she rises again, waiting as he kicks at her, catching his leg into her side, and then throwing a hasty Aurabolt straight into his chest.  Wincing in pain, he feels himself lifted from his feet and thrown backwards, where he smashes into one of the poles, his back slamming against it before he falls over onto his face.  Groaning and aching, he rises again and tries to assume a defensive stance, but she moves too fast and slashes him from shoulder to waist with a flurry of offense before he can counter.

Quickly frustrated, he pulls back and fires an Aurabolt of his own, at least managing to push her back and give himself some room to breathe.  Dust swirls in the air as she skids to a stop and falls on a knee, panting, when she looks up and grits her teeth amid another charge at him; but her attack only meets metal as he parries and blocks, switching to a strong defensive tactic.  Unable to penetrate the defense, she grunts and steps in, kicking off his chest and backing away, where she loosens up with some practice sweeps and changes her stance.

A split second passes as they both regain their bearings, when they both charge together, each hoping to gain the offensive.  A flurry of parried strikes intermingle, but neither can gain any kind of advantage, instead trading indecisive parries, when Rika attempts a kick; Vargas catches the leg, but she quickly hops up and kicks him in the back of the head with her other leg, causing him to step back and release her, where she falls to the ground.  Grabbing at his head, he watches her kip back up to her feet, then charges her again, fists flying wildly as she parries each one, when she then lashes out with another kick, this time catching him in the ribs.

Smiling at the sight of him wincing, she throws another kick at his head, one he ducks under and crouches to attempt a legsweep in counter, but she hops over the foot easily, then hops again as he tries a second one with the other leg, then ducks as he rises to his feet with a rapid spinning roundhouse kick.  Reversing the offense, she attempts a legsweep of her own, but he also hops over her foot and prepares to dodge another kick, but reels in pain as she quickly spins while rising to her feet and slashes the backs of her claws across his stomach, cutting three long gashes in him.

Seeing him stumble back, she grins and drops to one knee while casting a spell, throwing her hand out in front of herself as she summons the familiar well of flame at his feet, but he sees it coming, and in the split second that it's cast he teleports away and reappears before her, punting her in the chest.  Gasping against the sharp pain, she falls backwards and grunts in surprise, then starts rolling sideways in the dirt as he continually tries to plant a knee in her or slash down with his claws.  Finally she manages to get enough distance between them to roll back on her feet, where she thrusts out her hands and summons a hasty Aurabolt at him; which, as she is expecting, he deflects using his shield.

Seeing her opening, she rushes him just as his shield drops and engages him hand–to–hand, managing to push him backwards, then opts for the suicidal as she purposely locks his left blade in her right, then his right in her left, drawing him close enough to hop up and headbutt him, stunning him just long enough to jump up and kick at his stomach, sending him staggering backwards.  Then, in his moment of distraction, she teleports to right before him, drawing her fist forward in the middle of the transport and lowering her guard as she delivers a haymaker, a wild punch that surprisingly finds its mark, the claws embedding in his heart.

For a long moment he stands on his feet, coughing blood and slowly relaxing as she looks up at him with some surprise, when he finally falls to his knees and then onto his back as his body weight drags itself off her claws.  The crowd steps forward to give her a standing ovation, cheering for the victor of round one as she revels in the adoration, spinning in a circle and raising a fist in the air, coming back to face him as curing magics emerge from the air and surround his body, sealing the cuts and smoothing away the bruises.  He opens his eyes and gazes at the ceiling for a second, confused, then remembers where he is and looks up to see her bow to him, a confident smirk on her face.

"Youuu..." he growls as he gets up, shaking himself off.

Quickly recomposing himself, he walks over and assumes a stance, waiting as the announcer calls out, “The winner of round one: Rika Terral!”

“Do you have to announce it?” Vargas thinks amid bared teeth.

They square off across from each other then, and begin to circle as Vargas reaches his left claw out towards her, where she soon reaches hers back and touches their blades together, letting the tips of the weapons kiss as they circle about in a trancelike state.  So intense and focused are they that their eyes never leave their opponent's, concentrating right up until the final moment, when they lash out simultaneously, trading blocked kicks and parried slashes for a long moment, until he finally recognizes a pattern she follows with her footwork.

Shuffling his feet this way and then that, he manages to get in close – very close – and locks one of her claws up in one hand while stepping rapidly forward and locking their legs together, then tries to stab at her chest with his free hand.  She blocks it – just barely grabbing his fist in hers – and struggles to break out of their lock, but then gasps and falls over as he pulls her feet out from under her with one of his own, shoving her with his arms at the same time.  She bounces from the sand with a thud, then looks up to see him jumping in the air, aiming at her with his knee and drawing one claw back to impale her.  Quickly she rolls away and spins upright, but he lands instead on the balls of his feet and starts swinging immediately, cutting at her torso and gashing her across the shoulders and abs before she can mount a defense.

She falls back, but soon finds herself being pressed against the spiked chains at the edge of the ring, and as she realizes what's happening, he grabs her fists in his own and charges, pushing her up against the wall of spiked chain until its unforgiving length tears into her back.  She screams long and hard as she feels her back cut open, and has to listen to the crowd cheer madly at the carnage, then clenches her jaw and pushes back against him, using all her strength to muscle herself off the chains and back on her feet, where she twists sideways just enough to kick him in the ribs, finally breaking the hold.  He backs away a step, then ducks to the side after she spinkicks his chest in desperation, trying to put distance between them so she can recover.

Staggering against the pain in her back, she quickly pulls her legs up beneath her and rushes him, managing to slash at his torso with a wild downward swing and cut his left pec.  He counters quickly, however, reaching through the open defense on her right side to uppercut across that edge of her head, opening a gash from the bottom of her chin to up behind her ear; she yelps and is tempted to grab at the wound, but she bears through it and deflects his next few attacks.

He then surprises her by teleporting behind her, and she quickly retorts with a wild spinning backhand, expecting to catch him unprepared, but instead swings through another cloud of black smoke as he teleports immediately upon landing.  Eyes widening, she spins about and lashes out behind herself with a kick to his midsection... and again strikes through a black cloud, unable to move fast enough to hit him.  Bringing her leg back down to regain her balance, she then reels forward under the punishing weight of an Aurabolt shooting through her back from above, staggering as she rapidly spins around and prepares for his onslaught, then is again surprised as he rushes forward against her, locking their legs together again and grabbing her left fist in his right, punching down at her chest with his left claw.

She's only barely able to catch the fist in hers, and they stand locked together a long moment as the crowd goes wild around them, Rika growling at him as she feels her strength waning against his, feeling herself abruptly overwhelmed by his attack.  ShhHIT... he's figured me out!”

Again opting for the suicidal, she summons a fireball between them, a ball of flame that explodes and singes their bodies, but succeeds in breaking their lock and sending him sliding back in the sand, giving her just enough time to stagger back and draw a deep breath...

But he seems unfazed, instead rushing and leaping with a kick at her chest, a kick she's only barely able to meet with a replica, their feet meeting and pushing away against the other, both falling to a knee on opposite sides of the ring in opposite states.  Panting for breath, they flash their weapons at each other, but their glares are of opposite complexion; he's locked in and intense, while hers is beginning to show the faintest signs of anxiety... he's already begun to figure out her advantages and remove them, while she's still unable to identify and remove his.  If they keep at this, she'll have to rely on another lucky break, and she's never been one to rely on luck.

Seeing the growing desperation in her face, Vargas stands and lowers his left claw just slightly, opening the palm as he tilts his head aside.  “I've figured you out, you know.”

Have you?” she calls back, faking the sarcasm with an askew nod; she knows he's right.

Raising his right fist, he glances aside at the claw, studying the gleam of his blade... yes, he has.  He's seen all her tricks, and he knows how to counter them, or at worst, absorb them.  Perhaps it's time he level the playing field... looking back at her, he faces her squarely to ask, “Whaddaya say we do this bare–knuckle?”

“No weapons?” she pants, grateful for the short respite as she rises to her feet... even more grateful to see him considering changing the nature of their fight to something more equal.

“No weapons,” he answers slowly, his face sincere and intense as a smirk flashes over it.  “Let's make it a fair fight.”

“...Okay,” she says, standing taller as she removes her claws.  “Hand–to–hand, the ancient rules.”

“Wouldn't have it any other way,” he replies, unstrapping his own.

“Just like Duncan taught us,” she remarks, then immediately cringes as she squeezes her eyelids shut, having unintentionally torn open that sore wound.

When she opens her eyes again, she sees a dark demeanor washing over him, a glare leveling down at her direction, and though she feels like apologizing, she knows this is hardly the time for it... and regardless, no words can take away the pain and anger he doubtless feels.  Momentarily she swears at herself for giving him that much more reason to pummel her into the ground.

They throw their weapons away then, tossing them outside the ring where they can't be reached, then stand with relaxed arms at their sides, waiting for the other to act as hushed murmurs ripple through the crowd, the spectators wondering what the two warriors are up to in the pit.  For his part, Cicero sits forward, smiling as he sees them reverting to the ancient rules, taking in every delicious moment of their battle with glee.

Loosening up, she flexes her fists – the knuckles cracking in response – then assumes a stance, holding one palm out towards him, while he does nothing... not at first, anyway.  After pausing to let the moment sink in, he quickly swings his palms around and shifts his feet, then balls up his right fist at chest level while wafting his left palm out towards her, turning sideways to level an intense glare before abruptly charging, immediately engaging her with a flurry of fist and wrist parries and blocks.

Skin slaps rapidly against skin for a moment, when Vargas parries first her left arm, then her right, and drops his arms down, quickly locking them together.  She then gasps in surprise as he ducks down and stands again, whipping his arms around powerfully and sending her into a tight lateral spin, parallel to the ground; she's only barely able to bring her feet back under herself and land on her feet, then reels against his immediate charge, hands whipping around in tight arcs to block punches and jabs.

He swings low then with a bodyblow, but she blocks it and reaches up to kick him in the chest... but he scouts it out, and reaches down with one hand, grabbing her ankle and yanking up.  Her momentum and his strength combine to send her into a backflip, but she swings her other foot around mid–flip, kicking her foot into his chin.  Surprised and dazed, he stumbles back and regains his footing while she takes the initiative, rushing him with bared fists.

In response, he lets her rush him, then grabs her wrist and ducks down, twisting harshly about and using her own weight and speed to throw her over onto her back.  Keeping a firm grip on her arm as she falls, he then twists it back and applies pressure to her elbow and wrist while pushing his knee into her shoulder, grabbing her up in an armlock.

She struggles against him a moment, trying to break free while clenching her jaw through the pain, privately marveling at his ability to switch entire styles and methods on the edge of a coin.  Going nowhere against his strength, however, she relaxes and thinks for a second, then reaches up with her free hand and rakes her nails across his eyes.  Exclaiming as he staggers back, he releases the hold and grabs at his eyes, while she rolls out from under him and spins to her feet, ready to throw anything she has at him, but finds herself immediately set upon as he rushes, fists bared.

Quickly an idea occurs to her, and as he closes the gap between them in but a second, she ducks under his arms, rams her shoulder into his gut, and grabs him about the waist, then stands and runs forward a few steps, hoisting him up with all her might before throwing him down onto his back, slamming him down with everything she has and knocking the air out of him, the hollow chamber beneath the thinly–coated metal floor rumbling in response.  He coughs for breath as he lies stunned beneath her, while the crowd leaps in the air and cheers wildly, and she's able to mount him and pummel away at his face and chest for several seconds, until he finally recovers and reverses, spinning her around onto her back and pummeling away in return, punches flaring wildly into her head and chest.

She covers her face and feebly attempts to ward off the onslaught, then reaches her knees up between his legs as he punches and manages to flip her feet into his chest, planting them there and pushing with everything she has, throwing him off until he slips and tumbles onto his back away from her.  They both get back up at once and rush each other without hesitation, but in the fog from his barrage she misses the cues that he's going to strike first with a kick, and as she readies to block a punch, she instead sees him spin around and throw a high, fast heel kick into her chin and throat, knocking her flat on her back. There she lies, blinking and coughing, very much dazed and confused, while he comes back around and stands over her, watching her struggle back onto her feet.

He moves in a semicircle as she gets back on her feet and starts spinning around, trying to find him again, when she looks up to see him swing at her with hard hooks and uppercuts, taking to classic kickboxing to finish her off.  Unable to make sense of what's happening anymore, she can only stagger backwards and offer feeble resistance, hands raising to block some punches and kicks, while others reach around the stunned arms and find their marks.  Finally he pushes her to the edge of the ring and begins slamming her with hooks and backhand chops, bloodying her lip and nose in short order.

She falls against the chains finally, but can't feel the pain shooting through her back through the haze in her head, and he watches her reel – bouncing off the chains with her hands in a weak stance – then reaches back and delivers a mighty spinning roundhouse kick to the jaw, a blow that sends her falling over to her side.

The crowd erupts in a roar of approval, leaping as they cheer him while the announcer sits forward in his seat, waiting for the judgment call from the referee as Vargas steps back and relaxes, nodding at her, while she lies unmoving in the sand, only barely awake and little able to comprehend what's going on around herself.  Getting the call, the announcer then sits forward, bellowing, “The winner of round two: Vargas!”

The crowd again cheers and applauds, an act he ignores as he watches curing magic wash over Rika, healing many of her wounds in an instant.  She blinks and lifts her head – painfully – to look around herself at the sand, then rises to her knees and turns to face Vargas, glaring at him.  Finally she stands to her feet – not bothering to dust herself off – and assumes an offensive stance, waiting again for him to move as she curses her ineffectiveness in the second round... except for one brief moment, she barely touched him.

She doesn't have to wait long, because he immediately returns to the offensive, throwing punches and kicks that she easily sidesteps and dodges, when he spits in the dirt and pulls back for a moment to throw a high kick at her, which she ducks under.  There, she twists sideways and grabs him around the waist, then stands as he flails against her, unable to break free of her grasp as she lifts him in the air, holding him high for a moment until she falls backward, dumping him on the ground as she performs a flawless belly–to–back suplex.  The crowd cheers, but he is only fazed for a second, quickly countering by twisting around and grabbing her shoulders, then holding her in place as he rolls over the top of her before she can stand, returning to punching away at her face.

In spite of her attempts at blocking, blood begins to flow from her mouth, and – playing dirty again – she hastily reaches up and jabs her thumb in his eye, causing him to jump back off of her, grasping the eye and muttering random syllables.  Grinning satisfactorily as she sits up, she watches him shake his head off and lash at her with a low kick, an attack she quickly blocks with her hands, then claps them down on his ankle and yanks him forward, where she lifts up on her shoulder and drives her foot into his throat, sending him backing away again.

Seizing the opportunity to stand again, she spins up on her feet and faces him, feeling her back pop as she rises... an oddly good feeling in contrast with the pain everywhere else in her body.  Exclaiming with a satisfied sigh, she shrugs her shoulders and stands again at the ready, her hands in a grappling position as she spits blood from her mouth.

He spins once and again shakes his head, then charges at her with fists flying, throwing them ever faster as she sidesteps and parries them, eventually mixing punches and jabs of her own into the mix.  She then reaches up and tries to kick at him with her left leg, but he catches it against his side and grabs on with his right arm, watching her hop as he swings with his free hand.  Blocking it, she then hops up with her free leg and uses his arm for leverage, spinning around to kick him in the back of the head, landing with a forceful thud and knocking him senseless once more.

He releases her leg as he stumbles backwards, while she lifts her legs in the air and spins, twirling them around and pulling them beneath herself to stand, then rushes him, intent on pressing the advantage while she has it and laying into him with more punches and jabbing kicks.  He's only able to parry and block some of them in his temporary stupor, when an especially fast and hard backhand lands across his eye, causing him to spin about and fall to one knee.  As he kneels there – staring into the sand – he sees a single drop of blood fall from his brow and land there, dripping from a fresh cut she's just opened over his eye.

Then, he sees her foot come in from the side and smack him in the face, forcing him back onto his feet, where he staggers backwards, arms flailing for balance.  Not letting up, she continues swinging at him, but he soon angers and finds a second wind, parrying her strikes with ever–growing force, then finally opens a hole in her defense he can use by knocking aside a jab with abrupt power – twisting to throw the arm past his head – then reaching in and hooking the other arm with his own.  His other fist then draws up and rams into her left solarplex, knocking her breath out, and he presses his own attack with a flurry of furious punches into her chest and face, rocking her back and stunning her.

He quickly gains the upper hand, reaching back and landing an especially powerful uppercut into her chin, then spins and lands a hard and fast roundhouse kick to her face, which reopens the wound he'd given her behind the ear.  That last one seems to knock the dizziness out of her and she fires back, punching and chopping at him, and they soon begin trading blow for unchallenged blow – no longer bothering to block nor parry – exchanging punch for kick, jab for chop, bodyblow for right hook.

He then balls both his fists together and reaches back, creating an opening that she uses to sidekick him in the chest... but he ignores it, instead grimacing and drawing further back, then swings his fists at her face, hitting her hard across the forehead.  She falls over to the side from the force of it and rolls once, using her own momentum to fling herself back on her feet, where her hair comes undone and falls all around her, and when she looks up again and tosses her hair, he can see blood pouring from a wide gash above her eyebrow.  Scowling at him and panting for breath, she raises her fists again and stalks forward, until she reaches punching distance and throws multiple short ones, attacks he dodges until he tries to kick her in the chest.

As he's done to her many times, she grabs it against her side, so he hops up and spins to kick the back of her head in return, a maneuver she sees coming and ducks under, raising back up to give him a single laugh, but he lands on the foot and hops up again, spinning around to face upwards where he drives the sole of his foot into her sternum.  Coughing from the kick and widening her eyes in surprise, she releases his leg, then trips and falls over on her back, coughing and gagging on dirt as she tries to get her breath back.  Beyond her feet, he plants his hands behind his head and kips up, then rushes over as she lies in the sand.

He begins to draw back for a falling, downward punch when she suddenly flips around, rises up on her two hands, and drives her feet up into chest, feeling him bounce off as he falls onto his back and somersaults, rolling back onto his feet.  Coughing to get back his own breath, he then looks up and can only watch as she runs over and leaps, driving a flying kick right into his head, which sends him rolling over sideways and flying into the air... but he miraculously spins over and lands on his knee and foot, kneeling upright.  She recovers faster than he does, however, and lands a double–fisted punch of her own while he kneels on the ground.

It's a massive blow that knocks him over and opens a new cut on his forehead, from which even more blood pours free, while also breaking his hair loose from its tie and sending it flailing in the air, until it splays out about him when his face hits the sands.  He breathes into it for a second – angry and frustrated – before he feels his shoulders grabbed and pulled on, lifting him back onto his knees.  Growling, he plants one knee beneath him in response, then spins around and gives her a powerful, jerking backhand to the face, bloodying her lip again and causing her to stagger back.  Seizing the opening, he gets back to his feet and charges, but she acts quicker and grabs his shoulders while falling onto her back.

There, she rolls and plants her feet into his stomach, tossing him over her head, then – still grasping his shoulders – somersaults on top of him and mounts him again.  She's about to begin pummeling away at him – drawing a fist back – when she finds her own move used against her as he claps his hands behind her neck and lifts a knee into her thigh, flipping her over his head and rolling backwards over the top of her.

From there he leans forward and drives his forearm into her throat, attempting to choke her out, and he watches with a heavy, tight–lipped glare as she gags and coughs, trying to push his arm away with both her hands.  What he doesn't see, however, is her knee shift between his legs, and then lift straight up... right into his crotch.  With a loud exclamation and a resounding groan from the crowd, he releases the chokehold and rolls onto his side, groaning and gripping the spot just below his belly button, while she coughs and sits up, rubbing her throat as she tries to get her breath back.

Both are slow to their feet – feeling fatigue and pain grip them tighter and tighter – needing a moment to stand and face each other, where they make weak attempts at forming stances before rushing each other with bared teeth and flashing fists.  He pulls the unexpected, however, and ducks under her wide left hook while spinning to the side and behind her, jabbing her in the ribs on the way over.  She gasps at the sharp pain and clutches at the spot with her opposite hand, then spins about and parries his punch, countering quickly with a kick.

Again he grabs her leg, but then hastily throws it away, spinning her in a circle and waiting until she faces him again to deliver a forearm shiver across her throat and chin, stunning her as she falls fat on her back.  She lies there a second, blinking and coughing, then plants her hands behind her head, draws her legs up to her chest, and pauses... waiting a long moment before pulling all her energy together to kip up – barely making it back to her feet without tripping – where she looks back at him and pants, surprised he waited for her to stand again.

She raises her fists as he does the same, and they step forward into each other again, trading another series of savage strikes, exchanging bodyblows, punches, and barbaric double–fisted haymakers one over another, each blow more crushing than the last.  They quickly make a bloody mess of each other, spreading blood around as they flail away for a solid thirty seconds, each hit fierce and powerful and soon taking its toll, visible when she finally staggers to one knee.

He quickly tries to press the advantage, but she blocks his punch and pushes him back, to which he again raises his fists and assumes a grappling pose.  Growling in frustration, she sets her feet beneath herself, then charges him at full speed, trying to tackle him to the ground, but he doesn't hesitate in ducking low and stepping aside, using his left foot as a pivot while stretching out his right leg, circling back around and spinning to face her as his right foot throws a trail of sand in the air, dragging through it like a tidal wave as she runs straight past him, where she has to stop to turn around.

Still close to him, however, she doubles back and throws a wild haymaker at his head, but he uses his stance as a low defensive posture and blocks it, then watches as she throws another punch... and sees her lower her guard on her right side.  Moving quickly, he grabs her wrist in his right hand and in one rapid movement brings his left leg around in a high sidekick that knocks her back, where she stumbles and holds a hand to her bleeding nose, and can only watch as he spins forward and lands a heavy backhand strike on her chin, knocking her to the ground.

Vargas stands tall and watches her lie in the sand a moment, quickly gaining back his breath, while in the dirt Rika feels her strength leaving her; even as she plants her hands in the sand to rise, they tremble and give out, and she gasps, grimacing as she feels defeat close at hand.  Watching her breathe in the dirt and groan, he then walks over and grabs her by the shoulders, lifting her easily up onto her knees... which she doesn't fight against at first, instead groaning louder and grunting, but she finally offers feeble resistance against his arms as he grips her forehead in one hand and her chin in his other.  The crowd roars around them as the row of percussionists steps up their tempo, beating their drums louder amid the sickening, repeated chanting of the spectators, all calling down for a finish.  “Kill!  Kill!  Kill!  Kill!”

His teeth clench together – bared through a scowl – and he tenses up to snap her neck, but he pauses as the day's events flash through his mind again, soon followed by a rapid series of flashbacks and scenes from his childhood and early adulthood... playing tug–of–war with his dad, roughhousing with his classmates, learning under his father... and that fateful day on Mount Kolt...

Suddenly, none of it matters anymore.  The killing, the bloodshed, the fighting... it's all so hollow.  He looks down at Rika's head in his hands – watching her struggle weakly against his grip – and feels empty in spite of his victory, and so one last time he tenses up and grips tighter... then abruptly grabs her shoulders and pushes, disgusted with himself.  Grasping her throat with her hands, she coughs and gags, then turns to face him on her knees, but looks up through her hair to see him stomping away from the pit in a hurry, not acknowledging any of the fans' cheers and praise, a puzzled expression on her face.

“Why didn't you kill me?” she asks herself.  “You had me beat...”

Around her, the crowd this time cheers his mercy, their approving roars turning into chants of his name.  "Var–gas!  Var–gas!  Var–gas!"

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Vargas storms through his waiting area backstage, stopping only at a large barrel of water, where an assistant offers a bucket for him to fill for cleaning himself off.  He slaps it away in disdain, causing the young man to leap back in fear as the bucket bounces several times on the ground and rolls, then grabs the barrel itself, sets his feet, and with one mighty, furious heave roars into the air and lifts it up over his head – dumping its entire contents on his head – washing dirt and blood together onto the floor and staggering as the tremendous weight of the barrel suddenly disappears.

Not bothering to shake himself off, he lowers it slowly and draws deep pants, letting his anger subside and recovering from the sudden shock of the cold water washing over him, then angrily throws the barrel against the wall in front of him, its heavy weight bouncing thickly on the wall and floor until it starts to roll aside.  Finally tossing his hair to get it out of his eyes, he then stomps off towards the rear entryway, when one of the men nearby steps bravely forward and intercepts him, grabbing his arm.  “Sir, your wounds–”

“They can wait!” he snaps, gruffly shrugging his arm free of the man's grasp.

“But sir, I really can't–” the man starts, then recoils as Vargas turns about.

“I don't want it, you hear me?!” Vargas shouts back, stepping near him threateningly as he lets his anger out on the poor kid.  “I don't want it!”

“I really can't let you leave without healing you first, sir!” the young cleric replies, standing taller.

Vargas glares down at him intensely for a long moment, privately admiring the man's courage – shaky though it may be – and finally sighs in defeat, stepping back.  “Fine.”

The kid swallows, then steps back and shuts his eyes, drawing a fist up to his chest as he weaves together a healing spell, putting everything he has into it as quickly as he can, sending a wave of glowing white magic washing down on Vargas, sealing his wounds and bruises and leaving only a few faint scars across his back and chest.

Thank you,” Vargas pants sarcastically, giving him a sardonic nod of the head, then exits through the door in the back.

In the winding hallways beyond, a number of employees see him coming and wisely step aside, already familiar with the drill and giving him room to brood as he storms back to the dormitories.  He angrily snorts and scowls around one corner and then the next, then turns the last one and locks his eyes on his room, getting halfway there when he hears Rika's voice calling out to him.  “Vargas!  Vargas!”

Slowing his step gradually into a walk, he scowls harder, biting down on his teeth but never stopping, approaching his room with purpose.  The last person he wants to see right now is her... but if she absolutely must keep playing this game, then so be it.  “What?”

“Not going to the party?” she asks, falling into step beside him as she looks up in his eyes.

“Not my scene,” he mutters, wondering what her angle is; she knows he despises the limelight.

Attempting to lighten his dour mood, she barbs at him with flat sarcasm, “Funny, I figured you were the gloating type.”

He pauses for a second, his face seeming to darken as he tilts his head forward.  “...Not today.”

No... today is not for celebrating; not for him.  If there is any shred of humanity left in him, he almost just lost it again... by the Goddesses' grace, why is he being drawn to this endless killing?  There's nothing to celebrate about having to stop yourself from ending a life... not when you were seriously thinking of going through with it; not when it means rubbing out something so beautiful...

Again, he shakes his head, closing his eyes... why do his thoughts keep coming back to that?  They're enemies... nothing more.  His voice quieting, he repeats the words in a mutter, his eyes still closed.  “Not today.”

He speeds his step again and hurries to his door, leaving her behind as she stops and watches him go, biting her lip as she asks herself if she should ask the burning question, turning it over in her mind, contemplating the many layers of their complicated relationship... but then, she wonders, what does she have to lose?  She has to know the answer if she wants to see what turmoil grips his mind... and if she doesn't ask now, she knows she'll ask later, anyway.  Rushing after him, she calls out again, “Wait!”

He slows again to a walk, then halts completely, throwing his head back with a heavy sigh.  “What?”

“Wait!” she calls out again, running over and stopping in front of him as he turns about to face her.  Panting twice to catch her breath, she then looks in his eyes and asks, “Why didn't you kill me?”

He steps with his foot and makes to turn away from her, averting his eyes as he looks away to say, “I didn't have to.”

Before he can turn, she grabs his arm and pulls him back, forcefully drawing his eyes back to hers.  “I've seen you in there before!  Something was different today... you could've finished me for good – several times – but you didn't.  Why?”

His mouth twists into a frown as he fumbles in his mind for a response... should he dodge the question?  Should he make something up?  Should he avoid it altogether?  Finally, however, he gives in and lets his fears melt away... what does he have to lose?  Dignity?  Self–respect?  He's lost those long ago... all he has left are painful memories and a legacy built on bloodshed.  What's one more crack in the armor to be exposed?  “Because I can't live with myself, okay?!  I can't do this anymore!”

Slowly, gently releasing his arm, she looks in his eyes while a moment of silence passes between them... remarking to herself how vulnerable he appears now, how alone in this world he must feel.  A week ago, she doesn't think he would've hesitated, but now... now he seems to have lost something.  Her voice quieting, she asks softly, “What changed?”

He looks back in her eyes for a second, but finds himself unable to face her, and glances away to the wall.  "I hate myself.  I hate everything I am, and everything I've done.  I – killed my own father, Rika!  And what do I keep doing?  Killing!"

Seeing tears form in his eyes, she keeps her peace as he bares his soul before her, doing her best to hold back tears of her own, unwilling to add to his pain by letting him see her cry, too.  "I'm a disgrace to everything my father taught me.  I'm a failure at my life, Rika.  I can't do this anymore!"

He turns abruptly and starts to return to his room, but she again steps forward, imploring, “Wait!”

He stops again, throwing his head back and staring at the ceiling, grasping his left shoulder with his right palm and fighting back tears.

“It doesn't have to end here,” she says, walking towards him and talking softer.  “You can start over, be a new man.”

Another long pause, and again he considers the totality of his life... the utter finality of his decisions and the many relationships he's broken.  Goddesses... when did he become such a fuck–up?

“It's too late for that,” he finally whispers, shutting his eyes to close away the outside world, head still rolled back on his shoulders.

“No, it isn't!” she retorts, forcefully but quietly as she walks in front of him again and looks up to his face, seeing where now–flowing tears and water have washed away his facepaint.  “I've seen it already, Vargas.  I'm seeing you change already.”

He says nothing, but eventually lowers his head and hangs it, keeping his eyes shut away from hers, and as she watches him avoid her gaze, she takes his chin on the edge of her finger and gently turns his head to face hers.  Finally he opens his eyes again, lifting them back up to gaze into hers as she whispers to him, “I don't think you've ever been the giving up type.  Don't start now.”

He looks into her eyes for some time, wondering why – at this time, in this place – did she have to approach him?  Why did she have to come into his life in the first place?  And why – of all things – does she even care?  There are far better things she can waste her time on than a lost cause.  Finally, he breaks the silence, softly asking her, “Why're you doin' this?”

His voice is so genuinely begging, confused, and full of emotion that it catches her off guard, and she opens her mouth as if it say something, but finds herself at a loss... completely unable to answer the question.  After a pause, she closes it again and blinks, then can only whisper, “I don't know...”

They gaze at each other for a long moment, until he suddenly moves past her and reaches his room.  “No.  No, I can't do it anymore...”

Hurrying up to him, she grabs his shoulder before he can open his door, spinning him around and throwing him against it with sudden force, raising her voice at the statement... genuinely hoping he doesn't intend to do something rash.  “Can't do what?!  You keep saying that, what can't you do?!”

He seems surprised at first, but it soon passes as his eyes fall on the scar running from her chin to behind her right ear.  He reaches up with his left hand and tries to brush his fingers gently along it, but she pulls her face away and glances at his hand, then traces it to her face and rubs her own hand along the scar, looking up at him as she awaits his answer.  Having taken in the most visible sign yet of his actions, he looks gently back into her eyes, lowers his hand to his side, and whispers, “I can't kill anymore.”

They stand a while longer in silence, neither one moving, until he finally lowers his head again and turns to enter his room.  This time she doesn't stop him, letting him shut her away in the hallway, her hand still holding the scar as she thinks aloud in a whisper, speaking into the door, “Maybe I can't, either...”


The water bucket scene is one of my new favorite mini-scenes. happy.gif THAT'S WHAT I THINK OF YOUR DAMN BUCKET!

This post has been edited by Zephir on 8th November 2013 20:58

--------------------
~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205456
Top
Posted: 8th November 2013 22:03

*
Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
This is another chapter where a couple scenes received updates; particularly, the beginning and ending. The first section got a little cuter with the update. wink.gif

Quote
Chapter 8

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

"Oof!  Augh!"

The man reels from a two–hit bodyblow combo thrown by Vargas, then falls on his back from a rapid three–hit jab–jab–hook combo to his chin, just as Rika enters the sparring room and looks around at everyone, her eyes falling on the man as he rubs his chin while pulling himself back to his feet.  “He's lettin' ya have it, huh?”

He turns a glare on her, still rubbing his chin and stumbling a bit, while she walks towards them and tosses her head back to Vargas, a hand resting on her hip.  “You got a moment?”

Rubbing his hand in his palm, Vargas then shakes it, flicking the wrist twice.  “No, but I could use some practice.”

For some barbing fun, he adds a little extra hiss at the end of the word, and circles partway across the mat to let her on while dismissing the man.  She stares at Vargas with a smirk for a second, then chuckles and steps onto the mat, rubbing her knuckles in one hand.  “All right... I'll try not to be too rough.”

He tilts his head to her at that – smirking himself – then lunges with a light jab, which she easily dodges and counters with a similar jab, which he also dodges, asking between punches, “So what – brings you down here?”

“Well, you know I–” she starts, then jabs at him and pulls back, finishing, “–Found something – while I was out this last week.”

“Eh?” he asks, then swings wide.

She ducks under it and makes a legsweep attempt, an attempt he hops over and pauses, waiting for her next move, but she instead comes back to her feet hopping on her toes, bouncing side to side and looking for a good opening.  “I met some merchants up north who've been out to Narshe lately...”

Then, while he's looking for a punch, she quickly ducks down and rushes him, grabbing him about his waist and taking him down to the mat with a resounding thud, some in the room around them hopping back and exclaiming in unison, “Ohhh!”

Lying on his back a moment, he looks down to see her getting off him with a wide, open–mouthed grin on her face – part of him having missed that shit–eating grin while she was traveling – then nods as he gets back to his own feet.  “Good, good... so, uh, what about your merchant friends?”

She hops on her toes again, raising her fists back up as she answers, “They told me they'd met this guy–URGH!”

He rushes her in kind, but as he grabs her waist he uses it as a pivot and whips himself behind her, where he grabs her up in a headlock and forces her to a knee.  Gagging on his arm – feeling all that muscle closing off her windpipe – she chokes out, “Ack... augh... can't... breathe!”

“I think that's the point,” he jokes with a grin.

She coughs twice more, then stands partly up and reaches overhead – grabbing his head in her hands and positioning it – then kicks her own legs out from under herself and sits down, ramming his forehead into the top of her scalp and breaking the hold.  The gathering around them steps back as the sound echoes, calling out in unison, “Oooo–!”

AUGH!  Ow, that hurt!” he exclaims, vigorously rubbing his forehead.

“It's supposed to, numbnuts!” she says with a wide grin, spinning back to her feet across from him.

He stands tall again and holds his hands up, mirroring her grappling stance as he takes a deep breath and levels a sarcastic glare at her.  “Okay, so what about this guy they met?”

“They said he lives in this house north of Narshe, all by himself...” she starts, then tilts her head stiffly aside to work out a kink, briefly wincing and winking an eye, then returns her gaze to him.  “I think it's Duncan.”

Vargas pauses, blinking as he lowers his hands, taken aback by the sudden revelation.  “...Huh?”

In his momentary lapse of concentration, she abruptly ducks down and rushes him, tackling him to the ground and landing on top.  The echo sounds throughout the room, and the onlooking spectators again exclaim, but he does nothing... instead just lying there, blinking up at the ceiling, apparently unfazed or perhaps even uncaring about the attack, and offers no resistance as she climbs into his lap and plants her hands on his barrel chest, where she gazes down in his face.  Panting twice to catch her breath, she breathlessly adds, “Yeah...”

“But... are you sure?” he skeptically asks, furling his eyebrows as he looks up at her.

Raising her own brows, she ticks off the items, nodding her head slightly aside at each one, “Loud mouth, hyper, threatened to beat 'em senseless when they first saw him... sure sounds like our Duncan.”

Unsure what he should be saying, Vargas shrinks back beneath her, casting his gaze beyond her face as he moves his mouth wordlessly, when she reaches down and takes his head in her palm, directing it back towards hers so she can look him in the eyes.  “I think he might be alive, Vargas.”

“B–but... but...” he stammers, no longer thinking clearly.

Her head nodding with each repeated consonant, she mocks the stammer, saying, “B–b–b–b–but maybe you should go and see for yourself?”

She releases his head as he looks around and past her, his brows drawing tighter as he struggles to find the words.  “I... but he...”

“Hey, you could use some time off, anyway.  Consider it a vacation!” she remarks, waving her hand in the air above him and giving him a curled smile, nodding hopefully, but he shakes his head and draws back.

“What if he... I mean, I tried...” he starts, then is unable to finish, still stunned by the news... all this time, he's thought that his father was dead, and yet here she is, telling him the reverse may be true.  Could the old man truly have survived that fall?  And what's more... what would he say to him if he is alive?  Sorry for trying to kill you dad, and by the way, I almost killed again... several times?

She watches him for a moment, then sighs in defeat and raises her hands, sitting back in his lap... if he wants to be difficult, that's his choice; she's relayed the news, and that's all she really cares about right now.  “Okay... it's your choice.  I'm just a messenger.”

He looks up at her with confused, frightened eyes as he watches her stand and pause over him to sigh again... then, he sees her wave a hand aside, glancing her eyes at the door as she states, “I'm gonna go now... it's just about dinner time.”

“Yeah, dinner...” he mutters back, his eyes drifting to the ground beside her before casting back quickly, where he adds, “Bye...”

The whole scene leaves several in the room scratching their heads for a moment, but they soon disburse as Rika leaves, while Vargas sits up and remains on the mat a long time longer, pondering the news as he lays his hands on his knees and considers the frightening truth: he may be able to see his father again, after all.

At length, he rises slowly back to his feet and leaves, returning to his room with visions of old memories flashing through his head, and once in his quarters plunks straight down on his bed, unable to get the suggestion off his mind, struggling with the ramifications.  Should he go?  Should he stay?

Glancing at his hands, he clenches them tight, rolling the questions – and the memories – around as he considers the possibilities.  What if he rejects him?  ...What if he doesn't remember him?  It was a long fall... what if he suffered amnesia as a result?  And what if he suffered some catastrophic injury... and became a cripple?

As he looks up to the floor, he ponders then the most terrifying question: what if he forgives him?

Sitting soon turns into pacing, and pacing soon turns into nervous nail biting.  So many possibilities, so many questions to answer... but then, there's only one way to answer them.  In the end, he takes one last glance at his claws on the wall, staring at them for some time, then looks at himself in the room's lone mirror, gazing back into his own eyes and noting the fear and anxiety in them.

“Is this what you've been reduced to?” Vargas mentally asks himself.  “A quivering wreck?”

Lowering his arms to his sides, he takes a deep breath and lets it out as a long sigh, steeling himself as he draws himself up taller, finally coming to a decision.  “...I'm going.”

And he means now.  Without a moment's hesitation he gathers together only his claws and a small set of clothes to change into, throwing it all together in a small travel satchel and immediately hurrying through the corridors and out the Coliseum lobby, never once taking so much as a second glance back, even as he passes Rika in the grand lobby, who watches him leave with a satisfied smirk on her lips.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Across plains and meadows he trudges, slaying many a beast on his way before marching across more plains... and yet more plains... until he finally arrives at Figaro Castle.  Hiding his identity in a parka made from animal hides to avoid discovery, he passes under the sea and arrives in South Figaro, whose timeless walls and architecture bring back many old memories for him... but he doesn't have the time nor patience for nostalgia, not on this quest.  He finds a sailor there crazy enough to ferry him to Narshe, and arrives the next day at its shores, bidding the sailor thanks as he pushes away from the beach.

And then, before he knows it, he's standing before the lone house, a number of feelings coursing through him as he gazes out through the small orchard surrounding it; fear, nostalgia, joy, and everything in between gripping him in that short moment, but he quickly swallows his anxiety and works up the courage to enter...

He passes through the thin line of trees and emerges to see the cabin up close – a little run–down but in good overall condition – and is still gawking at the sight when the door flings open and out steps a man... a very stout man in his mid–fifties.  His face scowls beneath the great white beard, and he squints through the sunlight, straining to make out the figure he sees.  “Who is it...?  Is that... Vargas?  Vargas?”

He steps closer and examines him – his eyes finally adjusting to the light as Vargas steps out from silhouette – watching his son swallow hard and lower his travel sack to his side as he nears.  Then, a sudden excitement grips his chest, and he grins widely – beaming with joy – and begins trotting towards him.  “Vargas!  Vargas, my boy!  Ha ha ha!”

He closes the distance, but then stops as he laughs, falling just a few steps short, and abruptly squints an eye up at his son.  “Say... you aren't here ta finish the job... are ya?”

Taken aback, Vargas can only stammer in response, his travel bag slipping from his grasp in the process.  “Uh... I, uh...”

“...Hah!  Hahaha!” Duncan suddenly laughs, throwing his arms out and grabbing Vargas in a tight bear hug, lifting his boy up with surprising strength – every bit as vital now as he was in his youth – leaving Vargas to widen his eyes in shock as he's lifted in the air, eventually patting him on the back in reply, so confused his poor mind can't figure out what to do or say.  Duncan sets him down then and steps back, patting his shoulders heartily and still laughing.  “Ha ha hahhh... what's the matter?  Cat got yer tongue?”

“I... well, I uh...” Vargas mutters, glancing down anxiously, wondering what could possibly have gotten into the man... does he not remember what he tried to do to him?

Duncan laughs once more – heartily – then stands aside and puts his hand on Vargas's back, leading him to the door as he waves the other and points a finger.  “Come inside and have some tea!  This is cause for celebration!”

They enter together, and as Duncan directs Vargas to sit at the table with his hand, he hurries to the stove and removes the simmering pot of tea, hurrying back over with it to pour two warm cups of the drink in waiting cups.  He sets it down then and takes a seat across from his boy, blowing over the drink as he cradles it in his hands, then sipping from it gently and letting the liquid play over his tongue before swallowing, savoring the taste.  Duncan sits back then and lets out a contended laugh, and looks up to see a very confused–looking Vargas staring blankly back at him in stunned silence, his cup still on the table with his hands touching it gently.  Unable to take the silence anymore, he then narrows his eyes and bluntly asks his son, “What?  Can't say anything to me, son?”

Vargas glances back down, spinning his cup around in his hands uneasily.  “You mean... you aren't mad at me?”

Duncan sets his cup down and leans forward, his movements swift and without hesitation, answering with a bob of his head and lowering his voice, “Do you think you're the only one who's ever tried to off his old man?”

Vargas's head snaps up with a start, where he notes the twinkle in his father's eyes and grasps the shocking revelation with his jaw agape.  “You mean you–?!”

Duncan simply closes his eyes and nods with a knowing smirk, to which Vargas sits back back in his seat – simply stunned – saying, “Wow... I never knew you...”

“That's 'cause I never told you.”  Duncan then sits back in his seat and picks up his cup, twirling it idly in his hands as he continues, raising his voice to a jocular volume to say, “Well, it didn't do me no good, either; the ol' geezer got out of it just as easily as I did.”

A grim chuckle shakes his chest then, and he adds, “Huh, I guess it just runs in the family, eh?  Heheh...”

He takes a sip of his tea and stares into it blankly, while Vargas lowers his head in shame, the truth of his father's revelation doing nothing to assuage his own remorse.  Briefly, Vargas remembers Sabin's words to him, and he considers that – if he had been wrong about his father's death – perhaps he had been wrong about many other things, too; that perhaps it's time he let go of the lie.  “Dad... I really am sorry... I was just so... I didn't know you'd actually chosen me.”

Duncan leans forward in his seat again and reaches across the table to place his hand on Vargas's shoulder, catching his eye again as he gently says, “Vargas, you're my son.  You'll always be my son.  Remember that.”

With a sad stare Vargas looks back at him, then curls his lips down as he rises to his feet, Duncan doing the same and eventually embracing him across the table, patting him on the back as Vargas's eyes water, his lips quivering as he whispers, “I'm sorry...”

“I've forgiven you,” Duncan whispers back, quick to quell his son's fears.

"I'm so sorry," Vargas repeats, holding him closer as he buries his head in his father's shoulder.  "I'm sorry..."

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

The hours pass as they reminisce of the last few months, recounting to each other tales of adventures and conquests... Duncan, himself, is especially proud of Vargas's mastery of the skills he'd taught him and his championship win over Rika, despite Vargas's arguments to the contrary.  As the sun begins to set they strike out through the orchard, continuing their conversation and soon passing by a large tree, and after taking a glance at the sun dipping under the horizon, they decide to sit and pass the last few minutes of daylight in the shade.

Lowering himself slowly down against the tree – using it for support – Duncan groans and quips, “Ohhhhh, it sure seems like the ground just gets farther and farther away the older I get.”

Vargas chuckles and sighs, breathing in the night air and finally letting a contented smile cross his lips... but though he seems perfectly happy to watch the sun set in silence, his father still feels like talking, asking with a sideways glance, “So, you never told me, what was the prize you won in this tournament?”

Shrugging, Vargas looks back at him and shakes his head.  “Ahh; money, prizes, nothing really important...”

“Nothin' important?” Duncan asks, laughing.  “Since when is money never important?”

His smile growing wider, Vargas pauses, then answers in a quiet mutter, “Since getting my father back mattered more.”

Duncan grins so widely then that it seems it might just stretch from ear to ear.  Vargas smiles back at him a while – letting a silence fall over them – then looks away at last and returns his gaze to the sunset, where the smile soon fades as more questions come into his head... questions that he can't leave unanswered.  Keeping his gaze on the sun as it begins to dip below the skyline, he remarks, “You must've been angry at some point.”

Duncan remains silent for some time as he lets the words hang in the air, a pause filled only by the twilight songs of birds and insects around them, both men staring into the distance as the mood turns abruptly somber.  Finally, after a long moment, Duncan quietly answers, his voice almost drowned out by the sounds of dusk as he states simply, “I was.”

Every hint of jubilation gone from his face, Vargas looks back to Duncan, and sees him staring motionlessly at the sunset, his eyes drawn to slits as a heavy expression lies on his face, and remains silent as his father somberly continues, “At first.  There were times I felt like disowning you... but then I started remembering what you'd told me that day... something about choosing 'him' and not you.  I thought about it, and I figured you must'a meant Sabin.”

Glancing back at his son, Duncan peers in his eyes, looking between them as he asks, “You really thought I would choose him over you?”

Vargas nods back at him, then lowers his head in shame, Duncan looking him over with curiosity before nodding himself, adding, “I guess it was fair enough.  I should'a said something sooner, but, I wanted it to be a surprise.”

He glances down at himself, then holds his arms out, where he raises his voice to a more jocular volume, exclaiming, “Well, heh, surprise!”

Duncan looks to him to watch his reaction, but sees Vargas only clench his jaw tighter, the humor lost on him.  Seeing that, he lowers his voice again, trying to catch his gaze as he continues, telling him,  “...At any rate, I started to feel that this whole thing was actually my fault... and I couldn't stay angry at you for long, anyway.  The fact is... I love you, son.  In the end, that always wins.”

Vargas works up the courage to look Duncan in the eye again, and he sees the sincerest of faces looking back at him, waiting for a response.  “...I love you too, Dad.  I never really wanted to hurt you.”

His lips begin to quiver as he fights to hold back tears that he can't stop, and in return Duncan shakes his head, feeling tears of his own tugging at his eyes, too.  “I know, son, I know...”

And if you've never seen it before, you'd see two grown men crying right there under that tree, where they sit an hour longer, until night falls and they're forced to retreat inside and wait for the new day to break.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Vargas steps out into the new day's sunlight and breathes in deeply, taking in the scents and fresh coolness of the air before letting it out with a contented, open–mouthed sigh.  “Ahhhh!”

Duncan steps out behind him soon after, holding a small pack in his hands as he looks up at his boy questioningly.  “You sure you don't wanna stay a bit longer?  I wouldn't mind the company... and we could spar for a bit, eh?”

Duncan smiles at him while throwing mock punches with his free hand, to which Vargas raises a hand and recoils in jest, then takes the bag in his other hand, quietly laughing and smiling before sighing again.  “No... no, I should get going.  I've got my own things to take care of.”

“Well... you always were something of a loner,” Duncan remarks, putting his hands on his hips and giving a little shake of his head, the slight crook of a smirk on his lips.

“We both are,” Vargas replies, to which Duncan nods in knowing agreement, the smirk widening into a smile as they gaze at each other in silence, both pausing to let the moment sink in... when they then lean into each other and share an embrace.

They drag it out for a while, patting each other on the back as they hold it, until they pull away and step back, Duncan sighing and shaking his head as he looks him over head to toe, holding his son's shoulders in his hands.  “You kids grow up so fast... y'know, one of these days, you'll be a parent you'll be thinking the same thing, too.”

“Heh, hopefully later rather than sooner,” Vargas replies with a chuckle.

“Now, don't be so sure 'bout that,” Duncan starts, releasing his shoulders and stepping back to look at him askew, lifting a brow as he adds, “What about Rika, eh?  I remember she was quite the, uh... quite the looker back in the day.”

Duncan winks and grins at him, to which Vargas retches, starting to turn and walk away, “Uuugh, I didn't wanna see that image in my head...!”

Pointing his hands to his chest, Duncan draws down his brows and follows him, a defensive tone in his voice as he exclaims, “'Ey, I'm a man, too, y'know!”

“Besides,” Vargas adds, changing the subject.  “I don't think she likes me, anyway.”

“Why do you say that?” Duncan asks as he quickly joins him at his side.

“'Cause!” Vargas exclaims, then shrugs, grimacing.  “She just don't seem that way.”

Duncan tilts his head at him and frowns, thinking about the boy's hesitation whenever he speaks of her... what is it between them, exactly?  If ever there were a woman out there for him, he figured it would've been someone like Rika... presently, however, he looks out to the horizon as a silence passes, studying the skyline as if in search of something, feeling a curious sensation grip him.

Vargas looks aside to him in the abrupt quiet, and upon seeing Duncan scanning the view beyond the trees, he feels something strange come over him, too, as if the weighted hand of destiny is calling out to him, telling him something important he should be paying attention to.  Turning his gaze back to the skyline and the mountains, he sighs, and nods as he comes to a realization, tying together the last loose threads of the tapestry that is their life, confidently stating into the air ahead of them, “Sabin's out there.”

Nodding in agreement, Duncan lowers his voice.  “Oh, I know he is.  I feel it in my bones.”

He then draws a deep breath, letting it back out as a sigh before noting, “Y'know, you two were like brothers.”

Vargas turns his head slowly to the ground before himself – nodding – then draws a deep breath, composing himself before asking of his father, “Dad... if he ever finds you... would you, uh... mind not telling him anything about me?”

Puzzled, Duncan looks over and asks simply, “Why?”

“Well,” Vargas starts, pausing to shoulder his pack better and purse his lips in thought.  “I wanna settle our thing my own way.”

Duncan looks him over for a long moment, and upon considering what Vargas has told him of their battle, nods slowly in agreement... in whatever way they need to settle their dispute, it would be best if they handle it between themselves, blood brother to blood brother.  “All right... I won't tell him anything.”

Finally, they reach the end of the orchard, and Vargas looks to him with a nod and a smile before facing the wilderness beyond, moving further away as Duncan stops, calling out to him as he begins to grow the distance between them.  “Give my best regards to Rika for me, will ya?”

Vargas looks back over his shoulder to see Duncan waving at him, and returns the favor with a smile, calling back, “I will!”

“Bye, son!”

“Bye, Dad!”

Slowly Vargas shrinks away into the distance, taking the first steps on his journey back to the Coliseum as his father stands by himself – arms crossed – watching him walk off towards the horizon.  Sighing at length, he shakes his head, marveling to himself with a grin, “They do grow up too fast...”

He turns then and heads back to his cabin, midway along the path shaking his head again and laughing aloud, wondering to himself if perhaps Vargas's problem is that he's just so naïve... yes, that must be it; too naïve to notice.  Sighing with a grin, he remarks in his mind, “Ah, Vargas... you always were a bit of a social klutz.”

As for Vargas, in a week he will finally return to the Coliseum, and on that night he will simply check directly into his old room, avoiding the pomp and ceremony as he goes straight for a warm shower and a soft bed... the formal welcome back party and greetings can wait.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

“Hello?  Hellooooo...?  Wake up, sleeping beauty!”

Vargas opens his eyes and looks at the door groggily, following Rika's muffled voice as he tries to gain his bearings... room, clothes, door... what in blazes does she want at this hour?  When he finally answers her, it's in a harsh, raspy morning voice as he calls out, “What?”

“I saw you come right in here last night.  You tryin'a hide or somethin'?”

“I'm tryin'a sleep!” he retorts, then grabs his spare pillow and presses it to his face, shutting out the light and the outside world as he attempts to return to his slumber... of all the times to bother him, and she picks now?

Dead silence fills the room for a few seconds, but he doesn't hear through the pillow as the door lock is quietly picked, followed by the hinges swinging open as soft footsteps pad over the floor, making their way over to his bed.  So peacefully absorbed in the apparent silence is he that he's quite surprised when she nudges him on the shoulder, saying to him, “Hey, wa–RMMF!”

GAHH!” he exclaims, sitting up and swinging his pillow into her face with a heavy thump, bouncing back on the springs as he looks up through fallen hair to see her grab at the pillow and lean back in surprise.  Pausing as he breathes rapidly, he starts to relax as she draws the pillow down, looking back at him with wide, shocked eyes as he scoffs and looks aside.  “Goddesses, you scared the shit outta me, Rika!  What in the name of Figaro are you doin'...”

Watching him trail off as he sits up straighter, she clutches the pillow against her chest tightly, eyes still wide with shock – feeling a bit shaken up, to be honest – as she remarks, “You don't have the best locks, y'know.”

“Remind me to get a better one!” he exclaims with heavy sarcasm, climbing slowly out of bed on the other side of her and rising to his feet unsteadily, getting his balance gradually under him as he walks around his bed, giving her an odd, inquisitive look.  “What're you doin' in here?”

“Well, I... came to welcome you back...” she answers in a quiet voice, nervously fidgeting with his pillow, squeezing it in her two hands.

Stopping at the foot of his bed, he looks at her strangely, furrowing his brows as he draws himself up taller, looking down his nose to ask, “You?  Welcome me back?”

“Well... times change...” she states, her voice quiet as her fidgeting becomes more pronounced, one hand slapping the pillow into the palm of the other; when she glances down at it, stops, and holds it out to him, presenting it with a nervous grin.  “Welcome back!”

Eying the pillow then, he lifts one brow and deadpans, “Nice welcoming present.”

She looks down at the pillow as he starts to move toward his dresser – taking one slow step after another – and turns to face him, holding the pillow in her hands behind her back as she opens her mouth, pausing before stating, “They're also holding a homecoming party for you.  I wanted to tell you about it.”

He shakes his head up at the ceiling, reaching his dresser and stopping to groan, “Oh, great, more parties.”

Feeling silly holding the pillow, she quickly turns aside to toss it on his bed, then follows after him while he grabs clothes from his dresser.  “You are the champion.”

“Yeah, well,” he replies, unenthusiastic.

Watching him open a drawer and inspect its contents, she bites her lip, gathering herself together... wondering momentarily about her sudden nervousness; is it that hard to ask a simple question?  Tapping a foot on the floor, she finally opens her mouth, and asks, "I also wanted to ask you about the guy up north..."

“Duncan?” he asks, almost off–the–cuff as he fingers a selection in the drawer.  “Oh yeah, he sends you his best.”

He passes it off as if it's nothing important, but her eyes light up at the mention of his name, and she steps forward, excitement in her voice as she asks, “Really?  You mean, you met him?”

“Yeah, he's still alive,” Vargas answers, looking up in the mirror and studying the scars across his chest passively.  Reaching up with his hand, he runs a finger along the newest one on his left shoulder, recalling the beast that put it there on his way back, a reminder of the return trip that proves it actually happened.  Smiling at himself, he mutters, “The old geezer's still alive.”

“Wow... that's good news!” she says, giving a quiet laugh, happy to hear that her old master is well.

Still smiling, he reaches in and removes a selection of clothes from the dresser, then looks up as he shuts the drawer to see her reflection in the mirror, standing behind him as if waiting on something.  He's about to ask her what else she wants when his eyes fall on something brown across the side of her face... the scar.  His smile melting away, he turns about and looks at her, letting his eyes fall on her face while she fidgets with her fingers a moment, her mind on something else entirely... not once noticing where his gaze falls as she works up the nerve to ask, “So... did he say much about me?”

Not noticing him staring, she's surprised when he steps towards her and reaches up with a hand, touching a finger gently to the scar and tracing a line partway down it before she can draw back with a start.  She glances at his hand, then quickly puts her hand up to it and rubs it in her palm, looking unnerved as he gazes on her wordlessly... feeling ashamed at himself for having put the blemish there.  She blinks for a moment, trying to force away a blush, and answers the question he wordlessly asked in a near–whisper.  “It's permanent... it's nothing, anyway.”

She steps back then and stands tall, suddenly giggling as she lifts her chin and touches her hands together, herself unashamed of the scars covering her body.  “It's not like it's the only one I have, anyway.”

And she's right.  He hasn't paid much attention, but he looks her over and spots small nicks all across her abs and upper arms – exposed now through the halter top and trousers she wears this morning.  Greatest of them all, however, is the one he doesn't see – a long, broad mark between her shoulder blades – covered at all times by a top of some sort.  He gazes at them a moment, then looks back in her eyes, and with abashed humor asks, “Guess I cut you up a little better'n I thought, huh?”

To his relief, she takes no offense, instead giving him a wry smirk as she taps the back of a hand to his abs, barbing, “I gave you my fair share of 'em, too.”

Her hand then pauses as she begins to draw it back, her eyes having fallen on his chest, where she reaches up and runs her fingers over a wide, dark one running down his left pec, to which he recoils under her touch with a wince.  Glancing up at him in surprise – wondering if the scars are still sore – she pulls her hand back, asking, “What?”

“Your hand's cold,” he answers, moving past her to the washroom door.

“Well, sorry,” she retorts, quickly following him and starting, “Anyway... speaking of the tournament...”

She hurries out ahead of him and gets in front, then crosses her arms behind her back and halts, stopping him and rocking on her toes a couple times, pursing her lips before asking, “What was the, um... prize you won, hm?”

Fidgeting with his clothes bundle in one hand, he rubs the other along first one eye then the other, wiping away at the grogginess in his head as he answers her question with a question, “What do you care, anyway?  It's jus' stuff.”

“I'd just like to know what I could've won,” she answers, glancing away as she trails off.  She then looks back at him and brings her hands back around to her front, rubbing them together expectantly and pursing her lips again.  “So, um... what could I of gotten?”

He gazes down on her blankly for a second, wondering to himself if gold and shiny things are all she really cares about... then sighs at length and shifts his weight, glancing away as he ticks off the items.  “Well, the championship for one... some money–”

Before he can continue, she interrupts with a quick question, standing on her toes and drawing her hands up between them.  “How much?”

Furrowing his brows at her, he leans back and puts some edge in his voice.  “Hold on, woman!  Something like...”

He nods his head aside and purses his lips, pausing as he glances away again, then looks back at her and mutters, “I dunno, a few hundred thousand gold or something...”

Her brows raise as she whistles, and he nods back, doing his best to keep a straight face.  “Yeah.  Oh, and, I got this silly little tiara...”

Tilting her head aside, she draws her own brows together in question, surprised by the last item on the list.  “Tiara?”

“Yeah...” he starts, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand, then abruptly laughs quietly, looking up to the ceiling as he recalls the conversation.  “Cicero told me... get this – he said if a woman won, it was so she could crown herself, and if a guy won, he could give it to his girl and make her his queen... some silly shit like that.”

Puzzled, she looks away, rubbing one arm with the palm of the other, wrinkling her nose and opening her mouth in a wry grin as she considers the sentiment, odd as it would indeed be coming from the strange little man.  “That is dumb.”

Then, as she gives a quiet chuckle, she has to pause to consider it closer, and thinks to herself, “But kinda... romantic... in a stupid, cheesy kinda way... heh...”

He watches her muse, then grins and leans one arm against the wall, recalling now what Duncan had said to him as he again considers their relationship... the endless barbs, the teasing, the electric tension between them; is this what it's like to flirt?  Has he been misinterpreting the signals this whole time?  Studying the way her hair flares out around her face then – free and flowing today without her usual rings to hold them back – he figures to himself, so what if they tried to kill each other before?

Besides... it's more fun to try and lose out than never take your shot, right?  And at worst, it's just one more thing he can tease her with...  “Well, you know, I do still have it...”

She looks back up at him, only half paying him attention as he adds, “And I could use me a queen at my side...”

Grinning wider as he sees her jaw fall open in shock, he pushes himself off the wall and steps nearer, lowering his arms to his sides as he gazes down on her and quiets his voice to ask, “So whaddaya say?”

Looking up at him through low–hanging bangs of hair, she contemplates the gravity of his suggestion, pondering the many layers of their relationship for a long and quiet moment, and considering the abrupt change in status that would entail... can you really go from rivals to lovers that fast?  Watching the twinkle in his eye and the quick lift of his brow, she allows herself to study him in closer detail... taking in the looming weight of his chiseled body, the flowing locks of hair that accentuate the roguish lines of his face, and remembering the endearing vulnerability he once showed her; and – perhaps – has only ever shown to her alone.

And more than that... does all that sexual tension count for something?  Remembering the childish pranks of their short spars together, she then looks down to the floor and shuffles her feet, laughing softly in spite of herself; then tilts her head back to him with a wide and soft smile, steps forward... and wraps her arms about his waist, leaning her head softly into his chest and holding him weakly close.  Momentarily surprised, he waits a moment to draw his hands up, touching them gently to her back, and stares out beyond her to the washroom door, wondering to himself if this is really happening... or if he'll wake up soon and find it all a dream.

Then, in one quick motion, she leans slightly back and raises her knee up with abrupt authority, driving it into his crotch.

He quietly exclaims and leans over her right shoulder, to which she grins widely and pats his chest, whispering into his ear as she moves past him, “I don't think so.”

Doubled over and grabbing at the spot just below his belly button, he can only cough and lean against the wall for support as she saunters out of his room and into the hallway, swinging her arms about with a wide and satisfied smile on her face and giving her hair one last, fanning toss as she exits.  Across from his door, a janitor happens to have seen the latter half of the episode, and stands with his hands on the mop, quietly watching and unmoving, having paused mid–mop as he observed the surprising developments.  Smiling toothily at the kid, Vargas stands a little taller, and almost happily remarks, “I think she likes me.”

The kid chuckles back and shakes his head, returning to mopping the floor as Vargas laughs to himself, slowly recovering to close the door to his room, seeking a little privacy before taking his morning shower.


Great soundtrack for the last section of this chapter: either "Chrono Trigger - Far Off Promise" or "FF6 - ?????". happy.gif

That, however, is that. Epilogue comin' along shortly.

--------------------
~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205458
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Posted: 8th November 2013 22:23

*
Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

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Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
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Epilogue

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Another new day, another new prize, another new challenger.

Vargas meets them all with gusto, rejuvenated as he slowly pieces together the once–fractured puzzle of his life... the father he once thought dead; the old friend whose quest for vengeance turned out to be needless; and the atrocities he once thought he committed, redeemed.  His feet swirl in the sand as he sets his stance, while the crowd cheers him on, an audience graced with the likes of the owner – Cicero – and various warriors of renown from the world over: the great swordsman, Siegfried; the sorcerer, Xerael; the barbarian, Arath; and – as he looks to the rostrum – his love, Rika of Tzen.

As he glances up at her, a slight grin touches his lips, because every time she smiles back, he can feel victory within his grasp.  Their match begins, and is over within seconds, the poor man sent head over heels and knocked unconscious, the victory Vargas's thirtieth in two months.  With each win his reputation grows, and as it grows, word of his prowess spreads to lands far and wide, the stories growing taller and taller as word spreads of Vargas, the world's greatest fighter... though the truth is, in fact, not quite as tall as the tale.

Heroes, however, are often born this way, and it is in this manner that Vargas's name ascends from obscurity... and into legend.

"I swear to thee, we find love in the strangest places." – Sir Richard Baramoure, ca. 547


...And that, is that. The meat of the story is now revised and resubmitted.

Total word count by chapter:

Quote
Blood and Honor: 40,096
The Unforgiven: 10,183
Blood Brothers: 6,494
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Dragon's Head (Total): 56,611


...These numbers, by the way, don't agree with each other because of how I've got the document files formatted together; I wrote each of the three chapters individually, then combined them into one file for the master pdf. I would give or take a hundred or two hundred here and there just for formatting and linebreak fluff, and for other fluff that isn't part of the actual story.

Them's the general figures, though; about 56,000 words total, being punitive with the amount of fluff in the formatting.

That figure is - according to sources familiar with how literary agents think - good enough for a short fantasy novel, or a short drama or action fiction, which this is essentially all three at once. I think the bottom line to take away is... I wrote too damned much and didn't know when to stop. x.x

But anyway, hope you enjoyed... all three of ya that read it. =p

P.S. Pdf release is pending word on covers and my own decision over whether to create a master cover for the book.

- "The Playwright" KL Sanchez

This post has been edited by Zephir on 8th November 2013 22:25

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~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205459
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Posted: 9th November 2013 20:15

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Magitek Soldier
Posts: 277

Joined: 24/10/2013

Awards:
User has rated 75 fanarts in the CoN galleries. User has rated 25 fanarts in the CoN galleries. 
WOW (Am i allowed to comment on a subbmission) This is awesome and my faveourite Fanfic you've done so far!

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Excuse me? Would you mind not talking while I'm interupting?
Post #205463
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Posted: 10th November 2013 03:02

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Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

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Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
Thanks much. happy.gif You also certainly may comment (in fact, the forum aspect somewhat encourages feedback), though I dunno if you're including my other - already hosted - works or not. =p

This had always been one of my personal faves, though; it's just about up there with Ikiiri. The interplay between Vargas and Rika always has me chuckling and misting when I go over it... that and they're both a pair of my more favorite characters to work with.

The rewrite definitely turned it into my best work released publicly to date, if you include it in the totality that is Dragon's Head.

This post has been edited by Zephir on 10th November 2013 03:05

--------------------
~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205464
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Posted: 14th November 2013 20:50

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Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
While I work on other things (including a possible cover before I make a pdf of Dragon's Head), a concept/sketch to tide the folks over: Rika in a basic action pose. Didn't care to work too hard on perspective, just wanted to get a full-body portrait out there of her.

This is extremely close to the image I have of her in my head.

The scar on her right chin isn't visible, only 'cause I have problems drawing her from that side.

user posted image

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~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205525
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Posted: 14th November 2013 21:09

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Magitek Soldier
Posts: 277

Joined: 24/10/2013

Awards:
User has rated 75 fanarts in the CoN galleries. User has rated 25 fanarts in the CoN galleries. 
Awesome all the way man! I'd just like to say that i really like that you included a somewhat very minor character such a Vargas into your work.

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Excuse me? Would you mind not talking while I'm interupting?
Post #205526
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Posted: 14th November 2013 21:28

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Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
I always found him fascinating, and his story actually had a fairly large effect on the direction of Sabin's, between him and Duncan. The Vargas fight is the first one I look forward to whenever I replay the game.

I also tend to focus on bringing side characters to the fore for some attention. =)

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~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205527
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Posted: 27th December 2013 20:26

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Dragoon
Posts: 1,706

Joined: 7/4/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
Well, the artist I targeted for a cover and title covers has gone silent (I suppose in prep for TFF, or possibly just Life), so I'll just go ahead and post those two pdf's. There are two versions: one in my proprietary, 7x9 size (it's actually 6.86"x9"), and one in traditional, U.S. Trade Paperback "A" Format size (the small ones you see on commercial bookshelves).

[ 7x9 Version ]
[ "A" Format Version ]

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~Status Report~

* Completed... Dragon's Head
* Completed... Soldiers of the Empire: Disciples (release pending)
* In Progress/Undecided... Of Love and Betrayal
* Planning/Assembly... Where it all Began
Post #205888
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